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Posts Tagged ‘Economic inequality’

King and Meany Brought Civil Rights and Labor Together for a Legacy That Continues Today

Monday, January 15th, 2018

Beginning in 1960, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and then-President George Meany of the AFL-CIO began a relationship that would help bring the labor and civil rights movements together with a combined focus on social and economic justice.

Meany was an outspoken defender of individual freedom, and in March 1960, he emphasized the crucial link between the union and the civil rights movements. He told an AFL-CIO gathering, “What we want for ourselves, we want for all humanity.” Meany met with King to privately discuss how they could work together. King proposed that the AFL-CIO invest pension assets in housing, to help lessen economic inequality. The AFL-CIO then established the Investment Department in August 1960 to guide union pension funds to be socially responsible investors.

The next year, King spoke to the AFL-CIO Executive Council, comparing what labor had achieved to what the civil rights movement wanted to accomplish: “We are confronted by powerful forces telling us to rely on the good will and understanding of those who profit by exploiting us. They resent our will to organize. They are shocked that active organizations, sit-ins, civil disobedience, and protests are becoming every day tools just as strikes, demonstrations, and union organizations became yours to insure that bargaining power genuinely existed on both sides of the table.” At the AFL-CIO Constitutional Convention later that year, Meany made civil rights a prominent item on the agenda, and King spoke to the delegates about uniting the two movements through a common agenda, noting that African Americans are “almost entirely a working people.”

Not only did the AFL-CIO provide much-needed capital to the civil rights movement, but numerous affiliates did as well. Several combined to give more than $100,000 to King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The UAW directly funded voter registration drives in predominantly African American areas throughout the South and paid bail money for jailed protesters. Meany and the AFL-CIO also used their considerable political influence in helping to shape the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Union activists were a key part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom as well. The Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO endorsed the march, as did 11 international unions and several state and local labor councils. A. Philip Randolph, then-president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was a key organizer of the event. UAW President Walter Reuther was a speaker at the march, condemning the fact that African Americans were treated as second-class economic citizens.

King’s final act in pursuit of social and economic justice was in support of the sanitation strike in Memphis, Tennessee. After his death, then-President Lyndon B. Johnson sent the undersecretary of labor to settle the strike, and the city acceded to the demands of the working people, leading to the creation of AFSCME Local 1733, which still represents sanitation workers in Memphis.

In 1964, Meany sent a letter to all AFL-CIO affiliates outlining an new pathway that would directly support housing construction and homeownership. In 1965, the Investment Department helped establish the Mortgage Investment Trust, which was the formal embodiment of the socially responsible investment plan and gave a boost to badly needed affordable housing construction. In 1984, the Mortgage Investment Trust was replaced by the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust, one of the first socially responsible investment funds in the United States. Since it was created, the HIT has grown to more than $4.5 billion in net assets and has helped finance more than 100,000 affordable housing units and helped create tens of thousands of union jobs.

The partnership between civil rights and labor launched by King and Meany has helped the country make great strides in the intervening years, and the partnership continues.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on January 12, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

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

Foundations of Inequality are in Wages

Wednesday, May 31st, 2017

While rising capital share and greater concentration of wealth explain some of the story of economic inequality, the largest part of the story is the growth in wage inequality over the last several decades. Available data from the Social Security Administration unfortunately doesn’t go past 1990, overlooking considerable upward distribution of wages beginning in 1980. However, wage distributions from 1990 to 2015 show a clear, and unequal, upward trend.

The share of wages earned by the top 0.1 percent of wage earners increased 36 percent in that time period, from 3.5 percent of all wages earned to 4.8 percent. These earners are largely Wall Street bankers and top executives from private companies, as well as hospitals, universities, and other non-profits. Although the data from such a small pool of workers is erratic, they show soaring gains over ordinary workers that coincide with stock market peaks. Wages at this income level are likely paid in part in stock options, so that connection is unsurprising, but the magnitude of wage increases for this group compared to the others supports the argument that wages are part of the inequality picture.

The top 1 percent of wage earners (excluding the 0.1 percent) are largely doctors, dentists, and other highly paid professionals with an average pay of around $333,000 a year. These workers have experienced impressive gains in their share of wages, although they do not compare to those of the 0.1 percent. From 1990 to 2015 the share of wages earned by this group increased 24 percent from 10.7 percent to 13.2 percent.

Lawyers, general practitioners, university professors, and other professionals with advanced degrees make up the top 5 percent of earners (excluding the aforementioned groups). Since 1990 their share of wages earned has grown 18 percent, from 24.0 percent to 28.5 percent. Most of the difference between the share of wages earned by this group and the next lowest, the 90th to the 95th percentile, was gained between 1994 and 2000. Prior to that period both percentile groups’ share of wages grew at a similar rate, and since 2000 the two groups have had similar growth.

The final group of workers included in this analysis adds those who mostly have college degrees but not necessarily advanced degrees. The share of wages earned by the top 10 percent taken as a whole grew 14 percent from 35.5 percent in 1990 to 40.3 percent in 2015.

This blog originally appeared at CEPR.net on May 30, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Authors: Sarah Rawlins is a Domestic Program Intern at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Dean Baker co-founded CEPR in 1999. His areas of research include housing and macroeconomics, intellectual property, Social Security, Medicare and European labor markets. He is the author of several books, including Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer. His blog, “Beat the Press,” provides commentary on economic reporting. He received his B.A. from Swarthmore College and his Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Michigan.

Enormous, Humongous August Trade Deficit Prompts Trade Deficit Bill

Tuesday, October 11th, 2016

dave.johnsonThe U.S. Census Bureau reported Wednesday that the August trade deficit rose 3 percent to $40.73 billion from July’s $39.5 (slightly revised). Both exports and imports rose, with imports rising more than exports. August exports were $187.9 billion up $1.5 billion from July. August imports were $228.6 billion up $2.6 billion.

The goods deficit was $60.3 billion, offset by a services surplus of $19.6 billion.

Imports from China increased 9.5 percent.

Is Increased “Trade” Good If It Really Means Increased Trade Deficits?

“Trade” is generally considered a good thing. But consider this: closing an American factory and firing its workers (not to mention the managers, supply chain, truck drivers, etc affected) and instead producing the same goods in a country with low wages and few environmental protections, then bringing the same goods back to sell in the same stores increases “trade” because now those goods cross a border. This is how “trade” results in a structural trade deficit. Goods once made here are made there, the economic gains move from here to there.

Offshoring production can be a good thing, but only in a full-employment economy. This is because with everyone employed companies can’t find people to do things that need to be done. Meanwhile workers in other countries need the jobs. The people there can afford things made here, and trade balances. Everyone benefits.

But since the 1970s the US has used “trade” and other policies to intentionally drive unemployment up and wages down, to the benefit of “investors” (Wall Street) and executives, who then pocket the wage differential. This pushes the economy’s gains to a few at the top, increasing inequality, which increases the power of plutocrats to further influence policy in their favor.

The US has run a trade deficit since the 1970s. Coincidentally, see this chart:

The stagnation of wages for working people just happens to correspond with the introduction of the intentional “trade” deficit. Again, “trade” in this case means deindustrialization: closing factories here, opening them there and bringing the same goods across a border to sell in the same stores.

Trade Deficit Reduction Act

This week Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) introduced a bill designed to identify and reduce our enormous, humongous trade deficits. RochesterFirst.com has the story, in Slaughter introduces legislation to reduce trade deficits,

On Monday, Congresswoman Louise Slaughter unveiled the Trade Deficit Reduction Act, which calls for a change in how we approach international trade in order to benefit our workers.

The legislation would put a government-wide focus on addressing the most significant trade deficits that exist between the United States and other countries. The U.S. has run trade deficits since the 1970s.

… “The last thing our community needs as we work to reignite our manufacturing base with advanced technologies like optics and photonics is to undo this progress by enacting another NAFTA-style trade deal. We need a whole new direction in our trade policy, which is why I am standing with workers from PGM Corp. today to unveil the Trade Deficit Reduction Act. This legislation will change how we approach international trade and make it benefit our workers and manufacturers,” said Slaughter.

The bill would require the administration to identify the countries with which the U.S. has the worst trade deficits.

The bill also directs the administration to develop plans of action to address the trade deficits with those countries, with strict deadlines and oversight from Congress.

The intentional trade deficit and other policies to drive up unemployment and drive down wages greatly enrich a few, but history tells us the consequences are dangerous to society. For example, the rising support for Trump and other far-right populists like him around the world.

This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on October 6, 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.

Contract for Disaster: How Privatization Is Killing the Public Sector

Tuesday, October 4th, 2016

mtm0ndg4mjmzmzyxodm5mzc4Privatization is bad news for federal, state and local government workers, and the communities where they live. That’s according to a new report released Wednesday by In the Public Interest, a research group focused on the effects of privatization.

The study, “How Privatization Increases Inequality,” explores the role privatization plays in the American economy—compiling data on the estimated $1.5 trillion of state and local contracts doled out each year.

“A lot of decisions are small,” says Donald Cohen, executive director of In the Public Interest, but “if you add all that up, it’s very significant.”

Many government workers in the United States enjoy a robust structure of pay and benefits, including pensions, health care and paid time off. Workers operate in a structured environment that acts, as the report says, as a ladder of opportunity. A clearly outlined framework of positions and pay grades, backed by enforcement of antidiscrimination laws, makes government jobs particularly friendly to women and people of color—20 percent of public sector jobs are held by Black workers, while nearly 60 percent of public sector jobs are held by women.

(Joe Brusky/ Flickr)

(Joe Brusky/ Flickr)

For decades, work in the public sector has been a gateway to a middle-class life. But that’s changing.

Cohen notes that the Right managed to make privatization an ideological project. This shift has generated huge profits for corporations and harmed public sector workers and their unions.

“They want to contract out not because it makes sense, but because that’s their jobs. They’re right-wingers,” he says.

Privatized workers have lower rates of unionization, are paid less than their publicly-employed counterparts, don’t have access to benefits and experience high turnover, the report shows. Sometimes they work side-by-side with government employees, as at the University of California system, something that Cohen says is deliberate.

“Part of the strategy of management is to contract out part of the work to keep the pressure on the non-contract part of the work,” he says.

That strategy leaves workers shortchanged—literally. In 2013, the National Employment Law Project found that one in five federal contractors it interviewed was using Medicaid for health care, while 14 percent needed Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP). Reliance on federal benefits shifts costs from employers to taxpayers.

Contract employees are caught in a poverty trap that hurts not just them, but their communities. Workers who aren’t making money aren’t spending it, dragging down local businesses and creating a ripple effect in regional economies.

The report argues that poor recordkeeping and limited transparency make it extremely difficult to gauge the effects of contracting, and that the public needs to have access to such information. Legislators, advocates, unions and workers should be invested in how, when, where and why contract labor is used.

Is it improving services while keeping standards high for workers? Or is it being used as an ostensible cost-cutting measure, harming workers and shifting expenses to taxpayers and their communities?

We’re seeing a new era of work in America, and the move to contractors over directly-employed government workers is highlighting that shift as well as its consequences. For government workers, privatization is an economic shell game, and they are losing.

This blog originally appeared at inthesetimes.com on September 28, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

S.E. Smith is an essayist, journalist and activist is on social issues who has written for The Guardian, Bitch Magazine, AlterNet, Jezebel, Salon, the Sundance Channel blog, Longshot Magazine, Global Comment, Think Progress, xoJane, Truthout, Time, Nerve, VICE, The Week, and Reproductive Health Reality Check. Follow @sesmithwrites.

401(k) Retirement Plans Amplify Income Inequality and Racial Disparities

Thursday, March 3rd, 2016

Isaiah J. Poole

It’s bad enough that the move toward individual retirement plans has been a massive failure when it comes to providing average working Americans retirement security. But now there’s research that shows that our dependence on individual retirement plans adds fuel to the fire of racial and class inequities in ways that the pension plans that used to be common did not.

The Economic Policy Institute presented that research Thursday in its “State of American Retirement” report. The report underscores the need to keep up the fight for strengthening Social Security and increasing its benefits, rather than cutting them.

“We’re moving toward a retirement system that magnifies inequality,” said Monique Morrissey, the EPI economist who wrote the report. That happened, she said, as the percentage of workers who received a pension (a “defined benefit plan”) declined from 35 percent of private-sector workers in the early 1990s to less than 20 percent today. (In the early 1980s, the percentage of private-sector workers in large companies that had a pension exceeded 80 percent.)

Pension plans were surprisingly egalitarian, Morrissey said, in the sense that once you got a job with a pension, what you received in retirement was affected only by your wages and years with the company. With “defined contribution plans” – like 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts (IRAs) – differences widen by race and class.

According to the report, among the people in the top 20 percent of income, nine out of 10 have retirement account savings; among those in the bottom 20 percent, it’s worse than totally flipped; fewer than one in 10 have any retirement account at all. The workers at the top fifth of the income scale accounted for 63 percent of total income, but have 74 percent of the total stashed in personal retirement accounts.

Only 41 percent of black families and 26 percent of Hispanic families had retirement account savings in 2013; 61 percent of white households do. The average retirement account among African-American and Hispanic workers contains about $22,000; for whites, the average account contains $73,000. On top of that, research shows that African Americans are disproportionately in jobs where retirement plans are simply not offered. “401(k)s have really been a disaster for African Americans,” Morrissey said.

In fact, for all ordinary workers, “401(k)s were never designed to be a primary retirement plan,” Morrissey said. Yet they filled that role at the same time President Ronald Reagan and Congress cut a deal to improve the solvency of Social Security that pushed back the retirement age over time from 65 to 67 – and at the same time worker wages stopped keeping pace with productivity and with income gains for corporate executives.

The result is that today fewer Americans than ever will have a financially secure retirement. The Government Accountability Office in 2014 found that half of all households age 55 and older have no retirement savings at all; close to 30 percent also do not have a pension to rely on, either. Of those who do have a 401(k) or IRA-type plan who were between the ages of 55 and 64, their retirement savings would yield a monthly check upon retirement of about $310 a month.

Morrissey said these realities reinforce the case for expanding Social Security benefits. “That’s the number one thing we need to be doing,” she said. (To support the call for strengthening Social Security benefits, add your name to this petition.)

She added that while waiting for action at the federal level, states can play a role. For example, the California Secure Choice Retirement Plan would opt workers into making regular contributions to a state-managed plan if they did not have a retirement plan available in their job. The state plan would invest in a balanced portfolio of assets that would not be driven by the kinds of management fee incentives that often drive retirement plan investments.

This blog originally appeared at OurFuture.org on March 3, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

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

Taking Pope Francis’ Message Seriously Means Pushing for Worker-Owned, Green Cooperatives

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

in these timesThe Pope’s visit to the USA this week comes just two months before pivotal UN climate talks that could lead to a global climate agreement. Climate change will be high on his agenda in planned addresses to the UN and Congress, and it is likely that one of his central concerns will be the economy. Pope Francis did not mince words in his recent encyclical on the theme of climate change and one of the main targets of his searing critique was our current economic system. He bemoaned that “the earth’s resources are … being plundered because of short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce and production.” He chastised the dominance of the speculative finance sector over the economy, and the folly of looking to market growth to solve all social ills.

His core message is that we are currently locked in an economic growth model based on the premise we have an inexhaustible planet. The way the global economy is currently run will not ensure our long-term physical survival. There are some glaring signals that it won’t ensure our economic survival either. For starters, the financial crisis of 2008 and evidence that patterns of growing inequality are stunting economic growth. Recent admissions from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that economic trickle down theory doesn’t work have further cast doubt on the logic of the current system.

Alongside experts such as the Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and established economic institutions such as the IMF, the Pope is not alone in raising the alarm on “unbridled capitalism.” So in order to solve the greatest challenges of our time, climate change and inequality, we need an economic system that serves us better. However, it seems that beyond identifying and agreeing upon the problem, we often stop short at imagining solutions.

But there are signs that the seeds of a stronger and more responsible economy may already be taking root. Interest in existing models of enterprises, banks, cooperatives and networks that put social and environmental principles before profit is growing. These businesses have a strong emphasis on collective ownership, management and decision-making. Financial decisions are not left to the power of a few, whether government bureaucrats or corporate CEOs, but overseen more democratically by the main generators and beneficiaries of economic activity: the workers and customers.

This rich and diverse tapestry of economic activity witnessed around the world has been called a number of things: social economy, solidarity economy, local economy, new economy, the next system. Interest in the promise of these approaches has even spurred the UN to form a task force to investigate the potential of the social and solidarity economy in contributing to global development goals.

Sounds like a nice idea, but is this really economically viable? Surprisingly yes, and in many cases these enterprises are much more resilient and successful than current models that can result in job losses, bankruptcy and financial crashes. A recent UN report concluded that worker- and customer-owned banks made less risky decisions and outperformed investor owned banks during the recent global financial crisis. Research reveals that worker-owned cooperatives also have similar economic and social benefits that make them a better business model for communities and the economy as a whole.

One well-known example is that of Mondragon Cooperative Corporation, a highly successful worker-owned company of over 70,000 employees based in Spain. The company operates internationally and has a diverse portfolio, including the manufacture of industrial machinery. The 10th-largest company in Spain in terms of asset turnover, Mondragon had lower levels of unemployment compared to the rest of Spain during the 2008 recession and still remained globally competitive. Instead of firing staff during the economic downturn, employees voted to take pay cuts and top managers took their share of the burden. The Spanish cooperative is not alone. Over 2008, in the midst of the financial crisis, the combined turnover of the world’s 300 largest cooperatives was an impressive $1.6 trillion, comparable to the GDP of the ninth largest economy in the world.

Action to fight climate change could benefit from new economic approaches. Take the two sectors that contribute the most to global carbon emissions: energy and agriculture. In Germany, community-owned energy cooperatives are booming, supporting the rapid uptake of renewable energy without having to depend on the patronage of reluctant utility companies. The impressive success of wind power in Denmark is due largely to the rapid spread of community-owned wind turbines. In the United States, the move away from utility-scale power plants is also happening. Recent studies show that levels of solar power generation in the U.S. have been underestimated by as much as 50 percent. This is due to the exponential growth in rooftop solar, which is not yet systematically recorded. The opportunity to magnify the potential of small-scale energy producers could be immense.

With regards to agriculture, the UN advocates ecologically friendly methods based around small-scale farming, with more local production and consumption. This could lead to higher yields, better protect food systems from the impacts of climate change and reduce emissions from this sector. Agricultural cooperatives are critical to the success of smallholder farming, allowing independent farmers to remain competitive through collective purchasing and distribution networks. Climate action that supports agricultural cooperatives and low-emission, climate-proof farming methods could have positive economic, food security and climate outcomes.

Action on climate change could both support and benefit from a more stable and democratic economy. Climate finance and subsidies currently being swallowed by the fossil fuel industry could be redirected to promote locally owned and managed energy and farming, using socially responsible financial institutions to manage these funds. The result could be a stronger economy that works better for both people and the climate.

In his encyclical, the Pope entreated us to “seek other ways of understanding the economy and progress”. A framework for a more democratic, collectively owned and managed economy could be part of this. The re-imagination of the economy is already in motion. It’s time for the climate movement to get on board.

This Blog originally appeared on In These Times on September 23, 2015. Reprinted here with permission.

About the Author: Gaya Sriskanthan has over a decade of experience working on climate change, environmental protection, and sustainable development with a range of organizations including the United Nations and the UK Department for International Development. She currently focuses on indigenous peoples’ rights and civil society inclusion in climate change action. Follow her on Twitter: @gayasktn.

Why the Hollowing Out of the Middle Class Matters

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

david madlandFor the past several decades, the idea that high levels of inequality were good for the economy dominated political and economic thought. Politicians believed the trickle-down theory that enabling “job creators” to get richer would help us all, and economists provided cover for this line of thinking because they thought there was a tradeoff between growth and equity.

But, as inequality has risen to extreme levels in the United States, the foundations of the economy have weakened, and America is now experiencing the kinds of problems that plague less-developed countries. The United States now must confront high levels of societal distrust that make it hard to do business, governmental favors for privileged elites that distort the economy, and fewer opportunities for children of the middle class and the poor to get ahead—wasting vast quantities of human potential.

Fortunately, a new class of economists and policymakers are now challenging the old, flawed, ideas about inequality. Academics have begun to rethink their views about the decline of the middle class, and progressive politicians are finally starting to openly contest the logic underlying supply-side after years of failing to do so. There is a growing realization that a strong middle class is not merely the result of a strong economy—as was previously thought—but rather a source of America’s economic growth.

The new direction on economic policymaking cannot arrive soon enough, because our economy continues to suffer deeply from a financial crash caused in large part by high levels of inequality. Rebuilding the middle class is critical, as a strong middle class performs four vital functions in the US economy.

First, a strong middle class helps society run relatively smoothly, with higher levels of trust among its citizens. People need to be able to trust one another enough to do business with one another. When there is little trust, the cost of doing business shoots up—or, as economists put it, transaction costs increase.

Second, a strong middle class leads to better governance. A thriving economy depends on a well-functioning government that provides critical services, such as roads and schools, with relatively little corruption. As the middle class has weakened and inequality has risen, the wealthy have gained excessive political power and the middle class has become less civic-minded, leading to a host of governmental dysfunctions.

Third, the middle class is a source of stable consumer demand, which enables businesses to invest in new products and hire additional workers—thereby fueling growth. As consumer demand in the years prior to the Great Recession was based heavily on middle-class debt, the economy was unstable. And now that the middle class is so weak—burdened by stagnant incomes, high debt levels, and underwater mortgages—it can’t consume enough to keep the American economy going.

Finally, a strong middle class creates more human capital. In the modern economy, a skilled, healthy, and entrepreneurial workforce is a driver of economic growth—at least as much as the physical capital of factories and machines. As inequality has risen and the middle class has weakened, America has not developed the full human potential of its middle and working classes.

To have strong and sustainable growth, the economy needs to work for everyone. That’s why we need to focus policy on rebuilding our economy from the middle out.

 

About the Author: The author’s name is David Madland. David Madland is the author of Hollowed Out: Why the Economy Doesn’t Work Without a Strong Middle Class and the Managing Director for Economic Policy at the Center for American Progress. Follow Madland on Twitter: @DavidMadland

 

Executive Council Creates Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

Image: Mike Hall“America’s legacy of racism and racial injustice has been and continues to be a fundamental obstacle to workers’ efforts to act together to build better lives for all of us,” says the AFL-CIO Executive Council in a statement announcing the creation of a Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice.

The statement, released today at the council’s winter meeting in Atlanta, acknowledges “an ugly history of racism in our own movement” and adds:

“Yet at the same time the labor movement has a proud history of standing for racial and economic justice. When we have embraced our better selves we have always emerged stronger in every sense. And whenever we have succumbed to the temptation to see some working people as better than others, we have always ended up weaker.”

Pointing to today’s dramatically increasing economic inequality, decreasing union density and growing instability for the majority of Americans, the council says, “The need for all workers to strengthen common interests in achieving economic justice is clear.”

“At the same time our different experiences organized around race, gender identity, ethnicity, disability and sexual orientation often challenge and complicate this shared experience. If we are to succeed as a movement, the full range of working peoples’ voices must be heard in the internal processes of our movement. To be able to stand together we have to understand where all of us are coming from.”

The council points to the unemployment rate for African Americans—10.3%, more than twice as high as that for whites—the criminal justice system and educational inequities that are large parts of a “world divided in many ways by color lines.”

“At the same time working people share a common experience of falling wages and rising economic insecurity. To build a different, better economy we need power that can only come from unity and unity has to begin with having all our voices be heard, on all sides of those color lines. We have to start by acknowledging our own shortcomings and honestly addressing issues that are faced by the communities in which our members live—both the problems and the solutions. We have to find a way to see with each other’s eyes and address the facts and realities.”

The Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice will:

  • Facilitate a broad conversation with local labor leaders around racial and economic disparities and institutional biases, and identify ways to become more inclusive as the new entrants to the labor force diversify;
  • Engage in six to eight labor discussions around the country, with local labor leaders, constituency groups and young workers addressing racial and economic issues impacting the labor movement and offering recommendations for change; and
  • Attempt to create a safe, structured and constructive opportunity for local union leaders to discuss issues pertaining to the persistence of racial injustice today in the workforce and in their communities, and to ensure that the voices of all working people in the labor movement are heard.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on February 25, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and 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.

Fighting the Big Apple’s Big Inequality Problem

Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

sarah jaffeNew York City can sometimes feel like ground zero for the battle over inequality.  Up until a few months ago, its mayor was one of the world’s richest men; it is home to Wall Street and movie stars, and it seems as though every oligarch from every country in the world has an apartment here.

Here, too, are the millions of working people who make the city run, and all too many of those working people are barely making enough to get by. In her introduction to the new book New Labor in New York, out now from Cornell University Press, sociologist Ruth Milkman points out that while New York has the nation’s highest union density, the city also has one of thehighest levels of income inequality among large cities.

It is against this background that worker centers and other forms of non-union labor organizing have flourished, won victories, hit setbacks and managed to grow. And it is against that background that Milkman and her colleague Ed Ott, both professors at the City University of New York’s Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies, decided to teach a course that would ask students at the Murphy Institute and the CUNY Graduate Center to write an in-depth profile of one worker center or labor organization and its innovations. After two semesters of field research, study, and collaborative workshopping, these profiles were collected into the book. Taken together, they make up a valuable resource for evaluating today’s labor organizing, its successes and failures.

The workers spotlighted in New Labor in New York share the common trait of precarity, a term that has become something of a buzzword in recent years, particularly since the financial crisis. Precarious work is unstable, irregular; it is part-time or gig-by-gig; it comes without healthcare or other benefits; and it is usually but not always low-paid. Precarious workers in New York include taxi drivers, street vendors, retail and restaurant workers, grocery store clerks, domestic workers and even graphic designers and TV producers. Many of them are immigrants organizing around an ethnic identity as well as a shared workplace. New York is an attractive place for this kind of organizing, Milkman notes, not only because it is dense and has a large number of immigrant workers, but also because the foundations that provide much of the funding for many of these worker centers are based here as well.

The book begins with Benjamin Becker’s look at a fairly traditional union campaign (a loss) at a Target on Long Island in June 2011. The piece sets the tone for the rest of the book by demonstrating the obstacles unions face when they attempt to win a National Labor Relations Board election, even when a fairly active core group of workers are involved. From there, the book pivots to examine a range of campaigns, only some of which have as a goal (or even a legal possibility) of organizing workers into a collective bargaining unit.

For some groups, like the Retail Action Project and the grocery store organizing campaign partnership between New York Communities for Change (NYCC) and Local 338 UFCW-RWDSU, wage theft lawsuits have been a gateway to pressuring employers to recognize the workers’ unions, as happened at the Yellow Rat Bastard retail stores in Manhattan. Ben Shapiro explores the tensions over the campaign’s direction and duration between NYCC and Local 338. When the union controls the purse strings but the community group is doing the work, trouble can arise, but this partnership smoothed out when the union backed off its push for quick results in the form of union elections.

For several other groups and coalitions profiled in the book, legislation, rather than union elections, is the goal. Jeffrey D. Broxmeyer and Erin Michaels analyze the campaign from 2010 to 2012 for a living-wage bill in New York and the similar tension there, too, between unions, accustomed to exercising political power as insiders, and community and faith groups more interested in moral framing and direct action. For the New York Civic Participation Project/La Fuente, the goal is not even necessarily particular campaigns—the goal, instead, is to engage union members around their community, and to bridge the gap between non-union community members and their union member neighbors.

“Many of these groups have been more successful on their sort of ‘air wars’ than on their ‘ground wars,’” says Milkman. In other words, she explains, “All of them have become highly skilled at figuring out how to shine a bright light on abuses and to get public attention sometimes legal attention sometimes media attention to the issues, that turns out to be a lighter lift than actually organizing workers in a sustained way.”

Many of the pieces highlight this tension between advocacy—paid staffers working on behalf of workers—and the kind of organizing where workers are acting on their own behalf. The arguments made by Steve Jenkins, a labor lawyer who has worked in both unions and non-union labor organizations, about the limits of the advocacy model appear in many of these pieces. Jenkins wrote in 2002 that advocacy organizations “mobilize elite institutions … to help clients achieve the changes they are seeking.” Unions, he contends, are a superior form because they organize workers to use “social power” to make change, rather than persuasion. But in her piece on Make the Road New York, organizer Jane McAlevey, also author of the bookRaising Expectations (and Raising Hell), writes, “I argue that what matters most is not whether a group is a formal labor union but instead whether the group’s members are directly defining the changes they seek and whether their own exercise of collective action is the basis of their leverage.” Make the Road, in her view, fits this definition of an “organizing organization.”

Meanwhile, Harmony Goldberg’s thoughtful look at Domestic Workers United, titled “Prepare to Win,” lays out the next steps for the organization after its major victory: the passage of New York’s Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in 2010. Though domestic workers were integral to the campaign, she notes, implementing the law will require “the deployment of worker power and base-building on a much larger scale than was required to win legislative victories.” To that end, she explores DWU’s attempts to train domestic workers to act as something akin to shop stewards for their neighborhoods, and honestly assesses the difficulty of organizing workers whose workplace is behind a private home’s door.

For DWU and the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), both of which have spread to become national organizations, working with “high road” employers has become a strategy. ROC is having its first-ever “High Road Restaurant Week” this week to encourage conscious consumers to dine at establishments with good labor practices. ROC in particular asks consumers to be a part of the labor movement, to be as aware of the labor that produces their food as they are of its environmental impact. In some ways this has proved to be a useful strategy, but in others it seems like a tacit admission of the limitations of these organizations: As Jenkins noted, when one cannot demand, one must ask nicely.

“Symbolic victories are good, they do help make people aware of the problems,” Milkman says, “but changing the actual pay and working conditions of precarious workers is a much heavier lift.”

Political education is a part of the deal for many of the groups in this volume, from Make the Road to ROC, which makes racial and gender justice central to its campaigns. MinKwon, a Korean-American civil rights organization that does labor organizing, also works to educate and organize the broader Korean immigrant community around workers’ rights, even pressing small business owners who are members to do better by their employees.

Organizing the community around the labor battle, it turns out, can be just as important as pushing within a specific workplace. This is important to many of the groups featured here, from MinKwon to NYCC to La Fuente. As Milkman points out, “With an immigrant population, there are often connections, very direct ones, between the community and the workplace, because of the social networks that immigrants rely on both to get housing and jobs.”

United New York represents an effort by a labor union—in this case, SEIU—to build an institution to support social movement organizing. Lynne Turner explores the decision by the union to put money into the “Fight for a Fair Economy”—a fight that took off more than anyone expected when Occupy Wall Street appeared in lower Manhattan soon after the founding of United New York as part of the national campaign. Camille Rivera, leader of United NY, pushed the group and other unions to help support the nascent movement.

Some of the more creative tactics in the repertoire of new labor groups are not new at all. Milkman points out, “Prior to the New Deal and the legislation that came along in the mid-1930s, precarious work was the norm too. It’s not surprising that the pre-New Deal forms of labor organizing have some resonance today. Basically we’ve reverted back to that situation with the unraveling of the New Deal-based labor relations system.”

The Retail Action Project (RAP), launched in 2005 as an independent center with support from RWDSU and community organization Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), draws on some of that history to incorporate what historian Dorothy Sue Cobble has called “occupational unionism:” providing workers with skills training and organizing around an industry, rather than a particular workplace. It’s a model that still exists today, within the building trades, though Peter Ikeler in this volume makes clear that RAP is far from being able to have enough power within the industry to control hiring and set wages. Still, Milkman notes, “There’s a lot more interest in that model of unionism being revived than there was in the mid-20th century when it seemed like it was this relic of an earlier era—well, that earlier era is back.”

The Taxi Workers Alliance, as Mischa Gaus writes, has in many ways been the most successful of the groups in this book—not only was it affiliated with the AFL-CIO recently, but perhaps more importantly it has pulled off two strikes. Though the taxi workers are technically independent contractors, meaning they can’t legally form a union, they are an integral part of New York City’s transit infrastructure and as such are highly regulated by the city—which means that the Alliance has been able to insert itself into critical negotiations and win gains for the drivers.

Also important to the Taxi Workers’ success has been their ability to mostly self-finance; unlike many other groups in this book, who are dependent on foundation grants or union money to keep the doors open, the Alliance gets some 80 percent of its budget from dues and other income from services to drivers. As foundations (and yes, unions too) can be fickle about their grant-making, self-funding ensures that the Alliance answers to its members first.

Self-funding has also helped the Freelancers’ Union, in many ways an anomaly in this group of mostly low-wage worker organizations, survive. In their case, it’s health insurance—freelancers can buy insurance from the Freelancers Insurance Company, and this money helps fund advocacy campaigns. The Freelancers do tend to be more affluent and educated than many of the other workers in this book, and more of them are freelance by choice, though that’s not a characteristic solely of well-off workers.

Indeed, at the other end of the income spectrum, Kathleen Dunn’s study of VAMOS Unidos, a street vendor labor organization, found that many of the vendors, mostly immigrant women who operate in a gray area between legal and illegal work (many of them don’t have permits for the selling they do), also chose vending as a better option than other low-wage jobs because of the freedom it offered.

Milkman tells In These Times, “This is not in the book, but a lot of people are talking about basic income policies as a way of making this kind of work more tolerable. If you have some kind of basic economic security then it has many advantages for workers as well as employers.” The street vendors, for example, prefer vending because it allows them flexible hours, to bring their children along, and to meet other responsibilities, as well as to avoid disagreeable conditions in other jobs.

Still, it’s not a good idea to over-romanticize precarity; this has repercussions for the people doing the organizing as well. It cannot be stressed enough that too many of these new labor organizations operate on a shoestring budget, relying on organizers who are also precarious workers in their way. Milkman says, “I don’t think it’s an accident that so many of them are led by women, because unlike the labor movement, which has a lot of resources despite its declining membership, most of these groups operate on a shoestring budget. So guess what? The leaders are women because that’s who’s willing to work for those minimal salaries.”

New Labor in New York raises many questions about the future of labor organizing, but it also provides many examples of concrete victories for workers long ignored by the conventional labor movement. Those victories are often small, but they are building; the organizations may be siloed, but they are aware that they are part of something bigger. Much more will be needed to really change the conditions of precarious work, yet there is much in this book that could be replicated elsewhere, even in cities vastly different than New York.

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on April 29, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media, and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet, and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television.

Workers and Their Unions Key to Economic Turnaround, Election Outcome

Monday, June 18th, 2012

Image: Mike HallMaryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and Columbia University Professor Dorian Warren both say the best way to solve the nation’s economic crisis is to grow the middle class rather than allowing wealth to concentrate in fewer and fewer hands. Unions, they say, will play a vital role politically and economically in building a strong middle class.

O’Malley and Warren spoke on a conference call with reporters Friday to counter recent attacks by Republican lawmakers on workers and their unions.

O’Malley pointed to Maryland’s top 10 ranking in job creation, its AAA bond rating and the fact it has the highest median income in the nation to show that economic prosperity is “achieved by a partnership with unions, not by scapegoating labor.”

We don’t see unions as an impediment to growth but organized labor helps us grow and maintain balance, invest in skills of the workforce and ensure people receive a decent wage for a decent day’s work.

From the post-war era through 1973, when one in three working people had a voice on the job, said Warren, the nation had the smallest economic gap ever between the rich and the poor, because of the growing middle class with good union jobs.

But as efforts were made to weaken unions and attempts to modernize and strengthen the nation’s labor laws were blocked, the middle class began to shrink, said Warren.

There are consequences to declining union strength and now we have the highest levels of economic injustice ever. Our economy has moved to an hourglass model with jobs at the top end and bottom end, but with the middle hollowed out.

When working people have a “strong collective voice,” said Warren, “we get a stable and strong economy with continued economic growth. Unions still remain the best tool and best route for workers to improve their lives.”

In the face of growing efforts to silence workers and their unions and the explosion of corporate cash and 1%ers’ campaign donations, Warren said:

Unions can challenge the money and power that threatens our democracy’s legitimacy….With union households accounting for about 25 percent of the electorate, union votes will be a major factor and, in battleground states, a decisive factor.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO on June 17, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and 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.

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