Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

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Forget Elections—Labor Needs To Get Back to Its Roots

Friday, November 16th, 2018

With the midterms behind us, we have Nov. 4, 2020, to look forward to—labor’s next morning after. On Nov. 5, 2008, we were euphoric and full of delusional hope over the imminent passage of the Employee Free Choice Act and the restoration of labor. On Nov. 9, 2016, we were paralyzed by despair and denial.

At this point, betting our future on the next brutal mating ritual of Republicans and Democrats is not a bet most workers are willing to take. Since the 1950s, union membership decline has been a straight line downward, regardless of which political party is in power. Only 10.7 percent of workers are unionized; an enormous 89.3 percent are not. That’s too low to make much difference for most people in most places—more molecular level Brownian motion than labor movement. No threat to wealth, the wealthy, or powerful. Much worse, no voice or power of, by, or, for workers. Instead, organized labor has become so marginal Donald Trump has been able to usurp its role as the emotional voice for workers.

The economy is doing great—apart from workers. Wages remain stagnant. Forty percent of adults don’t have enough savings to cover a $400 emergency expense such as a car repair or medical crisis. Forty-three percent of families aren’t making enough to cover monthly living expenses. Uncertain work, unpredictable work hours, mandatory overtime, dictatorial bosses, miserable job standards, create day-to-day desperation with psychological and social tolls. The labor market is ripe for an organizing explosion, but it isn’t happening.

Blaming the rich and the Republicans is great sport. The income inequality research industry is booming and there is no need to catalog Republican offenses—they campaign on them. Long ago, labor outsourced its representation in the public sphere to the Democratic Party, and in the process become a dependent franchise and an easy target. But the truth is that the Democrats patronize labor on a good day, sell us out on a bad day, and ignore us on most days. (I speak as a recovering politician, a Democrat who ran and was elected four times to city council in my heavily Republican small town.)

Partisan and competitive thinking insidiously affects behavior. Fifty percent plus one passes for solidarity. Unionists succumb to political speak, sounding like Washington rather than “folks ‘round here.” We blame workers for voting for Republicans. If they’d only voted how we told them, then we could get things done. We estrange ourselves from large chunks of workers while giving ourselves an excuse for failure. We don’t have to do the hard work of building a movement, we only need to win an election.

Maybe we should rethink that.

Instead, start today from where we are and who we are. Simple collective self-representation without institutional, ideological, partisan or monetary artifice. Understanding who and where we are by our own compass; by our own position, not opposition. This requires radical respect for our fellow workers. For lack of a better term, this unadorned organizing is social organizing.

Abundant example are scattered across the globe and buried in history. I witnessed a jarring worker tutorial in social organizing in Poland in 1995, when AFL-CIO desperation over labor’s decline and my good luck resulted in a leave of absence from my elected Central Labor Council job to work in those early post-revolutionary years with Solidarnosc leadership and membership. Ironically, at one point, I was tasked with organizing a conference on American union organizing for Solidarnosc activists. Just as the accomplished, well-educated American organizer sent over by the union began his presentation, one Solidarnosc members interrupted to ask, “What do you mean “organize?” A moment of awkward silence followed. Then, charitably, another Solidarnosc member suggested, “Do you mean, join our organization and we’ll represent you?” The original questioner jumped in, “we had 45 years of that with the Communists.” The workers then came up with their own definition of organizing, “co-creating our own future.” Workers, not the organization, were the of, by, and for.

Post-revolution, the solidarity of Solidarnosc dissipated into political and institutional factions. Still, this incident illuminates the commitment to social organizing that helped spark this transformational worker movement.

When all we have is each other, social organizing is where we start.

Back to basics

Social organizing built the labor movement. When 19th-century American workers had virtually no institutional or political voice or power, they developed both by caring about and for each other. In nearly every inch of America, now-forgotten workers came together with that definition of solidarity.

In 1894, Coxey’s Army of unemployed workers marched on Washington, D.C., to press for defined jobs and meaningful work. As branches passed through cities and towns—including Fort Wayne, Ind., where I work—the Fort Wayne Sentinel reported that local residents lavished them for days with food and social support. That same year the Sentinel reported, during the 1894 streetcar workers strike, housewives directed garden hoses at scabs, horse drawn wagons inexplicably unhitched on the tracks, and riders boycotted the streetcars. Returning the solidarity, striking workers went back to work without pay for one day, Memorial Day, so citizens could visit the graves of their departed. Streetcar workers and the community won that strike.

Thousands of lost histories such as this were the roots of community-based solidarity in industrial America. This populist industrial solidarity spawned and supported Workingmen’s Associations, Knights of Labor chapters, Trade and Labor Councils. In turn, these organizations incubated worker organizing in workplaces and by trades. Local solidarity in railroad towns and company towns built the institutional, political and legal foundations for our now diminished labor movement. The gravity of solidarity drew workers into the inextricably intertwined labor market and community. This culture of solidarity included direct actions such as strikes and boycotts but, more consistently and importantly, direct education of, by, and for workers. Apprenticeships,“lectors” who read news and literature aloud to workers on the job, and intentionally educational union meetings with guest speakers were part of the culture. Railroad and industrial activities were regularly covered in newspapers, with the reporting focused more on workers than bosses or business. Journalists, whether Knights of Labor or just solid reporters, would commonly cover union federation meetings. Union leaders understood their role as representative in the community meant talking to reporters, not hiding from them. Everybody had something to teach and everybody had something to learn and an obligation to do both. A culture of solidarity meant educate to organize and organize to educate.

We could take solace and avoid the hard work of organizing by saying America and the world are different now. Our mid-twentieth century institutions, economy, and democracy have decayed or been hijacked. Our social divisions can feel insurmountable. We’ve been sliced, diced, monetized, politicized and controlled. But are we so special that we now believe we are the first ones to have ever been so seemingly screwed? Or do we try to work through it, experiment based on what we can learn from other times and places and most importantly, each other?

Social organizing after the 2008 Recession

Since 1996, the folks I’ve been working with at the Workers’ Project, a research and education nonprofit, have experimented scores of times with worker representation through social organizing. We are confident and hopeful various configurations of workers have been experimenting elsewhere. We have learned some lessons from our successes and failures.

One instructive experiment focused on unemployed workers’ social organizing for voice and power during and after the Great Recession. A torrent of mostly non-union workers, newly jobless after the economic crash, were overwhelming Indiana’s unemployment offices. The state offices were disinterested or actively hostile toward unemployed workers. Meanwhile, a union foundry in Kendallville, Ind., was closing. Busted up from years of foundry work, the union president, the late Leonard Hicks, was ready to quit working but unwilling to stop representing his folks as their lives became even tougher.

To address both problems, we brought together union and non-union unemployed workers to bargain with the state through a social organizing movement, Unemployed and Anxiously Employed Workers’ Initiative (UAEWI).

First, we listened as workers talked about problems and possibilities. We developed a survey. In the unemployment office parking lot, we surveyed unemployed workers about how the office was doing, giving them a report card style survey to fill out, with a voluntary contact information form. The state immediately called in the police to stop us—claiming that we were trespassing on private property, because the public office was housed on private land. We alerted the media and the state received reams of bad press.

The media coverage revealed to unemployed workers they could have a voice and some grit. They began coming to UAEWI meetings, along with the union foundry workers in Kendallville and other union shops experiencing mass lay-offs.

Our ranks of unemployed included workers with education and experience in sociology. With their assistance, the UAEWI members developed and collected a broader survey. The survey was not for academic publication, or for an institutional or partisan agenda, but instead for collective self-representation. It had real value for public policy discussions. While the political class talk about or for unemployed workers, UAEWI represented themselves.

Membership was determined solely by a worker’s decision to participate in the survey—to voluntarily add their voice to the collective voice. We conducted education and training classes as well as group talk sessions. Within a few months, the State’s unemployment office management found themselves in a union hall across a bargaining table with the UAEWI members. Unemployed workers gained improvements in services including increased staffing and training but most importantly, a change in attitude. Most UAEWI members had never been union members; they learned how collective representation worked.

For seven more years, we continued and broadened annual UAEWI surveys. We gathered responses wherever we found voiceless workers: from folks leaving food banks, township trustee office, social service agencies, a mobile Mexican consulate. Our sampling exceeded 500 workers in 2012 and was conducted in English, Spanish and Burmese. We asked more wide-ranging public policy questions about issues such as economic development.

UAEWI members bargained in the public sphere. They provided local, state, national, and international journalists with reliable data, context, and access to socially organized workers willing to tell compelling stories. Some of the stories supported Peabody and Murrow investigative journalism awards. UAEWI members presented survey report results to other members and the public in very public formats ranging from traditional research reports to semi-theatrical presentations and even cinematic effort. UAEWI members attended and spoke before the local and state Workforce Investment Boards, Fort Wayne City Council, Indiana Economic Development Board meetings.

Just the modest act of asking drew workers out of their isolation and into solidarity. Many UAEWI members were personally transformed as they shaped public policies from the unemployment office to well beyond. They were co-creating their own futures. This was bargaining in the public sphere, bargaining with the state over the terms and conditions of our lives. Bargaining with state is foundational for worker representation in the 21st century, just as it was with Coxey’s Army in the 19th century. The UAEWI effort only updated representation with a bit of worker-driven social science.

In the last four years, learning from UAEWI effort, we have experimented with applying worker-driven social science and applying it to original NLRA intent in workplaces. In labor speak workers develop “non-certified minority status bargaining” with so-called private employers. (This less legalistic, institutional and technocratic organizing was envisioned when the NLRA was first implemented—the work of labor law scholar, the late Clyde Summers, as well as Charles Morris’s in Blue Eagle At Work documents this well.)

We helped workers develop their collective understanding and identity to, from the worm’s eye view, make things better at work. In each case, their self-organizing grew from “solidarity selfies” and a survey of co-workers’ thoughts on the terms and conditions of their employment. It is simultaneously concerted activity under the NLRA and, more importantly, intellectual property owned by the workers. We provided supportive research and education for Latina workers at a manufacturing plant; sub-contracted workers at a retail outlet; and Burmese workers at a manufacturing plant. One group faced unsafe work conditions causing miscarriages. The second faced a classic bullying boss culture. The third faced systematic ethnic and language discrimination.

We provided them access to social science, legal support, and social organizing talent, as well as a place in our community of solidarity. We supported their conversations to develop strategies to negotiate with the boss. They succeeded on their own terms. First the survey process overcame employer-imposed isolation. Workers experienced their own workplace “me too” revelations which led to collective voice. They built their representational power by developing a research report on their work lives that became collectively owned and copyrighted intellectual property with real bargaining value. Each unit could choose to share the findings with whoever they decide in the public-private spectrum: media, government regulators, elected officials, customers, suppliers, competitors, stockholders or, if willing, across the table with the boss.

The Latina factory workers met with the plant owner to present their findings. Safety conditions improved, maternity leaves were granted, healthy babies were born, and little Jose Manuel now attends our events. Some of the workers were fired, most moved on to other jobs, some won legal settlements. Most remain active in the Hispanic Workers Circle.

The subcontracted retail workers successfully confronted top national corporate management. They ended the bullying management culture and maintain an ongoing social “solidarity union” collecting no dues and participating in all Workers’ Project activities.

The Burmese factory workers efforts are ongoing. They constitute a significant portion of our Burmese Workers Circle which is developing as a workers’ and civil rights organization.

Stay tuned for more news: All groups continue full-throated participation in Workers’ Project activities and Fort Wayne’s huge annual Labor Day picnic.

We think collective intellectual property is an intriguing innovation. As workers we are robbed of our intellectual property as employers pick our brains, pick our pockets, only to pick up and leave us jobless. As consumers, our data has collected by others, monetized and politicized at our expense to benefit wealth. Intellectual property we own collectively can help us bargain with anyone in the power spectrum, from private employer to the state.

Owning our own voices and power, collective human agency, is our democracy where we work and where we live. Valuing each other, sharing our experiences, information, ideas, and respect seems a great place to start especially when you are starting at scratch. Social organizing, old school or innovative, is still solidarity.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on November 16, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Tom Lewandowski is co-founder and director of the Workers’ Project in Fort Wayne, Ind.

Interfaith Coalition Calls for Moral Action on the Economy

Monday, April 4th, 2016

The largest employer of low-wage workers in America is the federal government. U.S. government contractors employ over two million workers in jobs that pay too little – $12.00 an hour or less – to support a family. Contract workers – organizing under the banner of Good Jobs Nation – have walked off of their jobs repeatedly in protest, demanding a living wage and the right to a union.

This Monday, on the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s death, this movement will gain a powerful ally. Led by Jim Winkler, general secretary of the National Council of Churches and Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of the Catholic social justice lobby NETWORK, an interfaith coalition of religious leaders is issuing a call for “moral action on the economy.” They will seek to meet with presidential candidates, asking each to pledge that, if elected, he or she would issue an executive order to reward model employers “that pay a living wage of at least $15.00 an hour, provide decent benefits and allow workers to organize without retaliation.”

The movement for living wages is taking off. The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 for nearly seven years. Unable to provide for their families, fast food and other low-wage workers began to demonstrate, even at risk of losing their jobs. “Fight for 15” – the demand for a $15.00 an hour minimum wage and the right to a union – swept across the country. And is beginning to win.

In Seattle, a coalition of union, community and business leaders helped pass legislation putting the city minimum wage on a path to $15. From Los Angeles to Chicago to New York, other cities joined. In the last few days, California legislators reached a deal to move the state minimum wage to $15 by 2022. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo pushed through reforms that will move that state’s minimum wage to $15, starting in December 2018 in New York City.

The pressure of the government low-wage workers moved President Obama to act. He issued three executive orders, raising the minimum wage to $10.10, cracking down on wage theft and other workplace violations, and providing paid leave. The workers continued to demonstrate, calling for “more than the minimum,” seeking $15 and a union.

Senate cafeteria workers – the people who prepare the senators’ food and clean up after them – joined the protests. Their plight – one was homeless, others on food stamps, one moonlighting as a stripper to feed her children – was embarrassing. Democratic Senate staffers organized to support them. Democratic senators like Bernie Sanders (Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), and Brian Schatz (Hawaii) demanded action. When the cafeteria contract was up for renewal in December, workers were granted pay increases of $5 an hour or more. It took more pressure and Labor Department investigation to make the raises stick, but today workers are finally receiving their pay.

Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell, who has documented the struggle highlighted one beneficiary, Bertrand Olotara, a cook in the Senate cafeteria. His wage went from $12.30 to $17.45 an hour. He was able to quit his second job at Whole Foods and stop working seven days a week. That gave him more time with his five children. He’s even thinking of using the extra time to write a book. A living wage makes real differences in people’s lives.

Now the interfaith coalition joining with these workers and calling on those contending for the presidency to promise to do more. Republican contenders are still opposed to raising the minimum wage. Bernie Sanders has made a $15 an hour minimum wage a central plank in his platform. Hillary Clinton has supported lifting the national minimum wage to $12.50, accepting that some states and cities might go higher.

The interfaith alliance is calling on the presidential candidates to pledge moral action on the economy. When Ronald Reagan came to office, one of his first acts was to fire and replace the striking PATCO air controllers. He sent a message to employers across the country that it was open season on workers and their unions. Imagine the next president taking office and issuing an executive order lifting the wages of millions of contract workers and guaranteeing a right to organize without retaliation. Again a signal would be sent across the country.

“This election is fundamentally about whether the next president is willing to take transformative executive action to close the gap between the wealthy and workers – many of whom are women and people of color,” argues Jim Winkler, secretary general of the National Council of Churches. It’s time to take the pledge.

This blog originally appeared in ourfuture.org on April 4, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Robert Borosage is a board member of both the Blue Green Alliance and Working America.  He earned a BA in political science from Michigan State University in 1966, a master’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University in 1968, and a JD from Yale Law School in 1971. Borosage then practiced law until 1974, at which time he founded the Center for National Security Studies.

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.

President Of Florida-Based Company Threatens To Fire Employees If Romney Loses

Monday, November 5th, 2012

 With fewer than 72 hours before polls begin to close, another report has emerged of a company owner strongly urging his employees to vote for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama, claiming that their jobs are potentially on the line if Obama wins re-election.

Cliff Otto, president of the Florida-based Saddle Creek Corporation, circulated an email to staff this week explaining that, while “we do not support candidates based on their political affiliation,” Romney’s positions are in “the best interest of our company, and therefore our jobs and our future”:

In the past, Saddle Creek has not felt it imperative that we communicate with our associates regarding the political issues that affect our business. This year the positions taken by the two presidential candidates with regard to these issues are starkly different. As such [we] feel it would be wrong for us not to share with you the company’s position on just a few of the critical issues and, at the same time, how each of the two candidates compare to our position. … We do not support candidates based on their political affiliation. We do support candidates that share our positions with regard to the key issues facing our company and our country. Thank you for considering what Saddle Creek believes is in the best interest of our company, and therefore our jobs and our future.

An accompanying flyer, obtained by MSNBC’s Up With Chris Hayes, highlights by position — not candidate — which would be more beneficial for Otto’s employees’ jobs:

Otto is not alone in his effort to sway his employees’ votes by insinuating that they might lose their jobs should Obama win. Similar tactics have been used by other CEOs across the country who warn of “consequences” should Romney lose on November 6th. One CEO likened the threats to telling employees to “Eat your spinach.”

Indeed, it may be a concerted intimidation effort by right-leaning CEOs that is orchestrated from the top. Just a month ago, leaked audio captured Romney urging conservative business owners to tell their employees who to vote for.

This article was originally posted on November 4, 2012 at Think Progress

About the Author: Annie-Rose Strasser is a Reporter/Blogger for ThinkProgress. Before joining American Progress, she worked for the community organizing non-profit Center for Community Change as a new media specialist. Previously, Annie-Rose served as a press assistant for Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Annie-Rose holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from the George Washington University.

AFL-CIO Head Trumka: Romney 'sure doesn't know anything about coal mining'

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

The United Mine Workers of America is sitting out this presidential race as Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama battle over parts of coal country. But former UMWA president and current AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka spoke to the press Monday not just as an advocate for all workers but from the perspective of a third-generation coal miner.

While Romney has centered his coal country campaign on inaccurate claims that overregulation by the Obama administration has weakened the coal industry (Romney’s beloved free market is the real culprit), Trumka pointed to how workplace safety is enforced in this dangerous industry:

[President Obama] has appointed people who are enforcing safety laws, these are the real regulations coal operators don’t want enforced….MSHA [Mine Safety and Health Administration] is enforcing the laws and now coal operators are not able to get away with violations like they did before, especially high violators.

Among the regulations and oversight that Romney would weaken or abolish are those that save miners’ lives. So it’s important that Romney’s “Obama’s war on coal” rhetoric not be allowed to cloud the picture, obscuring that coal’s recent struggles aren’t due to regulation, and that when he talks about regulations, he’s talking about people’s lives. Beyond that, Trumka drove home the distance between the coal miners Romney pretends to care about and Romney’s own life:

Mitt Romney says coal country is his country. Well, he’s wrong—it’s ours….Mitt Romney doesn’t know about getting his hands dirty, and he sure doesn’t know anything about coal mining.

This article was originally published by The Daily Kos on Monday, October 29, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006, and a Daily Kos Labor editor since 2011.

In Conference Call, Romney Urged Businesses To Tell Their Employees How to Vote

Friday, October 19th, 2012

In a June 6, 2012 conference call posted on the anti-union National Federation of Independent Business’s website, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney instructed employers to tell their employees how to vote in the upcoming election.

 

Romney was addressing  a group of self-described “small-business owners.” Twenty-six minutes into the call, after making a lengthy case that President Obama’s first term has been bad for business, Romney said:

I hope you make it very clear to your employees what you believe is in the best interest of your enterprise and therefore their job and their future in the upcoming elections. And whether you agree with me or you agree with President Obama, or whatever your political view, I hope, I hope you pass those along to your employees.

The call raises the question of whether the Romney campaign is complicit in the corporate attempts to influence employees’ votes that have been recently making headlines. On Sunday, In These Times broke the news that Koch Industries mailed at least 45,000 employees a voter information packet that included a flyer endorsing Romney and a letter warning, “Many of our more than 50,000 U.S. employees and contractors may suffer the consequences [of a bad election result], including higher gasoline prices, runaway inflation, and other ills.” Last week, Gawker obtained an email in which the CEO of Westgate Resorts, Florida billionaire David Siegel, informed his 7,000 employees that an Obama victory would likely lead to layoffs at his company. This week, MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes unveiled an email by ASG Software Solutions CEO Arthur Allen in which he, too, warned employees that an Obama second term would spell layoffs.

In the June call, Romney went on to reassure his audience that it is perfectly legal for them to talk to their employees about how to vote:

Nothing illegal about you talking to your employees about what you believe is best for the business, because I think that will figure into their election decision, their voting decision and of course doing that with your family and your kids as well.

He’s correct that such speech is now legal for the first time ever, thanks to the Citizen United ruling, which overturned previous Federal Election Commission laws that prohibited employers from political campaigning among employees.

In the post-Citizens United era, “there is not much political protection for at-will employees in the private sector workplace,” explains University of Marquette Law Professor Paul Secunda, a pro-union labor lawyer. “It is conceivable, under the current legal regime, that an employer like Koch could actually get away with forcing his employees, on pains of termination, to campaign for a given candidate or political party.”

Romney provided his call audience with a number of talking points to relay to their employees:

I particularly think that our young kids–and when I say young, I mean college-age and high-school age–they need to understand that America runs on a strong and vibrant business [sic] … and that we need more business growing and thriving in this country. They need to understand that what the president is doing by borrowing a trillion dollars more each year than what we spend is running up a credit card that they’re going to have to pay off and that their future is very much in jeopardy by virtue of the policies that the president is putting in place. So I need you to get out there and campaign.

Beyond Romney’s statements on the call, it’s unclear whether his election operation is actively coordinating workplace campaigning by businesses. Romney press secretary Andrea Saul did not respond to In These Times’ request for comment.

However, the conference call raises troubling questions about what appears to be a growing wave of workplace political pressure unleashed by Citizens United.

This post originally appeared in Working In These Times on October 17, 2012.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times. He can be reached at mike@inthesetimes.com.

California’s Prop. 32: Clone of Past Anti-Worker Measures

Thursday, October 18th, 2012

Maybe this election year will finally put a stake through the heart of efforts by corporations and extremist right-wing millionaires to silence the voice of California’s working families in the political arena.

This year, it’s called Prop. 32 and it’s a near-clone of 2005’s Prop. 75 and 1998’s Prop. 226, which voters defeated by 53% to 47%. Both times, huge mobilizations by working families turned back the millions of dollars from Republican PACs and corporate and anti-worker extremists. These are the same groups that are behind Prop. 32.

Deceptively titled, “Stop Special Interest Money Now Act,” Prop. 32 would ban the use of voluntary payroll deductions by union members who want to contribute to their union’s political activity. It would do nothing to stop the campaign spending by secret corporate-backed PACs and the wealthy.

For example, as the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor points out:

  • Prop. 32 exempts secretive super PACs and corporate front groups, which can raise unlimited amounts of money from corporate special interests and billionaire businessmen, to support their candidates or defeat their enemies. The measure does nothing to prevent anonymous donors from spending unlimited amounts to influence elections.
  • Prop. 32 is NOT campaign finance reform, as its backers claim. The wealthy supporters of this initiative created exemptions for Wall Street hedge funds, real estate investors, insurance companies and other well-heeled special interests, allowing them to continue contributing directly to the coffers of political candidates.
  • Prop. 32 would severely restrict union members in both the public and private sector from having a voice in our political process. As a result, teachers, nurses, firefighters, police officers and other everyday heroes would be unable to speak out on issues that matter to us all—like cuts to our schools and colleges, police and fire response times, patient safety and workplace protections.
  • This measure would give corporate CEOs and their lobbyists even greater influence over our political system. Corporations already outspend unions 15-1 in politics. This measure would effectively clear the playing field of any opposition to big corporations’ agenda, which includes outsourcing jobs, gutting homeowner protections, slashing wages and health benefits and attacking retirement security.

You can find out more on the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor’s No on 32 webpage, which includes a union-member toolkit and links to the No 32 Facebook page and Twitter account (Twitter handle is @StopExemptions). Sign-up for email alerts and volunteer opportunities.

On a lighter note, take a look at the video below from SEIU Local 521, where the resurrected “zombies” of the earlier versions of Prop. 32 are on the march for the brains of voters. On the Labor’s Edge blog, Khanh Weinberg writes about how the “Boo on 32” video was made.

This post originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now on October 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 have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.

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.

Which Side Are You On: Election Edition?

Monday, October 25th, 2010

Image: Bob RosnerOkay, the election is right around the corner. The purpose of this column is not to tell you who to vote for, or even what to vote for. It’s simply to try to help you to clarify what is important to you. If I do a good job, you won’t even know my political leanings.

Foreclosures — Do you think that the cash support should go to the bankers or the people being foreclosed on? Ironically words like responsibility can be applied or not applied to both sides of this equation.

Sure we’re all mad at the banks. They took huge risks, kept their profits and stuck us with their losses. Which candidates are most inclined to hold the banks accountable? And which candidates are inclined to take contributions from said bankers? The rhetoric isn’t as important as the money flows, in my humble opinion.

Health Care — Health care is another popular political piñata today. Do you long for the old system of health care? Or do you think it makes sense to have someone looking over the insurance companies’ shoulders?

The wars — Is this a question of pride and winning or is it more of an issue of cutting our losses?

Unemployment assistance — 99 weeks does seem like a long time to get help for being unemployed. Too many too long. But if you know people who’ve been out of work that long, you know the struggle that they’re facing.

Political theater or political action — Which candidates are inclined to roll up their sleeves and work to get things done?

This shouldn’t be done from the hip. Definitely take out your voting pamphlets and  do some research on your options. Your steady hand is needed on the ship of state’s rudder.

About The Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. Check the revised edition of his Wall Street Journal best seller, “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.

Labor Day Reflections on Election Day Decisions

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008

Labor Day puts an exclamation point at the end of summer, and sounds the traditional starting bell for our election campaigns.  And it is the one day of the year that honors working people – those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold,” in the words of one 19th century proponent of the holiday.

These days find fewer workers delving and carving, and more of them word-processing or telemarketing.  How are they doing this Labor Day?

That depends on whether we look at the top of the labor market or further down the ladder, among the modern-day delvers and carvers.  Those at the top –- say the top ten percent of earners with scarce skills and years of higher education –- are doing well indeed.  (The top one percent is doing even better.)  (See Economic Policy Institute data.)  The globalization of markets and growing mobility of capital seem to have increased the market power of the top echelon of workers.

But gains at the top have not trickled down to the bottom.  Instead, companies’ intense pursuit of lower labor costs and higher profit margins has eroded job security, wages, and working conditions for many workers.  (See Economic Policy Institute data)

The fact of growing inequality seems clear.  Yet a major political fault line runs between those who believe it is a serious problem calling for government action and those who do not.  Of course, the one-two punch of the sub-prime mortgage crisis and rising oil prices has raised alarms across the political spectrum.  But the failure of ordinary working people to secure a fair share of productivity gains and spectacular corporate profits has not.  That brings us back to the election campaign that is already well underway this Labor Day.

On one side, news of growing economic inequality is met with a mix of complacency and fatalism.  After all, global market forces are behind these developments, and have produced more by way of fabulous wealth at the top than impoverishment at the bottom.  Those in this camp – let’s call them Republicans – often portray those who complain about economic inequality as captives of misguided economic populism and class envy.  Or, in the words of McCain supporter Phil Gramm, as “economically illiterate” and “whiners.”

On the other side of the aisle are those who are committed to using public policy to foster the well-being of those least favored by the market.  Recent studies indeed show that low and middle-income Americans do better economically in Democratic administrations (while higher income Americans do about equally well).  In this respect, the Democrats remain the party of the New Deal.

Indeed, divisions are especially sharp over two major pillars of New Deal labor policy – the labor law’s regime for enabling workers to unionize and bargain collectively, and the Fair Labor Standards Act’s minimum wage and overtime protections – both of which were intended to secure for ordinary workers a fair share of the rewards of economic prosperity.

On the issue of unionization, there is less disagreement over what is happening than over what to do about it.  Mainstream economists, including current Fed Chair Ben Bernanke, agree that growing inequality is partly due to the decline of unions.  Unions give workers leverage to bargain for a fair share of company profits.  No wonder so many workers who don’t have union representation say in surveys that they wish they did.

The question for political leaders is whether to do anything to make that possible.  Senator Obama and the Democrats support the Employee Free Choice Act, which makes it easier for workers who want union representation to get it, and harder for employers to browbeat their workers out of seeking representation.  Republicans, with a few exceptions, appear content to let unions continue their slide toward irrelevance, and to leave workers to their solitary fate within the labor market.  (See NYTimes article.)

Disagreement over minimum labor standards is less voluble, but only because one side is largely silent.  A recent GAO report finding lax enforcement of wage and hour laws provoked calls for action from the Democrats, and silence from Republicans.  Evidence of widespread employer evasion of employee rights and payroll taxes through misclassification of employees as “independent contractors” led Senator Obama, joined by several Democratic co-sponsors, to propose a legislative fix.  Republicans remain silent.

The ideological divide here is familiar.  But there is a common thread in these debates over labor policy that ought to create some common ground:  Both employees’ right to join a union and their right to decent labor standards are being undermined by employers that break the law, sometimes brazenly.  Many employers illegally threaten and intimidate workers who seek union representation, risking little more than a legal slap on the wrist long after the union drive’s defeat.  For some employers, compelling employees to work off the clock, or even doctoring time sheets to reduce payroll costs, has become business as usual, as Steve Greenhouse shows in his new book, The Big Squeeze.

When scofflaw employers get away with violating workers’ legal rights, they undermine the ability of workers to secure a decent life for themselves and their families, and they undercut and demoralize responsible employers.

The Democrats and Republicans have often diverged over the wisdom of expanding protections for workers.  But enforcing the laws that are already on the books ought to be a goal that unites the parties.  Unfortunately, when it comes to the law that protects employee rights, that seems not to be the case.

About the Author: Cynthia Estlund is the Catherine A. Rein Professor at the NYU School of Law.  Recent work chronicles the crisis of workplace governance – the decline of collective bargaining and the failings of both regulation and litigation – and charts a potential path forward.  Her book Working Together:  How Workplace Bonds Strengthen a Diverse Democracy (Oxford U. Press 2003) argues that the workplace is both comparatively integrated and intensely cooperative and social, and explores the implications for democratic theory and for the law of the workplace.  Other writings focus on freedom of speech and procedural fairness at work; affirmative action; and the significance of property rights in labor law.

Note: Workplace Fairness is a nonprofit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed by our guest bloggers are their own.

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