Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘expanding workers rights’

Unions work for building power—for all workers

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2019

There’s a lot to talk about on Labor Day, but we should take at least a moment to really acknowledge the difference unions make in the lives of working people in this country. Even after decades under assault from the bosses and the Republicans, even representing too few workers, unions boost their members—and not only their members, but more about that in a minute—to a living wage or into the middle class, they get people health coverage, and they reduce racial and gender inequality. Let’s take a look at some of the numbers, courtesy of the AFL-CIO:

  • People with a union have median weekly earnings of $1,051 as opposed to $860 for people without a union.
  • The median for black workers with a union vs. not is $826 vs. $673. For Latino workers, it’s $912 vs. $657. For Asian American workers, it’s $1,119 vs. $1,092.
  • Unions make a difference on benefits, too: 75% of people in a union have job-provided health insurance. For people not in a union, the rate is 49%.
  • In unions, 72% of people have guaranteed pensions, while just 14% of people not in unions have guaranteed pensions.
  • And 90% of people in a union have paid sick leave compared with 71% of people not in a union.

These days, unions represent less than 11% of workers—but that doesn’t mean they’re only making life better for 11% of workers. Take the strikes by teachers fighting not just for their own wages and benefits but for school funding and better staffing levels to give students what they need.Take the state and local minimum wage laws that unions have fought for across the country, which have boosted wages for millions of workers. Take the multiple studies that have found that unions reduce income inequality.

Workers shouldn’t have to rely on having a nice boss. They shouldn’t have to be grateful for a living wage. Worker power should be a real thing in this country, and unions are the best way we’ve found to get there. On Labor Day, let’s remember that.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on September 2, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

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

Trump’s Trade War with China Benefits Big Corporations—Not Ordinary Workers

Thursday, May 30th, 2019

Some events give extraordinary insights into the biases of the economics profession. The trade war with China clearly fit the bill.

The origins of the trade war can be traced to campaign promises Trump made to go after China over its large trade surplus with the United States, which he attributed to “currency manipulation.” The argument was that by intervening in currency markets (buying up U.S. dollars), China was propping up the value of the dollar against its own currency.

This makes Chinese goods and services relatively cheaper to U.S. consumers and makes U.S. goods more expensive to Chinese purchasers. The net effect is to increase U.S. imports of Chinese goods and reduce U.S. exports to China, thereby leading to a large trade deficit.

While most economists now acknowledge that China was intervening in currency markets in the last decade (they did not acknowledge the currency intervention at the time), they insist that this is no longer an issue. China is no longer a large net buyer of dollar denominated assets, so the argument goes, therefore it is not currently keeping down the value of its currency against the dollar.

As I have argued elsewhere, this argument ignores the effect of China holding well in excess of $3 trillion worth of dollar denominated assets. Its decision to hold a massive stock of dollar assets depresses the value of the Chinese yuan against the dollar, thereby maintaining the competitive advantage from a lower valued currency.

This is the same logic that applies with the Fed’s decision to hold trillions of dollars worth of assets that it acquired as part of its quantitative easing program. Even though the Fed is not currently buying assets, most economists argue that its holding of assets still works to keep down interest rates. Perhaps in the next decade they will acknowledge that the same relationship holds with China’s massive stock of dollars and the relative value of the dollar and the yuan, but for now they insist that currency intervention was only an issue in the past.

This is important background, because currency values will directly affect our trade balance with China, and thereby impact the number of manufacturing jobs in the United States. While reducing the trade deficit will not get back most of the relatively high paying manufacturing jobs that were lost in the last decade, it would likely still be a plus for relatively less-educated workers who still rely on manufacturing as a source of higher paying jobs.

Although currency is mostly off the table in Trump’s trade war, intellectual property is very much on the table. And here Trump has the support of economists across the political spectrum, who argue that he has a legitimate complaint, even if they don’t endorse his go it alone cowboy tactics.

The complaint is the China is not respecting “our” intellectual property. This lack of respect takes two main forms. One is simply not honoring the patents, copyrights, and trademarks of U.S. corporations. The other is requiring technology transfers by U.S. corporations that locate operations in China. This usually means taking on a domestic Chinese company as a partner, which will then gain expertise in the use of the U.S. company’s technology.

It is very impressive how the bulk of the economics profession has been willing to legitimate the switch in focus of Trump’s trade war. He had run around the country in his campaign denouncing China as a world class currency manipulator. He pledged to take punitive actions against China for its currency practices on Day One of his administration. Getting China to raise the value of its currency against the dollar actually would have provided some benefit to U.S. workers. But now currency is off the table and we are fighting a trade war to protect “our” intellectual property.

If it’s not obvious already, it is not “our” intellectual property that Trump and his bipartisan crew of economist cheerleaders are interested in protecting. It is the intellectual property of large corporations like Boeing, GE, Pfizer, and Microsoft. Very few people in the United States are in a position where they have to worry about China using their patents or copyrights without compensation. This is a real concern to many large U.S. corporations. The question is whether it should be a concern to the rest of us.

Most immediately, the concerns of ordinary workers are likely to go in the opposite direction. If companies like Boeing and General Electric don’t have to worry about being forced to transfer technology to Chinese companies when they outsource to China, they will have more incentive to outsource to China. That’s about as straightforward as it gets. Instead of reducing our trade deficit in manufacturing goods, this change is likely to increase it.

But this goes to an even deeper issue. We have seen a massive increase in wage inequality over the last four decades. Most economists probably believe some version of the skills biased technical change story – that new technologies have placed a greater premium on skills like math, science, and engineering – while reducing the value of less-educated workers.

Trump’s trade war gives us an insight into the real story. It was not technology that led him to focus his efforts on protecting intellectual property to the neglect of currency issues; it was a political decision made in response to the political power of the most affected groups. And, Boeing, GE, and the rest have far more political power than the workers who labor in their factories or indeed, less-educated workers as a class.

Trump and the political elites more generally are prepared to have a trade war to protect the intellectual property of large U.S. corporations, and indirectly to benefit the more highly paid segment of the labor force. They would not do the same to increase the employment and wage prospects for less-educated workers, the two-thirds of the labor force without a college degree.

To be clear, there is an issue that we should not be allowing China to take at no cost the technology that we spent hundreds of billions of dollars to develop. That is a reasonable argument, but that hardly implies that we need to force them to respect patent and copyright protection.

We need to ensure that China and other countries share in the cost of developing new technologies. There are far more modern and efficient mechanisms than patent monopolies, which are a relic of the Medieval guild system. While negotiating sharing mechanisms may be a difficult process, it is not obviously more difficult than preserving the patent system. President Obama likely would have had the Trans-Pacific Partnership completed and approved by Congress before he left office if it had not been for haggling over terms of drug patent-related protections.

It is also important to recognize that we will likely have far more to gain from having access to China’s technology than the other way around. China is already far and away the global leader in clean technologies, with as much installed solar and wind energy as the rest of the world combined, and an electric car industry that now produces as many cars as all other countries put together.

China currently spends roughly the same share of its GDP on research and development as the United States. Its economy is already 25 percent larger than the US economy and will be more than twice as large in less than a decade. Rather than focusing on bottling up U.S. technology, a forward-thinking trade agenda would be focused on ensuring our access to Chinese technology.

Unfortunately, trade policy is not crafted in the national interest, it is crafted with the goal of making the rich richer. This is what Donald Trump’s trade war is all about. And, as is the case with so many other wars, it is about working class people being forced to sacrifice by paying high tariffs to advance the goals of the rich.

This blog was originally published at CEPR on May 29, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Authors: 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 RicherGetting Back to Full Employment: A Better Bargain for Working PeopleThe End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets ProgressiveThe United States Since 1980Social Security: The Phony Crisis (with Mark Weisbrot), and The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get 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. Brian Dew holds a B.A. in Psychology and Organizational Sciences from the George Washington University and an M.A. in Economics from American University. His previous research has focused on international trade, network analysis, and open-economy macroeconomics, while his current research interests include domestic trade, employment, and monetary policies. Brian worked previously for the International Monetary Fund.

Mexico’s Mineros to Receive Meany-Kirkland Award

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

Image: James ParksOver the past five years, the Mexican government has unleashed a systematic attack on workers’ rights. Despite the continuing repression, Mexico’s independent, democratic unions organize and represent the rights of workers. Some of the most egregious attacks have been on the Mine, Metal and Steel Workers Union (SNTMMSSRM), also known as Los Mineros.

The AFL-CIO Executive Council, meeting in Washington, D.C., last week, awarded Los Mineros and their leader, Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, the 2011 George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award. The award will be formally presented later this year.  Click here to read the resolution in English and here for Spanish.

Gómez was first elected general secretary of the SNTMMSSRM in 2002 and immediately began challenging government policies of low wages and flexible labor markets, and building alliances with the global trade union movement.

When a February 2006 explosion at Grupo Mexico’s Pasta de Conchos mine killed 65 mineworkers, Gómez publicly accused the government of “industrial homicide.” In response to this criticism, the government filed criminal charges against Gómez and other union leaders, froze the union’s bank accounts, assisted employers to set up company unions in SNTMMSSRM-represented workplaces and declared the union’s strikes illegal and sent in troops to suppress them.

Four union members were murdered and key union leaders were jailed. In the face of this campaign of repression, Gómez left Mexico for Vancouver, Canada.  From there he has waged a five-year effort to win justice for his union and for all democratic unions in Mexico.

Despite massive repression, the SNTMMSSRM has continued to bargain contracts and organize new workplaces with the help of trade union allies around the world.

Gómez has won major legal victories. Mexican courts have thrown out all of the criminal charges against him and rejected the government’s appeals.

The annual Meany-Kirkland award, created in 1980 and named for the first two presidents of the AFL-CIO, recognizes outstanding examples of the international struggle for human rights through trade unions. Previous winners have included Wellington Chibebe of Zimbabwe, Ela Bhatt, the founder of India’s Self Employed Women’s Association, the Liberian rubber workers, Colombian activist Yessika Hoyos and the Independent Labor Movement of Egypt.

About the Author: James Parks first encounter with unions was at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. He is a journalist by trade, and has worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. He also has been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO on April 18, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

The Triangle Fire 100 Years Later: Lessons Learned and Unlearned

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

Richard GreenwaldThis Friday is the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Fire. On March 25, 1911, 146 mostly young immigrant women died in a terrible factory fire in Manhattan. The tragedy, at the time the deadliest ever in New York City’s history, changed America.

While the nation learned a valuable lesson from the fire, it was a lesson, frankly, it did not need to learn. At least not this way.

It was a Saturday, like many other work days, in a 60-plus hour work-week. Workers found themselves behind sewing machines, toiling for 12 hour days. They were charged for electricity, needles and any damages. The working conditions were, by any measure, subhuman.

The factory in question was notorious. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was the largest factory of women’s shirtwaists and blouses. During the 1909 strike, the Uprising of 20,000, Triangle resorted to violence, hiring thugs and prostitutes to viciously assault pickets. While almost all other shops in the industry settled with the union, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the owners of the Triangle factory refused.

Many of the victims of the fire were trapped on the 8th floor of the factory, and jumped from windows to their deaths on sidewalks below. Crowds gathered from adjacent Washington Square Park as the tragedy unfolded.   (Photo courtesy International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union)

Many of the victims of the fire were trapped on the 8th floor of the factory, and jumped from windows to their deaths on sidewalks below. Crowds gathered from adjacent Washington Square Park as the tragedy unfolded. (Photo courtesy International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union)

Many wondered: If the strikers had been successful at Triangle, how many of those 146 might have survived? Many union members knew the answer, and demanded that their fellow workers not be forgotten, that they not die in vain.

Because of their demands, visible on the streets of New York as tens of thousands of workers participated in a mass funeral days after the fire, preasure mounted.

Those protests led the State’s political machine, Tammany Hall, to take notice. The Democratic Party, long in control of the state, passed legislation creating the Factory Investigating Commission. That commission, co-chaired by Al Smith and Robert Wagner, made recommendations to transform the state’s labor, building and fire codes. They investigated working conditions and workers’ safety and health.

Unlike many similar commissions, because Smith and Wagner controlled the state legislature, as Smith was Assembly Speaker and Wagner was majority leader of the Senate, they forced 36 of the recommendations into law. These laws made New York a model of progressive reform. These laws protected workers and gave unions a legislative friend in the urban Democrats.

The fire taught the city, state and the nation a lesson: that the state had a responsibility to protect workers and that an unchecked free market system might not be fully compatible with democracy. Frances Perkins, then a young social worker—soon to become chief investigator of the Commission and then Commissioner of Labor for New York and then Secretary of Labor—recalled the Triangle Fire as the starting point for New Deal.

But 100 years later, have we forgotten the tragic lesson of the Triangle Fire? This year alone, 5,000 workers will loose their lives on the jobs. Many of these deaths are preventable, through better and more rigorous enforcement of current laws. Mine disasters, oil rig explosions and construction workers falling to their death are all too common. In postmortem investigations, we find that regulations were either inadequate or simply not enforced. We have slashed the budgets of regulatory agencies to the point that they can not function.

How many more workers need to die before we come to our senses? Do we need another Triangle Fire? I hope not. I hope that we can learn from history. So, on March 25, I hope you stop, remember and act on the lessons of the fire. 146 innocent workers died. Let’s not let them have died in vain.

About the Author: Richard Greenwald is a labor historian and social critic. He is currently a professor of history at Drew University. His essays have appeared in In These Times, The Progressive, The Wall Street Journal among others. He is currently writing a book on the rise of freelancing and is co-editing a book on the future of work for The New Press, which features essays from the county’s leading labor scholars and public intellectuals.

This blog originally appearing In These Times on March 22, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

Do the New NLRB Rules Really Help Workers Organize?

Friday, January 28th, 2011

Mike ElkA series of rules have been proposed recently by the National Labor Relations Board that improve the rights of workers on the job. The rule changes by the NLRB have been hailed by organized labor as great triumphs that will promote the right to organize. But some question whether the regulations go far enough.

In December, the NLRB ruled that employers must start posting the rights of workers to join a union. This decision was met by many congratulatory press releases celebrating a great victory for unions. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka hailed these rules saying:

Every working person in America deserves to know his or her rights. Just as employers are currently required to post information regarding the laws that protect workers’ health and safety, their rights to a minimum wage and to a workplace free from discrimination, this rule ensures that workers’ rights are effectively communicated in the workplace. It is necessary in the face of widespread misunderstanding about the law and many workers’ justified fear of exercising their rights under it.

In November, the NLRB ruled that expressing one’s negative opinion of a boss using social media such as Facebook or Twitter was free speech protected by the Constitution. This was hailed as a major victory for workers trying to organize because it gave broader protection to workers criticizing their companies. In October, the NLRB issued a decision saying that employers now must electronically inform workers through email of their union busting violations. Previously companies were forced to only post a notice on a bulletin board.

Each time these rulings are issued by the NLRB, they are lauded as signs of great progress by organized labor. However while the NLRB has expanded the rights of workers in theory, it still has not changed the penalties for illegal union busting. Requiring an employee to send out an e-mail as opposed to posting a paper notice or having to post the rights of a worker to join a union does not change an employer’s behavior of intimidation.

Employers still face no serious financial penalties or lose government contracts for illegally firing a worker. Nor has the NLRB shortened the election period to seven days—as many in labor hoped—in order to prevent the boss from running effective intimidation campaigns for months. So why do so many in organized labors celebrate these rulings with such great hope?

What these ruling represent is that the NLRB has shown the willingness to change the rules ever so slightly in order to protect the rights of workers. The NLRB has shown it has the power and willingness to do it. However, until the NLRB is willing to issue tough penalties and improve voting conditions for workers, these expanded workers’ rights will help workers little as they exercise their right to organize.

This article was originally published on Working In These Times.

About the Author: Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer who has worked for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers, the Campaign for America’s Future, and the Obama-Biden campaign. He has appeared as a commentator on CNN, Fox News, and NPR, and writes frequently for In These Times, Huffington Post, Alternet, and Truthout.

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