Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘labor movement’

The UAW Vote in Mississippi is a Battle for the Soul of the U.S. Labor Movement

Friday, August 4th, 2017

After years of painstaking work by United Auto Workers (UAW) organizers to build support for a union at the big Nissan auto and truck assembly plant near Canton, Miss., the workers themselves will vote today and tomorrow on whether to accept UAW their collective bargaining voice at the plant.

“I think it [union approval] will pass,” UAW president Dennis Williams told a press conference just days before the vote, “but we’re doing an ongoing evaluation. We’ve been thinking about it for six to seven months,” roughly since the UAW held a large march and rally at the factory attended by Bernie Sanders. The union says it is particularly concerned about a surge in the kind of unlawful management tactics to scare workers that brought charges against Nissan this week from the National Labor Relations Board.

The Canton factory is one of only three Nissan factories worldwide where workers do not have a union. Built in 2003, it is one of a spate of auto “transplants,” or foreign-owned factories built with state subsidies for the past three decades, largely in the South and border states.

Many see the upcoming vote as another test of whether unions can thrive in the South, where union membership has historically been well below the national average. However, the battle is far greater. Now the corporate strategies and values of the South have persisted and influenced multinational companies, as well as labor relations and politics in the North. The Nissan campaign is best conceived as a battle for the U.S. labor movement.

Nissan has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Organizing the South

Organized labor, usually prodded by leftists in the movement, has undertaken high-profile campaigns in the South to organize unions across the racial divides. Such drives were especially prominent during the 1930s-era organizing upsurge and the post-World War II “Operation Dixie,” which lacked adequate support from existing unions and was plagued by internal political divisions.

The UAW has, at various times, escalated organizing in the South, especially when General Motors was considering relocating much production there in the 1960s—and when the transplant growth surged in recent decades.

Despite the shortcomings of labor’s campaigns, many union strategists think that unions can only reverse their decline by directly tackling the racist strategy of employers and their conservative political allies. But employers have many tools to divide workers, such as Nissan’s employment of temporary, contract workers to divide a predominately African-American workforce.

In recent years, the South has suffered key organizing blows, including the big defeat in January for the Machinists’ union trying to organize the new Boeing factory in Charleston, S.C., and the limited UAW success organizing a skilled trades union at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tenn. against a supposedly neutral employer. Such defeats typically inspire funereal chants for labor rights and unions, but sound like party music for managers and investors.

Yet, some organizers dispute that the South is impossible territory. One veteran organizer with the AFL-CIO, who has overseen many organizing drives in the South and asked not to be identified or directly quoted, said that he thought it was not significantly more difficult to organize in the South. It just took more time and more money.

The organizer cited one success that defied expectations: the campaigns over roughly 15 years to organize 26,000 workers and preserve business at Louisiana’s giant Avondale shipyards for a shifting cast of corporate owners doing repair and rebuilding work mainly on military contracts. Ultimately, a decline in military orders led its latest owner to close the shipyards, wiping out the organizing victory.

“The unions often do not realize it, but they have been winning in the South more than in the Midwest for years,” says Kate Bronfenbrenner, a Cornell University labor relations professor who specializes in research on union organizing. “Because [in the South] there are more women working, more African Americans, and because there’s less high-tech work.” Each of those categories of workers is more pro-union than their counterparts, thus building in a small theoretical advantage in the South.

The South’s poor labor standards are spreading

In the end, it may be that the poor labor standards of the South are spreading nationwide. The ascendant conservative political power of the new Republican Party, linked with the more aggressively anti-worker and anti-union policies of big corporations and financial firms, indicate that, in this country’s long Civil War, the South is gaining ground.

Consider what has occurred from 1983, when Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” ads were on the horizon, as well as in 2016, when Donald Trump pledged to “make America great again.” Then and now, most people would consider Michigan and Wisconsin as typically northern, in terms of labor conditions and union density. Yet over that period, federal data shows that the percentage of all workers in Michigan who were covered by union contracts dropped from 32.8 percent in 1983 to 15.5 percent in 2016. For Wisconsin, the share dropped from 26.9 percent to 9.0 percent.

Unions are losing members and failing to gain new ones at an adequate rate to avoid the rough halving of the union share of the workforce over the past 15 years in most of both the South and the North.

Assault on workers knows no boundaries

It will be better for workers everywhere if the Canton, Miss., workers vote for the union, but management still has the upper hand. Workers are still weak and getting weaker nearly everywhere, with partial exceptions, like the Fight for 15 movement, which flourishes in nearly all of the country.

“Right to work” laws threaten unions nationwide, by prohibiting them from charging agency fees to workers who do not join the union but benefit from actions it takes. In recent years, the widespread passage of such laws outside of the South—now extending to half of all states—is a clear indication of the decline in union power.

Workers in Canton may win a union for a variety of reasons beyond the basic proposition that they need collective power to counter the power of their bosses. Or they may reject the union due to fear engendered by Nissan and its anti-union campaign, out of conservative political beliefs or for other reasons.

The best union organizers—and some very good organizers have played a major role at Nissan—understand how important it is to involve workers themselves as-organizers in reaching out to workers. In addition, organizers recognize it is vitally important to mobilize the progressive leaders and groups in the community for support, and employ a wide assortment of tactics to minimize the influence of the boss’s war on unions—a war conducted in large part on turf and terms favorable to the employer.

However, if the labor movement is striving to with significant gains for workers, it must create a progressive strategy for politics, workplace organizing and culture that focuses on the working class very broadly construed, including multiple levels of poverty, affluence and job histories. U.S. union organizing will need to strengthen and expand its community activities to develop a broader range of strategies to defeat racism. Within such a political context, union organizing might prosper—and workers might do so as well.

Whether the UAW does or does not win this summer, future successful organizing of workers in their communities and workplaces require an alternative political force that is more supportive and transformative.

 This piece was originally published at In These Times on August 3, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

Civil Rights and Labor: Two Movements, One Goal

Tuesday, May 30th, 2017

“A community is democratic only when the humblest and weakest person can enjoy the highest civil, economic and social rights that the biggest and most powerful possess.”

— A. Philip Randolph
One of our most celebrated labor leaders, A. Philip Randolph, an organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, knew the connection between the labor movement and the civil rights movement was key to a truly inclusive democracy. He stood for access at the ballot box as well as to economic security—ideally through a good job with decent benefits and a union. Today, we find ourselves back in a place where our civil, economic, political and social rights are under constant attack. The violence we see against black youth—the heart-wrenching killing of Trayvon Martin, the homicide of Jordan Davis–the passage of “right to work” laws in states like Michigan, Missouri and Iowa that have deeply racist and divisive roots, and the constant attack on immigrant communities by the current administration affirm we still have work to do.

As trade unionists, labor leaders, parents and civil rights activists, we have dedicated our time, talent and resources to advancing the agenda for people who are simply working for a better life. We believe there has never been a more critical point in our nation’s history when it is so crucial for us to reconnect deeply the movement for working people with the movement for civil and human rights. We cannot forget that the March on Washington was about freedom, economic equity and good jobs. The intersection of human rights, civil rights and workers’ rights has always been a part of our struggles for independent power both here and abroad. We must continue to uplift those movements in an intersectional way to ensure we are able to win justice at the workplace and the ballot box to make a difference for those we serve.

This summer, one of the oldest and largest civil and human rights organizations, the NAACP, will come to the city of Baltimore for its annual convention. The NAACP has stood as a coalition partner to the labor movement since 1909. There are many organizations we as a movement value and partner with through shared program and the NAACP remains one of those core allies, despite the shifts that happen in the world around us. We have great leadership within both the labor movement and the NAACP. We have seen how powerful it is when leaders like AFT’s Lorretta Johnson stand shoulder to shoulder with the Rev. William Barber, leader of the NAACP North Carolina State Conference. We know our journey together must continue as we fight to assure that “the humblest and weakest person can enjoy the highest civil, economic and social rights that the biggest and most powerful possess.”

We must expand our vision by creating solidarity without borders so that working people will be treated with the respect we are due. Thus our history and our very purpose demand that we be in the forefront of the struggle to assure first-class citizenship to all people, of all colors, and all creeds without regard to sex, sexual orientation or gender identity. Our struggles are one; our hopes are one; our dreams are one. The past is not dead, it’s not even past.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on May 25, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Authors: James Settles Jr., also known as Jimmy, serves as a vice president and member of the Executive Board at the UAW. He is a national board member and Labor Committee vice-chair of the NAACP. Robin Williams serves as the national vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). She is a national board member and Labor Committee vice-chair of the NAACP. Richard Womack Sr. is the emeritus assistant to the AFL-CIO president and former director of the AFL-CIO Civil, Human and Women’s Rights Department. He is a national board member and Labor Committee chair of the NAACP.

As Long As the Supreme Court Is Setting Labor Policy, the Labor Movement Can Never Revive Itself

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016

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First published at Jacobin.

With the death of leading anti-union reactionary Antonin Scalia, the current docket of Supreme Court cases has been thrown into turmoil.

For the labor movement, Scalia’s departure means narrowly escaping the anticipated anti-union decision in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. While most commentators expected a 5-4 anti-union ruling, the most likely result now is a 4-4 decision, momentarily leaving intact the agency shop for public-sector workers and preventing the establishment of a legal beachhead for future attacks.

Contrary to those who saw a silver lining in Friedrichs, judges would never have used the precedent to expand the rights of government workers on free speech grounds. Instead, as Moshe Marvitpoints out, union busters would’ve deployed the rationale in Friedrichs to argue any form of exclusive representation violates public workers’ free speech rights.

This would’ve turned the clock back over 60 years, to a time when all public employee bargaining was suspect precisely because it was deemed political. Additionally, it would’ve only been a matter of time before Friedrichs was applied to the private sector, imposing “right to work” on every workplace in the country.

But for Scalia’s death, a Supreme Court majority would have almost certainly overturned 50 years of settled law. In doing so, five individuals would have substituted their political beliefs for those of elected officials in agency shop states—participating in the broader attack on public employee rights spearheaded by politicians like Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and Illinois governor Bruce Rauner.

All of which is to say that rather than being a body above politics, the Supreme Court reflects the political trends of the day. Take last year’s gay marriage ruling. The words of the Constitution hadn’t changed, nor had some nebulous thing called “the law.” What changed, after decades of grassroots activism, was the political reality. The same forces that prompted the Supreme Court justices to change their view likely prompted establishment politicians such as Hillary Clinton to reverse their own position.

If judges simply interpreted “the law,” the death of a justice would not matter. But it does matter, and so a debate will rage over Scalia’s replacement.

Union activists should have a different discussion. Instead of engaging with the prevailing debate—which will likely consist of whether to appoint an ultra-right Republican or a corporate Democrat—those in and around the labor movement should use the confirmation battle to spark a conversation about the role of unelected judges in setting labor policy.

And we should note the role both parties have played in establishing and maintaining the present system of labor law. Even during oral arguments in Friedrichs, the liberals on the Supreme Court did not mount a rousing defense of public employee unionism. They simply warned the conservative majority about the dangers of overturning settled law—which they worried would threaten the appearance of impartiality the Supreme Court relies on to maintain its legitimacy.

Much of the body of settled law they were keen to defend—and which corporate liberals on the Supreme Court have been key to establishing—blocks effective trade unionism. Judicially created rules hamstringing labor include restrictions on class-wide solidarity and important tactics such as intermittent strikes, the permanent replacement of striking workers, and the use of the business form to evade unionism. Regardless of which candidate is eventually sworn in as Scalia’s replacement, this bipartisan consensus will almost certainly remain undisturbed.

Indeed, nowhere is the need for a Bernie Sanders–style political revolution more apparent than in the selection of Supreme Court justices. Sanders correctly rails against a bipartisan establishment encompassing politicians from both parties, corporate lobbyists and establishment media forces. But the federal judiciary, and in particular the Supreme Court, is perhaps the most quintessentially establishment grouping in American politics.

Which brings us to the bigger question at stake for unions. As long as labor allows nine establishment figures to dictate policy, we will never revive ourselves as a movement. The rules will continue to be stacked against us. Legislative or National Labor Relations Board initiatives, however well intentioned, will be nullified by the courts.

Over 100 years ago, a school of thought called Legal Realism shattered the idea that judicial decisions were anything but political decisions. Led by Oliver Wendell Holmes and firmly situated within the Progressive Movement, the Legal Realists rejected the idea that judges somehow divined decisions from abstract analyses of the law. To study law, they held, was simply to predict what judges would decide. This subversive idea—that there is no such thing as the law independent of actual decisions—proved highly destabilizing to a fundamentally undemocratic judiciary.

Around the same time, the labor movement was agitating against “judge-made law.” Understanding that labor policy was set by elites with no ties to the working class, unionists agitated not just for better judicial decisions but to remove labor policy entirely from federal courts’ jurisdiction.

For conservative unions like the AFL to radical ones like the IWW, defying judicial injunctions was a matter of official union policy. Unionists understood the law was not on their side. The anti-judicial sentiment reached its peak with the 1932 passage of the Norris-LaGuardia Act, which attempted to get federal courts out of the business of making labor policy. (Over the succeeding decades, the act was defanged by the same federal judges it was supposed to protect labor from.)

Today, the labor movement shouldn’t waste time pondering which elite Supreme Court justice will get confirmed, the latest NLRB initiative waiting to be overruled by the federal judiciary, or the newest scheme to revive labor within the confines of an unjust system of labor control. The more important discussion is the one posed by unionists a century ago: how do we break from the constraints of judge-made law?

While there is no easy answer to this question, shedding liberal illusions about the role of the Supreme Court is a start. It is also important to call out the many restrictions on union rights. We can educate, agitate and organize, but if the rules of the game are rigged, we will never succeed.

Winning requires first challenging the rules of the game and the prerogative of elite institutions to govern labor relations. Judicial support for public employee union rights, we shouldn’t forget, was only secured after millions of public-sector workers struck against a bipartisan consensus that rejected those rights.

There are no easy answers about how we knock down the barriers imposed by labor law. But let’s use the death of an arch-nemesis of labor to at least start the discussion.

This blog originally appeared at inthesetimes.com on February 17, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

Joe Burns is a former local union president active in strike solidarity, is a labor negotiator and attorney. He is the author of the book Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America(IG Publishing, 2011) and can be reached at joe.burns2@gmail.com.

 

 

We Rise: Building Immigrant Working People Power

Wednesday, November 25th, 2015

Richard TrumkaA year ago the president announced a series of executive actions on immigration. Today is a fitting time to honor those who compelled him to act.

Around the country, courageous working people demanded an end to the deportation regime that was tearing communities, families and workplaces apart. They shut down detention centers, turned around buses, and spoke truth to power?—?all at great personal risk. They banded together to prevent the deportation of community members and loved ones who were in removal proceedings, and they won many cases. These brave actions and the determined clamor for #Not1More deportation led to the announcement of the historic deferred action program that will allow millions of parents to live and work without fear.

Communities around the country also rejected the notion that their local law enforcement officials should serve as agents of the federal immigration enforcement machinery. They had important discussions about due process and constitutional protections. Over time, more than 300 jurisdictions enacted ordinances declaring that they would focus their resources on effective community policing and place reasonable limits on their cooperation with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This groundswell thoroughly discredited the Secure Communities program, a federally run program launched in 2008, and resulted in its termination in 2014.

These examples inspire us, and they also show us the playbook for how you make change in the nation’s capital— you force it from the ground up. Today as we confront legal and legislative obstruction and the rebranding of failed enforcement policies, the question we should all be asking is what do we push for next?

For the labor movement, the answer is simple. We know that every worker in our country has rights, and we want each worker to be able to exercise those rights, regardless of immigration status.

While this may sound like a simple idea, we are a long way from that reality now. The sad truth is that employers routinely hire undocumented workers with a wink and a nod and then fire them when they seek to organize a union or complain about unpaid wages or unsafe working conditions. And when new immigrants muster the courage to stand in a picket line, join a boycott, or negotiate for fair compensation, employers are still able to retaliate in ways that can set deportation proceedings in motion.

This is just not right; it’s an #Injury2All and the wages and standards for all working people in our country suffer as a result of these efforts to keep immigrant workers scared and silent. Here in Washington, we have been talking for years to Congress and the administration about the need to fix these problems, but we have yet to see the concrete changes that our nation’s workers so urgently need.

So we see this anniversary as an important opportunity to sound a new call to action. We intend to take our demands for basic worker protections to every community and every immigration office in the country. Our unions and allies will raise workers’ cases from many sectors of our economy and make clear that we cannot reasonably expect to end wage theft and exploitation without protecting those workers with the courage to take a stand.

From Chicago to Los Angeles to Austin and everywhere in between, our movement reaffirms what we have long understood, that an injury to one worker is an injury to all. Our federal agencies have the discretion to provide concrete protections to workers who exercise their most fundamental rights, but it is up to us to make them act.

Polite conversations in Washington aren’t working. These changes will only come if we demand them, from the ground up. Working people are ready for this fight, and it will be coming soon to a community near you.

We will keep pushing forward to demand what is just. Please join us.

This blog was originally posted on Daily Kos on November 20, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Richard L. Trumka was elected AFL-CIO president in September 2009. He served as AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer since 1995.

Young Union Member Speaks at Large NYC Rally on Global Goals

Saturday, September 26th, 2015
Jackie TortoraLast night, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in cities all over the world to stand in solidarity around global goals to alleviate poverty, economic inequality and climate change. Even though people were in separate continents, countries and cities, from Australia to South Korea to the United States, they all gathered “Under One Sky” to come together for these common aspirations.

Lorraine Barcant, a member of AFSCME Local 375, AFL-CIO Next Up and the Young Worker Advisory Council, made the following speech at the Under One Sky rally in New York City last night:

Fifteen years ago, when the U.N. Global Development goals were made, a lot of us were just kids. As we grew up, the inequality around us deepened, dividing us, holding us back. We can’t wait another 15 years to fix the inequality and racial injustice that’s ripping this country apart. What will we tell our kids then? That we didn’t organize, that we didn’t demand action from our leaders? That we’ve only made a little bit of progress?

That’s not enough. It’s not enough to have opportunities, if those opportunities belong to only a few. It’s not enough to have jobs, if those jobs don’t provide security or dignity. It’s not enough to have freedom of speech, if your voice can be drowned out by money.

And that’s why the labor movement is here: To bring people together in solidarity, and demand change. The labor movement says loudly that a little bit of progress is not enough, not here in New York, not anywhere in the world.

Tonight, young workers across the globe demand a future where no one is left behind. We can’t wait, we won’t wait, and starting tonight, things are going to change. Thank you.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on September 25, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jackie Tortora is the blog editor and social media manager at the AFL-CIO.

Black Equality Doesn't End in February

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

carmen_aflcioBlack History Month is more than just acknowledgement in a newspaper or a special program at your children’s school. It’s an opportunity to reflect on how far black people in the United States have come in their struggle for justice and equal rights, while not forgetting the scores of women and men whose lives have been destroyed by our biased judicial system. The mass criminalization of millions of men and women, mostly people of color who are imprisoned for small infractions, creates a group of second-class citizens who are unable to rebuild a life for themselves even after serving their time.

In 2013, the labor movement passed a resolution recognizing that mass incarceration has become a big business whose product is low wages and ruined lives, and we decided that it’s time for labor to join forces with our allies in the criminal justice community and fight back. Together we are working toward achieving a reformed criminal justice system that offers formerly imprisoned people an economic path forward and restores voting rights—and we are already winning battles. Last year, California passed Prop. 47, a ballot measure that reduced the classification of some low-level nonviolent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. The crimes covered by the proposal include things like minor drug possession and petty theft, minor offenses that should not define or destroy an individual’s life.

Mass incarceration is not only a civil rights issue, it’s an economics issue. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka traveled to Los Angeles before Prop. 47 passed to shed some light on the situation. He noted that one-third of African American men will serve time in federal prison during their lifetime. That’s an incarceration rate five times greater than that for white men, even though studies have shown that white men and black men commit crimes at roughly the same rates. Once those men and women get out of prison, they have a harder time finding employment and housing due to their arrest records.

The labor movement is a movement of second chances and firmly believes our criminal justice system needs to offer people another chance to contribute to our society. The AFL-CIO staunchly opposes harmful policies like mandatory sentences for nonviolent crimes and we support programs that help people reintegrate into their communities, such as job training, education, probation and parole. If we are going to raise wages for all workers, we have to ensure that everyone has a fair shot at earning a wage.

Black History Month might be coming to an end, but the struggle to ensure that African Americans have a fair shot lasts until there is equity in our criminal justice system. Let’s focus on ensuring that every member of our communities has a shot at charting his or her own path forward. It’s time for us to wake up, come together and strive to create a criminal justice system that works.

This article originally appeared at The Huffington Post, and reposted at AFL-CIO.org March 3, 2015.

About the author: Carmen Berkley is the Civil, Human and Women’s Rights Director at the AFL-CIO. She also serves as a Principal Consultant at Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, LLC , Lead Trainer for Campus Camp Wellstone, and is a proud member of the Black Youth Project 100.

The Labor Movement Is a Lot Bigger Than You Think

Monday, February 10th, 2014

Kenneth-Quinnell_smallWhile 11.3% of U.S. workers officially belong to unions, the labor movement is much larger. The movement isn’t limited to official union members and the last year showed that, as workers marched side by side, union members or not, to fight back against injustices championed by corporate interests that are out of touch with America’s working families. As AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said at the federation’s constitutional convention in Los Angeles, “Politicians and employers want to divide us; they try it every single day. They want to tell us who can be in our movement and who can’t, and we can’t let them.”

An article at The American Prospect describes the trend of new ways workers are standing up for their rights:

Those government union membership statistics, however, don’t capture an entire swath of new, exciting and emerging labor activists—’alt-labor’ activists—whom alarmed employers would like to see regulated by the same laws that apply to unions. Yet, before we regulate them as unions, shouldn’t we first count them as unions?

Who isn’t being counted in those official numbers? A lot of people:

  • Striking fast-food workers who are calling for a $15-an-hour wage.
  • Walmart workers who went on strike for Black Friday.
  • Day laborers who have joined one of hundreds of workers’ centers nationwide.
  • Restaurant workers, home health care workers, taxi drivers and domestic workers organizing for workplace power outside traditional unions.
  • Millions of members of Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

These numbers also don’t count people like the college athletes who are seeking to unionize and the many workers who are trying to form unions but are thwarted by employers or weakened labor law.

Some of the extremists opposed to these groups want them limited in their ability to organize, while not wanting to count them in the official numbers, so labor looks weaker. As the Prospect notes:

However, in a 21st century economy in which collective bargaining has been so severely weakened by structural changes and the roll back in workers’ rights, these new labor activists represent an important frontier for people concerned about worker power and economic inequality writ large. You know that workers are on to something when employers start to get nervous. It turns out the low union membership statistics may not be as good a measure of labor’s future as employers would hope.

And the reality behind those official statistics, and the rise of alt-labor, should be heartening to supporters of working families.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on February 4, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.

People Over Politicians: Why a Shift in Labor’s Priorities is Needed

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

douglas williamsAshley Byrd, News Director for South Carolina Radio: We are going to stay on the topic of job creation. And, uh, let’s start with this: Boeing is bringing more than 8,000 jobs into South Carolina. So here is a two part question first to Ms. Colbert Busch: Did the NLRB overstep its bounds when it tried to block Boeing’s approach to expansion in South Carolina? Yes or No, and why?

Elizabeth Colbert Busch: Yes. This is a right-to-work state, and they had no business telling a company where they could locate.

If the first thought that ran through your mind was, “Sounds like a standard Republican answer to a question like that,” you would be right. But, of course, Elizabeth Colbert Busch was the Democratic nominee for Congress in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District. In response to the Republican candidate, former Gov. Mark Sanford (R-SC), stating that Colbert Busch “wants to be the voice for labor unions in Washington, DC”, she said the following:

First of all, um, Mark, what you’re saying is just not true. Things can be taken out of context, and everybody knows that. I am proud to support and live in a right-to-work state, and I am proud of everyone who has supported me.

Incredible, huh? Here is something even more incredible: the person who said those things, and who did not mention “labor” or “unions” once on her economic issues platform, received at least $32,500 from labor, with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers being her second biggest contributor at $10,000.

Labor also gave $68,000 in 2009-2010 to U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR). Yes, that would be the same Blanche Lincoln that played a large role in blocking the Employee Free Choice Act and who now works for Wal-Mart as a “special policy advisor” (read: lobbyist). You know, the same Wal-Mart notorious for its anti-union policies. It is not altogether surprising, though, given that Wal-Mart gave her $83,650 in donations over the course of her last term in the U.S. Senate.

Something is not adding up here.

Labor gave $1.1 billion in donations to candidates in federal elections between 2005 and 2011, and what do we have to show for it? No Employee Free Choice Act. President Obama’s nominee for Commerce Secretary heads a corporation that is being boycotted by labor for anti-union practices and horrible working conditions. The candidate who stated in 2008 that he would put on his walking shoes and join a picket line wherever collective bargaining rights were threatened seemed to forget where his local Foot Locker was when it came to worker oppression in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. But then again, that should not be surprising, given that the 2012 Democratic National Convention was held in a right-to-work state at non-union hotels.

After so much continual disappointment, it seems like a good time for introspection. Is continued engagement in national politics the best use of union resources? If we cannot point to any major victories after $1.1 billion of investment, largely in one party’s candidates, then is it not time to think about more productive, movement empowering ways to spend that money?

As an exercise, let’s take away half of the money spent by labor unions on federal candidates between 2005 and 2011, and reinvest it in organizing new workers and building internal capacities. For roughly $550 million, here is what labor could buy (these figures are calculated with the advertised salaries in AFSCME job listings for each position):

That is a lot of people, no matter how you divy them up between each position. Those are the kind of numbers that could really begin to do some major work in an area like the South, where years of inattention by major labor federations has served to make the work that much harder. A movement building apparatus that large could not only educate, inform, and organize workers on the job, but it could also mobilize communities to battle against employers and elected officials who seek to undermine a worker’s voice in the workplace.

To that end, 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. For example, the residents of New Haven, Connecticut have seen their city council transformed into one that values educating children in low-income communities and building up a strong local workforce due to labor’s involvement in local races. In addition to that, Minnesota’s home health care workers have been given the right to organize through legislative action by a new DFL (Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party) majority, and a piece of legislation that would have made Missouri a right-to-work state was defeated because of a veto threat by Gov. Jay Nixon (D-MO). When labor is deciding where to invest its political capital, it should always have one mantra: community first.

The labor movement’s biggest strength has never been its campaign war chest; it has always been its people. It is time to invest in movement building. It is time to invest in the organizers and the members who make the labor movement the force for progressive change that it has been for generations. And most importantly, it is time to invest in building solidarity amongst neighbors and between communities. If we are to invest in politics, then let us invest in the sort of politics that impacts people and communities the most, and that will put people in touch with the brand of social justice and progressivism that has been a staple of movement unionism.

No amount of money spent on a member of Congress or a Presidential candidate will ever match the effectiveness of investing in people. If the labor movement is to grow, we must recognize that simple fact.

This article was originally printed on The South Lawn on May 29, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Douglas Williams is a third-generation organizer, having a grandmother who worked to integrate the schools in his hometown and a father who continues to be active in labor organizing.  He earned his BA in Political Science at the University of Minnesota at Morris in 2008, as well as his MPA at the University of Missouri Columbia.  He is currently a doctoral student in political science at the University of Alabama (where he just happened to meet Sarah, the love of his life), where his research centers around public policy as it relates to disadvantaged communities and the labor movement.

As New Jobs Return, Employers Slash Wages

Wednesday, December 26th, 2012
New data has shown that while a majority of jobs eliminated during the downturn were in what we describe as the middle range of wages, the great majority of jobs added as the economy improves were low paying jobs, reported Katherine Rampell in the business section of the New York Times on Friday, August 31, 2012. This was documented in a study done by the National Employment Law Project.
 The study by Annette Bernhardt examined 366 occupations followed by the Labor Department. Bernhardt separated them into three equal groups by wages, with each representing a third of American employment in 2008.
     The middle third consisted of jobs like construction, manufacturing, and information. These jobs paid median hourly wages of $13.84 to $21.13. Over 60% of these jobs were lost during the recession. When the middle third jobs returned, they represented only 22% of total employment growth.
      In the category of higher wage occupations, those that had a median wage of $21.14 to $54.55 reflected only 19% of job losses. However, when growth in the economy began, only 20% of new jobs were the result of the upturn. This was only a 1% increase which doesn’t even cover new entrants into the labor force.
     Low wage jobs with median hourly wages of $7.69 to $13.83 accounted for 21% of job losses during the downturn. The startling fact is that low wage jobs now constitute 58% of all job growth. The jobs with the fastest growth were retail sales at a median wage of $10.97 per hour. At this salary, workers would be eligible for food stamps.
      Each category has grown by more than 300,000 workers since June 2009. Many of these new paying jobs were taken by recent high school and college graduates who were previously unemployed. Others were taken by older workers who formerly had jobs that paid much more, who were desperate.
     Mid-wage and middle class jobs have been disappearing at a rapid rate. Some of this is due to automation, but the bulk of the job loss is the result of employers taking millions of jobs overseas to low wage paying countries.
     At the same time, corporations and their Republican robots are passing so called “Right to Work” legislation which further erodes the wage structure. The labor movement, the trade unions, and their progressive allies are the only institutions that can bring back middle class livable wages.
This post was originally posted on Union Review on December 19, 2012. Reprinted with Permission.
 
About the Author: Seymour Slavin is an Independent Nonprofit Organization Management Professional at Union Review.

Unions’ Partnership With Oregon’s Cool Schools Means Green Schools and Jobs

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

Image: Mike HallThe labor movement, the union-owned financial services company Ullico and the state of Oregon are partnering in a $15 million “Cool Schools” initiative that includes repairs, rebuilding and energy retrofits.  Says AFT President Randi Weingarten:

We’re gratified that in working together, we can ensure that our children have access to facilities which help them reach their potential.

The partnership of government, unions and businesses will work with to identify appropriate investments in Oregon public schools and infrastructure of up to $15 million.

Already the Cool Schools initiative—launched by Gov. John Kitzhaber (D)—has:

  • Performed state-of-the-art audits of nearly 400 schools
  • Negotiated with 12 school districts on up to $11 million in low-cost energy retrofit financing
  • Made commitments to lend $4.7 million to eight school districts, improving 28 individual schools.

The investment will create an estimated 225 building trades jobs in Oregon, and will support projects in schools located in communities statewide. Says AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department (BCTD) President Mark Ayers:

These types of investments are invaluable to the members of the building trades who are truly grateful for the opportunity to return to work and help strengthen the communities in which they work and live.

Unions’ participation in Cool Schools is part of a broad commitment to action made by unions and investors through the Clinton Global Initiative earlier this year. The first step will involve providing financing for energy retrofits through labor-affiliated financial institutions. Construction of these retrofits will create thousands of good jobs, develop new industries in the United States, enhance the nation’s global competitiveness and reduce the threat of climate change.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now Blog on November 14, 2011. 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. He carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse. He’s also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold blood plasma, and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent. You may have seen him at one of several hundred Grateful Dead shows. He was the one with longhair and the tie-dye. Still has the shirts, lost the hair.

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