Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘unionbusting’

Billionaire Trump donor puts 115 people out of work after some joined a union

Friday, November 3rd, 2017

Last week, writers at the news sites DNAinfo and Gothamist joined a union. This week, the sites’ Trump-supporting billionaire owner, Joe Ricketts, shut them down, putting 115 people out of work.

Ricketts, who deleted negative coverage of himself when he acquired the Gothamist properties in March, has threatened to shut down the site in the past if the writers attempted to unionize.

On Thursday, he made good on the promise. […]

According to the National Labor Relations Board, laying off employees because they are engaged in union activity is illegal, but the Supreme Court ruled in 1965 that shutting down an entire business — like Ricketts chose to do Thursday — is one permissible form of retaliation.

Ricketts’ letter announcing the decision said that “DNAinfo is, at the end of the day, a business, and businesses need to be economically successful if they are to endure,” but the New York Times reports that Ricketts “lost money every month of DNAinfo’s existence.” It was only after workers dared to organize that he shut it down.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on November 3, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at DailyKos.

Canadian Mounties to the Rescue of American Workers

Friday, September 8th, 2017

The Canadian Royal Mounties have offered to ride to the rescue of beleaguered American workers.

It doesn’t sound right. Americans perceive themselves to be the heroes. They are, after all, the country whose intervention won World War II, the country whose symbol, the Statue of Liberty, lifts her lamp to light the way, as the poem at the statue’s base says, for the yearning masses and wretched refuse, for the homeless and tempest-tossed.

America loves the underdog and champions the little guy. The United States is doing that, for example, by demanding in the negotiations to rewrite the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that Mexico raise its miserable work standards and wages. Now, though, here comes Canada, the third party in the NAFTA triad, insisting that the United States fortify its workers’ collective bargaining rights. That’s the Mounties to the rescue of downtrodden U.S. workers.

This NAFTA demand from the Great White North arrives amid relentless attacks on labor rights in the United States, declining union membership and stagnant wages. To prevent Mexico’s poverty wages from sucking U.S. factories south of the border, the United States is insisting that Mexico eliminate company-controlled fake labor unions. Similarly, to prevent the United States and Mexico from luring Canadian companies away, Canada is stipulating that the United States eliminate laws that empower corporations and weaken workers.

The most infamous of these laws is referred to, bogusly, as right-to-work. Really, it’s right-to-bankrupt labor unions and right-to-cut workers’ pay. These laws forbid corporations and labor unions from negotiating collective bargaining agreements that require payments in lieu of dues from workers who choose not to join the union. These payments, which are typically less than full dues, cover the costs that unions incur to bargain contracts and pursue worker grievances.

Lawmakers that pass right-to-bankrupt legislation know that federal law requires labor unions to represent everyone in their unit at a workplace, even if those employees don’t join the union and don’t make any payments. These dues-shirkers still get the higher wages and better benefits guaranteed in the labor contract. And they still get the labor union to advocate for them, even hire lawyers for them, if they want to file grievances against the company.

The allure of getting something for nothing, a sham created by right-wing politicians who prostrate themselves to corporations, ultimately can bankrupt unions forced to serve freeloaders. Which is exactly what the right-wingers and corporations want. It’s much easier for corporations to ignore the feeble pleas of individual workers for better pay and safer working conditions than to negotiate with unions that wield the power of concerted action.

Canada is particularly sensitive about America’s right-to-bankrupt laws because they’ve now crept up to the border. Among the handful of states that in recent years joined the right-to-bankrupt gang are Wisconsin and Michigan, both at the doorstep of a highly industrial region in Ontario, Canada.

So now, the governors of Wisconsin and Michigan can whisper in the ears of CEOs, “Come south, and we’ll help you break the unions. Instead of paying union wages, you can take all that money as profit and get yourself even fatter pay packages and bonuses!”

Then those governors will make American workers pay for the move with shocking tax breaks for corporations, like the $3 billion Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker promised electronics manufacturer Foxconn to locate a factory there. That’s $1 million in tax money for each of the 3,000 jobs that Foxconn said would be the minimum it would create with the $10 billion project.

Right-wing lawmakers like Walker and U.S. CEOs have been union busting for decades. And it’s been successful.  In the heyday of unions in the 1950s and 1960s, nearly 30 percent of all U.S. workers belonged. Wage rates rose as productivity did. And they climbed consistently. Then, one wage-earner could support a middle-class family.

That’s not true anymore. For decades now, as union membership waned, wages stagnated for the middle class and poor, and compensation for CEOs skyrocketed. And this occurred even while productivity rose. By January of 2016, the most recent date for which the statistics are available, union membership had declined to 10.7 percent. The number of workers in unions dropped by nearly a quarter million from the previous year.

This is despite the fact that union workers earn more and are more likely to have pensions and employer-paid health insurance. The median weekly earnings for non-union workers in 2016 was $802. For union members, it was $1,004.

It’s not that labor unions don’t work. It’s that right-wing U.S. politicians are working against them. They pass legislation and regulations that make it hard for unions to represent workers.

It’s very different for unions in Canada. For example, union membership in Canada is growing, not dwindling like in the United States. In Canada, 31.8 percent of workers were represented by union in 2015, up 0.3 percentage points from 2014. That is higher than the all-time peak in the United States.

And it’s because Canadian legislation encourages unionization to counterbalance powerful corporations. In some Canadian provinces, for example, corporations are prohibited from hiring replacements when workers strike; striking workers are permitted to picket the companies that sell to and buy from their employer; labor agreements must contain “successorship” rights requiring a corporation that buys the employer to recognize the union and abide by its labor agreement; and employers must submit to binding arbitration if they fail to come to a first labor agreement with a newly formed union within a specific amount of time.

The second round of negotiations to rewrite NAFTA ended in Mexico this week. The third is scheduled for later this month in Canada. That’s a good opportunity for the northernmost member of the NAFTA triad to showcase its labor laws and explain why they are crucial to defending worker rights and raising wages.

Getting language protecting workers’ union rights into NAFTA is not enough, however. The trade deal must also contain penalties for countries that fail to meet the standards. This could be, for example, border adjustment taxes on exports from recalcitrant countries.

Canada’s nearly 20,000 Royal Canadian Mounted Police only recently filed papers to unionize. That occurred after the Canadian Supreme Court overturned a 1960s era federal law that barred them from organizing.

Canada’s Supreme Court said the law violated the Mounties’ freedom of association, a right guaranteed to Americans in the U.S. Constitution. Now, Canada is riding to the rescue of U.S. and Mexican workers’ freedom of association by demanding the new NAFTA include specific protections for collective bargaining.

This blog was originally published at OurFuture.org on September 8, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Leo Gerard, International President of the United Steelworkers (USW), took office in 2001 after the retirement of former president George Becker.

Judge Rips Up Union Contracts for Twinkie Makers

Monday, October 15th, 2012

A bankruptcy judge turned the screws even tighter on workers at Hostess Brands last week, giving corporate managers the right to unilaterally cut wages and benefits for the thousands of men and women who make the Twinkies, Wonder Bread and other baked goods that have made the company famous.

Judge Robert Drain of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in White Plains, N.Y., handed down his sentence against the workers on October 4. His action was intended to force other unions to follow the lead of the Teamsters union, which reluctantly acquiesced to draconian contract cuts at Hostess last month.

The decision endangers the livelihoods of thousands of workers at Hostess, including about 5,000 members of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM), some 200 members of the International Association of Machinists (IAM), and smaller groups of workers represented by four other unions.

BCTGM members are being indirectly punished for a rank-and-file vote last month in which they rejected a draconian contract offer that would eliminate jobs, cut wages, slash benefits and end pensions. BCTGM President Frank Hurt announced in mid-September that 92 percent of union members had voted against the offer in local union meetings held across the country.

“Our members reviewed the analysis of this company’s business plan provided by a highly respected financial analyst retained by the company which showed the plan had little or no chance of succeeding in saving the business but would provide the investors with a windfall. Our members know that this is a company that is controlled by Wall Street private equity and hedge fund firms, whose sole objective is to maximize their own returns, not rebuild the company for the long haul,” Hurt stated.

Hurt’s statement reiterated alarms he has been raising for months that the Hostess bankruptcy is a sham. Rather than a serious effort to repair the company’s crippled finances, the plan is nothing more than an a scheme to crush the unions, shed millions in pension debt, and then sell off the company to new owners, Hurt charges.

Key to such a plan will be whether Judge Drain agrees to release Hostess from more than $100 million in debts owed to a long list of pension plans, especially the plans for members of BCTGM locals and units of the Teamsters. With about 7,500 members at Hostess, the Teamsters are the company’s largest single union, closely followed by BCTGM. (Hostess said it had a total of 18,500 union and non-union employees at the time it filed for bankruptcy, but that number appears to have dropped since then.)

The company’s corporate managers succeeded in getting the Teamsters to agree to concessions, including pension cuts. On September 14, a rank-and-file vote approved a new contract for Teamster workers that was very similar to the one rejected by BCTGM. Posed as a choice between accepting a terrible contract or losing their jobs entirely, Teamster members voted 2,357 to 2,043 to accept the new contract, according to a statement from union headquarters.

Under that contract, 10 to 15 percent of Teamster jobs will be eliminated, all wages will be cut by 8 percent, health care costs to workers will rise sharply, and no further pension contributions will be made until at least 2015. The terms do not require Hostess to resume pension contributions in 2015, but if it does so (at lower rates), it will be forgiven its current debts. Terms of the agreement were laid in detail to union members in a 45-minute video released by Teamster leaders.

In several decisions this spring, Judge Drain assisted Hostess in forcing the contract down the throats of Teamster workers. He supported company claims that only dramatic cuts in labor costs could avert the total dissolution of Hostess. He had ruled against BTCGM on the contract issue earlier on May 4, and his continued admonitions to the unions to negotiate with Hostess were correctly interpreted as threats to destroy existing contracts.

Last week he extended his decision against BTCGM to force concession on five other unions that represent smaller groups of  workers at Hostess:  Machinits; Glass, Molders, Pottery, Plastics & Allied Workers; Firemen & Oilers (a unit of the Service Employees International Union); International Union of Operating Engineers; and Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners.

As of this week Hostess managers had not yet implemented the new Teamster contract–or any of the forced cuts authorized by Judge Drain at BCTGM and elsewhere. Implementation is expected within the next 45 days, one Teamster official told Working In These Times, when the company intends to enact cuts at all the unions at the same time. Cuts for non-union workers are also to take place then, he said.

According to Hostess CEO Gregory Rayburn, the possibility of a BCTGM strike is now plainly on the table.

In a public letter to employees on October 4, Rayburn noted that Judge Drain had no authority to prevent a strike by BCTGM members. Rayburn nevertheless included a partial statement from the judge that seemed to urge BCTGM members to accept the company’s new terms in hopes of saving the company.

By relying on the remarks of Judge Drain, Rayburn implicitly conceded a charge made by BCTGM’s Hurt–that the Hostess CEO’s own credibility among the workers and union leaders has been shredded just as completely as the old collective bargaining agreements.

This post originally appeared in Working In These Times on October 10, 2012.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

PTSD Counselors Forced To Attend Anti-Union Meetings on Troubled Army Base

Friday, October 12th, 2012

In 2010, the military newspaper Stars and Stripes labeled Fort Lewis-McChord, a joint Army and Air Force base in Washington state, “the most troubled base in the military” due to its inability to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or address mental health problems. Fort Lewis-McChord has one of the highest suicide rates of army bases across the country, and last year had the highest number of total suicides with 16. It was where Sergeant Robert Bales was stationed right before he was shipped to Afghanistan and massacred 16 Afghan civilians–including nine children–last March. And it was where the soldiers who formed a “kill team” that murdered civilians in Afghanistan in 2010 had previously been stationed.

The murders of Afghan civilians and high rates of suicide among the soldiers stationed there are believed to stem from the failure of Lewis-McChord’s doctors to adequately treat mental health problems. In the past five years, approximately 300 soldiers saw their PTSD diagnoses reversed by doctors at the base. The Army is currently investigating whether doctors at Lewis-McChord reversed the diagnoses in order to save money.

Now, a Working In These Times investigation has found that workers assigned to help families suffering from the effects of PTSD have been told to close cases on suicidal patients in order to save money, haven’t been paid on time and have been forced to attend anti-union meetings that they claim the contractor, Strategic Resources Inc. (SRI), has billed to the federal government, in violation of federal law. (In July, an In These Times expose on union busting at Fort Lewis-McChord spurred a federal investigation into whether General Dynamics was illegally using government dollars to engage in union-busting.)

Kevin Cummings, an organizer with the International Association of Machinists (IAM), has been attempting to unionize mental health counselors employed by SRI at Lewis-McChord for the past several months. Counselors at the base tell Working In These Times they often have been told to close cases early in order to save money and to lie to federal investigators about how much the contractor was reimbursing them for driving expenditures. They also report being met with illegal threats and intimidation when they tried to unionize.

“[SRI] had no idea really what victim advocates do,” says Kara Karlson, a former counselor with SRI’s Victim Advocacy group. “It’s just completely about money-making. When we were hired on, they didn’t send us any training materials. I got a company handbook that was only eight pages long. They would do whatever they could to save a penny for themselves and hang you out to dry.”

“There was a lot of pressure to close cases quickly even if we didn’t feel like we should close them,” says another counselor who works in SRI’s New Parents Support Program, and who requested anonymity out of fear of being fired. “I had a friend who was working with a family that had a suicidal teenager and was told to back away from the family. She refused to back away. They wanted other services to take on the risk of dealing with someone who is suicidal.”

“[Workers] are directed to keep a certain number of cases open and keep a certain number of cases closed,” says IAM’s Cummings. “The lead will tell them, ‘You have too many cases open, close that one.’ They are telling them to close cases on people on suicide watch. If [SRI] need [to hire] additional bodies, they need to get them. Maybe the contract needs to be opened to help them hire additional people.”

In addition to finding it difficult to provide proper treatment, counselors in SRI’s New Parent Support Program and its Victim Advocacy Group say their pay was cut by as much as 25 percent when SRI took over their contract three years ago.

Most federal contractors must abide by the Service Contract Act, which mandates that workers be paid the prevailing wage for the job in the region. However, workers at SRI, many of whom have master’s degrees, allege the company misclassified them as less skilled employees. As a result, they make only $27.50 per hour, instead of the $36.05 per hour that would be mandated under the Service Contract Act’s provisions if they were classified properly. The workers hope that if the Department of Labor reviews their contract, it will find that their work falls under the better-paying classification.

In addition, SRI has refused to pay workers overtime, claiming that they are exempt under the Fair Labor Standards Act, according to Cummings. However, he says that isn’t actually the case.

“Read the act,” Cummings says. “It says they are not exempt if their work is preventive or investigatory in nature. The VA [Victim Advocates] Group absolutely meets those criteria, [and] the NPSP [New Parents Support Program] seems to as well. NPSP has to provide me a full breakdown of their duties, but the job description and service contract for them indicate they should not be exempt either.”

Workers at SRI say that to keep them from joining together to demand higher wages, the company instituted a rule prohibiting them from talking to each other about their wages. Such a rule would violate the National Labor Relations Act, which allows workers to discuss their wages.

Along with the low pay and unpaid overtime, workers claim the company routinely delays compensating them for the gas mileage that they accrue when driving to meet families in crisis or victims of crime or abuse. “We would spend $250 a month on gas sometimes and have to wait up to five months to get paid,“ says one worker with New Parent Support Program, who requested anonymity out of fear of losing her job.

When workers informed the Department of Labor about the delays, the department sent an investigator to examine the complaints. That prompted an SRI manager to tell workers to lie about their gas mileage, according to one worker. The worker cites a May 12, 2012, conference call in which the manager instructed workers to redo their forms and change key information, such as the number of miles that they had driven.

Finally, after seeing another group of SRI workers employed as IAM-unionized truck drivers picket Fort Lewis-McChord over their greivances, counselors in SRI’s New Parent Support Program and Victim Advocacy Group decided to organize with IAM. SRI responded with behavior that the union claims was illegal.

According to email exchanges and conversations with the workers, in July, the nine women employed as counselors in SRI’s Victim Advocacy Group say they were forced to attend a meeting in which an outside consultant warned them about the dangers of joining a union. In August, 14 counselors with the New Parent Support Program were also forced to attend meetings in which the same consultant spoke out against unionizing.

In both instances, workers claim they were forced to bill the time attending the meetings to the federal government. President Barack Obama’s Executive Order 13494, which went into effect last December, prohibits federal contractors from being reimbursed for the cost of their anti-union activity. (In an interesting side note, SRI Presdient Rose McElrath- Slade and her husband Cleveland Slade were major donors to Obama, giving a combined $100,000 to his inauguration fund in 2008.)

“The workers were mandated to attend the meetings, then directed to charge as though they were working on their normal jobs,” says Cummings. “Our money is not supposed to be used for this. Our money is supposed to support our rights, not deny them.”

The command of Fort Lewis-McChord did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In an email to Working In These Times, an SRI spokesperson wrote, “Your inquiry is the first we have heard of this. SRI strives to comply with all applicable laws/regulations and to honor our commitments to our customer, the federal government. We have different levels of review for timesheets for accuracy. Any error identified is corrected to ensure compliance.”

On July 31, the nine counselors of SRI’s Victim Advocacy Group voted to join IAM. The 14 in the New Parent Support Program are still in unionization talks with IAM, despite being forced to attend the anti-union meetings that they claim were billed as regular work to the federal government.

“There is a problem when they are using taxpayer money to deny taxpayers their basic rights,” says Cummings. “If they want to talk their employees out of unionization, that’s fine, but don’t send taxpayers the bills on it.”

This post originally appeared in Working In These Times on October 3, 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.

Welcome to the culture war against teachers, coming to a theater near you

Thursday, October 4th, 2012

The campaign against teachers is special, and worth paying attention to. It’s not like workers in general get much respect in our culture, at least not beyond vague lip service that only ever applies to the individual, powerless worker not asking for anything. And janitors, hotel housekeepers, cashiers, and a host of others could fill books with the daily substance of working in low-status professions, I’m sure. But right now, teachers are the subject of a campaign heavily funded and driven from the top down to take a profession that has long been respected by the public at large and make the people in the profession villains and pariahs, en route to undercutting the prestige, the decision-making ability, the working conditions, and, of course, the wages and benefits of the profession as a whole. What we’re watching right now is a specific front in the war on workers, and one with immense reach through our culture—and coming soon to a movie theater near you if it’s not already there, in the form of the poorly reviewed parent trigger drama Won’t Back Down.

(That it’s a war not just on teachers but on the workers of the future and on the government just sweetens the pot for many of the people waging the war.)

Teachers face a catch-22. Those in poor districts are expected to be superhuman, to by themselves counteract the effects of poverty—even though we know that while teachers are the most important factor in educational achievement inside the school, factors outside the school, like poverty, are far more important. But while teachers of poor students are supposed to be superhuman, teachers of well-to-do students are frequently treated by doctor and lawyer parents as idiot failures, teaching because they can’t be doctors or lawyers. Policy and funding decisions are used against teachers in poor districts; the condescension of parents serves the same purpose in wealthier ones. But in both cases the professionalism of teachers is undermined.

I’ve written a lot about how corporate education policy targets teachers (and the concept of education as a public good that should be available to all kids). But this upper-middle-class condescension toward teachers is a potent weapon in that campaign against teachers and education. One of the foundations of the corporate drive to “reform” education to corporate preferences is the idea that billionaires know better, that hedge fund managers and Walmart heirs and Bill Gates, by virtue of having made a lot of money, must know more than education professionals about how education should function. And that translates downward—if Bill Gates is supposed to know how schools should work in general, an engineer or executive at least gets to boss his kid’s teacher around.

For instance, Adam Kirk Edgerton explains that he quit teaching because:

[…] I was tired of feeling powerless. Tired of watching would-be professionals treated as children, infantilized into silence. Tired of the machine that turns art into artifice for the sake of test scores. Tired of being belittled, disrespected and looked down upon by lawyers, politicians, and decision-makers who see teaching as the province of provincials, the work of housewives that can be done by anyone. […]

The prestige problem is, ironically, the worst in some of our “highest-performing” schools. In suburbia, teachers deal with the open disrespect of the upper-and-middle-class parent. I’m talking about those parents who fight for every letter grade, who teach their children to teach the teacher a lesson, and who regard teachers as merely obstacles on the way to an Ivy League admission. I was often amazed by the outrageous lies some parents would tell to get an extension on their child’s assignment.

Similarly, Corey Robin describes how, growing up in an affluent New York suburb with fantastic schools, teachers were nonetheless held in contempt by parents and students alike. “It’s odd,” he writes. “Even if you’re the most toolish striver—i.e., many of the people I grew up with—teachers are your ticket to the Ivy League.” Yet:

Every year there’d be a fight in the town over the school budget, and every year a vocal contingent would scream that the town was wasting money (and raising needless taxes) on its schools. Especially on the teachers (I never heard anyone criticize the sports teams). People hate paying taxes for any number of reasons—though financial hardship, in this case, was hardly one of them—but there was a special pique reserved for what the taxes were mostly going to: the teachers.

In my childhood world, grown ups basically saw teachers as failures and fuck-ups. “Those who can’t do, teach” goes the old saw. But where that traditionally bespoke a suspicion of fancy ideas that didn’t produce anything concrete, in my fancy suburb, it meant something else. Teachers had opted out of the capitalist game; they weren’t in this world for money. There could be only one reason for that: they were losers. They were dimwitted, unambitious, complacent, unimaginative, and risk-averse. They were middle class.

So it’s not uncommon to read—or to hear in conversation—views like that of Bridget Williams, the ex-wife of the executive director of “Democrats for Education Reform,” who describes parents’ efforts to get their kids the teachers they wanted, writing that “Even in the best schools, we still knew we had clunkers to contend with. This is a direct result of the stranglehold unions have over hiring and firing and tenure.” Except that it’s not. Teachers in union and non-union states are fired at basically identical rates after they get tenure or pass a probationary period, and at least some union states are far more likely than non-union states to fire teachers before they ever get tenure. Yet the idea persists that if unions weren’t standing in the way, every teacher would be outstanding. (Have you ever seen a workplace in which every single person was outstanding?) Add to this that states with binding teacher contracts (i.e. unions) have better educational outcomes than states without binding teacher contracts or unions, and the whole “teachers unions are what stands in the way of my kids getting a good education” thing starts looking like what it really is: anti-unionism and contempt for teachers as professionals, a desire as, in Williams’s words, “a white, educated, savvy, aggressive (some might use another word), ‘~4 percenter’ in a good neighborhood” to show that you’re the boss of teachers, most of whom aren’t even 20 percenters.

That’s the impulse the new movie Won’t Back Down, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, hopes to exploit by cloaking it in the story of a working-class mother working with a teacher against the teachers union. Funded by Republican billionaire (and owner of the Weekly Standard) Philip Anschutz, who also funded the anti-teachers union documentary Waiting for Superman, the movie is, happily, drawing terrible reviews, many of which comment directly on its political mission. A Minneapolis Star-Tribune reviewer, for instance, writes:

“Won’t Back Down” is to school reform what “Reefer Madness” is to drug policy. The difference is that it features the best acting talent money can buy, with Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis as a fed-up parent and an idealistic educator who take control of their failing Pittsburgh grade school and transform it.

They play the heartstrings like Yo-Yo Ma in service of a story that is emotionally manipulative, dramatically crude, factually challenged hero/villain hokum. That describes about 81 percent of all movies, but when a film’s goal is to move public policy, it’s worth commenting on.

Won’t Back Down promotes “parent trigger” laws. Parent trigger laws are supposedly a mechanism for greater parental control, in which parents can join together to drastically overhaul a school they see as failing.

But Kathleen Oropeza, co-founder of the Florida parents’ group Fund Education Now, warns that reality is very different: “The parent trigger uses a parent’s love for their child to pull the trigger and pass a public entity, a school, into the hands of a for-profit charter.” Trigger is among the model bills pushed by the now-notorious American Legislative Exchange Council. While individual laws vary, critics warn that they offer a back door for private (sometimes for-profit) companies to drum up signatures (sometimes dishonestly), bust unions and sideline school boards. “Sure,” says Oropeza, “parents can pull the trigger, but they lose all control from that point.”

Oropeza’s group helped defeat a parent trigger law in Florida, where “Not a single major Florida parent organization supported the bill, including the PTA,” with many opposing it, believing that it “would lead to the takeover of public schools by for-profit charter management companies and other corporate interests.”

But parent trigger laws are just one piece of the broader message that teachers unions, and the teachers they’re composed of, are the problem. The broader, deeper message is that teachers are simultaneously the most important thing in the school yet entirely interchangeable, that a good teacher or a bad teacher determines the course of a child’s life yet teachers shouldn’t be paid as much as other equivalently educated people, that teachers are solely responsible for educational outcomes yet what they do and how they do it should be determined by tech billionaires and any parent with an opinion. Every move in this war on teachers that appears to say they’re important lays the groundwork to undermine teachers as autonomous professionals, and it all builds on the liminal class position of teachers, poised as intermediaries between poor people and middle-class people or middle-class people and rich people, as well as on the fact that teaching has traditionally been a profession dominated by women.

People still actually respect teachers, when you ask them. They think their own kids’ teachers are pretty good. That’s a big part of the reason the war on teachers pretends to value teachers and to just be going after their unions—as if unions are not made up of teachers but are some foreign entity. But make no mistake, the goal here is to undermine teachers themselves as less than professional, as labor that can be gotten for cheaper and given less power. Taking away teachers’ ability to bargain collectively is a crucial step in that process.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on September 30, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos. She has a PhD in sociology from Princeton University and has taught at Dartmouth College. From 2008 to 2011, she was senior writer at Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

Trashing experience and skill is just one more weapon in the war on workers

Monday, October 1st, 2012

The role of training and experience was glaringly obvious in the National Football League’s lockout of its longtime officials. Glaringly obvious as in, the scabs the NFL brought in to replace the experienced referees were first a national laughingstock and then even more widely reviled for their errors on the field. It turns out not just anyone can officiate a professional football game. But what about other kinds of workers?

We’re told that part of the American character is to work hard and take pride in it, and that’s reflected in what we see around us. It’s not just people whose work results in big paychecks or offers the chance to climb the career ladder quickly or get public recognition, it’s a value as alive among low-wage workers as among the highest-paid. But something you hear a lot less about than the value of hard work is the value of skill. This is weird, because presumably if you’re working hard, one of the things you’re working at is getting good at what you do. If you’re taking pride in your hard work, it’s not just pride in how tired you are at the end of the day but at how well you did things, how accurate or efficient you were, how you got something right that not everyone would have gotten right.

But when there’s a labor dispute, or when Republicans are trying to undermine how voters think about other workers to set the stage for taking away pensions or collective bargaining rights, suddenly, to hear them talk, you’d never know that this was a nation that values hard work, because in those moments we’re told it’s not that hard, any idiot could do this job. It’s not that hard to referee a professional football game, so call up the guys who washed out of the Lingerie Football League. Experience is overrated for teachers, so throw people into the classroom after a few weeks’ training, they’ll do fine. More than fine! The youth and energy of the barely trained new teacher will be better than the experience of that useless old teacher. Suddenly, the drive to denigrate the workers becomes so strong that the CEO or the governor asks us, expects us, to forget the years of work that these workers have put into learning their jobs, learning how to teach or to run a snowplow or a cash register.

As the AP’s Paul J. Weber writes, “Professing expertise can also bring on suspicions of elitism and scratch an itch to knock someone down a peg”—an itch that the Roger Goodells and Scott Walkers and Mitt Romneys of the world and the generations of union-busters and racers-to-the-bottom who laid the groundwork for them will hasten to throw poison ivy onto. Hell, if you’re not itching, they’ll sneak up behind you with the poison ivy. But as Weber details, it’s not just on the football field that experience and the commitment that comes from doing a job for years matter.

— In Houston, Adrianna Vasquez makes $8.60 an hour doing what she knows people think is the world’s most replaceable job: She’s a janitor. When the 37-year-old returned in August to resume cleaning the 100 toilets on 10 floors in a downtown Chase Bank tower after a citywide janitor strike that won a 12 percent raise, Vasquez said the bathrooms cleaned by replacement crews looked like stalls in a seedy bar. “I just wanted to cry when I saw it,” she said.

— In New York, Consolidated Edison locked out 8,000 workers in July and brought in replacements from other states to work power lines and operate the grid. It ended just as severe storms hit and threatened power outages. “Not enough people that knew what they were doing,” said John Melia, a spokesman for the Local 1-2 of the Utility Workers Union of America.

Most people are willing to concede that it’s better if you have some training and experience before working with power lines, but cleaning toilets? There’s a job that gets basically no respect. But even aside from the toilet-related unpleasantness, it takes physical stamina and attention to detail. Yet among Republican politicians and at Republican think tanks, to say nothing of at big corporations trying to squeeze every last dollar of profit out of their workers to maximize that CEO bonus, the fact that janitors working for the government make a living wage and get benefits is an outrage.

Another piece of the 1 percent’s disrespect for the work of the 99 percent is disrespect for the very real training it involves. At the same time Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was trying to impose harsh new evaluation systems on his city’s teachers, for instance, the teachers had to fight for training so that they would be able to get better at what they do. But training is something workers often fight for, and it’s something that in many industries sets union workers apart—not their work ethic or their drive, but the fact that their unions have been able to bargain for training in the workplace or have put money into union-run training programs. The AFL-CIO’s Alison Omens details just a few of the union training and safety programs you might find:

Remember Captain Sully and “Miracle on the Hudson?” He was a huge safety advocate through his union, serving as the Air Line Pilots (ALPA) representative during a National Transportation Safety Board investigation and as a local air safety chairman.

How about the rebuilding of the World Trade Center? The people who are thousands of feet in the air are union members, as well as veterans. The AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department’s (BCTD‘s) training program Helmets to Hardhats works across the country to train veterans for high-skill construction projects, including at the World Trade Center. […]

The president of a Chicago-based construction company who works with union workers says this about his experience: “Here’s what [the union’s] training center means to me: We’re getting the highest caliber craftsmen in the business. It’s going toward productivity and attitude.”

But when those same workers who are, through their unions, bargaining for and investing in the best available training are in the way of corporate profit or a Republican governor looking to make his mark, they’re portrayed as greedy, lazy, corrupt, doing a job that anyone could do with a day’s notice and expecting to be able to feed their families and even go on vacation every couple years.

Forty years of the war on workers has led us to this deeply dysfunctional, contradictory place where workers and their labor are concerned. Hard work is great. If you’re not rich and you don’t work hard, brutally hard if your boss requires it, you’re a bad person who deserves poverty. If you’re not rich and you expect your hard work to be valued with pay or benefits those at the top don’t want to give, expect to see your work and experience and skill mocked as nothing. And if you’re at the top? Your wealth is justified by your hard work, supposed or real. About other people’s hard work, the only question is how cheap you can get it.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on September 30, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos. She has a PhD in sociology from Princeton University and has taught at Dartmouth College. From 2008 to 2011, she was senior writer at Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

Thousands at Fighting Bob Fest in Madison Cheer Anti-Walker Ruling

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

A throng of thousands in Madison, Wis., erupted in cheers upon learning of Dane County Circuit Court Judge’s ruling this Friday that Act 10—Gov. Scott Walker’s law aimed at stripping public employees of meaningful rights to union representation—violated state and federal constitutional protections for free speech, association and equal protection. The judge struck down provisions of Act 10 in relation to municipal and educational employees, though not state employees.

The Madison crowd was assembled this weekend for the 12-year-old, annual Fighting Bob Fest, which takes its name from the state’s legendary progressive governor Robert M. La Follette Senior. The festival marked the first major gathering of progressives in Wisconsin since the failed effort to recall Walker in June.

Walker raised the ire of labor and liberals with his 2011 plan to “drop the bomb” on public workers by crushing their unions. He privately described the move as part of a “divide-and-conquer” strategy to play off private-sector workers’ resentment against their public-sector counterparts.

Gov. Walker’s Act 10 had explosive reverberations: It triggered a six week siege of the State Capitol in Madison by crowds of at least 100,000. This spring, an exhaustive effort by progressives gathered more than one million signatures demanding a June 5 election recall—nearly matching Walker’s winning vote total in 2010. But Walker’s massive fund-raising advantage of about 7-to-1 and the enormous TV ad campaign it bought sufficed to swamp the grassroots organizing and allow the governor to hold on to office.

In the wake of the disappointing recall failure, Colas’ ruling served as a major morale booster for the Fighting Bob crowd. “The crowd love it when we announced at the start that Act 10 had been rule unconsitutional,” says Madison labor attorney and festival founder Ed Garvey.

But the ruling isn’t the last word on Act 10. The case will now go to the state’s Supreme Court, which already voted 4-3 to uphold the law earlier this year after a federal judge in March tossed out provisions clearly designed to make maintenance of union membership as burdensome as possible. The debate among state Supreme Court justices in that instance was so bitter that Justice David Prosser, Walker ally, was accused by several witnesses of choking fellow Justice Ann Walsh Bradley before the vote.

Give this, Garvey sounded a cautionary note in his Fighting Bob speech: “We all know how David Prosser is going to vote. This is a reminder of how important Supreme Court elections are to the people of Wisconsin.”

Daily Kos, too, has warned labor and progressives against excessive celebration of the Colas decision, noting the limited nature of the ruling and Gov. Walker’s determination to end the state’s 70-year tradition of public-employee rights by any means necessary.

Walker, true to form, responded to the ruling by claiming that his June 5 recall victory constituted a mandate for Act 10’s extreme limits on public-employee rights. He expressed smug certainty that the Colas ruling would be tossed out:

“Sadly a liberal activist judge in Dane County wants to go backwards and take away the lawmaking responsibilities of the legislature and the governor. We are confident that the state will ultimately prevail in the appeals process.”

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

About the Author: Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and progressive publicity consultant whose work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, Yes!, The Progressive, Multinational Monitor, The American Prospect and Foreign Policy in Focus. His e-mail address is winterbybee@gmail.com.

Bargain to Organize: From Boon to Embarrassment

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

One sign, among many, of labor’s current travails is the stalled union growth strategy known as “Bargain to Organize.”

More than a decade ago, there was no bigger buzzword in union organizing circles. When John Sweeney was elected AFL-CIO president in 1995, he encouraged affiliates to employ the tactic by pressuring unionized companies to permit uncontested organizing drives at their non-union facilities or subsidiaries.

In one model Bargain to Organize campaign that began in 2008, the 6,000 SEIU members employed by Help At Home, a for-profit home healthcare company, used their own contract negotiations in Illinois to confront management about its record of union-busting in neighboring Indiana.

Then-SEIU organizer Matt Luskin reported that after an aggressive membership mobilization campaign, Help At Home signed an agreement that not only gave raises and better benefits to Illinois workers, but also “expanded the organizing rights of thousands of workers in other states where the company operates.”

Bypassing The Board

In every industry setting, the goal of Bargain to Organize has been some combination of management neutrality, card check, and/or a “free and fair” election process that enables workers to engage in union activity without harassment, threats, intimidation or job discrimination.

One major success for the strategy came after a five-year struggle in the 1990s, when the Communications Workers for America (CWA) finally won a card check and neutrality deal that now applies to employees of AT&T Mobility. Under its terms, AT&T will recognize CWA if a majority of the workers in a pre-specified bargaining unit sign union authorization cards. The American Arbitration Association (AAA) conducts the card count and certifies the results. AT&T Mobility managers are not allowed to interfere with union organizing activity. Management is even obliged to provide CWA with employee information and workplace access that’s not required under National Labor Relations Board election rules.

This negotiated process eliminates the Board’s role in determining the scope of new bargaining units–a frequent source of representation election delays. Plus, it avoids the costly, uphill battle of an employer-contested NLRB election campaign.

Through card check, more than 40,000 AT&T cellular technicians, customer service reps and retail salespeople have gained union contract coverage. In the heyday of Bargain to Organize, similar large-scale membership gains were made by the Teamsters at UPS Freight; UNITE HERE at the Hilton Hotel chain; the SEIU and other unions at Kaiser Permanente; and, most recently, the SEIU and California Nurses Association at Hospital Corporation of America (HCA). (For more details on some of these struggles, see “A Look at Three ‘Strategic Campaigns.'”)

Fewer Deals To Be Made?

In the last several years, however, few AFL-CIO or Change To Win affiliates have made any new large-scale Bargain to Organize breakthroughs. Although some unions are still waging “leverage campaigns” to neutralize employer interference–like UNITE HERE’s crucial Las Vegas battle with the non-union Station Casino chain–existing bargaining relationships have not yielded additional protections for unrepresented employees at Verizon, General Electric and many other partially unionized firms.

Instead, unions in telecom, manufacturing, and other industries have been thrown on the defensive by management demands for contract concessions. In this climate, union proposals for organizing rights have become “throwaway demands.” The demonization and defeat of “card check” in labor’s failed 2007-10 campaign for the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) has led some unions to abandon that approach in favor of the old model of secret ballot elections (with an employer pledge that they will be “free and fair.”) However, in many tough bargaining situations, “even those modest steps are next to impossible now,” says one top union leader. “That’s why most people aren’t even trying anymore.”

Where some unions have continued to use their bargaining relationships with employers to gain or maintain membership, the results have become increasingly controversial and even legally questionable. They have revived longstanding rank-and-file concerns about unfavorable trade-offs between contract standards and growth.

What Quid Pro Quos?

Such Bargain to Organize tensions and controversies are not new. When I was working with CWA members in the 1990s at the phone company now known as Verizon, it took much education and discussion before local union activists embraced the idea of putting organizing-related demands on a par with wages, benefits, and working conditions. Even after organizing rights became a strike issue–in a 17-day walkout by 75,000 Verizon workers in 2000–some influential local officials still viewed card check and neutrality as a far-removed “national union issue.” (Many International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers strikers viewed it as just a CWA issue!)

In 2008-2010, as I reported in The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor, the costly series of disputes that enveloped SEIU, CNA, and UNITE-HERE arose partly over Bargain to Organize strategy disagreements. Then-Change to Win leaders Andy Stern and Bruce Raynor argued that “contract relief” was needed to gain an organizational foothold in healthcare, food service, and other industries. If local unions weren’t willing to partner with management and promise some degree of “labor peace,” too many nursing homes, hospital chains and catering contractors would thwart unionizing efforts.

In one problematic Stern-Raynor organizing experiment, newly recruited food service workers ended up in a nationwide “local,” Service Workers United (SWU); SWU members were covered by a “template agreement” that sometimes undercut existing local UNITE-HERE contracts with the same employers. Adding insult to injury, the affected workers belatedly discovered that top union negotiators had secretly agreed to restrict membership activity–such as informational picketing, consumer appeals, and other contract campaign tactics–that would be necessary to win future wage and benefit improvements.

Bargaining for De-cert Protection

Critics of this non-transparent, concessionary approach now cite United Healthcare Workers-West, SEIU’s third largest affiliate, as the latest practitioner of a debased form of Bargain to Organize. Instead of mobilizing its members like SEIU’s Illinois Healthcare affiliate did at Help at Home, UHW has bargained to keep its existing dues-payers from escaping to the new National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).

Earlier this year, UHW was faced with the defection of 750 workers at Seton Medical Center to NUHW. So the incumbent union made a side deal with the hospital owner, the Daughters of Charity, which consolidated five separate bargaining units into a single one covering 3,000 employees. This tentative agreement–designed to make decertification more difficult–was made contingent on subsequent union approval of pension and medical plan changes.

When these proposed givebacks were revealed in late April, Daughters of Charity workers discovered that they will now have a 401(k) account rather than be covered by a defined benefit pension plan; they will pay 25 percent of the monthly premiums for previously free PPO medical coverage; their out-of-pocket costs for medical plan utilization (doctor visits, prescriptions, etc.) will double; and workers who fail to meet various “Wellness Program” standards for personal healthiness will pay 20 percent more for the cost of their insurance premiums.

To get these concessions approved, UHW conducted a rushed two-day ratification vote that began less than 12 hours after a settlement was announced. (The SEIU constitution requires 3-days advance notice of such votes; workers at Daughters of Charity got only nine hours.) According to workers who complained to SEIU president Mary Kay Henry, UHW reps refused to provide them with copies of the tentative agreement. Disgruntled Daughters of Charity workers continue to organize for NUHW and expect an NLRB re-run of the election they narrowly lost at Seton Medical Center in March.

Employee Free Choice?

At Chapman Hospital, a non-union hospital in southern California, UHW/SEIU engaged in organizing misconduct that publicly discredits the very concept of card check–playing into the hands of the rightwing, corporate opponents of Employee Free Choice Act. UHW announced last winter that 220 workers had formed a new bargaining unit after a card-check process agreed to by management. In June, however, the NLRB issued an unfair labor practice complaint against Chapman and UHW, charging that the hospital had recognized the union without real majority support. To avoid a hearing, both parties signed a settlement earlier this month that removed UHW/SEIU as the bargaining representative of the hospital workers.

In Kentucky, the NLRB has also cracked down on a similar example of company-union collusion. On August 1, the Board asked a federal court to issue a rare 10(j) injunction against the UAW and Voith Industrial Services, a contractor hired by Ford in February to transport newly assembled SUVs from its Louisville assembly plant. This car haul work was previously performed by 160 members of Teamsters Local 89 employed by Jack Cooper Transport, a signatory to the IBT’s national auto transport contract. According to the NLRB, almost all of these experienced, $20-an-hour Teamster drivers were replaced when Ford brought in Voith instead. Voith’s replacement workforce (paid $11 per hour) then came under an inferior contract, pre-arranged with the UAW, per a similar deal involving Ford and Voith in Michigan last year. Recognition of the UAW was granted before most new drivers were even hired.

“We believe this is an unlawful collective bargaining relationship,” NLRB regional director Gary Muffley told the Louisville Courier Journal on August 11. The NLRB is seeking an order that would reinstate the displaced drivers and restore the Teamster bargaining relationship that’s been in place since 1962.

Bargain to Organize’s bottom fishing, like the UHW’s card check sham at Chapman or the UAW’s undercutting of the IBT in car-haul, may add to “union density” on paper but it’s not going to boost workers’ power or help anyone make contract gains. Likewise, the challenge of persuading union members that they have stake in union growth strategies only gets more difficult when concession bargaining becomes a way of slamming the door on employee free choice between competing unions.

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on August 21, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Steve Early is author of Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home, is a labor journalist and lawyer who has written for numerous publications. He was a Boston-based international representative or organizer for the Communications Workers of America for 27 years, and is a member of the editorial advisory committees of three independent labor publications: Labor Notes, New Labor Forum and Working USA.

Union-Haters Want to Make Public Employees Public Enemies

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

bill-londrigan1Since the November elections attacks on public employees and their unions have exploded.  Everywhere you turn you read of attacks on public sector workers, from teachers to janitors, firefighters to administrators.  Wealthy right-wing corporations and their political pawns and media enablers have tried to make public employees into public enemies.

Even in union-dense states like California, Michigan, New York, New Jersey and Ohio, public employees and their unions are suddenly in the crosshairs of right-wingers hell-bent on starving state budgets along with public employees and their unions.  Attacks on public employees and their unions are nothing new.  For decades public employees have been scapegoats for right-wing government haters who have accused them of doing nothing while falsely claiming that they make considerably more money than their private sector counterparts.

To fully appreciate the significance of the present attack on public employee unions it must be considered in the context of the four decade war being waged by corporate America against the American labor movement.  Over the past forty-plus years corporations and their political pawns have systematically attacked unions in each economic sector having significant density as well as political and economic power.  In the late 1960s large corporations, working in concert, decided the time was right to wage a serious, well-organized and well-financed war on the American labor movement.  The era of cooperation, conciliation and collective bargaining of the 1940s, 1950s and part of the 1960s was tossed on the proverbial ash heap of history.

We can look back and see the carnage that the corporate war on workers and their unions has wrought: a decline in wages, benefits, unions and jobs–while corporations and the wealthiest one-percent have amassed the largest concentrations of wealth in history.

It may come as a surprise to many that the current assault on public employee unions has its roots in the late 1960s when a deliberate, well-organized and financed effort by 200 of America’s largest corporations to destroy the building trades unions got underway.  With the organization of the Construction Users’ Anti-Inflation Roundtable, chaired by U.S. Steel’s Roger Blough, the largest U.S. industrial corporations dependent upon the skilled union trades organized around the desire to have their projects built and maintained without having to pay union wages and benefits.  The “Roundtable” commissioned a series of studies designed to provide cover for their efforts to undermine the building trades unions and began giving unwarranted competitive advantages to nonunion contractors.

This original “Roundtable” later merged with another corporate backed anti-labor organization known as the Labor Law Study Committee to form the Business Roundtable.  Of the many schemes hatched by the Business Roundtable was the conspiracy to award billions of dollars of industrial construction work to the largest nonunion contractors in the nation.  To make this a reality they helped establish the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) as the counterpoint to the well organized labor/management committees among the union sector of the construction industry.  The ABC became the mechanism for challenging the supremacy of union construction in every market in the nation and one of the most vehemently anti-union organizations in the nation.

In May 1979, J.C. Turner, President of the International Union of Operating Engineers, made the following observations:

“It has become apparent that a systematic and well planned campaign is being conducted to totally destroy the building trades… the current attack is the result of a decade of planning and groundwork by the Business Roundtable acting in concert with regional and local construction user associations, the contractor associations, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, pro-business academic institutions and their allies in government… Our real enemy is clearly these large industrial concerns, organized as the Business Roundtable, who are using the contractors and their associations as soldiers in the battle.  Their purpose is to put the lid on costs by pressuring their construction contractors to slash wages… The Business Roundtable represents a threat not just to the building trades unions but to the trade union movement as a whole… If corporate America can weaken the hard-won gains of this country’s construction unions, the ultimate target will be the entire trade union movement…”

Double-breasting, where union contractors establish so-called alter ego nonunion firms to compete with and undermine their own union companies became rampant. The federal government purposefully failed to enforce federal prevailing wage and workplace safety laws.   Legal restrictions, such as repeal of common situs picketing further restricted building trades’ efforts to maintain or expand market share and membership.

While the corporate assault on the building trades unions was in full swing, it gained a powerful ally when Ronald Reagan became President on January 20, 1981.  Following his election Reagan wasted no time and quickly met with the president of the ABC and signaled his strong support for the war on the building trades unions.

Reagan’s alliance with the Business Roundtable and the ABC was certainly not his only contribution to union busting.  On August 5, 1981, in the single most infamous act of anti-unionism in memory Reagan fired striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO).

PATCO was a good target for Reagan since PATCO was a “professional” organization and was not affiliated with the AFL-CIO.  Lacking critical relationships necessary for support and solidarity in times of crisis it was unlikely that the rest of the labor movement would rise up and defend this small, professional, independent organization that may have made a grave tactical error by calling a prohibited work stoppage.  PATCO had endorsed and supported Reagan in his campaign for president, adding to its outsider identity and alienation from the rest of the labor movement.

It is universally agreed that by firing and decertifying PATCO, Reagan signaled to employers that his administration would be complicit in the corporate war on workers and their unions.  Reagan’s actions were just the opposite of what FDR had accomplished for unions when he declared, “If I went to work in a factory the first thing I’d do is join a union.”  FDR, through his words, deeds and legislation did more to spur the growth of unions in America than any single political leader in history.  Reagan’s actions accomplished just the opposite and began an era of union busting in which high paid consultants used every legal and illegal trick in the books, with the assistance and cooperation of the Reagan NLRB and DOL, to harass unions and thwart organizing at every turn.

Reagan’s action ushered in an era in which the use of permanent striker replacements became the norm, effectively nullifying labor’s most powerful weapon – the strike.  In disputes where workers engaged in work stoppages to pressure employers into negotiating reasonable terms and conditions, employers emboldened and encouraged by Reagan’s treatment of PATCO, simply hired permanent striker replacements and eliminated the persuasive impact of work stoppages as a means of pressuring employers to bargain in good faith.

The extent to which the use of permanent replacements became the favored method to undermine the effect of strikes is borne out by the fact that strikes have become virtually non-existent and are no longer considered a very useful weapon.  The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2009 (the latest year available) the number of work stoppages reached it lowest level since 1947, when they first began collecting data on work stoppages.

With the building trades unions on the defensive, PATCO busted and the use of permanent striker replacements widespread, the next major assault on organized labor focused on industrial unions like the United Auto Workers, United Steel Workers, Machinists, IUE, etc.  It came in the form of so-called free trade agreements like NAFTA and provided employers with another mechanism to undermine unions by placing American workers directly in competition with much lower paid workers in other countries.  With unionized workers in industries like auto, steel and aerospace making the highest wages and benefits they became primary targets of employers wanting to lower labor costs and the most vulnerable to foreign outsourcing.

Under not-so-free-trade agreements corporations can simply close down factories and move them to Mexico, India, China or wherever.  Corporations pay little or no tariffs on the products they export back to the U.S.  On top of that they can get tax breaks for moving good-paying union jobs to foreign countries.  What a great deal!  Also, foreign corporations that agree to operate non-union factories in America, like large auto assembly plants, receive huge tax breaks, incentives and other competitive advantages over the unionized domestic producers and you get the same result–workers pitted against each other between unionized and non-union employers.

Not-so-free-trade-agreements, which facilitate the movement of factories to foreign countries, are an extension of the old “runaway shop” used by corporations for more than a century to run away from union shops in the heavy unionized industrial northeast and Midwest.  Prior to the not-so-free-trade agreement era corporations ran away to southern states where adherence to Jim Crow, right-to-work-for-less and other traditions kept unions from expanding and gaining political and economic power.

Not-so-free-trade can be thought of as the runaway shop on steroids and has become an effective and widespread tool for getting rid of American unions and cowing those that remain.  Corporations don’t really have to get their hands dirty either.  They really don’t have to hire high priced union busting attorneys.  They really don’t have to deal with the NLRB or DOL.  All they have to do is close the plant and move it to a foreign country where unions are weak, compliant or nonexistent and cooperative governments keep workers in line and union power to a minimum.  Not-so-free-trade agreements have wiped out millions of good-paying American manufacturing jobs–a disproportionate number of these union jobs.

Now it is the public sector unions that are in the crosshairs of anti-union politicians and their corporate bosses.  Given the history of anti-unionism in America over the past forty years it should come as no surprise they are now the target of large scale coordinated union busting.  Just as the building trades and industrial unions have been targeted for destruction, public employees are now facing a gauntlet of anti-unionism aimed squarely at them.  With more public sector employees belonging to unions than those in the private sector (7.9 million v. 7.4 million) and union membership rates for public sector workers substantially higher than the rate for private industry workers (37.4% v. 7.2%) it should come as no surprise that public sector unions are now the primary targets in the corporate war on workers and their unions.

The preceding condensed version of the last forty years of the corporate war on America’s workers and their unions brings to mind one of the most moving and incisive quotations over the consequences of being divided against a common enemy.  It is from Pastor Martin Niemoller (1892-1984) referring to the rise of Nazi power in Germany and the complicity of those who failed to act to prevent the spread of the Nazi plague:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me –
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Using Pastor Niemoller’s words as a template and with profound respect, I would submit the following requiem for American workers for their complicity in or ignorance of the corporate war on America’s workers and their unions:

Requiem for The American Worker First they attacked the building trades unions,
and I did not speak out –
because I was not a member of the building trades;

Then they fired the air traffic controllers,
and I did not speak out –
because I was not an air traffic controller;

Then they shipped millions of union manufacturing jobs overseas,
and I did not speak out –
because I did not work in a union shop;

Then they vilified and attacked public sector unions,
and I did not speak out –
because I was not a member of a public employee union;

Then I needed a union –
and there were none left to speak out for me.

*This post originally appeared in Union Review on January 26, 2010.

About the Author: Bill Londrigan is President of the Kentucky State AFL-CIO.

As Chamber Lobbies, Its Paid Expert Says: No Unions, No Minimum Wage Law Needed

Friday, June 5th, 2009

This week, the Chamber of Commerce launches its most forceful lobbying effort yet to kill the Employee Free Choice Act and to end talk of compromise on Capitol Hill.

The Chamber is donning the masquerade of championing workers’ rights by railing over the myth that the bill would take away the secret ballot — it actually just gives workers the choice of whether to select a union through majority sign-up or “card check.” The business coalition, also working through such front groups as the Alliance to Save Main Street Jobs, promotes bogus claims that it would cost the economy jobs.

But now the real truth behind the hostility of the Chamber of Commerce and other major business groups to unions has been revealed by one its most admired experts, prolific University of Chicago libertarian law professor Richard Epstein, whose Big Business-funded research has been touted as the definitive critique of the Employee Free Choice Act.

His arguments against the arbitration provision of the legislation that aims to end employer stalling in bargaining has also persuaded such iconoclastic liberal bloggers as Slate’s Mickey Kaus ( full disclosure: he’s a former editor of mine whom I admire although I don’t always agree with him).

Yet in a new In These Times article, “Shilling on the Corporate Dollar,” Epstein confirmed to me his earlier writings that the country would be better off without labor unions, labor protection laws or the minimum wage law. “I’m unrepenant,” he says, while also conceding that his corporate funders asked him to omit some of his earlier arguments against labor laws as potentially political damaging.

They had good reason to be worried that his radical views could discredit their claims that these corporate leaders somehow care about protecting workers’ rights. One of his harshest critics, David Brody, a professor emeritus of labor history at Berkeley, observes, “I’m amazed the business side is using him. He thinks collective bargaining itself is a bad thing, while they claim to be defending the sanctity of the secret ballot.”

At the heart of much of Eptstein’s current theoretical attacks on the bill is his longstanding libertarian view of employer and employee relations as achieving a perfect balance because of market forces. That makes him the labor market equivalent of Candide’s Dr. Pangloss: if employers could just be left alone, all things work for the best in this best of all possible worlds. If there were no minimum wage laws, for instance, Epstein told me, “Wages would go up because productivity gains would offset any short-term losses [to workers].” And Epstein’s ivory-tower “at will” world view is still on display in his new Hoover Institution paper: “To be sure, some firms do not have enlightened managers. But in a competitive market, the firm that does not do right by its employees will not attract or retain the most productive workers.”

But while this and other anti-union assertions may sound reasonable to a tenured professor like Epstein, it simply doesn’t take into account the real world of employment — and the justifiable fear of being fired. For instance, David Madland, a labor expert at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, notes, “What really discredits his arguments is his claim that employer intimidation isn’t a significant cause of union decline.”

Most strikingly, he doesn’t even think there ought to be workforce regulations or minimum wage laws, even for sweatshops here or abroad. As my article points out:

In the past Epstein, an extreme libertarian, has attacked minimum wage and unemployment benefits, denouncing such New Deal legislation as unconstitutional “takings” that violate the Fifth Amendment. That is no surprise. Epstein has argued that, historically, sweatshop conditions can only be ameliorated by market forces, not by laws or unions. He told In These Times: “The level of wages will be determined by the intersection of supply and demand…the escape from that system is not driven by unions, which cannot increase productivity.”

The In These Times article further debunks the statistical sophistry of the business-funded economist Anne Layne-Farrar whose claim that the bill would cost at least 600,000 jobs in its first year has gained wide currency. No doubt Chamber of Commerce lobbyists and members are citing this week that statistic and her authoritative-seeming report. But by interviewing top economists, including John DiNardo of the University of Michigan, I was able to deconstructed her oft-touted use of “regression analysis” she uses to make the claim that rising unionization rates cause unemployment:

Layne-Farrar massages the data using a complex “regression analysis” to connect the dots between card check, higher unionization rates and more unemployment, putting the loss at between 600,000 and 2.6 million new American jobs in the first year.

“That’s bullshit,” says Canadian labor economist Charlotte Yates, now the Dean of Social Sciences at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. “I don’t know of any credible economists who say [now] there is a direct correlation between unionization and the rise in unemployment.”

Even so, Layne-Farrar invokes her use of “regression analysis” as a sort of holy totem to ward off criticism of her work from other economists who cite what she says are “simplistic correlations.” These include studies showing that countries such as England, Denmark and Norway have higher unionization and lower unemployment rates than the United States. She says, “This is empirical analysis, not an opinion piece, with results based on publicly available data and using well-accepted econometric tools. You can’t rig these.”

John DiNardo, a labor economist at the University of Michigan and author of the textbook Econometrics retorts, “Just because she calls it ‘econometrics’ and ‘regression analysis’ doesn’t mean that it makes any sense.” While some earlier research had found a link between unionization and unemployment, more rigorous, recent research in Europe and the United States has found no connection between unionization and unemployment. In fact, Layne-Farrar’s study concocts a negative jobs impact from unionization that is 200 to 300 percent higher than even the most critical anti-union research.

No matter that her and Epstein’s findings are built on flimsy data and extremist views. This week, they’ll be no doubt marshalled to convince Senators to back away from the Employee Free Choice Act.

As The Hill reported:

According to a schedule obtained by The Hill, executives are visiting Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) [this] Wednesday as part of a lobbying push against the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), legislation that would make union organizing much easier if passed. Business leaders from 12 different states, organized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are flying into Washington next week to lobby against the bill.

Feinstein has emerged as a key voice on the legislation. At first, her support for EFCA wavered since she is not a co-sponsor of the bill this Congress, unlike two years ago when she also voted for cloture on the bill. But now, Feinstein has floated a compromise for one of the bill’s provisions to help garner support from Senate centrists who are worried about angering the business community by voting for the bill…

Along with Feinstein, business leaders are also scheduled to meet with Sens. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) — centrists who could decide the fate of EFCA. They both co-sponsored the bill last Congress but Bayh is not doing so this year.

Union officials have been somewhat open to changes in the bill but business groups have lobbied against any compromise, saying the legislation would hurt industry revenue by leading to more strikes and work stoppages. They have hammered Feinstein’s proposal [to allow mail-in ballots instead of majority sign-up or “card check”] because they believe it would still lead to intimidation of workers by union organizers.

Of course, the intimidation canard has been challenged by the most rigorous research on the issue, including a new study that found not a single incident of union intimidation in public sector jobs where majority sign-up is permitted.

Yet despite what solid research says, it’s not at all clear that conservative opponents of the legislation will let facts stand in their way. As I concluded in my piece on the two top anti-union scholars:

While Epstein’s more radical views are left off the table, his intellectual firepower adds to the impact of his arguments against EFCA. Both Epstein and Layne-Farrar see an idealized world waiting to be born where unions don’t exist, and where workers and businesses thrive without them.

The question remains, will Washington politicians still listen to business interests that use these researchers’ dubious claims to argue, as Epstein does: “Unions are a bad deal for most workers.”

About the Author: Art Levine is a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly who has also written for The American Prospect, Alternet, In These Times, Salon, The New Republic, The Atlantic and numerous other publications. He’s written investigative articles on unionbusting and other corporate abuses, and recently completed Cornell University’s Strategic Corporate Research summer program. He blogs regularly for Huffington Post, and co-hosts a weekly Blog Talk Radio show, “The D’Antoni and Levine Show,” every Thursday at 5:30 p.m. ET.

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post on June 2, 2009. Reprinted with permission by the Author.

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