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Why Virginia’s Open Shop Referendum Should Matter to the Entire American Labor Movement in 2016

Thursday, March 17th, 2016

The douglas williamsmost important election in Virginia this year has no candidates on the ballot.

On February 2nd, the Republican-dominated General Assembly passed the two-session threshold needed to put the open shop before the Commonwealth’s voters in November. You might be asking yourself, “Wait. I thought that Virginia was already an open-shop state?” Your inclinations would be correct: legislation barring union membership as a condition of employment was signed into law by Gov. William Tuck (a later adherent to Massive Resistance in response to Brown v. Board of Educationas a member of Congress) in 1947. As a result, Section 40.1-58 of the Code of Virginia reads:

It is hereby declared to be the public policy of Virginia that the right of persons to work shall not be denied or abridged on account of membership or nonmembership in any labor union or labor organization.

So why do this? The easy answer is that Virginia Republicans are fearful that, should the open shop meet a legal challenge in state court, Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring would not seek to defend it. The sponsor of the bill and defeated 2013 nominee for Attorney General, State Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), stated as much in the deliberations on the bill. In addition, should the Assembly find itself in pro-labor hands in the future, they could overturn the open shop with a simple majority vote. Never mind that the extreme amounts of gerrymandering in the Assembly (particularly in the House of Delegates) makes a unified Democratic state government unlikely for decades to come.

The vote this November will be the first popular referendum on the open shop since 54 percent of Oklahoma voters approved State Question 695 on September 25, 2001. In this, an opportunity presents itself to the labor movement in this country, and it is one that labor unions must take.

In the fifteen years since the Oklahoma referendum, every open-shop law has been passed through state legislatures. This, of course, advantages corporations and anti-worker conservatives as they can flood state capitols with their donations and their lobbyists at a relative distance from public scrutiny. Combined with the gerrymandering described above which ensures that an anti-worker vote will not result in the loss of an election, the deck is often stacked far too high for labor advocates to overcome. The only hope for those who live in the thirty states with a Republican legislature is the presence of a pro-labor governor and legislative procedures that require a higher threshold than a simple majority to override a veto.

West Virginia workers just found out what happens when you have the formerbut not the latter.

There are demographic reasons to feel good about this campaign: 18-34-year olds are the generation most supportive of labor unions, and Black workers have both been more supportive and more eager joiners of labor unions than their white counterparts. Virginia has been a prime destination for young people over the last couple of decades due to the economic boom occurring in Northern Virginia, and the state has always had a large number of Black residents.

But the campaign against the open shop this fall cannot rely on demographics to save it. Given the opportunity that labor unions have with this referendum, the goal should not simply be to win: it should be a realignment of the conversation surrounding the role in labor unions in Virginia’s—and America’s—political economy.

There have been many issues stemming from the precipitous decline in union density in this country. The stagnation of working people’s wages, widening inequality, and a sense of alienation and disillusionment amongst the working class can all be tied back to the decline of organized labor in the United States.

But there’s another thing that declining union membership has produced, and it is, perhaps, the greatest victory of all for capitalism: the sense that, rather than being a representative of America’s working class, unions are no different from any other interest group. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean sought to mobilize this sentiment recently in support of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign when he stated that “[Democrats] don’t go after” political donations from labor unions because “labor unions are Super-PACs that Democrats like”.

(It should be noted, of course, that the only union that has spent any significant money on Bernie Sanders’s behalf is National Nurses United. It appears that only Hillary Clinton will protect us from Big Nursing and the Caregiver-Industrial Complex.)

Part of this has been on the labor movement: too much money, time, and energy has been devoted to electing Democrats at all costs to federal office, even when they are absolutely terrible. But most of it has been a concerted effort by neoliberals in both parties to erode unions’ once formidable approval ratings by associating them with the most unsavory parts of the legislative process. How unsavory? In 2013, Gallup polled Americans on the honesty of several professions. Those who engage in lobbying, a key part of the legislative and policymaking work that any interest group engages in, were at the bottom with a six percent approval rating. By comparison, an August 2015 Gallup poll saw 58 percent of Americans approving of labor unions, with 37 percent believing that they should have more influence.

By making labor unions a creature of politics, working-class Americans begin to process the information that they receive about unions the same way that they receive other forms of political information: in a partisan manner. In his 2013 book The Partisan Sort, University of Pennsylvania political science professor Matthew Levendusky states that:

[W]hen a respondent moves from unsorted to sorted, he is much more likely to move his ideological beliefs into alignment with his partisanship than the reverse, strongly suggesting that party is the key causal variable.

Therefore, when working-class Republicans think about labor unions, they are less likely to consider the fact that union members make 21 percent more than non-union members or that 29 percent more civilian workers have access to retirement plans if they are a member of a labor union. No, they are more likely to think about Democrats receiving 89 percent of the donations given out by unions in 2014. The fact that the last two Democratic presidents have supported trade deals that acted as accelerants on the continued deindustrialization of America certainly does not help matters at all.

But the labor movement has been given a golden opportunity in 2016, and it is one that should not be passed up: the opportunity to engage in the largest labor education program that this country has ever seen.

Over the next eight-and-a-half months, unions should be running ads that focus on the specifics that so many American labor ads skirt around.

  1. We can tell people that it is illegal for union dues to go towards political action at the federal level. While dues money can go towards political spending at the local and state levels, their dues mostly pay for representation, access to the industry-specific research needed to make negotiations more fruitful, and strike funds to support workers when their meeting their demands requires direct action.
  2. We can tell people about the union difference in wages, benefits, and retirement.
  3. But even more important than that, we can talk about the ways that labor unions benefit the communities in which they exist. Not just through increased spending in local businesses, but also through programs that benefit a community’s most vulnerable.

That last point is important, because it is how we will begin to develop the culture of unionism that we so desperately need in the South. It is important to ensure that the positive feeling that today’s youth have towards labor unions does not turn into anti-labor sentiment through a lifetime of one-way conversation dominated by capitalists and their PR lap dogs like Rick Berman.

But for this to be successful, all hands must be on deck. Virginia is one of a couple of states where such a measure could be defeated at the ballot box (the other, for my money anyways, being Kentucky), and it must be. Defeating this referendum must become the labor movement’s number one priority in 2016, even more so than the presidential election. In the piece I wrote about labor’s engagement in party politics, I stated:

If the labor movement must invest in politics, it would be wisest to do so at the community/local/state level. It is there, our ‘laboratories of public policy’, where the labor movement can have the most positive impact on the lives of working people.

There is no time like the present for the labor movement to take this advice to heart.

This article originally appeared on inthesetimes.com on March 3, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Douglas Williams is a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Alabama, researching the labor movement and labor policy. He blogs at The South Lawn.

What’s The Problem With “Free Trade”

Monday, March 14th, 2016
Dave Johnson

Our country’s “free trade” agreements have followed a framework of trading away our democracy and middle-class prosperity in exchange for letting the biggest corporations dominate.

There are those who say any increase in trade is good. But if you close a factory here and lay off the workers, open the factory “there” to make the same things the factory here used to make, bring those things into the country to sell in the same outlets, you have just “increased trade” because now those goods cross a border. Supporters of free trade are having a harder and harder time convincing American workers this is good for them.

“Free Trade”

Free trade is when goods and services are bought and sold between countries without tariffs, duties and quotas. The idea is that some countries “do things better” than other countries, which these days basically means they offer lower labor and environmental-protection costs. Allowing other countries to do things in ways that cost less “frees up resources” which can theoretically be used for investment at home.

Opponents of free trade ask for tariffs to “protect” local businesses, jobs, wages and the environment from being undermined by low-cost goods from countries where people and/or the environment are exploited.

Free trade is generally sold as offering lower prices to consumers. It is also sold with claims that it “opens up foreign markets” to U.S. exporters. But it also opens up U.S. markets to imports.

Does Trade Really “Open New Markets?”

“When more than 95 percent of our potential customers live outside our borders, we can’t let countries like China write the rules of the global economy.”
– President Barack Obama

“[W]hen 95 percent of the people we want to sell something to live outside of the United States, we must open foreign markets to American goods and services so we can create jobs at home.”
U.S. Chamber of Commerce

“Ninety-five percent of America’s potential customers live overseas, so closing ourselves off to trade is not a solution.”
Hillary Clinton

It is a fact that only 5 percent of the world’s population lives in the United States. The problem is that the line of argument that opening up trade “opens markets” brings with it certain misleading assumptions. It assumes first that non-U.S. markets are not already being served by local companies. Second, it ignores that free trade also opens our own markets to others. Third, it ignores that U.S. companies already can and do sell to most of the world’s markets and vice versa. (For example, U.S. companies were already moving production to Mexico before NAFTA, the North American Free-Trade Agreement.) Suggesting that alternative approaches to trade would “close us off from trading” or “wall our economy off from the world” are ridiculous, misleading arguments.

If local companies are already meeting the needs in U.S. and non-U.S. markets, what does a trade deal really enable? Trade deals indeed “open up new markets” – for giant, predatory multinational corporations. They enable large, predatory companies that have enormous economies of scale to come in and dominate those markets, putting smaller, local companies out of business. So trade deals mean the biggest multinational companies get bigger and more multinational – at the expense of all the other companies. This includes enabling non-U.S. corporations to come to the U.S. and take over markets already served by smaller companies here.

The net result of allowing goods to cross borders without protecting local businesses is a “more efficient” manufacturing/distribution system powered by the biggest and best capitalized operations. The rest go away. Economists will tell you that these increased efficiencies allow an economy to best utilize its resources. But obviously one effect of this “increased efficiency” is fewer jobs, resulting in lowered wages on all sides of trade borders.

After NAFTA, for example, smaller, more local Mexican farms were wiped out by large, efficient American agricultural corporations that were able to sell corn and other crops into Mexico for low prices. The result was a mass migration northward as desperate people could no longer find work in Mexico.

Economists say even this is good because when costs are lower the economy can apply its resources more efficiently and increased investment can put the displaced people to work in better jobs. But we can all see that in our modern economy that’s not what is going on. Investment in our economy is not increasing, partly because the resulting downward wage pressure has resulted in an economy with decreased demand. Fewer customers with money to spend is not a good environment for investment. Instead of these “freed up” resources (money) being used to provide better jobs with higher wages for everyone, they are instead being concentrated into fewer and fewer hands.

As for opening new markets for American exporters, note that the record since the ascendance of free-trade ideology in the 1970s we have seen continuing and increasing U.S. trade deficits, with imports exceeding exports, resulting in flat wage growth.

Freeing up trade does not “open new markets” as much as it enables giant, multinational corporations to become even more giant and more multinational – at the expense of smaller companies and the rest of us.

Comparative Advantage

Economists say that free trade allows us to take advantage of the “comparative advantages” offered by other countries. A comparative advantage exists when one country can do something better than another country. For example, Central and South America can grow bananas better than the U.S., and we can grow wheat better than they can. So trading wheat for bananas makes sense.

Unfortunately, economists also say that low labor and environmental-protection costs are a comparative advantage. They say it is good for U.S. companies to take advantage of countries with governments that exploit labor and the environment, because they offer lower costs for manufacturing. (Of course, the ultimate form of such a comparative advantage would be slavery.)

Here’s the thing. Buying goods from low-wage and low-environmental protection countries means not making them here anymore. “Trade” increases, but so does our country’s trade deficit as imports rise and exports fall. Factories here close, people here get laid off, wage pressures here increase and overall demand in our economy decreases.

When “thugocracies” that exploit workers and do not protect the environment are able to offer a comparative advantage over our democracy, then free trade makes democracy with its good wages and environmental protections into a comparative disadvantage.

Free Trade Undermines Democracy And Wages

“Give us a protective tariff, and we will have the greatest nation on earth.” – Abraham Lincoln.

Democracy has a short-term “cost” with a longer-term gain. In countries where people have a say, the people say they want higher wages and benefits, good infrastructure, good education, a clean environment, safety on the job, and other services. These things all lead to a prosperous economy later, as long as benefits from this system are fed back into maintaining that infrastructure, education and services. This prosperous economy made America a desirable market to sell things to.

When the country and the idea of democracy were young we “protected” this concept with tariffs, so that goods from places where labor was cheap (or free) did not undermine our democracy. Those tariffs in turn funded investment in infrastructure and other common needs that enabled productivity gains that made our goods competitive elsewhere. But generally companies here served the population here and grew and prospered along with the rest of us.

At some point elites and free-market “economists” began an effort to convince us that “free trade” is a good thing and “protectionism” is not. We used to “protect” our country’s manufacturing base from being undermined by goods from low-wage countries that don’t protect workers or the environment. Then we didn’t.

“Free trade” broke down those borders of democracy. It enabled goods from low-wage countries into the U.S. with no protective tariffs. This made the low wages and lack of environmental and worker protections in some countries into a “comparative advantage” – which meant democracy because a comparative disadvantage. We stopped “protecting” American jobs, and allowed companies to freely lay off workers and close factories here and we have seen what has happened since.

The fact is, a democracy cannot “play by the same rules” as a country that can make people live in barracks at the factory and call them out to work at midnight if an order comes it, make them stand all day, pay them very little, pollute the environment, etc. The rules should instead be that we impose a tariff on goods from such countries unless they “level the playing field” and “play by the same rules” as democracies by giving people a say, paying more and protecting the environment.

Free trade became a scam intended to get around those costs of democracy – good wages, environmental protection and other common goods – but also to use cheap foreign labor and low regulation as a wedge to drive down those costs here as well, and ultimately weakening democracy itself. Every time you hear that regulations make “us” “less competitive” etc. you are hearing an appeal for our country to become more of a low-wage, low-cost “thugocracy.”

Does Protecting Democracy Cause Trade Wars And Depressions?

Free-trade advocates claim that restoring tariffs to protect wages and democracy would start trade wars and even cause recessions and depressions. One claim they make is that tariffs helped cause the Great Depression of the 1930s. Economist Paul Krugman took on that argument in 2009’s “Protectionism and the Great Depression,” writing,

I’ve always seen this as an attempt at a Noble Lie; there’s no good reason to believe that it’s true, but it has been used to scare governments into maintaining relatively free trade.

But the truth is quite different, as a new paper by Barry Eichengreen and Doug Irwin shows. Protectionism was a result of the Depression, not a cause. Rising tariffs didn’t even play a large role in the initial trade contraction; like the spectacular trade contraction in the current crisis, the decline in trade in the early 30s was overwhelmingly the result of the overall economic implosion. Where protectionism really mattered was in preventing a recovery in trade when production recovered.

As for trade wars, economist Ian Fletcher points out in “Free Traders Can’t Name a Single Trade War“:

Trade wars are mythical. They simply do not happen.

If you google “the trade war of,” you won’t find any historical examples. There was no Austro-Korean Trade War of 1638, Panamanian-Brazilian Trade War of 1953 or any others. History is devoid of them.

[. . .] Trade wars are an invented concept, a bogeyman invented to push free trade.

The giveaway, of course, is that free traders claim both that a) trade wars are a terrible threat we must constantly worry about, and b) it’s obvious no nation can ever gain anything from having one. Think about that for minute.

Voters Finally Pushing Back

These are the reasons that voters across the country are finally pushing back against politicians selling “free trade.” Friday’s post, “‘Free Trade’: The Elites Are Selling It But The Public Is No Longer Buying” explained how Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are gaining from their opposition to free trade deals like NAFTA and the upcoming Trans-Pacific Partnership. From the post: “Voters have figured out that our country’s current ‘free trade’ policies are killing their jobs, wages, cities, regions and the country’s middle class. Giant multinational corporations and billionaires do great under free trade, the rest of us not so much.”

Free trade encourages further exploitation of workers and the environment in other countriesand here. It helps fuel calls inside of our own country for “less regulation” (fewer environmental protections), “right-to-work” laws (that break unions and lower wages) and “more competitive” tax policies (that defund democracy and our ability to provide public services) to “attract” companies back to the U.S.

It is time for Washington elites to scrap our current “free trade” negotiating model that allowed giant, multinational corporations to dictate our trade policies, and open up the process to all of the stakeholders, including labor, environmental, consumer, human rights and other groups. Then we can begin to negotiate trade policies that lift American workers along with workers across the world, while protecting the environment.

This blog originally appeared at ourfuture.org on March 13, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Dave Johnson has more than 20 years of technology industry experience. His earlier career included technical positions, including video game design at Atari and Imagic. He was a pioneer in design and development of productivity and educational applications of personal computers. More recently he helped co-found a company developing desktop systems to validate carbon trading in the US.

Reclaiming Our Working Class Family Values

Thursday, June 28th, 2012

Todd FarallyAs we move further into the twenty-first century, I have come to the realization that many of us have forgotten where we came from. I would wager many who are doctors, lawyers, elected officials and captains of industry came from humble means. Working class families, such as construction workers, maintenance people and factory workers, just to name a few. And many (oh so many) have turned on the same sort of people that bore and raised them, clothed and fed them, put them through college and called them son or daughter. How do we end this cycle?

To solve any problem we first need to address the main cause and move from there towards a solution.

Much of the problem starts with us, the parents. Do we tell our children about what we do? Do we educate them on the struggles of those who have come before us? Those who had endured, bled and sometimes died so that the generations to come could have a better life than their parents had. Sadly, I don’t think so.

Many parents back in the seventies and eighties probably never thought there would be attacks on the people that build our country, that teach our children, or even those that protect us while we sleep. And that was our first mistake. Never underestimate the greed of those that have no conscience. Never think for a second that people won’t watch you suffer while they profit.

Something else that has put us in this predicament is that some of us in skilled labor put down our professions, expressing horror at the thought of our children following in our footsteps. This happens more often than we might want to admit and it has lasting consequences. We act as though working with our hands is something to be ashamed of, that it’s something to look down on. And we’re ok with that? I’m certainly not and you shouldn’t be either.

Now, to end the cycle.

We need to talk to our children. We have to tell them that those of us that work with their hands, those that earn their wages from the sweat of their brow, those that put themselves in danger to serve the public good, work in an office and teach our children are not expendable. That these people ought to be treated with the same respect and dignity we all want in life.

We should remind our kids that men, women and even children were degraded, abused, beaten, stabbed, shot and killed all in the name of a few very wealthy people that didn’t want to pay their fair share to raise this nation to its full potential. More importantly, that those who fought prevailed, it was not in vain and they won a lasting period where most had a fair shake. And this is what has been under attack. This is what is at stake.

The fight for all working people throughout the nation starts with us as workers, blue and white collar alike. We need to erase the lines that divide us, realize that we all labor; we all scrape and scratch for a better life for our families. We must get past these superficial and petty differences or we will all fall. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

If we’re going to end this cycle now, we need to stand together, take pride in our work and teach our children that everyone has worth. Preserving our way of life starts at home.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos on June 24, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Todd Farally is a third generation Union Sheet Metal Worker, blogger and activist who has been involved in the Labor Movement and political activism most of his life. He was raised to believe in speaking out when injustice is imposed upon those without a voice and to never give up, no matter how tough the fight may seem.

Will we ever get a real working class hero?

Monday, August 16th, 2010

Image: Bob RosnerIs there anyone out there who hasn’t heard of Jet Blue flight attendant Steven Slater’s profanity filled tirade and exit down the emergency chute carrying beer?

From the Asian animation of his battle with the passenger, 140,000 Facebook fans and T-Shirts, we finally have an authentic working class hero who symbolizes all the frustrations of trying to survive the surly attitudes so common in today’s recession. Or do we?

Turns out that no passengers actually saw the altercation with the passenger that resulted in a gash on Slater’s forehead. In fact, one of the first passengers on the flight claims that Slater had the gash before any passengers boarded the plane.

He was mad as hell and couldn’t take it anymore.

But was his anger based on something that really happened, or did it just happen in his own mind? Maybe this doesn’t matter to you, but if we’re all going to nominate this guy to hero status, I’d like his story to align with other people who were on the flight.

Okay, I saw the movie Red Eye. When Jodie Foster’s kid disappeared on a plane in flight. So the woman who slugged him could have gone all Hollywood and disappeared. But the fact that no one corroborated his story and how he got that nasty gash on his forehead does trouble me.

Earlier in the year we had Conan. Remember when Coco was bounced from his Tonight Show perch. Sure NBC didn’t handle this very gracefully. But he did get many millions of dollars. And ratings have improved dramatically for his replacement, Jay Leno. Oops another working class hero who is hard to relate to.

Can’t a guy get an authentic working class hero anymore? Is that too much to ask?

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

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