Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Dockworkers Show Us How Unions Can Be a Powerful Force Against Racism

May 24th, 2019 | Peter Cole
This article is adapted from Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area. Used with the permission of the University of Illinois Press. Copyright © 2018 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. It has been modified for this article, with the introductions and conclusions reworked.
From its inception in the 1930s, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), and particularly its San Francisco Bay Area chapter, Local 10, have preached and practiced racial equality. First, the union committed itself to equality by desegregating work gangs and openings its ranks to African Americans, whose numbers drastically increased during the World War II-induced Great Migration. In addition to working towards racial equality inside the ILWU, longshoremen and their leaders, in Local 10 and at the international level, participated in myriad intersectional social movements from the 1940s to the present. Thanks to this organizing, longshore workers and their union greatly contributed to the growth and success of social movements in a pivotal time in Bay Area, U.S. and world history.

An early, poignant example of the union’s commitment to ethnic and racial equality came in its principled yet highly controversial opposition to the persecution of Japanese Americans during World War II. In 1942 the ILWU condemned the interment of 125,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans, ordered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt shortly after the surprise Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawai’i. Hostility towards Japanese immigrants (by law, never allowed to become U.S. citizens) and Japanese Americans quickly reached fever pitch, and almost no Americans came to their defense though, more recently, most acknowledge the trampling of their Constitutional rights. Yet in sworn testimony before Congress in February 1942, only three months after Pearl Harbor, ILWU leader Lou Goldblatt sagely predicted, “this entire episode of hysteria and mob chant against the native-born Japanese will form a dark page of American history. It may well appear as one of the victories one by the Axis powers.” Similarly, in May 1945, the month Germany surrendered and three months before Japan did, ILWU International President Harry Bridges pushed to have a few Japanese Americans, interned for most of the war, admitted to the Stockton division of Local 6 (Bay Area warehouse) in conjunction with the government’s War Relocation Authority. When the white majority division refused to allow them into the union, Bridges and Goldblatt pulled the charter until the 700 members accepted this Japanese American into the local. The union’s commitment to equality for Japanese Americans was rare, to say the least, and remains largely unknown.

The ILWU has also been committed to and fought for racial equality since its birth in the 1930s. This sort of activism, still all-too-rare, is called civil rights unionism or social movement unionism. Examples of how the ILWU worked in solidarity with the largely Southern-based black freedom struggle are too numerous to recount, but the union’s commitment was real and long-standing. Bridges regularly wrote in favor of racial equality in his column “On the Beam” that appeared in the union’s newspaper, Dispatcher. In 1954 after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its historic ruling against Jim Crow segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, Bridges lauded it as “a victory for all decent and progressive Americans—whether Negro, white or any other color,” because the Jim Crow “system has been a cancer on America.”

In 1963, the ILWU began selling units in the housing cooperative that its progressive leaders conceived of and financed as a response to “urban redevelopment” and a lack of affordable housing. Though not the first of its kind (several clothing worker unions in New York City constructed thousands of such units), the St. Francis Square Housing Cooperative was the Bay Area’s first. Beginning in 1960, the ILWU invested some of its pension funds into property that had been part of a 45-block area cleared, notoriously, by city and federal housing agencies in a move criticized by the legendary African American writer and activist, James Baldwin: “urban renewal which means moving Negroes out; it means Negro removal.” The “redevelopment” of the Fillmore (also called the Western Addition) and the city’s largest black neighborhood, began in the 1950s and continued into the early 1970s, razed about 2,500 Victorian structures and displaced more than 10,000 people—overwhelmingly African Americans including hundreds of ILWU Local 6 and 10 members. ILWU Secretary-Treasurer Lou Goldblatt explained why he developed this project in 1979: “what they were not doing was replacing the slums with anything that any of the people who had lived there could have any chance under the sun of coming back to.” St. Francis’ 300-units were open to every ethnicity and race, the first integrated housing development in SF, and its first manager was Revels Cayton, a black left-wing activist and ILWU member. ILWU members who lived in the Fillmore continued resisting further clearings, albeit with limited success. Ultimately, the character of the Fillmore changed forever with far fewer blacks. The co-op, though, recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.

Also in 1963, the ILWU and Local 10 helped organize a huge civil rights demonstration in San Francisco and supported another, the legendary March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Early that year, the nation’s eyes focused upon Birmingham, Alabama, nicknamed “America’s Johannesburg” for being the most segregated big city in the South. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, headed by Martin Luther King, Jr., collaborated with local activists for several months of nonviolent civil disobedience to highlight the persistence of racial segregation, nearly ten years after Brown v. Board. Chester, utilizing his many contacts helped create the Church-Labor Conference that, on May 26th, brought together 20,000 people to march with a giant banner reading “We March in Unity for Freedom in Birmingham and Equality in San Francisco.” An additional 10,000 joined at the march’s end to rally, and was the largest civil rights demonstration in the region’s history. Three months later, the ILWU donated money and sent a delegation to the nation’s capital for what proved to be the largest political gathering in U.S. History, up to that time. One quarter of a million Americans, mostly black but with many whites, participated in the March on Washington to pressure the Congress and President to pass a comprehensive civil rights bill outlawing racial discrimination, once and for all. Tragically, the response of some unreconstructed segregationists was the blowing up of a black church, in Birmingham, closely associated with the movement that killed four black girls. When word reached San Francisco, Local 10 members quickly shut down the port for a “stop work meeting” in front of the U.S. Federal Building to protest this terrorist attack.

Due to the union’s many efforts to fight racism, in 1967 Martin Luther King, Jr. visited Local 10 where he became an honorary member, like Paul Robeson before him. King, best known for his “I Have A Dream” speech, long had been interested in and supportive of unions but proved increasingly so in his final years. He repeatedly encouraged black workers to join and form unions, famously calling them “the first anti-poverty program.” King regularly supported and spoke to racially inclusive unions, so it not surprising that he visited Local 10’s hiring hall. Addressing a large gathering of dockworkers, King declared, “I don’t feel like a stranger here in the midst of the ILWU. We have been strengthened and energized by the support you have given to our struggles…We’ve learned from labor the meaning of power.” More than forty years later, Local 10 member Cleophas Williams remember the speech: “He talked about the economics of discrimination” insightfully pointing out, “What he said, is what Bridges had been saying all along” about all workers benefiting by attacking racism and forming interracial unions…The day after his stunning murder, April 9, 1968, the Bay Area was quiet when more than 150 cities and towns erupted into flames. Longshoremen shut down the ports of San Francisco and Oakland for their newest (honorary) member, as they always do when one of their own dies on the job. Nine ILWU members attended King’s funeral, in Atlanta, including Bridges, Chester, and Williams, elected the local’s first black president the year prior.

Similarly, it is neither incidental nor coincidental that ILWU members in the Bay Area gave timely and significant support to Californians seeking to form the United Farm Workers (UFW). It is widely known that migratory farm workers were heavily non-white (particularly Mexican and Filipino Americans) and immigrant (Mexican but also smatterings of other peoples including Arabs). When Filipino American farm workers struck large table and wine grape growers in and around Delano, California in 1965, they quickly joined forces with Cesar Chavez’s fledgling union, mostly Mexican Americans. Thus began a five-year saga that—like the predominantly African American sanitation workers with their “I Am A Man” campaign—combined elements of labor and civil rights activism. On November 17, 1965 a few of these strikers stood at the foot of SF Pier 50, hoping to convince longshoremen not to load Delano grapes aboard the President Wilson, headed for Asia. One key activist, Gilbert Padilla, described what happened next:

We went there as the grapes were being loaded onto ships to Japan…and I’m standing out there with a little cardboard, with a picket [sign], ‘Don’t eat grapes.’ then some of the longshoremen asked, ‘Is this a labor dispute?’ And I [was nervous and didn’t know whether we were legally allowed to use the term, so I] said, ‘No, no, no labor dispute.’ So they would walk in. Jimmy Herman came over and asked me, ‘What the hell you doing?’ And I told him we were striking. He knew about the strike but wanted to know, ‘what are you asking for?’ And I was telling him, and then he says, ‘Come with me.’ He took me to his office; he was president of the clerks (a Longshoremen’s Union local). He took me to his office and he got on his hands and knees, Jimmy Herman, and he made picket signs. And he told me, ‘You go back there and don’t tell nobody about who gave you this. But you just stand there. [You] don’t [have to] say a goddamned thing.’ The sign said, ‘Farm Workers on Strike.’ And everybody walked out of that fucking place, man! That’s the first time I felt like I was 10 feet tall, man! Everybody walked out. So then they asked what’s happening and we were telling them, and Jesus Christ, man, I never seen anything like it. There were trucks all the way up to the bridge, man!

That Bay Area longshoremen and clerks actively supported this movement comes as little surprise, especially as the ILWU organized farm workers, overwhelmingly Asian Americans, in Hawai’i in the 1950s.

Local 10 also played an integral, if hidden, role in the historic Pan-Indian occupation of Alcatraz, one of the most incredible chapters in Bay Area social movement history. Beginning in 1969, American Indians, including many students at San Francisco State, planned and occupied the legendary Alcatraz Island, a former federal penitentiary. They did so to raise awareness of the desperate plight of American Indians and promote cultural and political changes among both Indians and the nation at large. Long forgotten or never known is that a Local 10 longshoreman, “Indian Joe” Morris, born and raised on the Blackfoot reservation in Montana, helped make the eighteen-month occupation possible. The twelve-acre “Rock” was lifeless so literally everything needed to sustain the occupiers’ lives, including water, had to come from the mainland (a main reason the federal government stopped using it as a prison). Morris secured the unused SF Pier 40 from which the transfer of all people and supplies occurred between the island and city. In his unpublished memoir, he writes, “When the Indians occupied Alcatraz Island I was the Alcatraz troubleshooter and mainland coordinator.” Morris also raised thousands of dollars from the ILWU and other unions in support and even took collections at the Ferry Building (now named after Harry Bridges). Without Morris’ unsung action, the occupation—simply put—could not have continued very long. Morris might have been the only American Indian in Local 10, but there was tremendous sympathy among others for the occupation; for example, the ILWU Executive Board praised the Indians occupying Alcatraz “as a haven and a symbol of the genocide they have suffered.” Morris helped arrange for a delegation of Local 10 and other ILWU members to visit Alcatraz, where Lou Goldblatt proclaimed, “You folks are just like a labor union on strike. You have to last one day longer than the other guy.” Winding down in 1971, the Dispatcher featured a photograph of Morris holding a painting—his first ever—commemorating the occupation though few know this intersectional history.

In 1969, the legendary African American activist Bayard Rustin wrote, “the Negro can never be socially and politically free until he is economically secure.” Rustin could have been describing the civil rights unionism of ILWU Local 10. Or, as William “Bill” Chester, an African American and long-time civil rights activist in the ILWU, recalled, “We found that, in a sense, the union is the community.” Bay Area longshore workers did not stop with racial equality, though. They also provided mighty assistance to many other social movements across the Bay Area, nation and world.

This article appeared at In These Times on May 23, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Peter Cole is a Professor of History at Western Illinois University. He is the author of Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia and is currently at work on a book entitled Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a Research Associate in the Society, Work and Development Program (SWOP) at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, and has published extensively on labor history and politics. He tweets from @ProfPeterCole.

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2020 hopefuls are joining striking fast food workers Thursday — but who’s helping whom?

May 23rd, 2019 | Alan Pyke

McDonald’s workers are striking Thursday in a dozen cities across the country.

The latest walkouts in the nearly six-year-old campaign for union rights and sustainable wages, timed to overlap with the fast food giant’s annual shareholder meeting in Dallas, will also feature a number of 2020 White House hopefuls.

Former congressman and Housing and Urban Development head Julián Castro (D-TX) will join striking workers in Durham, North Carolina, alongside Moral Mondays leader Rev. William Barber II. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) will video conference in to the Dallas worker rally and take questions from the crowd.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) will attend walkouts in Chicago and Des Moines, Iowa, respectively. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) had previously planned to attend the Des Moines rally but had to switch things up after a Senate vote on federal disaster relief was scheduled for Thursday at the last minute.

The presidential contenders will likely create an additional media draw in those four cities. But the workers themselves will be their own headliner in nine others, including Miami, Orlando, and Tampa, as well as Milwaukee.

These White House hopefuls are arguably more in need of being seen with these workers than the low-wage toilers require these politicos’ imprimatur. Since 2013, when the first impromptu walkout in New York broke open an organizing terrain that traditional labor organizers had long regarded as impossible, the Fight for $15 has been a persistent and mounting force in U.S. politics.

And as those strikes spread nationwide, to dozens and eventually hundreds of cities and towns across the United States, the energy present among the fast food and retail workers also broke through longstanding roadblocks on minimum wage laws.

Prior to Fight For $15 bringing new electricity to the scene, statutory pay floors had stagnated and fallen far behind inflation for decades around the country. In the spring of 2014, minimum wage advocates in Seattle, aided by the combined pressure of workers in the streets working from the outside and newly elected socialist firebrand Kshama Sawant making the case from her city council perch, finally reached a breakthrough. Seattle became the first municipality to set its pay floor at $15 an hour in the United States.

Numerous cities and states have followed suit since. And the $15 minimum wage question haunted the 2016 presidential election. During that season’s Democratic primary, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s initial insistence that $12-per-hour was better policy eventually gave way to her embrace of the $15 demand.

If anyone still wanted to dispute the worker-led movement’s political gravity after that dramatic moment in the 2016 primary season, a little-noticed development this spring should have put such skepticism to bed for good. McDonald’s itself dropped its opposition to the campaign’s demands and withdrew its support for the National Restaurant Association’s long-running lobbying campaign against wage hikes and workers’ rights for the fast food industry.

The acquiescence of the industry’s leading burger chain has by no means ended the firm’s manifold conflicts with workers. McDonald’s workers have continued to file sexual harassment suits against the corporation, aided in recent months by the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union — as well as by 2020 hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who blasted out a profile of their efforts to her massive social media following Tuesday.

The chain’s workers have also brought attention to the violence employees routinely face from customers along with, they contend, the dismissive, not-my-problem response they frequently get from management when they attempt to raise their concerns internally.

It is telling that White House hopefuls from all tiers of the primary — heavy hitters and long shots alike — are looking to associate themselves directly with the workers who are bearing the risks and costs of a union drive their employers oppose. The continued success of this largely grassroots movement will likely continue to command influence over the Democratic primary long after Thursday’s rallies and walkouts.

Labor energy has traditionally fueled the retail politicking of Democrats, of course. When former Vice President Joe Biden (D) joined a Stop & Shop workers’ rally during their recent and ultimately successful 11-day strike, the political media barely batted an eye. This is just what’s expected of those who would bear the party’s banner.

But there are signs that the relationship between elected Democrats and rank-and-file labor is shifting. Sanders’ campaign recently harnessed its digital subscriber list in the service of encouraging supporters to show up for workers at picket lines and rallies. As ThinkProgress previously detailed, his presidential campaign will be the first run by a unionized staff.

Lower-profile unionization drives in other industries have drawn mass attention from the energetic online left and, in turn, from Democratic politicians working to figure out how to wed that vocal cohort to the party’s traditionally moderate wing. And the AFL-CIO, long one of the most significant power brokers outside the party’s official infrastructure, is embroiled in internal disputes about how it apportions resources between organizing workers and influencing elections. It remains to be seen how that turmoil will affect the party’s own ability to rely on the AFL to turn out members at campaign events and on polling days, and broker connections between office-seekers and working stiffs.

The Fight for $15 folks, meanwhile, have remained a mainstay in the broad panoply of labor activists since their first-ever national convention in Richmond, Virginia, three years ago. The emotion and excitement that has long attended the campaign’s activism — coupled with the moral and rhetorical leadership of Rev. Barber and his fellow clergymen — make the movement an attractive force with which to form an allegiance. With several Democratic primary hopefuls beating an early path to their picket lines, it seems likely many more will show up in the months to come.

This article was originally published at Think Progress on May 15, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Alan Pyke  covers poverty and the social safety net. Alan is also a film and music critic for fun. Send him tips at: apyke@thinkprogress.org or

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Bernie Sanders will present proposal on behalf of Walmart workers at annual shareholders meeting

May 22nd, 2019 | Adam Peck

Every year, Walmart stages a massive, multi-day meeting in Arkansas for the company’s shareholders, not far from the corporate headquarters of the world’s largest retail store. The company’s top executives deliver speeches, its board of directors hears various proposals regarding corporate behavior and governance, and special guests make surprise appearances to keep the masses entertained.

The shareholders’ meeting is also when the company’s 1.5 million U.S. workers — many of whom work for poverty-level wages with few benefits and employment safeguards — are given a chance to directly confront the billionaires whose fortunes they helped build.

This year, they’re bringing a megaphone with them to amplify their message: Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I).

For years, workers have appeared at the shareholders’ meeting to propose new corporate policies designed to help lift the retailer’s army of hourly workers out of poverty and provide them with greater protections on the job. Every single proposal they have put forward has been voted down and ignored by the Walton family, which controls the majority of votes on the board.

Sanders will appear on the workers’ behalf this year to present their latest proposal: give hourly workers one seat on the company’s board.

For years, Sanders has fought on behalf of the country’s 80 million hourly workers, pushing for increases to the minimum wage, strengthening unions, and capping executive salaries which have skyrocketed in the last 25 years. Walmart, by virtue of employing more of these hourly workers than any other company in the country by a wide margin, has been a specific target for Sanders.

Last year, he introduced the subtly-named “Stop Walmart Act” designed to pressure the company to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour. The bill would prohibit large corporations from buying back their own stock — a popular mechanism for boosting share prices — unless they introduce a series of benefits for hourly workers first, in addition to the wage hike.

For their part, Walmart executives appear less than thrilled that Sanders will be in attendance to directly criticize their corporate practices on the biggest day of the year.

“If Senator Sanders attends, we hope he will approach his visit not as a campaign stop, but as a constructive opportunity to learn about the many ways we’re working to provide increased economic opportunity, mobility and benefits to our associates — as well as our widely recognized leadership on environmental sustainability,” the company said in a statement.

The proposal Sanders will be introducing isn’t the only one shareholders are expected to vote on next month. Another one calls for the company to strengthen protections against workplace sexual harassment.

The company is advising shareholders to vote no.

This blog was originally published at ThinkProgress on May 21, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Adam Peck is a deputy editor at ThinkProgress who works with politics reporters.

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Power Connection: Connecticut AFL-CIO Empowers Fight for $15

May 22nd, 2019 | Michael Gillis

In a monumental leap of economic justice last week, the Connecticut Legislature passed a law that increases the state minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2023. The increase brings Connecticut into parity with its neighboring states of New York, Massachusetts and New Jersey, which have passed similar increases. The victory comes as a result of unprecedented coordination among labor unions and allied advocates in the state that have been fighting for an increase for years.

“After years of grassroots organizing, Connecticut will finally catch up to our neighbors,” said Connecticut AFL-CIO President Sal Luciano. “We applaud the legislature for doing the right thing and raising wages for over 330,000 workers in our state.”

The victory was aided by a number of union members who have been elected to the state’s General Assembly. Of critical importance to the bill’s passage were the co-chairs of the assembly’s Labor and Public Employees Committee, state Sen. Julie Kushner, former director of UAW Region 9A, and state Rep. Robyn Porter, who was once a single mother who worked three jobs to make ends meet.

The state legislature also has a paid family and medical leave bill that is tentatively scheduled for a vote the week of May 20. “All these combined are going to make a huge difference in people’s lives,” Kushner said.

The significance of the measure is not lost on those who will immediately benefit from the increase. “When fast-food workers walked off the job nearly seven years ago demanding $15 and a union, nobody thought we had a chance,” said Joseph Franklin, a leader in the Fight for $15 coalition and a McDonald’s worker in Hartford. “Our movement is gaining momentum.”

The Connecticut AFL-CIO has been diligently working to elect union members and allies to office, and this victory shows that the path to power flows directly through the labor movement.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on May 21, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michael Gillis is a writer at AFL-CIO.

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Path to Power Is Clear in the Ocean State

May 21st, 2019 | Michael Gillis

The Rhode Island AFL-CIO has been busy in 2019, leading the fight on a number of important legislative initiatives. There are numerous union members who have been elected to the state legislature and that has provided an opportunity to pass legislation that will make a huge difference for our members and for working people across the Ocean State.

Earlier this month, the state legislature passed, and Gov. Gina Raimondo signed, a continuing-contract bill that would indefinitely lock in wages and benefits in expired public-employee contracts. The law now prevents cities and towns from unilaterally slashing pay and making employees pay more for their health insurance during deadlocked negotiations.

The state federation also was involved in passing a bill that established fairness in the overtime laws to firefighters and relieves them of burdensome shift scheduling practices. A top priority for the Rhode Island State Association of Firefighters/IAFF, the new law sets the overtime threshold at 42 hours per week, bringing firefighters’ overtime protections more in line with other industry workers.

The Rhode Island AFL-CIO is also advocating for the passage of an increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour for care providers for developmentally disabled individuals in the state. The legislation has broad support in the legislature and will end the discriminatory minimum wage disparity for these essential care workers.

All of these advancements were made possible through an unrelenting advocacy effort that coordinated many union members elected to the Rhode Island state legislature, including state Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (LIUNA). Ruggerio was instrumental in guiding these initiatives through a complicated political effort and ultimately passed the bills with overwhelming support.

The Rhode Island AFL-CIO is proving that the path to power runs through the labor movement.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on May 20, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michael Gillis is a writer at AFL-CIO.

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Kamala Harris announces equal pay plan: Fine companies that pay women less

May 20th, 2019 | Laura Clawson

Women are still paid only 80 cents for every dollar men are paid, with black and Latina women paid substantially less—and Sen. Kamala Harris has unveiled a plan to change that. Harris is pledging that, if elected president, she would fine companies that pay women less than men for comparable work.

Companies would have to get an “Equal Pay Certification” from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and if unequal pay kept them from getting certification, the EEOC would fine them 1% of profits per 1% of wage gap. “It should not be on that working woman to prove it. It should instead be on that large corporation to prove that they are paying people for equal work, equally,” Harris told CNN.

The unequal pay fines collected under Harris’ plan would go toward universal paid family and medical leave. Like her plan to strengthen gun laws, Harris would address equal pay through executive action—an acknowledgement that the Senate may continue to be a blockade for progressive policies.

Other 2020 presidential candidates who are in Congress have co-sponsored the Paycheck Fairness Act, but Harris has now jumped out in front of the field on this issue.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on May 20, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

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

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The Reality Behind the ‘Surging’ U.S. Economy

May 17th, 2019 | Sarah Anderson

And yet most of the gains from our growing economy are still going to those who least need a boost. Stock market rallies, for example, further concentrate wealth among the very richest Americans. The top 1% of Americans own more than half of stocks and mutual funds. The bottom 90% own just 7%.

For ordinary Americans, the slight uptick in wages is not enough to make up for many years of stagnation. Average hourly pay rose just 6 cents in April 2019 and 4 cents the month before that.

Workers need a much bigger raise if they are to receive their fair share of economic gains, especially with prices for many essentials rising much faster than wages. For example, compared to the 3.2% increase in average earnings over the past year, spending on prescription drugs is up 7.1%while the average house price rose 5.7%. Average childcare costs jumped 7.5% between 2016 and 2017.

Such small pay increases won’t do much to chip away at the country’s $1.6 trillion in student debt — a burden leading 1 in 15 borrowers to consider suicide, according to a recent survey.

Wages have also lagged far behind the increase in corporate profits (7.8% in 2018). Despite promises that workers would reap huge benefits from the Republican tax cuts, big corporations have used most of their tax windfalls to enrich wealthy shareholders and CEOs, blowing a record-setting $1 trillion on stock buybacks that inflate the value of their shares.

Another reason for the disconnect between the rosy headlines and people’s lived experiences: GDP is a deeply flawed measure of economic well-being. At a recent conference in Washington, D.C. hosted by People’s Action, many grassroots activists told stories that underscored this point.

Sonny Garcia from Illinois People’s Action talked about how his mother’s insulin prescription had just jumped from $100 to $700 per month. Increased profits for pharmaceutical firms contribute to GDP growth, but they can mean extreme hardship for people like Sonny’s mother.

Crystal Murillo, a city council member from Aurora, Colorado talked about how almost all the building going on in her city is for luxury condos. High-end real estate development is also good for the GDP, but not for people who get gentrified out of the housing market.

Laurel Clinton, from Iowa CCI, talked about her fears that her son could get racially profiled and swept into the exploding prison population in her state. New prison construction shows up as a plus for the GDP, but it’s not exactly good news for communities, especially communities of color.

The rosy topline indicators also mask our country’s deep racial divides. The black unemployment rate remains more than twice as high as the rate for whites (6.7% versus 3.1% for whites) and it has increased from 6.5% in April 2018.

People of color are also more likely than whites to be among the more than 27 million Americans who lack health insurance. The uninsured rate is 19% for Latinos and 11% for blacks, compared to 7% for whites. And according to a recent report co-published by the Institute for Policy Studies, 37 percent of black families and 33 percent of Latino families have zero wealth or are in debt, compared to just 15.5 percent of white families.

Despite the overall tightening of the labor market, a large share of U.S. jobs are still “precarious,” with little security in terms of retirement benefits, affordable health insurance, or predictable scheduling.

While presiding over an economic recovery that started under his predecessor, Trump has done nothing on his own to lift up working people.

The president has signed several executive orders to curtail labor union rights and his Labor Department recently announced plans to scale back an Obama policy to expand overtime rights to millions of workers. He has also lent his support to “right to work” laws that undercut unions by prohibiting them from requiring workers who benefit from collective bargaining agreements to pay dues.

Unless workers have more power to negotiate for their fair share of economic awards, even a real economic boom will have limited benefit for those who need it most.

This article was originally published at Our Future on May 14, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project and co-edits Inequality.org at the Institute for Policy Studies. For more of her analysis of the state of the U.S. economy, check out her recent interview on NPR’s 1A

 

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American Workers Are Not Happy

May 16th, 2019 | Leo Gerard

Americans are not happy. And for good reason. They continue to suffer financial stress caused by decades of flat income. And every time they make the slightest peep of complaint about a system rigged against them, the rich and powerful tell them to shut up because it is all their fault.

One percenters instruct them to work harder, pull themselves up by their bootstraps and stop bellyaching. Just get a second college degree, a second skill, a second job. Just send the spouse to work, downsize, take a staycation instead of a real vacation. Or don’t take one at all, just work harder and longer and better.

The barrage of blaming has persuaded; workers believe they deserve censure. And that’s a big part of the reason they’re unhappy. If only, they think, they could work harder and longer and better, they would get ahead. They bear the shame. They don’t blame the system: the Supreme Court, the Congress, the President. And yet, it is the system, the American system, that has conspired to crush them.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, unemployment is low and the stock market is high. But skyrocketing stocks benefit only the top 10 percent of wealthy Americans who own 84 percent of stocks. And while more people are employed than during the Great Recession, the vast majority of Americans haven’t had a real raise since 1979.

It’s bad out there for American workers. Last month, their ranking dropped for the third year running in the World Happiness Report, produced by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a U.N. initiative.

These sad statistics reinforce those in a report released two years ago by two university professors. Reviewing data from the General Social Survey, administered routinely nationally, the professors found Americans’ assessment of their own happiness and family finances has, unambiguously, declined in recent years.

But if Americans would just work harder, everything would be dandy, right?

No. Not right. Americans work really, really hard. A third of Americans work a side hustle, driving an Uber or selling crafts on Etsy. American workers take fewer vacation days. They get 14, but typically take only 10. The highest number of workers in five years report they don’t expect to take a vacation at all this year. And Americans work longer hours than their counterparts in other countries.

Americans labor 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more than Brits, and 499 more than the French, according to the International Labor Organization.

And the longer hours aren’t because American workers are laggards on the job. They’re very productive. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates that the average American worker’s productivity has increased 400 percent since 1950.

If pay had kept pace with productivity, as it did in the three decades after the end of World War II, American workers would be making 400 percent more. But they’re not. Their wages have flat lined for four decades, adjusting for inflation.

That means stress. Forty percent of workers say they don’t have $400 for an unexpected expense. Twenty percent can’t pay all of their monthly bills. More than a quarter of adults skipped needed medical care last year because they couldn’t afford it. A quarter of adults have no retirement savings.

If only Americans would work harder. And longer. And better.

Much as right-wingers have pounded that into Americans’ heads, it’s not the solution. Americans clearly are working harder and longer and better. The solution is to change the system, which is stacked against workers.

Workers are bearing on their backs tax breaks that benefited only the rich and corporations. They’re bearing overtime pay rules and minimum wage rates that haven’t been updated in more than a decade. They’re weighted down by U.S. Supreme Court decisions that hobbled unionization efforts and kneecapped workers’ rights to file class-action lawsuits. They’re struggling under U.S. Department of Labor rules defining them as independent contractors instead of staff members. They live in fear as corporations threaten to offshore their jobs – with the assistance of federal tax breaks.

Last year, the right-wing majority on the U.S. Supreme Court handed a win to corporatists trying to obliterate workers’ right to organize and collectively bargain for better wages and conditions. The court ruled that public sector workers who choose not to join unions don’t have to pay a small fee to cover the cost of services that federal law requires the unions provide to them. This bankrupts labor unions. And there’s no doubt that right-wingers are gunning for private sector unions next.

This kind of relentless attack on labor unions since 1945 has withered membership. As it shrank, wages for both union and nonunion workers did too.

Also last year, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations can deny workers access to class-action arbitration. This compels workers, who corporations forced to sign agreements to arbitrate rather than litigate, into individual arbitration cases, for which each worker must hire his or her own lawyer. Then, just last week, the right-wing majority on the court further curtailed workers’ rights to class-action suits.

In a minority opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that the court in recent years has routinely deployed the law to deny to employees and consumers “effective relief against powerful economic entities.”

No matter how hard Americans work, the right-wing majority on the Supreme Court has hobbled them in an already lopsided contest with gigantic corporations.

The administrative branch is no better.  The Trump Labor Department just issued an advisory that workers for a gig-economy company are independent contractors, not employees. As a result, the workers, who clean homes after getting assignments on an app, will not qualify for federal minimum wage (low as it is) or overtime pay. Also, the corporation will not have to pay Social Security taxes for them. Though the decision was specific to one company, experts say it will affect the designation for other gig workers, such as drivers for Uber and Lyft.

Also, the Labor Department has proposed a stingy increase in the overtime pay threshold, that is, the salary amount under which corporations must pay workers time and a half for overtime. The current threshold of $23,660 has not been raised since 2004. The Obama administration had proposed doubling it to $47,476. But now, the Trump Labor Department has cut that back to $35,308. That means 8.2 million workers who would have benefited from the larger salary cap now will not be eligible for mandatory overtime pay.

It doesn’t matter how hard they work, they aren’t going to get the time-and-a-half pay they deserve.

Just like the administration and the Supreme Court, right-wingers in Congress grovel before corporations and the rich. Look at the tax break they gave one percenters in 2017. Corporations got the biggest cut in history, their rate sledgehammered down from 35 percent to 21 percent. The rich reap by far the largest benefit from those tax cuts through 2027, according to an analysis by the Tax Policy Center. And by then, 53 percent of Americans – that is workers not rich people – will pay more than they did in 2017 because tax breaks for workers expire.

The White House Council of Economic Advisers predicted the corporate tax cut would put an extra $4,000 in every worker’s pocket. They swore that corporations would use some of their tax cut money to hand out raises and bonuses to workers. That never happened. Workers got a measly 6 percent of corporations’ tax savings. In the first quarter after the tax cut took effect, workers on average received a big fat extra $6.21 in their paychecks, for an annual total of a whopping $233. Corporations spent their tax breaks on stock buybacks, a record $1 trillion worth, raising stock prices, which put more money in the pockets of rich CEOs and shareholders.

That’s continuing this year. Workers are never going to see that $4,000.

No wonder they’re unhappy. The system is working against them.

This article was originally published at Our Future on May 15, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Leo Gerard, is the International President of the United Steelworkers (USW) union and is the second Canadian to head the union. He is also a vice president of the AFL-CIO. Gerard is co-chairman of the BlueGreen Alliance and on the boards of Campaign for America’s Future and the Economic Policy Institute.

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The Teacher Strikes Could Set Off a Private Sector Strike Wave—If We Dare

May 16th, 2019 | Joe Burns

In the spring of 2018, teachers across West Virginia improbably shut down schools statewide, creating a political crisis that forced Republican Gov. Jim Justice and the GOP-led legislature to back down. Drawing inspiration from the West Virginia strikers, teachers in the red states of Arizona and Oklahoma soon followed suit by carrying out statewide strikes of their own.

In his new book Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics, writer and former teacher Eric Blanc details the history of these teachers strikes while providing incisive analysis, informed by his visits to the sites of these labor struggles and his access to key players which provided inside accounts of strategic and tactical debates.

By providing this on-the-ground perspective, Red State Revolt captures the exhilaration and twists and turns of these strikes. Blanc recounts how an initial Facebook group among teacher activists exploded in West Virginia, helping lead to the first tentative calls for a walkout and, in a matter of months, to the massive statewide strike of teachers and support staff. Red State Revolt shows how little steps can lead to big results.

As simply a strike history, Red State Revoltwould stand as a thoughtful contribution for labor activists who could find inspiration and learn from the successes and missteps of striking teachers in these three states. Fortunately for those of us in the labor movement, Blanc drives deeper.

The core of Red State Revolt is built around of the concept of “the militant minority,” explored in depth in the longest chapter of the book. As Blanc explains: “An indispensable ingredient in the victories of West Virginia and Arizona was the existence of a ‘militant minority’ of workplace activists—that is, individuals with a class struggle orientation, significant organizing experience, and a willingness to act independently of (and, if necessary, against) the top union officialdom.”

These activists helped push their struggles forward and at key moments helped the rank-and-file contend with more conservative union officials. And, as Blanc points out, a number of these activists constituting the militant minority were socialists, though not all. As Blanc explains: “Though all genuine socialists support class struggle unionism, not all class struggle unionists support socialism.” Included in the latter category were the militant teacher leaders of the Southern former mining strongholds of Mingo County and adjacent counties in West Virginia who led a one-day strike in early February 2018 which helped set the stage for the statewide walkout later that month.

Blanc notes that many of the activists at the core of the West Virginia strike were democratic socialists inspired by Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, which helped motivate them to demand far-reaching changes at their workplaces. As rank-and-file West Virginia strike leader Emily Comer told Blanc, “The role of the Bernie campaign of 2016 on organizing in West Virginia really cannot be overstated. … And it got people, especially young people, plugged in who before had been feeling hopeless and who would not have made their way into organizing before.”

Like any good strike history, Red State Revolt delves into the complicated relationship between union officials, the union militants pushing the strike from below, and the rank and file workers.   As Blanc explains, because West Virginia activists had built a strong statewide network leading up to and over the course of the strike, they were able to help shape the final contract agreement, continuing the walkout for another week after the initial outline of the settlement was announced until it was finalized.

By covering three strikes in three separate states, in Red State Revolt Blanc is able to compare and contrast the various strategies and outcomes. While the strikes in both West Virginia and Arizona ended on high notes, for example, the Oklahoma walkout resulted in more of a mixed outcome, along with a certain degree of demoralization.

As Blanc notes, the conditions did not initially suggest such a result. “By virtually all possible metrics, the challenges to successful strike action were greatest in Arizona,” Blanc writes. “Its right wing was considerably stronger, and its labor movement significantly weaker, than in Oklahoma—not to mention most other US states.”

Yet the crucial difference, Blanc argues, is that Arizona boasted a militant minority of activists who were able to interact with Arizona’s relatively weak teachers’ union to prod them into action and ultimately helped secure broad victories. Oklahoma, meanwhile, did not possess such a strong array of militant labor activists in the education field, which served as a liability during that state’s strike.

Teacher activists across the country will likely find Red State Revolt invaluable as the uprising shows no sign of ending. Teachers in Colorado, Washington, California and elsewhere have already since rebelled against decades of Democratic neoliberal attacks on public education. Even organizers living in such blue states will find Red State Revolt chock-full of concrete lessons.

The reality is, however, that while these public-sector strikes should give us hope, the crisis of American trade unionism lies firmly in the private sector. For many labor pundits, the lessons of the teachers’ strikes boil down to advocating bargaining for the common good or other social unionist themes. While a broad-based approach to union bargaining that seeks public support is necessary, there’s no indication that corporations will be shamed into supporting worker-friendly policies. With union density hovering at six percent in the private sector, it’s time for dramatically new approaches.

Reviving the labor movement in the private sector will require a strategy capable of breaking through legal restrictions on the right to strike. As Blanc notes, “When it comes to political strategy, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. West Virginia and the other recent teacher revolts have confirmed the continued relevance of an old political insight: strikes are workers’ most powerful weapon.”

One question raised by the strikes in Republican-dominated states is ‘Why did the anti-union policymakers not respond with repression?’ After all, Arizona is a cesspool of reactionary anti-labor politicians, with essentially the entire power structure lined up against unions. Striking was deemed illegal in all of three states. Yet, while politicians made pronouncements indicating the strikes were illegal, they never pulled the trigger on punishing strikers.

For trade unionists, this outcome confirms the reality of what we saw in the 1960s teacher rebellion. In the 1960s, millions of public-sector workers went on strike despite the fact that striking was illegal in every state in the country. Rarely did these workers face recriminations, as politicians feared they could expand the strikes by responding with repression. The red state teacher revolts demonstrate the continued validity of the maxim that ‘there is no illegal strike, just an unsuccessful one.’

The four main takeaways from the Red State Revolt are the necessity of reviving the strike; the need for a broad-based approach; the importance of a conscious militant minority; and the ability of militant social movements to successfully violate labor law. This also serves as a prescription for the revival of the labor movement overall—one quite different from what most labor pundits have been dishing out for the past two decades.

Celebrating victories is a good thing and Red State Revolt does a great job of reliving the excitement of those strikes. Even better, however, is learning from our successes so they can be recreated over and over. That is how bigger and better movements are built.

 

This article was originally published at In These Times on May 15, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

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

 

 

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Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren blast Delta’s union-busting in letter to CEO

May 16th, 2019 | Alan Pyke

A shot across the nose cone from nine progressive senators could be just the beginning of Delta’s troubles.

Delta Airlines should immediately stop sabotaging efforts to unionize the ground crews that make their operations possible, a group of nine senators told Delta CEO Ed Bastian in a letter Wednesday.

The sharply worded note contrasts Bastian’s personal wealth to the “paycheck to paycheck” vulnerability his frontline workers experience. But beyond the surface text, the willingness of the senators to escalate critique of Delta hints at a wider political philosophy that could pose a far larger threat to major corporate profiteers across several industries.

“It has become clear that Delta’s management has a highly coordinated and strategic plan to suppress the efforts of over 40,000 workers,” the letter from Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and other progressive stalwarts said. “Mr. Bastian, you earned almost $40 million in the last two years while paying workers who make Delta Air Lines arguably the most financially successful airline on the planet as little as $9 per hour.”

Delta’s rank-and-file workforce have been building support for a staff union for almost six years now. Some workers have been fired or faced other retaliation for working on the union drive, according to multiple reports, and almost all of them have been subjected to an unusually brazen anti-union campaign from their bosses. Delta has long defended its union-busting efforts by pointing to the company’s profit-sharing policy that generated $1.3 billion in worker bonuses last year.

But the airline’s campaign has hit the rocks this spring because a picture of one of the anti-union posters in a worker break room went viral. The sign mused that workers might prefer to spend the money that goes to union dues on video games instead — omitting the compensation hikes that a union would be able to extract in exchange.

Sanders — whose office said he’d led the letter-writing effort — and Warren are prominent candidates for the 2020 Democratic Party nomination for the White House. The men and women who joined them in writing to Bastian are heavyweights in their own right: Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Bob Casey (D-PA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Ed Markey (D-MA), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) also signed onto the letter.

“Your attempts to deny the right of Delta workers to form a union is corporate greed, plain and simple,” the nine senators wrote. “If Delta workers gain union representation they will finally have the right to collectively bargain with Delta for a living wage, decent benefits and safe working conditions.”

The missive adds to the backlash Delta has reaped since the video games poster hit the web a week ago and drew national attention to the firm’s “full-court anti-union press” of constant at-work messaging against unionization in concert with a D.C.-based consulting firm, as HuffPost documented. One major union — the National Education Association — has hinted at potential direct pressure tactics from outside by removing Delta from the list of airlines it recommends to members and uses to book its own travel. Many of the tens of thousands of tweets about the poster over the past week have included the hashtag #boycottdelta.

Though Delta earned this fire for trafficking in the type of flagrant hostility and deceitful internal lobbying against unionization that employers typically try to keep out of the papers, the spotlight that’s come for them could yet expand. The higher pay unionization extracts for members could prove to be a fairly small hit compared to what Delta and other airlines could face in the coming years.

Progressive economists and policymakers have coalesced in recent months around a particular suite of ideas that should worry not just Bastian and Delta, but everyone making millions from the current state of play in the airline business. This new line of thinking, dubbed “public-tizing” by some, is rooted in a longstanding critique of U.S. capitalism but calls for a much more aggressive response from government.

Like banking, telecommunications service, and many other consumer-facing industries, the airline business has become dangerously concentrated. A tiny list of firms control all or nearly all business done in these sectors — many of which are all but mandatory for U.S. workers and citizens to participate in as customers. Delta’s ability to squeeze those big executive pay packages and lavish shareholder payouts from its business relies, in turn, on squeezing both workers and customers. Delta and other airlines have been free to gouge passengers — in both the wallet and the knees, as anyone who’s ridden coach in a plane reconfigured to fit as many people as possible without regard to comfort can attest — because there isn’t a robust enough level of competition to curb such schemes organically.

That’s part of why the public-tizer crowd wants to see these consumer-harming cartels broken up. If government could actually use its long-rusted anti-trust powers — born from the country’s first Gilded Age, when intense and undemocratic disparities in wealth and economic power created a society that looked a lot like today’s only with worse technology — the Deltas of the world might not get away with this kind of stuff so readily.

The public-tizers note, though, that it will likely take some legislative action as well as a willing executive in the White House in order for antitrust law to retake its rightful place in American civics. The trust-buster toolkit has been weakened for decades in the courts courtesy of a willful and diligent campaign by conservative ideologues — or “Supreme Court decisions influenced by conservative economic theories,” as Marshall Steinbaum more gently summed the matter in a recent and detailed rundown of how the modern airline industry is able to thrive at your expense. It will take thoughtful and specific political labor to revive the laws thus gutted.

Two of the senators who signed onto the bully-pulpit letter to Delta’s well-heeled chieftain on Thursday intend to take these reforms up from the White House, of course. Warren and Sanders are each longstanding advocates for increased use of public power, distinct though Warren’s self-stated mission to save capitalism from itself may be from Sanders’ maximalist socialism.

The Delta story also offers one potentially useful lens for watching the evolution of the political movement each of them hopes to lead over the course of the 2020 primary and general elections. Consider the other names on the letter to Bastian, and the political history they’ve lived. Those progressive joiners came of age in a Democratic Party where support for labor rights and open hostility to union-busting efforts were defining pillars; signing onto a sharp-tongued letter damning a flagrant demonization of worker solidarity is a relatively easy political lift.

But where Warren and Sanders and the public-tizers hope to go, the political and policy challenges are likely to grow. A lot of people have made a lot of money for a long time from the concentration and privatization schemes that must be undone in order for major American consumer industries to begin responding to healthier incentives.

Big-dollar donors understand how Democrats and unions are wedded. But the more aggressive Teddy Roosevelt-style trust-busting that public-tizers are bucking for might not go down so easy.

 

This article was originally published at Think Progress on May 15, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Alan Pyke  covers poverty and the social safety net. Alan is also a film and music critic for fun. Send him tips at: apyke@thinkprogress.org or

 

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