Posts Tagged ‘American labor unions’

U.S. labor’s new strategies for a new century

October 15, 2019

Freedom of contract begins where equality of bargaining power begins.  (==Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.)

A class war is being waged in the United States, and American workers are losing.  For the past 50 years, labor unions, the only institutions whose specific purpose is to defend workers’ rights, have gone from defeat to defeat.

New Deal protections of labor rights have been taken away, one-by-one, through court decisions, anti-labor laws and non-enforcement of labor laws.   Republican politicians, with few exceptions, regard unions as hated

American business is increasingly a network of supply chains, franchises and “independent” contractors,” which are almost impossible to shut down through strikes.  As a result, labor union membership has steadily fallen.

Steven Greenhouse, who was a long-time labor reporter for the New York Times, describes the state of American labor in his new book, BEATEN DOWN, WORKED UP: The Past, Present and Future of American Labor.   

He reviewed the history of U.S. labor’s rise and decline. but the most interesting parts of the book are his reports on successful tactics and strategies of today’s labor movement.

They often operate outside the framework of labor law. I’m not surprised or shocked that unions sometimes defy the law.  Employers routinely break the law, in firing workers for belonging to unions, for example, or not paying workers for all hours worked.

They often bypass being certified as bargaining agents by the National Labor Relations Board or asking for legally-enforceable contracts.   Instead their power comes from their own solidarity and power.

They found allies in the broader community.  They used unconventional tactics.  Saul Alinsky would admire many of today’s labor leaders.  They didn’t confine themselves to strikes.  They organized boycotts, publicity campaigns, mass demonstrations and lawsuits—anything to inconvenience or embarrass their opponents.

But often when they won, management found they were better off treating their workers with respect than as enemies.

A large number of labor leaders and rank-and-file workers quoted by Greenhouse are immigrants, women and people of color.  I don’t think that’s affirmative-action reporting on his part.  It is the nature of today’s work force.

Here are some of the stories he told/

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About 90 percent of fresh tomatoes in the USA are picked in Immokalee, Florida.  Tomato pickers historically worked long hours in the 90+ degree temperatures.

Women pickers were sexually harassed.  Pickers were often cheated of their wages.  A few were actually enslaved—held prisoner and forced to work without wages.

Farm workers are not covered by the National Labor Relations Act, which supposedly guarantees the right to organize unions.

In 1991, farmworker activists founded the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a coalition that did outreach and education.

The founding group included three Haitians  pickers who’d been peasant organizers in their own country, but were now refugees in the United States.

They followed the Latin American labor tradition of “popular education,” using classes and skits to teach about labor history, U.S. agribusiness and how to educate and organize.

In 1993, they carried out their first strike.  They won minor victories from different growers, but then decided to focus instead on Taco Bell, a principal buyer of tomatoes.  In 2001, they organized a national boycott of Taco Bell.  Twenty colleges barred Taco Bell from campus.

After a huge demonstration at Taco Bell’s 2005 stockholders’ meeting, the company agreed to adopt a code of conduct for its suppliers, which set standards for wages, benefits, working hours and employee safety and also to pay a penny a pound more for its Florida tomatoes.

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American labor unions may not survive

August 30, 2018

Garret Keizer wrote about the desperate plight of American labor unions in the September issue of Harper’s Magazine.  His thinking is the same as mine.  In the following passage, he quotes himself.

“I grew up with the assumption that there was labor and there was management,” I tell him, “and they’d always be locked in this struggle, and sometimes labor would win and sometimes, probably most of the time, management would win, but they’d be wrestling back and forth, and that’s how it would go on, and in some ways that would be how society progressed.

“And now I’ve started to wonder whether that’s the right way of thinking about it, whether it isn’t a wrestling match but a fight to the death and there are only two possible outcomes.

“One is that labor, not by itself but in a coalition with other groups, prevails to the extent of being able to restructure society in some basic ways.

“Or management, or whatever you want to call it—the One Percent—will destroy all unions and basically there will be masters and slaves.

“What’s wrong with that construction?  What am I missing?”

His question is addressed to Larry Cohen, former president of the Communication Workers of America and chairman of the board of Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution movement.

“Nothing,” he says.

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American labor unions and the middle class

November 16, 2015

UnionsMiddleClassMay2015Source: Center for American Progress.

Replaceable workers or productive workers?

April 7, 2015

CEOs of American companies complain of a lack of skilled workers and the lack of job training.

But if you look at what most of them do, and not what they say, they don’t really want productive workers.  They want replaceable workers.

only_one_thing_can_save_us_finalSo argues Thomas Geoghegan, a Chicago labor lawyer, in his outstanding new book, ONLY ONE THING CAN SAVE US: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement.

One obvious example of this is Boeing’s decision to have its new Dreamliner made by inexperienced, low-paid workers in South Carolina rather than members of the International Association of Machinists in Seattle.   They had production and quality problems in South Carolina, but their priority evidently was to get away from the union.

Now the same management philosophy is being applied to public schools, universities and hospitals.   Well-trained, well-paid professionals are harassed, laid off and replaced with inexperienced newcomers.

If you define efficiency as that which is most convenient for managers, there is something to be said for this.  An ignorant subordinate is less likely to give you an argument than an experienced and skilled subordinate.  It is easier to treat people as replaceable parts if they lack knowledge and opinions.

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American labor unions and the future

January 26, 2015

The New Deal is regarded as the emancipator of the American labor union movement.  By giving Americans a legal right to bargain collectively through labor unions of their own choosing, the National Labor Relations Act gave unions a recognized place in society.

Under the NLRB umbrella, American labor unions in the 1930s and 1940s became greater in size and power than they ever were before or have been since.

But Stanley Aronowitz in his new book, THE DEATH AND LIFE OF AMERICAN LABOR: Toward a New Workers’ Movement (2014), said that the NLRB in the long run proved a trap.

aronowitz.death&lifeamericanlabor03,200_Aronowitz said that unions agreed to restrictions on their only weapon, the strike.  During the course of a contract, unions themselves were responsible for suppressing unauthorized strikes.

Employers became adept at using the NLRB to thwart union organizing.  In the interim between a petition for a union election and the election itself, they could weed out the union supporters (although this was technically illegal) and threaten and propagandize the employees.

Labor leaders gave up the goal of transforming society in return for place at the table where decisions about the U.S. economy were made.  But they didn’t even get a place at the table.

Over the years, new laws weakened union rights and imposed new restrictions.  Union leaders became less and less able or willing to use their basic weapon—the strike.  Union membership is below 11 percent of the American work force, the lowest level since before the New Deal.

Aronowitz, a professor at City University of New York and a former factory worker and union organizer himself, wrote that if the labor movement is to survive, workers and labor leaders must break out of old ways of thinking.

They need to engage in direct action, outside the NLRB framework, as has was done in the recent Walmart and fast-food walkouts.

Aronowitz noted that these actions were taken without union recognition or expectation of a contract, but were effective nonetheless in forcing management to respond to workers’ demands.

Unions should not agree to contracts with no-strike provisions, he wrote.  Or, if they do, only as a last resort and for a limited time.

I always thought that the Walmart and fast-food workers, who are continually at the brink of destitution, showed great courage by defying their employers like that.  I wouldn’t have thought it possible if it hadn’t happened.  Maybe in this case freedom really is just another word for nothing left to use.

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