Archive for the ‘Organized Labor’ Category

There is No Alternative, Restaurant Work Edition
March 12, 2012

Union members picketing outside the National L...

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Nona Willis Aronowitz has a good article in the latest issue of GOOD about young, frustrated restaurant employees trying to organize. In a generally shitty and abusive service sector, restaurants stand out as particularly exploitative; half of all workers making below minimum wage work at restaurants, with the burden falling especially hard on women. Yet despite that, Aronowitz writes, a lot of younger restaurant workers are reluctant to support unionization efforts:

Activists like Erik face a two-pronged problem: Middle-class kids don’t want to bother with unions because they have one eye on the door. Workers from the permanent underclass like Levi don’t join because they accept that these jobs are shitty, and if they’re fired, they’ll just have to go get another one. It happens all the time—Levi lost his job this fall, for reasons having nothing to do with the union. Turnover is what the industry depends on.

The problem with middle class kids strikes me as one of education: like students in unpaid internships, it seems like white-collar hopefuls seeking temporary restaurant labor have no recognition of themselves as part of a broader worker class, and don’t see how the exploitation in the restaurant industry can distort the entire labor market. Efforts like the Wobblies’ admittedly sort of quixotic Starbucks campaign (which Aronowitz shouts out in her article) are encouraging because they provide a vehicle for raising these issues.

Levi’s problem is not one of education. As a member of the permanent underclass, he’s better informed about the structural violence of the restaurant industry than those middle class kids. But he also recognizes that, if he openly supports the union, he’ll be fired and pushed into (at best) an identical job at another restaurant. In part this is because what’s left of the social safety net is structured, as I’ve written before, to force people into whatever work is available. In part it’s because modern labor election law is firmly on the side of employers. Levi may have the formal right to organize within his workplace, but that doesn’t mean his boss can’t fire him for whatever other reason — and if he takes up what smells like a wrongful termination with the NLRB, there’s virtually no chance they’ll move fast enough for even a positive ruling to make a difference.

So the remedy, if it exists, is a holistic one: education and organizing, a restructured and reinvigorated welfare state, and strengthened worker protections in labor law. But in addition to that, I wonder if any attempt at restaurant organizing doesn’t need to be an industry-wide effort, with UNITE HERE’s modern hotel organizing work serving as a model.

I’m still a labor neophyte — one who’s also still working out his own feelings on this stuff — so on that question I’ll defer to any more experienced movement hands who want to weigh in. But for now, an industry-wide restaurant organizing push is almost surely a pipe dream — a lot is going to have to change before that becomes conceivable.

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Labor and Progressives in the Progressive Era
March 10, 2012

Bleeding Heart Libertarians is generally one of the more thoughtful political theory blogs out there, so this post was a disappointment. Basically, in the course of accusing Corey Robin of badly mischaracterizing libertarian views, author Jessica Flanigan herself badly mischaracterizes the historical relationship between unions and the progressive movement. She writes:

But I also suspect that there’s a deeper, more fundamental anxiety about libertarians that goes beyond politics. Internal to progressivism there is a tension between its historical pro-union and direct governmentalist roots and its avowed concern for the worst off. In practice, it looks like direct governmental intervention and union support no longer works to the benefit of society’s worst off. Progressive opposition to policies like voucher programs are a great example of this tension, as is the current health care mess and the regressive social security system. In a lot of cases, market solutions do a better job of furthering progressive aims than the state run policies that progressives favor, and even the worst off value economic liberty.

Let’s table any questions about the relative merits of school vouchers and social security for now, since it’s not in my wheelhouse and argument-by-links is generally an indication that we’re supposed to take pronouncements like “vouchers are awesome” and “social security is regressive” as premises. I’m willing to do that for the sake of this particular argument. But there’s a very curious omission here: after going on about the “historical pro-union and direct governmentalist roots” of progressivism, Flanigan goes on to talk about only the latter root-category. It’s almost as if she had to get in a casual swipe at the labor movement before moving on to what she really wanted to talk about.

The counter-argument, I suppose, is that progressive opposition to vouchers is all about unions, specifically the teachers’ union. But A) no, and B) you can’t expect to be taken seriously by anyone with any interest in organized labor if you choose to treat the labor movement as just another interest group whose primary goal is to lobby the government for goodies. Being “pro-union” means a hell of a lot more than just endorsing legislation that some unionized workers might like.

But perhaps the most glaring problem with the above passage (at least from a labor perspective) is its blithe reference to progressivism’s “historical pro-union roots.” Yes, the interests of early 20th century progressives and organized labor did often align, but there were also serious philosophical clashes between the two parties. In particular, the progressives had a technocratic rationalist streak that led to some rather authoritarian views on the proper role of labor in society. Some of the era’s most prominent progressives even endorsed Frederick Taylor’s systematic assault on workers’ control over their own labor. From David Montgomery’s classic Workers’ Control in America: Studies in the History of Work, Technology, and Labor Struggles:

Thus Taylor roundly denied even “the high class mechanic” could “ever thoroughly understand the science of doing his work,” and pasted the contemptuous label of “soldiering” over all craft rules, formal and informal alike. Progressive intellectuals seconded his arguments. Louis Brandeis hailed scientific management for “reliev[ing] labor of responsibilities not its own.” And John R. Commons considered it “immoral to hold up to this miscellaneous labor, as a class, the hope that it can ever manage industry.”

“Historical pro-union roots,” indeed.

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Abolish the Unpaid Internship
March 9, 2012


internship (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

Someone must have dosed my morning coffee, because one of Charles Murray’s ideas is making sense:

For one thing, we should get rid of unpaid internships. The children of the new upper class hardly ever get real jobs during summer vacation. Instead, they get internships at places like the Brookings Institution, the American Enterprise Institute (where I work) or a senator’s office.

It amounts to career assistance for rich, smart children. Those from the middle and working class, struggling to pay for college, can’t afford to work for free. Internships pave the way for children to move seamlessly from their privileged upbringings to privileged careers without ever holding a job that is boring or physically demanding.

So let the labor unions win this one: If you are not a religious organization and have more than 10 employees, the minimum wage law should apply to anyone who shows up for work every day.

Yes. A hundred thousand times, yes. And not just for the reasons that Murray gives. Even if you already have your desired career as a skilled white collar professional, unpaid internships devalue your labor by taking a portion of it from you and putting in the hands of unpaid workers. This is an old, old managerial trick: find a class of people who can be trained to do some of the same work for cheaper (or, in this case, nothing but college credits), thereby putting downward pressure on the wages of the more experienced employees and forcing them to produce more. It worked for factory owners in the heyday of Taylorism, and it can work for the Huffington Post today.

In fact, the Huffington post actually auctions off some of its internships for thousands of dollars. Doing work for free is now a privilege that will cost you about as much as a used car. And that’s not including transportation, opportunity costs, and all the other expenses of working even an internship you’re not paying for.

So what does all of that get you? Vanishingly little, these days. As unpaid internships have proliferated (and become seemingly obligatory if you want to enter a skilled white-collar profession), they’ve also come to displace the labor of even unskilled, low-wage workers. The most recent (and extreme) example of this phenomenon is perhaps the clothing chain Anthropologie’s “visual display internship,” which is essentially minimum-wage window display work, but without the “wage” part.

Ross Perlin, author of the book Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, has written at length about the indignities of uncompensated labor, but his most urgent message is prescriptive: it’s time for unpaid interns to recognize themselves as workers, and organize as workers. From a May 2011 essay in In These Times:

Present, former and future interns need to take action to restore the promise and dignity of work. Until now, young people have ceded everything, asking only for a foot in the door. It’s time to stop spreading the internship gospel. Stop thinking your labor is, was, or will be worthless. Just because you have a student ID and live in a dorm doesn’t mean you’re not also a worker. Identify and organize as interns, and form alliances with like-minded groups such as temps and freelancers. If you’ve moved on, don’t forget the rookie of the workforce, the unpaid kid doing menial and administrative work: the intern.

If we’re ever going to realize Murray’s proposal of abolishing the unpaid internship entirely, it needs to start now with grassroots intern organizing. Occupy Internships was a step in that right direction, but it seems to have stalled. Hopefully it comes back, but in the event that it doesn’t, the next move is probably education. Interns, college students, people who work with interns: talk amongst yourselves and see what can be done in your workplace or across workplaces. Also keep in mind that many of the most-sought after unpaid internships are at ostensibly progressive institutions that like to trumpet their commitment to the interests of regular working folk. Maybe it’s time to remind the heads of those organizations that this shit starts at home.

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Workers Never Act, But Are Merely Acted Upon
February 19, 2012

Today’s New York Times reports that conditions are improving at China’s infamous Foxconn plant. For this, they credit: Foxconn management for raising salaries and cutting overtime; anonymous “critics” of Foxconn management; “labor rights groups”; an audit by the Fair Labor Association; and, by the transitive property, Apple, for requesting the audit.

Oddly enough, the only people to not get any credit at all are the workers at the plant. This despite the fact that we’re only talking about Foxconn right now because hundreds of the plant’s employees threatened mass suicide in protest of appalling labor conditions.

In other words, that higher pay and reduced overtime is a concession that the workers won through a remarkable act of defiance and solidarity. That sounds like a pretty good story! How odd that the Times decided to tell a different story, in which the workers are merely passive objects. (Even the article’s single oblique acknowledgement of worker agency is framed in the passive tense: “Foxconn facilities in China have experienced a series of worker suicides.” Poor Foxconn facilities!)

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About Last Night
January 25, 2012

From Obama’s State of the Union address (paraphrased):

In order to face the jobs of America’s future, we must job all the jobs in order to job more jobs. In short: jobs.

And from Mitch Daniels’ rebuttal:

The President’s jobs are not jobly enough. We need to jobs the jobs using a combination of jobs and jobs, but especially jobs.

As you can see, last night had a theme. But for all of the emphasis on job creation, neither speaker (I’m not counting Herman Cain here, for reasons that should be self-evident) devoted a whole lot of time to talking about what kind of jobs. When you’re measuring success by a generic “job” metric, 50,000 new jobs at McDonald’s counts for about as much as a salaried position with benefits. If all that matters is whether the manufacturing sector added jobs, the fact that those jobs are worth less and less money is no big deal.

It goes on. Working 50-hour weeks when you’re only getting paid for 40? Can’t join a union? Nowhere to go and nothing to do when the boss violates your contract and abuses his authority? At least you have a job! Be grateful, and give your leaders credit for helping you out like that.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is what counts as populism in modern electoral politics. Guess Occupy can pack it up and toast to a job well done.

To Save the Labor Movement, We Must Destroy the Labor Movement
November 28, 2011

Kevin Drum is usually pretty solid on labor issues, so it’s more than a little jarring to see him give his qualified endorsement to obvious quackery like this:

Congress should authorize employee associations that are easier to form than current unions, but which do not have the power to interfere with managerial prerogatives (which is pretty much every subject other than employee compensation as determined by a collectively bargained contract). Of course, if the new types of employee organizations are not suffocating their members, they may in fact find it easier than old unions to attract new members.

Author Alan J. Haus never gets around to explaining how unions “suffocate their members,” but apparently it has something to do with a unions’ “power to interfere with managerial prerogatives,” or bargain on anything that doesn’t directly pertain to wages. That’s an odd way to define suffocation.

The maneuver Haus is trying to pull here is an oldie but goody: conflating employee interests with those of management, and suggesting that traditional unions are diametrically opposed to both. The unspoken thesis is that class conflict is something stirred up by innovation-hating unions, not the natural byproduct of a system that relies on worker exploitation. What Haus would have us believe is that everyone can be on the same team, so long as workers don’t put up a fight. In other words: give managers freedom to do whatever they want (except, Haus graciously concedes, when it comes to wages), and the benefits will trickle down to everyone!

I can see why the promise of conflict-free labor-management relations would appeal to Drum, but he should be smart enough to know that Haus is selling snake oil. Ever since the beginning of the 20th century and the advent of scientific management, conservatives and business-friendly “progressives” have foretold a bold new era of cooperation between workers and employers. Mysteriously, realizing this dream has always required that workers cede just a little bit more control of their own labor. And then a little more, and a little more. Haus offers us nothing but a variation on the theme. “Just give up this one more thing,” he promises us, “and this time, I swear, it will happen.”

Well, why take his word for it when we can see for ourselves how it’s worked out so far? I would suggest Drum read his own work to find out.

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#OWS, Meet Mondragon
October 31, 2011


Credit unions have been booming over the past few weeks, thanks in part, I believe, to the Occupy movement. Indeed, one of the more promising trends I’ve seen in Occupy teach-ins, discussions and literature is a focus on promoting alternatives to corporate consumption. To that end, I’d like to recommend that the occupiers and their allies all read up on the Mondragon Corporation, a sprawling association of worker co-ops in the Basque region of Spain. Through Mondragon, some 84,000 Basque workers democratically run their own factories, schools, grocery stores, credit unions, insurance companies, and then some. Via the New Left Project, here’s a 1980 documentary on the corporation’s history and the community it serves:

A co-op network this sprawling probably isn’t replicable in the United States any time in the near future. And our manufacturing base is so corroded that an American Mondragon would likely have to build its foundation on a separate industry. But Occupy is playing the long game, and it has no shortage of resourcefulness.

Besides, the Mondragon model appeals to some of the principles that seem to resonate most deeply with Occupiers: democracy as a way of life, economic justice, and a way of bringing these things into the real world that doesn’t involve slogging through traditional legislative channels. Clearly, Occupiers must deal with dominating state and corporate power head on, but they also have a real opportunity to introduce alternatives. The Mondragon model may not be the solution, but it’s something to learn from.

The experiment in promoting credit unions has thus far been a success, but it’s time to think bigger and more comprehensive. It doesn’t get much more comprehensive than an entire community run on economic democracy.

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It’s About Control
October 29, 2011

ANNAPOLIS, MD - MARCH 14: School teacher Marcu...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

One of the great myths of public employee union busting is that budget shortfalls made it necessary. States need to eliminate collective bargaining, the story goes, because otherwise intransigent unions will hold their budgets hostage. If AFSCME, UFT and all the rest have the power to bargain on behalf of the state’s employees, they’ll block any attempt to make cuts in wages and benefits — and if that happens, then the state will instead be forced to lay people off.

If you want to know how that story plays out in the real world, take a look at Ohio. The Buckeye State recently gutted public employee collective bargaining, theoretically leaving the town of Lancaster with the means to preserve its’ firefighters jobs. Guess what? The town’s still shedding staff.

But what really deepens the absurdity here is that those same firefighters, back when they still had their collective bargaining rights, were eager to work with the state to resolve its budget issues:

“I don’t think Senate Bill 5 could have prevented this; these firefighters were going to be laid off,” Kraner said. “But it will effect our take-home pay, and basically not give us a voice in manning issues; it gives all the power to management. It would cause more lay-offs.”

Kraner said the law, if kept on the books, would be bad for “everybody in Ohio.” The law prohibits unions from bargaining for minimum staffing (PDF).

“And the last three years we went from a 22-man minimum to a 16-man minimum,” said Kraner. “That was part of the concessions our union made.”

Other concessions made in Lancaster include turning down pay raises they were contractually owed last year in an attempt to prevent layoffs. New firefighters in Lancaster make around $38,000 per year, and can earn up to the $70,000s as an officer.

You might remember hearing something similar in Wisconsin during their collective bargaining fight. Wisconsin public employees were willing to accept deep benefit cuts in order to preserve their rights, but Walker and Wisconsin Republicans rejected their concessions out of hand.

What this should tell you is that the assault on public employee collective bargaining is only incidentally about money. It’s really about control. The public sector of our economy is one of the last strongholds where America’s working class has any say at all in how its own labor is managed. To the Republican Party — and a significant chunk of the Democratic Partyany worker self-determination is unacceptable.

Ignore the cant about wages, benefits and budgets. The labor struggle today is about the same thing it’s always been about: freedom and control. Do you own any of your own labor? Or does it all belong to the 1%?

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#OWS and Organized Labor
October 28, 2011

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 18:  Members of the Occ...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

Having previously compared the New Left to Occupy Wall Street, Shawn Gude wonders aloud why the latter is so much more inclined to play nice with labor unions. His theory:

Constant rearguard attacks and mass deunionization have surely play a part. Labor is beleaguered—not an ossified, establishment force. And the cultural chasm between the labor rank-and-file and leftist seems to have shrunk; organized labor has moved to the left in recent decades, and the left has moved to the right (no more antiwar sentiments transmogrifying into anti-soldier enmity). I just can’t imagine anything comparable to the Hard Hat Riot happening now.

The first part of that sounds right, though I’m not so sure about the bolded portion. It may well be true that organized labor has liberalized significantly on social issues, but I don’t think they’ve done so out of proportion with trends in overall societal norms — and besides, it’s not like all the true leftists were ever entirely purged from the movement. As for “the left,” whether or not it moved right sort of depends on who you’re talking about. The Democratic Party has certainly undergone a sharp rightward tilt in many respects, but I don’t think Shawn was referring to them. If we’re instead talking about the anarchists and other hard leftists who were caucusing at OWS from the beginning, then I’d argue there’s been very little shift towards the center in those intellectual traditions. It’s not like anarchists have gotten significantly less anarchist of late. (And outside of those ideologically concentrated cells, the intellectual makeup of OWS is too diverse and fraught with internal dissent to even call it “the left” without qualification.)

But then, I know very little about the New Left. What I can talk about with slightly more authority is US labor history in the first half of the 20th Century. That was a period when organized labor was the left in America; maybe not necessarily all of the rank and file, but among staff and leadership the philosophical gamut ran from center-leftism to syndicalism, socialism, anarchism, and out-and-out Communism.

I won’t be able to do justice to the possible causes for the New Left’s formal split with organized labor, but I will note one key factor Shawn didn’t mention: overall economic climate. The 60s were a time of relative prosperity, at least for white America. Between the New Deal and the Great Society, ambitious social welfare proposals were now mainstream propositions.. These weren’t exactly the conditions for class struggle.

Contrast that with the current economic climate, which more closely resembles the conditions that led to peak labor activism in this country. The modern labor movement was born in the Gilded Age and sustained itself through a succession of financial crises which eventually culminated in the Great Depression. Today we face decades of stagnant wages, a crippling financial crisis, Gilded Age-level inequality, and what one might well call another depression. In times like these, one of the left’s primary concerns is class, and organized labor’s value becomes self-evident. The big question now is whether that’s enough.

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Demonizing Labor
August 21, 2011

Strike leader (man on balcony) at Gary, Ind., ...

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Matt Yglesias has had his differences with teachers’ unions in the past, so I was especially pleased to see him push back on this notion that breaking the unions should be one of the primary goals of the education reform movement. Matt writes:

There are a lot of reforms that K-12 education needs in the United States. Since strong teacher’s unions do in fact exist, they often take a prominent role in avoiding these reforms. But that’s a question of union leaders not liking reformers and reform proposals. Some people turn this around through a process of resentment and decide that breaking the unions should be the goal of reform. Not only is there little evidence to back this up, it doesn’t make any sense as a matter of logic. You can’t have an education system without having providers of education services. And the fact that the interests of service providers and the interests of the public are sometimes at odds has nothing in particular to do with labor unions. Unions act as a kind of red cape for some people in some contexts, just like for-profit colleges do for other people in other contexts, and federal contractors do for other people in yet other contexts.

The same holds in other sectors and industries. When some union or another supports a policy that enriches its members at the expense of the broader public, there’s a tendency for organized labor’s critics to point to this as proof that unions are malevolent entities that must be destroyed.

But of course it’s not the job of the unions to represent everyone’s interests. They need only represent the interests of their workers. That these interests might occasionally run counter to broader considerations is no reason to blanketly condemn institutions that, on balance, do far more good than harm. Nor does acknowledging that the interests of unions will occasionally run counter to the public interest undermine the principled argument for more unionization. Unions are good and important because workers need the institutional resources to check employer domination. That doesn’t mean that workers will invariably hold the moral high ground in conflicts between labor and capital; it just means that they have a right to voice their concerns and not get steamrolled.

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