Posts Tagged ‘Unions’
Steven Greenhouse writes a peculiar news report in the NY Times titled “Strained States Turning to Laws to Curb Labor Unions.” The story is frustrating because it lacks information and accepts clueless arguments. For example, Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin, seems to think Wisconsin public employees do not pay taxes:
“We can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots,” Mr. Walker, a Republican, said in a speech. “The bottom line is that we are going to look at every legal means we have to try to put that balance more on the side of taxpayers.”
A kind reporter would have let the governor know that Wisconsin public employees are in fact taxpayers, and his entire statement is the equivalent of farting with his mouth.
The story opens with this puzzler:
Faced with growing budget deficits and restive taxpayers, elected officials from Maine to Alabama, Ohio to Arizona, are pushing new legislation to limit the power of labor unions, particularly those representing government workers, in collective bargaining and politics.
State officials from both parties are wrestling with ways to curb the salaries and pensions of government employees, which typically make up a significant percentage of state budgets.
Have you noticed the complete omission from the opening (and the entire story) of any sign of accountability.
Here’s the situation: A and B are negotiating. Naturally enough, each attempts to maximize his own benefit, but since it’s a true negotiation, A and B must in the end agree in order to have a contract and agreement.
The agreement turns out to be bad for B. Whom would you say deserves the blame: A? or B?
I’d be inclined to blame B, assuming it was an honest negotiation with nothing concealed. (And if anything material was concealed, I believe that would void the contract in any case.)
So apparently we had a bunch of elected officials, all over the country, enter into agreements with the public employees’ unions. The agreements turn out to be bad for the government. Who is at fault? I would have to say that it’s not the unions, it’s the elected officials.
But the Right will always blame unions, because the Right believes that employees should have no power. Companies (and governments) should be able, in the view of the Right, to do what they want with their employees.
When the American auto manufacturers were in terrible trouble, I have a right-wing acquaintance who thought it was all the fault of the unions. But:
The unions don’t design the car, plan the product line, plan and administer the advertising, set prices, do competitor research, and so on: that is all the job of management.
And in fact the unions don’t make the labor contracts: Those are agreements between management and the unions. Management is as much a part of those agreements as unions, and if the agreements are bad for the company, it was management at fault: management is responsible for running the company, and management is responsible for agreeing only to sensible contracts that properly protect the company.
We have unions for a reason: the record shows that companies—and management—will in general treat their workers as shabbily as they possibly can, paying them as little as they can get away with, and cutting costs by cutting safety and all other programs that protect workers. Look at Massey Energy to see why we need unions.
And we also need better managers and better elected officials, ones who can exercise responsibility and accept accountability.
Excellent post. Go read and you’ll not regret it.
Over at the Washington Monthly, T.A. Frank tells the story of workers at a Rite-Aid distribution center in the Antelope Valley, about 70 miles north of Los Angeles. At first, things were great. Then new management came in, conditions went from bad to worse, and finally the center’s workers decided to unionize:
The Rite Aid organizers filed their union authorization cards with the NLRB, setting the ground for an election. And then things got ugly—and illegal, too….Eventually, the NLRB racked up so many complaints that it planned to take Rite Aid to trial on forty-nine violations of federal labor law. In the summer of 2007, though, Rite Aid chose to settle instead, agreeing to rehire two fired union supporters with back pay and to post a notice in a common area promising not to engage in thirteen types of illegal anti-union activity.
….[ILWU] won the March election, becoming the sole bargaining representative of the warehouse employees. And yet, the day after, things got worse….By August, thirty-nine more employees had been dismissed….Today, nine months later, Rite Aid and the ILWU have not yet come up with a contract. At meetings, Rite Aid has been pushing aside contract negotiations in order to discuss other things. Legally, Rite Aid is supposed to bargain “in good faith,” but such terms are highly subjective and difficult to litigate. Work conditions for the warehouse workers remain much as before, perhaps even worse. And that works to Rite Aid’s advantage — for when a union fails to deliver, its members may lose faith in it and vote it out.
The whole thing is worth reading to get some insight into how unionization drives really work as opposed to the civics class version of how they work. In the end, Tom argues that “card check,” which allows unions to organize merely by getting 50% of a site’s workers to sign authorization cards, may be the least important of card check legislation. The more important parts of the Employee Free Choice Act, he says, are …
Much praise is being laid about for the amazing rescue of all passengers and crew after the aircraft crashed into the Hudson River. That miracle is due in no small part to unions.
Fascinating book review in the New Yorker. A few snippets:
… Oddly, in a phenomenon that Andrews calls “the paradox of coal,” one of the few things unchanged by the fossil-fuel revolution was the way that fuel itself was mined. First, a worker undermined a chunk of coal by chipping away at the foot of it with his pick, creating a gap called a kerf. Then he drilled holes, filled them with explosives, and detonated. Finally, he loaded the coal loosened by the blast onto a car. Except for the explosives, the only energy deployed was the miner’s own. An attempt at mechanization, in 1881, failed; the machines kept breaking down and miners hated them so much that they deserted. For decades, companies simply hired more men. Coal made this easy to do, because it had boosted population and efficiency—so that everywhere there were more people and less work—and had also made travel cheaper than ever before. By the eighteen-nineties, three or four thousand tons of coal could push a steamer across the Atlantic in just six days, and a ticket aboard cost only thirty dollars. Between 1870 and 1910, the non-indigenous population of Colorado grew twentyfold. Unskilled workers from Italy, Greece, Japan, the doddering Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Spanish-speaking New Mexico were hired for their muscles and their willingness to risk their lives. As an individual, a miner was expendable, and, to prevent unionizing, mine operators kept their workforce polyglot. In some Colorado counties, democracy was nearly vestigial. Industrialization was gradually reproducing the conditions of feudalism…
… Miners feared the company’s power. Those who criticized the company were often sent “down the canyon” (blacklisted) or “kangarooed” (beaten up). On Election Day, the company supervised voting, and when the Republican Party needed a victory one sheriff obliged by counting as voters the heads of passing sheep. “I am king of this county,” he once boasted. Whenever a miner died in an accident, the undersheriff asked the mine superintendent whom to put on the coroner’s jury. In the decade leading up to the Ludlow massacre, just one mining fatality in Huerfano County was blamed on management, leaving payments to widows and orphans in the other eighty-nine cases to the company’s discretion…
… In 1907, to stanch C.F. & I.’s losses, Rockefeller assigned it a minder. LaMont M. Bowers was old school; he scorned “muckrakers, labor disturbers and the milk and water preachers and professors.” Upon arrival in Colorado, he shortened lunch breaks in the office, pruned the Sociological Department until miners’ living standards fell, and even reduced bribes to politicians. The company turned profitable. In 1910, when an explosion killed seventy-nine miners and the Colorado Bureau of Labor Statistics accused C.F. & I. of “cold-blooded barbarism” in its neglect of safety measures, Bowers assured his superiors in New York that the miners would soon “get over the excitement.” In reply, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to whom his aging father was ceding control, merely asked why C.F. & I. wasn’t growing faster. The younger Rockefeller had recently resigned from the board of Standard Oil to devote his energy to philanthropy. He was particularly concerned about fallen women…
… Once the National Guard was deployed, its general claimed the power of martial law, holding prisoners incommunicado, setting up a military commission to review detentions, and threatening to jail a local district attorney if he interfered. According to Papanikolas, one union organizer took advantage of his indefinite incarceration to read “The Pickwick Papers,” “The Three Musketeers,” and “Les Misérables.” Mother Jones took advantage of hers to win publicity, and, when a thousand women protested her detention by marching through the city of Trinidad, the general, who in peacetime served Denver as an ophthalmologist, panicked. On horseback, he kicked a sixteen-year-old girl; then he fell off his mount and in revenge cried out, “Ride down the women!”—an order that led his cavalry to slash with sabres at a square full of women. One was cut on the face, another on her hands, and a third had an ear partly severed…
In fact, their attitude is illegal. That’s pretty much wrong. Here’s the story:
Starbucks, once the undisputed leader in premium-price caffeine fixes, has long cultivated a corporate image for social responsibility, environmental awareness, and sensitivity to workers’ rights. Now that carefully crafted reputation is under assault, thanks to a messy legal dispute with a group called the Starbucks Workers Union (SWU) (part of the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW), which started recruiting employees in 2004 and now claims 300 members.
The National Labor Relations Board found on Dec. 23 that Starbucks had illegally fired three New York City baristas as it tried to squelch the union organizing effort. The 88-page ruling also says the company broke the law by giving negative job evaluations to other union supporters and prohibiting employees from discussing union issues at work. The judge ordered that the three baristas be reinstated and receive back wages. The judge also called on Starbucks to end discriminatory treatment of other pro-union workers at four Manhattan locations named in the case. The decision marks the end of an 18-month trial in New York City that pitted the ubiquitous multinational corporation against a group of twentysomething baristas who are part of the Industrial Workers of the World.
The timing isn’t ideal for Starbucks, which faces lower demand from the recession, an overall loss of panache for the brand, and a sliding stock price. “[The ruling] is a real thumb in the eye—a real gotcha moment with potential for heartache,” says Eric Dezenhall, chief executive officer of Dezenhall Resources, a crisis management public relations firm in Washington D.C. “I don’t think it’s a crisis, but it hovers between [being] a nuisance and a problem.” …
Continue reading. Note that this is the current National Labor Relations Board, which is not especially friendly to labor.
Bad news about a big, powerful, wealthy corporation:
‘Twas the night before Christmas when Wal-Mart told the world it decided to settle 63 lawsuits to the tune of as much as $640 million; most of those lawsuits alleged that Wal-Mart “underpaid its employees.”
So what prompted the usually greedy Grinch to give more than half a billion dollars to its employees? It must’ve been a passing wind of Christmas Cheer, right? No.
The Wall Street Journal says one reason Wal-Mart paid out $640 million is because the world’s largest retailer wants to improve its image ahead of its fight against the Employee Free Choice Act. Wal-Mart appears to be afraid of that legislation because it would give employees the free choice to join unions and negotiate for better wages, benefits, and retirement security – something Wal-Mart employees certainly don’t have now.
Here’s what the Wall Street Journal said about the settlements:
But there may be something else going on. Remember the Employee Free Choice Act? [...]
Paul M. Secunda, an associate professor at Marquette University Law School, suggested Wal-Mart wanted to settle the lawsuits not just to avoid potentially more costly defeats in the courtroom, but to resolve issues that might be used to argue for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act. The legislation, expected to be considered by Congress next year, is fiercely opposed by Wal-Mart because the company worries it will make it easier for workers to unionize.
Wal-Mart is familiar with fighting the Employee Free Choice Act. FEC complaints were filed against the company in August alleging that Wal-Mart told its employees to vote against Democrats such as now President-elect Barack Obama because of their support of the Employee Free Choice Act. And current Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott told reporters this fall why he’s against the Employee Free Choice Act. From the WSJ: …
Via Publius on Obsidian Wings, this site provides good information on the Employee Free Choice Act, which will (I hope) provide unions with the support they need. Under GOP influence, our government has gradually turned anti-union in terms of the NLRB, the court system, and laws. The EFCA will help correct the balance. This video (also via Publius) will give you an idea of why unions are still needed:
Very good post by Ezra Klein:
The Employee Free Choice Act fight is happening backwards. The argument is over the particular characteristics and implications of card check — the proposed solution. But you hear very little about the underlying the problem. This is the opposite of how most reform battles go, where there’s a focus on the problem — 47 million uninsured, or climatological catastrophe around the corner — and the solutions are left vague. The better to build support and consensus on the need for reform rather than splitting your coalition on details. If you can win the argument for reform, you get some sort of solution. If Labor loses the argument over EFCA, do they get anything?
It’s hard to see what they’d get. The discussion is almost entirely around the effects card check would have workplace democracy. Most of the union efforts are on defending card check’s procedures and provisions. But the problem is getting lost: “Employers routinely harass, intimidate, coerce and even fire workers struggling to gain a union so they can bargain for better lives. And U.S. labor law is powerless to stop them.” That comes from the AFL-CIO’s new web page on card check, which also reports the findings of Cornell scholar Kate Bronfenbrenner, who surveyed hundreds of organizing campaigns and found:
• Ninety-two percent of private-sector employers, when faced with employees who want to join together in a union, force employees to attend closed-door meetings to hear anti-union propaganda; 80 percent require supervisors to attend training sessions on attacking unions; and 78 percent require that supervisors deliver anti-union messages to workers they oversee.
• Seventy-five percent hire outside consultants to run anti-union campaigns, often based on mass psychology and distorting the law.
• Half of employers threaten to shut down partially or totally if employees join together in a union.
• In 25 percent of organizing campaigns, private-sector employers illegally fire workers because they want to form a union.
This is the problem. It’s possible there are other solutions than EFCA. But it needs to be solved, one way or the other. EFCA has its problems, but pretending that it’s somehow a perversion of workplace democracy as compared to a world in which 25 percent of organizing campaigns see a worker fired is absurd. It’s as if political candidates had the power to revoke your citizenship and take away your Social Security if you voted the wrong way. Would that really be a form of democracy worth preserving?
And here’s an excellent comment on Klein’s post.
Barry Nolan tells a good story in ThinkProgress. It begins:
According to an article in the New York Times, a typical salary in the Smithfield Packing slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, NC is $11.90 per hour, or $476 for a 40 hour week. Because I am a considerate person, I will spare you any description of the grisly jobs performed by those workers in that slaughterhouse.
The base salary of a U.S. senator is $169,300 a year or $3,255 a week. Because I am a considerate person, I will spare you any description of the job some of those senators are doing on us these days.
The slaughterhouse story in the New York Times looked back on the 16-year long struggle to bring union representation to the 5,000 or so workers in Tar Heel, which ended up in court at one point. In 2006, after seven years of litigation, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that Smithfield had engaged in “intense and widespread” coercion and ordered Smithfield to reinstate four union supporters it found were illegally fired, one of whom was beaten by the plant’s police on the day of the 1997 election.
The court also said Smithfield had engaged in other illegal activities: spying on workers’ union activities, confiscating union materials, threatening to fire workers who voted for the union and threatening to freeze wages and shut the plant.
But the big news in the Times story, especially if you pack meat, was that after the long struggle with Smithfield, the union finally won. The slaughterhouse is going union.
On the same day MSNBC had a story about a GOP memo titled “Action Alert,” which went out to the Republican senators just before their “No” vote on the Big Three Auto Makers bailout bill. The GOP memo contained this pithy paragraph:
This is the democrats first opportunity to payoff organized labor after the election. This is a precursor to card check and other items. Republicans should stand firm and take their first shot against organized labor, instead of taking their first blow from it.
It has been a longstanding part of the conservative’s core philosophy that unions are simply bad for business. That is why is why conservatives who are making $169 K per year for standing around arguing, just can’t understand why someone who is making the princely salary of $24,752 for working 40 hours a week in a slaughterhouse would ever want to join a union. It could eat into a company’s profits. Never mind that as a non-union hog butcher, you may bring home a little bacon, but good luck sending your kids to college.
The Federal Poverty guideline for 2008, sets $22,200 as the poverty level for a family of four. Those who do the hard spirit killing, tendon ripping work of slaughtering hogs, forty hours a week, 52 weeks a year, are just barely, faintly above the poverty level.
So just who are these people the GOP sees as the enemy? …
Well, it doesn’t happen in the context of card checks. Kevin Drum:
Unions support card check legislation because they think it will make it easier to organize new industries. Business leaders dislike card check for the same reason. But what they say is that card check is bad because it allows union organizers to intimidate workers into signing cards. Now, business leaders are well-known for their tender sensibilities toward worker rights, but Jonathan Zasloff decided to check up on the intimidation story anyway:
For 50 years, from the 40′s to the 90′s. the province of Ontario had a card-check organizing system….So what was the record there?
I used advanced research techniques unknown to many reporters, and called up Harry Arthurs of York University, Canada’s pre-eminent labour law scholar. Arthurs literally wrote the book on this stuff. And I asked him: what does the evidence show?
Arthurs answered that in all of his research about labour law complaints under card check, he could not find a single case where the employer complained of a union intimidating workers to unionize when they didn’t want to.
That’s right: zero. Zilch. Nada. Efes. Rien.
….This isn’t some obscure jurisdiction. It’s Ontario, the largest and richest province in the country. 50 years. A half a century. Zero.
Look: unions aren’t perfect. Nothing is perfect. The financial industry, just to pick an example out of my hat, is obviously wildly imperfect, but that doesn’t mean we should get rid of the private financial industry. It just means we should regulate it to avoid some of its worst pathologies.
Ditto for unions. If anyone has a better mechanism for giving workers more bargaining clout and therefore higher wages, I’m all ears. Anyone who thinks collective bargaining is a good idea but believes we ought to reform the Wagner Act, I’ll listen to them too. But the evidence of the past 30 years makes it pretty clear that productivity growth and improved education aren’t nearly enough on their own to keep median wages growing. Neither is unionization, for that matter. But at least it pushes in the right direction. If card check helps that along, I’m all for it.
Very interesting post (with comments) from Nathan Newman. It begins:
A lot of folks take the fact that most high-tech industries appeared in the modern period of anti-union rules and thus there are few unions in such industries to mean that unionism itself doesn’t “work” for high tech, high-skilled workers. But then you have one of the original high-tech industries– modern aviation — and a massive union of engineers and technical workers who just approved their contract with Boeing:
Nearly 21,000 engineers and technical workers for The Boeing Co., most of them in the Puget Sound area, have approved new labor contracts that will give them more say in the company’s controversial outsourcing decisions and the use of contract workers. They also will receive more for retirement and a pay raise that will average about 20 percent over four years.
I’ve never quite understood the logic that says that blue-collar manual workers have something to gain from more democratic say over their wages and conditions of work, but higher-skilled workers don’t.Of course, high-skilled workers have always been unionized. In fact, the conventional wisdom among some sectors of the labor movement before the New Deal was that only the most skilled workers could be unionized, since their skills were so indispensable that it gave them the leverage to win strikes. Before the New Deal, a few industries like the miners and garment trades in locations like New York had managed to organize less skilled workers, but it was only in the 1930s that massive numbers of manufacturing workers in routine, assembly-line jobs got organized in unions. And a new Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) had to break off from the original AFL federation, because the original craft union leaders were so doubtful of the possibility of organizing anyone other than skilled workers.
The irony is that …
No matter that it’s illegal: businesses are accustomed to getting away with illegal practices regarding unions. But CNN didn’t get away:
In a decision made public yesterday, a judge has ordered CNN “to rehire 110 workers who were fired because they were union members. CNN also was ordered to recognize the workers’ unions, National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians-CWA (NABET-CWA) locals 31 and 11.” From the AFL-CIO blog:
Judge Arthur Amchan found that CNN violated the rights of more than 250 employees at the network’s bureaus in Washington, D.C., and New York City when it ended its subcontract with Team Video Services (TVS) [in 2003-2004], whose employees were represented by NABET-CWA. He also ruled that CNN discriminated against TVS employees who wanted to continue working at CNN’s bureaus to avoid having to recognize and bargain with the union.
Ed McEwan, president of Local 11, responded, “Everyone in America should know that the network management we rely on to bring us the news are not above the illegal practices that they headline on a regular basis.”
Sounds like a fascinating book:
During the half-century between Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson, class warfare in the United States was always robust, usually ferocious, and often homicidal. Since the moneyed class controlled most of the heavy weapons — courts, state militias, municipal police forces, banks, newspapers, governors, senators, and often even the presidency — it won most of the battles and naturally ended up owning the lion’s share of the national wealth.
Constantly triumphant, the rich became dangerously pleased with their own excellence and ostentatiously arrogant. Frederick Townsend Martin, who wrote as a contented specimen of “the idle rich,” ascribed their success to single-minded devotion to greed: “It matters not one iota what political party is in power or what President holds the reins of office,” he wrote.
We are not politicians or public thinkers; we are the rich; we own America; we got it, God knows how, but we intend to keep it if we can by throwing all the tremendous weight of our support, our influence, our money, our political connections, our purchased senators, our hungry congressmen, our public-speaking demagogues into the scale against any legislature, any political platform, any presidential campaign that threatens the integrity of our estate.
What was threatening the integrity of Harrison Gray Otis’s estate in 1910 was union labor. As owner of the Los Angeles Times, Otis had “declared war” years earlier on the printers’ union, “then on all unions,” as David Halberstam tells it in The Powers That Be, his 1979 history of four newspaper giants, including the Times. Otis had been in constant combat with the printers’ union since 1890 and had lately united the city’s business leaders in an association pledged to crush labor in Los Angeles by refusing to hire union men of any variety.
With this threat to the unions’ very survival, events moved inexorably toward violence. Strikes broke out throughout the city in a variety of trades. “From 1907 to 1910 a state of war existed in the city,” Halberstam writes. Otis “took to riding around Los Angeles in a huge touring car with a cannon mounted on it.” By 1910 he was seventy-three years old. He had fought for the Union in the Civil War, survived fifteen battles, been wounded twice, and discharged with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. Now he liked people to call him Colonel.
In American Lightning, Howard Blum’s new telling of this famous tale of the class wars, he comes off as a spiteful ogre obsessed with hatred of labor unions: “A mountain of a man with a walrus mustache and a wild goatee, bristling with an instinctive aggressiveness,” Blum writes. He completes the portrait with Senator Hiram Johnson describing Otis to a labor rally:
He sits there in senile dementia, with gangrened heart and rotting brain, grimacing at every reform, chattering impotently at all things that are decent; frothing, fuming, violently gibbering, going to his grave in snarling infamy.
Understatement was not the style of the class warrior. Otis, who seemed to exult in his power to make his enemies hate him, could cry out with a fine Shakespearean howl himself when denouncing union men, socialists, and anarchists. The new century was giving him a lot to howl about.
The working classes were no longer as easy to crush as they had been when …
Unionize. Daniel De Groot examines progress on that front:
The tide is turning against Wal-Mart in its quest to hold off unions while treating employees like dirt:
GATINEAU, QC – August 15,2008 – UFCW Canada members at a Wal-Mart location in Gatineau, Quebec have made history by becoming the only Wal-Mart workers in North America to have a union contract, after a Quebec arbitrator imposed a collective agreement on Friday.
The contract raises average wages of the Gatineau Wal-Mart members by more than 30%. Improved vacation provisions are also part of the three-year agreement. [Emphasis added. - LG] The terms of the collective agreement are effective immediately.
Yes, eight workers at a Wal-Mart auto service shop have won a 3 year battle with the company, and a Quebec arbitrator has imposed a binding contract on the company.
A spokesman for Wal-Mart said the company is unhappy with the decision and it is “incompatible” with the company’s way of doing business.
Yes, I can see how being forced to pay people decent wages and give them time off would incompatible with a business model that relies on not doing these things.
The Union in question is the United Food and Commercial Workers, Canada. Good for them, after all Wal-Mart went to extremes to scare off any other unionization attempts after a whole store unionized in 2005: …
The NRSC put together a commercial that’s supposed to scare the bejesus out of everyone at the thought of EFCA (the Employee Free Choice Act) passing under an Obama administration, but I couldn’t have made a better one myself. The prospect should be exciting for everyone who considers themselves a progressive.
Click the link to see the commercial and to read more.
I’m Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, RN, one of four members of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee’s Council of Presidents. I have been a direct care nurse for over thirty years, currently in the post-anesthesia unit.
Thank you to OpenLeft for sponsoring this debate between CNA/NNOC and SEIU. We’ve come to a turning point in the labor movement: a choice between a progressive, democratic, feminist social movement committed to single-payer healthcare reform, as represented by CNA/NNOC, or company unionism based on corporate partnerships, as represented by Andy Stern of SEIU International. Forward or back?
This debate is happening in a historical moment. Stern has just sent 200 staff members to California and paired them up with several hundred local staffers, with the goal of an unprecedented two-part takeover of CNA and United Healthcare Workers-West of SEIU, his harshest internal critics. Moreover, it comes in the aftermath of a humiliating display of thuggery by SEIU in Michigan, repeated episodes of CNA/NNOC nurse leaders being followed and harassed at their homes and nursing stations by SEIU staffers, and a fortunate victory in Ohio over an unprecedented, company-sponsored worker election.
First, a bit of background:
Bradford Plumer has written a fascinating article about Andy Stern and his union work. Well worth reading. It begins:
With our interview winding down, Andy Stern leaps out of his chair to show me something. On the far wall of his Washington, D.C., office, the leader of the 1.9-million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU) keeps a little museum. “This stuff’s great,” he says, pointing to photos, memorabilia–and what he really wants me to see: the head of Gus Bevona.
As the leader of Local 32BJ in New York City during the 1980s and ’90s, the 300-pound Bevona was the epitome of union sleaze. His salary of $400,000 per year made him one of the highest-paid labor officials in the country. Like many locals of old, 32BJ never had much interest in organizing new workers or advancing a broader cause. Bevona was content to maintain high salaries for his dwindling flock of janitors and doormen, while reportedly using union funds to build himself a posh lower-Manhattan penthouse. “So he puts this bust in his dedication to the building,” Stern says, pointing to the brass head. “Kim Il Sung would’ve been proud. This building is dedicated to Gus Bevona, for his tireless efforts, blah, blah, blah.” After Stern became president of SEIU in 1996, Gus had to go. So did all of the old guard. Unions had become too “male, pale, and stale,” as Stern likes to put it. And organized labor was dying because of it.
Getting rid of Bevona was just the start. Over the past twelve years, Stern has pulled off a transformation of SEIU that is, by any metric, astounding. Today, SEIU is the most dynamic and powerful union in the country. At a time when organized labor was widely believed to be headed for extinction–in 1954, roughly one-third of the American workforce was unionized; today, that number is 12.1 percent–Stern’s union accomplished the seemingly impossible: It grew, and grew a lot. The past decade has seen SEIU add nearly one million workers, including janitors, nurses, and home-care providers–many of them women, minorities, and immigrants. Most of these workers have seen their wages rise. The union now runs one of the largest PACs in the country, with money to rival even Big Pharma’s lobbying arm. It’s a record of success that would have stunned even the great labor organizers of the New Deal era.
In the middle of his life, Sylvester Garcia decided he’d had enough of the cold and the heat. He’d been a welder in the copper-mining towns of New Mexico for almost a quarter of a century, but, he says, “I got tired of welding, of the mud, of the rain, of too much hard work. So I told my wife, ‘I’ll try the casinos.’” In short order, he became a dishwasher at the Dunes Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, then moved to the Luxor when the Dunes was leveled to make way for the Bellagio.
At first glance this wasn’t a great career move. Dishwashing in America, as everybody knows, is almost always a minimum wage job devoid of benefits or security. Nonetheless, Garcia insists, “I love my job.” And he’s not kidding.
Among his fellow dishwashers, however, he has to be in a distinct minority. According to “The Coffee Pot Wars,” an essay by Annette Bernhardt, Laura Dresser and Eric Hatton in the new Russell Sage Foundation study of low-wage work, the median hourly wage of the American hotel dishwasher in 2000 was $7.45 — a little better than the housekeeper’s $7.09. Even luxury hotels seldom pay their low-end employees much more than the minimum wage. And while wages have stagnated, hours have declined, from 40 a week for low-end hotel workers in 1960 to 31 in 2000. At one hotel they studied, the authors concluded that 60 percent of the kitchen staff held down two jobs.
Garcia holds just one, but his hourly wage at the Luxor is $11.86 — $4 higher than the industry average. He is paid for 40 hours every week, even if the company actually needs him for fewer. He has family health insurance paid for entirely by his employer. He has a defined-benefit pension. He has three weeks of vacation every year, which he likes to spend hunting in Canada.
Far from a life of quiet desperation, Garcia’s seems full of noisy exaltation. On the evening I visit him, three grandchildren are careening around his house, a six-bedroom home built in 1988. Garcia’s next-door neighbors are an attorney, a minister and, over the back fence, an air-conditioning mechanic. A legion of his fellow hotel workers inhabits the surrounding blocks.
The Santa Barbara News-Press and its owner violated federal labor laws in firing eight reporters for union activities, and the workers are entitled to return to their jobs with back pay, a judge has ruled.
The newspaper demonstrated “widespread, general disregard for the fundamental rights of the employees” and ordered the reporters reinstated with back pay, administrative law Judge William G. Kocol ruled last week.
“This decision really is all-encompassing; it’s everything we wanted it to be,” said Melinda Burns, the first of the reporters to be fired.
The National Labor Relations Board had alleged in a 15-count unfair labor practices complaint that the paper fired the eight workers, who had no history of disciplinary action, only after they began to fight for union representation.
From the Center for American Progress:\
The Bush administration’s assault on organized labor is well-known, as the current union organization system is tilted against America’s workers. Each year, over 20,000 U.S. workers are illegally fired, demoted, laid off, suspended without pay, or denied work by their employers as a result of union activity. In 2000, 13.5 percent of all wage and salary workers were unionized. In 2006, just 12 percent of workers were in unions, as existing laws — and the administration’s interpretation of them — make joining a union a Herculean task that few want to undertake, even though half of all U.S. workers say they would vote to join a union. While the Bush administration has been lax on most regulatory enforcement throughout most of government, a new report from Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Scott Lilly points out that the Labor Department’s Office of Labor Management Standards (OLMS) has embarked on a path of “rigorous” and “pernicious” regulatory enforcement of organized labor. This regulatory assault has resulted in a “political misinformation campaign” aimed at damaging organized labor.
BURDENING AND SLANDERING UNIONS: The Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959 “tasks the Labor Department with enforcing union financial reporting requirements and investigating their finances.” In 1992, former Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-GA) urged Labor Secretary Lynn Martin to direct OLMS to significantly increase union reporting requirements because it would “weaken our opponents and encourage our allies.” The Bush administration followed suit, revising the so-called LM-2 reporting form, resulting in a “radical increase in paperwork requirements placed on unions.” Unions were thus forced to spend considerable sums in purchasing new software to comply with the record-keeping burdens. “Most workers don’t have the time or ability to satisfy the requirements,” observed Bill Samuel, director of legislation for the AFL-CIO.
HEAVILY DOCTORED DATA: OLMS and its right-wing allies appear to knowingly propagate misleading data in order to drum up allegations of union corruption. Using “double-counting” (where the Department lists an individual case multiple times by reporting as a separate “case” the date of indictment, charge, date of plea, and date of sentencing), OLMS doubled the total number of “convictions” in their data on criminal actions involving labor unions. Much of those records did not even involve union members per se, but accountants, lawyers, and business owners, observed John Lund of the University of Wisconsin. This doctored data was also picked up by the right-wing anti-union group Center for Union Facts. Furthermore, OLMS reporting on court-ordered restitution to labor unions is also misleading, reporting $23 million in court-ordered restitutions in fiscal year 2005. But, as Lilly observed, only 10 percent of that amount actually involved unions: “embedded” in the data were “cases in which perpetrators were not members of unions and the target of their crimes were not union treasuries.” “President Bush is using the Department of Labor as a weapon to undermine the labor movement. … The Bush administration’s goal is harassment, plain and simple,” said Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY).
POLITICAL APPOINTEES RUN OLMS: The Bush administration’s injection of politics over the rule of law is well-documented. From the U.S. Attorneys scandal to Karl Rove’s politicization schemes, the administration has used political appointees to create an arm of the Republican party in the federal government. OLMS was run by a career civil servant for most of President Clinton’s tenure; under Bush, political appointee Don Todd — neither an attorney nor an individual with labor experience — was chosen to run OLMS. Todd, who led opposition research at the Republican National Committee in 1988, “is credited with helping George H.W. Bush win the presidency in 1988 by convincing Lee Atwater to use a television ad featuring a furloughed murderer.” (Todd was named “RNC Man Of The Year” for this tactic.) Several other campaign operatives moved into the office. Todd’s special assistant came to the Labor Department from the Republican Senate Campaign Committee, along with another assistant, Patrick Bosworth. Sean Redmond, also special assistant to Todd, was on the advance staff of Bush-Cheney 2000. Todd and his staff used their campaign communications experience to discredit unions, uploading millions of pages of data on finances of unions to the OLMS website and creating databases of legal actions taken in courts against union members. This data was conveniently picked up by right-wing groups like the Center for Union Facts, who publicized “the data that Todd had added” in their own anti-union ad campaigns.