• print
  • decrease text sizeincrease text size
    text

Contract for Disaster: How Privatization Is Killing the Public Sector

Share this post

mtm0ndg4mjmzmzyxodm5mzc4Privatization is bad news for federal, state and local government workers, and the communities where they live. That’s according to a new report released Wednesday by In the Public Interest, a research group focused on the effects of privatization.

The study, “How Privatization Increases Inequality,” explores the role privatization plays in the American economy—compiling data on the estimated $1.5 trillion of state and local contracts doled out each year.

“A lot of decisions are small,” says Donald Cohen, executive director of In the Public Interest, but “if you add all that up, it’s very significant.”

Many government workers in the United States enjoy a robust structure of pay and benefits, including pensions, health care and paid time off. Workers operate in a structured environment that acts, as the report says, as a ladder of opportunity. A clearly outlined framework of positions and pay grades, backed by enforcement of antidiscrimination laws, makes government jobs particularly friendly to women and people of color—20 percent of public sector jobs are held by Black workers, while nearly 60 percent of public sector jobs are held by women.

(Joe Brusky/ Flickr)
(Joe Brusky/ Flickr)

For decades, work in the public sector has been a gateway to a middle-class life. But that’s changing.

Cohen notes that the Right managed to make privatization an ideological project. This shift has generated huge profits for corporations and harmed public sector workers and their unions.

“They want to contract out not because it makes sense, but because that’s their jobs. They’re right-wingers,” he says.

Privatized workers have lower rates of unionization, are paid less than their publicly-employed counterparts, don’t have access to benefits and experience high turnover, the report shows. Sometimes they work side-by-side with government employees, as at the University of California system, something that Cohen says is deliberate.

“Part of the strategy of management is to contract out part of the work to keep the pressure on the non-contract part of the work,” he says.

That strategy leaves workers shortchanged—literally. In 2013, the National Employment Law Project found that one in five federal contractors it interviewed was using Medicaid for health care, while 14 percent needed Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP). Reliance on federal benefits shifts costs from employers to taxpayers.

Contract employees are caught in a poverty trap that hurts not just them, but their communities. Workers who aren’t making money aren’t spending it, dragging down local businesses and creating a ripple effect in regional economies.

The report argues that poor recordkeeping and limited transparency make it extremely difficult to gauge the effects of contracting, and that the public needs to have access to such information. Legislators, advocates, unions and workers should be invested in how, when, where and why contract labor is used.

Is it improving services while keeping standards high for workers? Or is it being used as an ostensible cost-cutting measure, harming workers and shifting expenses to taxpayers and their communities?

We’re seeing a new era of work in America, and the move to contractors over directly-employed government workers is highlighting that shift as well as its consequences. For government workers, privatization is an economic shell game, and they are losing.

This blog originally appeared at inthesetimes.com on September 28, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

S.E. Smith is an essayist, journalist and activist is on social issues who has written for The Guardian, Bitch Magazine, AlterNet, Jezebel, Salon, the Sundance Channel blog, Longshot Magazine, Global Comment, Think Progress, xoJane, Truthout, Time, Nerve, VICE, The Week, and Reproductive Health Reality Check. Follow @sesmithwrites.


Share this post

401(k) Retirement Plans Amplify Income Inequality and Racial Disparities

Share this post

Isaiah J. Poole

It’s bad enough that the move toward individual retirement plans has been a massive failure when it comes to providing average working Americans retirement security. But now there’s research that shows that our dependence on individual retirement plans adds fuel to the fire of racial and class inequities in ways that the pension plans that used to be common did not.

The Economic Policy Institute presented that research Thursday in its “State of American Retirement” report. The report underscores the need to keep up the fight for strengthening Social Security and increasing its benefits, rather than cutting them.

“We’re moving toward a retirement system that magnifies inequality,” said Monique Morrissey, the EPI economist who wrote the report. That happened, she said, as the percentage of workers who received a pension (a “defined benefit plan”) declined from 35 percent of private-sector workers in the early 1990s to less than 20 percent today. (In the early 1980s, the percentage of private-sector workers in large companies that had a pension exceeded 80 percent.)

Pension plans were surprisingly egalitarian, Morrissey said, in the sense that once you got a job with a pension, what you received in retirement was affected only by your wages and years with the company. With “defined contribution plans” – like 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts (IRAs) – differences widen by race and class.

According to the report, among the people in the top 20 percent of income, nine out of 10 have retirement account savings; among those in the bottom 20 percent, it’s worse than totally flipped; fewer than one in 10 have any retirement account at all. The workers at the top fifth of the income scale accounted for 63 percent of total income, but have 74 percent of the total stashed in personal retirement accounts.

Only 41 percent of black families and 26 percent of Hispanic families had retirement account savings in 2013; 61 percent of white households do. The average retirement account among African-American and Hispanic workers contains about $22,000; for whites, the average account contains $73,000. On top of that, research shows that African Americans are disproportionately in jobs where retirement plans are simply not offered. “401(k)s have really been a disaster for African Americans,” Morrissey said.

In fact, for all ordinary workers, “401(k)s were never designed to be a primary retirement plan,” Morrissey said. Yet they filled that role at the same time President Ronald Reagan and Congress cut a deal to improve the solvency of Social Security that pushed back the retirement age over time from 65 to 67 – and at the same time worker wages stopped keeping pace with productivity and with income gains for corporate executives.

The result is that today fewer Americans than ever will have a financially secure retirement. The Government Accountability Office in 2014 found that half of all households age 55 and older have no retirement savings at all; close to 30 percent also do not have a pension to rely on, either. Of those who do have a 401(k) or IRA-type plan who were between the ages of 55 and 64, their retirement savings would yield a monthly check upon retirement of about $310 a month.

Morrissey said these realities reinforce the case for expanding Social Security benefits. “That’s the number one thing we need to be doing,” she said. (To support the call for strengthening Social Security benefits, add your name to this petition.)

She added that while waiting for action at the federal level, states can play a role. For example, the California Secure Choice Retirement Plan would opt workers into making regular contributions to a state-managed plan if they did not have a retirement plan available in their job. The state plan would invest in a balanced portfolio of assets that would not be driven by the kinds of management fee incentives that often drive retirement plan investments.

This blog originally appeared at OurFuture.org on March 3, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Isaiah J. Poole worked at Campaign for America’s Future. He attended Pennsylvania State University and lives in Washington, DC.


Share this post

Taking Pope Francis’ Message Seriously Means Pushing for Worker-Owned, Green Cooperatives

Share this post

in these timesThe Pope’s visit to the USA this week comes just two months before pivotal UN climate talks that could lead to a global climate agreement. Climate change will be high on his agenda in planned addresses to the UN and Congress, and it is likely that one of his central concerns will be the economy. Pope Francis did not mince words in his recent encyclical on the theme of climate change and one of the main targets of his searing critique was our current economic system. He bemoaned that “the earth’s resources are … being plundered because of short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce and production.” He chastised the dominance of the speculative finance sector over the economy, and the folly of looking to market growth to solve all social ills.

His core message is that we are currently locked in an economic growth model based on the premise we have an inexhaustible planet. The way the global economy is currently run will not ensure our long-term physical survival. There are some glaring signals that it won’t ensure our economic survival either. For starters, the financial crisis of 2008 and evidence that patterns of growing inequality are stunting economic growth. Recent admissions from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that economic trickle down theory doesn’t work have further cast doubt on the logic of the current system.

Alongside experts such as the Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and established economic institutions such as the IMF, the Pope is not alone in raising the alarm on “unbridled capitalism.” So in order to solve the greatest challenges of our time, climate change and inequality, we need an economic system that serves us better. However, it seems that beyond identifying and agreeing upon the problem, we often stop short at imagining solutions.

But there are signs that the seeds of a stronger and more responsible economy may already be taking root. Interest in existing models of enterprises, banks, cooperatives and networks that put social and environmental principles before profit is growing. These businesses have a strong emphasis on collective ownership, management and decision-making. Financial decisions are not left to the power of a few, whether government bureaucrats or corporate CEOs, but overseen more democratically by the main generators and beneficiaries of economic activity: the workers and customers.

This rich and diverse tapestry of economic activity witnessed around the world has been called a number of things: social economy, solidarity economy, local economy, new economy, the next system. Interest in the promise of these approaches has even spurred the UN to form a task force to investigate the potential of the social and solidarity economy in contributing to global development goals.

Sounds like a nice idea, but is this really economically viable? Surprisingly yes, and in many cases these enterprises are much more resilient and successful than current models that can result in job losses, bankruptcy and financial crashes. A recent UN report concluded that worker- and customer-owned banks made less risky decisions and outperformed investor owned banks during the recent global financial crisis. Research reveals that worker-owned cooperatives also have similar economic and social benefits that make them a better business model for communities and the economy as a whole.

One well-known example is that of Mondragon Cooperative Corporation, a highly successful worker-owned company of over 70,000 employees based in Spain. The company operates internationally and has a diverse portfolio, including the manufacture of industrial machinery. The 10th-largest company in Spain in terms of asset turnover, Mondragon had lower levels of unemployment compared to the rest of Spain during the 2008 recession and still remained globally competitive. Instead of firing staff during the economic downturn, employees voted to take pay cuts and top managers took their share of the burden. The Spanish cooperative is not alone. Over 2008, in the midst of the financial crisis, the combined turnover of the world’s 300 largest cooperatives was an impressive $1.6 trillion, comparable to the GDP of the ninth largest economy in the world.

Action to fight climate change could benefit from new economic approaches. Take the two sectors that contribute the most to global carbon emissions: energy and agriculture. In Germany, community-owned energy cooperatives are booming, supporting the rapid uptake of renewable energy without having to depend on the patronage of reluctant utility companies. The impressive success of wind power in Denmark is due largely to the rapid spread of community-owned wind turbines. In the United States, the move away from utility-scale power plants is also happening. Recent studies show that levels of solar power generation in the U.S. have been underestimated by as much as 50 percent. This is due to the exponential growth in rooftop solar, which is not yet systematically recorded. The opportunity to magnify the potential of small-scale energy producers could be immense.

With regards to agriculture, the UN advocates ecologically friendly methods based around small-scale farming, with more local production and consumption. This could lead to higher yields, better protect food systems from the impacts of climate change and reduce emissions from this sector. Agricultural cooperatives are critical to the success of smallholder farming, allowing independent farmers to remain competitive through collective purchasing and distribution networks. Climate action that supports agricultural cooperatives and low-emission, climate-proof farming methods could have positive economic, food security and climate outcomes.

Action on climate change could both support and benefit from a more stable and democratic economy. Climate finance and subsidies currently being swallowed by the fossil fuel industry could be redirected to promote locally owned and managed energy and farming, using socially responsible financial institutions to manage these funds. The result could be a stronger economy that works better for both people and the climate.

In his encyclical, the Pope entreated us to “seek other ways of understanding the economy and progress”. A framework for a more democratic, collectively owned and managed economy could be part of this. The re-imagination of the economy is already in motion. It’s time for the climate movement to get on board.

This Blog originally appeared on In These Times on September 23, 2015. Reprinted here with permission.

About the Author: Gaya Sriskanthan has over a decade of experience working on climate change, environmental protection, and sustainable development with a range of organizations including the United Nations and the UK Department for International Development. She currently focuses on indigenous peoples’ rights and civil society inclusion in climate change action. Follow her on Twitter: @gayasktn.


Share this post

Why the Hollowing Out of the Middle Class Matters

Share this post

david madlandFor the past several decades, the idea that high levels of inequality were good for the economy dominated political and economic thought. Politicians believed the trickle-down theory that enabling “job creators” to get richer would help us all, and economists provided cover for this line of thinking because they thought there was a tradeoff between growth and equity.

But, as inequality has risen to extreme levels in the United States, the foundations of the economy have weakened, and America is now experiencing the kinds of problems that plague less-developed countries. The United States now must confront high levels of societal distrust that make it hard to do business, governmental favors for privileged elites that distort the economy, and fewer opportunities for children of the middle class and the poor to get ahead—wasting vast quantities of human potential.

Fortunately, a new class of economists and policymakers are now challenging the old, flawed, ideas about inequality. Academics have begun to rethink their views about the decline of the middle class, and progressive politicians are finally starting to openly contest the logic underlying supply-side after years of failing to do so. There is a growing realization that a strong middle class is not merely the result of a strong economy—as was previously thought—but rather a source of America’s economic growth.

The new direction on economic policymaking cannot arrive soon enough, because our economy continues to suffer deeply from a financial crash caused in large part by high levels of inequality. Rebuilding the middle class is critical, as a strong middle class performs four vital functions in the US economy.

First, a strong middle class helps society run relatively smoothly, with higher levels of trust among its citizens. People need to be able to trust one another enough to do business with one another. When there is little trust, the cost of doing business shoots up—or, as economists put it, transaction costs increase.

Second, a strong middle class leads to better governance. A thriving economy depends on a well-functioning government that provides critical services, such as roads and schools, with relatively little corruption. As the middle class has weakened and inequality has risen, the wealthy have gained excessive political power and the middle class has become less civic-minded, leading to a host of governmental dysfunctions.

Third, the middle class is a source of stable consumer demand, which enables businesses to invest in new products and hire additional workers—thereby fueling growth. As consumer demand in the years prior to the Great Recession was based heavily on middle-class debt, the economy was unstable. And now that the middle class is so weak—burdened by stagnant incomes, high debt levels, and underwater mortgages—it can’t consume enough to keep the American economy going.

Finally, a strong middle class creates more human capital. In the modern economy, a skilled, healthy, and entrepreneurial workforce is a driver of economic growth—at least as much as the physical capital of factories and machines. As inequality has risen and the middle class has weakened, America has not developed the full human potential of its middle and working classes.

To have strong and sustainable growth, the economy needs to work for everyone. That’s why we need to focus policy on rebuilding our economy from the middle out.

 

About the Author: The author’s name is David Madland. David Madland is the author of Hollowed Out: Why the Economy Doesn’t Work Without a Strong Middle Class and the Managing Director for Economic Policy at the Center for American Progress. Follow Madland on Twitter: @DavidMadland

 


Share this post

Executive Council Creates Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice

Share this post

Image: Mike Hall“America’s legacy of racism and racial injustice has been and continues to be a fundamental obstacle to workers’ efforts to act together to build better lives for all of us,” says the AFL-CIO Executive Council in a statement announcing the creation of a Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice.

The statement, released today at the council’s winter meeting in Atlanta, acknowledges “an ugly history of racism in our own movement” and adds:

“Yet at the same time the labor movement has a proud history of standing for racial and economic justice. When we have embraced our better selves we have always emerged stronger in every sense. And whenever we have succumbed to the temptation to see some working people as better than others, we have always ended up weaker.”

Pointing to today’s dramatically increasing economic inequality, decreasing union density and growing instability for the majority of Americans, the council says, “The need for all workers to strengthen common interests in achieving economic justice is clear.”

“At the same time our different experiences organized around race, gender identity, ethnicity, disability and sexual orientation often challenge and complicate this shared experience. If we are to succeed as a movement, the full range of working peoples’ voices must be heard in the internal processes of our movement. To be able to stand together we have to understand where all of us are coming from.”

The council points to the unemployment rate for African Americans—10.3%, more than twice as high as that for whites—the criminal justice system and educational inequities that are large parts of a “world divided in many ways by color lines.”

“At the same time working people share a common experience of falling wages and rising economic insecurity. To build a different, better economy we need power that can only come from unity and unity has to begin with having all our voices be heard, on all sides of those color lines. We have to start by acknowledging our own shortcomings and honestly addressing issues that are faced by the communities in which our members live—both the problems and the solutions. We have to find a way to see with each other’s eyes and address the facts and realities.”

The Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice will:

  • Facilitate a broad conversation with local labor leaders around racial and economic disparities and institutional biases, and identify ways to become more inclusive as the new entrants to the labor force diversify;
  • Engage in six to eight labor discussions around the country, with local labor leaders, constituency groups and young workers addressing racial and economic issues impacting the labor movement and offering recommendations for change; and
  • Attempt to create a safe, structured and constructive opportunity for local union leaders to discuss issues pertaining to the persistence of racial injustice today in the workforce and in their communities, and to ensure that the voices of all working people in the labor movement are heard.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on February 25, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log.  He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.


Share this post

Fighting the Big Apple’s Big Inequality Problem

Share this post

sarah jaffeNew York City can sometimes feel like ground zero for the battle over inequality.  Up until a few months ago, its mayor was one of the world’s richest men; it is home to Wall Street and movie stars, and it seems as though every oligarch from every country in the world has an apartment here.

Here, too, are the millions of working people who make the city run, and all too many of those working people are barely making enough to get by. In her introduction to the new book New Labor in New York, out now from Cornell University Press, sociologist Ruth Milkman points out that while New York has the nation’s highest union density, the city also has one of thehighest levels of income inequality among large cities.

It is against this background that worker centers and other forms of non-union labor organizing have flourished, won victories, hit setbacks and managed to grow. And it is against that background that Milkman and her colleague Ed Ott, both professors at the City University of New York’s Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies, decided to teach a course that would ask students at the Murphy Institute and the CUNY Graduate Center to write an in-depth profile of one worker center or labor organization and its innovations. After two semesters of field research, study, and collaborative workshopping, these profiles were collected into the book. Taken together, they make up a valuable resource for evaluating today’s labor organizing, its successes and failures.

The workers spotlighted in New Labor in New York share the common trait of precarity, a term that has become something of a buzzword in recent years, particularly since the financial crisis. Precarious work is unstable, irregular; it is part-time or gig-by-gig; it comes without healthcare or other benefits; and it is usually but not always low-paid. Precarious workers in New York include taxi drivers, street vendors, retail and restaurant workers, grocery store clerks, domestic workers and even graphic designers and TV producers. Many of them are immigrants organizing around an ethnic identity as well as a shared workplace. New York is an attractive place for this kind of organizing, Milkman notes, not only because it is dense and has a large number of immigrant workers, but also because the foundations that provide much of the funding for many of these worker centers are based here as well.

The book begins with Benjamin Becker’s look at a fairly traditional union campaign (a loss) at a Target on Long Island in June 2011. The piece sets the tone for the rest of the book by demonstrating the obstacles unions face when they attempt to win a National Labor Relations Board election, even when a fairly active core group of workers are involved. From there, the book pivots to examine a range of campaigns, only some of which have as a goal (or even a legal possibility) of organizing workers into a collective bargaining unit.

For some groups, like the Retail Action Project and the grocery store organizing campaign partnership between New York Communities for Change (NYCC) and Local 338 UFCW-RWDSU, wage theft lawsuits have been a gateway to pressuring employers to recognize the workers’ unions, as happened at the Yellow Rat Bastard retail stores in Manhattan. Ben Shapiro explores the tensions over the campaign’s direction and duration between NYCC and Local 338. When the union controls the purse strings but the community group is doing the work, trouble can arise, but this partnership smoothed out when the union backed off its push for quick results in the form of union elections.

For several other groups and coalitions profiled in the book, legislation, rather than union elections, is the goal. Jeffrey D. Broxmeyer and Erin Michaels analyze the campaign from 2010 to 2012 for a living-wage bill in New York and the similar tension there, too, between unions, accustomed to exercising political power as insiders, and community and faith groups more interested in moral framing and direct action. For the New York Civic Participation Project/La Fuente, the goal is not even necessarily particular campaigns—the goal, instead, is to engage union members around their community, and to bridge the gap between non-union community members and their union member neighbors.

“Many of these groups have been more successful on their sort of ‘air wars’ than on their ‘ground wars,’” says Milkman. In other words, she explains, “All of them have become highly skilled at figuring out how to shine a bright light on abuses and to get public attention sometimes legal attention sometimes media attention to the issues, that turns out to be a lighter lift than actually organizing workers in a sustained way.”

Many of the pieces highlight this tension between advocacy—paid staffers working on behalf of workers—and the kind of organizing where workers are acting on their own behalf. The arguments made by Steve Jenkins, a labor lawyer who has worked in both unions and non-union labor organizations, about the limits of the advocacy model appear in many of these pieces. Jenkins wrote in 2002 that advocacy organizations “mobilize elite institutions … to help clients achieve the changes they are seeking.” Unions, he contends, are a superior form because they organize workers to use “social power” to make change, rather than persuasion. But in her piece on Make the Road New York, organizer Jane McAlevey, also author of the bookRaising Expectations (and Raising Hell), writes, “I argue that what matters most is not whether a group is a formal labor union but instead whether the group’s members are directly defining the changes they seek and whether their own exercise of collective action is the basis of their leverage.” Make the Road, in her view, fits this definition of an “organizing organization.”

Meanwhile, Harmony Goldberg’s thoughtful look at Domestic Workers United, titled “Prepare to Win,” lays out the next steps for the organization after its major victory: the passage of New York’s Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in 2010. Though domestic workers were integral to the campaign, she notes, implementing the law will require “the deployment of worker power and base-building on a much larger scale than was required to win legislative victories.” To that end, she explores DWU’s attempts to train domestic workers to act as something akin to shop stewards for their neighborhoods, and honestly assesses the difficulty of organizing workers whose workplace is behind a private home’s door.

For DWU and the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), both of which have spread to become national organizations, working with “high road” employers has become a strategy. ROC is having its first-ever “High Road Restaurant Week” this week to encourage conscious consumers to dine at establishments with good labor practices. ROC in particular asks consumers to be a part of the labor movement, to be as aware of the labor that produces their food as they are of its environmental impact. In some ways this has proved to be a useful strategy, but in others it seems like a tacit admission of the limitations of these organizations: As Jenkins noted, when one cannot demand, one must ask nicely.

“Symbolic victories are good, they do help make people aware of the problems,” Milkman says, “but changing the actual pay and working conditions of precarious workers is a much heavier lift.”

Political education is a part of the deal for many of the groups in this volume, from Make the Road to ROC, which makes racial and gender justice central to its campaigns. MinKwon, a Korean-American civil rights organization that does labor organizing, also works to educate and organize the broader Korean immigrant community around workers’ rights, even pressing small business owners who are members to do better by their employees.

Organizing the community around the labor battle, it turns out, can be just as important as pushing within a specific workplace. This is important to many of the groups featured here, from MinKwon to NYCC to La Fuente. As Milkman points out, “With an immigrant population, there are often connections, very direct ones, between the community and the workplace, because of the social networks that immigrants rely on both to get housing and jobs.”

United New York represents an effort by a labor union—in this case, SEIU—to build an institution to support social movement organizing. Lynne Turner explores the decision by the union to put money into the “Fight for a Fair Economy”—a fight that took off more than anyone expected when Occupy Wall Street appeared in lower Manhattan soon after the founding of United New York as part of the national campaign. Camille Rivera, leader of United NY, pushed the group and other unions to help support the nascent movement.

Some of the more creative tactics in the repertoire of new labor groups are not new at all. Milkman points out, “Prior to the New Deal and the legislation that came along in the mid-1930s, precarious work was the norm too. It’s not surprising that the pre-New Deal forms of labor organizing have some resonance today. Basically we’ve reverted back to that situation with the unraveling of the New Deal-based labor relations system.”

The Retail Action Project (RAP), launched in 2005 as an independent center with support from RWDSU and community organization Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), draws on some of that history to incorporate what historian Dorothy Sue Cobble has called “occupational unionism:” providing workers with skills training and organizing around an industry, rather than a particular workplace. It’s a model that still exists today, within the building trades, though Peter Ikeler in this volume makes clear that RAP is far from being able to have enough power within the industry to control hiring and set wages. Still, Milkman notes, “There’s a lot more interest in that model of unionism being revived than there was in the mid-20th century when it seemed like it was this relic of an earlier era—well, that earlier era is back.”

The Taxi Workers Alliance, as Mischa Gaus writes, has in many ways been the most successful of the groups in this book—not only was it affiliated with the AFL-CIO recently, but perhaps more importantly it has pulled off two strikes. Though the taxi workers are technically independent contractors, meaning they can’t legally form a union, they are an integral part of New York City’s transit infrastructure and as such are highly regulated by the city—which means that the Alliance has been able to insert itself into critical negotiations and win gains for the drivers.

Also important to the Taxi Workers’ success has been their ability to mostly self-finance; unlike many other groups in this book, who are dependent on foundation grants or union money to keep the doors open, the Alliance gets some 80 percent of its budget from dues and other income from services to drivers. As foundations (and yes, unions too) can be fickle about their grant-making, self-funding ensures that the Alliance answers to its members first.

Self-funding has also helped the Freelancers’ Union, in many ways an anomaly in this group of mostly low-wage worker organizations, survive. In their case, it’s health insurance—freelancers can buy insurance from the Freelancers Insurance Company, and this money helps fund advocacy campaigns. The Freelancers do tend to be more affluent and educated than many of the other workers in this book, and more of them are freelance by choice, though that’s not a characteristic solely of well-off workers.

Indeed, at the other end of the income spectrum, Kathleen Dunn’s study of VAMOS Unidos, a street vendor labor organization, found that many of the vendors, mostly immigrant women who operate in a gray area between legal and illegal work (many of them don’t have permits for the selling they do), also chose vending as a better option than other low-wage jobs because of the freedom it offered.

Milkman tells In These Times, “This is not in the book, but a lot of people are talking about basic income policies as a way of making this kind of work more tolerable. If you have some kind of basic economic security then it has many advantages for workers as well as employers.” The street vendors, for example, prefer vending because it allows them flexible hours, to bring their children along, and to meet other responsibilities, as well as to avoid disagreeable conditions in other jobs.

Still, it’s not a good idea to over-romanticize precarity; this has repercussions for the people doing the organizing as well. It cannot be stressed enough that too many of these new labor organizations operate on a shoestring budget, relying on organizers who are also precarious workers in their way. Milkman says, “I don’t think it’s an accident that so many of them are led by women, because unlike the labor movement, which has a lot of resources despite its declining membership, most of these groups operate on a shoestring budget. So guess what? The leaders are women because that’s who’s willing to work for those minimal salaries.”

New Labor in New York raises many questions about the future of labor organizing, but it also provides many examples of concrete victories for workers long ignored by the conventional labor movement. Those victories are often small, but they are building; the organizations may be siloed, but they are aware that they are part of something bigger. Much more will be needed to really change the conditions of precarious work, yet there is much in this book that could be replicated elsewhere, even in cities vastly different than New York.

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on April 29, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media, and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet, and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television.


Share this post

Workers and Their Unions Key to Economic Turnaround, Election Outcome

Share this post

Image: Mike HallMaryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and Columbia University Professor Dorian Warren both say the best way to solve the nation’s economic crisis is to grow the middle class rather than allowing wealth to concentrate in fewer and fewer hands. Unions, they say, will play a vital role politically and economically in building a strong middle class.

O’Malley and Warren spoke on a conference call with reporters Friday to counter recent attacks by Republican lawmakers on workers and their unions.

O’Malley pointed to Maryland’s top 10 ranking in job creation, its AAA bond rating and the fact it has the highest median income in the nation to show that economic prosperity is “achieved by a partnership with unions, not by scapegoating labor.”

We don’t see unions as an impediment to growth but organized labor helps us grow and maintain balance, invest in skills of the workforce and ensure people receive a decent wage for a decent day’s work.

From the post-war era through 1973, when one in three working people had a voice on the job, said Warren, the nation had the smallest economic gap ever between the rich and the poor, because of the growing middle class with good union jobs.

But as efforts were made to weaken unions and attempts to modernize and strengthen the nation’s labor laws were blocked, the middle class began to shrink, said Warren.

There are consequences to declining union strength and now we have the highest levels of economic injustice ever. Our economy has moved to an hourglass model with jobs at the top end and bottom end, but with the middle hollowed out.

When working people have a “strong collective voice,” said Warren, “we get a stable and strong economy with continued economic growth. Unions still remain the best tool and best route for workers to improve their lives.”

In the face of growing efforts to silence workers and their unions and the explosion of corporate cash and 1%ers’ campaign donations, Warren said:

Unions can challenge the money and power that threatens our democracy’s legitimacy….With union households accounting for about 25 percent of the electorate, union votes will be a major factor and, in battleground states, a decisive factor.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO on June 17, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL-CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.


Share this post

Goal of True Equality Still Challenges Us All

Share this post

Arlene Holt BakerForty-nine years ago, on June 23, 1963, tens of thousands of people gathered here in Detroit, only weeks before hundreds of thousands went to Washington to march for jobs and freedom.

In the Detroit speech, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sowed the seeds of his more widely known speech at our nation’s capital. He described his famous vision of a day when the white sons of former slave owners and the black sons of those who had been enslaved would live together as brothers, judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their characters.

Yet we know King’s dream was not merely a dream about friendship, not some story about two unlikely friends communing across a great economic divide. His dream was about true equality—economic, political and social justice.

And he knew that a chief tool for freedom and progress for all people was collective action—whether in the voting booth, in the workplace organized as a labor union or in the shared spaces of this country as nonviolent civil disobedience. It could be at a lunch counter in Alabama or in a park near Wall Street.

In the decades since King was taken from us, our nation may have made enormous strides in the direction of racial justice, but the tragedy of our time is that economic inequality has increased dramatically over the past half-century. All but the richest Americans have suffered. Nearly 100 million Americans live in poverty, almost one-third of us.

Indeed, since 1997, American families have suffered the first mass decline since the Great Depression. But it’s not equal opportunity damage. Over the past 30 years, the median wealth for African-American households fell by two-thirds, and nearly half of black children live in poverty. The black unemployment rate last month was nearly 17%, almost twice the national average.

Yet, as in King’s era, we live in a time of tremendous opportunity for change. In 2011, millions of Americans saw and experienced the strength that comes from collective action as people came together in protest in such places as Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, New York City and here in Detroit.

Read the full op-ed in the Detroit Free Press here.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now blog on January 16, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Arlene Holt Baker’s experience as a union and grassroots organizer spans more than 30 years. On Sept. 21, 2007, she was approved unanimously as executive vice president by the AFL-CIO Executive Council, becoming the first African American to be elected to one of the federation’s three highest offices and the highest-ranking African American woman in the union movement. In this position, Holt Baker builds on her legacy of inspiring activism and reaching out to diverse communities to support the needs and aspirations of working people.


Share this post

Creating Jobs the First Step to Ending Inequality in America

Share this post

adele_stan_140x140In Washington, D.C., as in dozens of other U.S. cities, the 99 percent movement is inescapable, even in the politest of venues, as demonstrated today at a forum titled “Jobs, Inequality, and the Role of  Government,” sponsored at the Georgetown Law School. The movement’s  chant, “We are the 99 percent,” is meant to draw the distinction between the average American and the top 1 percent who possess 42 percent of the nation’s  wealth.

Sponsored by the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University and the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), the forum brought together economists and academics with representatives of labor, the financial community and the Obama administration. The 99 percent movement, as represented by young people working with Occupy D.C. and the October 2011 protests, made its presence felt in  the question-and-answer session that followed opening remarks by  CWA President Larry Cohen, Goldman Sachs Senior Investment Strategist Abby Joseph, Cohen and Jason Furman, White House adviser and deputy director of the National Economic Council.

Cohen presented a series of slides that told a grim tale of the economic fate of the average American who, according to a analysis by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has suffered virtually stagnant wages
while generating a nearly 200-percent growth in productivity. Cohen’s final chart suggested a major reason for the productivity/compensation disparity: compared with other major democracies, the U.S. lags far behind in collective bargaining coverage. Indeed, in a chart showing 10 major democracies – Germany,  Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Japan, South Africa, Spain, Sweden and the U.K. — the U.S. ranked dead last.

As the representative of  Goldman Sachs, which has become the poster child for corporate greed on both
the left and the right, Abby Joseph Cohen faced a polite, if skeptical, room.  Nonetheless, she made a
strong case for government investment in education, as well as research and development, and suggested that politicians design some new scheme for enticing corporations to bring back to the U.S. the $1.2 trillion in profits they’re holding overseas. She did concede, however, that the last time this was tried, via a tax holiday,  “it didn’t work out very well.”

The Goldman Sachs strategist expressed special concern for the drop in enrollment in science majors by U.S. college students, and suggested that the government had a role in preparing students  to enter those fields, which field the creation of jobs in manufacturing as  well as the service sectors.

As Jason Furman, one of the president’s economic advisers spoke, the Senate, he said, was scheduled to take up a vote  on the jobs bill proposed by President Barack Obama. The administration, he  said, was “hopeful” that the bill would pass, even as the consensus among political pulse-takers was that the bill would likely not make it out of the Senate.

If you want to do something about inequality, the first thing you want to something about is jobs.

Inequality is a pernicious ill, Furman implied, as it becomes a drag on economic growth and depresses participatory democracy. Even Alan Greenspan, he said, concedes that democratic capitalism is imperiled by
inequality.

Furman suggested that although there are aspects of inequality that cannot be addressed immediately, there are others that can.  Among those things that government should address, he said, were the decline in unionization, allowing the expiration of tax cuts for the wealthy,and implementing the “Buffett rule” — that no one make $1 million or more should pay a lower tax rate than middle-class Americans.

Then came the audience’s turn. Sam Marrero, a young man who identified himself only as the winner of a Boren Fellowship, expressed surprise that no one on the panel had mentioned the Occupy Wall Street
movement, which is part of the 99 percent movement and is present in its Occupy K Street (or Occupy D.C.) at an encampment in McPherson Square Park, just blocks from the White House.
Marrero asked for the comments of Goldman Sachs’ Abby Joseph Cohen, who said all  she knew of
the movement was what she read in the newspapers, and suggested he speak with movement organizers.
Sam was followed at the mic by Allison Johnson, who counts herself as part of the Occupy D.C. movement and works directly with the anti-war October2011 protest, who asked how change could take place with the
Senate hopelessly deadlocked via rules that allow a minority to stop legislation in its tracks.

Cohen didn’t hesitate to take up the challenges issued by the 99-percenters. “It almost takes a new democracy movement” to rectify inequality, he said, adding that  his union is working with members of the Occupy Wall Street  movement.

After the session, Larry Cohen explained why he thought a mass ”new democracy” political movement, as represented by the 99-percenters, was critical to solving the inequality puzzle.

There’s almost no other direction for people to move in. I think we’re blocked [from enacting] any kind of federal legislation, with campaign finance, Senate rules and voter suppression. There’s almost no other direction for people to move in, you know?

He showed me a chart that was distributed  at the most recent CWA board meeting that called for a mass movement of 50 million Americans — enough to represent a majority of the electorate.

That’s what it’sgoing to take.

Both Marrero, whose Boren Fellowship took him to Egypt to study the labor movement there, and Allison
Johnson, who described herself as a Harvard-trained international political economist, are unemployed. Said Johnson:

There are unemployed Ivy League graduates all over this country, as well as unemployed working people. If you don’t have a job, it doesn’t matter that you went to Harvard University or Yale University or you didn’t finish high school…We’re all in the same boat.

This blog post originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now Blog on October 11, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Adele Stan is a journalist and lifelong member of the labor movement, reports on a timely forum on inequality and jobs at Georgetown University today.


Share this post

Subscribe For Updates

Subscribe via RSS Subscribe via RSS

Or, sign up to receive our email newsletter:

* indicates required

Recent Posts

Forbes Best of the Web, Summer 2004
A Forbes "Best of the Web" Blog

Archives

  • Tracking image for JustAnswer widget
  • Find an Employment Lawyer

  • Support Workplace Fairness

 
 

Find an Employment Attorney

The Workplace Fairness Attorney Directory features lawyers from across the United States who primarily represent workers in employment cases. Please note that Workplace Fairness does not operate a lawyer referral service and does not provide legal advice, and that Workplace Fairness is not responsible for any advice that you receive from anyone, attorney or non-attorney, you may contact from this site.