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What’s at Stake for the Labor Movement on Election Day? Everything.

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Amer­i­ca is in cri­sis. There can be no doubt about that. All of our imme­di­ate crises—the pan­dem­ic and the unem­ploy­ment and the eco­nom­ic col­lapse and the death spi­ral of var­i­ous pub­lic insti­tu­tions—have lent the upcom­ing pres­i­den­tial elec­tion an air of emer­gency. For work­ing peo­ple in Amer­i­ca, though, the emer­gency is noth­ing new at all. What is at stake for labor in this elec­tion is every­thing. Noth­ing, there­fore, has changed. 

Don­ald Trump and the coro­n­avirus, the two fac­tors infus­ing this elec­tion with urgency, are of recent vin­tage. But the cri­sis for work­ing Amer­i­cans has been grow­ing worse for at least four decades. Since the Rea­gan era, eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty has been ris­ing, union pow­er has been declin­ing, and glob­al cap­i­tal­ism has been widen­ing the chasm between the rich and every­one else. 

Orga­nized labor has been fight­ing a los­ing—and some­times inept­ly fought—bat­tle against these trends in every elec­tion since 1980. The once-in-a-cen­tu­ry cat­a­stro­phe sur­round­ing the 2020 elec­tion may be what it needs to final­ly reverse two gen­er­a­tions of dis­re­spect and defeat. 

Labor unions, which rep­re­sent work­ers in a work­place, have always includ­ed peo­ple of all polit­i­cal stripes. The labor move­ment—the broad­er uni­verse of groups pur­su­ing the inter­ests of work­ing peo­ple—will con­tin­ue to lean left, in the direc­tion that val­ues labor over cap­i­tal. (See­ing police unions endorse Trump, whose admin­is­tra­tion is deter­mined to crush labor rights, is an exam­ple of the fact that indi­vid­ual unions and their mem­bers can act in self-inter­est­ed ways that go against the labor move­ment as a whole.) 

For rough­ly the past half cen­tu­ry, union house­holds have tend­ed to vote Demo­c­ra­t­ic by about a 60–40 mar­gin, but that mar­gin has fluc­tu­at­ed. In 1980, Ronald Rea­gan nar­rowed the gap to only a few points. Barack Oba­ma took the union vote by 34 points in 2012, but in 2016, that gap shrank by half. Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Joe Biden, tout­ing his Oba­ma con­nec­tions and fac­ing an out­right incom­pe­tent racist, will like­ly expand that mar­gin again. 

Since Con­gress passed the Taft-Hart­ley Act in 1947, unions have been oper­at­ing in the frame­work of a set of labor laws designed to rob them of pow­er. The state of those laws today is abysmal. The right to strike is restrict­ed, and com­pa­nies have been able to clas­si­fy large swaths of their work­ers as “inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors,” who lack the right to union­ize. More than half the states in the coun­try have passed “right to work” laws, which give work­ers the abil­i­ty to opt out of pay­ing union dues, mak­ing it extreme­ly dif­fi­cult for unions to orga­nize and main­tain mem­ber­ship. The 2018 Supreme Court deci­sion in the Janus v. AFSCME case made the entire pub­lic sec­tor “right to work” as well, which is sure to eat into that last bas­tion of strong union den­si­ty. The unful­filled desire to achieve some sem­blance of labor law reform has been the pri­ma­ry rea­son that unions in Amer­i­ca have poured mon­ey into the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty for decades, despite get­ting decid­ed­ly mod­est leg­isla­tive wins in return. 
“It’s critical that in the new administration, labor doesn’t just get siloed: ‘What’s the thing we can do to make the unions happy’ It’s got to be an approach to looking across everything, especially in light of the economic situation.” —Sharon Block, former Labor Department official in the Obama administration

Ear­li­er this year, Sharon Block, a for­mer Labor Depart­ment offi­cial in the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion who now heads the Labor and Work­life Pro­gram at Har­vard, and labor expert and Har­vard pro­fes­sor Ben­jamin Sachs spear­head­ed the assem­bly of the “Clean Slate for Work­er Pow­er” agen­da—some­thing of a union-friend­ly labor law plat­form for Democ­rats in exile dur­ing the Trump years. That agen­da is a fair sum­ma­tion of the labor movement’s wish list. It calls for a swath of reforms that make it eas­i­er for all work­ers to orga­nize and exer­cise pow­er. Its pil­lars include sec­toral bar­gain­ing, which would allow entire indus­tries to nego­ti­ate con­tracts at once; a much broad­er right to strike; work­er rep­re­sen­ta­tives on cor­po­rate boards; stream­lined union elec­tions; more labor rights for inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors and oth­er gig work­ers; the end of statewide “right to work” laws; and stronger enforce­ment of labor stan­dards. Biden’s own labor plat­form, while not quite as rad­i­cal—it con­spic­u­ous­ly does not include sec­toral bar­gain­ing—does include the major­i­ty of the Clean Slate agen­da. Biden’s plat­form also says there will be a “cab­i­net-lev­el work­ing group” of union rep­re­sen­ta­tives, which could pre­sum­ably push his plat­form even fur­ther left. Though Biden was among the most cen­trist of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry can­di­dates, the party’s cen­ter has moved so much in the past four years that he has the most left­ist labor plat­form of any nom­i­nee since the New Deal. 

While Biden is regard­ed by many as very pro-union, his­to­ry has taught the labor move­ment that its great­est chal­lenge will be get­ting him to actu­al­ly pri­or­i­tize labor if he assumes pow­er. “I had the priv­i­lege of see­ing Joe Biden in action. When he walked into a room where we were dis­cussing pol­i­cy, we knew that the inter­ests of work­ers, their col­lec­tive pow­er, and the labor move­ment was going to be on the table,” Block says. But, she warns, “It’s crit­i­cal that in the new admin­is­tra­tion, labor doesn’t just get siloed: ‘What’s the thing we can do to make the unions hap­py’ It’s got to be an approach to look­ing across every­thing, espe­cial­ly in light of the eco­nom­ic situation.”

In oth­er words, the new admin­is­tra­tion must treat orga­nized labor not as a spe­cial inter­est but as the key to chang­ing our increas­ing­ly two-tiered econ­o­my. That point is key to under­stand­ing the divide between the part of the labor move­ment that sup­port­ed left-wing can­di­dates like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Eliz­a­beth War­ren (D-Mass.), and those that sup­port­ed Biden. While Sanders’ back­ers will speak of his fanat­i­cal moral devo­tion to pro-work­ing class pol­i­cy, Biden’s allies will speak of the per­son­al rela­tion­ship they have with him. It is the divide between those who see unions more as part of a greater effort to improve con­di­tions for all work­ers, and those who see them more as a prac­ti­cal tool for mem­bers. “Joe Biden had an open door pol­i­cy. That was the biggest thing. That was the crux of the rela­tion­ship,” says a spokesper­son for the Inter­na­tion­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Fire Fight­ers, the first big union to endorse Biden when he entered the 2020 race. “With Joe Biden at the White House, our voice is heard. We get pri­or­i­ty access.”

This trans­ac­tion­al, loy­al­ty-cen­tric approach is unsur­pris­ing for a career politi­cian like Biden, but it can leave out labor lead­ers who don’t have such a long his­to­ry of back­ing him. Most major unions did not endorse in the 2020 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry, pre­fer­ring to focus on back­ing who­ev­er became the nom­i­nee to oppose Trump. And Biden—though he has many union allies—is not a cru­sad­er, but a politi­cian with decades of strong cor­po­rate back­ing, lead­ing many in labor to won­der how much he real­ly means what his plat­form says. The Biden cam­paign tried to mit­i­gate that wor­ry by includ­ing mul­ti­ple pro­gres­sive union lead­ers in the Biden-Sanders “Uni­ty Task Force,” which was explic­it­ly set up to uni­fy the left and cen­trist wings of the par­ty, in part by get­ting pro­gres­sive poli­cies into the Demo­c­ra­t­ic plat­form. That task force prod­ded Biden mod­est­ly to the left but not so far as to endorse core pro­gres­sive ideas like Medicare for All. The unions clos­est to Biden, par­tic­u­lar­ly the fire­fight­ers, are opposed to Medicare for All because they want to keep the health­care plans they nego­ti­at­ed for themselves.

The biggest labor unions often have strong pro­gres­sive fac­tions but most­ly plant them­selves firm­ly in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s main­stream. In fact, four major union lead­ers who serve on the plat­form com­mit­tee of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee vot­ed against includ­ing Medicare for All in the party’s plat­form. One was Ran­di Wein­garten, pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers, who also served on the Biden-Sanders Uni­ty Task Force. She says the DNC plat­form vote was a result of a pri­or agree­ment among those on the Uni­ty Task Force to vote for its rec­om­men­da­tions, in the way you might vote for a union con­tract that was imper­fect but the best you could get.

The wretched­ness of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has pushed unions to view the elec­tion as a mat­ter of sur­vival. “What Trump has done with his abysmal han­dling of Covid, and his even worse han­dling of racism, is to have sobered up every­one that this is an elec­tion like no oth­er,” Wein­garten says. “That this elec­tion needs to be won by Biden to make sure that our democ­ra­cy, as imper­fect as it is, stays in place. … Yes, it’s aspi­ra­tional about how we need to do bet­ter. But it’s also very pri­mal, about what the stakes are right now.” 

The bru­tal real­i­ties of the pan­dem­ic mean that many unions are forced to focus on their imme­di­ate needs more than on long-term ide­o­log­i­cal goals. In the Feb­ru­ary run-up to the Neva­da cau­cus, Joe Biden and the oth­er Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry can­di­dates bat­tled to win the endorse­ment of the pow­er­ful Culi­nary Union, which has orga­nized the state’s casi­no indus­try. (The union ulti­mate­ly did not endorse, and Bernie Sanders won the cau­cus.) Less than two months lat­er, the unem­ploy­ment rate for the union’s mem­bers was close to 100%. Geo­con­da Argüel­lo-Kline, the union’s sec­re­tary-trea­sur­er, says the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion is now framed in relent­less­ly prac­ti­cal terms: The refusal of Repub­li­cans to deal with the pan­dem­ic and the eco­nom­ic cri­sis show that only Biden can make the gov­ern­ment sup­port work­place safe­ty leg­is­la­tion, pro­tect health insur­ance and pen­sions, and fund ade­quate unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits until Las Vegas is back on its feet. 

“The gov­ern­ment real­ly has to pro­vide every­thing that the work­ers need dur­ing this pan­dem­ic,” Argüel­lo-Kline says. Her union is adapt­ing its leg­endary get-out-the-vote machine for a social­ly dis­tanced era, rely­ing on phone bank­ing, text mes­sag­ing and dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion more than door-knock­ing and ral­lies. She’s con­fi­dent that Trump will not car­ry Neva­da. “Every­body in the coun­try sees how he’s being oppres­sive to minori­ties over here. How he’s attack­ing the Lati­no com­mu­ni­ty. How he doesn’t want to have any­body in this coun­try who doesn’t look like him,” she says. “We know work­ers nev­er have an easy road.” 

Across the coun­try, unions that typ­i­cal­ly would be spend­ing the sum­mer and fall months focused on elec­tion­eer­ing are forced to bal­ance that with the work of triag­ing the needs of mem­bers fac­ing very real life-and-death sit­u­a­tions. The Retail, Whole­sale and Depart­ment Store Union rep­re­sents front-line retail work­ers who have been sub­ject­ed to wide­spread lay­offs that now appear to be per­ma­nent. It also rep­re­sents poul­try plant work­ers in the South who have con­tin­ued to work through­out the pan­dem­ic with des­per­ate short­ages of pro­tec­tive equip­ment. It is hard to tell whether the work­ing mem­bers or the unem­ployed mem­bers of the union face more dan­ger. Stu­art Appel­baum, the union’s pres­i­dent, has been a mem­ber of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee for decades, but he has nev­er dealt with an elec­tion year that com­bines such dire cir­cum­stances for work­ers with such logis­ti­cal chal­lenges to mobi­lize them to fight. 

If there is any sil­ver lin­ing, it is that the val­ue of unions is clear­er than ever before. Their pub­lic pop­u­lar­i­ty is near a 50-year high. Trump’s car­toon­ish class war lent the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­maries a strong pro-union fla­vor, and the work­place inequal­i­ty exposed by the pan­dem­ic has only sharp­ened the recog­ni­tion of the need for work­place pro­tec­tions. “We heard more talk about unions and sup­port of unions than we’ve heard in any oth­er cam­paign that I can remem­ber,” Appel­baum says. “There is more of a recog­ni­tion in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty now and in soci­ety as a whole as to the impor­tance of work­ers hav­ing a col­lec­tive voice. I remem­ber when Bill Clin­ton was first elect­ed, and I’d go to union meet­ings where peo­ple would say, ‘Is the pres­i­dent ever going to men­tion the word union?’ That’s not a ques­tion we have now.” 

That, of course, is no guar­an­tee that things will work out in unions’ favor. The right wing’s long attack on orga­nized labor has sapped some of the basic abil­i­ty of unions to exer­cise pow­er. No employ­ees have been more direct­ly sub­ject­ed to that attack than the work­ers of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment itself. The Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Gov­ern­ment Employ­ees has butted heads with the Trump admin­is­tra­tion inces­sant­ly over issues such as the lack of pay­checks dur­ing the gov­ern­ment shut­down, efforts to take away col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights from hun­dreds of thou­sands of employ­ees at the Defense Depart­ment, and work­ers at fed­er­al agen­cies being forced back into the office before the pan­dem­ic is under control. 

“For us, this elec­tion isn’t about par­ty affil­i­a­tion. It’s not about the dai­ly out­rages from Twit­ter. It’s about our very liveli­hoods. It’s about our rights and our lives at work,” says Everett Kel­ley, pres­i­dent of the 700,000-member union. “The issues that our mem­bers are fac­ing are real­ly the same issues that face labor as a whole—our mem­bers just work in a sec­tor where the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has the widest lat­i­tude to imple­ment its anti-labor poli­cies. But there’s no doubt that they want to export their union-bust­ing play­book from the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to the broad­er pub­lic and pri­vate sectors.” 

All of the mon­ey, email blasts and vir­tu­al get­ting-out-the-vote that unions are engaged in on behalf of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty will, if suc­cess­ful, result in mil­lions of mail-in bal­lots. And all of it will be worth­less if those bal­lots are not deliv­ered and count­ed prop­er­ly. Sav­ing the post office—and, who knows, per­haps democ­ra­cy itself—is a job that has fall­en in the lap of the labor move­ment. Unions have been key play­ers in pub­li­ciz­ing the threat to the postal ser­vice. They have ral­lied polit­i­cal sup­port behind postal work­ers and the pop­u­lar insti­tu­tion as a whole. What may have been seen as just anoth­er under­fund­ed gov­ern­ment agency a few years ago is now an avatar of every­thing wrong with Trumpism.

The U.S. Postal Ser­vice is, like many oth­er insti­tu­tions, fac­ing a pan­dem­ic-induced loss of rev­enue. It is also the tar­get of the Repub­li­can Party’s long-term desire to pri­va­tize mail deliv­ery and allow cor­po­ra­tions to take over its oper­a­tions. Add to that the president’s appar­ent desire to sab­o­tage the postal ser­vice before the elec­tion to pre­vent mail-in bal­lots from being count­ed, and sud­den­ly, the hum­ble post office finds itself at the cen­ter of a nation’s sense that the entire gov­ern­ment may be tee­ter­ing on the edge of irre­triev­able corruption. 

“Pri­va­ti­za­tion usu­al­ly means three things. It means high­er prices for the con­sumer, less ser­vices, and low­er wages and ben­e­fits for the work­ers,” says Mark Dimond­stein, head of the 200,000-member Amer­i­can Postal Work­ers Union. “This is cer­tain­ly the fork in the road of whether we’re going to have a pub­lic insti­tu­tion that belongs to every­body, serves every­body and is the source of good, liv­ing-wage union jobs—or a pri­va­tized, bro­ken-up gig econ­o­my postal service.”

With tens of mil­lions of Amer­i­cans unem­ployed, a dead­ly dis­ease rag­ing and an incum­bent pres­i­dent who appears not to care very much about either cri­sis, unions and their allies find them­selves pushed into a famil­iar cor­ner: Fight like hell for the less-than-ide­al Demo­c­rat—main­ly because there is no alter­na­tive. Joe Biden is an imper­fect ally. His record is busi­ness-friend­ly, and his labor plat­form, though strong in the­o­ry, is not as aggres­sive as those of some of his pri­ma­ry rivals. Labor move­ment vet­er­ans remem­ber 2008 well, when the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion swept in with promise but failed to deliv­er on the Employ­ee Free Choice Act, which would have enabled “card check” orga­niz­ing (a method of form­ing a union with a sim­ple major­i­ty vote) and was labor’s main (rel­a­tive­ly mod­est) wish. Biden is sell­ing him­self as Obama’s suc­ces­sor. It is up to the labor move­ment to ensure that a Biden admin­is­tra­tion does not take them for granted.

“We have to look at a Biden vic­to­ry not as an end to our work, but a begin­ning,” Dimond­stein says. “The his­to­ry of this coun­try is, it’s always been the peo­ple and the move­ment, includ­ing the work­ing class move­ment, that have cre­at­ed change in Con­gress. Not the oppo­site way.”

That, in fact, is the task that the labor move­ment—shrunk­en, bat­tered and divid­ed though it is—should be pour­ing most of its ener­gy into, even now. Union den­si­ty in Amer­i­ca has fall­en by half since the ear­ly 1980s. Bare­ly one in 10 work­ers are now union mem­bers. That exis­ten­tial decline must be turned around, or labor will nev­er have enough pow­er to win the eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal gains that work­ing peo­ple need. No new pres­i­dent can do this for the labor move­ment—they can only remove some bar­ri­ers to make it eas­i­er for the move­ment to do it for itself.

Biden looks strong in the polls, but there is no cer­tain­ty about what lies ahead. Few union lead­ers want to engage seri­ous­ly with the ques­tion of what hap­pens if Trump wins. The answer is always some vari­a­tion of “Just keep fight­ing.” But anoth­er four years of Trump would be grim, and sur­viv­ing it would require a fero­cious turn toward rad­i­cal­ism. After 2016, some fac­tions of the union world toyed with the the­o­ry that the way to meet the moment was to cater to the minor­i­ty of “white work­ing class” union mem­bers who felt left behind and embraced Trump. That approach was always flawed—Trump’s base is the upper, not low­er class—and sub­se­quent events have ren­dered it a moot point. The labor move­ment has loud­ly allied itself with Black Lives Mat­ter and pledged to join the fight for social jus­tice. Liv­ing up to that pledge means mak­ing a choice to oppose Trump. If he is reelect­ed, orga­nized labor should expect to be one of many tar­gets of his vindictiveness.

All of which points to the fact that nei­ther elec­tion out­come will mean auto­mat­ic sal­va­tion for work­ing peo­ple. The past 40 years of his­to­ry demon­strate that. Con­trol of the White House has gone back and forth, but through it all, the rich have got­ten rich­er, the wages of work­ing peo­ple have stag­nat­ed, union den­si­ty has declined and labor law has remained bro­ken. The worst-case sce­nario for the labor move­ment is to see more of the same.

“I don’t real­ly look to the Democ­rats for lead­er­ship; I look to the labor move­ment,” says Sara Nel­son, the head of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Flight Atten­dants and one of labor’s most promi­nent pro­gres­sive voic­es. “And we have the pow­er to change this right now if we choose to do so. That pow­er is not an appendage of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. It’s our labor. It’s our sol­i­dar­i­ty,” she says. “As long as we out­source our pow­er to politi­cians, we are nev­er, ever going to get what work­ing peo­ple need.”

The views expressed above are the authors’ own. As a 501©3 non­prof­it, In These Times does not sup­port or oppose can­di­dates for polit­i­cal office.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 22, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at [email protected]


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‘A tale of 2 recessions’: As rich Americans get richer, the bottom half struggles

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The path toward economic recovery in the U.S. has become sharply divided, with wealthier Americans earning and saving at record levels while the poorest struggle to pay their bills and put food on the table.

The result is a splintered economic picture characterized by high highs — the stock market has hit record levels — and incongruous low lows: Nearly 30 million Americans are receiving unemployment benefits, and the jobless rate stands at 8.4 percent. And that dichotomy, economists fear, could obscure the need for an additional economic stimulus that most say is sorely needed.

The trend is on track to exacerbate dramatic wealth and income gaps in the U.S., where divides are already wider than any other nation in the G-7, a group of major developed countries. Spiraling inequality can also contribute to political and financial instability, fuel social unrest and extend any economic recession.

The growing divide could also have damaging implications for President Donald Trump’s reelection bid. Economic downturns historically have been harmful if not fatal for incumbent presidents, and Trump’s base of working-class, blue-collar voters in the Midwest are among the demographics hurting the most. The White House has worked to highlight a rapid economic recovery as a primary reason to reelect the president, but his support on the issue is slipping: Nearly 3 in 5 people say the economy is on the wrong track, a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found.

Democrats are now seizing on what they see as an opportunity to hit the president on what had been one of his strongest reelection arguments.

“The economic inequities that began before the downturn have only worsened under this failed presidency,” Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said Friday. “No one thought they’d lose their job for good or see small businesses shut down en masse. But that kind of recovery requires leadership — leadership we didn’t have, and still don’t have.”

Recent economic data and surveys have laid bare the growing divide. Americans saved a stunning $3.2 trillion in July, the same month that more than 1 in 7 households with children told the U.S. Census Bureau they sometimes or often didn’t have enough food. More than a quarter of adults surveyed have reported paying down debt faster than usual, according to a new AP-NORC poll, while the same proportion said they have been unable to make rent or mortgage payments or pay a bill.

A historic House vote on marijuana legalization will take place later this month. We break down why Democrats are voting on the bill despite the fact that it’ll be dead upon arrival in the Senate.

And while the employment rate for high-wage workers has almost entirely recovered — by mid-July it was down just 1 percent from January — it remains down 15.4 percent for low-wage workers, according to Harvard’s Opportunity Insights economic tracker.

“What that’s created is this tale of two recessions,” said Beth Akers, a labor economist with the Manhattan Institute who worked on the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush. “There are so obviously complete communities that have been almost entirely unscathed by Covid, while others are entirely devastated.”

Trump and his allies have seized on the strength of the stock market and positive growth in areas like manufacturing and retail sales as evidence of what they have been calling a “V-shaped recovery”: a sharp drop-off followed by rapid growth.

But economists say that argument fails to see the larger picture, one where roughly a million laid-off workers are filing for unemployment benefits each week, millions more have seen their pay and hours cut, and permanent job losses are rising. The economy gained 1.4 million jobs in August, the Labor Department reported Friday, but the pace of job growth has slowed at a time when less than half of the jobs lost earlier this year have been recovered.

Some economists have begun to refer to the recovery as “K-shaped,” because while some households and communities have mostly recovered, others are continuing to struggle — or even seeing their situation deteriorate further.

“If you just look at the top of the K, it’s a V — but you can’t just look at what’s above water,” said Claudia Sahm, director of macroeconomic policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. “There could be a whole iceberg underneath it that you’re going to plow into.”

The burden is falling heavily on the poorest Americans, who are more likely to be out of work and less likely to have savings to lean on to weather the crisis. While recessions are always hardest on the poor, the coronavirus downturn has amplified those effects because shutdowns and widespread closures have wiped out low-wage jobs in industries like leisure and hospitality.

Highly touted gains in the stock market, meanwhile, help only the wealthiest 10 percent or so of households, as most others own little or no stock.

The disconnect between the stock market and the broader economy has been stark. On the same day in late August that MGM Resorts announced it would be laying off a quarter of its workforce, throwing some 18,000 workers into unemployment, its stock price jumped more than 6 percent, reaching its highest closing price since the start of March.

“The haves and the have-nots, there’s always been a distinction,” Sahm said. But now, she added, “we are widening this in a way I don’t think people have really wrapped their head around.”

A store going out of business
A customer leaves a retail store, which is going out of business, during the coronavirus pandemic. | Lynne Sladky/AP Photo

Without further stimulus, the situation appears poised to get worse. Economic growth until now had been led by increasing levels of consumer spending, buoyed by stimulus checks and enhanced unemployment benefits that gave many people, including jobless workers, more money to spend.

Low-income consumers have led the way, and they spent slightly more in August than they did in January, according to the Opportunity Insights tracker — even as middle- and high-income consumers are still spending less.

But those low-income consumers were also the most dependent on the extra $600 per week in boosted unemployment benefits, which expired in July. Since that lapsed — and since Congress appears unlikely to extend it any time soon, if at all — “we’re likely to see other macroeconomic numbers really fall off a cliff in the coming weeks,” Akers said.

The expected drop in spending, paired with the expiration of economic relief initiatives like the Paycheck Protection Program, could also spell trouble for businesses in the coming months. Many economists expect a wave of bankruptcies and business closures in the fall, contributing to further layoffs.

In that sector, too, owners are feeling disparate impacts. More than 1 in 5 small business owners reported that sales are still 50 percent or less than where they were before the pandemic, according to a recent survey from the National Federation of Independent Business, and the same proportion say they will need to close their doors if current economic conditions do not improve within six months.

At the same time, however, half said they are nearly back to where they were before, and approximately 1 in 7 owners say they are doing better now than they were before the pandemic, the survey showed.

Those diverging narratives could be understating the need for further stimulus by smoothing over some of the deeper weaknesses in the labor market and the economy, experts say.

“This is a case where the averages tell a different story than the underlying data itself,” said Peter Atwater, an adjunct economics professor at William & Mary.

While Republicans appear to be embracing the idea of further “targeted” aid, they are also touting what Trump has called a “rocket-ship” economic recovery and emphasizing record-breaking growth while downplaying the record-breaking losses that preceded it.

“There’s no question the recovery has beat expectations,” said Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, this week on a press call with reporters.

Talks between the White House and Democratic leaders, meanwhile, have been stalled for weeks. The Senate is set to return from its summer recess next week with no clear path forward on a relief package.

“People are in these bubbles,” Atwater said. “And if people aren’t leaving their homes, are not really getting out, it’s unlikely that they’re seeing the magnitude of the downside of this K-shaped recovery.”

This article originally appeared at Politico on September 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Megan Cassella is a trade reporter for POLITICO Pro. Before joining the trade team in June 2016, Megan worked for Reuters based out of Washington, covering the economy, domestic politics and the 2016 presidential campaign. It was in that role that she first began covering trade, including Donald Trump’s rise as the populist candidate vowing to renegotiate NAFTA and Hillary Clinton’s careful sidestep of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

A D.C.-area native, Megan headed south for a few years to earn her bachelor’s degree in business journalism and international politics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Now settled back inside the Beltway, Megan’s on the hunt for the city’s best Carolina BBQ — and still rooting for the Heels.


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Matt Bevin becomes the latest red state Republican to find out you don’t mess with teachers

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One of the big fights that contributed to the downfall of Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin was with teachers in his state. He insulted them, he went after their pensions, he blamed their activism for the death of a child, and, as he was losing on election night, a tweet saying “Hey @MattBevin, we finally found something you can accurately blame the teachers for” went semi-viral.

Kentucky was one of several states where teachers organized against Republican attacks and inadequate education funding. But have other Republicans (and other opponents of public education) been punished for their attacks on teachers and education? Not in every case—but often enough you’d think they’d start paying attention.

Also Tuesday night, in Denver, Colorado, where teachers went on strike earlier in 2019, teacher-backed candidates took a majority on the city school board, which had been dominated by supporters of corporate education policy.

In Oklahoma in 2018, 16 educators were elected to the state legislature. It’s Oklahoma, and nine of them were Republicans, but they were educators who ran as such. And the Republicans who opposed increased a tiny tax increase on fracking to raise teacher pay? They were overwhelmingly primaried out.

In fact, The New York Times reports that, more broadly, “The teachers’ movement has energized Democrats in red states, with record numbers of educators running for office. But it may have had an even greater impact on Republican politics. In primaries, it has picked off Republican legislators who opposed funding for teachers and schools. And it has convinced conservative leaders that voters, particularly suburban parents, are looking for full-throated support, and open pocketbooks, for public education.” That happened in West Virginia, where one of the most vocal Republican opponents of the teachers strikes there lost his 2018 primary to a more moderate Republican.

Arizona Republicans saw this coming and raced to co-opt education as an issue. To a significant extent they succeeded. Just one of six educators to run for state legislature in the state won her race, and Republican Gov. Doug Ducey was reelected. But educator Kathy Hoffman became the first Democrat elected state schools superintendent in more than 20 years.

Education funding was a significant part of the fall of former Gov. Sam Brownback in Kansas, and while 2018 Republican gubernatorial nominee Kris Kobach had a lot of baggage of his own, Brownback’s unpopularity and the prominence of education issues also helped boost now-Gov. Laura Kelly’s run.

Teachers may not have created a full Red for Ed wave at the polls since their uprising began, but they’ve made a mark. Tuesday night, Matt Bevin and Denver felt that.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on November 6, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor

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Forget Elections—Labor Needs To Get Back to Its Roots

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With the midterms behind us, we have Nov. 4, 2020, to look forward to—labor’s next morning after. On Nov. 5, 2008, we were euphoric and full of delusional hope over the imminent passage of the Employee Free Choice Act and the restoration of labor. On Nov. 9, 2016, we were paralyzed by despair and denial.

At this point, betting our future on the next brutal mating ritual of Republicans and Democrats is not a bet most workers are willing to take. Since the 1950s, union membership decline has been a straight line downward, regardless of which political party is in power. Only 10.7 percent of workers are unionized; an enormous 89.3 percent are not. That’s too low to make much difference for most people in most places—more molecular level Brownian motion than labor movement. No threat to wealth, the wealthy, or powerful. Much worse, no voice or power of, by, or, for workers. Instead, organized labor has become so marginal Donald Trump has been able to usurp its role as the emotional voice for workers.

The economy is doing great—apart from workers. Wages remain stagnant. Forty percent of adults don’t have enough savings to cover a $400 emergency expense such as a car repair or medical crisis. Forty-three percent of families aren’t making enough to cover monthly living expenses. Uncertain work, unpredictable work hours, mandatory overtime, dictatorial bosses, miserable job standards, create day-to-day desperation with psychological and social tolls. The labor market is ripe for an organizing explosion, but it isn’t happening.

Blaming the rich and the Republicans is great sport. The income inequality research industry is booming and there is no need to catalog Republican offenses—they campaign on them. Long ago, labor outsourced its representation in the public sphere to the Democratic Party, and in the process become a dependent franchise and an easy target. But the truth is that the Democrats patronize labor on a good day, sell us out on a bad day, and ignore us on most days. (I speak as a recovering politician, a Democrat who ran and was elected four times to city council in my heavily Republican small town.)

Partisan and competitive thinking insidiously affects behavior. Fifty percent plus one passes for solidarity. Unionists succumb to political speak, sounding like Washington rather than “folks ‘round here.” We blame workers for voting for Republicans. If they’d only voted how we told them, then we could get things done. We estrange ourselves from large chunks of workers while giving ourselves an excuse for failure. We don’t have to do the hard work of building a movement, we only need to win an election.

Maybe we should rethink that.

Instead, start today from where we are and who we are. Simple collective self-representation without institutional, ideological, partisan or monetary artifice. Understanding who and where we are by our own compass; by our own position, not opposition. This requires radical respect for our fellow workers. For lack of a better term, this unadorned organizing is social organizing.

Abundant example are scattered across the globe and buried in history. I witnessed a jarring worker tutorial in social organizing in Poland in 1995, when AFL-CIO desperation over labor’s decline and my good luck resulted in a leave of absence from my elected Central Labor Council job to work in those early post-revolutionary years with Solidarnosc leadership and membership. Ironically, at one point, I was tasked with organizing a conference on American union organizing for Solidarnosc activists. Just as the accomplished, well-educated American organizer sent over by the union began his presentation, one Solidarnosc members interrupted to ask, “What do you mean “organize?” A moment of awkward silence followed. Then, charitably, another Solidarnosc member suggested, “Do you mean, join our organization and we’ll represent you?” The original questioner jumped in, “we had 45 years of that with the Communists.” The workers then came up with their own definition of organizing, “co-creating our own future.” Workers, not the organization, were the of, by, and for.

Post-revolution, the solidarity of Solidarnosc dissipated into political and institutional factions. Still, this incident illuminates the commitment to social organizing that helped spark this transformational worker movement.

When all we have is each other, social organizing is where we start.

Back to basics

Social organizing built the labor movement. When 19th-century American workers had virtually no institutional or political voice or power, they developed both by caring about and for each other. In nearly every inch of America, now-forgotten workers came together with that definition of solidarity.

In 1894, Coxey’s Army of unemployed workers marched on Washington, D.C., to press for defined jobs and meaningful work. As branches passed through cities and towns—including Fort Wayne, Ind., where I work—the Fort Wayne Sentinel reported that local residents lavished them for days with food and social support. That same year the Sentinel reported, during the 1894 streetcar workers strike, housewives directed garden hoses at scabs, horse drawn wagons inexplicably unhitched on the tracks, and riders boycotted the streetcars. Returning the solidarity, striking workers went back to work without pay for one day, Memorial Day, so citizens could visit the graves of their departed. Streetcar workers and the community won that strike.

Thousands of lost histories such as this were the roots of community-based solidarity in industrial America. This populist industrial solidarity spawned and supported Workingmen’s Associations, Knights of Labor chapters, Trade and Labor Councils. In turn, these organizations incubated worker organizing in workplaces and by trades. Local solidarity in railroad towns and company towns built the institutional, political and legal foundations for our now diminished labor movement. The gravity of solidarity drew workers into the inextricably intertwined labor market and community. This culture of solidarity included direct actions such as strikes and boycotts but, more consistently and importantly, direct education of, by, and for workers. Apprenticeships,“lectors” who read news and literature aloud to workers on the job, and intentionally educational union meetings with guest speakers were part of the culture. Railroad and industrial activities were regularly covered in newspapers, with the reporting focused more on workers than bosses or business. Journalists, whether Knights of Labor or just solid reporters, would commonly cover union federation meetings. Union leaders understood their role as representative in the community meant talking to reporters, not hiding from them. Everybody had something to teach and everybody had something to learn and an obligation to do both. A culture of solidarity meant educate to organize and organize to educate.

We could take solace and avoid the hard work of organizing by saying America and the world are different now. Our mid-twentieth century institutions, economy, and democracy have decayed or been hijacked. Our social divisions can feel insurmountable. We’ve been sliced, diced, monetized, politicized and controlled. But are we so special that we now believe we are the first ones to have ever been so seemingly screwed? Or do we try to work through it, experiment based on what we can learn from other times and places and most importantly, each other?

Social organizing after the 2008 Recession

Since 1996, the folks I’ve been working with at the Workers’ Project, a research and education nonprofit, have experimented scores of times with worker representation through social organizing. We are confident and hopeful various configurations of workers have been experimenting elsewhere. We have learned some lessons from our successes and failures.

One instructive experiment focused on unemployed workers’ social organizing for voice and power during and after the Great Recession. A torrent of mostly non-union workers, newly jobless after the economic crash, were overwhelming Indiana’s unemployment offices. The state offices were disinterested or actively hostile toward unemployed workers. Meanwhile, a union foundry in Kendallville, Ind., was closing. Busted up from years of foundry work, the union president, the late Leonard Hicks, was ready to quit working but unwilling to stop representing his folks as their lives became even tougher.

To address both problems, we brought together union and non-union unemployed workers to bargain with the state through a social organizing movement, Unemployed and Anxiously Employed Workers’ Initiative (UAEWI).

First, we listened as workers talked about problems and possibilities. We developed a survey. In the unemployment office parking lot, we surveyed unemployed workers about how the office was doing, giving them a report card style survey to fill out, with a voluntary contact information form. The state immediately called in the police to stop us—claiming that we were trespassing on private property, because the public office was housed on private land. We alerted the media and the state received reams of bad press.

The media coverage revealed to unemployed workers they could have a voice and some grit. They began coming to UAEWI meetings, along with the union foundry workers in Kendallville and other union shops experiencing mass lay-offs.

Our ranks of unemployed included workers with education and experience in sociology. With their assistance, the UAEWI members developed and collected a broader survey. The survey was not for academic publication, or for an institutional or partisan agenda, but instead for collective self-representation. It had real value for public policy discussions. While the political class talk about or for unemployed workers, UAEWI represented themselves.

Membership was determined solely by a worker’s decision to participate in the survey—to voluntarily add their voice to the collective voice. We conducted education and training classes as well as group talk sessions. Within a few months, the State’s unemployment office management found themselves in a union hall across a bargaining table with the UAEWI members. Unemployed workers gained improvements in services including increased staffing and training but most importantly, a change in attitude. Most UAEWI members had never been union members; they learned how collective representation worked.

For seven more years, we continued and broadened annual UAEWI surveys. We gathered responses wherever we found voiceless workers: from folks leaving food banks, township trustee office, social service agencies, a mobile Mexican consulate. Our sampling exceeded 500 workers in 2012 and was conducted in English, Spanish and Burmese. We asked more wide-ranging public policy questions about issues such as economic development.

UAEWI members bargained in the public sphere. They provided local, state, national, and international journalists with reliable data, context, and access to socially organized workers willing to tell compelling stories. Some of the stories supported Peabody and Murrow investigative journalism awards. UAEWI members presented survey report results to other members and the public in very public formats ranging from traditional research reports to semi-theatrical presentations and even cinematic effort. UAEWI members attended and spoke before the local and state Workforce Investment Boards, Fort Wayne City Council, Indiana Economic Development Board meetings.

Just the modest act of asking drew workers out of their isolation and into solidarity. Many UAEWI members were personally transformed as they shaped public policies from the unemployment office to well beyond. They were co-creating their own futures. This was bargaining in the public sphere, bargaining with the state over the terms and conditions of our lives. Bargaining with state is foundational for worker representation in the 21st century, just as it was with Coxey’s Army in the 19th century. The UAEWI effort only updated representation with a bit of worker-driven social science.

In the last four years, learning from UAEWI effort, we have experimented with applying worker-driven social science and applying it to original NLRA intent in workplaces. In labor speak workers develop “non-certified minority status bargaining” with so-called private employers. (This less legalistic, institutional and technocratic organizing was envisioned when the NLRA was first implemented—the work of labor law scholar, the late Clyde Summers, as well as Charles Morris’s in Blue Eagle At Work documents this well.)

We helped workers develop their collective understanding and identity to, from the worm’s eye view, make things better at work. In each case, their self-organizing grew from “solidarity selfies” and a survey of co-workers’ thoughts on the terms and conditions of their employment. It is simultaneously concerted activity under the NLRA and, more importantly, intellectual property owned by the workers. We provided supportive research and education for Latina workers at a manufacturing plant; sub-contracted workers at a retail outlet; and Burmese workers at a manufacturing plant. One group faced unsafe work conditions causing miscarriages. The second faced a classic bullying boss culture. The third faced systematic ethnic and language discrimination.

We provided them access to social science, legal support, and social organizing talent, as well as a place in our community of solidarity. We supported their conversations to develop strategies to negotiate with the boss. They succeeded on their own terms. First the survey process overcame employer-imposed isolation. Workers experienced their own workplace “me too” revelations which led to collective voice. They built their representational power by developing a research report on their work lives that became collectively owned and copyrighted intellectual property with real bargaining value. Each unit could choose to share the findings with whoever they decide in the public-private spectrum: media, government regulators, elected officials, customers, suppliers, competitors, stockholders or, if willing, across the table with the boss.

The Latina factory workers met with the plant owner to present their findings. Safety conditions improved, maternity leaves were granted, healthy babies were born, and little Jose Manuel now attends our events. Some of the workers were fired, most moved on to other jobs, some won legal settlements. Most remain active in the Hispanic Workers Circle.

The subcontracted retail workers successfully confronted top national corporate management. They ended the bullying management culture and maintain an ongoing social “solidarity union” collecting no dues and participating in all Workers’ Project activities.

The Burmese factory workers efforts are ongoing. They constitute a significant portion of our Burmese Workers Circle which is developing as a workers’ and civil rights organization.

Stay tuned for more news: All groups continue full-throated participation in Workers’ Project activities and Fort Wayne’s huge annual Labor Day picnic.

We think collective intellectual property is an intriguing innovation. As workers we are robbed of our intellectual property as employers pick our brains, pick our pockets, only to pick up and leave us jobless. As consumers, our data has collected by others, monetized and politicized at our expense to benefit wealth. Intellectual property we own collectively can help us bargain with anyone in the power spectrum, from private employer to the state.

Owning our own voices and power, collective human agency, is our democracy where we work and where we live. Valuing each other, sharing our experiences, information, ideas, and respect seems a great place to start especially when you are starting at scratch. Social organizing, old school or innovative, is still solidarity.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on November 16, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Tom Lewandowski is co-founder and director of the Workers’ Project in Fort Wayne, Ind.


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Interfaith Coalition Calls for Moral Action on the Economy

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The largest employer of low-wage workers in America is the federal government. U.S. government contractors employ over two million workers in jobs that pay too little – $12.00 an hour or less – to support a family. Contract workers – organizing under the banner of Good Jobs Nation – have walked off of their jobs repeatedly in protest, demanding a living wage and the right to a union.

This Monday, on the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s death, this movement will gain a powerful ally. Led by Jim Winkler, general secretary of the National Council of Churches and Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of the Catholic social justice lobby NETWORK, an interfaith coalition of religious leaders is issuing a call for “moral action on the economy.” They will seek to meet with presidential candidates, asking each to pledge that, if elected, he or she would issue an executive order to reward model employers “that pay a living wage of at least $15.00 an hour, provide decent benefits and allow workers to organize without retaliation.”

The movement for living wages is taking off. The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 for nearly seven years. Unable to provide for their families, fast food and other low-wage workers began to demonstrate, even at risk of losing their jobs. “Fight for 15” – the demand for a $15.00 an hour minimum wage and the right to a union – swept across the country. And is beginning to win.

In Seattle, a coalition of union, community and business leaders helped pass legislation putting the city minimum wage on a path to $15. From Los Angeles to Chicago to New York, other cities joined. In the last few days, California legislators reached a deal to move the state minimum wage to $15 by 2022. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo pushed through reforms that will move that state’s minimum wage to $15, starting in December 2018 in New York City.

The pressure of the government low-wage workers moved President Obama to act. He issued three executive orders, raising the minimum wage to $10.10, cracking down on wage theft and other workplace violations, and providing paid leave. The workers continued to demonstrate, calling for “more than the minimum,” seeking $15 and a union.

Senate cafeteria workers – the people who prepare the senators’ food and clean up after them – joined the protests. Their plight – one was homeless, others on food stamps, one moonlighting as a stripper to feed her children – was embarrassing. Democratic Senate staffers organized to support them. Democratic senators like Bernie Sanders (Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), and Brian Schatz (Hawaii) demanded action. When the cafeteria contract was up for renewal in December, workers were granted pay increases of $5 an hour or more. It took more pressure and Labor Department investigation to make the raises stick, but today workers are finally receiving their pay.

Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell, who has documented the struggle highlighted one beneficiary, Bertrand Olotara, a cook in the Senate cafeteria. His wage went from $12.30 to $17.45 an hour. He was able to quit his second job at Whole Foods and stop working seven days a week. That gave him more time with his five children. He’s even thinking of using the extra time to write a book. A living wage makes real differences in people’s lives.

Now the interfaith coalition joining with these workers and calling on those contending for the presidency to promise to do more. Republican contenders are still opposed to raising the minimum wage. Bernie Sanders has made a $15 an hour minimum wage a central plank in his platform. Hillary Clinton has supported lifting the national minimum wage to $12.50, accepting that some states and cities might go higher.

The interfaith alliance is calling on the presidential candidates to pledge moral action on the economy. When Ronald Reagan came to office, one of his first acts was to fire and replace the striking PATCO air controllers. He sent a message to employers across the country that it was open season on workers and their unions. Imagine the next president taking office and issuing an executive order lifting the wages of millions of contract workers and guaranteeing a right to organize without retaliation. Again a signal would be sent across the country.

“This election is fundamentally about whether the next president is willing to take transformative executive action to close the gap between the wealthy and workers – many of whom are women and people of color,” argues Jim Winkler, secretary general of the National Council of Churches. It’s time to take the pledge.

This blog originally appeared in ourfuture.org on April 4, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Robert Borosage is a board member of both the Blue Green Alliance and Working America.  He earned a BA in political science from Michigan State University in 1966, a master’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University in 1968, and a JD from Yale Law School in 1971. Borosage then practiced law until 1974, at which time he founded the Center for National Security Studies.


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Why Virginia’s Open Shop Referendum Should Matter to the Entire American Labor Movement in 2016

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The douglas williamsmost important election in Virginia this year has no candidates on the ballot.

On February 2nd, the Republican-dominated General Assembly passed the two-session threshold needed to put the open shop before the Commonwealth’s voters in November. You might be asking yourself, “Wait. I thought that Virginia was already an open-shop state?” Your inclinations would be correct: legislation barring union membership as a condition of employment was signed into law by Gov. William Tuck (a later adherent to Massive Resistance in response to Brown v. Board of Educationas a member of Congress) in 1947. As a result, Section 40.1-58 of the Code of Virginia reads:

It is hereby declared to be the public policy of Virginia that the right of persons to work shall not be denied or abridged on account of membership or nonmembership in any labor union or labor organization.

So why do this? The easy answer is that Virginia Republicans are fearful that, should the open shop meet a legal challenge in state court, Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring would not seek to defend it. The sponsor of the bill and defeated 2013 nominee for Attorney General, State Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), stated as much in the deliberations on the bill. In addition, should the Assembly find itself in pro-labor hands in the future, they could overturn the open shop with a simple majority vote. Never mind that the extreme amounts of gerrymandering in the Assembly (particularly in the House of Delegates) makes a unified Democratic state government unlikely for decades to come.

The vote this November will be the first popular referendum on the open shop since 54 percent of Oklahoma voters approved State Question 695 on September 25, 2001. In this, an opportunity presents itself to the labor movement in this country, and it is one that labor unions must take.

In the fifteen years since the Oklahoma referendum, every open-shop law has been passed through state legislatures. This, of course, advantages corporations and anti-worker conservatives as they can flood state capitols with their donations and their lobbyists at a relative distance from public scrutiny. Combined with the gerrymandering described above which ensures that an anti-worker vote will not result in the loss of an election, the deck is often stacked far too high for labor advocates to overcome. The only hope for those who live in the thirty states with a Republican legislature is the presence of a pro-labor governor and legislative procedures that require a higher threshold than a simple majority to override a veto.

West Virginia workers just found out what happens when you have the formerbut not the latter.

There are demographic reasons to feel good about this campaign: 18-34-year olds are the generation most supportive of labor unions, and Black workers have both been more supportive and more eager joiners of labor unions than their white counterparts. Virginia has been a prime destination for young people over the last couple of decades due to the economic boom occurring in Northern Virginia, and the state has always had a large number of Black residents.

But the campaign against the open shop this fall cannot rely on demographics to save it. Given the opportunity that labor unions have with this referendum, the goal should not simply be to win: it should be a realignment of the conversation surrounding the role in labor unions in Virginia’s—and America’s—political economy.

There have been many issues stemming from the precipitous decline in union density in this country. The stagnation of working people’s wages, widening inequality, and a sense of alienation and disillusionment amongst the working class can all be tied back to the decline of organized labor in the United States.

But there’s another thing that declining union membership has produced, and it is, perhaps, the greatest victory of all for capitalism: the sense that, rather than being a representative of America’s working class, unions are no different from any other interest group. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean sought to mobilize this sentiment recently in support of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign when he stated that “[Democrats] don’t go after” political donations from labor unions because “labor unions are Super-PACs that Democrats like”.

(It should be noted, of course, that the only union that has spent any significant money on Bernie Sanders’s behalf is National Nurses United. It appears that only Hillary Clinton will protect us from Big Nursing and the Caregiver-Industrial Complex.)

Part of this has been on the labor movement: too much money, time, and energy has been devoted to electing Democrats at all costs to federal office, even when they are absolutely terrible. But most of it has been a concerted effort by neoliberals in both parties to erode unions’ once formidable approval ratings by associating them with the most unsavory parts of the legislative process. How unsavory? In 2013, Gallup polled Americans on the honesty of several professions. Those who engage in lobbying, a key part of the legislative and policymaking work that any interest group engages in, were at the bottom with a six percent approval rating. By comparison, an August 2015 Gallup poll saw 58 percent of Americans approving of labor unions, with 37 percent believing that they should have more influence.

By making labor unions a creature of politics, working-class Americans begin to process the information that they receive about unions the same way that they receive other forms of political information: in a partisan manner. In his 2013 book The Partisan Sort, University of Pennsylvania political science professor Matthew Levendusky states that:

[W]hen a respondent moves from unsorted to sorted, he is much more likely to move his ideological beliefs into alignment with his partisanship than the reverse, strongly suggesting that party is the key causal variable.

Therefore, when working-class Republicans think about labor unions, they are less likely to consider the fact that union members make 21 percent more than non-union members or that 29 percent more civilian workers have access to retirement plans if they are a member of a labor union. No, they are more likely to think about Democrats receiving 89 percent of the donations given out by unions in 2014. The fact that the last two Democratic presidents have supported trade deals that acted as accelerants on the continued deindustrialization of America certainly does not help matters at all.

But the labor movement has been given a golden opportunity in 2016, and it is one that should not be passed up: the opportunity to engage in the largest labor education program that this country has ever seen.

Over the next eight-and-a-half months, unions should be running ads that focus on the specifics that so many American labor ads skirt around.

  1. We can tell people that it is illegal for union dues to go towards political action at the federal level. While dues money can go towards political spending at the local and state levels, their dues mostly pay for representation, access to the industry-specific research needed to make negotiations more fruitful, and strike funds to support workers when their meeting their demands requires direct action.
  2. We can tell people about the union difference in wages, benefits, and retirement.
  3. But even more important than that, we can talk about the ways that labor unions benefit the communities in which they exist. Not just through increased spending in local businesses, but also through programs that benefit a community’s most vulnerable.

That last point is important, because it is how we will begin to develop the culture of unionism that we so desperately need in the South. It is important to ensure that the positive feeling that today’s youth have towards labor unions does not turn into anti-labor sentiment through a lifetime of one-way conversation dominated by capitalists and their PR lap dogs like Rick Berman.

But for this to be successful, all hands must be on deck. Virginia is one of a couple of states where such a measure could be defeated at the ballot box (the other, for my money anyways, being Kentucky), and it must be. Defeating this referendum must become the labor movement’s number one priority in 2016, even more so than the presidential election. In the piece I wrote about labor’s engagement in party politics, I stated:

If the labor movement must invest in politics, it would be wisest to do so at the community/local/state level. It is there, our ‘laboratories of public policy’, where the labor movement can have the most positive impact on the lives of working people.

There is no time like the present for the labor movement to take this advice to heart.

This article originally appeared on inthesetimes.com on March 3, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Douglas Williams is a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Alabama, researching the labor movement and labor policy. He blogs at The South Lawn.


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President Of Florida-Based Company Threatens To Fire Employees If Romney Loses

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 With fewer than 72 hours before polls begin to close, another report has emerged of a company owner strongly urging his employees to vote for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama, claiming that their jobs are potentially on the line if Obama wins re-election.

Cliff Otto, president of the Florida-based Saddle Creek Corporation, circulated an email to staff this week explaining that, while “we do not support candidates based on their political affiliation,” Romney’s positions are in “the best interest of our company, and therefore our jobs and our future”:

In the past, Saddle Creek has not felt it imperative that we communicate with our associates regarding the political issues that affect our business. This year the positions taken by the two presidential candidates with regard to these issues are starkly different. As such [we] feel it would be wrong for us not to share with you the company’s position on just a few of the critical issues and, at the same time, how each of the two candidates compare to our position. … We do not support candidates based on their political affiliation. We do support candidates that share our positions with regard to the key issues facing our company and our country. Thank you for considering what Saddle Creek believes is in the best interest of our company, and therefore our jobs and our future.

An accompanying flyer, obtained by MSNBC’s Up With Chris Hayes, highlights by position — not candidate — which would be more beneficial for Otto’s employees’ jobs:

Otto is not alone in his effort to sway his employees’ votes by insinuating that they might lose their jobs should Obama win. Similar tactics have been used by other CEOs across the country who warn of “consequences” should Romney lose on November 6th. One CEO likened the threats to telling employees to “Eat your spinach.”

Indeed, it may be a concerted intimidation effort by right-leaning CEOs that is orchestrated from the top. Just a month ago, leaked audio captured Romney urging conservative business owners to tell their employees who to vote for.

This article was originally posted on November 4, 2012 at Think Progress

About the Author: Annie-Rose Strasser is a Reporter/Blogger for ThinkProgress. Before joining American Progress, she worked for the community organizing non-profit Center for Community Change as a new media specialist. Previously, Annie-Rose served as a press assistant for Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Annie-Rose holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from the George Washington University.


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AFL-CIO Head Trumka: Romney ‘sure doesn’t know anything about coal mining’

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The United Mine Workers of America is sitting out this presidential race as Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama battle over parts of coal country. But former UMWA president and current AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka spoke to the press Monday not just as an advocate for all workers but from the perspective of a third-generation coal miner.

While Romney has centered his coal country campaign on inaccurate claims that overregulation by the Obama administration has weakened the coal industry (Romney’s beloved free market is the real culprit), Trumka pointed to how workplace safety is enforced in this dangerous industry:

[President Obama] has appointed people who are enforcing safety laws, these are the real regulations coal operators don’t want enforced….MSHA [Mine Safety and Health Administration] is enforcing the laws and now coal operators are not able to get away with violations like they did before, especially high violators.

Among the regulations and oversight that Romney would weaken or abolish are those that save miners’ lives. So it’s important that Romney’s “Obama’s war on coal” rhetoric not be allowed to cloud the picture, obscuring that coal’s recent struggles aren’t due to regulation, and that when he talks about regulations, he’s talking about people’s lives. Beyond that, Trumka drove home the distance between the coal miners Romney pretends to care about and Romney’s own life:

Mitt Romney says coal country is his country. Well, he’s wrong—it’s ours….Mitt Romney doesn’t know about getting his hands dirty, and he sure doesn’t know anything about coal mining.

This article was originally published by The Daily Kos on Monday, October 29, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006, and a Daily Kos Labor editor since 2011.


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In Conference Call, Romney Urged Businesses To Tell Their Employees How to Vote

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In a June 6, 2012 conference call posted on the anti-union National Federation of Independent Business’s website, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney instructed employers to tell their employees how to vote in the upcoming election.

 

Romney was addressing  a group of self-described “small-business owners.” Twenty-six minutes into the call, after making a lengthy case that President Obama’s first term has been bad for business, Romney said:

I hope you make it very clear to your employees what you believe is in the best interest of your enterprise and therefore their job and their future in the upcoming elections. And whether you agree with me or you agree with President Obama, or whatever your political view, I hope, I hope you pass those along to your employees.

The call raises the question of whether the Romney campaign is complicit in the corporate attempts to influence employees’ votes that have been recently making headlines. On Sunday, In These Times broke the news that Koch Industries mailed at least 45,000 employees a voter information packet that included a flyer endorsing Romney and a letter warning, “Many of our more than 50,000 U.S. employees and contractors may suffer the consequences [of a bad election result], including higher gasoline prices, runaway inflation, and other ills.” Last week, Gawker obtained an email in which the CEO of Westgate Resorts, Florida billionaire David Siegel, informed his 7,000 employees that an Obama victory would likely lead to layoffs at his company. This week, MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes unveiled an email by ASG Software Solutions CEO Arthur Allen in which he, too, warned employees that an Obama second term would spell layoffs.

In the June call, Romney went on to reassure his audience that it is perfectly legal for them to talk to their employees about how to vote:

Nothing illegal about you talking to your employees about what you believe is best for the business, because I think that will figure into their election decision, their voting decision and of course doing that with your family and your kids as well.

He’s correct that such speech is now legal for the first time ever, thanks to the Citizen United ruling, which overturned previous Federal Election Commission laws that prohibited employers from political campaigning among employees.

In the post-Citizens United era, “there is not much political protection for at-will employees in the private sector workplace,” explains University of Marquette Law Professor Paul Secunda, a pro-union labor lawyer. “It is conceivable, under the current legal regime, that an employer like Koch could actually get away with forcing his employees, on pains of termination, to campaign for a given candidate or political party.”

Romney provided his call audience with a number of talking points to relay to their employees:

I particularly think that our young kids–and when I say young, I mean college-age and high-school age–they need to understand that America runs on a strong and vibrant business [sic] … and that we need more business growing and thriving in this country. They need to understand that what the president is doing by borrowing a trillion dollars more each year than what we spend is running up a credit card that they’re going to have to pay off and that their future is very much in jeopardy by virtue of the policies that the president is putting in place. So I need you to get out there and campaign.

Beyond Romney’s statements on the call, it’s unclear whether his election operation is actively coordinating workplace campaigning by businesses. Romney press secretary Andrea Saul did not respond to In These Times’ request for comment.

However, the conference call raises troubling questions about what appears to be a growing wave of workplace political pressure unleashed by Citizens United.

This post originally appeared in Working In These Times on October 17, 2012.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times. He can be reached at [email protected]


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California’s Prop. 32: Clone of Past Anti-Worker Measures

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Maybe this election year will finally put a stake through the heart of efforts by corporations and extremist right-wing millionaires to silence the voice of California’s working families in the political arena.

This year, it’s called Prop. 32 and it’s a near-clone of 2005’s Prop. 75 and 1998’s Prop. 226, which voters defeated by 53% to 47%. Both times, huge mobilizations by working families turned back the millions of dollars from Republican PACs and corporate and anti-worker extremists. These are the same groups that are behind Prop. 32.

Deceptively titled, “Stop Special Interest Money Now Act,” Prop. 32 would ban the use of voluntary payroll deductions by union members who want to contribute to their union’s political activity. It would do nothing to stop the campaign spending by secret corporate-backed PACs and the wealthy.

For example, as the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor points out:

  • Prop. 32 exempts secretive super PACs and corporate front groups, which can raise unlimited amounts of money from corporate special interests and billionaire businessmen, to support their candidates or defeat their enemies. The measure does nothing to prevent anonymous donors from spending unlimited amounts to influence elections.
  • Prop. 32 is NOT campaign finance reform, as its backers claim. The wealthy supporters of this initiative created exemptions for Wall Street hedge funds, real estate investors, insurance companies and other well-heeled special interests, allowing them to continue contributing directly to the coffers of political candidates.
  • Prop. 32 would severely restrict union members in both the public and private sector from having a voice in our political process. As a result, teachers, nurses, firefighters, police officers and other everyday heroes would be unable to speak out on issues that matter to us all—like cuts to our schools and colleges, police and fire response times, patient safety and workplace protections.
  • This measure would give corporate CEOs and their lobbyists even greater influence over our political system. Corporations already outspend unions 15-1 in politics. This measure would effectively clear the playing field of any opposition to big corporations’ agenda, which includes outsourcing jobs, gutting homeowner protections, slashing wages and health benefits and attacking retirement security.

You can find out more on the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor’s No on 32 webpage, which includes a union-member toolkit and links to the No 32 Facebook page and Twitter account (Twitter handle is @StopExemptions). Sign-up for email alerts and volunteer opportunities.

On a lighter note, take a look at the video below from SEIU Local 521, where the resurrected “zombies” of the earlier versions of Prop. 32 are on the march for the brains of voters. On the Labor’s Edge blog, Khanh Weinberg writes about how the “Boo on 32” video was made.

This post originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now on October 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 have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.


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