Archive for the ‘Labor’ Category

h1

50 state capitals, 50 rallies

February 26, 2011

Thanks to the organizing efforts of MoveOn.org and unions, environmental, and other progressive groups, today saw solidarity rallies in every state capital in the country. The one in St. Paul, MN was impressive: over 1,000 people turned out despite blowing snow and “feels like -7” temperatures. While the messaging at this hour-long event wasn’t as tight as on Tuesday’s event, the spirit and the energy were similar, particularly during a rousing keynote speech from Rep. Keith Ellison.

Once more I have little to add of substance aside from photos, which are after the jump, and a few more good reads:

This last piece is a great read:

David Rhode is a paramedic in Middleton, Wis. He works 56 hours a week, mostly in 24-hour shifts, frequently carrying wheezy patients up and down flights of stairs. He said he earns about $43,000 a year.

HuffPost asked Rhode, 36, how it feels to be overpaid. His eyebrows went up.

“I drove my Ford Focus here,” he said. “I live in a 950-square-foot condominium!”

Photos from today’s rally in St. Paul after the jump.

Read the rest of this entry ?

h1

Solidarity rally in St. Paul

February 23, 2011

Over a thousand people packed the Minnesota State Capitol rotunda this afternoon, rallying in support of public employees in Wisconsin. It was a remarkably well-organized event, bolstered by a speech from Gov. Mark Dayton and the presence of Reps. Keith Ellison and Tim Walz. I have little of substance to say in addition to what we’ve written earlier on this blog, other than this: an optimistic reading of the past week’s events might be that Scott Walker has singlehandedly done what the Democrats, and Obama in particular, have failed to do over the past two years: re-energize progressive America. Even more, as Greg Sargent sort of argues, Walker may have inadvertently shifted the debate about labor unions such that the dominant discourse is no longer how terrible and corrupt and special-interest-like they are, but how they are a broadly accepted and necessary part of American democracy.

These are perhaps overly optimistic interpretations of recent events, but if Walker has truly overreached, there may well be nontrivial consequences. If nothing else, Walker’s actions have enabled things like Nelson Lichtenstein getting to write a Politico op-ed titled “Why everyone needs unions.” That these messages are getting such prominent airtime is potentially reason for hope.

A few more photos from today’s solidarity rally, after the jump.

Read the rest of this entry ?

h1

While happening at the same time, they are not the same thing

February 21, 2011

The protests in Wisconsin and those across the Middle East and North Africa, while happening at the same time, are not the same thing.

The fact that Scott Walker was fairly elected to the governorship of Wisconsin is, well, pretty important. He hasn’t overstayed his term. He wasn’t disingenuous during the campaign about what kind of policies he would pursue.  And he isn’t breaking any rules to pass this bill–if anything, it’s the Senate Democrats who are playing outside the bounds.

So I, for one, found the inevitable comparisons between Walker and Mubarak (or Wisconsin and Egypt/Tunisia/etc) to be, at best, silly and at worst, disrespectful to the real oppression suffered under real dictators.

No really.  It matters that the police were helping protesters in wheelchairs get over curbs, not trying to kill them.

I understand that stupid signs find their way to every protest.  So  I advocate for not reading too much into them.  In fact, the inability of organizers to micromanage every sign is actually evidence of a true grassroots movement.  But.  They still make me cringe, especially knowing that the opposition will try to use them to discredit the protest.

On the flip side, there were allusions to current global happenings that I appreciated and found empowering. A handful of signs that read “Walk like an Egyptian!” come to mind. Rather than drawing a false parallel between two very different kinds of leaders, it called Wisconsin’s protesters to persevere, while honoring the commitment and bravery of Egypt’s reformers.

I don’t mean to suggest that the domestic and international protests are completely unrelated.  Flying Whale and I have talked offline about whether or not a global working class consciousness is on the verge of (re-)emerging.  And this sign from an Egyptian man certainly provide some reason for hope.

But until I see the next step forward on that front, I’ll argue  for better signs.

Jonas

h1

Wisconsin matters 3: Language moderation

February 20, 2011

Flying Whale has already covered a lot of what I might have to say regarding the protests in Madison, Wisconsin, and our experience there on Saturday.  A few straggling thoughts of my own:

As news reports of the protest outside the Capitol have shown, the favorite chant of the protesters is “Kill the Bill!”  alongside the old standards: “This is what democracy looks like!” and “Aint no power like the power of the people…” and “What’s disgusting? Union busting!”

But inside the Capitol building, where things are a little easier to control (where the crowd was 5,000 instead of 50,000 or more), there was an incredible effort made to moderate language by everyone in possession of a bullhorn.  Any time a chant of “Kill the Bill!” started up, organizers would shout “STOP the Bill” and within a couple of rounds, everyone would be switched over.  Despite the constant rotation of protesters inside the Capitol, people seemed to catch on pretty quickly.

Around noon, as the voices of the organizers gave out, they began encouraging others to give brief testimonials.  Even here, there was a gentle moderation of folks’ language.  One woman spoke passionately about having fought for the right to collectively bargain using a fair bit of violent imagery.  When the organizer took back the bullhorn, he affirmed her sentiments while reminding everyone that the right to collective bargaining was won by “raising our voices together” and not by any physical violence.

In fact, the reminders that “This is a peaceful protest” and to “Stay calm and protest on” were everywhere: on people’s signs, taped to the wall, and on fliers being handed out as you entered the area explaining in detail what to do if someone tried to provoke you.

I have no doubt that the careful attention to language is, at least in part, in response to the shooting in Tucson last month.  I’d like to think they mark a permanent step forward in acknowledging that words matter and that it is our responsibility to ensure that everyone who hears our message knows exactly what we do and don’t mean.

Now, if only we could get the rhetoric to reflect that public employees ARE taxpayers and union members ARE voters

Jonas

(note: photo above taken by Flying Whale)

h1

Wisconsin matters, part 2

February 20, 2011

Jonas and I spent our Saturday in Madison to lend our voices to the movement against Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to destroy Wisconsin public-employee unions. We both found the experience empowering and inspiring; here are a few scattered thoughts I find worth sharing.

First: this movement is not marginal. Much of my experience with social movements comes from the so-called “anti-globalization” movement that peaked in the United States in 1999-2001, and from the anti-war movement that began building after 9/11. Both of those movements involved mass protests that combined “regular” middle- and working-class folks with privileged young activists, fringe lefties, black bloc anarchists, and a smattering of incomprehensible crazies. Without doubt, the “regular” folks and young activists were the vast majorities, but their voices were too often drowned out by the rest, particularly at large protest events.

This one is different. This protest features all your typical assortment of working-class families you might find at a labor rally, plus tons of teachers, their families, and their students; university student activists; and mainstream Wisconsin Democrats. On Saturday, there was some inevitable message creep, but by and large, the speakers, signs, and discourse was all right on message: decrying Walker’s bill as an attack on essential workers’ rights.

Second, the solidarity exhibited is heartening. It has never been clearer to me that the labor movement is the closest thing the United States has to any kind of (working-)class consciousness. It’s not just public-employee union members that are speaking out here; there were tons of private-sector unions on hand on Saturday, not to mention plenty of “Cops For Labor” and “Firefighters For Labor” – representatives of the very public unions that Walker’s bill treats very differently for crass political reasons. Further, there were representatives from many geographic areas other than Wisconsin, and numerous speakers who took the bullhorn briefly just to say, “I’m not from Wisconsin, I’m not a union member, but I’m here to support you because what’s happening here is wrong.”

Third, the messaging is well-controlled. There was only one sign Jonas and I saw that hinted at the potentially damaging effects of guild-unionism (or occupational licensing), something along the lines of, “I’m not replaceable, I’m a professional.” This raises some troubling rifts between skilled and unskilled workers, differentiating professional work as somehow more worthy of protection compared to less-skilled work. This, of course, is the modus operandi of the structure of the global economy, which places low-wage unskilled work at the mercies of global competition while developing new structures to protect those in high-wage skilled work.

That one sign aside, for the most part, all the words and speeches emphasized the importance of unions as a source of power for working people as a whole – not as a source of power for some segments of the workers to use against other segments of the same. Also, there was a very useful emphasis on the fact that unions are important not just for wage bargaining, but also as a source of worker voice: “Take my money, but don’t take my voice” was one of my favorite signs.

Fourth, and least consequential, the Wisconsin Capitol is incredibly accessible. We had some inkling of this when we visited the Capitol building last year, but we were still surprised by the fact that throngs of protesters were freely let into the building without any kind of security checks, and allowed to congregate in the middle of the rotunda, chanting and singing and screaming and beating drums and playing brass instruments and plastering signs all over the walls (albeit only using painter’s tape). The treatment of this building as a truly public space was inspirational, particularly given my only other experience with government buildings – at the federal level in D.C., where things are handled rather differently to say the least. This is certainly not to imply that the federal government should treat its buildings the way Wisconsin treats its Capitol; but nevertheless, the contrast was incredibly stark.

Some more of my photos from both inside the Capitol and outside are after the jump. The rallies outside were larger by orders of magnitude than the occupation inside (I’ve seen estimates of 60,000 outside versus a few thousand inside), but most of my photos are from the inside event, as those are what we tended to find most inspirational. Click on any photo to view a larger version.

For some excellent video of the protests over the past six days, check out Matt Wisniewski’s work – five minutes of impeccably filmed and edited footage from Feb. 15-17, and five more from Feb. 18-19.

Flying Whale

Read the rest of this entry ?

h1

Why is collective bargaining important?

February 20, 2011

I am not a labor scholar. But in the midst of our posts about Wisconsin labor strife, here is a useful reminder from codified U.S. law:

It is declared to be the policy of the United States to eliminate the causes of certain substantial obstructions to the free flow of commerce and to mitigate and eliminate these obstructions when they have occurred by encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining and by protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment or other mutual aid or protection.

(U.S. Code Title 29, Chapter 7, Subchapter II, Section 151)

Given that this was written in the midst of the Great Depression (as part of the Wagner Act), the reasons given for the value of collective bargaining are purely economic, with no mention of collective bargaining as one of the sole sources of power for the working class, or as a logical extension of the First Amendment-protected right to freedom of association. (In fact, the International Labor Organization sees collective bargaining and freedom of association as essentially the same thing.) Nevertheless, that’s some powerful language, especially when read in today’s context.

More? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 23 explicitly recognizes workers’ rights as human rights, including: “(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”

The last word goes to Georgetown’s Michael Kazin, who invokes the argument that collective bargaining is key to a democratic society:

State employees and their allies are standing up for a moral principle that ought to be self-evident: the right to have a say about the conditions that affect one’s life at work. In seeking to return to authoritarian labor relations, Gov. Walker and his fellow Republicans are revealing the hypocrisy of conservative rants about “unelected bureaucrats” and “liberal elites who condescend to ordinary Americans.”

Collective bargaining helped millions of wage-earners to hold down secure, middle-class jobs. It has a made us a more democratic nation.

Flying Whale

h1

Wisconsin matters, part 1

February 20, 2011

“For anyone interested in union rights, the fight in Wisconsin couldn’t be more important,” says Harvard’s Benjamin Sachs, as quoted in the New York Times. I know that not all readers of this blog are necessarily keeping up with the latest in labor news, and I feel this particular piece of labor news is crucially important. So a summary follows: not something we normally do here (we’re generally more predisposed towards analysis), but in this case, perhaps necessary.

While the world’s attention is rightfully focused on the Middle East and, to a lesser extent, the budget battle in D.C., the contentious showdown in Madison, Wisconsin over public employees’ unions deserves no small chunk of our time and energy. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker is pushing a bill that would effectively strip public employees (except, in a naked political move, police and fire workers, who tended to support Walker’s bid for governorship) of their rights to collectively bargain, would make it much more difficult for public-employee unions to collect dues, and would require an annual vote just to keep a public-employee union in existence. Of course, this is being sold under the rhetoric that excessive public-employee compensation is at the root of state and local fiscal problems (not, you know, a worldwide economic crisis caused by out-of-control Wall Street bankers who, incidentally, are at very little risk of losing their jobs and benefits).

[Note: Ezra Klein has four posts that summarize the issues at hand extremely well. I recommend all of them.]

This is a thinly veiled attempt at union-busting, pure and simple; Wisconsin’s budget problems are a sideshow. Luckily, Wisconsin’s Democratic senators did a rare thing for Democrats in recent years; that is to say, they found their spines. The Republicans need 20 members present in the Senate for a quorum; without the Democrats, they have 19. The Democrats, knowing this, refused to show up to the Capitol, and ultimately fled the state after Walker asked the police to find them. In the meantime, thousands of workers, families, and other supporters have flooded the Capitol every day since Wednesdays to protest the bill.

Whether this gaming of the system on the part of the Democrats is justifiable is a relevant question. I, and many others, would argue that the Wisconsin fight is of huge importance for public-sector unions around the country, and by extension, for all of organized labor. If such an audacious attempt at destroying the institution of collective bargaining succeeds, the consequences will be enormous. If it fails in the face of massive popular protest and principled Democratic resistance, any subsequent attempts to undermine public-sector unions in the name of budget cuts will almost certainly be more moderated.

It is crucially important to be clear about one thing, addressed by the sign pictured above: it is not that public-sector employees in Wisconsin are refusing to take pay cuts and are raising hell because they are selfish and greedy. On the contrary, such employees are already living through pay cuts and furloughs. They’re raising hell not because Walker is attempting to take money from them; they’re raising hell because Walker is attempting to take their right to organize and bargain collectively from them. And the rest of us should be raising hell about that too.

Flying Whale

(note: photo above is by me; I traveled with Jonas to Madison today to show solidarity. more photos, and thoughts on our personal experiences there, to come.)

h1

Occupational licensing on the rise; unions on the decline

February 9, 2011

A couple days ago, a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal laid out a case that the licensing of occupations – that is, the regulation of various jobs by prohibiting people from performing them unless they have a government license earned by passing specific education, training, or testing requirements – has gotten out of control, restricting competition and raising prices for consumers. The article gives all sorts of examples of ridiculous occupations for which one must be licensed by a state government to legally practice, including florists, interior designers, hairdressers, and cat groomers. These kinds of stories are easy to come by, and they’ve set the blogs aflame (Matt Yglesias in particular loves this issue). Moreover, it’s all easy fodder for libertarians, the Cato Institute, or anyone who wants to build a case against regulatory policy writ large.

Here’s one aspect of the issue I find most provocative. Occupational licensing might be viewed as a form of worker protection that, unlike unions, is very much on the rise. According to a 2009 NBER study by Morris Kleiner and Alan Krueger, far more workers are currently in licensed occupations – nearly 30 percent of the labor force – than are members of labor unions – about 12 percent (though the overlap is considerable; 45 percent of licensed workers are also unionized). In an intriguing Reuters piece, Felix Salmon makes a pseudo-progressive case that licensed occupations are the service economy’s version of a unionized workforce:

…state licensing is part of what a post-industrial economy looks like: post-industrial employment is, in the aggregate, more highly skilled and more consumer-facing. And that requires a different regulatory apparatus than an economy that largely takes place on a factory floor. So it should come as no surprise that more and more workers require a license these days… [licensing laws] are, in a sense, a form of worker protection which is acceptable to Republicans — think of them as unions for people who hate unions.

I’m not entirely sure what I think of licensing as a whole – more on that later – but I am sure that it’s a poor replacement for unions. It’s true that working in a licensed occupation comes with a wage benefit – Kleiner and Krueger estimate it to be 18 percent, which is comparable or even slightly higher than the wage benefit of private-sector unions. But that’s where the similarities end, even in pure labor market terms. Licensed occupations and labor unions are qualitatively different in at least these ways:

  • Federal vs. state: Labor law regarding unions exists at the federal level and applies, at least theoretically, to all U.S. workers. Most of the action in occupational licensing is at the state level, and different states have vastly divergent licensing laws. This has obvious implications for labor mobility and…
  • Effect on wage differential: Unions narrow the wage differential between different workers in different places working the same jobs. Indeed, this is a major goal of labor unions and one that has been so challenged by the global economy – equal work for equal pay within a sector, across regions, across demographic categories, etc. means fewer opportunities for wage arbitrage (i.e. a “race to the bottom” in wages). Licensing has no such effect, and arguably might increase variance in wages within a sector.
  • Collective action: The type of collective action that licensing encourages is narrow and occupation-based, compared to the broader collective action that exists under progressive unions. (My historical knowledge is a bit shaky here, but I’ll still share this thought I had: one might compare licensed occupations to the guild-style unions of the AFL earlier in the 20th century, before its merger with the CIO: i.e., regressive forces that sought to protect its members to the exclusion of others in the working class. Indeed, this seems to be a major thrust of much of the criticism of licensing.)
  • Employee voice: Concomitant with the above, unions bring all sorts of benefits aside from simple wage gains. Grievance processes and other formalized conduits for employee voice are not at issue at all with licensed occupations. One might posit that skilled service workers have less need for such benefits; but I’ve yet to see a serious argument that workers should have less voice.
  • Competition between occupations: Also related to the collective action item, licensing occupations results in nasty competition between related occupations. Interior designers have been fighting to be licensed (and succeeded in Florida) in part because the licensed occupations of architects and engineers have encroached on their ability to do the work they see as theirs. Similar turf battles exist between, say, dentists and dental hygienists. The ultimate result is pressure for all occupations in a given field to become licensed lest they become extinct once “competing” professions become licensed first.
  • Type of workers protected: By its very nature, licensing protects skilled occupations. Kleiner and Krueger find that some 45 percent of workers in licensed occupations have at least an undergraduate college degree. Unskilled workers – the very workers for whom unions are most important – are not only left out of this labor-market institution, they are arguably actively hurt by it. Some folks (Dean Baker comes to mind) would likely argue that licensing is basically a kind of protectionism that favors the relatively wealthy and skilled segments of the working force at the expense of the relatively poor and unskilled – especially in an era of globalization in which “free trade” means exposing unskilled workers to global competition while simultaneously sheltering skilled workers.

That’s a lot of differences, but it’s the last one I find more stark. To be sure, not all skilled workers in licensed occupations are high-wage. But if one views unions as vehicles for the working class to better their lives and enter the middle class – rather than as narrow interest groups protecting already inflated wages for a small segment of workers – occupational licensing is clearly a poor substitute.

I’ll have more on this in a following post, once I decide more clearly what I think about licensing and its effect on quality vs. restricted competition. I should leave off with a full disclosure, which is that Morris Kleiner, one of the leading scholars on this issue, is a professor of mine and I’m currently enrolled in a very relevant class of his entitled “Public Policies of Work and Pay.” I believe, but am not sure, that Kleiner would agree with the thrust of this post; perhaps an update on that will be forthcoming as well.

Flying Whale

h1

Is the labor movement anti-freedom?

January 20, 2011

Today’s entertainment was a panel discussion entitled “Employer Reaction to Union Organizing,” in which a professor of labor policy, a labor and industrial relations historian at the University of Minnesota’s business school (of all places), the regional NLRB director, and an attorney representing management interests in collective bargaining all talked about the future of the Wagner Act and U.S. unions in general. I’m afraid that I don’t have a coherent set of thoughts to present about this panel, in part because it wasn’t the most coherent panel ever – but it was still fascinating and there are some tidbits to share and ponder over.

The most interesting recurring theme, albeit one that was more of an undercurrent than an explicitly discussed idea, was that of collective good versus individual rights. In one of the few times this was made explicit, the NLRB regional director mentioned that infighting among Democrats and Republicans within NLRB often revolved around rhetorical/ideological conceptions of whether or not collective bargaining infringes unnecessarily on the rights of individual workers.

In State of the Union, Nelson Lichtenstein discusses how the rise an individual rights-based set of employment protections, which grew out of the civil rights movement, the second wave of feminism, and all the legislation from that time period dealing with discrimination, workplace safety and so on, has actually undermined the concept of collective action. By giving primacy to individual rights, the idea of collective action, in which a greater good takes precedence over individual freedom, can be painted as restrictive and frankly “un-American.” (Lichtenstein is careful to note that he is not denigrating all the achievements of these movements and pieces of legislation, but believes that it is important to note the trade-offs that were made, consciously or otherwise.)

I wondered whether it would behoove pro-labor folks to try to skirt this frame: instead of labor as a collective entity under which individual rights are subsumed, talking about it as a broad, inclusive social movement for the empowerment and betterment of the majority of people. The most interesting comment on this invoked the fact that labor and management alike were in favor of some form of collective bargaining in the Great Depression, when the problems of the U.S. economy were fundamentally seen as stemming from underconsumption. Giving workers higher wages and more buying power was seen as a solution to the problem of underconsumption, and a necessary precondition for the revival of the economy. Perhaps if labor today can be reframed as a movement aimed at increasing the buying power of the poor and the middle class and thus addressing growing inequality and many of our current economic woes, this might go some way towards fighting the perception of “big labor” as a parochial special interest (“unions are businesses,” the management attorney insisted) rather than a working people’s movement.

As I said, a somewhat incoherent set of thoughts and ideas, none of which are original, but something to chew on nonetheless. My background in labor history and philosophy is rather thin, and I’m very much enjoying putting in the effort to beef it up a little.

ADDENDUM: One neat thing I learned was that the local labor newspaper, the Minneapolis Labor Review, has a complete online archive of all of its issues since 1907 in searchable PDF form. Awesome!

Flying Whale

h1

USTR throws a bone to the Steelworkers

January 3, 2011

By petitioning the U.S. government to sue China at the WTO for its “unfair” clean energy subsidies, the Steelworkers gave the Obama administration the perfect opportunity to appear labor-friendly without actually having to be progressive at all, or challenge any entrenched domestic economic interests. I wrote about this impending disaster a few months ago, and late last month it came to fruition.

The United States on Wednesday accused China of illegally subsidizing the production of wind power equipment and asked for talks at the World Trade Organization, the first step in filing a trade case.

“Import substitution subsidies are particularly harmful and inherently trade distorting, which is why they are expressly prohibited under WTO rules,” Trade Representative Ron Kirk said in a statement. “These subsidies effectively operate as a barrier to U.S. exports to China.”

So not only is this an attack on efforts to move the world towards a greener economy, it’s also a broad attack on industrial policy in general (the sort of broad attack, of course, that is part of what the WTO is designed to do). Even more, it’s a political win for the centrists in the Obama administration, who can now point toward this as a supposedly pro-labor move while they simultaneously push heavy-handedly anti-labor policies like lobbying for the South Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.

Great move, USW!

Flying Whale