Seeds of a New Labor Movement ?

Harold Meyerson.

Mother Jones, American labor activist.

Mother Jones, American labor activist. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sit down and read. Prepare yourself for the coming battles.  Mother Jones.

 

DSA Honorary Chair Harold Meyerson has written the following important long form piece on the US. Labor Movement for the American Prospect. This piece merits discussion.

Excerpts:

“The path to collective bargaining has been shut down in the United States,” says Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and head of the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Committee. Where Rolf differs from most of his colleagues is in his belief that collective bargaining—at least, as the nation has known it for the past 80 years—is not coming back. In a paper he distributed to his colleagues in 2012 and in commentaries he wrote for several magazines (including this one), he argued that unions should acknowledge their impending demise—at least in the form that dates to the Wagner Act—and focus their energies and resources on incubating new institutions that can better address workers’ concerns. “The once powerful industrial labor unions that built the mid-century American middle class are in a deep crisis and are no longer able to protect the interests of American workers with the scale and power necessary to reverse contemporary economic trends,” he wrote in his paper. “The strategy and tactics that we’ve pursued since the 1947 Taft-Hartley Amendments [which narrowed the ground rules under which unions may operate] are out of date and have demonstrably failed to produce lasting economic power for workers. We must look to the future and invest our resources in new organizational models that respond to our contemporary economy and the needs of today’s workers.”

This October, with funding from his local, from the national SEIU, and from several liberal foundations, Rolf will unveil The Workers Lab, housed at the Roosevelt Institute in New York. The center will study and, in time, invest in organizations that, in Rolf’s words, “have the potential to build economic power for workers, at scale, and to sustain themselves financially.” Whatever those organizations may be, they won’t be unions—at least, not unions as they currently exist… Continue reading

How Labor Can Save Itself

by Michael Hirsch

A Review of THE DEATH AND LIFE OF AMERICAN LABOR: TOWARDS A NEW WORKERS’ MOVEMENT (Verso Books, 2014) by Stanley Aronowitz

In 1955, when the country’s two contending labor federations merged to form the AFL-CIO, the combined organization represented more than one in three American workers. Unions then were strong enough, employers cautious enough and the economy juiced enough to create a working class that for the first time in history was for the most part not poor. Today the number of union members in the civilian labor force alone is just a hair above one in nine. The numbers are worse for private sector workers, where just one in 14 are unionized — this in a period when pay is frozen, real wages fall and an explosion of young people work at part-time or contingent jobs, when they work at all.

The reasons for the collapse of the “House of Labor” are many: the failure of the postwar drive to organize the South, the purges at the onset of the Cold War of radicals who were often labor’s best organizers, insular union leaders who emphasized contract unionism, allowing employers free rein to run their own enterprises with no voice from workers. Union leaders even traded away the right to strike for more or less steady work. Then there’s the sheer power of U.S. capital, at home and unchained.

Even in their debilitated state, unions remain by far the largest and most deep-pocketed institutions on the left and, in theory, have the potential to be the anchors of a broad-based, multiracial progressive movement. Yet, organizing the unemployed and making alliances with community groups and radicals are sadly rare. Even the support Occupy received from labor — which in New York City was a lot — was episodic. And the outstanding things Occupy did, including intervening in home foreclosures, are not yet on any union’s agenda.

None of this is new to people who follow labor closely. What’s new is the way it is understood by Stanley Aronowitz, former factory worker, union organizer with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers unions, prolific author and sociology professor at the CUNY Graduate Center. His latest book, The Death and Life of American Labor: Toward a New Workers’ Movement is a slim, compelling and highly readable treatment. It builds on work Aronowitz has done over the past four decades since the publication of his seminal work, False Promises: The Shaping of American Working Class Consciousness. This latest not only harks back to the labor movement’s glory days in the 1930s and charts the present hard times for working people, but also looks at a problematic future where he says mass unemployment will be the rule and union resistance extinct unless labor rediscovers its historic mission of fighting not just for its own static or shrinking memberships but for engaging every worker and every worker’s family in the fight.

Aronowitz targets collective bargaining itself as the rock in the shoe. Contracts have their good points: they lock in wages and benefits, codify work rules and prescribe a transparent and agreed-upon due-process system for handling grievances, discipline and firings. In return, workers give up their birthright: the right to strike and challenge the employer’s arbitrary right to manage.
In the postwar boom years such a strategy bought labor peace. With the flight of manufacturing jobs, first to the South, then to Mexico and overseas in search of a workforce that would work for almost nothing, good jobs at home shriveled and unions workers were forced to make major concessions on wages, benefits, working conditions and even job security. Collective bargaining today, Aronowitz says, “is now mostly a kind of collective begging.”

For the author, the era of labor-management cooperation initiated by the New Deal and welcomed by unions has come to an end. At this point business isn’t even looking for lapdogs, let alone labor allies. It’s a brave new world where business-driven automation across many sectors of the economy is gaining speed and destroying more U.S. jobs at home than are outsourced overseas. Worst of all, the unions’ dependency on management circumscribes revolt. Labor-led struggles, such as they are, are either defensive efforts in support of Social Security and Medicare or parochial battles to preserve defined benefit pensions for government workers while private sector employees must rely on 401K plans that are contingent on a booming investment market that regularly goes through bust cycles.

Aronowitz’s advice: encourage direct action in the workplace (such as the walkouts that galvanized the fast-food workers movement), don’t leave the fightback at protracted grievance handling and fight for a guaranteed basic income — even a $15 minimum wage is below the poverty level. He wants working people to intervene in the process of technological change by demanding control over its introduction and design, as well as a say in how the product or service is made. (The first step: recognizing that they currently have no choice in these matters.) He wants unions to stop thinking of workers as purely wage earners or their clients, but as partners in job and community struggles, among them “raise[ing] hell about the virtually closed-down state of mass transit.

Aronowitz wants the movement to “take seriously the question of workplace democracy,” to stop investing in polluting industries and take seriously that the war measures taken by the last two presidents are as much about spiking war production, with its fading hope of creating large numbers of new jobs, as with actual ongoing imperial ambitions.

To its credit, the book reads like the words of a secular prophet, but without the hectoring or sanctimony. Where Aronowitz misses the target, and he doesn’t miss it much, is in not quantifying the trends to some of his more scarifying predictions. He first floated the idea of job shrinkage as the wave of the future in his co-authored 1995 book The Jobless Future, and the present book holds that the jobless wave morphed into a tsunami of lost work and blown opportunities for labor. He uses the specter of mass unemployment throughout, a problem that for him outstrips even the creation of a precariat, but he relies on anecdotal evidence for that, when a look at the last 20 years of Bureau of Labor Statistics data would better demonstrate actual job loss trends. Absent that, Aronowitz’s book is a wonder.

This review is reposted from The Indypendent with permission of the author.

Suspenders and Solidarity in Sacramento

by David Roddy,

SunderlandedThe annual Sacramento Central Labor Council Labor Day Picnic on Sept. 1, was divided over the removal of executive secretary Bill Camp, with his supporters wearing suspenders bearing a sticker declaring “L NO!,” in reference to Measure L, the latest attempt by Mayor Kevin Johnson to expand the executive power of the Sacramento Mayor’s office.

The suspenders were worn in solidarity with the recently ousted SCLC executive secretary Bill Camp (known for his folksy attire), whose abrupt firing by a group on the executive board led by council President Lino Pedres of SEIU 1877 is suspected by Camp’s supporters to be due to his opposition to Measure L, having led the effort to defeat a similar bill in 2010. Measure L, an initiative for the November ballot, plans to transition City Hall from a council-manager form of government to a mayor-council form, giving the mayor the power to appoint and unilaterally fire a city manager (now done by the entire council), oversee the creation of the city budget, and the ability to veto any changes to the budget and ordinances passed by the council.

The termination notice, taped to Camp’s door on August 29, has been rescinded after Camp’s union representative–Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 29–protested that Camp’s firing lacked due process. Camp is now on administrative leave and was told not to speak about his firing, which has led OPEIU 29 to file a grievance arguing Camp’s leave is without just cause and the gag order violates his free speech rights. Continue reading

Open Shop Trend Makes Organizing “the Organized” Top Union Priority

by Steve Early

Steve Early

            For many years, American unions have been trying to “organize the unorganized” to offset, and, where possible, reverse their steady loss of dues-paying members. In union circles, a distinction was often made between this “external organizing”–to recruit workers who currently lack collective bargaining rights–and “internal organizing,” which involves engaging more members in contract fights and other forms of collective action aimed at strengthening existing bargaining units.

Thanks to the growing success of corporate-backed “Right-to-Work” campaigns, these two forms of union outreach now greatly overlap.  Virtually all labor organizations face the expanded challenge of recruiting and maintaining members in already unionized workplaces where the decision to provide financial support for the union has, for better or worse, become voluntary. (Some left-wing critics of “contract unionism” have long argued that automatic deduction of dues, by employers for their union bargaining partners, makes the latter overly dependent on management and less responsive to rank-and-file workers.)

Throughout the country, labor foes have succeeded in limiting the ability of unions to collect dues, or the equivalent in “agency fees,” from more of the 16 million workers they are legally certified to represent.  In the private sector, 24 states now have an “open shop,” which means that union membership or fee paying by non-members cannot be required in contracts with employers, including, most recently, those operating in Michigan and Indiana.

In the public sector, the parallel legal/political assault on “union security” agreements and automatic deduction of dues or fees from government employee paychecks has unfolded in those two states, neighboring Wisconsin, and every state with recently created bargaining units for home-based direct care providers.

With adverse ramifications for 700,000 similarly situated union-represented workers in other states, the Supreme Court ruled, in June, that publicly funded home health care aides in Illinois were only “quasi-public employees.” According to the Court’s decision in Harris v. Quinn, they are no longer subject to the requirement, under local public sector labor law, that non-members pay their “fair share” of the cost of union representation and services which unions must provide to everyone in their bargaining units.

Membership Exodus

When Service Employees organizer Rand Wilson and I wrote about this emerging trend two years ago, in an essay for Monthly Review Press entitled “Union Survival Strategies in Open Shop America,” we noted that there were already more than 1.5 million Americans covered by union contracts, who had declined to become members. Based on developments then underway in the mid-west, we predicted that the guaranteed revenue stream that many U.S. labor organizations had long enjoyed–and used to pay for their large complement of lawyers, lobbyists, full-time negotiators, and field staff–would soon be interrupted.

For example, in Wisconsin, where public employees had just been battered by contract concessions and then stripped of meaningful collective bargaining rights, most of their unions had not functioned as voluntary membership organizations for three decades or more. We expressed the concern that a new, more intimidating workplace environment might combine with rank-and-file resentment over wage and benefit give backs to send dues receipts plummeting–if unions did not move quickly to strengthen their shop-floor presence.

In Indiana, from 2005-11, a similar Republican revocation of “dues check off” and more limited bargaining rights caused state worker union membership to drop from 16,400 to less than 1,500. In Michigan, after legislators excluded home care workers from their state’s definition of public employees and stripped them of bargaining rights granted by a previous Democratic governor, membership in the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) declined by 80%–from 55,000 members to less than 11,000 in a single year.

Painful Transition 

As The New York Times reported last February, the forced transition to a new model of functioning has been no less painful in Wisconsin. Since Republican-backed Act 10 “severely restricted the power of public employee unions to bargain collectively,” the state worker membership of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) “has fallen by 60 percent; its annual budget has plunged to $2 million from $6 million.”

Founded in 1932 as a pioneering AFSCME affiliate, Madison-based Local 1 went from 1,000 to 122 members. To keep the union alive, “99 percent of what the staff does is organize,” explained AFSCME council director Marty Bell. “Without the ability to bargain, Bell’s union mostly represents members and engages in collective action,” according to The Times. Local affiliates of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have been similarly decimated—in part because of official resistance to lowering dues—while their counterparts in the National Education Association (NEA) had done better maintaining Wisconsin membership.

Now comes Michigan again, where the most recently enacted state “right to work” law is going into effect for 112,000 public school teachers, who represent one out of every six union members in the state. During all of August, they’ve had a chance to “opt out” of paying for their union representation. In a previous “opt out” period last year, only 1,500 or 1% did. But this summer, teachers have been bombarded with anti-union mailers and newspaper ads–the latter purchased by Americans for Prosperity, a Koch brothers creation. These have urged them to withhold annual payments of up to $822 to the Michigan Education Association and its parent organization, the NEA.

Other major unions in Michigan, including the United Auto Workers (UAW) have multi-year contracts that are in effect until 2015 or later. When those expire, more private sector union members will have the same choice as teachers this summer. As the Associated Press reported August 25, “a significant number of drop outs would deliver a financial blow to labor in a state where it has historically been dominant”—or, at least, far more influential in the past than today.

When a cash-strapped UAW hiked its dues earlier this year, opponents of that measure warned that higher dues might encourage more of the union’s 50,000 Michigan-based autoworkers to drop out next year. Of particular concern is the simmering resentment of more recently hired UAW dues payers, who are demanding changes in the Big Three’s two-tier wage structure that leaves them far below the hourly pay of higher seniority workers. If that issue is not satisfactorily resolved in the next round of auto industry bargaining, the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity may even gain traction in a few auto plants.

Pre-Emptive Organizing Needed

In an anticipation of an unfavorable ruling in Harris v. Quinn, some SEIU and AFSCME locals, with large numbers of home-based workers paying agency fees rather than dues, stepped up their efforts to convert them into actual members, who would stick with the union when and if “free riding” became possible. These efforts have paid off, in some places, but still have a long way to go in SEIU affiliates like United Long Term Care Workers in California. SEIU-ULTCW has publicly claimed to have 170,000 “members” at the same time its U.S. Department of Labor filings showed that 80,000 or more were, in fact,  just “agency fee payers,” with little apparent connection to the union.

Newer additions to the nation’s unionized homecare workforce—like the statewide unit of 27,000 personal care attendants in Minnesota who won union recognition August 26—will need continuous internal organizing, to boost their post-election membership levels. In that new group, only one fifth of the workers eligible to vote actually cast a ballot for or against SEIU, which won by a margin of 60-to-40%. In an open shop environment, under a less friendly governor, the other 21,000 could easily go the way of SEIU’s now lost dues paying majority in Michigan home care.

As former SEIU organizer Jane McAlevey has argued, based on her past union experience in open shop Nevada, “even in the face of campaigns by employers to get workers to drop their membership, workers will continue to be members and contribute from their paycheck when they experience their union as their union.”

Ironically, some of the best examples of what McAlevey calls the “high participation model” of union building can be found in southern “right-to-work” states.  As Wilson and I reported in our “open shop” organizing chapter in Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back (Monthly Review Press, 2010), “non-majority” unions have been constructed by public sector members of the Communications Workers of America in Tennessee, Texas, and Mississippi and the United Electrical Workers in North Carolina—all in the absence of formal collective bargaining and any mandatory payment of dues or fees.

These member-driven labor organizations have devised more reasonable dues structures, ways of collecting dues voluntarily, and, most important of all, a workplace and community presence not defined by employer recognition or statute. Their survival and effectiveness depends on worker activity–the kind of member mobilization around job-related and legislative/political issues that labor needs, in many other states, to remain “organized” without the legal props of the past.

 (Steve Early worked for 27 years as an internal and external union organizer for the Communications Workers of America. He is the author, most recently, of Save Our Unions (Monthly Review Press, 2013). For more on his work, see http://steveearly.org/ or contact him at Lsupport@aol.com).  This article is reposted from the blog classism.org

 

Massachusetts Teachers Association Has a New Reforming President!

Ed. note:     The election of Barbara Madeloni  as President of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA demonstrates the commitment of the MTA to quality public education at all levels.  This excerpt from her first editorial statement speaks eloquently for itself.

Fighting for our vision of public education

Barbara MadeloniBarbara Madeloni
MTA President

This is my first MTA Today editorial, and I am writing it at a moment that is filled with promise and possibilities. I want to begin our conversation in these pages by saying what a great honor it is to be given your trust and the privilege of representing you as your president. I know that our new vice president, Janet Anderson, shares my excitement. Working with all of you, our members, we now have an incredible opportunity to build the MTA’s strength as an activist union so that we can reclaim our voices, our power in solidarity, and the hope of public education.

We come into office during tumultuous times — indeed, dangerous times. Corporate players, looking to privatize public education, profit from the public dollar and bust our unions, have imposed business ideology on public schools through high-stakes testing, charter schools and technocratic accountability systems. Their narrative of failing public schools and bad public school educators — along with lazy public-sector workers — has been accepted by a bipartisan legion of legislators and policymakers. Our great institutions of public higher education are subject to similar attacks and story lines.

This narrative denies the devastating impact of economic and racial injustice and shows disdain for the enormous achievements of our members. As a result, too many of our students remain in poverty, public-sector unions are threatened, and public education — the cornerstone of our hope for democracy — is endangered.

MTA members recognize that this is a critical period in our history. With the election of new leadership, members announced that we are ready to fight for public education, for our union, and for our communities.

More than 500 first-time delegates attended the Annual Meeting, buoyed by an understanding that the struggle we are engaged in needs activists, organizers and a commitment to win. Our members came to the Annual Meeting because they recognized that the MTA is each one of us, talking to each other and working together to create strategies that protect collective bargaining and due process, strengthen our union, and support the best education possible for every student in Massachusetts.

Ours is not simply a fight against corporate “reforms,” as some would frame it. Ours is a struggle for a vision of public education as a place for joy, creativity, imagination, empathy and critical questioning so that students enter the world ready to participate in democratic communities.

MTA members recognize that this is a critical period in our history. With the election of new leadership, members announced that we are ready to fight for public education, for our union, and for our communities.

In this vision, every child is exposed to a rich curriculum; every school is well-funded; all educators are given respect, autonomy and time to do our work; and parents, students and educators work together to assess and reassess our efforts. This vision must replace the dehumanizing data-driven madness that is choking the life from our schools.

Ours is a vision for economic and racial justice, a society in which every child enters the classroom from a place of material security and with the consciousness of being a valued member of our community with the same opportunities as any other child.

Ours is a vision in which higher education — public higher education — is accessible to all families and affordable to every student. Our colleges and universities are places of free inquiry and intellectual exploration of the highest order, as well as institutions that offer preparation for economic security and successful professional lives. Along with our schools, they help provide the threads that bind us together as a healthy and just society.

This fall and into the years ahead, MTA members will engage in a movement to create a more activist union and reclaim public education. The more members engage, the stronger our movement will be and the more we can do.This is a terribly important time for public education and union democracy. It is a time for struggle, but a time, as well, for the joy of solidarity and of being able to say, when asked, that we stood together for students, public education and democracy.

In solidarity, and in anticipation of many great things ahead,

Barbara

How to Be a Staffer in a Democratic Union

by Alexandra Bradbury , Labor Notes

If members run the local... what exactly is the union rep's job? We asked four experienced staffers how they approach their day-to-day tasks while keeping the rank and file in the driver’s seat. Photo: Jim West/jimwestphoto.com.

If members run the local… what exactly is the union rep’s job? We asked four experienced staffers how they approach their day-to-day tasks while keeping the rank and file in the driver’s seat. Photo: Jim West/jimwestphoto.com.

Suppose you’re a union staff rep. (Or a business agent, an internal organizer, whatever the local lingo is.) And suppose you believe in union democracy: the members should run the fight against the boss.

Where do you come in, then? What exactly is your job, and how can you do it in a way that keeps the rank and file in the driver’s seat?

The obvious danger: you work for the union all day, while members have their jobs to do. It can be all too easy for members and staffers alike to start thinking “the union” means the people who have desks at the union hall: the top brass and the reps they hire. That’s not only undemocratic—it’s a terrible foundation for building power.

We asked four experienced staffers how they see their jobs and how they translate the idea that the members run the union into their day-to-day tasks.

Continue reading

A New Teacher Union Movement is Rising

Bob Peterson
Common Dreams

Teacher unions must unite with parents, students and the community to improve our schools—to demand social justice and democracy so that we have strong public schools, healthy communities, and a vibrant democracy.

Chicago Teachers Union rally in Daley Plaza in 2012. The nation’s public schools, writes Peterson, “must become greenhouses for both democracy and community revitalization.”, pbarcas / cc / flickr,

A revitalized teacher union movement is bubbling up in the midst of relentless attacks on public schools and the teaching profession. Over the next several years this new movement may well be the most important force to defend and improve public schools, and in so doing, defend our communities and our democracy.
The most recent indication of this fresh upsurge was the union election in Los Angeles. Union Power, an activist caucus, won leadership of the United Teachers of Los Angeles, the second-largest teacher local in the country. The Union Power slate, headed by president-elect Alex Caputo-Pearl, has an organizing vision for their union. They have worked with parents fighting school cuts and recognize the importance of teacher–community alliances.

In two other cities –Portland, OR, and St. Paul, MN – successful contract struggles also reflect a revitalized teacher union movement. In both cities the unions put forth a vision of “the schools our children deserve” patterned after a document by the Chicago Teachers Union. They worked closely with parents, students, and community members to win contract demands that were of concern to all groups. The joint educator-community mobilizations were key factors in forcing the local school districts to settle the contracts before a strike.
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