Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and Why Unions are Needed

by Duane E. Campbell

On March 31, 2015, Eleven states and numerous cities will hold holidays celebrating labor and Latino leader Cesar Chavez. ChavezConferences, marches and celebrations will occur in numerous cities and particularly in rural areas of the nation. A recent film Cesar Chavez: An American Hero, starring Michael Peña as Cesar Chavez and Rosario Dawson as Dolores Huerta presents important parts of this union story.

The current UFW leadership, as well as former UFW leaders and current DSA Honorary Chairs Eliseo Medina and Dolores Huerta are recognized leaders in the ongoing efforts to achieve comprehensive immigration reform in the nation.

ArturoUFW President Arturo Rodriquez says, “We urge Republicans to abandon their political games that hurt millions of hard-working, taxpaying immigrants and their families, and help us finish the job by passing legislation such as the comprehensive reform bill that was approved by the Senate on a bipartisan vote in June 2013,” Rodriguez said.  Similar compromise proposals, negotiated by the UFW and the nation’s major agricultural employer associations, have passed the U.S. Senate multiple times over the last decade. The same proposal has won majority support in the House of Representatives, even though House GOP leaders have refused to permit a vote on the measure. “The UFW will not rest until the President’s deferred relief is enacted and a permanent immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for all 11 million undocumented immigrants, is signed into law.” www.UFW.org Continue reading

Bringing Labor Back:

Labor-management partnerships will not revive the union movement.

By Chris Maisano. Reposted from Jacobin Magazine.

[ed.note- we encourage responses to this piece and the prior post, First Stop the Self Flagellation]

Workers occupy a factory in the 1937 Flint Sit Down Strike. Library of Congeress

Workers occupy a factory in the 1937 Flint Sit Down Strike. Library of Congress

As late as 2008, it was not unreasonable to think that the stars were aligning for a long-awaited revitalization of the US labor movement. The financial crisis focused popular anger on the Wall Street financiers whose speculative activities brought the global economy to the brink of collapse. The election of Barack Obama and Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress raised labor’s hopes for the passage of an economic recovery program and long-sought labor law reforms.

And it seemed as if workers themselves were finally willing to take action against the decades-long trend of increasing corporate power and inequality. The occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors plant in Chicago by a militant United Electrical Workers local — an action that drew approving notice from the president-elect and much of the public — electrified labor’s ranks and seemed to echo President Franklin Roosevelt’s support for unionization and collective bargaining during the New Deal.

This appeared to be the most favorable set of circumstances for the US labor movement in decades, and the first significant hope for revitalization since the successful Teamsters strike against UPS in 1997.

It didn’t happen. Labor law reform was sidelined in favor of health care reform, and the Republicans rolled up big electoral wins at all levels in 2010 and 2014. Despite widespread popular anger at the multi-trillion-dollar bank bailouts, the financial sector has come out of the crisis stronger, and corporate profits are at record levels. Economic inequality has continued its upward path.

Fast food and retail workers have shown a new willingness to protest and engage in collective action, and their efforts have spurred minimum-wage increases in a number of states and cities. Still, private-sector unionization continues to move toward total collapse. And in the public sector, the labor movement’s last stronghold, state-level attacks on collective-bargaining rights and anti-union cases in the judicial system have set the stage for a decisive offensive against organized working-class power.

The writing is on the wall: unions as we have known them since the 1930s are in their terminal stage, and likely have only a short time left as a social institution of any major political significance. The private sector is essentially union-free, and public-sector unions don’t have the capacity to defend themselves against legislative and judicial assaults, even in states that are supposedly union strongholds (see Wisconsin and Michigan). Continue reading

Three lessons for young labor organizers

by Neal Meyer

Young activists seeking an introduction to the contemporary US labor movement have few places to turn. There are countless histories of labor’s golden age in the middle of the twentieth century. But there are too few analyses which have the courage to be critical and the perspective to place the movement today in the context of the last 40 years of struggle. Fortunately for activists in search of such an introduction, one does exist now in Steve Early’s latest book, Save Our Unions (Monthly Review Press, 2013).

Save Our Unions is a collection of Early’s recent writing on the history and prospects of US labor. Spanning the heyday of the rank-and-file rebellion of the 1970s to the organizing battles of the Great Recession, Save Our Unions will help any new labor activist situate herself. A young organizer who seeks answers to where she should concentrate her energies, what values organizers need, and what prospects there are for labor in the next decade will find much to think over.

To give you a taste, I’ve compiled three of the most important lessons from Early’s new book.

 Union democracy is key

The rank-and-file rebellion has sadly been forgotten by most activists. But for a few years in the 1970s, democratic caucuses were launched by shop stewards and union members in many of the countries’ most important unions. Early’s first section, “Rebels with a Cause”, is a great introduction to the emergence of some of these caucuses and their fate.

The key lesson here is that when workers are engaged and participate in the life and decisions of their union their loyalty to one another and their capacity to fight their employers increases immeasurably. Early focuses in on the example of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, one of the most successful of the reform caucuses and one which actually succeeded in electing its candidate, Ron Carey, as president of the Teamsters in 1991. In 1997, Carey went on to lead one of the most successful strikes in an otherwise depressing decade. Carey and TDU were able to mobilize 185,000 teamsters to actively participate in a strike against UPS and built a 30 member bargaining committee which included rank-and-file workers for the first time, tactics which played a critical part in defeating UPS.

Too many unions today are content to substitute the organizing power of staff organizers for the initiative of shop stewards and members, and far fewer still have real contested elections for leadership. Early demonstrates how mistaken this strategy is. To combat cynics who will argue that this kind of participation is not possible, young organizers should approach the first section to Early’s book as a primer on really existing rank-and-file rebellions.

 2. Where you work matters

Eventually every college labor activist faces the question of what to do with themselves when they graduate. Should they try to get a job as a union organizer or researcher? If so, where should they go? Again, Early’s work will help give activists direction.

For the activist committed to working directly for a union the key question will be how democratic the union you are considering is. Are members an integral part of the life of the union, or are they cajoled into signing petitions and holding signs during contract negotiations and then relegated to the sidelines?

But Early also introduces an alternative to the union staff route, known as “industrializing” in the 1970s and as “salting” today. This is the practice of sending politically committed organizers directly into the workplace to get jobs and organize from within, and it’s one of the most challenging but potentially rewarding experiences a young organizer can take on. In Save Our Unions, Peter Olney, who after dropping out of Harvard had worked as a refrigeration mechanic and elevator operator in a unionized hospital before becoming a full-time organizer and eventual Organizing Director of the ILWU,  argues that in an organizing campaign “nothing can replace the presence of these politicized organizers in the workplaces of America.”

Although as Early notes salting has not yet become “sufficiently fashionable” to make a real breakthrough possible, it’s a route that more activists should consider seriously. Not only will they become more powerful organizers on the job to the benefit of their coworkers, but especially for college-educated activists from any class background, this strategy can be the best way to keep or find a firm political foundation in working-class communities.

  1. Vision is central

The most important lesson young activists can take from Early’s book is a constant refrain in each story. This is the importance of having a vision of what you’re fighting for and a political commitment to the cause. The heroes of Early’s stories are the radical organizers who make sacrifices for the labor movement because they see it as part of a long-term struggle. They are the socialists, communists, and anarchists who lead democratic reform caucuses, salt unionized and non-unionized workplaces, and champion unconventional, working-class electoral campaigns.

In the official history of the labor movement, and in too much of contemporary journalism around labor, union activists are depicted as bread-and-butter pragmatists fighting for higher wages and better fringe benefits. Laudable as these goals are, this approach misses one of the most important factors in what determines the success of organizers. Organizers need an ideological commitment to building a better society and a structural analysis of capitalism and the role that labor plays within contemporary society. It’s this vision and analysis that keeps salts and reformers in the struggle to build a better and more militant labor movement.

There is so much more to be gleaned from Save Our Unions. Activists of any age or familiarity with labor will benefit from Early’s coverage of battles in telecommunications, hospitality, and healthcare. Everyone should acquaint themselves with the latest developments in the multi-year fight between SEIU and the National Union of Healthcare Workers on the west coast. But especially for a young activist looking for lessons and an introduction to labor, Early’s book delivers.

Neal Meyer is a Brooklyn-based activist and member of DSA. He was previously an organizer for YDS.

Hong Kong Labor Supports Ongoing Struggle for Democracy

Ed. note: Although students and young people formed the tenacious shock troops of the Umbrella Movement for democracy in Hong Kong, they received strong support from the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU). This press statement from the HKCTU commits the labor confederation to the ongoing struggle.

The new era of Democratic Movement begins

umbrella_movement_699_524

HKCTU leaders and members who were arrested at the 75-day Admiralty occupation on Dec 11th 2014 while they stayed with other protesters to resist the police to clean up the occupation zone, were all released on Dec 12th 2014. Ending of the occupation was just a beginning of a new era of the movement for true democracy.

It was reported that 247 protesters were arrested on Dec 11 and 7 of them from HKCTU: General Secretary Lee Cheuk Yan, Chief Executive Mung Siu Tat, Bar Bender Workers Union Chairperson Wong Wai Man, Community Care and Nursing Workers Union Ar Dick, Van Delivery Workers Unions Simpson, Organizing Secretary Fredrik Fan and a volunteer Wu Sui Ming. They all were released in 12 hours without any charges. After the release, the two leaders of HKCTU made the following comments.

Brother Mung Siu Tat reflected that, “I have been fighting for labour rights over 20 years in my life time seeing how the workers were exploited by bosses and unfair systems. If we would accept the ‘fake universal suffrage’ proposal from the National People’s Congress, the policy making will still be business leaning, as the big corporates are the few but powerful nominators. It implies universal labour rights, such as standard working hours, right to collective bargaining, universal pension fund, would continue to be “blocked” by the functional constituencies. When the roads are occupied, bailiff and the police would conduct the clearance, yet, what happen if our democratic rights and labour rights are “blocked”? If we don’t join force, who can clear up the road to democracy and labour rights? We have to open our roads by our peoples’ power.”

Brother Lee Cheuk Yan said that, “the authorities can use police to clean up the protest site but they cannot kill the spirit and courage of people for democracy. It is going to be tough in future, we have to prepare that the government will use rules and orders as tools for suppressing the social activists and civil society after this battle. At the same time, we see hopes from the active political participation and strong leaderships of youngsters in this movement. HKCTU will try to reach out to the young activists among working class so as to build up an emerging and powerful trade union movement in Hong Kong”.

umbrella supporters

There were a lot of solidarity actions locally and internationally to call for immediate release of the protesters. HKCTU is very thankful to IUF for launching the online petition to show international solidarity to HK democratic struggles. HKCTU will continue the struggle with all working class, students and citizens in Hong Kong to fight for universal suffrage of Chief Executive and Legislative Council in 2017 and 2018.

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.

The Future of Work

View to Future Work

Review by Daniel Adkins

The new book, Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace, studies an increasingly dynamic culture in the more creative sectors of U.S. industry (film and technology). The guidelines for the “creative industry” are in sharp contrast to how most U.S. industries and the government currently work. Yet the future holds competition with a mercantile China, when all our work requires creativity and sustainability. How we treat each other and work will be changing to meet future national needs. Whether we meet the challenge by a part of the U.S., or by all of us will be important to our success.

As background for the book it is useful to view two trends in the labor process of the last hundred plus years. One is the old work model from 1900s is called “Taylorism or Scientific Management,” and was created by Frederick W. Taylor. This theory is still alive in the Amazon.com. The theory aimed at controlling the physical work of labor by using time and motion studies to script the flow of work. Combined with the assembly line, it influenced the way work was organized for much of the last century. The theory moved the mental aspects of physical labor (or how work is done), to be decided by industrial engineers and management. Some of its excesses were mitigated by labor unions which negotiated health and safety aspects of the labor process. Today Amazon uses Taylorism and computers to drive some employees so severely in un-air-conditioned warehouses that ambulances are needed to protect non-unionized workers’ health. It seems Jeff Bezos’ libertarian individualism works for CEOs’ wealth but not so much for workers’ survivability. Continue reading

Interview: Naomi Klein Breaks a Taboo–Capitalism and the Environment

Naomi_Klein_Warsaw_Nov.20_2008_Fot_Mariusz_Kubik_12

Naomi Klein (Wikimedia Commons)

The fact that global warming is man-made and poses a grave threat to our future is widely accepted by progressives. Yet, the most commonly proposed solutions emphasize either personal responsibility for a global emergency (buy energy-efficient light bulbs, purchase a Prius), or rely on market-based schemes like cap-and-trade. These responses are not only inadequate, says best-selling author Naomi Klein, but represent a lost opportunity to confront climate change’s root cause: capitalism.

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Klein’s much-anticipated new book, is both surprisingly hopeful and deeply personal as she deftly weaves in her story of struggling to conceive her first child while researching the potential collapse of the natural world. In the book, Klein challenges everyone who cares about climate change to strive for a seemingly impossible redistribution of political and economic power. This, she argues, is both necessary and offers the prospect of living in a more just and humane society than the one we know today.

John Tarleton: When it comes to the climate crisis, capitalism is often the elephant in the room that goes unacknowledged. Yet you zero in on it, starting with the title of your book. Why?

Naomi Klein: I put the connection between capitalism and climate change up front because the fact that the life support systems of the planet are being destabilized is telling us that there is something fundamentally wrong with our economic system. What our economy needs to function in a capitalist system is continuous growth and continuous depletion of resources, including finite resources. What our planet needs in order to avoid catastrophic warming and other dangerous tipping points is for humans to contract our use of material resources.

The science of climate change has made this fundamental conflict blindingly obvious. By putting that conflict up front, it breaks a taboo. And sometimes when you break a taboo, there’s sort of a relief in just saying it. And that’s what I’ve found so far: This is something that people know. And it’s giving permission to just name it. It’s a good starting point, so now we can have a real discussion. Continue reading

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