Labor Day Weekend Reading

by Paul Garver

Getman cover

If you are as tired as I am of inane electoral political commentary in the media, why not take some time over the Labor Day weekend to consider the deep roots of the growing economic and political inequality that underlies the superficial campaign rhetoric?
I would not normally recommend sources on labor law and labor economics for your holiday reading. But here goes.

The Economic Policy Institute [EPI] just released a new research report, “Union decline lowers wages of nonunion workers: The overlooked reason why wages are stuck and inequality is growing,” Access at http://www.epi.org/files/pdf/112811.pdf

The EPI Report analyzes how the decline of organized labor in the USA has contributed to wage stagnation and economic inequality. If good jobs in industry are increasingly scarce and pay for private sector workers has barely budged in the last four decades, a major cause is the catastrophic decline in private sector unionism from 35% to 5%. Building walls along the borders and expelling undocumented immigrants will not help alienated working-class voters. As Hamilton Nolan advises them in his analysis of the EPI Report: “Don’t get mad at foreigners. Unionize. It’s the only battle in the class war that lies entirely within your power to win.”

However a major contributing factor to the decline of union organization is the way the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted labor law over the same decades. Labor law professor and practitioner Julius Getman has written a concise and spritely study called The Supreme Court on Unions: Why Labor Law Is Failing American Workers (Cornell Univ. Press, 2016). In fewer than 200 pages, Getman demonstrates how a series of Supreme Court decisions on union organizing, collective bargaining, the right to strike, picketing, boycotts, the duty of fair representation, and the definition of “employee” have effectively gutted the ability of labor unions to organize new members and to bargain good contracts.

When over forty years ago I was hired by a local SEIU union to organize hospital workers (NLRB jurisdiction had recently been extended to the hospital sector), I was not prepared to confront the incredible number of tools the employer already could wield to frustrate the right of hospital workers to organize into a union. Despite several badly coordinated legislative efforts to improve union rights during the Carter and Clinton administrations, the legal framework for union organizing and bargaining has continued to deteriorate over the last half century. Getman shows how even many of the more liberal Supreme Court appointees do not comprehend or support interpretations of labor law that would reverse this trend.

Getman analyzes that it is unlikely that even better Court appointments and incremental legislative reform could overturn entrenched basic antiunion precedents After more than half a century of practicing and teaching labor law, Getman realizes that significant change will require a long hard struggle, would be bitterly opposed by wealthy political patrons of both Republican and Democratic parties, and would demand the election of a president willing to make strengthening union organization and collective bargaining as the highest political priority. “Significant labor law reform,” he reluctantly concludes’ “is more likely to follow from than to cause a resurgence of the labor movement.” That can only occur if the workers’ movement becomes part of a wider popular insurgency.

I recommend The Supreme Court on Unions: Why Labor Law is Failing American Workers as an indispensable resource not only for those active in the labor movement, but for all who are committed to building a wider movement for political revolution in the USA.

The Primary Route: Review of a Political Pamphlet

by Paul Garver

In December 2015 Tom Gallagher self published a pamphlet entitled The Primary Route: How the 99% Take On the Military Industrial Complex (Coast to Coast Publications).

Drawing on his own experiences as a Massachusetts legislator and as an elected delegate for a number of  progressive Democratic challengers in presidential primaries, long-time democratic socialist Tom Gallagher argued in considerable historical detail and humor that the American Left had to engage in Democratic primary races at the national level to be taken seriously as a political force.

Bernie Sanders had recently announced his Presidential candidacy, but his campaign had not yet demonstrated its capacity to rally millions of voters behind his progressive ideas.   The successes of Sanders’ campaign strongly supports the thrust of Gallagher’s argument, while simultaneously making his thesis  seem somewhat outdated and obvious.

As Gallagher recently stated with his characteristic humor, there was either going to be a good book or a good campaign, and would not be both.

As I read Gallagher’s pamphlet today, its relevance to 2016 feels limited.  Gallagher himself, as a Sanders delegate from the 12th Congressional District of California, will be using his persuasive skills at the DNC in Philadelphia.

Yet I strongly suspect that when 2019 rolls around, the pamphlet should be reissued.  Already the spin doctors of several sectarian socialist groups are making use of the “failure” of Sanders to become the Democratic presidential candidate as an argument for retreating back to the safe and sheltered sanctuary of the Green Party.  In 2019 much of the U.S. Left may be spinning its wheels once again as it did in this electoral cycle, rehashing the same old arguments about the inevitable doom the Left faces if we engage in Democratic primaries.

The Primary Route will be useful reading then.

Tom Gallagher is a member of the United Educators in San Francisco.  You can view his other writings and buy this pamphlet at https://tomgallagherwrites.com/

Kent State: Review of a New History by a Participant in the Struggle

by Paul Garver

grace on kent state

Thomas Grace.  Kent State: Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties.  Univ. of Massachusetts Press, Amherst and Boston, 2016, 384pp.

Tom Grace was one of the nine Kent State University students seriously wounded by a fusillade of gunshots from the Ohio National Guard on May 4, 1970, when he joined a student rally after leaving his university classroom.

Four other students were killed, two of whom were not even attending the protest rally.

In the aftermath of the shooting, numerous student leaders were prosecuted and imprisoned.  None of the officers who had issued order for the guardsmen to fire and even themselves joined in the shooting were ever prosecuted for their arguably criminal actions.

More than forty years later Tom Grace authored this temperate, well considered, and thoroughly researched history of the Kent State struggle.  It is  much more than a personal memoir.   A succinct account of how he came to be shot on that day is included in a prologue and in sidebars to the description of the day of the shootings, but this is not why he wrote this history.

Grace writes with commitment or passion, but with remarkable equanimity.  Neither he nor his fellow student activists appear as victims, but rather as combatants in a desperate struggle.  Their adversaries are not portrayed as villains, but as combatants on the other side with their own views and goals.

Tom Grace conducted interviews with some 47 Ohio student activists, meticulously scoured the campus and local newspapers, and placed their stories in the context of the national student antiwar movement.   He also compiled portraits of dozens of individual national guardsmen and officers involved in the shooting, drawing on records of their testimony before various investigative panels and tribunals.

Eighty pages of endnotes show how thoroughly Grace pored over the decades of local activist struggle and repression, while firmly situating it in the history of the national antiwar movement and its organizational structures.

The result of Grace’s study is a systematic deconstruction of many media-generated myths that were immediately projected onto the Kent State shootings and persist as a battle over the memory and meaning of May 4 that continues to the present day.  The events were not a tragic anomaly but were grounded in a tradition of student political activism that extended back to Ohio’s labor battles of the 1950s and to a decade of antiwar and black liberation struggles in the nation and on the campus itself.

As a public university in the American heartland, far from the coastal epicenters often associated with the 1960s movement,  Kent State proves in Grace’s account to be a microcosm of the national student antiwar movement of the “long sixties.”

The expansion of the university after World War II brought in growing numbers of working-class students from the industrial centers of northeast Ohio. Most of the Kent State activists  retained many of the core labor and New Deal values of their parents, despite disagreements about the Vietnam War.  They came from the same generational cohort as the American combat forces in Vietnam and the Ohio national guardsmen.

As the war’s rising costs came to be felt acutely in the home communities of Kent’s students, the growing antiwar movement on campus faced repression from the university administration and the political conservatives who dominated Portage County and the Ohio state government.

The deadly effort to suppress antiwar activism by gunfire on the campus was a logical stage of the cycle of radicalization and repression that began earlier in the 1960s and continued  well into the 1970s at Kent State. In the years that followed the shootings, contrary to myth, the antiwar movement continued to strengthen on campus, bolstered by an influx of returning Vietnam veterans.

One of the most original and useful features of this history  Grace provides us are updates on the life histories of the Kent State activists he studied. The vast majority of Kent State New Left activists remained actively committed to the social causes of their movement and incorporated these into their future life paths and careers.

Being somewhat older member of the same New Left generation as Thomas Grace, I appreciate how his detailed history focused on Kent State brings alive our shared history while demolishing many of the distortions perpetrated upon it.  It is no accident that many from our activist generation are helping to organize the Sanders democratic socialist candidacy that is proving attractive to  young people today.

Thomas M. Grace is adjunct professor of history at Erie Community College. A 1972 graduate of Kent State University, he earned a PhD in history from SUNY Buffalo after many years as a social worker and union representative.

 

 

The Despair of Ta-Nehisi Coates

by Carl Proper

Coates

a review of “Between the World and Me”, by Ta-Nehisi Coates {Spiegel and Grau, New York, 2015}

and “The Beautiful Struggle,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel and Grau, New York, 2008}

When I was your age,” Coates tells his son, Samori, “the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid.”

 Their fear is well founded.  There is no safe place for a black man in Coates’ America.  He sees a nation of Dreamers “who think they are white,” continuously chasing “plunder.”  Their heritage includes the right to destroy black men’s bodies with impunity.  And plunder now includes dreams that may destroy the Earth itself.

In this world, the descendants of slaves often take their fear and anger out on each other.

For Coates, fear begins at home.  His father, a military veteran and disillusioned former Black Panther captain, disciplines his children with his fists. Dad hopes his blows will prevent them from confronting police.  “Maybe this saved me.  Maybe it didn’t,” Ta-Nehisi demurs. “We were afraid of those who loved us most.”

In the West Baltimore ghetto of Coates’ childhood, “the crews, the young men who’d transmuted their fear into rage, were the greatest danger. [They] walked the blocks of their neighborhood, loud and rude, because it was only through their loud rudeness that they might feel any sense of security and power.  They would break your jaw, stomp your face, and shoot you down to feel that power.”

But “their knowledge peaked at seventeen.” And, as all understood, “young black men who dropped out of school were headed for jail.”  Their bodies were forfeit, after a few years of adolescent bravado.

Even in school, the street code demands violent response to disrespect.  Coates is twice suspended, once for threatening a teacher, once for a confrontation with another student. When Coates’ Dad hears of the threat to the teacher, he comes to school and punches his son in front of the class. “He swung like he was afraid,” Coates writes, like the world was closing in and cornering him, like he was trying to save my life.”

Growing up, Coates “loved Malcolm X”, not for his anger, but because “Malcolm never lied.”

Coates also does not lie. Threats come from all directions, from blacks as well as whites, from home and school as well as from police and strangers.

Only at Howard University, a predominantly black school in Washington, D.C, known as “the Mecca” to Coates, does the background fear begin to fade away.  Here, he finds himself as a man and a writer.  His closest male friend is Prince Jones, son of a former maid who has worked her way up to a position as Professor.  Prince is a bone-deep Christian, and a happy soulmate for Coates.  Then, driving one day through predominantly black Prince George’s County, Virginia, a few miles from the District of Columbia, Prince has a never-clarified encounter with a black policeman.  He is shot and killed.  No one is charged. No one is punished.

No one is safe.

Some years later, Coates finds a living as a writer in New York City.  He dreams again of protecting his family and son from the dangers he has experienced.  Then, in a confrontation on a movie theater escalator, a white woman shoves his five-year-old son out of her way. When Coates raises his voice at the woman, white theater-goers intervene.  “I could have you arrested,” one warns.

In the time of Trayvon Martin, Coates and his son both understand their bodies are always at risk.  As the book ends, he is driving through the rain, past the old “ghettos,” and the “old fear” returns.

Coates’ beautifully written, sparely worded second book evokes the despair of Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.”  Coates has been criticized by some for not offering hope or solutions to African Americans’ problems.  This reflects his experience, that neither violent resistance nor peaceful coexistence can put an end to Dreamers’ plunder.

But a farewell to arms, and fists, would be a start.

Carl Proper was a member and staff member for the ILGWU, UNITE and UNITE HERE for forty years. After leaving the Peace Corps, he took a job as a cloth spreader in a union factory, and was hired from there as an Organizer. He served at various times as Organizer, Educational Director and Business Agent for the New England Joint Board; and as Assistant and Executive Assistant to ILGWU and UNITE President Jay Mazur; and as Executive Director for the union’s labor-management industry development committee.
He is now retired and living in Washington, DC.

How Workers Lose in Negotiations: The ABCs of Corporate Rip-Offs

by Carl Finamore

runaway inequality (3)

Unlike the ninety percent of American workers who have only their own personal voice to influence their wages, benefits and working conditions, union employees use their collective organization to establish guarantees.

And, union workers come to negotiations very well prepared with lots of economic data, with each contract proposal “costed out,” and with the whole team backed up by a professional staff of legal and industry analysts. So, then, how is it that we still get hammered

In real dollars, wages and benefits have not risen since the middle 1970s. We know this, but it still doesn’t make any sense. Why haven’t things improved for most of us and how has the seemingly impossible happened with 95% of all new income since the 2008 “recovery” going to the top 1%?

To answer these questions properly, we have to go beyond just blaming offshoring and contracting out and dig deeper, right down into the heart of how finance capital operates today.

Aside from the fact that unions seldom use their most powerful weapon, the strike, and aside from the fact that even fewer unions ever mobilize and organize their biggest asset, the members, our biggest problem in bargaining is that labor’s financial analysis of corporations only touches the surface. It misses the vast bulk of corporate hidden wealth.

As it stands now, the Top 500 corporations come to the negotiating table after already having played most of their big money cards elsewhere, in the stock market – thus, earning the well-deserved moniker of “casino capitalism.”

In essence, CEOs try to squeeze every dollar they can from offshoring, contracting out, terminating pensions, keeping wages low and reducing the workforce, just so they can push more cash into funding their ultimate prize – buying back stocks and paying dividends. This is where the real money is for investors.

Labor economist Les Leopold explains it in his new book: Continue reading

Who Built the Golden Gate Bridge?

book
I am a Northern California labor historian. Late last year I published a book entitled BUILDING THE GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE: A WORKERS’ ORAL HISTORY. The book is based on interviews I conducted with surviving 1930s construction veterans some years ago when they were still available. Together their voices chronicle the rough job conditions, the tragic accidents, and the ultimate triumphs experienced by workers who built an American icon during the Great Depression. The book ends with the testimonies of two nurses who cared for the injured and the recollections of an African American iron worker who overcame gender and racial challenges when she did maintenance labor on the great bridge in later years.

On Thursday, January 21, I will be reading from the book at Time Tested Books, 1114-21st Street, Sacramento, at 7 pm.
In solidarity, Harvey Schwartz

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