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Labor Becomes Part of the National Conversation: The Best and Worst of 2012

11:50 am in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

Sign: On Strike for Better Schools

The successful Chicago Teachers' Strike was a high point for labor in 2012.

This was a tumultuous year for working people and their families. From the grassroots uprisings last winter to the low-wage workers’ strikes at year’s end, 2012 saw many people coming together for the first time and finding their voices. Below are the items that I would highlight as the best and worst developments of 2012 in the world of labor and progressive social movements.

THE WORST:

  • Conservatives have repeatedly tried to pass anti-worker legislation under misleading names and false slogans in 2012. This approach hasn’t always worked—California’s Prop 32, which would have unfairly restricted workers’ political speech in the state, failed at the polls in November. Sadly, though, at the end of the year, Michigan’s lame-duck legislature, dominated by a billionaire-funded GOP, passed a so-called “right to work” law. As has happened in other states, the new law will pit Michigan workers against each other by forcing those who pay union dues to represent and bargain for those who don’t. The state has been a union bulwark historically, so this is a sad sign for working people all over the country.
  • Neoliberal trade policy has continued to undermine the American middle class in 2012. As reporters Donald Barlett and James Steele have documented, the so-called “free trade” deals modeled after NAFTA are part of a pattern that has resulted in huge job losses here in the United States. This year, the Obama administration has been promoting a new pact based on this same model that would create a “free trade zone” made up of ten countries along the Pacific Rim, called the TransPacific Partnership (TPP). As Matt Stoller has said in Salon, the creation of the TPP has mostly flown under the radar, but it could lead to “offshoring of U.S. manufacturing and service-sector jobs,  inexpensive imported products, expanded global reach of U.S. multinationals, and less bargaining leverage for labor.” None of this is good for Americans who desperately need jobs to be created here.
  • Another disturbing trend that continued this year was giveaways of public funds to private companies. As watchdog Good Jobs First documented earlier this year, state and local governments handed out $32 billion to private corporations in the name of job creation, but with no real accountability or guarantees of public benefit.

 

THE BEST:

Not everything was bad news; there were also some positive developments that offer hope for the future. Four of these were:

  • Student activism allied with union advocacy paid off in San Jose, California, where a student-led coalition got a ballot initiative passed that will raise the minimum wage from $8 to $10 per hour for everyone working within the city limits. Organizers estimate the number of workers who will get a raise to be in the tens of thousands. I see this as a fine example of regional coalition-based organizing, and I hope it becomes a trend.

In 2013, as Obama starts his new term, we can find hope in these examples of regionally based innovation. Rather than waiting for change to come from above, we must take what is working at the regional level and turn it into a people’s agenda for Washington.

This was originally posted on The Century Foundation.

Photo by Shutter Stutter under Creative Commons license.

Walmart Organizing Comes of Age: An Interview With UFCW Organizing Director Pat O’Neill

8:18 am in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

United Food and Commercial Workers’ Pat O’Neill talks about the difficulty of organizing retail and the new tactics that have been developed, shoppers’ support and Walmart workers’ extraordinary courage in the rolling actions leading up to Black Friday.

Walmart Workers Speak Out

Black Friday Walmart Worker Strike

This fall has witnessed a wave of rolling strikes and other employee actions at America’s largest private-sector employer: Walmart. The actions, spread across more than a dozen cities, have been the first in the retailer’s 50-year history. This week, things are set to get bigger: Walmart associates across the country are now promising pickets, leafleting, and creative flash mobs on and around Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year.

One of the main groups involved in planning the actions has been OUR Walmart, a labor-community organization for Walmart employees, backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). Rather than going through the arduous process of forming a traditional union by signing up majorities in each store, they have developed a more flexible process for employees to get involved early on. Smaller groups can use OUR Walmart to take collective action to advocate for rights and for better conditions. Such advocacy harkens back to the early days of the US labor movement, before the labor laws of the New Deal institutionalized processes for collective bargaining. It may also be a bellwether for future employee action, reflecting an age in which labor law has again failed to catch up with the reality of the American economy.

To get inside insight on the new activism taking place at Walmart, I talked with UFCW Organizing Director Pat O’Neill. We discussed the rolling strikes, the revived use of “minority unions,” and why OUR Walmart is not calling for a boycott.

I started by asking how many employees are part of OUR Walmart.

“It’s in the thousands of workers who are paying the $5.00 a month in membership dues for OUR Walmart,” O’Neill replied. “There are a lot of others that are not paying, but they’re active. On Black Friday, our goal is to have in excess of 1000 Walmart workers striking, and there will be many more that take some other form of action.”

I asked what sort of message the public will be getting on Black Friday.

“The public’s going to be asked to support Walmart associates as they fight for better hours and better working conditions and as they call on the company not to continue with reprisals against workers for their organizing activity,” O’Neill said. “It’s two-fold: we want people to support the workers in pushing for better conditions, but also in standing up for their organizing rights.”

I next asked about his hopes in terms of the outcomes from the rolling actions.

“We want to put pressure on the company and let them know that the workers are upset, ” O’Neill responded. “We want the company to know that they’re not going to squash them in their endeavors to organize by taking retaliatory action. The workers are not just crawling under the table and hiding. They’re actually taking stronger action; they’re upping the ante, if you will. When Walmart changes somebody’s schedule, suspends someone, or terminates them even for their organizing activity, the rest of the workers are upset over it and know about it.”

Pointing to a long history of unsuccessful organizing at Walmart, I asked what he thought today’s employees have learned from some of these past efforts that haven’t been successful.

“I think the past efforts weren’t successful because it’s always difficult in retail, period,” O’Neill said. “It’s not like one plant. The workforce doesn’t have that much camaraderie with each other. There are so many people at the store; there are part-time hours. A lot of workers don’t even know each other. Then you lay on hundreds or thousands of different locations, it makes organizing under the [National Labor Relations Act] very difficult. Even if you get in at one store, then you got to worry about whether you can get a contract.”

“The old way of organizing that we did didn’t work,” he said. “Now we really studied the history, not just what we’ve had with Walmart, but the civil rights movement and the beginning of the labor movement, what the United Auto Workers (UAW) and others did back in the ’30s. That’s where we came up with the concept of minority unionism and trying to hook people up with each other, even if there’s only one activist in one store.”

“Traditionally, it was all about signing cards, then holding an election and hoping you win. You don’t charge dues or anything until after you get a contract. With OUR Walmart, workers put some skin in the game up front with a five-dollar-per-month contribution. They buy into it and want to do it. I think those two pieces are really major differences from the past.”

I pressed further, asking what he thought Walmart associates themselves have learned from the past efforts to organize.

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How Teachers Unions Lead the Way to Better Schools

5:00 pm in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

teacher.001

In honor of Teacher Appreciation Day 2010

I have a concern: Teachers are getting pummeled. Too often, they are being demonized in the media and blamed by politicians for being the cause of bad schools. Right-wing governors, power-hungry mayors and corporate “reformers”—all ignoring root issues such as poverty and inequality—have scapegoated the people who have devoted their lives to educating our children. Moreover, these forces are seeking to destroy the collective organizations formed by educators: teachers unions.

The stakes for our country could not be more profound. The labor movement and the public education system are two critical institutions of American democracy. And they are two that go hand in hand. Teachers unions have played a critical role in advocating for public education, but you’d never know it from mainstream media coverage. Therefore, there is a great need to lift up this tradition and highlight the efforts of teachers to collectively push for top-notch public schools.

To figure out how we can push forward on this issue, I talked with Diane Ravitch, one of the country’s leading education historians and public school advocates. A professor at New York University, Ravitch is a former Assistant Secretary of Education and the author of several books, including 2010’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.

What do you see as the role of teachers unions in preserving public education?

For many years, there has been an effort to diminish teachers unions and to blame them for all the problems of public education. I believe the reason, first of all, is that some people just hate unions. But there’s also a political reason that’s very specific. That is that if you silence the union, then there’s nobody at the table when the legislature or the governor wants to cut the budget, so they can hack away at will. That’s happening in states across the country. I was in Texas a few weeks ago, and there the legislature cut over $5 billion dollars from the education budget, but they did manage to squeeze out $500 million dollars for more testing. They have a weak union. They had no one at the table to say, “You can’t do this.” And no one cared what the teachers thought anyway.

This past summer, you championed the Chicago teachers strike as an example of teachers publicly transcending self-interest and pushing for better conditions in the schools. Can you speak about some of the victories have shown a different style of advocacy from teachers?

Well, the teachers’ union had a problem in that most of the things they were concerned about they’re not allowed to collectively bargain. The law says they’re not allowed to collectively bargain the teaching and learning conditions, but that was the essence of the strike. They had to say that they were striking over something that was legal and not over something that the law didn’t allow. I think that one of the things that they were able to accomplish—and it’s a small accomplishment but an important one—is that the mayor wanted the [teachers’ performance] evaluations to be based, I think, 40 or 50 percent on [student] test scores. They got it down to what was the legally required minimum. My own view is that the test scores should account for zero in teacher evaluation.
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President Obama Reelected—But Where Is the Pathway to Good Jobs?

2:15 pm in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

With Barack Obama’s reelection last night, we witnessed the labor movement once again, as in every successful Democratic presidential race in recent decades, saving the president. Its ground troops and financial backing provided the bulwark to shore up Obama’s lead against Romney. By aiding in Obama’s victory, unions helped avert the crisis that the election of Romney/Ryan would have represented—an attack not only on organized labor, but on women’s rights and the whole of the social safety net.

But what, in terms of a positive agenda, should working people expect that’s different from when President Obama was first elected? After the election of the last two Democratic presidents, organized labor had a clear legislative priority to hand to the successful candidate—the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) in the case of Obama’s first term, and a proposed ban on striker replacement in the case of President Clinton. In both cases, labor waited for the White House to lead on those issues, and that never happened. Neither EFCA nor the striker replacement ban came to pass.

This time around, labor does not have a single marquee piece of legislation that it is rallying around. We already know that any worker-friendly legislation that the White House advances will certainly face a blockade from Congressional Republicans. But that’s no excuse for the president to neglect using the bully pulpit to stand in defense of the rights of working people.

This is not a question of transactional politics. It’s not an issue of President Obama showing appreciation to labor for helping with his reelection. The need to revive the right to collective bargaining is important for a far more fundamental reason: without strengthening the ability of workers to negotiate for living-wage jobs, President Obama’s vows to restore the American middle class have little chance of being fulfilled.

Voters affirmed that the message presented by the Obama campaign was correct: the administration had inherited an economic mess, and under Obama’s presidency we have begun a recovery; it’s not moving fast enough, but the administration has put us on the right path. A Republican win would have destroyed any hope of achieving a true recovery for the 99 percent.

While that message is valid, Obama hasn’t provided an answer for how to make sure that new jobs that are being created in the economy are good jobs. In fact, the evidence is that the preponderance of jobs being created in the recovery do not support a middle-class standard of living. The National Employment Law Project’s report from August of this year, entitled The Low Wage Recovery and Growing Inequality, found that, during the recession, low-wage jobs grew 2.7 times as fast as middle- and high-wage jobs together. A total of 58 percent of the jobs created were low-wage jobs.

It’s not just the latest recession that has resulted in the loss of good jobs: the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) published a report in July that estimated that, since 1979, the economy has lost about one-third (28 to 38 percent) of its capacity to generate good jobs. One look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ list of the top thirty fastest-growing occupations bears out CEPR’s observation: a majority of the jobs listed pay less than $50,000 per year.

In the end, the only path to making new jobs into good jobs is to restore and support workers’ collective bargaining rights.

The reason our country has so often gotten itself into the position of being stuck in low-wage recoveries is that no president has taken on the issue of making the right to bargain collectively legal again in this country. If Obama does not address this in his second term, his administration will continue to watch the majority of Americans experience economic hardship.

The key issue for the president’s second term will be whether he understands that the health of our democracy has depended on having an enfranchised middle class, something that was built through collective bargaining and cannot be restored in its absence. If President Obama fails to recognize the stakes, the stated goals of his economic agenda—the creation of good jobs and the rescue of the American middle class—will be perpetually out of reach.

Four years ago, candidate Obama made a commitment to stand shoulder to shoulder with working people if their rights were ever threatened. That time has come. America’s working and middle class is in a fight for its life. The only question that remains in Obama’s second term, given that legislative remedies are not available, is whether America will see the president send a message by walking the picket lines and being an unabashed public spokesperson for workers’ rights.

Originally posted on The Century Foundation.