Monday, February 17, 2014

A Cloward-Piven Strategy for Labor?

Since the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, a key question facing the U.S labor movement has been how to pass pro-worker legislation that expands on workers' right to organize and bargain collectively. From the post-PATCO effort to ban permanent replacements to the more recent effort to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, labor legislative efforts have been stymied by intransigent opponents and reliance on less than reliable allies, and of course too few reliable allies.

For whatever reason, these campaigns at legislative reforms have always taken a more traditional path than other more confrontational models utilized historically by both the early labor movement that successfully helped pass the National Labor Relations Act and other progressive constituencies such as the civil rights movement in the 60's and the contemporary immigrant rights movement. This often means traditional lobbying supplemented by sporadic press conferences, testimonials by workers to elected officials and some attempt at getting the legislation to gain traction in the media.

 While much of labor has languished in this purgatory, movements basing their ability to make change on asserting ones existing rights, confrontational and dramatic tactics, and a willingness to challenge hesitant allies have gained steam. This trend offers a glimpse of what a transformative workers movement that could win major pro-worker reforms could look like.

A few bright spots in the labor movement have decided on a strategy of launching campaigns where groups of workers at strategically important companies or industries assert the right to protected collective activity under section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act and use that activity to win concessions from an employer prior to winning a collective bargaining agreement. The overall strategy being the building of a movement of workers that will eventually gain majority support and demand recognition of one of the unions supporting the workers' efforts.

While these tactics have not led in the short term to the explosive growth that is needed to turn labor's fortunes around, they have been enormously successful. While the rest of the labor movement is contemplating how to remain relevant to the members they represent and the industries they work in, the innovative strategies being employed by Walmart workers, federal contractors and workers in the fast food industry are grabbing headlines, stirring up debate, and most of all ...winning.

While organizing workers is different from creating new labor law in America, the strategy of social disruption, if
expanded, might very well point the way for labor to "upset the table" of American labor law and create a crisis out of which a new American labor law might be born.

The theory espoused in what has been popularly referred to as the "Cloward-Piven Strategy" puts forward a model of winning reforms by creating a "crisis" (in their case, in the social welfare system) by the subjects asserting their rights under current law and taking actions that utilize these rights to demand reforms as well as make concrete gains that improve current conditions. The premise of the strategy is that most systems are not designed for people to seek the benefits or rights that they are entitled to by law in any sort of concerted manner, so that when they do so in large enough numbers, the legal structures in place begin to "short circuit" and force changes that go beyond existing law.

This theory is not based on a pie in the sky belief, but rather the historic truth of social movements, that people organized and moved into action to assert demands to existing rights in a broad enough way will more times than not win an expansion of said rights. This is a truth exemplified in both the 1930's labor movement that led to the NLRA and the Civil Rights Movement which secured the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act.

What if that same strategy was fully established into a comprehensive campaign, anchored by the labor movement, to build a movement of workers along those same lines? These workers would be linked to sponsoring unions through organizations designed to facilitate concerted activity actions, tailored to specific industries, companies or even regions, using section 7 of the NLRA as a basis for action.

Anyone who knows the current state of the National Labor Relations Board understands that even a moderate level of concerted activity would provoke illegal actions of retaliation from employers to which the Board would have to react. It is very likely that any consistent level of activity would create a crisis of labor relations in this country due to the inability of the Labor Board to successfully adjudicate cases, as well as create a sense on the part of corporate America that they must make concessions in order to get the system back to functioning along normal lines.

There is good reason that the entire far-right conspiracy theory "industry" has put so much effort into vilifying the strategy advocated by Cloward and Piven. Primarily, they find it useful to tie a "radical" theory of social change to President Obama, but also they target it because it expresses principles that have enabled earlier movements to expand to the point they destabilized American capitalism. The notion of using a method of movement building that at it's core states unequivocally "these are our demands and until you grant them we will exercise every right we have under the law to achieve them" terrifies our enemies for good reason.

Before i am accused of daydreaming of a workers uprising (which i am guilty of by the way), I will point out that the fundamental laws of organizing still apply to the American worker. The efforts by the fast-food workers, OURWalmart, and Good Jobs Nation have shown that it is possible to fight and win using this approach to movement building and that there is at least a conscious minority of American workers ready to take such actions. The real question now is whether we are willing to "put it all on the table" and dig deep for the political will to create a crisis for corporate America that can rebuild the power of the labor movement and extract the concessions that American workers need to survive and prosper?

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Year in Preview: Labor's Outlook

By Rich Yeselson
Labor—unions and the broad working class of wage workers—hasn’t had a good year in a very long time. Union membership continues its long, slow decline, as does median family income. But if nothing else, 2014 should be a clarifying year in the life of several legal and organizing struggles that will either advance or retard the progress of labor.

The Cold Hard Numbers

The labor year begins in early January when the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases its union-membership numbers. Despite recent high-profile fights over public-sector unionism—teachers and government workers—union density among public employees has stayed remarkably steady, somewhere around 35-36 percent of the public-sector workforce. Private-sector unionism (the iconographic male union members of yore—autoworkers, steelworkers, truckers, coal miners) continues, year by year, to creep lower and lower—last year, density stood at 6.6 percent, probably the lowest since the beginning of the 20th century. The members of those giant mid-century powerhouse unions are no longer the face of labor: Today, union members are far more likely to be women, people of color, and service workers. Think nurse’s aides or hotel housekeepers. The numbers may be more demographically egalitarian these days, but they grow ever smaller. So the first question of 2014 will be: Was 2013 the year that the rate of private-sector unionism ticked up, even a little? If so, in what states and in what sectors of the economy?

The Supremes

The current Supreme Court cannot be viewed as sympathetic either to the rights of individual workers (on say, issues of gender discrimination) or to unions as their institutional representatives. Fifty years ago, a Democratic president could name the General Counsel of the AFL-CIO to the Supreme Court (Arthur Goldberg) without shocking the nation. (This is the difference between 30 percent private-sector union density and 6.6 percent.) Today, unions are lucky if the Court decides not to rule on a critical case on a technicality. That’s what happened in early December with Mulhall v. Unite Here Local 355, a case which might have gutted essential tools for organizing. Instead, at least six justices decided that the decision to hear the case had been “improvidently granted.”
Mulhall highlighted the most effective and least incendiary way for unions to organize workplaces today: through card-check neutrality agreements, where companies agree not to fight union certification, staying neutral rather than opposing the union. Typically, companies will agree to accept signed cards from over 50 percent of workers authorizing the union to act as their collective-bargaining agent rather than have a contested secret-ballot election.
Mulhall, involving a Florida-based casino and the local union seeking to organize its workers, centered around the question of whether these card-check neutrality agreements constitute a form of bribery of union officials. Because, in this unusual reading of a provision designed to prevent companies from corrupting union officials, the company is giving union officers something “of value”—i.e., their neutrality in an organizing fight. The company, in turn, receives a peaceful, stable labor policy, and, in this, case, the union contributed $100,000 to approve a referendum that would have permitted slot machines to be installed at a race track that the casino owns. (Unions often lobby and work on behalf of the interests of their employers.)
Neutrality and card-check agreements have been entered into by companies and unions for decades, but the National Right to Work Foundation (NRTWF), supporting a casino, challenged the union in the 11th Circuit Court. The court rendered an ambiguous opinion, and the union gambled it could get the high court to permanently settle the confusion in favor of neutrality and card check.
The oral arguments seemed to go pretty well—swing vote Anthony Kennedy expressed skepticism of NRTWF’s argument—but who knows what would have happened? The dismissal means that while neutrality and card check may continue to be challenged, unions will also be free to continue to use these common and fairly effective organizing techniques.
However, the Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in mid-January in another case with enormous potential implications for labor. In Harris v. Quinn (Quinn is the Illinois governor, Pat Quinn), the Court will consider whether the fee (an “agency fee”) for Medicaid-provided home health care can be waived for workers who choose not to join the union. The worker-plaintiff is making a First Amendment claim that the non-members are being compelled to associate and express their political opinions to the state on behalf of SEIU, the union to which they are paying the agency fee.
It would be nice to think that it’s “only fair” that if a worker doesn’t want to join a union, she doesn’t have to pay up—it’s a free country, right? The problem with this kind of folk wisdom is that the workers who choose not to pay union dues, legally permitted in the 24 “right to work” states, still receive all of the benefits that unions make possible—higher wages and benefits like health care—that dues-paying union members receive. They are “free riders,” playing their co-workers who pay dues for suckers. Agency fees are designed to mitigate the free rider problem in the non-right to work states by compelling workers to at least pay for the part of union dues that goes toward bargaining representation.
There is precedent on the side of permitting agency fees on the grounds of equity and labor stability. This Court could well see things differently. Justice Samuel Alito, no friend of unions, noted in a 2012 case, “….free-rider arguments, however, are generally insufficient to overcome First Amendment objections.” If four other justices agree with him (now, who might they be?), the result could affect revenues for, and the organizational integrity of, public-sector workers all over the country.

The UAW vs. the South and Foreign-Owned Auto Companies

Foreign auto companies started off as a tiny blip on the American radar—a few VW bugs and Datsun’s running around during the fifties and sixties. Today, foreign-based auto companies employ 1/3 of all U.S. autoworkers. Fifty-five percent of the “foreign” cars sold in the U.S. are built here, too.
The automotive industry remains an enormous business in the U.S., generating over $750 billion in revenues annually. If the UAW can gain traction with a foreign transplant company, it will not only be able to sustain the wages and benefit packages at the Big Three, but it will increase the union’s economic and political impact dramatically. It will also be a significant advance for unions in the South, the historic sub-nation within the U.S. for lower wages and non-union employment.
The UAW, once the flagship of American unionism and perhaps the most powerful and broadly progressive organization in the country, has never organized a single “transplant”—an auto plant owned by a foreign company. It has lost badly in several places. 
But Bob King, the outgoing UAW president, is the smartest, organizing-focused president the union has had in a long time. He has galvanized support from unions around the world to pressure the foreign-based companies. Now it looks like the union has a couple of real chances. One is a long-running campaign in Canton, Tennessee to organize a Nissan plant. Even more promisingly, the union claims to have a majority of workers who have signed union cards at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga. Under pressure form the powerful IG Metal union in Germany, Volkswagen will permit the plant to have a German-style works council, an employer-employee group that, in Germany, is complementary to unions. Under U.S. labor law, however, the UAW would have to first unionize the plant, but VW appears not to be fighting hard against this. Still, the union is under pressure from right-wing groups, anti-union workers who are accusing it of labor law violations, and politicians like Senator Bob Corker are doing whatever they can to defeat the drive.

The Low-Wage Retail Struggle

Demonstrations and brief strikes at the nation’s largest employer, Wal-Mart, and in the fast food industry, generated a lot of sympathetic media coverage this year, and continued to keep the issue of low wages and income inequality in the spotlight. Polls consistently show that a minimum wage increase is broadly popular, even among a plurality of Republicans. National and local Democrats, including Barack Obama, seem to have finally figured out that running on raising the minimum wage is good politics—we will see how the issue might impact several key mid term races, including the Kentucky Senate race, where Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes is driving the issue hard against Mitch McConnell.
Labor is supporting the workplace actions, without formally calling them “organizing drives,” though the longterm goal may well be to make retail labor’s foundation the way mining and manufacturing used to be. But will the number of workers willing to risk their jobs at a Wendy’s franchise or a Wal-Mart increase over the next year? The fast food campaign is inherently decentralized because the big franchisors like McDonalds or Wendy’s can hide behind their franchisees, which are the direct employers of record. More leverage must be applied to the franchisors themselves.The Wal-Mart campaign is more equivalent to Soviet dissidents facing off against the Kremlin—an implacable top down monolith controls the corporate strategy at over 4,000 work sites, with over 1.2 million employees around the country. You never know with these large labor and social justice fights. It took 20 years to organize the steel industry, for example. Likewise, it might require years—maybe decades—of chipping away before the statue of Sam Walton is toppled.

The Wildcard: West Coast Longshoremen

People who most Americans never see or think about—long shore workers at the ten largest ports on both coasts—unload about 90 percent of American imports each year. They are faceless facilitators of the massive global supply chain—from Guangzhou, China, right to your door, courtesy of that nice Mr. Jeff Bezos. And, especially on the West Coast, where 60 percent of imports come in, those anonymous longshoremen can stop that supply chain cold.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), forged in the militant struggles of the 1930s, is pretty much the last American union left that can have that kind of impact upon the daily operations of capitalism. In 2002, President Bush invoked, under the emergency powers of the Taft Hartley Act, an injunction to bring locked out ILWU members, and the terminal operators and shipping companies back to the negotiating table. Taft Hartley injunctions were specifically designed to limit the economic power of union at a time when several large ones, like the mineworkers, had massive economic power.
Now that list is pretty much down to the ILWU. The union’s current six-year contract expires on July 1, 2014. Circle that date on your calendars. You may not be interested in the ILWU, but the ILWU might be interested in you.

Crossposted from The American Prospect

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Union Organizing and the New Reality

(This article was originally published at It's about Power Stupid! is cross posting hereto hopefully initiate discussion among Building Trades readers of the "value proposition" and alternatives to it.) 

By Danny Caliendo

The loss of jobs in construction may very well be the new reality. The loss of jobs will be permanent for both union & non-union and is due to ongoing technology in construction delivery and will also accelerate as modularization advances.

Why there is a lack of hard discussion about jobs at the national and state level is very strait forward – jobs are going to be hard to come by, particularly in construction, going forward.
Critically examining the continued “Value on Display” strategy as the model for market share increases in the Building Trades is long overdue and would require a hard core review of some of those statements that are at the core of “Value on Display”.

We are more productive and can make the non-union contractors more money.

Reality check is that 85% of all construction is done non/anti-union. The cost of putting a union tradesperson on the job includes: A living higher wage, real benefits, verified and dynamic safety, honest workers compensation & other ancillary benefits that accrue to the industry and the community; vs poor pay, little to no benefits, under/mis classification and/or 1099’s and the total abuse of  workers compensation in the non-union. Building Trades union would have to be 158% to 214% more productive, day in and out, to overcome these cost differences. If you are waiting for legislative relief to address these problems – without an increase in members and money – it’s not going to happen. If we continue to ”sell” this as a business proposition vs. standing up for workers’ rights and the middle class, then we will become the working poor!
Unions are safer –Yes we are & we report & act on safety to improve on it. Reality check is that non/anti-union either under report, or don’t report injuries and safety violations. Keep in mind that 85% of the construction world is fine with that. We can’t offset both poor safety and the total abuse of workers comp with increased production. The numbers/cost simply does not work! Safety has to be imposed on the work site, on behalf of the workers, and historically unions are the instrument for imposing worker safety on the job. At the end of the day, union work sites are safer, and that is imposed, not sold!

The Building Trades are highly skilled – YES!

Reality check, we are quickly moving into a time where skills will count for less & less because of technology & modularization. Increasingly production, fabrication & manufacturing will produce the majority of pre-built components for construction projects of all types. We are already behind the organizing curve organizing these entities. Also the reality is all of the Building Trades training modules are available for free to anyone who wants them, so why would you pay for a formal apprenticeship? Training is not keeping pace with the 21st century, while some components of training require “hands on” the reality is most training can be done online and protected to the degree possible. The rapidly changing design of construction systems, underlying warranties & liabilities currently militate against the current form of training.

The Building Trades is keeping up with technology. 

Reality check is that is ABSOLUTELY NOT THE CASE!
Priority 1 is advancing our signatory contractors in the market, we can do that – we are not! We still are dabbling with inter & intra union website BS, which by the way we suck at!
Labor/Management advances the union construction industry. Reality check is where are the real “net” numbers that demonstrate that? This may have been a worthwhile endeavor, however it is unions selling to unions – bottom line! The ROI is the ROI, tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars invested of member’s hard earned money for a collapsing market share!
Keep in mind “little items” such as withdrawal liability, Obamacare for our H&W, RTW, Prevailing Wage etc…
If we continue “selling” the “Value on Display” message when no one is buying – how much longer do we have before this becomes a “hard” lesson learned?
Organize and stay the hell out of the NLRB and get off playing on the other guys field. We need hard increased numbers to solve the issues of the day & the power and leverage to be viable in the future. Organize 21st Century style!
 “if you see a good fight – get in it”


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Call for a Second Operation Dixie

 There are no fortresses for labor; no metaphorical stone walls that we can shelter ourselves behind to try and ride out the onslaught. MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer of the North Carolina AFL-CIO, said that we must “Organize the South or Die,” and she is absolutely correct. The fact of the matter is that without a deliberate, concerted effort to organize in the states of the old Confederacy, there will not be a labor movement worth speaking of within the next ten years, and all the gains for working people that brave men and women fought and bled and died for over the past century will be clawed back by rapacious corporate oligarchs bent on societal domination.
The notion that this is a crisis is massively underselling the problems facing labor, both organized and unorganized, right now. The destruction of PATCO, the air traffic controllers union, in 1981 was a crisis. The passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement through a unified Democratic federal government in 1993 was a crisis. The recent “Civil Wars in American Labor” between the Service Employees International Union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers, and UNITE HERE were a crisis. What the union movement faces right now is not a crisis, it is nothing less than a threat to the existence of unions in their present form, and with that comes a threat to the very basic minimums all workers in the United States can rely upon.

As we discussed in our previous piece, there is a cultural void in the South when it comes to labor. What we didn’t do is go into detail on why that is. There is a long and ignoble tradition in the South of active repression of workers organizing. Much of this tradition was exercised against the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the largest unionization drive in the South to date: Operation Dixie.
Operation Dixie was conceived because of a problem that may sound familiar to many today: companies were shifting their operations from the heavily unionized North and Midwest to the South, where unionism had comparatively not taken hold. The predominant focus of the campaign was on the burgeoning textile industry in the South, which stretched largely from the Carolinas through Alabama, as well as the wood products industry. The CIO committed 250 organizers and around $1 million in 1946 (about $12 million in 2013) to set about attacking the largest firms and the most recalcitrant workers within those firms. The organizers came from across the industrial spectrum, and the citizens’ committees were surprisingly diverse for the times, including workers from across the racial barrier, religious leaders, and recent veterans of World War II. It was a campaign that held much promise, and a victory in Operation Dixie would go a long way towards building a powerful labor movement in every corner of America. However, while there were some successes in organizing tobacco workers and workers in other smaller industries, the effort to unionize the textile and wood products industries were largely dead by the end of 1946.

Where did Operation Dixie go wrong? How did it fail? The biggest reason for its failure was the lack of preparation for the power of the business-carceral alliance: the cooperation between law enforcement and industry whose primary purpose was preventing the ability of their workers to collectively bargain. This alliance worked in numerous ways; the detaining of organizers, the harassment of pro-union workers, and the refusal to prosecute crimes committed against both groups (even murder) created an atmosphere of fear that kept many workers from signing up for the union from fear that they would be placed in the crosshairs of this powerful alliance. The organizing of workers across racial lines also caused problems, with the interracial organizing that was occurring being compared to a Communist takeover of Southern industry. Red-baiting was frequently deployed by the business-carceral alliance…and the American Federation of Labor (AFL).
Another obstacle to organizing in the South was the conservative AFL, which used Red-baiting tactics later seen by the likes of U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) in order to turn public opinion against the CIO’s organizers. Interestingly enough, at same time that then-AFL President William Green was using Red-baiting and race-baiting to halt the CIO’s progress in the South, he steadfastly refused to assist the Florida labor federations’ attempt to stop the first right-to-work statute in the United States from becoming law in 1946. Green’s tepidness in Florida combined with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act made it more difficult to sustain the successes that the CIO managed to wring out, as right-to-work laws spread like a fever across the South. The final reason that this did not come to pass is a simple one: a lack of resources. The amount of money and organizers committed to this project was tepid at best, and in many places, the union’s presence was stretched thin while it weathered attacks from the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the AFL at the same time. When the CIO’s balance sheet for Operation Dixie showed a deep hue of red, resources were cut back dramatically and eventually ended, as was the campaign itself.

There is so much more that can (and will) be said about Operation Dixie, but that will be at a later date. What we need to talk about is labor’s future in the South. In the wake of the recently-passed Resolutions #16 and #26 at the 2013 AFL-CIO Convention, it’s clear that the movement grasps the need to build power in the South and is willing to contemplate significant action to do so.

What is needed is nothing less than a bigger, modern-day Operation Dixie. Anything less would make these resolutions paper tigers: fine rhetoric that has been heard before with no chances taken or resources committed behind it. In some ways, the plan we propose is even more ambitious than the original Operation Dixie:
  • The AFL-CIO should, over a six month ramp-up period, hire one thousand organizers, half drawn from existing rank-and-file activists, half drawn from young activists who support the kind of worker self-determination that the AFL-CIO ultimately stands for. This massive hiring would exhaust the supply of organizers with union experience looking for work. Other organizers, such as those with experience doing field work for Democratic political campaigns or those who have worked for public interest research groups (PIRGs), would be a good place to staff up once all experienced union organizers were brought on board. However, all people hired for this project who have not either been a rank-and-file activist or on staff as an organizer for a union would have to go through a training run by the Organizing Institute to guarantee a minimum of capability.
  • Experienced organizers already working for AFL-CIO affiliates or with extensive experience in the movement would be shifted over or hired on to this project to provide day-to-day supervision of this cadre of activists, with regular local oversight of this project performed by the Central Labor Council (CLC) of the area it is operating in. The reason for the CLC performing oversight is twofold: it allows international unions, through their locals, to ensure their specific concerns with regards to this project are addressed regularly, and it allows union workers direct oversight over this work, as CLCs are the most elemental representative body within the movement.
  • Once this project reaches 85% staffing levels, the AFL-CIO would commit to keeping the resources for this effort in place for no less than four years, after which the Executive Council would decide to re-authorize, modify, or end this project in its current form.
  • Successful organizing campaigns would initially form locals that directly affiliate with the AFL-CIO. Once the first contract is negotiated by this local, it would choose an international to affiliate with, preferably with an international that has experience in the industry they are working in.
  • The South would be divided up into seven regions and would have seven regional offices from which this project would be directed for the duration, with other offices opened as organizing campaigns dictate. The headquarters for this effort would be in Atlanta, GA, and that office would oversee the operation across Georgia. Other regional offices would be based in Raleigh, NC (covering North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia), Birmingham, AL (covering Alabama and Mississippi), Tampa, FL (covering Florida), Baton Rouge, LA (covering Louisiana and Arkansas), Nashville, TN (covering Kentucky and Tennessee), and Austin, TX (covering Texas).
  • The importance of developing relationships with community groups is difficult to overstate. As such, this project would work to cultivate relationships with faith leaders, local environmental organizations, and other progressive political organizations in the South to address the needs of workers outside of the workplace and in their homes and neighborhoods. It would also work to shepherd the expansion of alt-labor groups like Working America in the places where it’s operating.
This is a monumental undertaking, and it will mean other worthy efforts will go under-resourced while this project is operating, but there is no other way forward. With a Democratic President, a Democratic House, and a Democratic Senate, we could not get the Employee Free Choice Act through at the federal level, and anti-union policies continue to advance through state legislatures. Unless we rebuild our power in a big way, there is no way forward for any of the significant improvements to public policy that the labor movement would like to see. Everything from an increase in the minimum wage to labor law reform will rot in committee while things get worse for working people in this country.

We make this proposal knowing full well the kind of resources it will take to carry this monumental effort forward. However, the time for quarter-assing things has long since passed and the hour is late for labor. It takes bold moves to counter bold foes, and foes like Art Pope, David and Charles Koch, Eli Broad, and the Walton family are nothing if not bold. The only alternative to a monumental effort like the one we are outlining is a too-timid outing that will only delay and not reverse (or even arrest) the labor movement’s accelerating decline into extinction.

Crossposted from The South Lawn  

Sources for historical info on Operation Dixie:
Griffith, Barbara S. The Crisis of American Labor: Operation Dixie and the Defeat of the CIO. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988. Print.
Goldfield, Michael. “Race and the CIO: The Possibilities for Racial Egalitarianism During the 1930s and 1940s.” International Labor and Working Class History 44 (1993): 1-32. Print.
Gall, Gilbert J. “Constant Vigilance: The Heritage of the AFL’s Response to Right to Work Legislation.” Labor Studies Journal 9.2 (1984): 190-202. Print.
Fones-Wolf, Elizabeth, and Ken Fones-Wolf. “Sanctifying the Southern Organizing Campaign: Protestant Activists in the CIO’s Operation Dixie.” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas 6.1 (2009): 5-32. Print.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Danger of "Trickle down" Change.

The challenge facing the 2013 AFLCIO convention is not acknowledging the crisis or being willing to discuss solutions. The preconvention discussion has been exceptionally open and steered towards finding ambitious solutions to the myriad problems labor faces (even some frank discussion of the peril of failing to organize the south). I couldn't help be be disappointed with how little of the discussion was geared toward breaking employer resistance to organizing, but in general most people's contributions came from a place of an acknowledgment of the depth of the crisis and deep anxiety over how to make changes that would lead to labor's revitalization.

Fundamentally, the AFL-CIO's main challenge lies in driving titanic changes in the way it and it's affiliates operates to ensure any changes decided upon don't end up in an unused powerpoint on a jumpdrive somewhere or only bought into by a minority of exceptional affiliates. Without a well thought out approach to implementing the decisions made at the convention and ensuring the buy in of the maximum number of affiliates, the impact of any change that is accomplished will be stunted and limited once again to a far too narrow group of affiliates, labor councils and state feds.

This year's AFL-CIO convention opens on what could only be considered a high note considering the crisis of labor. The struggle against a low wage economy took center stage last week beginning with a strike by Port Truckers protesting being paid poverty wages for transporting goods out of the ports of Long Beach, and ended with a strike by fast food workers in over 60 cities around the country. This week Wal-Mart workers took actions in 15 cities with over one hundred people being arrested across the country after issuing them an ultimatum to stop retaliating against workers for organizing and to increase pay to a living wage.

While two of the three campaigns are sponsored by Change to Win affiliated unions and one by another that just re affiliated to the AFL (UFCW), these campaigns all had critical characteristics that are essential to the revitalization of our movement and are thus are worthy of more than a thought by those attending the convention next week:

 Organizing to Scale - The campaigns are all large scale in conception and seek to transform entire markets or industries that are critical to breaking into historically anti-union strongholds.

Comprehensive Strategic campaigns - The Campaigns were based on a well thought out strategy based on mobilizing a multi prong attack on a given target using public opinion, political pressure, community mobilization, and most of all direct action to exert pressure on the targeted company/sector.

Militancy and Boldness - The direct action in the campaigns rested on the willingness of groups of workers (of various size) to boldly confront the employer or group of employers themselves through varying forms of direct action such as strikes, marches on the boss, flashmobs and other creative tactics. A break from the past corporate campaign approach that exerted almost exclusively outside pressure.

The convention is an ideal opportunity for the rest of the labor movement and its allies to take stock of these events and incorporate the positive lessons into this weeks discussions of how labor can turn around its fortunes. The proposed convention resolutions are ambitious and clearly aim having a rich discussion on substantive changes to how the AFL-CIO and it's affiliates operate in today's reality.

Regardless of how rich the discussion is and how many solutions are developed, the chief weakness that the AFL-CIO must grapple with and overcome in order for its week of deliberations to have any meaningful impact on our future is how to move its program among affiliates. Historically, programs rolled out at AFL conventions are adopted in practice by the state affiliates and labor councils to greater or lesser degrees along with a minority of forward-thinking, progressive minded unions that are the ones influencing the direction of the discussion in the first place. This was true when the Sweeney program rolled out the focus on organizing that the AFL-CIO enacted in the mid to late 90's and the adoption of comprehensive immigration reform as a strategic goal since 2000.  Compelling affiliates to buy into and move a transformative program within its own top-heavy structures will be critical to ensuring that whatever plans that are adopted at this years convention become a true program for the vast majority of the labor movement that resides within the AFL to act upon.

The federal and voluntaristic nature of the AFL has been a longstanding impediment to the mobilizing capacity of the 12 million member organization and was one of the points of contention that were part of the debate that led to the split in the AFL that formed Change to Win. Certain key affiliates have built dynamic organizing programs that were supported, re enforced, and in many cases driven by AFL labor councils and state Federations, these efforts have more times than not failed to gain traction among the leaders or members of the majority of the affiliated unions. The result has been that labor councils and State Feds are loose federated bodies that mirror the structure at the top and are reliant on a minority of dynamic and visionary affiliated unions for capacity and resources with participation of other affiliates being sporadic at best.

Even into the lead-up to the convention, support has inconsistent at best among affiliates for all of the campaigns mentioned earlier and participation in street mobilizations continue to have the sense of a routine with the "usual suspects" showing up. In conversations with leaders of local affiliates you still get the feeling they they still haven't fully wrapped their heads around the fact that they are truly fight for the lives of their organizations

The convention is unlikely to be able to overcome the historic shortcomings of the entire labor movement, no matter how high the stakes and under even the best conditions. With that being said, the possibility of a larger groups of leaders coming out of this convention feeling compelled to take decisive action is a real possibility. It will be up to the most forward thinking leaders to take the momentum of this years convention to cajole, push, pull, and where necessary, demand that other leaders step up to the plate mobilize their memberships and throw themselves and the full resources of their respectable organizations into saving the American Labor movement and themselves in the process.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Building Fortresses or Tearing Down Walls? Thoughts on "Fortress Unionism"

Abandoned Fortress
Rather than scaling back and holing up in our strongholds as advocated in "Fortress Unionism", labor should be focused on tearing down the barriers obstructing workers' ability to organize in whatever form that is.

Rather than curling up in the fetal position hoping to survive the body blows, labor should launch broad campaigns that employ tactics aimed at pushing back on or circumventing exclusion from the right to bargain a contract and employer intimidation.

"Fortress Unionism" gives readers a crash course on the history of labor's decline from it's explosive growth in the 30's and the powerful upsurge of offensive strikes and organizing that ensued in the postwar period. Fear of labor's power provoked a swift and unyielding push to pass the Taft-Hartley Act which provided the seeds of labor's slide towards conservatism, capitulation to reactionary politics, stagnation and eventual decline. "Fortress Unionism's other great strength is the sobriety with which Yeselson looks at labor's dire straights and how deep and fundamentally existential this crisis is.

Yeselson moves on to outline a few main fundamentals of what he calls "Fortress Unionism":

Defend the remaining high-density regions, sectors, and companies.

Strengthen existing union locals.

Ask one key question about organizing drives: Will they increase the density or power of existing strongholds? 

Sustain coalition work with other progressive organizations. 

Invest heavily in alt-labor organizations, especially Working America.
 The last action the Yeselson proposes we carry out? :

 And then…wait. Wait for the workers to say they’ve had enough. When they demand in vast numbers collective solutions to their problems, seize upon that energy and institutionalize it.
I encourage people to take the time to read Yeselson's piece in it's entirety. The proposal made is one that flows from a a deep analysis and a sober critique of labor's strategic weaknesses. In the end though, Fortress Unionism's proposals would not only not aid in labor surviving it's crisis, it would likely result exacerbating labor's decline .

(Point of clarity: I should have been more explicit here about what parts of Yeselson's piece I agree with. I basicall agree with him on his proposals around ALT-Labor, strengthening local unions, and conceptually around building alliances with progressives. I do however not agree we should shrink into the background though to allow the progressives to be in the spotlight.)

"Fortress Unionism" is based on the premise that the root cause of why we cannot turn labor's fortunes around is that even with the development of innovative tactics aimed at organizing large swaths of workers,  labor cannot organize workers in large enough numbers for it to stop its decline and grow. Yeselson asserts that currently workers do not want to be organized and that we should protect our organizations where we have density and power and hold on to what we have until workers decide they want to be in unions again. This is where we part ways.

I have no idea what data Yeselson uses to back up this assertion that workers are "uninterested" in joining unions. I can only say that polling consistently indicates that workers would join unions if given an opportunity with the main obstacles being fear of management retaliation and/or exclusion from the NLRA. I also know for a fact that my union receives several calls a week of inquiries about how to join the union. The chief reason we never hear back from these workers is fear and disillusionment in the process of organizing under a gutted NLRA,  not lack of interest. Workers want to improve their lives or in many cases be able to hold on to what they have. Our dilemma is that labor lacks the capacity and a viable strategy that could lead to organizing on the scale necessary to prove to workers that they can win improvements without losing their jobs.

Our metric for success going forward should be our ability to find a path to worker organization and our ability to break through the two primary barriers to it, employer intimidation and broken labor law. Where we cannot immediately implement a campaign that results in a contract at a given employer, labor must create vehicles for those workers to begin organizing around their issues and create a way for them to join the labor movement immediately. This may be through the formation of affiliated associations, minority union organizing committees, or opening the door wholesale to workers joining existing unions as associate members and assisting them in building organizations at work labor can and must creatively look at ways to break out of the self imposed limitations of only allowing workers to join their unions once they have a contract.

Yeselson's critique of comprehensive campaigns has merit insofar that they have not resulted in organizing breakthroughs on sufficient scale that would stem labor's hemorrhaging of members. I find it hard to reject comprehensive campaigns when the overwhelming majority of unions have failed to employ them as a strategy or much less have any sort of coherent strategy to tackle their respective jurisdictions. It would be helpful if we were critiquing labor as a whole acknowledging its crisis and operating at full throttle to employ every tactic at its disposal to organize, but that is not the case.Given that comprehensive campaigns have not been dis-proven in their efficacy and that  there is still a possibility and need to organize workers who are not excluded from the NLRA,  comprehensive campaigns still have their place as one weapon in labor's arsenal.

Yeselson is correct that worker organization only grows in a qualitative "leaps" in periods of increased social struggle and that it is these types of struggles that generate pro-worker reforms. The problem is that increased and sustained struggle by workers has never been spontaneous. The upheavals of the 1930s and post war period were the product of intense long-term organizing both on the shop floor and in the streets by socialists, communists and other radicals of various stripes . With the formation of the CIO a vehicle was created that opened the floodgates allowing workers to form permanent organizations by the tens of thousands. Workers in the 1930's didn't just spontaneously "rise up" and nor will they now or in the future.

People stopped using fortresses for a reason
The fundamental problem with "fortresses" is that while they may be useful to establish and hold territory, they can also prove to be deathtraps for one's forces if they are not supplemented by a broader strategy. If encircled, fortresses allow the enemy the luxury of launching sustained attacks on a fixed position and eventually wearing down the defenses.

This analogy holds true with "Fortress Unionism". Retreating to the increasingly small number of cities or companies where labor has enough density to hold sway means abdicating entire regions of the country and  virtually the entire service economy. The result will be retreating from some of the most innovative organizing currently taking place as well as allowing our enemies to further strengthen their own "fortresses"  from which to attack working people ie. low density cities, states, and industries and continue the "War on Workers" that began in Wisconsin. These areas of relative strength should instead be used as "bases" from which labor launches "attacks" on the fortresses of the enemy and to strengthen and assist forces who are trapped "behind enemy lines".

Workers want to to find a way to improve their lives now more than ever. It is our duty as strategists and organizers to assist them in finding a way to break through the obstacles preventing them from self organizing, not to retreat out of a false sense of self preservation. There is no other option but to find a way to fight. The alternative is defeat.