September 01, 2014

#LaborDay — dying unions ignored by #neoliberal Democrats

That's the simple story — the Republicans, never organized labor's allies (though Robert Taft tried to modify his signature Taft-Hartley Act before he died) don't care, and now, "free trade" social interest group Democrats don't care, either.

But, the reality of the story is a bit more complex. And, today's the day to look at all of it.

Yes, Labor Day is more than a day for a picnic or a barbecue. It's a day to remember the advances of organized labor in the past and its declines today.

It's also a day to remember why those declines have happened — including fingering organized labor's own share of responsibility.

First, a couple of today's anti-worker issues.

Wage theft, from hourly employees,  but also to salaried persons, is becoming ever more common.

And, its methodology grows.

The story notes reclassification of workers as independent contractors, a practice that continues to grow, and in my profession, at daily newspapers, is highly stressful. That delivery driver who throws your paper? He or she is an independent contractor, not a newspaper employee. And, at a daily newspaper, responsible for finding a replacement if sick, wanting any vacation, etc. Remember, a seven-day daily paper gets thrown every day. Think about that next time you hear the phrase "liberal media."

Another trick, seemingly new in the mode of execution, is an electronic version of pencil-whipping time cards.

That said, the penalties, under statutes like the National Labor Relations Act, are usually weak, limited to no more than back pay, possibly with interest.

So, this:
Michael Rubin, one of the lawyers who sued Schneider, disagreed, saying there are many sound wage claims. “The reason there is so much wage theft is many employers think there is little chance of getting caught,” he said.

And, that's the case.

Or, as Harold Meyerson notes in a must read, there's little penalty: 
To get some perspective on how negligible such penalties may be, one just has to look at the 2007 unionization campaign at the Yale–New Haven Hospital, conducted outside the framework of the NLRA. An independent arbitrator ruled that management had committed numerous fair-practice violations and fined the hospital $4.5 million. During the decade of 2000–2009, by contrast, the total of all fines levied nationally by the NLRB for illegal punishment of workers for their union activity came to $36 million, or $3.6 million a year.
That said, wage and hour problems, and the problems of unionization in general, have been almost as bad under Democratic presidents as Republican ones.

It would be easy to blame globalization, given a mix of GOP and neoliberal Democrats in the White House but Meyerson says, not so fast:
(G)lobalization by itself doesn’t necessarily lead to a weakened labor movement and declining worker income. If it did, unionized German manufacturing workers would not enjoy pay and benefits that exceed those of Americans even as their country has become the export giant of the Western world. Because unions are more powerful in Germany than they are in the U.S., and because German law requires large companies to divide their corporate boards equally between workers’ and management’s representatives, multinationals like Siemens, Daimler, and BMW have kept their most highly productive and best-paid jobs at home. Only where corporations have been free to structure globalization to their workers’ disadvantage—that is, in the United States—has it led to massive union decline.
That said, while Tony Blair promoted the "Third Way of new Labour and neoliberalism, Germany's Gerhard Schroeder resisted. But, the Social Democrats are out in Germany and have been for several years, while in France, François Hollande's Socialists look like they will start treading that path.

But labor's woes go beyond globalization, or beyond that and weak domestic labor laws.

And, it's not just that neoliberal Democrats focus on a couple of hot-button social issues to fluff Hollywood and Silicon Valley donors, even while Silicon Valley is relentlessly anti-union, though that is a problem itself.

Beyond that, those neolibs are moving into big-city municipal government, not just the White House and statehouses:
Already, some Democratic mayors, among them Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel and Newark’s Cory Booker, are building coalitions that array their city’s corporate elites and minority communities against their cities’ unions. 
It's really not the "minority communities," it's the "top minority 'players'" who claim to represent "minority communities," which itself illustrates another problem with modern interest-group Democratic Party "liberalism."

That said, there's plenty of neolib Democrats in statehouses, too:
Even in such progressive bastions as California or New York, there’d be no guarantee that Governor Jerry Brown, who vetoed a card-check bill for California farmworkers last year, or Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has cultivated an adversarial relationship with many of New York’s unions, would be inclined to make it easier for workers to organize in the private sector. 
The Green Party, on paper, talks about worker empowerment, better wages, etc. However, Greens, or lowercase greens or environmentalists, have often long been skittish about unions.

Unions used to represent heavy industry — big polluters whose workers always sided with their bosses on environmental issues. And, as Meyerson notes, unions were staunchly pro-war in Vietnam, and arguably, by the reception George W. Bush got at Ground Zero after 9/11, still more pro-war than the Democratic Party in general in the current century. (That's ignoring the AFL-CIO's history of being in bed abroad with the CIA any time the CIA wanted an anti-Communist labor front in a country it was trying to destabilize for allegedly being Communist.)

Meyerson notes that the war, and lack of labor organization today, is unions shooting themselves in the foot. That said, he misses one bigger issue which ties to today: national health care.

Harry Truman was the first president to make a bid for that. Everybody knows that the American Medical Organization and big business were two legs of the "stool" opposing him. The third?

Organized labor. It saw generous private-sector health benefits as a prime union recruitment tool. This is of a straight-line connection with the AFL-CIO being suckers for anti-Communism claims, of opposing environmentalists any time they wanted factories to get cleaner, and more.

In the U.S., traditional blue-collar unions have often been as capitalistic as their employees. They've focused on wage and hour gains first, work safety a fairly distant second, and broader employment-related quality of life issues a distant third. Walter Reuther and his emphasis on backing the civil rights movement was the exception far more than the rule.

Indeed, the development of Labor Day, rather than May Day, as the "workingman's day" in the US, argues for that. May Day, which of course had been a pagan Germano-Celtic holiday for centuries, either Beltane or Walpurgis Nacht, was made the International Workers Day in Europe in 1886 — precisely because of the Haymarket Riot of May 4, 1886.

Who made it that? Per Wikipedia:

May 1 was chosen as the date for International Workers' Day by the Socialists and Communists of the Second International to commemorate the Haymarket affair in Chicago that occurred on May 4, 1886.
There you go — a commemoration of the workers, by the workers, for the workers.

That's what it's largely continued to be. And, it's been "maintained" better as such than Labor Day here in America.

Over here, it's a different story. American workers apparently never appreciated what a handshake of solidarity European workers were offering. (Canadian workers do; even though Labour Day is the official holiday, unions generally celebrate May Day more.)

The U.S. Labor Day? Entirely different. Also per Wikipedia:
Labor Day was promoted by the Central Labor Union and the Knights of Labor, who organized the first parade in New York City. After the Haymarket Massacre, which occurred in Chicago on May 4, 1886, U.S. President Grover Cleveland feared that commemorating Labor Day on May 1 could become an opportunity to commemorate the affair. Thus, in 1887, it was established as an official holiday in September to support the Labor Day that the Knights favored.
Did organized Labor in the U.S. have to agree to this date? No. But it did, instead of celebrating May Day and telling Grover Cleveland to go fuck himself.

Now, wage-and-hour gains are fine, when that's the primary need. But, rather than fighting for table scraps from someone else's power, American unions could have been doing more, and different.

The recent Volkswagen of America union rejection vote brought up the issue that, in Germany, labor representatives get seats on the company's boards of directors. Why didn't George Meany work for that in the 1950s or ’60s? Why didn't he campaign for Americans to get minimum paid vacation rights, and for them to get a third week of paid time guaranteed after either so many years with a company, or in the workforce in general?

Because, the restlessness and workaholism that's in the corporate DNA of many a  company and company CEO is still too embedded in too much of American unionism, especially that of the old industrial unions.

Walter Reuther, just like his French auto labor counterparts, may have read Sartre or Camus, but, I don't think nearly the same percentage of American line workers did, as did their French counterparts. Probably, 40 years ago, hardhats would have called "quality of life" a Communist issue or something.

So, Meyerson probably didn't go quite far enough. If American unionism is to be revitalized, the old building may need to be razed. And the old foundations may need to be blown up along with that.

That all said, I have some personal background for commenting on all of this.

I've never belonged to a union, but I would have no problem joining one as part of a job.

That said, as an adjunct college instructor, I taught at a place in Michigan called Baker College. It had a separate division called "Corporate Services," which was really "UAW Services." Almost every person in every class I taught was a union member trying to get a college degree to do something — to do anything — before the next layoff. The few exceptions were people promoted from the line to white-collar salaried engineering jobs, still in auto plants.

I had not just union workers but one steward, at Flint Truck and Bus, in my classes. We talked, outside of class — and inside of the sociology class I taught — about union sociology issues. 

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