Little Rock Reading about the second battle of Wisconsin between labor and Governor Scott Walker and his Republican colleagues, who four years ago stripped public workers’ unions in that state of the ability to collect agency fees or “fair share” payments in lieu of dues for representation, it seems they are making short work of getting rid of the same “union shop” provisions for private sector workers, adding Wisconsin to the list of “right to work” states.Unions are protesting loudly there, but seem resigned to the inevitability of defeat. No doubt tipping Wisconsin will embolden other politicians waiting in line to
kick unions on their way down.
Labor is starting to piece together of chain of similar setbacks. Last year home health care workers in Illinois, long members of our old sister local there, lost union shop provisions after an adverse US Supreme Court ruling.There has not been the immediate ripple effect that might have occasioned that reversal, but it is a sleeper bomb embedded in the memories of our opponents waiting for the opportunity to explode.
Over the last year visiting with union leaders and organizers in the United Kingdom, I sometimes found myself musing privately on the strategic and tactical thinking of labor in that country when they lost the union shop under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and then never made regaining that system a key item when the Labor Party held the chair for long years under Tony Blair or Gordon Brown.Victor Bussie, the former president of the Louisiana AFL-CIO for seemingly forever was the longest serving such officer at the state level in the labor movement and the only one dating back to the merger of the CIO and the AFL in the last 1950s. In annual convention after convention when Bussie would stand for election, he would say he was committed to staying in office until he
was able to win back the union shop that was lost in 1976 when Louisiana became the last state to fall into that column.
It now seems to me that that maybe our brothers and sisters got it right in the UK. Having weathered the storm, lost members, and survived, why jump back on that horse to see it race back and forth with each change of government when you are in a fight for the long haul. Maybe even Brother Bussie also could have spent his time better? Some union organizers in the UK even prefer the new system, including alternate non-employer based dues collection procedures in organizing a workforce no longer chained to the bench for life.
We may have simply lost the messaging battle on this campaign irrevocably. As our membership percentage declines and unions are seen as a luxury benefit rather than a necessity for many on the job, then membership becomes more understandable as a voluntary choice than a mandatory obligation and the explanation for using management to help collect a union’s dues becomes a bridge too far for the public and even
for many workers.
Where we can get it, we should use it, but now that corporate and political forces are preparing as we see in Texas, Oklahoma, and elsewhere to take the fight past right-to-work to eliminate the ability to use payroll deductions completely, we need to embrace the position of people like the GMB’s organizing director who argued to me that they preferred direct dues payments from individual’s bank accounts to payroll deductions.
In our union we are going to stop enrolling members unless they are signing two places on the card, one for payroll deduction and one for direct bank drafts.It is a herculean task and investment to re-sign everyone from one system to another, but it is a much simpler matter to enroll members in a different way from the beginning. Once joining, it is a trivial matter for a new recruit to sign twice, because they have made the key decision once that they want to be in the union.
The tide is going out and it may never come back to shore. Unions need to be careful not to be stranded on the beach all alone like Robinson Crusoe on their own private and deserted island.
Houston The headlines on the attack on workers and their unions has recently been written in the Midwest. An attempt to follow-up in Wisconsin on the stripping of union protections for public workers now finds the legislature there pile driving a so-called right-to-work bill that would strip unions of vital resources for representation requirements and services. Having spent hours in the Houston Local 100 office poring over a bill introduced in this session of the Texas legislature that could, if passed, and if passed in the current form, attack public workers at all levels state, counties, cities, and schools by eliminating any authority for payroll dues deductions for workers to their unions, it is important to realize that some of the highly publicized fights are just the tip of the iceberg as these concerted union attacks continue below the water line to eviscerate unions in areas of the country where workers are most beleaguered.
The New York Times reported a story recently about the coordinated efforts of many Republican controlled state legislatures to use a “preemption” strategy at the behest of industry and particularly the Koch Brothers’ funded ALEC conservative bill-writing factory to take away governing discretion at the local level that Republican business donors were finding obnoxious. The headline cases were the Denton, Texas city council outlawing fracking there down to whether or not the Fort Worth Mayor and Council could regulate the environmental damage from plastic bags. The story cited the longstanding preemption efforts in many states to eliminate the ability of cities to set their own minimum wage standards that began in the 1990’s with the Local 100 and ACORN’s ballot measure in Houston to raise the minimum wage as well as in New Orleans and Denver. Of course New Mexico, where cities have continued to retain that right, is a heavily targeted area for business now.
Perhaps we should not have been surprised in this dark and polarized climate to find bills with identical numbers introduced in both Texas and Oklahoma that would eliminate all abilities for worker requests for payroll dues deductions to be honored by public employers. The Oklahoma bill is only different from Texas in the fact that it is plainer spoken and just waves the mighty wand of the state to make all deductions disappear. In Texas, the language meanders around trickier pathways because there is more to unravel since some cities, particularly Houston, have opened the door to more direct negotiations with the HOPE coalition of city unions connected to SEIU and AFSCME, and they wanted to tiptoe a bit more around police and fire unions that bankrolled some of their buddies. Nonetheless, talking to our Austin-based attorney, Doug Young, every time we thought we might have found some wiggle room, he pointedly assured us it was legally locked down tighter than a bank vault.
Of course if something as draconian as these bills passes and becomes law, there are recourses in court based on the first amendment and our freedoms of association and the equal protection measures that frown on discrimination of our organizations, but that means years in court and uncertain results. One outcome will be certain, if such overreaching legislation is approved, there will be even weaker unions in states that are already notorious for the weakness of unions.
I am reminded of two things. One is the way that business and industry used a Lake Charles oil refinery strike to raise the temperature enough to win right-to-work legislation in Louisiana in 1976, and now the fact that the same effort is underway in the oil patch states while oil refinery workers are on a very well run and smart strike around safety conditions throughout Texas, Louisiana, and other states. The other thing that hits hard is my own advocacy of wider worker organization using direct dues collection outside of employer permissions to build strong and sustainable organizations like our 35,000 member union of hawkers in Bengaluru and Chennai in India.
Nonetheless it is one thing to have alternative organizing and dues collection methodology. It is quite another to be forced in that direction with no alternatives, and that seems to potentially be our future in the current anti-union assaults in the southwest, and likely throughout the southern states.
Rage Against the Machine’s “Bulls on Parade” Live at the WGA Writers Strike (some explicit content)
Houston One of the largest and best known ways that workers are ripped off is known euphemistically as “classification,” meaning whether a worker is classified as an employee or an independent subcontractor. The Department of Labor has largely failed to police this area effectively which has led to an accelerating rate of casual or contingent employment in recent decades under the rubric of the self-employed or independent subcontractors or freelancers or whatever you may want to call them. Some are now arguing there may be hope for some of these workers because there is a new sheriff in town because of the heightened scrutiny forced under the mandatory coverage provisions of the Affordable Care Act, and, big drum-roll, it’s the IRS to the rescue of workers. Who would have ever thought it? Is this hope or hype though?
The reason and wherefore is straightforward. Employers with more than fifty (50) workers have to provide health care. Not surprisingly a lot of employers would just as soon noodle around that magic number and many have talked plainly about how they might be able to reclassify enough of their workers as part time or subcontractors to put their direct workforce to below the fifty worker requirement.
It goes without saying that employers have a lot of incentives to cheat their workers, not just on health insurance. As contractors, a worker is responsible for their own social security, Medicare payments, and regular taxes. As direct employees, a worker matches only half of such payroll based taxes and their bosses pay the other half.
The IRS told the New York Times though that they were going to handle this classification concern through their “employment tax examination program” and a form, the SS-8. Frankly, that doesn’t sound like a new sheriff at all. That sounds like a rent-a-cop driving around the neighborhood that never gets out of their cars in an urban fake policing security scheme. It reminds me of when the IRS had the responsibility of making sure that household domestic workers were actually paid the federal minimum wage beginning in 1978 and had social security paid for their labor. Our Household Workers Organizing Committee in New Orleans successfully sued the IRS for enforcement of the minimum wage at least for the few brave souls paying social security taxes, but even that was a fight to win in the settlement. And, decades later it’s still honored more in the breach as millions of informal workers are paid less than the minimum with no benefits.
This problem urgently needs to be solved, but so far the IRS as the solution sounds more like hope than it does a plan.
New Orleans I’ve been on the post office bandwagon for some time as a solution for reducing the impact of predatory lending, check cashing, and money transfers or remittances. It seems in the effort to protect jobs, the American Postal Workers Union may be planning to take just this kind of proposal to the bargaining table, which could be a breakthrough if they can get any traction from their bosses.
The heart of their proposal according to a story by David Moberg of In These Times is that post offices are almost everywhere and banks have steadily been deserting a lot of geography in recent decades creating banking “deserts” in many of our communities. According to the research and advocacy organization, United for a Fair Economy, “more than one-quarter of Americans with little or no conventional banking services encompasses 53.6% of black households and 46.8% of Latino households, but only 19.5% of non-Latino white households.” Meanwhile 60% of the post office locations are in areas with at best only one or two banks. Even with massive cutbacks among postal workers, there are still a half-million of them who could handle a lot more than just stamps at the counter.
How radical is this? Not very. For 55 years until 1966, the US Postal Service sold savings bonds that might have had low interest yields but were financially secure and accessible. Many other countries have had postal banks including the United Kingdom and of course Japan which for a long time was the largest savings bank in the world.
In Canada, ACORN has worked closely with the postal unions who have been among our strongest allies in trying to cap the cost of remittances and have joined with us in trying to take over money transfers from the government’s subcontract with MoneyGram. Moberg writes that in the US the APWU has started forging a community-based coalition with National People’s Action, Public Citizen, USAction, and Interfaith Worker Justice. Perhaps we will hear more from all of them soon to advance this proposal.
Let’s hope so. We need a solution here, and pushing the post office into banking for our people could be the stone that kills two birds, offering basic services for working families at affordable prices and saving jobs at the same time. As I’m sure the APWU will say at the table, this is a perfect example of “win-win” bargaining, if we can make it happen.
New Orleans There are no good times to be poor, but these are especially hard times given persistent inequality and distorted public policies that throw a couple of nickels towards lower income families while opening the gateway to millions for those with big money. All of which makes the ACORN victory in what might have seemed a hopeless campaign in British Columbia all the sweeter.
The issue centered on clawbacks, the inelegant, but totally accurate, term for the government forcing a refund from the poor. In this case, we are talking about single mothers on benefit support in British Columbia, Canada. When lightning struck and they received any child support, and throughout the world we know how spotty these collections always are, especially during the recent economic downturn, the government would then clawback an amount of money equal to the child support. All of which insured that the single mom and her children would be frozen in place without much hope of breaking loose from their circumstances. The rank injustice of this hard-hearted austerity measure by the Liberal (which means Conservative) government there became a huge and ongoing campaign by ACORN British Columbia over recent years.
Now with almost a billion dollar surplus ACORN’s tireless campaign and constant actions paid off and stopped the clawbacks, although as always it seems a small refund for us. means a bigger giveaway for upper income families.
The Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s national newspapers, reported on the victory this way:
After sharp and emotional criticism from advocacy groups such as ACORN B.C. over the past year, some of the province’s poorest parents – single mothers on welfare – will now be able to keep the child-support payments from their former partners starting Sept. 1. Each month a single parent with one child is eligible for $945 in income assistance or $1,242 in disability payments. Under the old policy, those cheques are reduced by the amount of any child support received by a former partner….The policy change will return about $13-million over the next year to about 5,400 children in 3,200 families, Finance Ministry officials said. The budget also lets people earn several hundred dollars more before they pay tax on any income more than roughly $19,000.
Vancouver 24 Hours filled in some other blanks in the story quoting Carole James, the opposition critic of the ruling government:
…the NDP applauded government’s elimination of the child support “clawback” that sees amounts deducted if parents also receive income assistance, saying that policy “never should have been there in the first place.” “The credit for that goes entirely to the families who stepped forward and shared their stories. Some of them are here today, and we thank them for their courage for coming forward,” James said. ACORN B.C., which has held demonstrations repeatedly to eliminate the clawback, called it a “huge victory.”
Of course the worm in the apple James also pointed out is what the government did with most of the surplus.
Carole James, New Democrat finance critic, said government gave more to the rich and neglected the poor and middle class. “Government put only $5 million towards tax relief for the very lowest earners in British Columbia, but the wealthiest 2% saw an astounding $230 million in a tax break,” she told the legislature.
ACORN won against all odds by keeping the issue front-and-center, and essentially making it too hard for the government to give more to the rich while literally taking food out of the mouths of single mothers and their children. $13 million to stop the clawbacks, $5 million for low wage workers, and $230 million goes to the richest of the rich in British Columbia, but this is what it takes to win for the poor in these times of expanding inequality, and as every coach – and many an organizer – says, it might not be pretty, but a win is a win, and we’re glad to get it.
Enjoy this live version of Bruce Springsteen singing “Factory”
New Orleans John Bouman, the President of the Sargent Shriver Poverty Law Center based in Chicago was my guest on Wade’s World recently on KABF/FM talking about a number of subjects but especially the handles for pushing nonprofit hospitals to provide care for lower income families as part of their nonprofit status and especially their federal tax exemptions under the 501c3 classification of the Internal Revenue Service. He continues to have hope that the Affordable Care Act can decrease inequality and particularly can advance racial equality since African-Americans and Hispanics have gotten such short shrift from the health care system of the country. He argued vigorously, and correctly, that the Affordable Care Act was the most significant piece of social legislation passed and implemented over the last fifty years.
Bouman mentioned that in Illinois, thanks to unions and community pressure including from the old ACORN affiliates, they had enjoyed a version of the new national rule that forces nonprofit hospitals to actually deliver more free and reduced price health care to lower income families for some years. Their rule seems like it might even be a model for best practices for all of the hospitals now under the federal mandate to produce a rule that would allow them to keep their tax exemptions. The Illinois standard is transparent. A family would be eligible for such care at 200% of the poverty level. I like a “no ifs, ands, and buts” standard, and that’s what we need to push for everywhere. The Illinois standard also was clear about remedial practices before more strenuous collection efforts.
Almost in passing, Bouman mentioned that in Illinois the state and some cities and counties also had the ability to punish hospitals that were scofflaws on the act or really just wolves in the sheep’s clothing of nonprofits. I asked Bouman how could they do that, and he said of course they could take away any local or statewide property or revenue tax exemptions or allowances that they were getting as nonprofits with their charitable status. Whoa, I thought! We had overlooked the obvious handle there that could help us bring the fight to a very local level.
In Louisiana, where we might not have a chance with the state, the local assessors at the parish or county level are elected and often very close to the ground in terms of their responsiveness to community pressure and organizing. Furthermore, there are absolutely property tax exemptions enjoyed by all of the big, and many of the small, tax exempt organizations from the huge outfits like the universities and colleges as well as the small housing operations holding properties for development. Immediately, I could see organizationally how we could challenge a host of property tax exemptions that are worth millions.
In Arkansas, a quick look comes down to a test of how “public” the service or facility might be. My point is that in each state and in many local jurisdictions there might be handles available to increase the pressure for hospitals to do right. The fight itself might be enough to force some change, as we have already seen in the reaction of St. Joseph, Missouri’s Heartland Hospital and its jump to attention when they received an inquiry from Iowa’s Senator Charles Grassley asking them to defend their exemption given their collection practices.
It might be one thing for nonprofit hospitals to turn their backs on community organizations and unions asking about their policies and asking them to do better, but it would be a whole different problem if they had to defend such inadequate programs and cutthroat collection efforts in public before a board of adjustment, an assessor, a tax equalization board or any other public forum.