The Distant Dream of Labor Law Reform

New Orleans   Labor Day marks the end of summer for many in North America. It used to mean the start of school. Some still pause for a minute to remember workers and their unions. A reminder in that regard is the spate of articles and op-eds that harp on these themes.

A couple of law professors, one from Austin and the other from Philadelphia, lobbed a piece of meat into the lion’s den trying to make a case for Democrats to put “labor-law reform at the top of their agenda.” That is so not going to happen, that it’s almost enough to make us move on to greener pastures and fresher topics. That is not to say they are wrong in arguing that the National Labor Relations Act is older than dirt, speaks to a bygone era of the last century, and in desperate need of revision. All true! It is also not to say that anything is going to happen in this area. Any so-called labor law reform in this Congress would be horrific for workers and catastrophic for unions, who are now consensus Enemy Number One for the Republican majority there. At best we can only hope that Democrats in Congress have preventing retreat and revision of labor laws on their agenda, because constructive reform is a distant dream.

Regardless, the professors argue for changes that are harder to achieve because they are policy prescriptions that seek to substitute law for workers power. First, they are fans of multi-employer and bargaining across an entire sector. Some of these measures have been recent targets of French so-called labor reforms. The number of countries where this is common is small and falling. Furthermore, multi-employer bargaining is legal now, as evidenced by the Disney councils in Florida and the Hotel bargaining in New York City among other examples. Sadly unions rarely have the strength these days to demand it. The professors also argue for reforms that “could ensure that organized workers can bargain with the companies that actually profit from their work by expanding the legal definition of employment to cover more categories of workers.” This is a case for moving to the deepest pockets rather than being stuck with the subcontractors as well as piercing the fictions around company-claims of independent subcontractors. This was at the heart of the Justice for Janitors campaigns, where successful in some cities in targeting building owners to win recognition for janitors, grounds workers and security workers, but once again a strategy that largely worked where unions had strength or could leverage companies in multiple markets where there was strength, and not much of anywhere else.

A long and painful story to read recently compared the trajectory of a Kodak janitor who was directly employed by the company who broke through the ceiling and an Apple janitor employed by a subcontractor making over $16 per hour with no chance of ever going so high. Some might recall how fiercely Apple fought Mike Garcia and Jon Barton, the key organizers of what turned out to be a successful SEIU campaign to force the company to hire union contractors against everything the company tried, including their efforts to fabricate a subcontractor with a company union to resist the effort. Subcontracting in the tech and a gazillion other industries is now part of core business models. Reading the story of secondary market auto parts company in Michigan where the beleaguered woman boss bemoaned any ability to pay $15 per hour while she’s paying $9 and $10 in her factory there, painfully underscores the corporate and investor squeeze that makes workers and certainly their unions last on the list. Perhaps it is needless to say that contrary to the professors claim, Fast Food Forward is hardly the precursor of the future with its demands in that industry for $15 and a union, but more likely a flag waving in an increasingly rearguard retreat.

Workers and unions desperately need a hand, but we have a better shot at developing a new organizing model than we have in expecting labor law reform.

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Sorting Out French Labor Law – What a Country!

Plaza in Grenoble

Plaza in Grenoble

Paris   Finishing up my hella-Euro-road trip as the heat hit the 90’s in Grenoble and Paris, I felt like I was catching the last train out of town before the whole country – and in fairness, most of Europe – shut down for the rest of the summer. You notice the small signs when almost every follow-up email is greeted with an auto-return saying, I’ll be back in mid-August or more likely August 29th. Meeting with the Alliance and ReAct staff before leaving Grenoble, my bags were packed, but so, seemingly were many of theirs. Hitting Paris in the attic loft where I stay I had four pages of instructions on how to make sure the house was closed tighter than a drum because they would be out for weeks. Every meeting, ended as we’ll follow up in September. Fascinating! After years of experience with the summer months as primetime for organizing, the notion that I had woken up somewhere between Christmas and New Year’s except it was hotter here! But, hey, viva la difference!

church in Brussels plaza

church in Brussels plaza

I used to write some “notes for my father” on things that he would have found fascinating from my trips abroad, but this time I felt I needed to write a note to myself after the head organizer of ACORN’s French affiliate gave me a short course of French labor law and how it caged organizing and field programs. All staff has a contract. The contracts can be short term for 6 or 12 months, but after several of these short stints, the law requires employees be made permanent or released. Or of course the Holy Grail for workers occurs when you might finally receive an open ended permanent contract. Annually, the head organizer has to do a formal evaluation with the staff members as part of the renegotiation of these contracts. Describing the process, it is definitely a negotiation. Where previously she might have negotiated full time hours from 35 which is the standard work week in France to 39 by paying the premium for those extra hours, staff can propose to go back to 35 and can even make proposals on the content of the work, which for organizers might even mean having to discuss nonnegotiable issues like time on the doors or the number of groups maintained by an organizer. It just takes your breath away! But, as I overheard an organizer in Paris say about the government’s attempts to modify some of these labor laws, “we can’t give away what our grandfathers fought for and won.” Well, you put it like that…

On the other hand, managers may have contracts but in exchange for the discretion and professionalism of their jobs, there is no restriction on their hours, and different than in the United States, this is regardless of the amount they are paid. At the ACORN affiliate everyone is on a minimum contract whether short term or open ended at this point, meaning they are paid a minimum wage as set by French law. The minimum wage in France is set at the after tax rate which is a good thing and is indexed to inflation and/or legislative action so goes up annually, which is also a good thing. Once you sort it all out it was about equivalent to what ACORN’s starting wage was for all staff about a decade ago, so not bad at all really in terms of a living wage.

church in Budapest

Danube in Dusseldorf

This minimum contract is not unusual and sometimes even includes a period where a new employee is paid by social benefits the first year and then in direct wages the second. I happened to meet the head of the ATD-Fourth World in France, which is their largest operation for the social services and organizing operation for the poor. All one-hundred of their fulltime staff, who they call volunteers, are paid on a minimum contract, which is interesting when we think about what it takes to build community organizations and unions of lower income and lower waged workers.

The package, as we call it in collective bargaining, is great in France as the country shuts down for the season over the coming weeks, but once you add it all up, backwards and forwards, it may be a maze to navigate, but there’s still a way to get there from here.

Country roads, take me home!

Danube in Dusseldorf

Church in Budapest

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