Right-to-Work Equals Less Unions

 New Orleans               Rarely do we see the evidence of plain and simple attacks on unions any clearer than in the reports quoted by Steve Greenhouse in today’s New York Times.   In an article about the impending fight in Indiana where the Republican union haters and labor baiters are mounting an effort to impose so-called “right-to-work” laws allowing workers (“free riders”) covered under collective bargaining agreements to pay neither dues nor servicing fees for the legally mandated and contractually enforceable representation by the union, he cited some compellingly studies:

“Many studies have assessed the impact of right-to-work legislation, although much of the research is from years ago, when right-to-work was a hotter issue.

Henry Farber, a labor economist at Princeton, said right-to-work laws, by allowing “free riders,” shrink union treasuries. One study found that the portion of free riders in right-to-work states ranged from 9 percent in Georgia to 39 percent in South Dakota.

In another study, David T. Ellwood, the dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and Glenn A. Fine, a former Justice Department official, found that in the five years after states enacted such legislation, the number of unionization drives dropped by 28 percent, and in the following five years by an added 12 percent. Organizing wins fell by 46 percent in the first five years and 30 percent the next five. Over all, they found, right-to-work laws, beyond other factors, caused union membership to drop 5 percent to 10 percent.”

If anyone needs help with this, essentially if you weaken the resources of unions, then there is corresponding reduction in the amount of organizing, which is part of the point of such laws, and, furthermore, when workers see that the unions have been weakened in this way, they respond significantly by not voting in favor of union representation at their jobs.  Business manages to slice the heart of labor on both of the sharp ends of this sword by reducing organizing by more than one-third and sending the message that when unions do manage to organize, they have the strong hand, thereby enticing workers to vote NO more than half of the time.

This is how class war works at the legislative level.  No question that the Republicans are committed to that course when they “occupy” a state capitol.

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Do Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Deserve This?

cesar-chavezTegucigalpa The annual board meeting of ACORN International is being held next week and this year it will be held in Honduras to celebrate the two offices opened in this country last year.  While flying I read the paper and more than once a front page article entitled “Family Quarrel Imperils a Labor Hero’s Legacy.”

I found the article troubling, because it was hard for me to see what was supposed to be the “news” here?  What was of such weight that it found its way to the front page of the New York Times?

Was a family feud really that important?  Hardly.  The “news hook” was a lawsuit filed in March.  This is mid-May.  The allegations arise two years ago in 2009.  This is mid-2011!

Is there a sudden concern about Chavez’s “legacy?”  The article and its author, Jennifer Medina, belie that angle themselves in a later paragraph saying:  “Family members, without exception, talk about Cesar Chavez with deep reverence. They blanch at any criticism of the movement, as they refer to the broad work of the union under his watch.”

He’s been dead over 18 years since 1993 for goodness sakes, so exactly how his legacy might be “imperiled” as the headline blasts was also difficult to determine.

His role in modern culture is at this point secure and transcends the reality of his work and life, strengths, which were many, and weaknesses, which were also significant.  Like Martin Luther King, he speaks to the recognition and aspirations of a substantial people, the emerging Latin American majority, who have taken voice and dignity from his the way he lived and worked.  For Dr. King his speeches and position within the civil rights movement trump anything else.  With Chavez his humility, his fasts, and his dedication – not his success – in trying to give voice and organization to Latinos and the the invisible toilers of soil have secured his stature permanently, regardless of anything else.

All of this seems mean spirited.  Are we somehow to  believe that there is a sudden surge of care and concern for the plight of the farmer worker or the fact that the organization has lost membership in the last 35 to 40 years?  Certainly that his also not news, nor has anyone outside of the world of labor done much about this.  I found it ironic that Artie Rodriguez, the President of the UFW was not interviewed nor was their any commentary or reckoning with his struggles, small successes and failures over his tenure at the head of the union.  The revival of the farm workers union was a huge program under John Sweeney as president of the AFL-CIO, who directed millions and deployed great organizers like Stephen Lerner and Mark Splain for years to the task.

Frankly, I’m suspicious of the article for the quotes pulled in support of this strained slam at unions, farm workers, and their leaders.

This issue of Social Policy and an excerpt we are running on the front page of our website at www.socialpolicy.org covers perhaps the most controversial and devastating chapter in Miriam Pawel’s book, A Union of Their Dreams, which is the story of the purges of top leaders and organizers implemented by Chavez as he tried in misguided and sometimes bizarre ways to refocus the union on what he saw as its roots and values and retested loyalties and commitments to the union’s foundational principles.  Organizers may agree or disagree with Chavez’s ways and means, and these issues need to be surfaced and debated, but none of that imperils a legacy.   In corresponding with Pawel repeatedly I know how cautious she was in even allowing me permission to excerpt the piece because she did not want to be seen as defaming Chavez or that struggle.   Yet Medina has this quote in the piece justifying this curious story:

When Cesar Chavez was alive, he was a major force in California politics and agriculture. “The problem now is that the organization has simply drifted,” said Miriam Pawel, who has written a book about the union and is working on a biography of Mr. Chavez. “It has become a family-run organization that is sort of purposeless and does little or nothing to help farm workers.”

Normally, I would have believed that Pawel was misquoted, but since she personally forwarded the article to me, until I speak with her directly, I have to believe that she was not offended by the quote or she would have said so.

My friend the brilliant author of so many penetrating books, Mike Davis, who is also one of the most difficult guys in the world to track down, seems to have been right at hand for a call from the Times, and not surprisingly more reasonably hits the nail on the head at the end of this attack piece:

“In many ways, we’re back to square one for farm workers,” said Mike Davis, a California historian and a former union activist. “We have this wonderful myth and a model for kids to emulate in Cesar Chavez, but you could basically go to any field and rewrite ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ all over again.”

Now this is a story worth writing in America today.  In the 21st Century we have almost medieval conditions in the fields or certainly situations that hark back to the Great Depression and the stories of Steinbeck.  We have a union that has been beaten and broken since Chavez on time which cannot carry the weight and burden of solving these problems while we have an industry and government callous, indifferent, ineffectual, and uninterested in solving these issues.

As Davis and Pawel would surely agree, all men and women of history are as much myth as muscle, so when the job of defaming unions, workers, their families, their dreams, and their work is finished, the hard job still remains.

What about all of that?  When does the pissing start and the next parade begin?

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