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.


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?


Labor versus Business: From Economic Wars to Culture Wars?

Nmuralew Orleans I wonder with the diminishing strength of unions whether we are about to finally move from front page economic wars to the back page culture wars so much enjoyed by the right.  Not able to fully move women back to the kitchen or African-Americans back to the plantation, perhaps they feel they will now have more success eliminating the history of workers altogether.

A couple of things brought this to mind.

Early this morning setting up Citizen Wealth and Social Policy at a conference being held by the Association of Labor Educators, I listened to a fellow from Stoneybrook complaining to a colleague about how union leaders themselves never referred to their members any more as workers or a part of the working class, but instead talked endlessly of losing “middle-class jobs,” assaults on the “middle class,” and so forth.

Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin seemed to make sure he was always a long way out of camera shot from the statue honoring populist politician and labor backer, Robert Follette, the legendary Wisconsin freedom fighter, during the recent evisceration of public workers rights in that state, where those same rights had been pioneered.  Now it seems there was a big controversy in Maine over a 36-foot mural in the state Department of Labor building there which depicted loggers, shoemakers, shipyard workers, and others, but also had a panel on the big Jay, Maine paper strike among other things.  The Governor Paul LePage, another newly elected Republican, has ordered it removed according to one of the last labor reporters on the newspaper beat, Steven Greenhouse.  He thought it offended some business folks, even though it has been up for 3 years with no real problems.

These are more than just canaries in the mine shaft.  The history of workers and the working class in America (and elsewhere!) has always been a behind-the-doors, back-of-the-house specialty.  Hearing how attendance has dropped among the labor educators as university programs have been pared down, unions forced to eliminate education programs, and states from California to wherever in bitter political purges of funding for such work, it is clearly a situation where there’s going to be even less and less that gets out there.  The chance that what emerges will find its way into the hands of workers themselves is even more unlikely.

The signals are clear that the right wants to bleach out the last of the blue collar as they glorify greed, bankers, and high-tech, even while we bailout them out and their secretaries print out their e-mails for them.  It feels like now that they see blood in the water and feel the whip in their hand, that the effort to make workers invisible and erase what remains of their work, honor, and tradition in our culture will build up force to try to sweep everything in the way of its rage.

No longer able to command the front page with news of strikes or settlements, it appears now we will find our place in the Arts section as more obituaries are written to mark the passing of our times.

We better stop it now, while we still can!


NLRB Bulletin Boards: E for Effort, F for Results

New Orleans    nlrbsteppingonworkers The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has proposed a rule that would require companies to post on their bulletin boards a notice informing workers that they have the legal right to organize.  Conservatives, strong adherents of a philosophical belief in “total war” when it comes to class issues, are crying like stuck pigs about this harmless notice which would do nothing more than state the law.  They know this is thin soup, but are howling like revolutionaries are at the company gates banging for entry.

It is true that such a notice might come as news to many workers.   With union density now hardly more than 7% in private sector workplaces, the vast majority of American workers have no clue about unions and certainly have never been members of any union in their careers.  Nonetheless it is doubtful whether such a notice is not going to organize a single new worker any more than the other required notices on such bulletin boards do a whole lot to stop wage theft despite minimum wage notices or access workman’s compensation benefits regardless of the size and bold print of such notices.

In fact it’s a safe bet that the only statistic that might be lower than the 7% union density would be the percentage of workers who have actually had 5 minutes to stand in front of such a bulletin board or for that matter actually could find it anywhere in the typical “hide-and-seek” of the workplace.  The notice postings from the NLRB advising workers that an unfair labor practice has been found and alerting them that the company has agreed to not continue to break the law are good examples of how impotent such notices are in correcting illegal behavior by companies.

I’m not saying it’s irrelevant or doesn’t matter.  I am saying that none of this makes much of a difference to anyone.  The companies and their buddies know this, so they will scream and holler to send a real message to the NLRB more powerful than anything on a bulletin board, that they will find anything and everything tooth and nail.

For the NLRB’s part it’s better to try and do something rather than nothing, but they surely know a bulletin board notice is not something that adds teeth to the law, but more like an admonition to use floss for the teeth you want to keep.  So, E for effort and F for any likely results.


Post Mortem: Labor Back to the Board



New Orleans The Republicans are clear that unions have a target on their backs.  Labor law reform was never alive, especially not carrying the weight of “card check” recognition or mandatory first contract arbitration, and is now relegated to the dreamscape.  They promise worse to come, and they have the votes to do it.  Not necessarily in Congress where the President and the Senate ought to still be worth something, but unfortunately in the states where they eroded important areas of labor strength in the Midwest with a governor in Ohio and pickups in Indiana and Illinois, and potentially even the West, if they take the Governor’s chair in places like Washington, and even in Pennsylvania where they also acquired a big ticket governor.

The most effective labor organizing over the last several decades has involved winning bargaining rights and good contracts for public employees at the state level as well as winning bargaining rights for informal workers providing home health and home day care in numerous states.  The requirements for these strategies to work match strong worker support with compliant political will.  The recession has already cut the number of public and publicly supported jobs in both of these areas which will mean a loss of more than a million dues paying members over the next several years, and that also erodes one of our last bulwarks of strength and, frankly, resources.

All of which will either drastically shrink the map for new organizing or force unions back to the boards, which in this case unfortunately means figuring out a way to survive and grow under the arcane and difficult folkways and rules of the NLRB.

Piling up the bad news was the announcement of a close loss by the flight attendants union for representation rights at Delta Airlines by a couple of hundred votes.  The good news, thanks to the Obama administration, had been the fact that a union under a National Mediation Board election no longer had to win by a majority of all employees in the unit, but only by a majority of all of those voting (similar to the NLRB procedures).  This defeat was a setback since it was the first big election under the new rules, but there are a number of other elections pending, so there’s hope here.  No doubt the Republicans will put this on their list as part of the rollback, but it won’t go anywhere.

Many unions didn’t need to wait for the memo and have already started slowly moving in this direction realizing there was little hope for reform.  According to the Bureau of National Affairs (BNA):

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Bargaining Rights for Non-Majority Unions

NLRBLogo1New Orleans Kenneth Stretcher faxed me an article from the September 2010 edition of Labor Notes knowing that I would be desperate to read it, and I was.  The piece was “Should Non-majority Unions Have a Right to Bargain?” by Judy Atkins and David Cohen both of the UE.  They speculate that with a full panel on the NLRB now, a decision could soon be coming from the Board on the question of referred by the NLRB’s Division of Advice on whether or not unions should be allowed to bargain without having a majority standing and certification.

This is an issue near and dear to me.  The instate case goes back to 2005 and Mike Yoffee, the United Steelworkers Union organizing director, and I discussed it several times at length.  They had been organizing a warehouse unit at Dick’s Sporting Goods and though they didn’t see the full majority coming together after a long drive and deep investment in the unit, made a demand to bargain on certain health and safety issues for the members they had.  Much of this strategy was informed by a controversial, though exciting book by Charles Morris, a senior often dissenting law professor from SMU, called The Blue Eagle at Work. I was able to enlist SEIU’s general counsel, Judy Scott, into hosting a discussion with some of the organizing department and the SEIU legal department with Morris in DC on the issues about nonmajority standing that the book raised.

Seven unions filed a petition challenging a negative opinion by NLRB’s Advice in 2007 including Steel, IBEW, CWA, UAW, IAM, and California Nurses, but not SEIU it seems all supporting different forms of “members-only” bargaining and representation.  History is on the side of such practice as is section 7 of the NLRB, though over the years NLRB decisions have migrated heavily towards the creation of “labor peace” standards that favor “exclusive representation” by one union for specifically defined units of workers that act as “an appropriate” bargaining unit.

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