Building Trades Unions Playing Role of Roaring Mouse

AFL-CIO_Headquarters,_Washington,_D.CDenver   Hey, give ‘em a break, the Democrats can’t stand to have the Republicans getting all of the attention for their splits, factions, and divisions, so it was only a matter of time before they got in the act. Perhaps not surprisingly it’s a family fight that starts with an argument about money and the company other parts of the family are keeping, and then ends up with demands about getting a job and working for a living. The difference is that the family is the fractious house of labor, which is pretty much always a house divided among itself, the bad company are billionaires and environmentalists, and the jobs are a spat over work now on such controversial projects as the Keystone pipeline coupled with a devil may care view of any future consequences.

All of this was so predictable. Once there was a big announcement that the two big teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) had joined with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the three big, almost exclusively public worker unions, along with billionaire, environmental funder, West Coast political aspirant, and former hedge fund operator, Tom Steyer, to create a get-out-the-vote bankroll for certain battleground states in November, you could just smell trouble. The Service Employees had reportedly considered joining and then opted out, which was another sign of dark clouds building, since they had frequently been in alliance with Steyer on other projects and a comfortable part of the Democracy Alliance, a prominent political player among rich liberals. The ante to get in the game was one million dollars for each player, and Steyer was going to throw in five million to match it up to more than ten million.

Stopping for a second, what did any of the labor unions have to gain? The big union political players would have ponied up anyway, along with the AFL-CIO unions, big and small, to try and put $60 to $100 million into the election one way or another. SEIU certainly will spend a pile regardless. In recent years, Steyer has leveraged his money more and more around climate issues, so his interest in pledging to move more money with his own is clear, and his interest in publicity for a possible race in California is a matter of wide speculation. I suspect that’s part of why SEIU bowed out, but that’s just a guess.

Now we have a mess. The building trades unions not only have their own federation within the larger AFL-CIO federation through the Building Trades Council, that works as a world unto itself, but really should be in a federation of their own since most of the unions operate in a night to day different fashion compared to the industrial, service, and public unions. Nonetheless, the trades couldn’t seem to stop themselves from bringing their sense of permanent grievance to the table. They are only truly happy when they are the small tail wagging the dog. So, they joined behind the largest of their number, the Laborers, to pen a couple of protest letters to Richard Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO, complaining about billionaires, hedge funders, job killers, and the enviros. Not that Trumka seems to have had much to do with this from what anyone can tell. The point was to get to pout in the press at the public unions and the company they keep.

What they seemed to have achieved was simply a widespread, public notice of the accelerating weakness of labor even in the political arena which, until recently, had been one of the last bright spots for unions. So, sure none of this GOTV PAC money deal makes any real sense, but that still doesn’t justify the trades’ tactics. With little ability to relieve themselves outside of the tent, they seem more than happy making a mess inside it.


Will Quicker NLRB Elections Make a Difference?

watermark.phpHouston           The National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) new rule has survived numerous delays, Congressional attacks offset by a threatened veto, and huge corporate pushback to finally find dry ground and take effect.  We have not seen the corporate equivalent of the zombie apocalypse, so the country still stands.

For all the hype the rule itself is “not all that” really.  This is not card-check, where the majority of workers’ signatures would be enough to bypass an election and win recognition of the union.  This is not a guaranteed quick election within a prescribed number of days of the union filing for representation along the model of Quebec or similar jurisdictions.  The heart of the rule is that it obviates management lawyers’ effort to delay the election on play-pretend questions about whether or not certain workers belong in the voting and bargaining unit or invite pie-in-the-sky legal theories to push the election date longer and longer.  The new rule doesn’t eliminate these challenges as much as it postpones them, letting workers and their unions vote first, and deal with the mess later.  There will still also still be pre-election hearings when there are not stipulated elections, but significant efficiencies have been baked into the new rule to allow simultaneous notifications, electronic submissions, full statements of position, and more localized decisions rather than being caught in the Washington NLRB timeless gridlock.

Many believe that this will shorten the time between filing and elections drastically, but some of that is more in the nature of company lawyers squealing like stuck pigs.  In the most recent fiscal year 2013 report the NLRB noted that the median time between filing and elections was 38 days and 37 days with an election agreement but 59 days with a hearing, now it would be theoretically possible, if the bureaucratic stars and moon lined up, to have an election as early as two-weeks after filing.  No surprise that comparatively corporate America was calling this an “ambush” or “quickie” election, if it might be one-third the time previously.

How much difference will this change make to unions and our declining numbers?  First, it is hard to tell, since clearly it will take some time for union organizing strategists and tacticians to think through the types of campaigns that would be best suited for the new rule and train field organizers in how to maximize its potential.  There is certainly no question from all past studies that victory goes to the fleet when unions face an election under the NLRB.  Win rates have been statistically over two-thirds even under the old rules when elections were held with a modicum of promptness.   Even if this new rule was Christmas, which it definitely is not, it will take some time to embrace after years of unions resisting the quagmire of the NLRB and its hyper legalistic procedures favoring management so extravagantly.  A whole generation of union organizers is clueless about dealing with the NLRB, so that’s a problem in assessing the rule’s immediate potential.

The early filings say something, but may be just a blip on the screen.  There were about 140 filings between the rules full implementation and now, leading to an average of about 56 petitions per week under the new rule.  More recent reports of the NLRB indicate that the average representation petition filings have been about 38 per week, which is almost a 50% bump.  That’s still way too little too late, and may even be a statistical aberration where organizers might have held petitions for a week or two waiting for the new rule’s start date.

The short story is that the new rule represents an opportunity, not a panacea for workers and their unions.  It won’t be enough to stem the tide, but might help where the will needs a way.


Turner Corn – Union Man Dues


Organized Labor Speaking Without One Voice

UnionButton_180_182New Orleans        It is one thing when we all know the king has no clothes on, but it’s a whole different problem when Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal and its op-ed pages broadcasts it far and wide. While we watch the Koch Brothers drive an ideological machinery pushing businesses to hew the line politically hard right with the Republican Party panting happily with them, we have our noses pushed into the mess of division when labor’s “jobs first” bread-and-butter unionism trumps public and longer term interests of our own members. A recent piece by Steven Malanga, who is also a senior editor at City Journal, detailed a listing of locations and political races where the building trades went one way and public employee unions went the other. 

He wasn’t completely correct, because despite his argument about an “emerging political divide,” unfortunately this is divide of long standing. Vexingly, he could have cited many more examples in many other locations where this division has long been standard operating procedure.

He mentions New Jersey where the Building and Construction Trades Council has endorsed a bunch of Republican Congressional candidates, but he could have easily cited many other examples, like the one several years ago when almost every union in Jersey banded together to stop Walmart superstore expansion in the state, but the trades signed an agreement with Walmart to construct the stores union on project labor agreements and trumpeted the company’s expansion until a compromise was reached. Ironically, New Jersey is one of the only states where labor actually admits that the building trades’ interest is diametrically opposed to most other unions and maintains a separate Industrial Unions Council to offset the construction trades and lessen the political confusion.

Of course, where the Journal glosses over labor’s reality is that in the shrinking ranks of labor, the building trades, long the smallest membership sector of organized labor, are as often now simply the mouse that is roaring. Public, service, and private sector unions overwhelmingly have the numbers in the organization we have left, but that only counts when votes are counted. Meanwhile small local unions, unashamed, will do things like stand behind Wisconsin’s union busting Governor Scott Walker with a couple of their members and a state flag, ignoring the tens of thousands of members he is pushing out of other unions and his crippling of labor’s power in the state.

No small part of the problem lies in the toothless federated structure of the AFL-CIO and its imitators. Despite oaths and promises long enshrined in labor’s ritual pledges to stand together and unite, especially around political endorsements, there are really no effective penalties for unions breaking away and pulling such stunts. In New Orleans, the tragedy of Mayor C. Ray Nagin, now serving the public in a jail cell, was abetted by the Firefighters, Operating Engineers, and its ilk, breaking away from the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO endorsement of police chief Pennington, in a similar subversion. In every community there are too many examples, too often led by one building trade or another breaking away from the vast majority for the thin-lipped kiss from a politician promising a few jobs or benefits.

It’s understandable at one level since the hiring hall structure puts constant pressure on the elected business manager’s producing new jobs for the members sitting on the bench, but recognizing the reality of the problem and having a better way to speak with one voice, despite the internal disagreements and conflicting self-interests, has to be a higher leadership and membership priority if labor is going to project even the semblance of unity in these days of continued decline.

The Journal cites a recent campaign where the New York building trades council wanted to endorse Governor Andrew Cuomo in the primary but public-union opposition kept the state AFL-CIO from making any endorsement because of the governor’s position on capping property taxes. The Journal may not like it, but having the majority rule is a good thing, and it allowed each union to act in its own self-interest without pretending to speak for the whole of labor. It’s not the best alternative, but it’s better than putting our divisions on the evening news and undercutting our own internal governance structures for the sake of some politician’s interest, rather than our own. The happy ending to that story is that the building and trades council respected the majority rather than going all New Jersey and jumping off their own way. We need more of that and less of the other, if our own survival and the welfare of all of our members is going to be our highest priority.


Harris v. Quinn Part 2: Creating a Permanent Precariat in Public Employment

Harris v. Quinn Press Conference at Supreme CourtNew Orleans    As terrible as the impact of the Supreme Court’s Harris v. Quinn decision is for unions and their capacity, the equally profound and perhaps more permanent implication may be in its attempt to create different sets of rights and entitlements for a permanent precariat in public sector employment.  The 5-4 majority decision written by Justice Samuel Alito denigrated home-based healthcare aides by referring to them as “partial public employees” creating a new, dangerous, and previously unknown labor classification in order to pretzel his decision in such a way that it could inflate the importance of some family member caregivers and camouflage a huge setback in the long organizing campaign to formalize what had been completely informal, precarious work.

The historic changes that organizing and unionization has established over 35 years of organizing home-based, informal workers are essential to understand no matter how the court has tried to disguise and devalue the importance of the contribution.  When we first began organizing these workers they were not just minimum wage workers, they were lucky to be even that.  Domestic workers only received minimum wage coverage under the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1978 and though now we recognize home healthcare workers as a critical piece in the health care mosaic and a cost saving, humane option to nursing homes, these jobs were just evolving in the 1970’s from their historic position as household servants.  Workers were seen as unskilled and classified as homemakers, chore workers, and generally, unskilled domestic labor.  Like domestics they had a series of clients, often traveling throughout the day until reimbursement was won for them to get pay for these hours, and received no benefits, holidays, vacations, health insurance, or even much respect.

Nonprofits first entered the field in some markets, and still are significant in New York, offering to match desperate families with workers able to meet the need.  For profit companies with names like McMaid, quickly followed with efforts to make the workers independent subcontractors and match workers with clients while receiving Medicare reimbursement dollars.  Moving from home to home to provide their special service, the workers were only marginally tied to the company paymasters since they provided no fixed worksite.  In the early days there were shapeups where workers showed up for their checks, until unions used these check days to sign-up the workers.  Requirements for regular training might create the only time a worker would meet others working for the same company.

When the United Labor Unions affiliated with the Service Employees in 1984, we had contracts covering this work with nonprofits in Boston and a bargaining order and no members but big dreams if we could get more legal and financial resources for our homecare local 880 in Chicago.  In Justice Alito’s classification of “partial public employees” he is ignoring years of litigation at every level of judicial review that established through the NLRA that these workers when handled by private companies were not independent contractors nor where they government employees.  As state reimbursement programs grew in states like Illinois, California, and elsewhere, entities like the Illinois Department of Rehabilitative Services (DORS) became significant employers and providers of home health workers, organizers were forced to establish the rights and entitlements of these workers at every level just as they did under the NLRA.   Some states with smaller programs, like Arkansas where Local 100 represents these workers, simply did the right thing and classified them as public employees, even while paying minimum wages.  Other states with more extensive health and benefit systems, like Illinois, balked at integrating tens of thousands of workers in benefit programs that were already in many cases overburdened and underfunded.  The compromise negotiated through constant bureaucratic and political struggle was to ease these workers, and later home daycare workers as well, into many of the rights and protections of public employees without accreting them fully into health and pension programs and instead concentrating on wages and some health coverage, all of which were won as critical milestones of substantial progress through unionization on the way to a future promised land.

What the Supreme Court is now trying to do through the backdoor of Harris v. Quinn is tear down the houses that our unions have built to hold safe and secure the employment of these workers.  Classifying them as “partial public employees,” and somehow not only different, but inherently substandard and diminished in comparison to firefighters and police for example opens the door to a definition of permanent precarity in a cruel paradox since these workers, just like fire and police, often are also among the few public servants with life and death of the public literally in their hands.   In the Hobby Lobby decision, Justice Alito tried to warn the religious and rightwing zealots that they should not take the religious exception into other attacks against minimum wages, discrimination, and other worker entitlements.  Sadly, nothing I have seen in this decision is a similar call for restraint in not expanding the diminishment of rights and entitlements for precariously employed, but public subsidized workers, way past the simple issue of paying servicing fees to a union, putting dark clouds in front of millions of workers in the future.


Unions, the First and Last Hope for Egyptian Revolution

0,,15498914_4,00New Orleans   When more than 20 organizers from labor unions and community organizations as part of the Organizers’ Forum delegation visited Egypt in 2011 after the revolution several years ago scores of meetings with political parties, activists, community and labor organizers, proved the one clear reality-tested conclusion that cut through all of the hype was that this was no Facebook revolution whatsoever.  If there was one clear, unheralded hero in the drama whose relentless pressure broke the Mubarak government it was the labor movement.   Their continuing strikes kept the pressure on the government no matter how much repression and press coverage occurred in the Square.  The events leading to Tahir Square and the surge of hope for change in Egypt that many called the Arab Spring were the classic case of something that seemed like a victory having a thousand fathers while a defeat is a bastard child.

            We were also convinced even in the fall of 2011 that the revolution was slipping away.  Now three years later so many of the hopes and aspirations of that time are mired in disappointment.  The elected government, dominated by the best organized, which in that case was the Muslim Brotherhood, failed to right the economy or open government to the array of voices that had made the revolution so vibrant.  In fact repression grew and for those of us who had been there it was not a surprise to see the government go after the leadership of independent trade union federations, often with minor or trumped up charges.  Labor unions were not silent during this period largely because they felt that one of the promises of the revolution were breeched when the new government continued to prop up the state controlled labor apparatus and hold down the ability of emerging, autonomous unions to bargain or even collect dues.  The alienation of some of the independent worker advocates was so extreme that some of them heralded the military coup that displaced the elected government as a relief, hoping that they would finally be able to appropriately establish their unions.

            I often wondered whether we were the only ones stumbling through the hype to the real story until I stumbled on a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal of all places finally giving some credit to workers as the last line of protest and defense threatening “to disrupt the widespread public adulation expected to propel Abdel Fattah al Sisi into the presidential palace….”   In a piece by Matt Bradley and Leila Elmergawi they not only gave credit to workers and trade union activists for their role in ousting Mubarak finally but also noted the price the labor movement is paying by continuing to put on the pressure for rights and wages, including the fact that leaders of the Post Office Union have been taken away and accused of creating a “terrorist” cell and a suit by against 11 strike leaders.  Teachers, doctors, police, and transport workers have also created independent unions and struck the government.  The Journal points out that only about one million of Egypt’s 23 million workers belong to independent unions, and that the government will obviously try to cut separate deals, but the unionization numbers are higher when state unions are counted and workers are still voting with their feet to hit the street in wildcat actions even from these more tightly controlled unions. 

            Unfortunately, unions by themselves can’t restore democracy in Egypt, but their continued pressure will eventually win wage relief from the government and will continue to speak to the courage and the aspirations of people.  You can’t tweet that or post it on Facebook easily, but workers are still proving that it’s strength at the base that counts more than Hail Mary shots at the powers that be through the internet’s social media channels.  It’s got to be feet on the ground, not just fingers on a key board to make real change.


New Strategy at AFL-CIO or Same Ol’, Same Ol’?

110105_afl_cio_ap_328New Orleans    I watched a brief interview for USA Today with Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, on the eve of their coming convention, as he argued that with the diminishing numbers, there were changes coming at the federation.   The changes he talked about mainly were some kind of broader affiliation program that was enrolling the NAACP and the Sierra Club.

            Both groups have been allies of labor from time to time, and both to some degree are membership organizations with chapters around the country.  But, when Trumka was asked about whether they would be full members, pay dues, or affiliate on the local level, the answers were all, essentially, “maybe” or “we’ll have to see,” both of which are euphemisms for “no,” I’m pretty sure. 

            This isn’t a change of strategy, but a recognition that the only power that the AFL-CIO or labor in general can pretend to still have is political power, not worker power.  The Sierra Club and the NAACP are political allies, not organizational allies.   This kind of new strategy is the equivalent of asking them to come to the convention, speak for five minutes, and get an award.

            Nor is it new.  With great fanfare before John Sweeney’s last AFL-CIO convention, they paraded out Pedro Alvarado and announced an affiliation of the National Day Laborers’ Organizing Network known as NDLON, arguing that this was a new strategy of embracing worker centers as an organizing tool.  The years pass and there are now 225 worker centers, some of whom focus on day labor, most of them focus on immigrant rights, but none of them in reality are changing the organizing strategies of institutional labor.  These are public relations moves to soften the popular, outdated picture of big labor looking out for themselves and no one else.

            There is no new AFL-CIO strategy.   It’s the same strategy that the federation has used for over a 100 years.  This is a political organization and any power it has left is political power. This is the lobbying headquarters for labor nationally and at the state level, and its role in that arena is critical and irreplaceable. 

            The one thing we will not hear or read in this coming convention is anything real that talks about serious work to actually organize workers and turn back the decline that now has only a bit more than 6% of the US workforce actually dues paying, card carrying members of unions. 

            Sad, but true.