GMO Contradictory Claims and Tripping up McDonalds in Paris

14600870_935690983201659_1568748584969979036_nGrenoble   The counterclaims around genetically modified crops around the world are head spinning. Thousands march to protest their use in the US and Europe. Noted scientists take out ads in major papers claiming they represent no problems. Some argue they are necessary in the future to feed the world’s growing population. Back and forth it goes. Sometimes it seems we should just pick and side and hope for the best.

Some things are clear though, and disturbing. Whenever a conglomerate like Monsanto can make money on both sides of the deal, it is deeply worrisome, and hard not to believe something has gone terribly wrong. They – and others – sell both genetically modified seeds and plain seeds. They also sell the insecticides and herbicides to both kill weeds and to essentially avoid the weed killers like Roundup. The German-based conglomerate, Bayer, is now trying to buy Monsanto and a Chinese company is trying to buy their big competitor, so this could all get even harder to sort out.

An article in the New York Times by Danny Hakim, “Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops,” throws another powerful wrench into the works. Using United Nations crop yields data over a period of years since the introduction of GMOs in basic crops like corn, soybeans, and rapeseed in the United States and Canada with similar production in the European agricultural powerhouses of Germany and France, there was no evidence of superior yields. And, equally disturbing there was increased use of chemicals, rather than less. Monsanto claims the data was cherry picked, but unconvincingly answers the argument by cherry picking different data to try to make their case. Both parties understand that the house crumbles if the very foundation of the manufacturers’ arguments about increased production are not sustained after two decades of use. Monsanto sums up its case with something of shrug, saying if you don’t like it, we’ll sell it India and elsewhere that are wild for it.

All of this was on my mind in the wake of an excellent report issued by our partner, ReAct in Paris recently that extensively documented the reliance of the McDonalds’ fast food operations on genetic modifications throughout its supply chain in beef, potatoes, and chicken in the very anti-GMO and GMO-conscious French and European markets. The release of the report was big news throughout Paris partly because it was accompanied by a demonstration in a central Parisian Mickey-D’s by fifty or more folks including farmers, students, and members of ACORN’s affiliate, the Alliance Citoyenne from Aubervilliers, a Paris suburb that is the poorest district in France. The action featured a Ronald McDonald look alike that was “arrested” by the demonstrators for polluting the supply chain with GMOs that are banned expressly in France and the European Union.

Monsanto may be scurrying from the Times article in the US, but McDonalds is now ducking and weaving over GMOs in Europe, and no matter which side you come down on about GMOs, French consumers seem clear, and they are saying loudly and in no uncertain terms, they want no part of it.

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Union-backed Walmart and McDonalds’ Campaigns Face Uncertain Futures

DSC_6745New Orleans    The emperor with no clothes is not a pretty sight, and it’s almost as bad when the finger pointing at him is Dave Jamieson, a labor reporter for the Huffington Post in a piece entitled “Labor Groups are Taking on Walmart and McDonalds. But Who Will Fund the Fight?” I don’t have anything against him or the Huff Post, but this was a story we knew would be coming, the only surprise might be that it took so long to get here, and it still seems to catch us unprepared with our pants around our ankles.

The trigger for this tale is the annual meeting of Walmart gearing up in Bentonville, which has also become an annual action by organizations trying to force one of the world’s largest retailers to more accountability and better practices and standards for its workers. This year OUR Walmart is once again on the scene, but now divorced from its supporter and financier, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union and trying to go on its own. A decade ago, UFCW did much the same thing with a competing effort called WakeUp Walmart not so much as to organize but to keep their brand and jurisdictional claims alive and compete with the SEIU-backed WalmartWatch and the multi-union effort we ran to prove that Walmart workers could be organized in Florida and to establish that we could stop their expansion with aggressive work and community allies both in the US and India. New leadership at UFCW jettisoned the program support for OUR Walmart leaving them trying to keep the flame alive, all of which seems terribly reminiscent of our earlier efforts.

Jamieson asks the simple question no one likes to hear in public about the viability of OUR Walmart and the sustainability of its effort without a deep-pocketed sponsor. He raises the same question about the multi-year expenditure that SEIU has made to organize McDonalds in companion with its support of the Fight for $15 campaign. SEIU has been resolute in its commitment to these efforts. Both campaigns can claim significant victories. Walmart did move on wages at the bottom. Not to $15 per hour but up to $10 across the board at a cost of billions. SEIU has seen dividends from its Fight for $15 in cities like Seattle and Los Angeles and in states like California and New York where it has significant membership, so they can claim some success from their advocacy. McDonalds does not seem to have moved any closer to the union than Walmart has moved towards UFCW, though closer observers with better information than I have claim that SEIU’s strategy is global, is sound, and may still yield significant organizational victories as well.

And, that’s the rub. Unions are not foundations. They have to eventually see members and dues or some direct benefit from the expenditure of dues or the reaction will be predictable, just as is was with UFCW’s leadership change. And, when it comes to funding, foundations are not a substitute for workers and their dues or workers and their unions. Foundations will shine a bright penny for a minute, but they will never double down to the level needed to get to scale in fighting giant enterprises like either of these companies.

Can OUR Walmart create a real workers’ movement at the giant retailer with a strategy that produces sufficient organization and membership that will finance a long struggle? It’s possible, we proved that in Florida, but that’s a 10, 20 or 30 year project, and would represent the life work and sacrifice of many to survive, and, even surviving, would, having proven the concept, still need support at some point to get to scale. The same transition will need to occur in the McDonalds’ campaign, but hopefully with the continuity of SEIU’s support and assistance.

No one else is going to finance these struggles without workers carrying a huge part of the weight. The publicity is great, but smoke and mirrors is not organizing. David Rolf of SEIU’s big Washington State local, was quoted as saying, “The old model has failed several generations … We should encourage these experiments, but we shouldn’t romanticize it. We still haven’t figured this out.” Certainly, he’s right, but his remarks must seem gratuitous to organizers and workers deep in the struggle. OUR Walmart has proven that the day of reckoning for such experiments comes quickly, so the time for figuring it all out for all of these organizing projects remains now, before it’s too late.

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Please enjoy Beck’s Wow. Thanks to KABF.

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The Big Mac Tactical Dilemma

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Action at France’s Eurodisney

New Orleans   For the fourth year there was a tactical “strike” at McDonald’s stores. Organizers claimed there were actions of one sort or another in 300 cities around the country. Much of the action was wrapped up in the slogan, Fight for $15, pointing out the inability of workers to live on McDonald’s wages.

In the United States, caring about this issue, it was hard to find the heartbeat nationally. Not a word was printed in The New York Times or Wall Street Journal on the mid-April actions. A French researcher working as a post-doc with the Kennedy Center in Berlin on a 2-yearlong study of the Fight for $15 movement met with me while in New Orleans, and was mystified that he could not find any notice of the action so that he could attend. There were no notices on the coffeehouse bulletin board. It took a couple of emails and calls, to locate any call to action. The local papers were silent for days about anything happening. When something finally appeared in the Sunday paper, days later, it was one of those “for the fourth year” protestors chanted in a local McDonald’s and tried to get workers to leave the counter to strike without success.

Talking to organizers of ACORN’s affiliate in France, there were vivid reports of huge actions in Grenoble, Rennes, and Paris. In each location stores and streets were blocked and the business was shut down for hours. The protests engaged students, unionists, and community organizations and were dramatic and militant. There was no pretense of workers’ striking, but straightforward protests aimed at McDonald’s wages and working conditions.

The picture in the paper, when it finally appeared in New Orleans, featured the back end of a straggling march down Canal Street in the center of town. Whether in New Orleans or elsewhere, it seemed to be a “tree falling that no one heard.”

The tactical dilemma is common: repetition blunts the impact, no matter how initially successful. In France, there was a newness. In the US, the action has become stale. That is not to say that it was irrelevant and unnecessary. Something has to be done. We have to maintain the pressure and the campaign. The challenge now is how to both keep the flame alive and exerting heat under McDonald’s, and with the actions seeming more rote and attracting less attention, there is a feeling of being stuck in a rut. Believing that workers in any real numbers will leave work to join protests at random stores might project strength, if it shut the store down, but in ones and twos and nones, it projects weakness more than strength. It underlines the fear and desperation of the workers, but to the public and in the mouths of company spokespeople it translates as lack of support.

The campaign has been wildly successful in lifting up the need to raise the wages of workers. Even Walmart has had to spend billions to bump up the pay scales. Now the organizing problem is how we can couple the pressure for more pay with the understanding that it requires workplace organization as the engine that delivers that result. We need solid tactics and strategies to build that bridge, but in any case we may need something new next year to keep the drive alive.

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Free Advice for Organizing McDonalds’ Workers

 Scott Courtney, a leader of the Fight for 15 campaign, with protesters in Brazil. Credit Fernando Cavalcanti

Scott Courtney, a leader of the Fight for 15 campaign, with protesters in Brazil. Credit Fernando Cavalcanti

New Orleans    There was SEIU’s organizing director Scott Courtney, friend and comrade, in a picture in The New York Times, rallying with Brazilian unions before preparing to testify on the evils of McDonalds’ franchisees in Brazil to their government. Even more surprisingly, he was quoted in the Times essentially saying he was throwing everything against the wall hoping to find some critical vulnerability.

By pushing fast food companies, particularly McDonalds, on its Fight for $15 campaign, the union has succeeded in pressuring the company to raise wages in corporate stores to $9 already and soon to $10 early in 2016. Charges at the National Labor Relations Board have also led to real concerns on whether or not the union has successfully pierced the veil between the corporate locations and its franchisees as co-employers, which has led to mass hand wringing throughout corporate America.

Perhaps the biggest victory though was the success of the campaign in New York State, where the wage board has recommended accelerated increases to $15 in New York City and not long afterwards throughout the state for fast food workers. Several months ago Brother Courtney was quoted as, perhaps too transparently and too willingly, expressing the hope that action by the wage board might have given the union sufficient leverage to be able to make a deal with the company somewhere, somehow to allow the union in on some piecemeal basis. In organizing circles, the New York wage board and a powder keg supposedly ready to explode in Brazil were touted as the one-two punches that were going to bring the company to the mat. One punch seems to have fallen short, and now Brazil is in the ring and though arms are flailing, much of the heat seems addressed at a big franchisee and potential tax scams in that country, which is already reeling from political payoff scandals that have weakened the left, governing Workers Party.

Observers are clearly worried that SEIU might be coming to the end of their rope unless they can deliver a knockout soon, just as UFCW has pulled the plug on its expensive OUR Walmart effort. When blood is in the water, even friends line up to offer advice. Steven Greenhouse, long time labor reporter for the Times in an unusual step weighed in at The Atlantic recommending that SEIU start picking off McDonalds’ “hot shops,” though he undoubtedly knows the statistics on the relatively low success rate in NLRB representative elections for such shops. Wilma Liebman, former chair of the NLRB, recommended that SEIU direct all of its organizing energy at corporate stores rather than franchisees to advance the cause, which is curious advice as well. To the public, McDonalds is McDonalds, and unquestionably many of the franchisees, as SEIU has found in Brazil, are way more vulnerable to organizing and pressure. Eighteen months ago a big franchisee in Houston with more than 50 locations flirted briefly with Local 100 for us to sign up his workers for Obamacare. There are athletes and others who own hundreds of locations who might be leveraged as well.

Regardless, the notion of organizing stores one-by-one has been the opposite of SEIU’s strategy in this campaign and many others over the last twenty years. One senior SEIU organizer in Los Angeles commented to me several years ago that there’s an entire generation of SEIU’s organizers that have never run an NLRB election and would be fish out of water trying to do so. SEIU knows that there were 14350 McDonalds in the USA in 2014 and 21908 internationally. The last thing they are looking for is a Vietnam style quagmire where they are locked into a struggle to organize store by store. How many would they have to organize successfully to have the moral rectitude that converts into the equivalent pressure of their current Fight for $15 Campaign? What could they deliver in collective bargaining to the first couple of hundred stores? These are hard problems, and Courtney and SEIU are clearly intent on doubling down before caving in.

It’s one thing for unions, even SEIU, to decide to throw everything up against the wall against a company for a couple of years to see if they can win. It’s another thing to decide that you are willing to make a 20, 30, or 50 year commitment to actually unionize the workers step by step, block by block, or in this case store by store.

SEIU may have to face that decision soon, but it won’t be today, while they’re still swinging hard, and the bell hasn’t rung.

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Please Enjoy Bruce’s Springsteen’s Working on a Dream

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NLRB Quickstepping in Right Direction for Workers

email*304xx2122-1415-0-0New Orleans    How much it will help is going to be an ongoing debate, but there have been a number of recent decisions by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that all seem to be in the right direction, so it’s worth keeping score.

The NLRB has now ruled in a significant case that workers have the right to use company emails for concerted activity, unless there are exceptional reasons to the contrary. In terms of mass communications between each other and with unions, this is significant, since email addresses are more likely to be accurate as the lingua franca of communications than the ever shifting terrain of home addresses. For organizers, company systems that are organized rationally with standard addresses might also prove useful. Certainly we found this to be the case in organizing San Antonio city workers and sharing e-bulletins during organizing drives.

The NLRB has also finalized its rule making procedure on speeding up elections and more quickly resolving any employer challenges. This rule doesn’t take effect until April 2015, but will actually make a difference for unions seriously involved in organizing. Academic studies have long established that the winning percentage of unions drastically improves even when elections are held in less than 30 days. The possibility that elections could be held in half of that time finally gives the advantage more clearly to the “runner” trying to win union recognition than to the employer hunkering down behind lawyers and legal delays. Much of the change here will be tactical, and whether unions that have more recently eschewed elections and the NLRB will find this change enticing enough to lead to a change in strategy will be an interesting question in the coming year.

Another ruling has opened up higher education and overturned the old Yeshiva decision several decades ago creating managerial exemptions for tenured professors particularly and religious institutions of higher learning especially. Universities will now have to prove there is religious content in their teaching that crosses the line between church and state. On the managerial question, given the explosion in the number of adjunct teachers and professors, the NLRB ruled squarely that these days the old rule simply doesn’t apply because the nature of the teaching job has changed radically. True that! There has been more organizing movement in higher ed, so this could be a breakthrough.

Finally, the joint employer ruling that has ensnared McDonald’s and caused trepidation among franchise-based business was finalized when complaints were issued for a host of workers involved in job actions with the company. Does this give the workers an edge on higher wages or union protection? Not so much, but it does change the game and extract a price, which Mickey D’s and many others will be paying for quite a while, if this ruling stands.

None of this will stop the decline of unions, but making the NLRB relevant again has value in protecting workers, and the best of union organizers will take these small openings in the door and figure out a way to drive trucks full of unorganized workers through them. Coupled with more security for undocumented workers next year, and we might see union membership move the needle in the right direction for a change.

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NLRB Ruling May Not Ease Organizing, but Could Reduce Precariousness of Labor

mcdonald-mascotNew Orleans    The decision of the U.S. General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that McDonald’s acts as a “joint employer” in relation to its franchisees and therefore bears some responsibility for unfair labor practices by those franchisees is stirring extensive debate, all of which is good for workers, whatever the current outcome and final determinations in the future after endless litigation. Simply put, one of the many modern crises faced by workers has been the tenuous and often uncertain relationship to their employers making them more temporary, more contingent, and more precarious. Attaching a lifeline more firmly back to the original decisions makers, the ultimate paymasters, and the deepest pockets with the most to lose can’t do anything put help such workers and create some semblance of stability no matter how slight.

According to Times labor reporter, Steven Greenhouse:

 

Legal experts also predicted that Tuesday’s ruling would lay the foundation for an expansive decision by the labor board that would apply this broad “joint employer” standard to other industries and companies besides McDonald’s and fast-food chains. They anticipated that perhaps manufacturers, real estate management firms or cleaning companies that use temp agencies or subcontractors would also be declared joint employers. “It’s one of the most significant board actions in quite some time,” said Peter Kirsanow, who served on the N.L.R.B. under President George W. Bush. “If this approach is adopted and upheld, it’s going to be fairly significant. There will be a fairly serious domino effect on various industries. We’re going to look at the effect on contingent workers, temporary employees, those that are sent out by staffing agencies.”

 

If any of this hold true, even temporarily, during this period of glasnost while everything shakes out, informal and precarious workers at the bottom of the employment chain to the big boys could find less wage theft, slightly higher wages, and some minimal benefits often ignored. Just having them all run scared from top to bottom, creates opportunity. Furthermore, as the concept and protection of “bargaining unit” work has either eroded or been eviscerated in collective bargaining agreements by subcontracting outside of the protected workforce, the Browning-Ferris case brought by the Teamsters as they try to include subcontracted workers under the direction of the employer in the election and bargaining unit could be a huge protection for existing union workers and those under agreements.

Will any of this make union organizing easier? I’m still not so sure that’s the case. Even including subcontracted workers in an election is tricky, since most subcontractors are on 30-day cancellation contracts keeping them on tender hooks and therefore more vulnerable and susceptible to pressure by contract supervisors still outside the reach of unfair labor practices. Franchisees with more authority or franchisees with tighter links to the brand or corporation are still a thousand flowers blooming out there that are exceedingly difficult to pluck for organizers. Brother Craig Becker, former NLRB member and now general counsel for the AFL-CIO most optimistically says, “McDonald’s has a working-class clientele and it has to be concerned of how it’s perceived on how it treats its workers.” Boy, I wish that were true, but Walmart continues to serve as the most outstanding case in point, and workers with small paychecks are core customers for Walmart, McDonalds, and hundreds of other companies, because they have been forced to look the other way to stay within their pay.

So call this a potential win for workers and keep your fingers crossed that this is the way it breaks, rather than separating them even farther from a lifeline to the larger company, and keep on your knees praying that we get an actual break in making it easier to organize such workers sometime in our lives.

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