China May Drop the Stock Market, but India is in Turmoil

Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 9.51.50 AMKiln, Mississippi     So while all the big whoops worry about their 10ks, plummeting stocks on Wall Street, and whether or not the Fed raises interest rates in Wyoming, what are the rest of us supposed to do? We have grown men and women believing in unicorns and giving them billions. What’s up that that? I thought only very small children and Rainbow Brite believed in unicorns?

No one seems to have a grip on China and one report contradicts another. The economy is collapsing, they are laying off 300,000 soldiers even while they are motor boating into international water space when President Obama is hiking in Alaska, and still more people are buying Apple’s gadgets over there. Somehow China owns a big hunk of America, but it’s a daily mystery to most of us. So, let’s take a break and take a look at India. There’s a democracy of sorts and a country maybe we can understand.

Here’s what we know: India is somewhere between topsy-turvy and turmoil!

Prime Minister Modi took office in a rightwing rout as the BJP, a conservative communalist party swept the long serving Congress Party out of office. Modi had been the governor of Gujarat and, pretending it was Texas, he had campaigned on the supposed economic miracles in the state. Others were less sure. There was still the persistent question about his role in not stopping the slaughter of Muslims in the state some years ago which had been serious enough to deny him a visa for entry into the United States up until like yesterday almost. Much of his platform seemed to be economic development or else, and it is hard to ramrod such a program through a country with even a semblance of democracy.

Attempts to gut the nation’s labor laws to pave the way for business were met this week by a general protest strike called by ten unions that organizers estimated involved 125 million workers. Al Jazeera quoted ACORN India and our hawkers’ union organizer, Dharmendra Kumar, saying

The Modi government has turned a blind eye towards the problems being faced by the labor class. The government must rethink its labor policies. Modi has made a mockery of us by telling the world to come and manufacture in India because it has the cheapest labor.

Kumar also repeated the call for an increase in the monthly minimum wage “from $72 to $226 be extended to the informal sector.”

Ok, you say, but maybe this is just us. Well, I don’t think so.

This week the Modi government also withdrew its proposals for seizing agricultural land for either government infrastructure projects or corporate economic development, which had been a centerpiece of his program to jump-start the economy and make the country more business friendly. Land issues have been wildly contentious in states throughout the country. Modi got a reminder that rapidly urbanizing India is still almost half rural and agrarian.

And, then there’s the mess in Gujarat. Friends volunteering in Gujarat’s largest city had offered to help out while in the state, and I’d demurred saying we continued to not be comfortable working in Gujarat, but thanks all the same. We got an email saying that demonstrations of 300000 to half-million people in the city had led to them being housebound for days as the military was mustered and the state feared a return of communal violence. The issue was triggered when one of the major castes totally almost 15% of the total state population known as popularly as the Patels hit the streets demanding either an end to the reservation or quota system of affirmative action in employment and education for long discriminated against groups or that they should be made a registered caste themselves and allowed to compete for the reserved slots. Reading the story in the Times, Journal, or other western sources and you are clueless, but this is the “fire next time” in India, and it is hard to believe that managing such a crisis is Modi’s strong suit given his history in Gujarat.

Good luck with figuring out China and believing in unicorns, but keep an eye on India. There’s a reason that Obama has established a “hotline” to Modi in India now. Something big is boiling there!


Rallying for $15

10478188_731954839698_3276092294241401119_nBirmingham, England      Before catching a plane for the UK, I went down with fifteen Local 100 United Labor Unions members and supporters with our t-shirts on to join the New Orleans piece of the national rally and demonstrations for raising wages to $15 per hour for fastfood and other workers in the US. We met in the parking lot of the new Whole Foods grocery store in New Orleans on Broad Street in Mid-City, no small irony there, since they are not the best on wage issues by a long shot, but they are at least smart enough to look the other way when 50 people are mustering in their parking lot.

Our crowd was pretty typical of what has become the “new normal” for these kinds of events around the country. A smattering of union activists from the local labor council, AFGE, and others who were in town to help with the endgame of the Landrieu election for Senate were there. There were some red-shirts saying Unite HERE for the local union. There were shirts identifying a local immigrant rights organization and one saying Legalize Arizona from the marches there several years ago, a t-shirt and action I was proud to participate in as well. There were some shirts calling for $15 per hour, who I assume were a combination of local and out-of-town SEIU folks but none of us knew any of them other than the national campaign organizer assigned to New Orleans who had convened the meetings that had brought all of us there. Perhaps there were two or three workers from McDonald’s and other fast food operations. One spoke briefly before we marched over to the McDonald’s on Canal Street next to the RTA Building named after A. Philip Randolph, the former legendary head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. There weren’t many civilians. This was a labor-for-labor rally.

It was a gorgeous December day in New Orleans with temperatures in the 70’s, so t-shirt weather all the way. There was some whispering before we began about the fact that contrary to earlier claims, four workers had been fired the previous year for their participation, three days after the annual rallies. Nonetheless, we were encouraged to parade individually through the store. It was all good-spirited with whoops and chants and whatnot. Many were surprised and confused to read the news reports later that some people had been arrested since this had somehow happened off to the side or after the main column had gone on about their business.

On the whole this is all good stuff. We need to have unions and union activists standing up for lower waged workers, especially given the tenuousness of their employment. Advocating for higher wages for workers is 100% the business of unions, and given the frozen minimum wage, fast food workers are good poster people for the campaign. A portrait of a leader of these actions from Kansas City profiled in the New York Times was inspiring. This is decidedly not about unionizing these workers, nor a strike in any way, but none of that should detract from the fact that it’s the right thing to do, and we all should do our part.


Fast Food Organizing Tactics Clouding the Strategy

 PHOTO BY JESSICA SEAMAN Protestors block Broadway Street in downtown Little Rock on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014, to ask for higher wages. Some chanted: "Make our wages super-sized."

Protestors block Broadway Street in downtown Little Rock on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014, to ask for higher wages. Some chanted: “Make our wages super-sized.”

Montreal    In two years,  the New York Times notes that there have now been seven actions involving fast food workers and demands for $15 per hour. The latest claimed to have held actions in 150 cities around the US with up to 500 arrested for civil disobedience, largely street blocking. The Times’ labor reporter, Steven Greenhouse, now puts the tab covered by the Service Employees at $10 million for this campaign, though I’m sure that’s “above the line” costs, not counting deployment of much more involving existing staff, offices, and operations, which is one of the ways a flag gets planted in this number of cities.

Grant Williams, an old ACORN organizer in his youth for several years and a longtime SEIU organizer now, left best wishes for me the other day with Toney Orr, Local 100’s state director for Arkansas, when he was in Little Rock trying to expand the campaign from his home port of St. Louis. This is something that must feel like a walk in the park for Grant and right in his wheelhouse, and the number of times fast food workers from St. Louis pop up in these stories, indicates that he and his team are doing a great job. Someone from St. Louis was one of the 19 arrestees in New York City. Three of the eleven arrested in Little Rock were from St. Louis. Not sure how many of the dozen or so in Memphis.

In fact, Missouri must be the real ground zero from this campaign since on the list of 150 cities on the website a full 20 of the cities were St. Louis and Kansas City suburbs with a few other scattered sites in Missouri. Pine Bluff, Jacksonville, and North Little Rock were on the list of cities as well, because folks from those cities were part of the actions in Little Rock. Local papers recorded no actions in the cities themselves. Add Southhaven, Mississippi to the Memphis action on the credit list for the St. Louis team as well. An action in New Orleans included people from St. Rose, Luling, Harvey, and Slidell, all part of the greater metro area, so they were part of the 150 list as well. Three were arrested in New Orleans, two of whom were workers, and though Baton Rouge is on the list of 150, there were no reports in the Baton Rouge Advocate of any Baton Rouge activity.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that the protestors began in Little Rock at 8AM, and had been arrested and were back on the bus by 9AM, and headed to Memphis to continue their protest. The Memphis Commercial Appeal reported that a dozen were arrested blocking the entrance to a McDonalds on Popular Avenue in that city at noon, so they made good time, despite that construction past Forrest City. This roving picket line of sorts had managed to stay busy!

From these numbers it looks like New Orleans, Memphis, and Little Rock are right at the epicenter of the fast food organizing with almost 10% of the cities where there are actions. Throw in the Missouri-based work and their 20 hotspots, and going up and down the Mississippi River we have more than 20% of the hotspots. Who knew?

I was optimistic about the reports on homecare workers joining the campaign, and there was evidence that some spoke to the issues, as I predicted, in Illinois, but otherwise they were not part of the story, even if I still hope there may have been others that were part of the action.

Don’t misunderstand me, if a fast food worker was from a city, then nothing wrong with claiming the city, but as an organizer, I know that someone passing through or picking up the bus someplace is not the same as having the location organized. But, when you get involved in the “claims” game of how many cities and how many arrests, it’s just a matter of time before someone starts counting the names and numbers to see if this is manufacturing or a movement, and when that happens the smoke and mirrors can cloud the strategy and workers and supporters get confused between what they know and can see versus what they had hoped was there.

For fast food and other lower wage workers, the anger is real and the demands are just. We better make sure that we don’t get tripped up by the tactics on the way to putting together a winning strategy.


Please enjoy Come from the Heart by Hard Working Americans Featuring Rosanne Cash.

Thanks to Kabf.


The Co-Employer Fight at McDonald’s Searches for an Employer and a Strategy

protest at McDonald's headquarters in Oak Park

protest at McDonald’s headquarters in Oak Park

New Orleans       More than a thousand fast food workers rallied at a convention center near O’Hare Airport in Chicago in a boisterous, morale boosting event sponsored by the Service Employees International Union in the on-going campaign for a living wage. More interesting is the ongoing effort by the union to define the employer for many of these workers, determine whether there is a co-employer status between the parent companies and franchisees, and puzzle out a real organizing strategy across thousands and thousands of different locations.

Having been there and done this before, let’s start with the obvious. It is incredibly difficult to win a co-employer case before the NLRB! Some years ago Local 100   had Waste Management, the garbage company, by the short hairs as a joint employer employing the “hoppers” or manual laborers working the business end of the truck loading the garbage into the hopper and recruited and paid by their subcontractor on a cost-plus agreement. We endured a lengthy and expensive hearing and had the company cold, but we were missing a “smoking gun,” which we later found incidentally, that would have established the co-employer status in correspondence on company letterhead, so we narrowly lost, took the election and won, rather than going through another five or six years of court appeals.

SEIU had success with this legal strategy several decades ago at the dawn of the Justice for Janitors campaign when they won a ruling in a Pittsburgh building service campaign that the building owner was a co-employer with the cleaning subcontractor, allowing the union to pressure the owner to settle a contract on more favorable terms, since they had the power in the contracting relationship. That NLRB decision was a shot heard across the property service industry, and higher and stronger walls were immediately built in markets throughout the country between ownership and their janitorial subcontractors, making it virtually impossible to win similar decisions, though still allowing the union to target ownership and large contractors more successfully in winning campaigns to organize janitors in other cities. I should quickly add that this does not make that campaign a model for fast food, no matter how many superficial similarities, since cleaning and labor costs are a minimal part of a building’s expense, but are the most significant part of a restaurant’s expense.

McDonald’s runs about 19% of its locations, somewhere over 6000 stores as corporate locations, while almost 30000 are franchised. More than 850,000 workers of the 1.7 million worldwide are employed in the USA by the company. Other fastfood operations are similarly organized. Yum, the operator for Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut is about 25% corporate, while Burger King is only about 8% corporate. Pushing operations over to franchisees has been the increasing trend for all of these companies in recent years. When the United Labor Unions organized fastfood workers in Detroit in the early 1980s under the NLRB with organizers, Danny Cantor, Keith Kelleher, and Mark Splain, driving the program, we were constantly tripping over the problem of which stores were corporate and which franchise, as we filed representation petitions with all of these companies. It was a nightmare!

SEIU and its allies have appealed to the NLRB Division of Advice and the General Counsel for a determination on whether or not the McDonald’s Corporation is a co-employer with its thousands of franchisees and arguing that they are. Reporters seem to believe that a decision is imminent. They must have very good inside sources, because there is no time limit on how long the Division of Advice can chew on a case, and it can as easily take years as months, and the lawyers that do the looking for the General Counsel are not political appointees.

Nonetheless, Steven Greenhouse, the labor reporter for the New York Times speculates that “if the labor board agrees, that would open the door for the SEIU to try to unionize not just three or five McDonald’s at a time, but dozens and perhaps hundreds.” I doubt it. If they wanted to move that way, they already could have done so since in major markets franchisees already own dozens and in some cases scores of locations in places like Houston, as does the corporation. Organizing under the NLRB would mean an additional fight on unit determination, as we often found to our peril, since such ownership patterns could lead to “an appropriate unit” being defined as every store in a geographical area owned by an individual franchisee or by the parent corporation. Furthermore, if the NLRB did advise that there was a potential joint employer status, an army of corporate and franchise lawyers would be revising the contracts and operating agreements at all hours of the day and night to build higher, stronger walls between the parties to prevent such a definition at the point an actual representation petition might be filed. And, then once it were filed, start the clock ticketing on the six or seven years to get the issue to the US Supreme Court.

This is a great SEIU tactic to give a hard poke to the company’s eye and try to pry open another front in its campaign, but as an organizing strategy winning or losing the co-employer case is not a game changer for actually unionizing the workers, , nor does it provide enough leverage to cause the companies to change their willingness to be neutral towards unionization. 


The Precariat and the Global Erosion of Job Security

9781849664561_p0_v2_s260x420 London        When I first saw the term “precariat,” it was used by a labor relations professor in the United Kingdom referring to my advocacy of the need to aggressively organize lower waged workers into unions. Though I wasn’t sure I had heard the term used before I was pretty clear we were talking about families whose lives and work were precarious meaning  uncertain, unstable, and without income security or what I’ve called “citizen wealth.”  All of which led me to a recent book by a British economist named Guy Standing, called, The Precariat:  The New Dangerous Class, which I finished reading before boarding a plane to London.

I’ll need to ask around and get a better feel for how widespread the sense of the precariat is in England, though my small sample indicates it’s in somewhat common usage among those people interested in some of the more disconcerting manifestations of globalization not only in Britain, but around the world.  Certainly Standing ramps it up a notch by linking this emerging precariat with street riots in London and other English cities in recent years reflecting the alienation and anger of young people who are increasingly futureless without long term and certain job prospects.

The English may be working to coin a name for this rapidly growing segment of society. Certainly it’s everywhere now.  The loss of job security has turned the Japanese economy upside down for workers.  When we visited with the Tahir Square demonstrations in Egypt several years ago, it was clear that the anger in the square was driven by a central demand for job stability and meaningful work.  Furthermore, the United States has absolutely earned the dubious huge distinction of creating the model for precarious employment typified by the temporary, part-time and casual work of McDonalds and Walmart.

The evidence was as close at hand as a discussion in a recent Wall Street Journal of what experts considered the viable options for a home health care employer and its 500 workers in California as companies prepare to deal with new state regulations requiring such workers to be paid overtime for over 45 hours.  One of the viable options advised by the experts was that the company “turn its employees into independent contractors.”  It would be simple to do so.  The company “would have to pay a one-time fee of about $150 per employee, mostly to update legal documentation and procure a business license for each of the contractors,” but simultaneously the company “would save the 15 percent of payroll that is paid in payroll taxes and the 18 percent, or so, that is paid for workers’ compensation insurance.”  Those payroll taxes of course include unemployment insurance and social security payments underscoring how tenuous or should we say precarious, the newly minted worker would be with this sleight of hand.  This is homecare, but the same thing is happening in jobs throughout North American and abroad.  Hotel maids that are now subcontractors at Hyatt and Wyndham hotels with lower wages and more rooms.  Cleaners, garbage workers, and many others who once were public employees and are now casual, temporary or on-call.  The examples are now boundless.

Standing has a good number of recommendations for how to respond to the creation of this new emerging class of workers including a guaranteed annual income, and certainly that’s not inconsistent with our own views.  He is defensive about criticism for his views on whether labor unions will pick up the banner here, but none of that is surprising either, and this is likely part of the reason why Professor Jane Holgate, a co-author of Union Voices:  Tactics and Tensions in UK Organizing, connected my arguments about the ways and means that unions and community-based organizations needed to step in the gap with new organizational models to build collective formations for such informal workers.   Standing is an economist not an organizer so in all fairness that’s really outside his scope.  Where he almost stumbles into a solid part of our current analysis is in his plea towards the end of the book for such workers to have some forms of representation to make it through so many mazes, which dovetails with our efforts to create exactly that with our new Citizen Wealth Centers in the USA seeking to fill part of that vacuum as a stopgap and precursor of larger concerted activity and organization that must then follow.

Dangerous or not, these are workers that can be and are demanding to be organized, and with their growing numbers in countries around the world can’t be ignored much longer except at our own peril.


Minimum Wage Only Rising in Small Steps Despite $15 Per Hour Demand

Minimum-Wage-101New Orleans    It seems we may be involved in a protracted bit of high-low bargaining over minimum wages in the political and policy areas.   The President has pushed for an increase of the federal minimum from the current $7.25 per hour to $10.10 per hour.  The minimum wage has been frozen since the last year of the Bush Administration raising fears that Obama could be the first Democratic President since the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act to not see an increase in the federal minimum.  On the other side pulling the issue forward for more than a year, fast food and other workers have been calling for a wage more than double the minimum to $15 per hour.   We’re starting to get traction in some states and cities, but it’s coming in small steps not big strides, but at least it’s moving in the right direction.

Delaware has gone to $8.25 over the next year to 2015 or a solid dollar raise.  West Virginia has moved to $8.75 over the next three years to 2016, which is seventy-five cents per year.  Michigan just approved a bump to $9.25 by 2018 from $7.40 now, which is around forty-six cents per year, so let’s say around fifty.  Minnesota hiked the minimum there from $6.15 to $9.50 by 2018, a solid eighty-four cent raise annual.  Maryland and Hawaii went from $7.25 to $10.10 by 2018 a seventy-one cent per hour increase every year.  Connecticut also went to $10.10 but did so by 2017 and was already higher at $8.70, so their bump was forty-seven cents or about fifty let’s pretend per hour.  The District of Columbia, often the leader in these matters pushed up to $11.50 by 2016 from $8.25 to lead the way with an increase of a buck twelve per hour.  Governors have vetoed increases in Maine, New Mexico, and New Jersey, but the trend line is clear, and it’s rising.  The sweet spot for politicians to buckle under seems to be between fifty and seventy-five cents per hour which for lower waged minimum wage workers is something they would absolutely notice in their pay checks putting them ahead between $500 and $1000 per year, if they are fortunate enough to be working full-time.   I’m not saying it’s what they would need and certainly not what they deserve, but seeing an 8 to 10% per hour increase is something no one would hand back.

There’s nothing new about minimum wage increases being incremental or in these ranges.  The Clinton increases were fifty cents in 1996, then forty cents in 1997.   The George W. Bush increases were all seventy cents in 2007, 2008, and then 2009, the last year there was an increase five years ago.  So, the states seem to be bunching up around the same levels with some smaller jurisdictions like Delaware and DC going big and breaking the buck.

At the state level the campaigning for a high side increase to $15 per hour seems to be getting the conversation going, but politicians seem to only be moving along the same gradual levels we’ve seen in the past without any great leaps forward.  We’re raising the noise level, but they’re not moving much farther than they’ve been before.  Furthermore we’re not seeing much progress on indexing to inflation, creating an escalator for the minimums rather than a constant campaign, nor are we seeking much movement on the tipped wage which is still largely frozen at levels approaching twenty years ago.

We’re going the right direction, but we could be lucky at this rate to see $15.00 per hour in ten years, if the trend stays at seventy cents per hour, and at the political level, that’s still good, if we can get it, but in many places that’s still a bridge much too far for many of us to reach any time soon.