Pro-Labor are not the Same as Pro-Union Policies

New Orleans       To have a number of Democratic candidates for President full-throatily espousing policies that seem to favor labor is so rare that it earned a headline in the New York Times saying, “Democrats Grow Bolder With Pro-Labor Policies.”  Hey, that’s got to be good news under any circumstances, so let’s see what it’s all about.

We know virtually all of the candidates are in favor of raising the minimum wage. Andrew Yang who is not at the top of the pack is still getting solid attention advocating for a guaranteed annual wage or universal basic income, as it’s known more broadly.  Something is bound to happen on this issue, one way or another.  The federal minimum wage can’t stay permanently at $7.25 per hour.

A good number of candidates understand that the definitions of employees versus independent contractors must be clarified so that tech and other exploitation of workers can be stopped.  Fast forward to thirty years from now when there will be a story every other day in the papers, if indeed there are still papers, about the social security crisis then when tens of millions of app-workers from this period don’t have enough benefits to survive their lengthening lifespans and government has to bailout the workers because it subsidized the tech predation now while narcotized by its hype.  Importantly, this can be done through the Department of Labor, rather than Congress, so it might actually happen as well.

Other candidates want to prohibit non-compete agreements and mandatory arbitration.  One blocks worker mobility, while the other handcuffs workers to bad work and employers.  Admittedly, it is amazing how non-compete agreements have spread even to the service industry, but most of this advocacy is a plum for professions, techsters, and middle-class, suburban voters.

More candidates are talking about sectoral bargaining, largely I would bet because SEIU has made this a litmus test for their support.  The Times reports that some support for these positions around sectoral bargaining are coming from a group at Harvard and something they have convened called the Clean Slate for Worker Power, which has assembled some folks to “reimagine labor law from the ground up.”  I can already see the skepticism clouding your faces.  I looked at the program for their first convening in March and sectoral bargaining didn’t seem to be much in evidence actually, compared to the discussions about worker centers, community-labor partnerships, new formations of organized workers, and worker-support and partnership efforts, many well-known.

The interest in sectoral bargaining seems to come largely from the European experience.  The concept is that with a showing of support in an industry there would be tripartite discussions convened by the government involving representatives of employers and unions to negotiate baseline levels of wages and terms and conditions of employment for workers in these industries.  Extensive conversations with union organizers in Europe indicate that indeed wages and standards rise for nonunion workers at some level, which might be why it has a growing popularity among the chattering class.  Organizers are careful to point out that the body of labor laws benefiting workers is also much deeper and more expansive than we have in the US.  Additionally, though all argue that it helps unions survive at some existential level, none argue that it builds unions and or worker power on the job, independent of unions.  In fact, my recent visits with organizers in the Netherlands and Germany found me listening to the ways that sectoral bargaining had co-opted unions and left workers weaker.  Some ostensibly pro-labor proposals are not the same as pro-union policies, especially of the legal and rights infrastructure for workers and their unions do not receive more protection.

There does seem to be robust discussion of what we have advocated for over 25 years:  majority unionism, or what some of them call minority unionism.  That’s good news, especially if it comes with any commitment to actually engage in the real work!

To underline this quick inventory, I would argue none of this is enough.  We need to push harder.  The position of workers won’t substantially change, unless the ability of unions to protect and advance their interests is not welded tightly to the same policies.


Pushing Against the Wave, Progress in India

Katmandu       Having not been able to meet with the ACORN India team for over three years given my inability to have my 10-year visa renewed, I was curious about what I would hear from their reports after my long absence on the ground.  Would we have made progress or just run in place?  The rightwing, communalist and hyper-nationalist government of India under Prime Minister Modi was a wave of resistance against the progress of our work in mega-slums like Dharavi in Mumbai and lower waged workers in Bengaluru, Chennai, and Delhi.  It was exciting to hear where we had jumped by leaps and bounds once the reports began in our first full day and a half of meetings, and where we still faced huge obstacles at every turn.

briefing on nepal political and economic situation from editor of Himalya Magazine with Vinod Shetty and Dharmendra Kumar

Perhaps the most significant victory was less than a week old in Delhi, where ACORN’s Dharmendra Kumar and our members had been fiercely lobbying the Chief Minister, who has become a sometime ally in our work there.  The campaign and victory are reminiscent of the Lifeline utility fights ACORN waged in Arkansas, South Dakota, and other states in the 1970s.  The Delhi government offers electricity subsidies for low income residences using between zero and 200 units of electricity where they pay less than 50% of the bill and between 200 and 400 units where they only pay 25% of the bill.  Over 400 units or kilowatts, the rates accelerate quickly.  ACORN noted that these breaks only benefit the meter holders, often landlords, and not the low-income tenants.  Since the landlord had multiple units, the single residential meter would show considerable use of electricity, meaning that lower income tenants were therefore paying the highest possible rates for usage.  We finally won a victory here when the government capitulated and ordered the sub-meters to be put in the names of the tenants, providing them the full subsidy that others were receiving.  Realizing that landlords will still drag their feet and resist these changes, Kumar and ACORN believe this could be a huge opportunity for ACORN to extend out work of building community organizations throughout the city.  The general progress in Delhi on many fronts filled many pages in my notebook, as I scribbled to keep up with all the news.

current political poster…how often do you see Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao on an election poster?

In Bengaluru, Suresh Kashidan reported that he had failed to push the membership in our hawkers and street vendors union to 50,000 as he had hoped, but we had boosted it by 10,000 members to 45,000 now.  Bengaluru was largely holding its own, but Chennai in neighboring Tamil Nadu has added three thousand to 8000, and Mysore in southern Karnataka was a breakthrough with 8000 members.  The Hawkers Livelihood law has been implemented in backwards fashion with the town committee still not elected and the zones not totally sorted, but the process of licensure has been implemented with almost 15,000 hawkers licensed out of the 24,000 applications.  Suresh has identified and documented 130,000 hawkers, so it’s a slow road.  We are enabled to enroll people for the ID and into the social security scheme in Karnataka which is helping us grow the operation as well.

In Mumbai our Dharavi Project has managed to make inroads with its program into various corporate responsibility programs and can count a coup in now doing all the recycling in the Bloomberg building as well as adding other companies.  ACORN is also running zero-waste programs at several big trade gatherings including ones organized for big recycling companies by a German firm.

Believe me, this isn’t the half of all I learned, forcing me to consider how we can double down in India to increase the scale.

Please enjoy Norah Jones’  I’ll Be Gone feat. Mavis Staples

Thanks to Kabf.