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It's time we admitted it: To save this country, we need labor unions

Posted by on Wed, Jun 3, 2015 @ 15:06 PM

It's time for a big push for labor to organize.

We are at an economic crossroads. The economy is finally humming along, but we're seeing increasingly terrible working conditions, at both the high and low ends of the income ladder.

The economic problem of this generation in the United States is income inequality. The rich continue to get richer, and the rest of America wonders when, if ever, a raise is coming. The CEO-to-average-worker pay ratio in 2013 was 331:1. For every dollar the average employee made, a CEO made $331. Back in 1983, the ratio was less than 50:1. (At Wal-Mart in 2013, the ratio was over 1000:1.)

One of the best solutions to this problem is for workers to organize and form unions. As you can see from the chart above, the share of income going to the top 10% of earners took off as union membership fell.

Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of legitimate drawbacks to unions. It adds another layer of political bureaucracy to the workforce. The workplace becomes less flexible, and more split into an us (workers) and them (managers) mentality. That can hurt team cohesion. And overall, it can be a detriment to business.

On the other hand, it can also remind workers that their company isn't their friend — everybody deserves to be paid fairly for their work. Unions can be frustrating for workers, until a crisis happens and they suddenly become indispensable. 

Organizing may not be the only solution to income inequality. But it's a big one, and it could move the economy in the right direction.

It's already beginning

On Wednesday, employees at Gawker Media, the massive New York-based news site, will vote on whether to join the Writers Guild of America. This is a symbolic moment, as Gawker would be the first media company created in the age of web-only journalism to vote to organize. Once upon a time, Gawker was known as a place where young writers went to make a name for themselves for a pittance. 

That's no longer the case. Because Gawker now seems to be a relatively pleasant place to work, it makes it even more impressive that the employees are ready to organize. 

In the LA Times, Steven Greenhouse writes, "The Gawker unionization drive shows that many young people support a union for the same reasons that many of their parents and grandparents did decades ago... [the Gawker employees] say that having a union will assure minimum salary levels and regular raises, improved health coverage and maternity benefits, and create a grievance procedure."

It's a truism that young people are the future of the labor movement, but when you look at the numbers, they are the ones who are the most optimistic about it. Pew put out a new survey on the American public's views on union membership back in April, and young people turn out to be vastly more positive about unions than any other generation.

Andy Kiersz/Pew

 

This coincides with millennials overtaking Gen X as the largest demographic group in the labor force.

Most of these millennials have also entered the labor force in one of the worst economic climates since the Great Depression (after which there was an explosion in labor organization). The demographics, optimism, and economic malaise line up to paint a pretty good picture of the opportunity for labor organizing in the US. 

In the last few years, we haven't really seen that. That's because workers have not had much power. When the economy was still really weak, workers didn't have the leverage to demand much from their employers. But the tides are turning and the labor market is firming up. People are quitting and moving between jobs. And yet we're still not seeing wage growth. That should be making workers angry.

Workers now have leverage

We're starting to see the effects. Low paid workers from all industries are increasingly joining the Fight for $15 campaign. Fast food workers are winning higher wages (through organizing). Wal-Mart just announced a pay hike for 500,000 employees. Los Angeles is in the final stages of raising its minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020.

R

Even in notoriously union-averse Silicon Valley, support workers are organizing, thanks to a big push supported by the California Labor Federation. Unions are organizing bus drivers and security guards that work on the big tech campuses like Facebook and Google.

Higher wages will come at a cost

Higher wages aren't going to bankrupt corporate America. But paying workers more does cut into profits. Wall Street knows this, and it is aware that keeping union membership low is good for them. Policy wins like the $15 minimum wage are great, but not as effective as voting to organize, which unions are still having a hard time with.

In an investment outlook from last year, Goldman Sachs wrote: 

The most important structural reason for the increase in [profit] margins is the fact that the share of corporate revenues that accrues to labor has been steadily declining since 1990. As shown in Exhibit 14, labor’s share of national income was on an upward trajectory until about 1970. It then stabilized for two decades with twin peaks in 1980 and 1992. Since then, labor’s share has been on a downward trend. While some of the recent decline may be cyclical due to the financial and economic crisis of 2008–09, we believe that most of the shift is structural. 

As long as union membership stays low, corporate profits stay high. This is what exhibit 14, referenced above, looks like: 

Goldman Sachs

The only way to get that line back up is to organize.

But the cost of low wages is higher

Not everyone on Wall Street thinks organizing is a terrible idea for business.

"Falling rates of union membership fragment the labor pool’s bargaining capabilities, keep wage inflation low and thus have the potential to enhance profits," John Stoltzfus, a managing director and Chief Market Strategist at Oppenheimer and Co. "That said, it is ironic that in an economy that is driven by the consumer, reduced wage growth impacts earnings growth of many corporate entities in sectors that traditionally attract broad flows of discretionary income."

Stoltzfus speculates that stagnant wages have contributed to weak earnings in some industries including retail.

While each individual company wants to keep their labor costs low, if all consumer-facing companies' customers have thinner paychecks, that's going to cut into revenues. Eventually, low wages become bad for everyone.

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Topics: Labor Unions, AFL-CIO

President McGarvey Participates in "America's Nuclear Energy Future" Forum

Posted by on Tue, Jun 2, 2015 @ 14:06 PM
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Topics: Labor Unions, Construction Jobs, Construction

How can the US strengthen unions?

Posted by on Fri, May 29, 2015 @ 12:05 PM

In the US, the decline of the middle class is nearly identical to the decline of American labor union membership. What does this mean for the future of unions and the US economy?

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Topics: Labor Unions, legislation, Union Labor

UAW rival at VW represented by 'union avoidance' expert

Posted by on Thu, May 28, 2015 @ 09:05 AM
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - The rival group to the United Auto Workers union at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee brands itself as local, independent and free of outside influence or political agenda.

But the American Council of Employees won't divulge how it is funded, and the lawyer who recently filed the group's overdue disclosures with the U.S. Department of Labor touts his expertise in "union avoidance."

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Topics: Labor Unions, Union Advantage

The Battle Over the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Fast-Track Gets Hot

Posted by on Thu, Apr 30, 2015 @ 10:04 AM

Contrary to what the governors were claiming in their letter, trade was a net negative to the tune of more than $130 billion over this five-year period. Instead of adding jobs, the growing trade deficit was drag on growth, slowing job creation and putting downward pressure on wages. The growth in the trade deficit over this period has the same impact on the economy as if people pulled $130 billion out of their paychecks each year and stuffed it under their mattress.

Secretary of State John Kerry also got into the act with a speech that talked about the importance of the world economy. He told his audience that most of the growth in the future will be outside of the United States and that we will be missing huge markets if we don’t have an open economy.

This is true, but it has about as much relevance to the TPP and fast-track as an analysis of the Washington Wizards’ playoff prospects. The United States already has almost $4 trillion in trade annually (at 23 percent of GDP). This figure has been rising rapidly. It will continue to rise rapidly whether or not Congress approves the TPP. The fact that trade is good has nothing to do with whether Congress should approve the TPP.

This is a lesson that was apparently also lost on Harvard economist Greg Mankiw. In a New York Times column last week Mankiw argued for the congressional approval on fast-track authority based on the claim that all economists agree that free trade is good.

In fact, not all economists agree that all reductions in trade barriers are good. But more importantly, the TPP is not primarily about reducing trade barriers. The TPP is essentially a pact in which the Obama administration invited industry representatives to get together a wish list and see what they could impose on the other parties to the deal.

Since formal trade barriers are already low, very little time was spent on cutting tariffs or ending quotas. Most of the deal is about imposing a business-friendly regulatory structure. The rules in the TPP can be used to challenge any consumer, labor, or environmental regulation approved at the state, local or federal level. The enforcement powers will rest with an extra-judicial dispute settlement mechanism that will impose penalties that are not subject to appeal.

On this issue President Obama’s assurance that the TPP will not challenge financial regulation or other types of regulation are worthless. He has no idea what sort of people will be appointed to these tribunals in future years. The tribunals are not bound by U.S. law or even the precedent of rulings from other tribunals. Does President Obama really want us to believe that he knows a President Bush or President Walker won’t appoint people who will use the tribunals to undermine environmental and labor regulations?

The absurdity of conflating the TPP with “free trade” is brought out by the fact that its biggest impact may well be from increasing the strength of patent protection, especially in the case of prescription drugs. Patents are government-granted monopolies. They are the opposite of free trade. The TPP will make them stronger and longer raising drug prices. This increase in protectionism is a drag on growth and will slow job creation.

The Obama administration has punted in the one area where a trade deal may have had a major positive impact. The deal will not have any rules on currency. The main reason the United States continues to run large trade deficits is that our trading partners deliberately prop up the dollar against their currencies. This makes their goods relatively cheaper and ours more expensive.

The Obama administration could have made currency rules front and center in a trade deal, but that would have only made sense if its main concern was jobs and workers. Instead we have a deal that is a piñata for the corporations who were at the table, and who the Democrats are counting on to give generously in the 2016 campaign.

This doesn’t look very pretty to the rest of us, which is why the Obama administration will have to play fast and loose with the truth to get the TPP through Congress.



 

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Topics: Labor Unions, Construction Jobs, tax credit

Cowlitz Indian Tribe signs labor pact with construction unions

Posted by on Tue, Apr 28, 2015 @ 09:04 AM

The Cowlitz Indian Tribe continues to move forward with plans to construct a $510 million casino near La Center, in spite of pending lawsuits.

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Topics: Labor Unions, Construction Jobs, Projec Labor Agreement, Union Labor

At Home and Abroad, the Labor Movement Comes Roaring Back

Posted by on Mon, Apr 20, 2015 @ 15:04 PM

Protestors pause near a McDonald’s restaurant in Times Square during a rally and march in New York, Wednesday, April 15, 2015, as participants, fast food workers and union members, call for a $15 minimum wage. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

On April 15, 2015, low-wage workers across the US and around the world once again waged a flash strike intended to capture the attention of employers and policy-makers who control their wages. Protesters didn’t spend their limited monies to ride buses, trains or planes to Washington, DC where their actions might or might not have attracted much media attention. Instead, they took to the streets where they live and labor — in 200 US cities and across the United Kingdom, Brazil, India, Italy, Bangladesh, Japan, and 30 other countries.

At a time when multi-national corporations are 50 of the world’s largest 100 economies, this movement has had to be both intensely local and expansively global. Less than three years ago, the grassroots campaign for a living wage began in scattered Thanksgiving protests by New York City fast food workers and Los Angeles Wal-Mart associates. This year’s protests are the largest and most global labor actions ever mounted.

From Manila to Manhattan, workers are showing the face of the 21st century labor movement. On Wednesday, Fight for $15 protests gleefully short-circuited the “90-seconds-a-customer” service rule at McDonald’s. In Seoul, workers staged mock trials of Ronald McDonald for wage theft; in Manila they blocked streets and malls with singing and dancing flash mobs. Protesters uploaded clips of their actions onto YouTube and Facebook. They Instagrammed photographs and sent fast-disappearing Snapchat messages about where to meet for the next action. In this era of social media, organizers no longer need to worry about press coverage — or at least they don’t’ need to worry as much.

In many parts of the world, this April’s worker protests offered local labor activists a chance to highlight their own struggles. In Brazil, unions called a general strike for April 15, in solidarity with workers in other countries and to protest recent legislative encroachments on labor rights.  In Bangladesh, garment workers have, in the last two years, built a global movement forcing scores of major clothing labels to sign an accord allowing Bangladeshi unions to inspect garment factories for safety violations. On April 24, the 2nd anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse — which killed 1,134 garment workers and injured thousands more — Bangladeshi workers will lead a global day of action to pressure brand companies to pay damages to victims and their families. Garment union leader Kalpona Akter and Rana Plaza survivor Mahina Begum were among 28 arrested last month in New Jersey for bringing that demand in person to corporate executives of The Children’s Place. This month, Benetton finally agreed to pay damages.

The living wage issue is also as local as it is global. Fifty-eight percent of the US jobs created since the 2008 crash do not pay enough for workers to live on. Local workers’ protests blocked sidewalks in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, where immigrant restaurant employees endure 70-hour weeks and wages that are even lower than the pitiful federal minimum of $2.13 an hour for tipped employees. Home health care workers, too, have begun to step out of the shadows where they care for fragile clients. How they find the time to organize is anyone’s guess, given that some work as many as 120 hours a week. The fight for a living wage has even started to interrupt classes on American college campuses, where three-quarters of professors are now contingent contract laborers and one in four earns so little that they require public assistance to survive.  Adjunct professors are not quite as hard-pressed as the country’s fast food workers, 52 percent of whom receive public assistance; home-health care workers, 48 percent of whom need to turn to cash, food or medical aid programs; or child care workers, 46 percent of whom also need government aid. Still, a majority of college professors are now employed on temporary contracts, shuttling between campuses, teaching upwards of 12 courses a year, earning between $20,000 and $25,000 annually.  They are truly low-wage workers, and they feel a real bond with fast food workers, child-care workers, and providers of at-home health care.

It is extraordinary for workers as different as these to band together. We have reached a point where even an advanced degree no longer guarantees a path out of poverty.

Perhaps that is why the movement has already had its successes. City officials from Providence to Seattle have passed municipal minimum wages that are significantly higher than federal or state requirements. Voters in red states as well as blue cast their ballots last November for increased state minimum wages. And, most recently, the world’s largest corporations have shown signs of recognition that they must raise wages a little bit — if only for appearances.

Still, fair wages are not all that this movement seeks. Low-wage workers — in the US and abroad — are demanding the right to unionize without employer retribution. That demand has met fierce opposition from employers of all sizes.

Low-wage workers have few options for exerting power over employers. One is “hitting them in the pocketbook” — staging protests that disrupt business. Another is leveraging the power of government on the side of workers: Large unions such as The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), representing health care workers in Connecticut — and small worker’s groups such as the Laundry Workers Center United (LWCU), representing restaurant employees in New York City — have recently filed suit for wage theft, sexual harassment, and violation of federal minimum wage and maximum hours laws.

Increasingly, employers have filed their own suits — using the Racketeering and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO) — to try to hobble union campaigns.  RICO suits filed solely to hinder labor organizing violate the spirit of the original legislation, passed in 1970 to facilitate prosecution of organized crime and to limit mobsters’ ability to take over labor unions. But, from the perspective of workers, such suits only inspire more activism. As Virgilio Aran recently told me about the RICO suit filed against organized employees of Liberato restaurant in the Bronx: “For every suit they file against us we will organize 1000 times harder.”

Just a few short years after it was declared dead and almost buried, the labor movement has come roaring back. Behind it has come a powerful bipartisan sentiment that it is time to pay workers something better than poverty wages.  In the last few decades we have regressed to the wealth stratification of the 1890s. Perhaps now we can return to the majority view of the 1930s that unions have a positive role to play in a stable, healthy economy.



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Topics: Labor Unions

Congress introduces fast track legislation

Posted by on Mon, Apr 20, 2015 @ 14:04 PM

 

On Thursday, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-OR), along with House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), introduced “The Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015.” Co-sponsors of this trade promotion authority (TPA) measure claim that it will establish rules for international trade agreements that “boost the American economy and better jobs for American workers.”

At issue is giving President Barack Obama streamlined authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12-country free-trade deal that would essentially dwarf the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Many letter carriers can well recall how NAFTA devastated the American labor force by sending millions of jobs overseas.

Chief negotiators for this new TPA measure claim to have included in it provisions that will protect American workers and renew trade preference (“Buy American”) programs. However some lawmakers are skeptical of the Obama administration’s trade agenda, and this skepticism could translate into opposition of any trade legislation that limits Congress’ ability to offer amendments but instead favors straight up-or-down votes.

House Republicans want a vote on the bill before they break for the Memorial Day recess; however, support for the Hatch-Wyden-Ryan TPA bill is unclear.

The measure needs 218 votes to pass in the House of Representatives. That means between 10 and 50 Democrats will be needed to support the bill—depending on how many of the 247 House Republicans might break ranks and oppose it. On that front, there could be anywhere between 24 and 50 Republican who oppose this TPA, alongside an estimated 10 Democrats.

“The Hatch-Wyden-Ryan TPA gives up congressional leverage at the exact wrong time,” House Ways and Means Committee Ranking Member Sander Levin (D-MI) said. “Instead of pressing [the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative] to get a better agreement or signaling to our negotiating partners that Congress will only accept a strong agreement, the TPA puts Congress in the back seat and greases the skids for an up-or-down vote after the fact.”

“We don’t know how many Tea Party Republicans will not want to give the president this authority,” said Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), who is also actively opposing the bill and represents a heavy manufacturing district. “You see on some of the negotiations with Iran [LINK], they want a heavy amount of oversight; they want to watch every move that he makes.

“If that same group applies that same standard to this trade agreement,” Ryan said, “there may be some backlash with us in the House not having the ability to amend it.

“There’s a lot of unknowns out there for a Democrat to get out in front and say, ‘I’m definitely voting for this.’ ”

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-NY), a staunch opponent of TPA, said there is a larger concern at stake. “The single biggest economic issue facing American families is that jobs do not pay enough to live on,” she said. “Fast-tracking the TPP would make it easier for corporations to offshore Americans jobs and force our workers to compete with those making less than 60 cents an hour.”

In the Senate, Finance Committee Chairman Hatch wants a much earlier vote—by the end April—but he will need six supportive Democrats to get to a 60-vote, filibuster-breaking threshold.

“What I can tell you, which is good news, is a lot of members are feeling the heat,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who also opposes TPA. “Whether we can beat it in the Senate or not, I don’t know. I think we have a better shot frankly in the House where, to the best of my knowledge, the overwhelming majority of Democrats are against it.”

At a Senate Finance Committee hearing Thursday to discuss the legislation, several senators raised concerns. “Not fair and not adequate on such an important issue,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate’s third-ranking Democrat, who protested plans to rush to a vote.

In anticipation of introduction of the bill, NALC joined several member of Congress and the leaders of other organization at a rally Wednesday on Capitol Hill to voice concerns over trade agreements that fail to address labor’s concerns.

“Our message to all 535 members of Congress is the same,” NALC President Fredric Rolando said at the rally: “We strongly oppose Fast Track authority, and we expect every one of you to vote against it.

“We’ve all seen this movie before,” he said. “Big business and Wall Street banks push secret, anti-democratic deals to protect the investor rights of multi-national companies, under the banner of ‘free trade.’ And they promise rising wages and millions of jobs.

“But what we get,” Rolando said, “is outsourcing, wage stagnation and ballooning trade deficits.”

“We’re here today to fight,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who has declared her opposition to Fast Track and TPA. “We are here to fight. Are you ready to fight?”

Also joining Warren to speak were Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Al Franken (D-MN) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-NY), Keith Ellison (D-MN), Alan Grayson (D-FL), Dan Kildee (D-MI), Rick Nolan (D-MN), Tim Ryan (D-OH) and Brad Sherman (D-CA).

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Topics: Labor Unions, AFL-CIO, Construction Jobs, Construction, Union Labor

NLRB Considers New Rules to Limit Non-Member Grievance Representation

Posted by on Thu, Apr 16, 2015 @ 15:04 PM

 

According to Politico, The National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) newest focus might be on limiting the right-to-work movement’s pitch of required representation of non-union workers. In a call for briefs yesterday, the agency said it may allow a union to collect a fee from a non-member in a right-to-work state if that member is not a dues paying member. Under current NLRB rules and regulations, unions are prohibited from collecting any fees from non-members in right-to-work states, regardless of whether those members actually use that union’s resources in a conflict with their employer. That’s what the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which created and regulates the circulation of right-to-work laws in the U.S., has always been understood to mean.

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Topics: Labor Unions, Construction Jobs, Union Labor

Indiana to Repeal Vital Private Sector Wage Protection; 12 Republicans Buck Party, Back Labor

Posted by on Thu, Apr 16, 2015 @ 11:04 AM
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Topics: Labor Unions, Construction Jobs, Construction

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