Friday, January 2, 2015

Review of Tom Geoghegan: Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement

Tom Geoghegan’s new book Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement is not strictly speaking directed at a labor audience.  As Geoghegan points out, he is writing this book for “people who know little or nothing about—or care little or nothing about or nothing for labor unions, but who may care about ensuring the United States is a going concern.”   With the labor movement down to only representing 7 out of a 100 workers reaching outside of our ranks is a good thing. 

Geoghegan’s book touches a wide range of issues from the need for a labor movement including arguments based on the economic theory of John Maynard Keynes.   He gives his opinions on what  issues the labor movement should be focused on mixed in with antidotes of cases he has worked on.   

One of the recurring themes in labor history concerns whether trade unionism is something fostered by elites or won through the self activity of workers.  Did the 1930s union upsurge happen because elite Democrat policy makers passed legislation including the anti-injunction Norris LaGuardia Act, the National Industrial Recovery Act, and the National Labor Relations Act?  For labor activists these are not mere academic debates but central to our strategy of reviving the labor movement.  After all if we believe government action primarily created the labor movement then an electoral strategy is warranted.  If we believe militancy and grassroots activism created the labor movement then an entirely different strategy is called for. 

On this question Geoghegan comes down firmly (and I will argue below incorrectly) on the side that the labor movement of the 1930s was primarily a creation of elite policy makers.  Perhaps for this reason, the main thrust of his book concerns how we can convince Democratic policy makers to accept unions.  Much of the book is spent on digressions such as the need for Keynesian economic policy and a critique of the idea that higher education can resolve inequality.  While these issues may be worthy of discussion, they are tangential to the urgent task of reviving the labor movement and geared towards elite policy makers rather than workers.

Reading the judicial winds, Geoghegan points out that unions may very well be facing a judicially imposed right to work scheme in the coming years, pointing out “if the agency shop goes away in the public sector, it will—sooner or later, under one rationale or another—in the private sector.”  Geoghegan does not see much of a future in the current model of exclusive representation but like unlike many other labor analysts suggests all is not lost. 

Geoghegan believes we need to make labor organizing a civil right adopting the viewpoint in Richard Kahlenberg and Moshe Marvit’s Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right, a book for which he wrote an introduction.   To get there, Geoghoghan proposes either the labor movement agree to give up exclusive representation and/or utilize a strategy of political strikes to create enough of a crisis to force reluctant Democrats to agree to labor policy changes.  

Although Geoghegan introduces the political strike strategy, which one would think would be central to the book, the proposed strategy is never flushed out.  Although he does mention some examples such as the UE Republic Windows plant takeover, the Chicago Teachers strike, and the Fight for 15 campaign, Geoghegan does not really believe such efforts could create enough of a crisis to force policy makers to restructure labor law.  Instead Geoghegan believes we need explicitly political strikes, say to revamp corporate law to require worker representation on corporate boards of directors.   How one would get workers to engage in such an effort is not explored. 

Geoghegan finds some inspiration for this effort in the Chicago Teachers strike which is an obvious recent example of a very broad based strike with a strong political component.  However, his discussion of the Chicago Teacher strike never explains how the model could be transported into the private sector.  As I explain in my book Strike Back, by their very nature public sector strikes have a political component as they typically involve matters of public concern.    

The true upsurges of labor history have not been scripted public relations events but rather involved millions of workers withholding their labor, hitting corporate America at the point of productions, and creating a crisis by crippling commerce in this country.  Although these strike waves had the ultimate effect of forcing law makers to change labor law, their main impetus was the immediate needs and demands of the workers involved.     
This brings us back to the main failing of the book which is the underlying premise that the labor movement of the 1930s (or indeed the public employee movement of the 1960s) was something granted by elite policy-makers.  It is simply not true and it leads to overstating the role of lawyers and Democratic Party elites in reviving labor’s fortunes.  Whether it be making unionism a civil right, convincing policymakers to accept unionism, or getting seats on corporate boards of directors, any program for labor renewal relying on lawyers and politicians rather than the self activity of workers is bound for failure. 

The reality is unionism in the 1930s was won primarily through the self activity of workers.  With 400,000 workers all across the country occupying factories to win collective bargaining in 1937 alone, and millions more engaging in often bloody strikes, it simply is not true that unionism was granted by elite policy makers.  (And although Geoghoghan does not focus on the public employee wave of the 1960s, in that period it was the strike and militancy which won the goods as well.)

By Geoghogan’s own admission, his primary audience is not the labor movement.  For that reason seasoned labor activists looking for in depth analysis will likely find better sources for labor strategy.  The labor struggles he does touch on such as the Chicago Teachers strikes have been treated in far greater depth by other writers who have pulled out practical lessons from the strike.   That being said Geoghoghan should be commended for writing about labor and pointing out the need for drastic change.    

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Recent NLRB Initiatives While Positive Are Unlikely to Alter Labor’s Prospects

Recent articles have trumpeted initiatives by the National Labor Relations Board and the Department of Labor to shift labor policy in organized labor’s direction.   A Politico article optimistically proclaimed this would spark labor’s comeback.  Among the initiatives are the rules to speed up union elections by holding off employer challenges until after union elections, allowing employees organizing a union access to company email, tightening up on the employer scam of classifying employees as independent contractors, and holding giant employees such as McDonalds jointly responsible for the labor law violations of franchisees.

All of these changes are significant and positive. If one were to solely rely on the reactions of anti-labor republicans, these changes would tip the balance on behalf of the labor movement.   Each of these rule shifts makes sense and will incrementally help union organizers whether by providing a better means of reaching co-workers in dispersed work sites or cutting through corporate fictions that allow employers to evade responsibility for their crimes.

There certainly is something refreshing about NLRB appointees bucking the tide and trying to reverse well entrenched pro-employer rules.  Certainly, if Congressional Republicans had their way, labor law would be weakened even further, as in proposed legislation.   Driving unionization levels down to under seven percent, dismal figures not seen since the early 1900s, is not enough for these anti-labor conservatives; they want to exterminate what little remains of organized labor.   And a bi-partisan effort joined by liberal Democrats and Republicans alike snuck into the Omnibus bill provisions reversing forty years of pension protections allowing the already earned benefits of current retirees to be slashed

The reality, however, is these initiatives cannot significantly alter labor’s plight for a number of reasons.  The first is that the National Labor Relations Board can issue all of the rule shifts they want but ultimately the final decisions will be made by elite, anti-worker judges.   So just because the NLRB has issued new rules does not mean that is the end of the story as business leaders have vowed to challenge the new rules in court.  Although in theory the courts are supposed to defer to the administrative agencies, for decades anti-labor judges have interjected their own views of the world into labor policy.   These elite judicial “values and assumptions,’ to use law professor James Attleson’s term in his classic book decades ago, have imprinted a pro-management bias in labor law which tinkering around the edges cannot eradicate.   In a very real sense, even a moderately pro-worker labor board finds its hands tied. 

Second, employers will easily contend with these rule shifts.  As John Logan, a labor professor at San Francisco State University pointed out, “Don't be fooled by the crocodile tears of billion-dollar corporations or the phony outrage of right-wing propagandists: Big business still holds all the cards in the certification process, and it will continue to control the decision on whether most workplaces get a union.”  

Finally, these initiatives, although welcome, do not hit at the core problem of union weakness which is union’s lack of collective bargaining strength.  If we were to ask ourselves what would it take to have a powerful labor movement in this country, each of these helpful provisions would not likely be at the top of the list.  Rather having the ability to use power tactics of solidarity and developing a successful strike which could impact the operations of employers would be higher on the list.  As long as we as a movement are unable to fulfill our historic mission of altering the terms of the sale of human labor we will remain weak as a labor movement. 

Slightly speeding up union elections, bringing more workers under the coverage of weak labor laws, and holding a giant corporation such as McDonalds potentially liable for a slap on the wrist do not address the key points of union weakness nor will they significantly alter the balance of power.  The problem is not just which employees or employers are covered by or responsible for violations of labor law but whether there are any significant consequences for those violations.  There is a saying in the law “if there is no remedy, there is no right” and that is certainly the case in labor law.   We have decades of experience proving that employers do not care if they have to post a notice years down the road stating they violated the National Labor Relations Act or paying some minimal reduced back pay. 

The reality is the revival of the labor movement will not come from the actions of a government agency, no matter how commendable, or even Congressional action.  Rather, history shows the labor movement will once again cover strength when we figure out the strategies and tactics capable of confronting labor law

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Review of Lines of Work: Stories of Jobs and Resistance

Review of Lines of Work: Stories of Jobs and Resistance

Many times in discussing labor issues the tendency is to focus on policy issues or major events far removed from the workplace.  In Lines of Work: Stories of Jobs and Resistance, a couple dozen workers from the US, Canada and Great Britain, loosely affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World, seek to turn the conversation in a different direction—to tell stories of work and the workplace.  Sometimes they talk about workplace struggles and resistance; sometimes they talk about their jobs and work.  There is something refreshing about this approach. 

The book contains over thirty chapters with stories ranging from a warehouse worker’s fight against speedup to a clerical worker’s struggle to make her liberal boss at small non-profit understand her class privilege to a liquor store worker’s organizing against sexual harassment.   Some of the stories are about organizing campaigns, such as Starbuck workers, others are about personal battles with victories as small as getting workers to celebrate each other’s birthdays over the boss’ objection.    All, however, are up close and personal and share a common perspective that talking about time spent at work is important.  
One thing that becomes clear from Lines of Work is the difficulty of organizing in the non-union climate in retail or health care.  A particularly engaging piece details the intense battle by mostly immigrant nursing assistants to win things such as more manageable workloads at their nursing home.   Small victories soon turn into intense defensive battles against repression.   In another piece, Starbucks workers tell about stopping a worker from getting fired in a blow-by-blow account of a somewhat bumbled, yet successful, attempt to march on the boss.  The boss stumbles on the group’s pre-meeting at a Subway and the workers are forced to improvise.   Not all events are so successful; in many of the cases the author quits or gets fired.     
I was struck by intensely personal these battles were, and the highs and the lows of the struggle.  This perspective is not from the college educated organizers who populate the organizing staff of many unions, but from the workers left behind long after the campaigns are over.   One story starts out “I was fired six days before Christmas.  I had been expecting it for months.  I’d been working to organize my co-workers at my shitty job and my boss had pegged me as a troublemaker.”  Although she had known it was coming, and was “steeped in analysis, waging an underground war, almost craving confrontation,” getting fired for allegedly stealing $1.50 left her wondering “how did they manage to reduce me to a trembling pile of tears and panic?”   

Lines of Work points to a worker activism centered not in union headquarters or organizing departments but in the workplace.  In many ways these stories hearken back to those of 1970s leftists taking working class jobs to transform society and themselves.  When I started in the labor movement in the mid-1980s, the tail end of the 70s notions still were around.  One came in the labor movement not as a staff member – but by getting a job and becoming a worker and participating in workplace struggles.   The fruits of those efforts can be seen in the book, Rebel Rank and File which recounts the many battles of the 1970s working class, often instigated by leftist workers and often in opposition to the union hierarchy.   

Of course, with the private sector almost completely de-unionized—only one in twenty private sector workers belong to unions—the path of getting a job in a unionized shop and building a rank and file committee is not the only path for leftist organizers.   The stories in Lines of Work are almost all from non-union shops reflecting today’s open shop reality.

Lines of Work teaches us that there is something about workplace struggle and unionism that no labor studies program can teach. The stories are about relations with co-workers and about the alienation and oppression of the non-union workplace.  By choice, birth or happenstance the authors of these chapters are working day in and day out.   And they are learning as much from their co-workers as they are teaching them.  Although written in terms of stories and experiences, the book’s approach offers a different approach to union revival, one deeply rooted in the workplace and rooted in the daily experience of workers. 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Challenging Extortion: Some Points on the Boeing Situation

Much has already been written about Boeing’s successful extortion against its unionized workforce in Seattle to make them choose between losing jobs or sacrificing pensions and taking other concessions.   On January 3, Boeing workers narrowly approved a set of concessions in a controversial revote ordered by the international union over the objections of the local leadership.   Certainly the fact that the Boeing corporation, a highly profitable corporation extorted workers was reprehensible as many commentators have pointed out. 

What I would like to discuss here is not the decision of Boeing workers to accept concessions but the system of labor laws which allowed Boeing to place unionized workers in that situation.  Looking at the question this way requires digging into the underlying set of legal rules that allow employers to either blackmail unionized workers or, more commonly, simply move to avoid unionization.  It involves questions including the outlawing of solidarity or ‘secondary’ tactics, union influence over decisions of capital mobility, and the degree to which we as a labor movement can work within a legal framework designed to ensure our failure.    

At the end of the day, a majority of voters in the IAM voted to take steep concessions during the mid-term of their contract.  The choice they faced was a difficult one.  They could agree to gut key provisions of their contract or reject the concessions and run the risk of seeing the work go eventually non-union.  Either way the workers were guaranteed to lose.  While it was up to those workers to debate how real the threat to move work was, anyone who follows the trajectory of unionism and capital flight to non-union locations or industries cannot ignore the threat.

Which comes back to the question of how did it come to be that Boeing acquired the power to blackmail its unionized workforce?  And to the related question of can we envision a workers’ movement in which such employer power is neutralized?   Ultimately, with union density in the private sector hovering a little over six percent, the labor movement must start confronting difficult questions such as these.  While there is an understandable tendency to instead focus on the fuzzier questions of forming alliances with other social movements, eventually we must deal with these core economic questions. 

To answer these questions, like many others in labor’s decline, takes us back to the anti-union 1947 Taft Hartley Act.  (And if one wants to go further to the basic structure of the National Labor Relations Act which diverts unions into dealing with individual employers rather than entire labor or product markets which was the original and more proper focus of unionism.) 

When I used to think of Taft-Hartley I often would think about it in terms of restrictions on strike activity including the restrictions on solidarity strike and certain boycott activity.   Certainly in terms of strike activity, Taft Hartley played a key role in silencing labor’s economic weapons.  Although the Supreme Court certainly did its part by allowing workers to be permanently replaced by scabs and outlawing other effective strike tactics. 

Yet an even more basic problem with Taft Hartley (aided and abetted by decisions of the liberal supreme court of the 1960s era) is that it crippled unions’ ability to deal with business change.   To take one example of many, the mineworkers in the 1960s and 1970s desperately struggled to prevent the development of a non-union wing of the industry.  Efforts to impose fines employers for non-union operations ran afoul of the prohibitions on secondary activity.   To take another example, one can look at the rules on reserve gates in construction, which is a legal fiction allowing employers to set up a separate scab gate to prevent construction workers from shutting down an entire construction site to prevent the use of non-union or scab contractors. 

It is hard to find an industry where de-unionization has not been aided and abetted by legal rules specifically tailored to favor employers.  Whether it’s the use of subcontracting in building services, successorship rules in mining or hotels, the strategy of moving to Southern or non-union areas, or the development of a non-union parts industry in auto, imposed ‘legal’ rules crippled union ability to resist.  For a fuller discussion please see chapter 6 of my Reviving the Strike or, even better, James Atleson’s now classic Values and Assumptions in American Labor Law.    

The point of focusing on this legal history is not to simply point out how bad or unfair the Supreme Court is or how screwed up Taft Hartley was and is.   Rather, this legal history directly answers the question I posed earlier as to whether we can envision forms of unionism in which such employer power is neutralized.   The very fact that these rules were changed to allow employers to wield such power, points to a world where they do not have this power.  The answer is yes because imperfectly and for a brief historical time such a world existed, such the rise of Teamster power in trucking through secondary strike activity in the late 1930s and beyond.

In other words, what would it look like to have a labor movement capable of stopping employers from blackmailing workers or avoiding unions by moving capital?  What if unionized labor could refuse to move or handle non-union goods?   What if the labor movement had the ability once again not to bargain with individual employers but to standardize wages across industries?   There is a reason that the labor movement traditionally fought so vigorously against restrictions on solidarity.     
There is a tendency to look at these decisions to move capital and the forces of globalization as if they were natural phenomena.   Yet they are not.  In Bill Fletcher and Fernando Gapasin’s book Solidarity Divided they quote former AFL-CIO President John Sweeney discussing globalization.  “This global order is neither a force of nature, nor the inevitable product of technology.  It has been forged by governments, envisioned by conservative ideologues, and enforced by corporate muscle.”   The same and related point can be made about the rules allowing Boeing to move work and the web of rules preventing unions from successfully attacking such corporate decisions.  They are neither inevitable nor the logical working of judicial decisions.   The rules, and the decisions to adhere to them, are social creations.    

That’s why it is disappointing that the battle of West Coast long shore workers gets so little attention even in progressive labor circles.   While many are rightfully excited about efforts to organize restaurant workers and to pull new forces into the labor movement, the long shore workers struggle hits at key issues facing unionism.        

Ultimately, I don’t claim to know how exactly we crack this nut.   Doing so involves complicated questions of rejecting repressive labor laws, building new forms of unionism, and reviving some old tactics.  (Some of these questions will be discussed in my forthcoming book Strike Back: Using the Militant Tactics of Labor's Past to Reignite Public Sector Unionism Today, which uses the occasion of the illegal public employee upsurge to tackle these questions.)  But even if we don’t have all the answers, it seems to me that part of labor’s renewal must include asking the right questions.  

Saturday, September 7, 2013

What's At Stake in the Longshore Workers' Battle

The disputes that led to one of the nation’s most militant and progressive unions, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) abandoning the AFL-CIO are not, as some may argue mere jurisdictional squabbles, but rather  touche on central issues facing trade unionism today.   The question at stake is whether one of labor’s most militant and effective unions will be able to defend its traditional jurisdiction and in doing so maintain strong working standards for tens of thousands of long shore workers.  
On August 29, ILWU President Robert McEllrath sent a letter to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka notifying him of the ILWU decision to disaffiliate from the AFL-CIO.   The letter zeroed in on the failure of the national AFL-CIO to offer support to the ILWU in fending off multiple raids on long shore work.   Since the letter lays out the multiple challenges faced by the ILWU, it will be quoted at length. 

“..we have seen a growing surge of attacks from various affiliates. A particularly outrageous raid occurred in 2011, when one affiliate slipped in to longshore jobs at the new EGT grain facility in the Port of Longview, Washington, and then walked through ILWU picket lines for six months until we were able to secure this critical longshore jurisdiction. Your office added insult to injury by issuing a directive to the Oregon State Federation to rescind its support of the ILWU fight at EGT, which threatened to be the first marine terminal on the West Coast to go non-ILWU.

The attacks by affiliates against the ILWU have only increased. One affiliate has filed a string of ULP charges as well as an Article XX charge that not only interfere with ILWU contractual rights at specific ports; the ULP charges also are attempting to dismantle core jurisdictional provisions in our Longshore Contract for the entire West Coast. In Los Angeles and Oakland, another affiliate is imposing internal union fines against dual union members for the “crime” of taking a job as a longshoreman — the stated purpose of the fines being to prevent the ILWU from filling new waterfront jobs that replace traditional longshore work due to new technologies. In Oakland and Tacoma, another affiliate is trying to use a recent NLRB ruling against one of our employers to take over ILWU jobs with some of our other employers. Throughout the Pacific Northwest, we are daily seeing still other affiliates blatantly cross the picket lines of ILWU members who have been locked out for months by the regional grain industry. And just this week, some of the Building Trades affiliates have displaced ILWU workers in the loading of barges at Terminal 46 in Seattle where longshoremen have done this work for generations. They also had the gall to file several ULP charges against us for picketing at our own marine terminal. These multi-state attacks against the ILWU are being coordinated in large part by a law firm with close ties to the Federation.”

Not only has the national AFL-CIO done nothing to stop these attacks, they prevented state labor councils from supporting the ILWU and as Labor Notes reports, national AFL-CIO officials responded to the ILWU’s pullout by forbidding local affiliates from issuing solidarity charters to the ILWU, which would allow for continued affiliation at the local level.

It would be a mistake to reduce these disputes to fights over particular jobs.  At stake is something far greater—the future of unionism in one of the strategic sectors of the economy.  Some employers, with the support of the National Labor Relations Board and the collaboration of certain unions, are attempting to use labor laws to strip the ILWU of coast wide control of long shore work which is essential to retaining unionism in this sector.  As will be discussed below, in that regard they are attempting to use the same tools of de-unionization used in most other sectors of the economy. 

An August 28 decision by a National Labor Relations Board administrative law judge (ALJ) illustrates the tremendous challenges the ILWU faces.   In a truly horrible decision in which the ALJ  barely contained his contempt to the ILWU’s brand of unionism, the ALJ ordered the ILWU to quit taking actions (both on the job slowdowns and arbitration/court procedures) to pressure their own employer to honor the ILWU coast-wide collective bargaining agreement and fill positions monitoring refridgerized containers with members of the Longshore Union.  Without going into the legal complexities here, the decision basically attempts to prevent the ILWU from enforcing its’ own coast-wide agreement. 

This really hits at the crux of the matter in this dispute and why it is so important for organized labor.  This is not an isolated jurisdictional dispute over a handful of jobs.   The ILWU was organized during the 1930s on a very traditional union principle—to maintain wages on the ports, the union needs to organize and maintain contract standards coast-wide.  Individual employers and ports could not be allowed to undercut standards because that would threaten the very survival of the union.  Maintaining jurisdiction is not just about maintaining the jobs but the very vehicle necessary for maintaining hard-won union standards in the industry. 

Indeed, this used to be one of the key tenants of unionism—maintaining standards across industries.  It’s how unions raised wages from the 1930s through the 1970s in industries such as trucking, steal, construction and mining.  In all of those industries union standards were allowed to erode and unionism declined.  Now the ILWU is fighting the same battle.  (And indeed, East Coast International Longshoremen’s Association members in the Philadelphia ports faced similar challenges in 2010 from a sweatheart union contract at Del Monte.)  

 In industry after industry, effective unionism has been destroyed, in large part, because employers were allowed to use corporate fictions to defeat unionism.  Tactics like subcontracting, runaway shops, closing down and re-opening non-union, opening non-union subsidiaries (double breasting), privatization in the public sector, classifying work as independent contractors, etc were critical tools in busting unionism.  These are not apolitical legal decisions but rather central parts of what I call the” system of labor control” in this country.   Only where unions ignore these corporate fictions such as SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaigns or in reality the city-wide restaurant strikes can we truly make headway in confronting corporate power.   

Here is a chance for the AFL-CIO to get behind a militant union in its efforts to defend effective, traditional trade unionism.   Yet, sadly that is not going to happen which probably says more about union decline than any pronouncements coming out of Los Angeles in the next week.   One thing we can be sure, when the labor movement does revive it will likely look a lot more like the struggle being waged on the docks of the West Coast.