Category: Labor

On The Crest Of A Strike Wave

We have a guest post today, talking about the strikes spreading across the country that started in West Virginia. C. intermittently tweets as @thehousered and works as staff for an education union in rural America.

When the West Virginia teachers and support staff won their strike, elements of the Left heralded it as a sea-change with all of the fervor of fundamentalist hot gospellers. It’s hard to fault this kind of enthusiasm. There’s been precious little reason for it for decades; the horizontalist insurgencies against the World Trade Organization and Wall Street captured imagination, but failed to create enduring movements with the power to arrest the forward march of neoliberal capitalism. With labor teetering on the brink of ruin and a rising reactionary tide at all levels of politics, signs of militant life are like an unexpected oasis in the desert.

Surely, a big strike’s victory means that the tide is turning, even only just a little bit, right?

It’s reminiscent of nothing so much as the radical Scots Presbyterians of the late 19th century: Ulster men and women that believed that the social and political unrest that would soon erupt in armed rebellion was a sign of Christ’s coming. Occasional millenarian thinking isn’t new to the Left: there is always some crank predicting that the workers’ revolution will manifest itself when the social conditions are just right. This analysis falls apart because it treats politics as a game of signs and portents, rather than a discipline requiring careful analysis. With such thinking layered on top of the dogmatic disputations between Left sects, one could be forgiven for mistaking some Left currents for Reformation theologians engaged in bitter dispute over John Calvin’s writings or the particular meaning of religious scripture.

To believe that the West Virginia strike was a natural expression of the correct alignment of social forces isn’t just wrong, it sells West Virginians short. The teachers, paraprofessionals, and support staff in West Virginia didn’t win because of the bending of a cosmic arc; they won because of months of preparation and organizing, an impressive level of community outreach, and the strategic leveraging of county-level school management to provide political cover for the strike. In other words, as detailed by Bryan, West Virginians won because they did what strikes need to do: carefully and painstakingly build and organize a potent expression of working-class power.

Their success of the strike was predicated upon years of miserable decline, but that success is hardly reducible to the conditions that led them to walk out. It was a victory, and one rightly celebrated. It was also won because of the willingness of teachers and support staff to dig in for the long haul and buck a bad deal foisted on membership. There’s no way around it: they won not just in defiance of the law, but their own state-level leadership. Moreover, their victory showed the potential of the strike in a way that even the rightly celebrated 2012 Chicago teachers strike did not: it showed that even in deep-red areas thought of as bastions of reactionary politics, workers can fight and win in the face of slash-and-burn austerity. Since then, action has spread to Kentucky, Oklahoma, Puerto RicoArizona, and Colorado, with rumblings of militancy elsewhere.

What it didn’t show is that the fight would be easy, and the seeming collapse of the Oklahoma strike should be a sharp reminder that no road to progress is easy or guaranteed.

Started From The Shop Floor, Now We’re Here: What It Takes To Organize A Strike

There were only fifteen strikes with a thousand workers or more in the United States last year.

With only 25,000 people on strike last year in a country with an active workforce of 157 million, it is absolutely no surprise that very few people have much direct experience in organizing a strike. Defanged by bad legal precedent and a broken labor law system, the strike hit its second-lowest year on record here in America.

At the same time, though, there have been several high profile strikes recently. CWA struck Verizon in 2016 and AT&T in 2017. In so doing, the union was able to fend off several horrendous attacks by management at both companies. 2018 has also had its share of high profile industrial action. West Virginia’s teachers went out on strike in defiance of the law with some clever organizing and was able to wrestle several concessions out of a hostile government, and the strike fever has, at the time of writing, spread to Oklahoma and Kentucky, and Arizona is showing symptoms.

But organizing a strike isn’t easy. It’s a whole lot of preparation and work culminating in a period of personal and economic uncertainty for every person on the line. All things being equal, most people just want to go to work, do their jobs, and go home.

All things aren’t equal, though, and that’s why it’s necessary to show the kind of work that goes into preparing for a strike.

Unionism Must Be Internationalist Or It Is Bullshit

This past Tuesday, Harley-Davidson announced that it was closing its plant in Kansas City, Missouri.

It’s regrettably a common occurrence these days. During the Obama to Trump transition, much was made about a deal cut by Trump to save jobs at the Carrier plant in Indianapolis, Indiana. Sadly for the workers there, it was a pack of lies and called as much by Chuck Jones, president of USW Local 1999 and the union that the workers of the Carrier plant were members of, from the very start. None of these plant closings are novel. They’ve been happening since the 1970s as capital controls dropped along with trade barriers, allowing multinational corporations to move work to places where wages are low, workplace safety is nonexistent, and effective unions do not have the right to exist.

The Harley plant closure is especially a bitter pill to swallow, given that the company had been doing relatively well until recently. The reasons given for the plant closure (and the laying off of eight hundred workers) was a drop in net income caused largely by a 6.7% decline in sales last year. The ineffectual wad of centrist nonsense known as #TheResistance also seized on a statement blaming some of the earnings drop on changes caused by Trump’s tax cuts. It’s also a blow to scandal-wracked Governor of Missouri Eric Greitens. After his blackmailing of a woman he had an extramarital affair with came to light, a major plant closing is a wound his political career can ill-afford.

But there is another dimension to this that did not get reported in any of the coverage of this story that’s upending the lives of eight hundred workers. Back in September, the International Association of Machinists and United Steelworkers ended their labor-management partnership with Harley-Davidson over the company’s plan to build a plant in Thailand. The partnership agreement, two decades old and praised as a model by some, is the latest iteration of the ‘jointness’ trend first pioneered by UAW and General Motors in the 1980s. Focusing on collaboration and co-determination and informed by the European works council approach, these kinds of labor-management partnerships inevitably break down when the company wants to do something that will screw over its workers’ ability to organize, like it has here.

So while eight hundred workers will have their lives upended in Missouri, Harley-Davidson will plow ahead in standing up a brand new plant in Thailand. But why might they do that?

Class Struggle With a Stack of Pancakes.

In 2012 a federal lawsuit was filed against the restaurant chain IHOP and franchisee, Anthraper Investments Inc. on behalf of four Arab, Muslim managers in Texas, all of whom were fired in 2010. This lawsuit alleged in part that their terminations were unlawful and discriminatory in nature, and came after the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found that their accusations had merit—not only had these men faced discriminatory harassment at work based on their race, and religion, there were witnesses, and corroborating evidence, determining that there was “reasonable cause to believe that…Arabs were discriminatorily harassed and discharged based on national origin.”

One of the most revealing incidents came during an employee meeting, during which Larry Hawker, hired to replace one of the fired managers, told IHOP workers that, “Arab men treat women poorly and with disrespect. We’re going to let these people go and have new faces coming in.” Prior to this event, and before their respective terminations, the district manager would be emailed warnings in time for the anniversary of the September 11th attacks, asking that Arab and Muslim employees “lay low”.

The CEO of this specific IHOP chain, John Anthraper, even referred to Muslims waiting to break their fasts during Ramadan as “dogs”, and would complain that any work related incidents that occurred at one of his stores came about as a result of the district manager hiring “those fucking Arab friends” of his. And so, these four men sought damages for employment discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, and the Texas Labor Code.

One of these men—the man whose face would be plastered across countless publications and television screens as the story and subsequent backlash went viral—was my father.

Pay Your Goddamn Writers

The last thing I thought to myself this morning after checking my email was, “oh great, another excuse from these fuckers.”

In August, I was published by ELLE Magazine, and as of this moment in time I still haven’t been paid by that august publication. Since the article went up, I’ve dedicated a small portion of each day to sending out emails trying to find out why ELLE Magazine, whose editor-in-chief has a net worth is estimated to be around $3 million, has yet to deposit $325 into my bank account.

These days, writing is a precarious endeavour. It is made so in my case by non-staff employment, better known as freelancing. This is reflective of the exploitative relationship between writers and the publications they work for. When you are a freelancer, getting paid for the work you do becomes a second job in and of itself; you’re sending countless emails to dozens of people over weeks, months, and (in some cases even) years just to get paid for the labor you did. “This is how it is,” they tell you. And so, you bite your tongue and hope that your bank account doesn’t overdraft, and that your part time job doesn’t cut your hours. The emails do no good, and soon it becomes clear that, despite your cordiality, your demands for updates are being ignored.

In talking with, two friends in the same boat as me, I found out they were waiting to be paid some $3,500 in back pay from an outlet that offered us $150 or less for 800+ words. We would all whisper in the background about how enraging and humiliating it was, that not only were we being paid so little but that we had to wait months for the scraps that we got. “If we go public we’ll get blackballed,” we say to each other, and it’s true. There’s an unspoken threat that hangs over this tiring process, one whispered to writers that they shouldn’t make noise about being screwed on their pay, especially not the kind of noise that involves naming the publications that make them wait to get paid.

At least, if we ever want to get published again.

On top of it, people who aren’t writers think that dragging them on social media with a name and shame will get a publication to immediately stop fucking people like us on their pay. This is ludicrous. If anything, you’d be seen as an inconvenience or nuisance, and it may result in you being offered less work. It’s mind boggling that publications, as big as they come, expect writers to wait for whatever meager pay we manage to fight for while they reap the fruit of our labor.

What’s more, these kinds of shitty pay practices only serve to cut off working class writers from media work. People whose families come from money, or have supportive partners with steady employment, then have the luxury to keep pitching to these exploitative publications while those of us who are trying to write for a living lose time for writing to doing other jobs or our bills go unpaid. This is, in part, how the media sorts out working class voices and oversamples those from privileged backgrounds.

Websites such as Who Pays Writers highlight not only the number of publications that offer abysmal wages, but just how pervasive late payments, and non-payments are in this industry. What’s horrifying is that writers are not asking for anything even remotely unreasonable. We need to be paid in a reasonable amount of time for the work that these publications build their brands on. And it should go without saying that paying someone for work done months afterward is pretty damn far from reasonable. Despite this occurring as a matter of habit for a lot of publications, it is not acceptable and should be treated as a kind of theft. While things like accounting and responding to invoices are not easy services to provide, any publication that can’t manage to do this isn’t organized enough to deserve to profit from the labor of the writers it publishes.

The only way to address this epidemic of wage theft is through collective action, and the way has already been marked out. In September of this year, The Nation magazine and the National Writers Union/UAW Local 1981 signed an agreement about how freelance writers would be treated by The Nation. The agreement included minimum payments, kill fees, and a guarantee that freelancers would be paid within thirty days of an invoice being submitted. As those on staff at publications of the online media continue to organize under the auspices of WGA East and The News Guild, freelancers must take up the fight as well to fight for the basic dignity that the NWU’s agreement with The Nation represents.

I should not have to send ELLE Magazine nearly 20 emails in order to get a straight answer out of them as to when I’m going to get $325 for an article that has made them more than that. It’s safe to assume that these same editors wouldn’t accept the type of exploitative relationship writers are so commonly forced into were it their paycheck we’re talking about. The piece I wrote for ELLE came with a deadline, so why can’t they meet my deadline for payment?

Pay your goddamn writers. And pay them on fucking time.

When the work is PhD: labor struggles on campus.

To an outsider, the work that a graduate student has to do might seem easy. A bunch of people who get paid to read and write all day, yeah? What could be easier than that?

But the work that graduate students do is extensive: we read; we write; we teach, with all of the grading and outreach work that such a job entails; we are pressured to write on things that “contribute to the literature”, meaning that we must come up with ever more inventive lines of inquiry in our research; engaging such research requires that we do traveling to uncover the mysteries of America’s social, political, and economic history in our nation’s highly fragmented system of archives. In addition to this, students must navigate the politics of each department, making sure that the people on your dissertation committee get on well enough so that infighting does not compromise your ability to produce quality work and graduate.

All of this must be done while keeping an eye on the caps that most departments place on both the money they will give you and the time you have to complete your work. Small wonder that most graduate students spend at least 40 hours a week on their graduate work.

We have not even discussed the health care needs of many graduate students. Depending on the field, anywhere between a third to half of graduate students live with some sort of mental illness. The things needed to ameliorate these illnesses all cost money: psychiatrists, counselors, and medicine if necessary. These ills of the mind can also affect the body, with grad students often experiencing sore throats, muscle aches, stomach aches, and much more around stressful periods in study, such as comprehensive exams and dissertation defenses. Even if you go to the student health center on your campus, taking care of yourself is not necessarily a cheap proposition.

These realities have driven graduate students in the United States to fight for the right to collectively bargain ever since the late 1960s, when the graduate students at the University of Wisconsin in Madison formed the Teaching Assistants’ Association. Today, this fight has spread across the country’s graduate schools like wildfire, with campaigns at Washington, Duke, American University, Yale, Columbia, and the University of Chicago.

Triangulation And Cowardice In North Carolina

(This is a joint post by Bryan and Douglas.)

If this is what a resistance looks like, then we are boned.

In another installment of As The Democrats Negotiate Against Themselves, Gov. Roy Cooper and Democrats in the General Assembly struck a deal that would “repeal” HB2, the infamous “bathroom bill” that has made it into a pariah state for corporate interests ranging from the NCAA and ACC to Google and Wells Fargo. This law was passed in the wake of Charlotte passing an ordinance banning discrimination against trans people as they access public facilities. Born from reaction and playing into the worst impulses present in North Carolina’s electorate, HB2 was a moral abomination of a law, rammed through by a Republican legislature in a special session called by the Republican lieutenant governor and signed by a Republican governor, and the hostility it earned the state across the US was justly earned.

This was the state of play back in December, when the Republican governor who signed HB2, Pat McCrory, grudgingly conceded that he lost a fair election and began turning over power to Roy Cooper, the governor-elect. Cooper, looking for a feather in his cap as he was coming into office, tried to negotiate a compromise between the NC General Assembly (still wholly controlled by the GOP despite a gerrymandered electoral map that has been struck down by federal courts) and the City of Charlotte to repeal HB2 and Charlotte’s anti-discrimination ordinance. Charlotte kept their end of the bargain, the General Assembly did not. This left the people negatively affected by HB2 with none of the protections that years of hard organizing had won in Charlotte and left the state with HB2 still on the books.

This brings us to today, where now-Governor Roy Cooper has signed a ‘repeal’ of HB2. Officially called HB142, it strikes the most egregiously anti-trans parts of the bill, but includes bitter pills. It enjoins any North Carolina municipality from passing another anti-discrimination ordinance for four years. This is notable for two reasons, the main one being that Governor Cooper turned down a similar moratorium in December that would have lasted six months. The second reason is that with the NC General Assembly being firmly in the hands of the Republican Party, it would take one law to make such a moratorium from being four years to being permanent.

There is, however, another reason why HB2 and HB142 are awful, and they have nothing to do with protecting trans people’s right to access public spaces.