Tag: Unions

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.

Why Virginia matters to American labor in 2016.

The most important election in Virginia this year has no candidates on the ballot.

On February 2nd, the Republican-dominated General Assembly passed the two-session threshold needed to put the open shop before the Commonwealth’s voters in November. You might be asking yourself, “Wait. I thought that Virginia was already an open-shop state?” Your inclinations would be correct: legislation barring union membership as a condition of employment was signed into law by Gov. William Tuck (a later adherent to Massive Resistance in response to Brown v. Board of Education as a member of Congress) in 1947. As a result, Section 40.1-58 of the Code of Virginia reads:

“It is hereby declared to be the public policy of Virginia that the right of persons to work shall not be denied or abridged on account of membership or nonmembership in any labor union or labor organization.”

So why do this? The easy answer is that Virginia Republicans are fearful that, should the open shop meet a legal challenge in state court, Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring would not seek to defend it. The sponsor of the bill and defeated 2013 nominee for Attorney General, State Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), stated as much in the deliberations on the bill. In addition, should the Assembly find itself in pro-labor hands in the future, they could overturn the open shop with a simple majority vote. Never mind that the extreme amounts of gerrymandering in the Assembly (particularly in the House of Delegates) makes a unified Democratic state government unlikely for decades to come.

The vote this November will be the first popular referendum on the open shop since 54 percent of Oklahoma voters approved State Question 695 on September 25, 2001. In this, an opportunity presents itself to the labor movement in this country, and it is one that labor unions must take.

Defragmenting The Movement: A Model For Building Working Class Solidarity

(This is a joint post between Cato and Douglas.)

The words on the flag of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers are a perfect summation of the labor movement at its best: “JUSTICE ON THE JOB, SERVICE TO THE COMMUNITY.”

It is that sense of solidarity that drives aggrieved workers to reach out to union organizers in the first place. They know that they are not just signing up to join a local or negotiate a contract, but to be a part of a movement that has been the last line of defense for many a worker since those Mill Girls first walked off the line in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1845. It is a movement that has come out of the shadows of its craft union past to embrace an industrial unionism that places its priorities in growing the ranks of the organized.

Well….not exactly.

Customers of Democracy: Why the Hanauer-Rolf plan should be rejected.

File this under
File this under “things you never thought you would be fighting for in 2015”.

It should be as obvious as the nose on your face that the working class in the United States has been in a state of crisis and decline for decades now. The emergence of companies like Uber, Lyft, and TaskRabbit, whose business models rely on the abuse of independent contractors to avoid the burdens of having employees, are just the latest chapter in an ongoing crisis where the old rules of worker-boss interaction have been shredded and almost always to the detriment of the worker. It’s clear that something must be done, but what? What should be done to restore stability to the lives of working people?

Last month, Service Employees International Union Local 775 President David Rolf and hedge fund master of the universe Nick Hanauer published a proposal for reforms to the battered husk of the American welfare state in Democracy. Hanauer, who has had some interesting interviews relatively recently and ruffled the feathers of his fellow billionaires by proposing at a TED talk that income inequality was a bad thing, has teamed up with Rolf, a member of SEIU’s International Executive Board and president of the homecare workers’ union in Washington state, to make a series of policy proposals about securing ‘economic inclusion’ through public policy. Specific criticisms of the policies Hanauer and Rolf propose have been excellently rendered by friend of the blog Matt Bruenig here, so we will be focusing on the political dimensions and flaws of this proposal.

An Open Letter On ‘Right To Work’ To All Union Members And Allies

To every union member and allied working person in the United States:

I hope this missive finds you well. As those of you who follow the news know, Wisconsin has become the 25th state to allow those in workplaces with unions that fall under the Wagner Act’s jurisdiction to not pay dues while still receiving the hard-fought benefits that come from a union contract. This is a terrible state of affairs, not the least of which because historical union bastion states of Indiana and Michigan preceded it in implementing similar laws. While I am confident that we will eventually reverse this development, this is not why I am writing you. I am writing you about the use of the phrase, ‘Right to Work’.

Know Your History: Lessons in organizing from the leftists and labor organizers of yore.

Ever heard of the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union? You could be forgiven for answering in the negative.

Ever heard of J.P. Mooney and his organizing exploits in Avondale, Alabama? Nope?

Did you know that the largest political rally ever held in Alabama was put on by the Communist Party during the Depression? Nah?

The South has earned its reputation as the region most hostile to leftism and union organizing in the United States. After all, Gov. Nikki Haley, who is cruising towards re-election in South Carolina, declared that any auto companies that had unionized workforces should refrain from relocating in South Carolina. In Tennessee, state legislators made plain their opposition to the United Auto Workers gaining a foothold in Chattanooga by stating that they would revoke any tax incentives that Volkswagen received in the event of a yes vote. Aside from those anecdotal examples, the South is home to some of the lowest unionization rates in the country — North Carolina’s union density, at only three percent of workers organized, is the lowest in the country. Arkansas is not far behind at 3.5 percent, nor is Mississippi and South Carolina at 3.7 percent. One does not think “citadel of unionism” when they think of Alabama, but at 10.7 percent, they far outpace any other state in the region for union density.

But there was a time when radical politics and organizing found its home in the rural South.

A Bundle Worth Keeping: Critiquing “The Unbundled Union”

In recent years, we have seen an explosion in activism around the issue of economic inequality. The frustrations that many low-income people feel at a slow economic recovery and a continued assault on the American welfare state have culminated in a slew of direct action by individuals, labor unions, and other progressive organizations. While the policy outcomes generated from these actions have been mixed, it is undeniable that the issue of poverty and income inequality commands a place in the economic policy discussion that has not been seen since the end of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Presidency.

In addition to the concerns about economic inequality, the lack of representational equity for low- to middle-income workers has also been a rallying point. The failure to pass a farm bill has led to the reduction in food assistance that working families receive from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) while the companies that they work for continue to rake in record-setting profits. The same gridlock that has delayed the farm bill’s passage would likely delay any policy proposal that could ameliorate the problem of stagnating wages as well. And through all of this, the conversation about revving up the American economy has focused less on solutions that would impact low- and middle-income families and more on things like more tax cuts, which would disproportionately benefit the wealthiest Americans. Attempts by Congress to ameliorate this representational inequality through policies such as campaign finance restrictions have largely been ineffective, as the wealthy and their advocates were able to circumvent the procedure through myriad loopholes (the infamous “social welfare organization” loophole being one of them), culminating in the Citizens United ruling that effectively gutted America’s campaign finance regulations.

Benjamin Sachs, a labor law professor at Harvard, correctly attributes representational inequality to the decline of the labor union in America. Labor unions were strongest as arbiters of economic and representational equality, he states, when they had the ability to pressure lawmakers into supporting progressive legislation that leveled the economic playing field. This was done through an organizing apparatus that was able to mobilize workers for direct action on Capitol Hill and turning out on Election Day, as well as building a lobbying apparatus that could effectively push labor’s priorities in Congress. Sachs’ central argument is that this political power has always been tied up in the collective bargaining of wages and benefits by workers at their respective workplaces. He calls this “a highly contested form of economic organization”, meaning that the opposition to a labor union’s entry and continued operation at a workplace is always under attack, usually from both external political forces and company management. As anti-union forces became more successful at reducing the ranks of the unionized rank-and-file, the political machine that churned out policy victories for working people slowly began to wither.

Sachs’ solution to this problem, and the larger issue of representational inequality, is to decouple the political and economic functions of a labor union, and change labor law to allow employees at a particular workplace to form “political unions”. These unions would enjoy the same advantages that have traditional unions have enjoyed in the workplace, namely:

  1. The ability to use the shop floor as a locus for organizational activity,
  2. the ability to use the employer’s payroll function as a means of funding union activity,
  3. the ability to use the company’s information that has been gathered about their employees, and
  4. the protection of workers against retaliation by their employer for engaging in union activity.

Sachs makes it clear that he proposes the political union not as a replacement for collective bargaining efforts, but rather as a complement. But as I will point out through the course of this piece, the birth of the political union could end up doing just that: replacing hard-won gains in collective bargaining with a toothless form of worker activism.