Mark Twain famously noted, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” The current efforts to roll back the ability of working people to counterbalance the corporate domination of America’s politics is firmly rooted in the initial corporate opposition to the Wagner Act of 1935 that finally assured American workers the right to organize and bargain for wages and working conditions. Among those early efforts to reduce the strength of unions was an effort led by Vance Muse.
Muse, a Texas oil man, didn’t like unions and he really didn’t like the shape the union movement was taking in the 1930s. Large industrial unions like the UAW and the United Steelworkers were growing with white and black workers. Turns out Muse represented the old-line plutocrats’ views on economics and race. His view of this new-found economic “brotherhood” was: “From now on, white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.”
In 1946, his extremism led to an expose by journalist Stetson Kennedy. He reported in Southern Exposure that Mrs. Muse drove home the couples’ views on race when she addressed “Eleanor Clubs.” Rumors had circulated throughout the South of Eleanor Clubs—supposed organizations of Black domestic servants seeking better wages and working conditions, named after Eleanor Roosevelt for her leadership on race and worker justice. The clubs never existed—they were just figments of racist imaginations like Mrs. Muse’s. She said:
“$15 a week salary for all ni–er house help, Sundays off, no washing and no cleaning upstairs.” As an afterthought she added, “My ni–er maid wouldn’t dare sit down in the same room with me unless she sat on the floor at my feet!”
Muse led the efforts of the “Christian Americans” to pass state-level legislation to limit the growth and strength of unions, first in his native Texas, and then throughout the South.
To make it sound more modern and familiar, the movement went to Kansas in the 1950s, where the “right to work” movement was led by Fred Koch, a co-founder of the John Birch Society, and precursor of the Koch brothers. Kansas passed its right to work law in 1958.
The result has been two America’s when it comes to the right of workers to organize and have an organized voice in the political process: one free, the other fettered and chained to one-sided politics. But for African Americans, it has been another hurdle to decent pay and work conditions.
The America that is hemmed in by right to work laws is home to more than half the African American workforce. Those states have the lowest share of workers in unions, much lower than the national average. Yet because African Americans are the group most likely to belong to unions, it is clear the lower union density for African Americans in right to work states reflects legal barriers, not workers’ wishes.
African Americans are strong supporters of unions because of the gains they enjoy through union membership. Work by Janelle Jones and John Schmidt at the Center for Economic and Policy Research highlights that compared with similarly educated workers in the same industry and state, black union members receive 15.6% higher pay than nonunion black workers; they are also 36.7% more likely to have employer-provided health insurance and 49.1% more likely to have an employer-provided pension plan.
The nefarious nexus of racism and right to work laws cannot be easily dismissed. Researchers David Jacobs and Marc Dixon find a strong link between racial divisions among workers and politicians feasting on this to pass right to work laws. Researcher Gilbert Gall analyzed the voting patterns in Missouri’s 1978 attempt at right to work and found a strong opposition vote in urban, black districts. So the division is not necessarily a divide on how black workers see unions, as much as it is whether votes are driven by the same plutocratic ploys of subliminal racism linking conservative plutocrat “values” to right to work.
In its modern form, this is often an appeal to Libertarian individualism, unions being the antithesis, while corporations (organized capital) somehow embody individualism. It’s an old trick. And falling for it only dooms one to ignore history.
A New Jersey Superior Court Judge has taken Gov. Chris Christie to task in a ruling that forces him to contribute his share to the New Jersey state pension system, just as public workers have been doing all along.
Judge Mary Jacobson ruled earlier this week in favor of the New Jersey State AFL-CIO and 16 unions who sued Christie for violating his own 2011 pension reform law by intentionally shorting the system. The judge ordered Christie to make a $1.6 billion payment to the pension system this year.
Public-sector workers accepted steep increases in their health care and pension costs in 2011 in exchange for a promise that the state would start paying what it owed. Retirees gave up cost of living adjustments in exchange for the security of knowing their benefits would continue to be there. Public workers have never skipped their contribution. The governor is the only one who has not lived up to the deal. It’s as if he is intentionally trying to bankrupt the system to force public workers into 401(k)s.
Christie’s lawyers argued that the 2011 law—which the governor initiated, promoted and signed – was unconstitutional. It was an argument that bewildered virtually everyone, including the judge, and proved beyond doubt that Christie has no credibility on the issue.
Now he’s at it again. In an otherwise empty budget address, the governor proposed … wait for it … putting the squeeze on public worker benefits again. As New Jerseyans can clearly see, the governor has been blinded by his own political ambitions and hasn’t been acting in the state’s best interest for a very long time. Christie touted the 2011 pension reform law as a landmark achievement that would ultimately save the state pension system. Instead of blaming public workers for a problem they didn’t create, we’re asking that the governor live up to the law he signed and fully fund pensions.
Charles Wowkanech is the president of the New Jersey State AFL-CIO.
Late Wednesday night, the Wisconsin state Senate voted 17–15 to advance a “right to work” bill that has been widely criticized as harmful to the working families of the state. Thousands rallied outside the Capitol on Tuesday and Wednesday in opposition to the legislation, as similar laws have been shown to have widespread negative effects in the other states that have passed them. Republicans Fast Tracked the bill in order to limit public discussion and feedback, and the bill is expected to be voted on by the state Assembly next week. If it passes, it will be sent to Gov. Scott Walker (R) who has indicated he will sign it.
Republicans Fast Tracked the bill in order to limit public discussion and feedback, and the bill is expected to be voted on by the state Assembly next week. If it passes, it will be sent to Gov. Scott Walker (R) who has indicated he will sign it.
Wisconsin State AFL-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt, expressed dismay over Republicans ignoring the will of the people:
Republican senators clearly weren’t there to listen to their constituents or vote in the best interests of all Wisconsinites. With out-of-state special interests calling the shots, Wisconsin citizens get left behind. Right to work is a continuation of the destructive policies of the Scott Walker administration that have cost Wisconsin jobs and economic opportunity.
Wisconsin State AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Stephanie Bloomingdale echoed those comments:
Despite hours and hours of testimony on how right to work will lower wages, increase workplace deaths and erode the base of the middle class by crippling the ability of workers to team up and join together through their unions for a strong voice in the workplace, Republican senators rammed right to work legislation through the Senate in a disheartening move to democracy.
Wisconsin’s working families aren’t allowing Walker and his allies to silence them. They will rally again on Saturday at noon to make sure their voices are heard and will be out in force for a scheduled committee meeting on Tuesday and an expected floor vote in the Assembly on Thursday.
State Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling (D) summed up the effects of the bill: “This bill is going to drive down family wages. Period.” UAW member John Drew condemned the legislation as “a political attack on labor, dressed up as an issue of worker freedom. They want to beat us down, brothers and sisters. This is politics, pure and simple.”
Republican leaders couldn’t even convince all of the members of their own party of the merits of the legislation. State Sen. Jerry Petrowski (R) voted against the bill: “I am not convinced that the supposed benefits of passing this bill will materialize and offset a potentially disruptive impact on our economy.” He was the only Republican who stood and spoke in support of the legislation. The public wasn’t convinced, either. More than 1,750 Wisconsinites submitted comments or registered to speak against the bill at the hearing. Only 25 were in favor.
Unions representing Wisconsin’s professional athletes also weighed in, opposing right to work. The NFL Players Association (NFLPA) issued a strong statement:
The NFL Players Association stands together with the working families of Wisconsin and organized labor in their fight against current attacks against their right to stand together as a team.
Devoted food and commercial workers who spend their Sundays servicing our players and fans at Lambeau Field will have their well-being and livelihood jeopardized by right to work. Governor Scott Walker may not value these vital employees but, as union members, we do. We understand how devastating it would be if they lost the ability to have their workplace conditions and wages guaranteed through collective bargaining. We do not have to look any further than our own [collective bargaining agreement] to see that a band of workers, joined together as a union, can overcome decades of poor workplace conditions and drastically improve pensions and benefits.
The Major League Baseball Players Association stands with our brothers and sisters in organized labor and deplores the current attempts in Wisconsin to undermine the collective voices of working people by seeking passage of so-called “right to work” legislation. We are proud to be among the ranks of labor unions that negotiate the terms and conditions of employment for their members, sitting across the table from management as equal parties under the federal law that guarantees the right to union representation. This state legislation is nothing more than an obvious attempt to undermine those rights and that power.
The current bill would impede the ability of working families in Wisconsin to achieve fair collective bargaining agreements with good wages and appropriate on the job protections. “Right to work” is not about freedom, it is about empowering employers at the expense of the employees. Again, we urge a No vote on the current legislation.
Wisconsin isn’t the only state where extremists are pushing right to work legislation in an attempt to silence working families. New Mexico’s legislature is headed down the same destructive path as are several other states.
If anyone needs more evidence why the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement shouldn’t be rushed through Congress on the “Fast Track,” which does not allow any amendments or improvements in the deal—just a take-it-or-leave-it, yes-or-no vote—read Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) column in today’s Washington Post.
While it’s pretty much a given that big corporations—not working people—have been the winners in free trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement and Central America Free Trade Agreement over the years, Warren exposes a frightening tool in the TPP that gives corporations unimaginable power over the United States’ legal system. Here’s how she describes the “Investor-State Dispute Settlement,” or ISDS, provision.
ISDS would allow foreign companies to challenge U.S. laws—and to potentially pick up huge payouts from taxpayers—without ever stepping foot in a U.S. court. Here’s how it would work. Imagine that the United States bans a toxic chemical that is often added to gasoline because of its health and environmental consequences. If a foreign company that makes the toxic chemical opposes the law, it would normally have to challenge it in a U.S. court. But with ISDS, the company could skip the U.S. courts and go before an international panel of arbitrators. If the company won, the ruling couldn’t be challenged in U.S. courts, and the arbitration panel could require America’s taxpayers to cough up millions—and even billions—of dollars in damages.
But that’s not the worst of it, she writes. The panel of arbitrators wouldn’t employ independent judges. Nope.
Instead, highly paid corporate lawyers would go back and forth between representing corporations one day and sitting in judgment the next. Maybe that makes sense in an arbitration between two corporations, but not in cases between corporations and governments. If you’re a lawyer looking to maintain or attract high-paying corporate clients, how likely are you to rule against those corporations when it’s your turn in the judge’s seat?
We know how that would turn out.
Here’s an example of how ISDS works, but keep in mind only international investors—by and large big corporations—get to use the special tribunals:
So if a Vietnamese company with U.S. operations wanted to challenge an increase in the U.S. minimum wage, it could use ISDS. But if an American labor union believed Vietnam was allowing Vietnamese companies to pay slave wages in violation of trade commitments, the union would have to make its case in the Vietnamese courts.
As Warren points out, ISDS is not a partisan issue: “Giving foreign corporations special rights to challenge our laws outside of our legal system would be a bad deal.” For all of us.
During Black History Month, we will be profiling past and present leaders in the intersecting movements to protect and expand the rights of African Americans and working families. We’ll highlight both important leaders of the past and those who are continuing the legacy of those strong leaders who laid the foundation for the present.
Rachel Bryan is currently the governmental relations and community liaison at Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 595 in Stockton, Calif. She became involved in the labor movement as a member of the local’s apprenticeship program.
She showed her activist’s instincts and passion on her first campaign, 2012’s “NO on 32.” Workers and their allies mounted a major grassroots mobilization to defeat the paycheck deception ballot measure that was driven and financed by corporations and wealthy out-of-state extremist donors.
Because of Bryan’s hard work and unmeasurable contribution to the success of the campaign, she was asked to join the IBEW staff. Since then, she has recruited more than a dozen workers to become IBEW members. Not only that, but she works tirelessly with community groups, her local labor council, the Electrical Workers Minority Caucus and the AFL-CIO to promote racial equality and economic development for African Americans, other minorities and women in the workforce.
Bryan believes there is still much to be done to achieve full inclusion and, without a doubt, young workers will be vital in changing the landscape and the conversation. She serves as inspiration to many in her fight for access to high-value jobs, the end of stereotypes, progressive policy and showing that black lives matter.
This is our last installment of Black History Month labor profiles. But don’t forget that you can win one of 100 Black History Month posters by texting the code “BLACK” (for Black History Month) to 235246.
“America’s legacy of racism and racial injustice has been and continues to be a fundamental obstacle to workers’ efforts to act together to build better lives for all of us,” says the AFL-CIO Executive Council in a statement announcing the creation of a Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice.
The statement, released today at the council’s winter meeting in Atlanta, acknowledges “an ugly history of racism in our own movement” and adds:
Yet at the same time the labor movement has a proud history of standing for racial and economic justice. When we have embraced our better selves we have always emerged stronger in every sense. And whenever we have succumbed to the temptation to see some working people as better than others, we have always ended up weaker.
Pointing to today’s dramatically increasing economic inequality, decreasing union density and growing instability for the majority of Americans, the council says, “The need for all workers to strengthen common interests in achieving economic justice is clear.”
At the same time our different experiences organized around race, gender identity, ethnicity, disability and sexual orientation often challenge and complicate this shared experience. If we are to succeed as a movement, the full range of working peoples’ voices must be heard in the internal processes of our movement. To be able to stand together we have to understand where all of us are coming from.
The council points to the unemployment rate for African Americans—10.3%, more than twice as high as that for whites—the criminal justice system and educational inequities that are large parts of a “world divided in many ways by color lines.”
At the same time working people share a common experience of falling wages and rising economic insecurity. To build a different, better economy we need power that can only come from unity and unity has to begin with having all our voices be heard, on all sides of those color lines. We have to start by acknowledging our own shortcomings and honestly addressing issues that are faced by the communities in which our members live—both the problems and the solutions. We have to find a way to see with each other’s eyes and address the facts and realities.
The Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice will:
Facilitate a broad conversation with local labor leaders around racial and economic disparities and institutional biases, and identify ways to become more inclusive as the new entrants to the labor force diversify;
Engage in six to eight labor discussions around the country, with local labor leaders, constituency groups and young workers addressing racial and economic issues impacting the labor movement and offering recommendations for change; and
Attempt to create a safe, structured and constructive opportunity for local union leaders to discuss issues pertaining to the persistence of racial injustice today in the workforce and in their communities, and to ensure that the voices of all working people in the labor movement are heard.
The news from Wisconsin, during Gov. Scott Walker’s era, is once again bad for working families. The legislature is not only planning to introduce “right to work” legislation this week, it intends to Fast Track it, and Walker said he intends to sign it. Before we get into the reasons why right to work is wrong for Wisconsin (and everywhere else), here are a few steps you can take right now if you care about the future of Wisconsin and its workers.
Public testimony begins Tuesday on the right to work legislation. If you can, attend and speak up.
Attend one of the Madison rallies on Tuesday or Wednesday this week. Learn more.
You can follow the rallies and the story on Twitter with the hashtags: #wipolitics, #righttowork and#wiunion. If you need more information before participating, here are eight reasons why right to work is bad for Wisconsin’s working families. Right to work laws:
1. Make it easier for CEOs to cut health and safety protections for workers. Workers in right to work states are twice as likely to die on the job as workers in states without such laws. Wisconsin already has a higher job fatality rate than the national average. In 2013, 96 workers lost their lives on the job in Wisconsin.
2. Increase risk of on-the-job injury. Wisconsin workers already are at a higher risk of injury at work, with a rate much higher than the national average. In 2013, Wisconsin workers suffered more than 85,200 work-related injuries and illnesses. Employees in foundries, wood products manufacturing, transportation, nursing homes, as well as the police and firefighters, are particularly likely to be hurt at work.
3. Lower wages and health insurance coverage for workers, thus increasing poverty and infant mortality.
4. Decrease investment in education.
5. Undercut the ability of unions to bargain for safety standards and rights stronger than the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA’s) standards.
6. Limit the ability of unions to encourage compliance with worker protections, which unions do through collective bargaining agreements, member training and education, and workplace safety and health committees within the unions. Evidence shows that union workplaces have a much stronger enforcement of job safety rules than nonunion workplaces.
7. Weaken the protections for workers who are retaliated against for raising job safety concerns.
8. Make Wisconsin even more unsafe than it already is for workers. Currently, under the federal OSHA law, only 36 inspectors are available to check out 159,000 workplaces, meaning OSHA can only inspect each workplace once every 104 years. Similarly, the state’s penalties for job safety and health violations are too low. In fiscal year 2013, the average penalty for a serious safety violation was only $2,207. For killing a worker, it was only $3,000. Such low figures offer little deterrence.
The effort to lower wages in America is going to reach new heights in Wisconsin this week. Wall Street billionaires and political extremists are joining together to force a vote on right to work legislation, which is wrong for Wisconsin’s hardworking families. This is a blatant attempt to silence workers’ voices to stop us from speaking out about lower wages and mistreatment at work.
In America, we have a strong tradition of having each others’ backs. Right now, workers from throughout Wisconsin and across the country are gathering in Wisconsin to fight back, together. They are using the tool Gov. Walker is most afraid of: their collective voice.
This right to work sham is about much more than unions. It is simply the next step in the billionaire right wing’s attempt to strip our freedoms to bargain with our employers as we see fit, ensure safe workplaces and raise wages across the country. Billionaires like the Koch brothers and the Walton family are engaged in a systematic attempt to dismantle our economy by lowering wages, while lining their pockets with record profits.
The Obama administration today took the first step to close a loophole in the rules that govern Wall Street brokers and financial firms that provide retirement investment advice. That loophole can drain away thousands, or even tens of thousands, of dollars of hard-earned savings from a single retirement account.
The “Retirement Advice Loophole“ allows Wall Street brokers and financial firms with major conflicts of interest to provide investment advice that serves their own interests instead of what’s best for their clients. Obama ordered the U.S. Department of Labor to submit a proposed rule to strengthen financial advisers’ fiduciary responsibilities and crack down on these practices.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said the new rules are “long overdue” and a “good first step.” Under current rules, he said, Wall Street firms can “create and distribute investment products to elevate a financial adviser’s paycheck over the best interests of workers and retirees.”
For example, they can sell financial products that pay large commissions but hurt their clients with unnecessary fees, poor returns or excessive risks. Millions of Americans are affected by this loophole every year without even knowing it, and it is draining away their retirement savings.
Right now, some advisers are required to put their customers’ interests first while others are not—and it is often extremely difficult for workers and retirees to know which type of adviser they are dealing with.
“Americans are worried about having a secure retirement, especially as they face increasingly complicated choices about how to save and invest their hard-earned dollars,” said Trumka.
When they turn to professional financial advisers to help navigate their complex choices, they should be able to have confidence that the advice they get is in their best interest—and not driven by sales commissions and high fees that can deplete their retirement accounts like a slow leak in a tire.
Oil workers at three more refineries and a chemical plant joined the United Steelworkers’ (USW’s) unfair labor practice strike against the oil industry over the weekend. With workers and plant safety a major concern, USW President Leo W. Gerard said:
The industry’s refusal to meaningfully address safety issues through good faith bargaining gave us no other option but to expand our work stoppage.
Some 1,350 workers are employed at the four facilities, bringing the number of striking workers to about 6,550 at 14 and the chemical plant.
The new strike sites are the Motiva Enterprises refinery in Port Arthur, Texas—a 50-50 joint venture between Shell Oil Co. (American subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell) and Saudi Refining Inc. (subsidiary of Saudi Aramco)—Motiva’s two Louisiana refineries in Convent and Norco, as well as the Shell chemical plant in Norco.
The union is bargaining for new labor agreements to cover some 30,000 workers throughout the oil industry at 65 refineries and hundreds of pipelines, terminals, petrochemical plants and other facilities.
USW Vice President Thomas Conway says:
We’re committed to reaching a settlement that works for both parties. But adequate staffing levels, worker fatigue and other important safety issues must be addressed.
Click here to sign a petition to oil industry management and federal, state and local officials supporting the striking workers in their efforts to secure a fair contract that will protect the health and safety of workers and communities.
Seattle Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 77 member Derek Williams’ shot of linemen carefully replacing high-voltage equipment that was battered by Washington’s winter, framed with towering evergreens and a mountainous backdrop, was voted winner of the 17th IBEW Photo Contest.
IBEW members submitted more than 300 photos and voters chose from 15 finalists. From the beauty of wide-open spaces to the harshness of nature, these photos depict what IBEW members work with, as well as what they’re up against, both on and off the job.