Labor meeting stresses immigration reform, reaches out to non-unions

At one of the largest annual gatherings of union workers nationwide, overtures are being made  to reform the labor movement by forming official alliances with non-union progressive causes including that of immigration and the environment. Sunday in Los Angeles the AFL-CIO kicked off its largest annual convention of union members, and called on unions across America to innovate by expanding membership to include non-union members or risk losing more ground.

AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka said of the call for reforming union membership and alliances:  “”We have to create an economic, political and legislative climate where our members can succeed. Our opposition is well-financed and determined.…We’re too small to do it alone.”

The AFL-CIO is a 12-million-member that will now be aligning itself with progressive groups such as the NAACP, the Sierra Club, and the National Council of La Raza to strengthen political voices of the left. This will help consolidate the myriad viewpoints that are represented within the Democratic Party while drawing attention to some basic problems with American society that must be addressed, including declining unions, stagnating wages, high unemployment, and contingent work.

Union membership in the U.S. has slipped to 11%, from 35% in the 1950s, and currently sits at historic low point.

Labor Secretary Thomas Perez spoke yesterday to workers gathered at the annual convention, citing the need for expanding union membership, enforcing labor laws, and reforming immigration, an increasingly difficult problem to reconcile with American workers’ interests in protecting their jobs.

“Nobody who works 40 hours a week should have to live in poverty,” he told union leaders. “As we work together, we will build a better America. As we work together we will bring the middle class to thrive again. As we work together, we will make sure that everybody has the ladder of opportunity to climb.”

Fast food workers walk off jobs and demand living wage, fair treatment

Today fast food workers at several of the nation’s largest chains including McDonald’s and KFC are walking out to draw attention to low-wage jobs, demand better pay for their hard work in the industry, and advocate for the right to form unions without retaliation.

Advocacy groups such as Fast Food Forward organized strikes in New York City, Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Mo., and Flint, Mich., to protest the $7.25 federal minimum wage. Organizers and workers are demanding an increase to $15 per hour, a more realistic wage that will make it possible for fast food workers to live decent lives on the wages they make.

The nation-wide protest follows earlier walkouts in New York City last spring in which hundreds of workers walked off the job to draw attention to the poor wages and benefits of the hundreds of thousands of fast food service employees. Although no immediate changes followed these earlier actions, a notable result was that no workers were fired for their actions.

Labor organizers say this is the beginning of a movement to unionize service employees more generally, a task long thought impossible that now appears increasingly possible as workers everywhere are feeling the financial woes of the economic recession and demanding more fair treatment. Researchers project that over the next ten years, seven of the 10 fastest-growing jobs will be low-wage positions such as store clerks, laborers, and home health aides.

The plight of fast food workers also highlights the growing income disparity between workers and executives within the industry and across the economy. Fast food service employees in New York earn merely 25 percent of the money they need to survive, according to Fast Food Forward. What is more, executives in the fast food industry earn $11.9 million a year on average, while full-time employees earn a mere $15,080, according to the group.

NLRB dispute may lead Senate majority to change rules for filibuster

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has done the unthinkable by proposing rule changes in the Senate to restrict filibusters. The proposed change has been considered before by both parties at different times but rejected on the grounds that lacking an effective procedural tool like the filibuster would make it impossible for the opposition party to stop, or least constrain, the ruling party from doing anything it likes. The political winds of fortune change, so for the sake of fair play, filibuster rules have been left alone.

No longer. The proximate cause of the proposed change by the Democratic leadership is an opposition party that is not only uninterested in governing, but positively antagonistic about bipartisan compromise for the sake of it. As a result, the Senate remains a legislative body ground down by gridlock with tempers flaring on both sides of the aisle.

The immediate cause is a prime example of the Republican Party’s intransigence, however. Party loyalists in Congress have publicly declared they will do everything in their power to frustrate Obama’s presidency out of sheer (sometimes racially motivated) animus. In the Senate the filibuster has been used time and again to block executive appointments made by President Obama, ranging from federal judges to independent agencies like the National Labor Relations Board. For Obama’s entire presidency the NLRB has functioned without full membership because Republican Senators have misused and abused the power of the filibuster to deny hearings for his nominees. This means, in effect, that for the last five years hundreds of labor disputes have gone unmediated, which is the principle role of the board.

Republican opposition to the NLRB intensified in 2011 following its ruling against Boeing’s attempt to move large swaths of its manufacturing from Washington to South Carolina where unions are not as strong and labor laws are more permissive. The ruling angered Sen. Lindsey Graham (SC-R), who is anti-labor and pro-business. He claimed the NLRB is “the Grim Reaper of job creation,” even though we all know from the Great Recession that the real killer of jobs in this country is Graham’s own deregulatory economics. Opposition to Obama’s nominees to the NLRB is fundamentally about the Republican Party’s mission to dismantle much of the progress made by New Deal policies following the Great Depression, including laws that regulate the financial sector from doing its part in causing the Great Recession.

Craig Becker is a labor lawyer for the AFL-CIO and former board member of the NLRB:  “There’s a breakdown of what used to be a consensus that the workers should have a right to organize, that this should be protected by the government, and that collective bargaining is a good thing for the country.”

The politics of labor runs both ways, however. Democrats used similar means during George Bush’s presidency to deny political appointments to the NLRB, fearing Bush’s anti-labor appointments would hurt American workers. Now that the tales of have turned, Democrats are understandably tired of taking the blame for America’s problems, a theme Republicans are constantly harping on but bear much responsibility for as well. The stakes are much higher in the current showdown because if nominees are not appointed the board will stop functioning.

Eric Schultz, a White House spokesperson, put the point this way:  “Republicans want to make this an ideological fight in an effort to dismantle the agency. If the Senate fails to act, the board will lose a quorum in August and be unable to function, which is exactly what Republicans are seeking.”

Sen. Reid’s announcement marks a sharp reversal from the Democratic Party’s usual cowardice and glad-handing. This is an important stand to take as the NLRB protects workers’ rights, and is one of the few means workers, unions, and corporations have for mediating and resolving disputes. Without the oversight of the board, how will disputes get settled? Perhaps Republicans want to return to the pre-NLRB era when disputes were settled by cat strikes, walkouts, and violence. The party is pro-forma in favor of settling disputes with the gun, and without laws to protect their rights, perhaps workers should demand employers respect their rights by arming themselves. How would this change Republicans’ views on gun control?


NYC fast food workers stage walk out, fighting for rights to unionize

Dozens of fast food workers at some of the country’s largest chains, including McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Domino’s, walked off the job today in a coordinated campaign to highlight low wages and encourage unionization. The campaign is backed by community groups, civil rights groups, religious leaders, and a labor union, the Service Employees International Union.

Workers are protesting what they said are low wages and retaliation against those workers who have backed unionization among the thousands of fast food worker in New York City. Coordinators claim this is the first multi-restaurant strike by fast food workers in American history, and promised further action as unions make in-roads into the traditionally anti-union fast food industry.

Over the decades there have been efforts to unionize single fast-food restaurants or chains, but there has never before been an effort to unionize multiple restaurants at one time. The new campaign states advocates raising low wages and reducing the disparities of income inequality.

CUNY sociology professor Ruth Milkman said, “These jobs have extremely high turnover, so by the time you get around to organizing folks, they’re not on the job anymore.”


Hostess, union fail at negotiations

Hostess announced Tuesday night that it failed to reach a new agreement with BCTWGM, and union officials said the company plans to proceed with shuttering its operations after 82 years in business.

18,500 workers will lose their jobs overnight, adding more grist to the grind of the  jobless recovery. Today’s announcement came four days after the company announced that its liquidation, which many observers believed was all but assured by the union’s strike.

The firm filed for bankruptcy last January because its labor costs were unsustainable and that it needed to cut its wage, health and pension costs to continue operating—despite the questionable practice of paying executives gross compensation packages for an otherwise struggling company.

OH voters reject Republican agenda to limit public unions

In a stinging defeat of the Republican’s national agenda to undermine workers’ rights, voters in the state of Ohio roundly rejected a ballot initiative that would have limited public unions. Specifically, the law would require union members to pay 15 percent of their health care costs, as well as stripped them of their right to collective bargaining.

With 97 percent of the precincts in Ohio reporting, the law was rejected by 61 percent of voters compared to 39 percent who supported it. The vote was closely watched by other states who are contemplating similar measures in order to force unions to help them reign in budget deficits.

However, the short-sightedness of such measures, which were passed in Wisconsin last year and failed to pass in Indiana, must be pointed out. If workers in the public sector are stripped of their rights, like workers in private sector, all workers will lose as more power over wages, employment conditions, and job benefits are ceded to employers. While corporate profits are at record highs in spite of the dismal recession and anemic labor market, real wages for working individuals and families continues the pace of its decades long decline.

It should be apparent to many working people in America that the social contract is broken, and that the ideal of equality of opportunity is tarnished in an economic environment in which the wealthiest makes gains at the expense of the least well-off. If America wants to return its economy to a position of competitiveness, this will not happen with macroeconomic magic tricks like “quantitative easing” or new social media that allow morons to tweet their dinner preferences. Americans must demand better wages, better working conditions, and a new social contract that is committed to redistributing the benefits and burdens of capitalism according to our ideals of justice.