From Wisconsin to Washington, DC, the claims are made: unions are responsible for budget deficits, and their members are overpaid and enjoy cushy benefits. The only way to save the American economy, pundits claim, is to weaken the labor movement, strip workers of collective bargaining rights, and champion private industry. In "They're Bankrupting Us!": And 20 Other Myths about Unions, labor leader Bill Fletcher Jr. makes sense of this debate as he unpacks the twenty-one myths most often cited by anti-union propagandists. Drawing on his experiences as a longtime labor activist and organizer, Fletcher traces the historical roots of these myths and provides an honest assessment of the missteps of the labor movement. He reveals many of labor's significant contributions, such as establishing the forty-hour work week and minimum wage, guaranteeing safe workplaces, and fighting for equity within the workforce. This timely, accessible, "warts and all" book argues, ultimately, that unions are necessary for democracy and ensure economic and social justice for all people.
Seven hundred workers have died in factory fires in Bangladesh since 2005, the most recent being the 112 who burned or jumped to their deaths at the Tazreen factory on November 24th. Now hundreds more bodies are being pulled from the rubble of the Rana Plaza building, in an industrial district 18 miles from Dhaka.
At Tazreen the owners didn’t build fire escapes. They’d locked the doors on the upper floors “to prevent theft,” trapping workers in the flames. At Rana Plaza, factory owners refused to evacuate the building after huge cracks appeared in the walls, even after safety engineers told them not to let workers inside.
Workers told IndustriALL union federation representatives they’d be docked three days pay for each day of an absence, and so went inside despite their worries. As a result, the death toll is already over 250 and more are still trapped under debris.
Perhaps the building codes at Rana Plaza were not enforced, and permits never even obtained, because Sohel Rana, the building’s owner, is reportedly active in Bangladesh’s ruling party, the Awami League. At Tazreen the company was cited by fire inspectors, but never forced to install safety equipment.
But Bangladesh’s development policy is based on attracting garment production by keeping costs among the world’s lowest. Safe buildings that don’t collapse or trap workers in fires raise those costs. So do wages that might rise above Bangladesh’s 21¢/hour—not a livable wage there or anywhere else.
The beneficiaries of those costs are the big brands whose clothes are sewn by the women in those factories. They give production contracts to the factories that make the lowest bids. Factories then compete to cut costs any way they can.
Tazreen made clothes for Wal-Mart, among other big brands. The Rana Plaza building held several factories where 2500 women churned out garments. According to the International Labor Rights Forum, “one of the factories in the Rana complex, Ether-Tex, had listed Walmart-Canada as a buyer on their website.” Labor activists found other documents in the rubble listing cutting orders from Benetton and other labels.
Workers have been trying for years to organize militant unions to raise wages and enforce safety codes. If they’d been successful, they would have had the power to make the factories safe. The morning after the Rana collapse, 20,000 poured out of neighboring factories in protest—other factory owners had ordered them to keep working as though nothing had happened.
Meanwhile, the giant companies controlling the industry insulate themselves from responsibility for the conditions they create. And their most important accomplice is the corporate social responsibility industry.
According to a report just released by the AFL-CIO, Responsibility Outsourced, just before a fire at the Ali Enterprises factory in Pakistan killed 262 workers in 2012, clothing manufacturers hired an auditing firm, Social Accountability International, to certify it was safe. SAI then subcontracted inspection to an Italian firm, RINA, which subcontracted it yet again to a local firm RI&CA. Ali Enterprises was certified that August. “Nearly 300 workers died in a fire two weeks after,” the report charges.
Certifying factories that kill workers has become an $80 billion industry that “helped keep wages low and working conditions poor, [while] it provided public relations cover for producers,” Responsibility Outsourced says. “Manufacturing work has left countries in which there were laws, collective bargaining and other systems in place to reduce workplace dangers,” it says, while “jobs instead have gone to countries with inadequate laws, weak enforcement and precarious employment relationships.”
This transfer was enabled by corporate-friendly trade agreements guaranteeing the products of these factories unfettered access to U.S. and European markets. They simultaneously put pressure on developing countries to guarantee the rights of foreign corporate investors and an environment of low wages, lax enforcement of worker protections, and attacks on unions.
In Bangladesh, after the Tazreen fire, a binding agreement was developed by IndustriALL, the ILRC and other labor NGOs, that seeks to prevent fires and increase safety by guaranteeing workers’ right to organize and enforce better conditions. Some companies, including PVH and Tchibo have signed on. Wal-Mart and Sears, however, not only refused, but would not even pay compensation to the Tazreen fire victims.
As Bangladesh workers pull the bodies of their friends from ruin of Rana Plaza, people half a world away wearing the clothes they sew should not turn their faces away. They need real knowledge about how their shirts and blouses are produced, and who produces them. Rather than the image manipulation of Social Accountability International and its competitor, the Fair Labor Association, they should demand the truth, and then use their power as consumers.
They should drive companies guilty of industrial homicide out of the world’s markets.
A scene from the million-person march in Los Angeles in 2006. (Photo: David Bacon)
need an immigration policy based on human, civil and labor rights, which looks
at the reasons why people come to the U.S., and how we can end the
criminalization of their status and work. While proposals from Congress and the
administration have started the debate over the need for change in our
immigration policy, they are not only too limited and ignore the global nature
of migration, but they will actually make the problem of criminalization much
worse. We need a better alternative.
alternative should start by looking at the roots of migration - the reasons why
people come to the U.S. in the first place. Movement and migration is a human
right. But we live in a world in which a lot of migration isn’t voluntary, but
is forced by poverty and so-called economic reforms.
Our trade policy, and the economic
measures we impose on countries like Mexico, El Salvador or the Philippines
make poverty worse. When people get poorer and their wages go down, it creates
opportunities for U.S. corporate investment. This is what drives our trade
policy. But the human cost is very high.
In El Salvador today, the U.S. Embassy
is telling the government to sell off its water, hospitals, schools and
highways to give U.S. investors a chance to make money. This policy is enabled
by the Central American Free Trade Agreement, whose purpose was increasing
opportunities in El Salvador for U.S. investors. It was imposed on the people
of that country in the face of fierce popular opposition.
Alex Gomez, a leader of Salvadoran
public sector unions, came to San Francisco in February to explain what the
consequences of this latest free trade initiative will be. He says if these
public resources are privatized, tens of thousands of workers will lose their
jobs, and their unions will be destroyed. They will then have to leave the
country to survive.
According to Gomez, four million have
already left El Salvador. Two million have come to the US, not because they
love it here, but because they can’t survive any longer at home. These migrants
come without papers, because there are no visas for two million people from
this small country.
The North American Free Trade Agreement
did even more damage than CAFTA. It let U.S. corporations dump corn in Mexico,
to take over the market there with imports from the U.S. Today one company,
Smithfield Foods, sells almost a third of all the pork consumed by Mexicans. Because
of this dumping and the market takeover, prices dropped so low that millions of
Mexican farmers couldn’t survive. They too had to leave home.
Mexico used to be self-sufficient in
corn and meat production. Corn cultivation started there in Oaxaca many
centuries ago. Now Mexico is a net corn and meat importer from the U.S.
During the years NAFTA has been in
effect, the number of people in the U.S. born in Mexico went from 4.5 million
to 12.67 million. Today about 11% of all Mexicans live in the U.S. About 5.7
million of those who came were able to get some kind of visa, but another 7
million couldn’t. There just aren’t that many visas. But they came anyway
because they had very little choice, if they wanted to survive or their
families to prosper.
Our immigration laws turn these people
into criminals. They say that if migrants without papers work here it’s a
crime. But how can people survive here if they don’t work? We need a different
kind of immigration policy - that stops putting such pressure on people to
leave, and that doesn’t treat them as criminals if they do.
What would it look like?
First, we should tell the truth, as the
labor-supported TRADE Act would have us do, which was introduced into Congress
by Mike Michaud from Maine. We should hold hearings as the bill says, about the
effects of NAFTA and CAFTA, and collect evidence about the way those agreements
have displaced people in the U.S. and other countries as well.
Then we need to renegotiate those
existing agreements to eliminate the causes of displacement. If we provide
compensation to communities that have suffered the effects of free trade and
corporate economic reforms, that were intended to benefit U.S. investors, it
would be more than simple justice. It might give people more resources and more
of a future at home.
It makes no sense to negotiate new
trade agreements that displace even more people or lower living standards. This
administration has negotiated three so far, with Peru, Panama and South Korea. It
is now negotiating a new one -- the Trans Pacific Partnership. These are all
pro-corporate, people-displacing agreements. We should prohibit these and any
new ones like them. Instead, we need to make sure all future trade treaties
require adequate farm prices and income in farming communities, promote unions
and high wages, and don’t require the privatization of public services.
Increasingly these international
agreements, like Mode 4 of the World Trade Organization, treat displaced
migrants as a cheap and vulnerable labor force. Our trade negotiators call for
regulating their flow with guest worker programs. This is exactly the wrong
direction. We should ban the inclusion of guest workers in any future trade agreement
or treaty instead.
When diplomacy doesn’t work, U.S.
military intervention and aid programs are to support trade agreements,
structural adjustment policies or market economic reforms. This has been U.S.
policy in Honduras and Haiti, for instance. This also must stop. If the U.S.
Embassy is putting pressure on countries like El Salvador to adopt measures
that benefit corporate investors at the expense of workers and farmers, the
Ambassador should be recalled and the interference halted.
Finally, we should ratify the UN
Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and Their Families. This
international agreement would give us an alternative framework for recognizing
the rights of displaced migrants, and the responsibility of both sending and receiving
countries for their protection.
The failure of successive U.S.
administrations to even present this agreement to Congress for ratification
highlights the unpleasant truth about the real effect of our immigration
policy. When millions of migrants arrive here, they are criminalized because
they lack immigration status, especially when they go to work.
Labor and civil rights advocates often
fondly remember the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act because of it had
an amnesty, signed by President Ronald Reagan, which gave legal status
relatively quickly to almost four million people. But the law also contained
employer sanctions for the first time, which we often forget. That provision
says that employers will be fined and punished if they hire undocumented
This provision was promoted by those
who said that if work became illegal, then undocumented migration would end. This
clearly failed, since the number increased many-fold in the years that
followed. Compared to the pressure to leave home, criminalizing work was not a
deterrent to those who sought work here so that their families at home would
This provision sounded like a law
against employers, but it was not. It became an anti-worker law. No boss ever
went to jail for violating it. The fines were not great. When the government
agents seek to enforce it, employers who cooperate with them are forgiven. But
over the last four years alone, tens of thousands of workers have been fired
for not having papers. The true objects of punishment under this law have
always been workers, not employers.
Now Congress is talking about a new
reform, and we have to use this opportunity to push to repeal this law. Some
think that since a new legalization will hopefully give many undocumented
workers legal status, sanction won’t really affect anyone anymore.
But even the most positive predictions
about a new legalization still assume that millions of people will not quality
because of stringent qualifications, high fees and decades-long waiting
periods. Those people will still be subject to the sanctions law. And the day
after a new reform passes millions more people will come to the U.S. because of
the same pressures that caused past waves of migration. This is especially true
if a new immigration reform ignores the need to renegotiate trade agreements
and eliminate the huge displacement of people.
These future migrants are not
strangers. They are the husbands and wives, parents, and cousins of people
already here - people who are already part of our communities. They come from
the same towns, and are linked to neighborhoods here in the U.S. by the ties
that have been created by migration, work and family. They will work in our
workplaces, participate in our organizing drives, and belong to our unions. We
need to keep the sanctions law from being applied to them, making it a crime
for them to work. Unfortunately, however, Congress members aren’t talking about
getting rid of sanctions. In fact, they and the administration want to make the
current application even worse.
So let’s do a reality check. Let’s tell
the truth about how has this law been used.
One method for enforcing sanctions
happens when an employer uses it to screen people it is going to hire, using an
error-filled government database called E-verify. Congress and the
administration are calling for making it mandatory for all employers to use
this database, and refuse to hire anyone who it flags as undocumented.
For people who are currently working
now and have no papers, what it means is that if they lose their jobs, it will
be much hard to find others. That will make people fear taking any action that
offends their boss, like joining a union or complaining about illegal
conditions. That’s good for the boss, but bad for the workers.
Employers today not only use this
database to screen new hires - they also use it to reverify the immigration
status of people who are already working. This is a violation of the law. Once
it accepts the form filled out by a job seeker (called the I-9), along with
their ID, the employer can’t reverify it all over again at some point in the
future. But they do. Sometimes it’s convenient to get rid of workers who have
accumulated benefits and raises over years of service, and replace them with
new hires at lower wages.
Reverification just happened, for
instance, to three workers who belong to the International Longshore and
Warehouse Union at Waste Management, Inc. in San Leandro, California. The union
has gone to the Oakland City Council to protest these illegal firings, because
WMI operates under a city garbage contract.
Employers sometimes announce they
intend to begin using the E-Verify database when their workers start to
organize. That’s what managers announced at the Mi Pueblo supermarkets in
northern California. There E-Verify checks are being used to terrorize workers
to keep them from supporting a union, Local 5 of the United Food and Commercial
Another method for enforcing sanctions
against workers is even more widespread. Immigration agents, working for the
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), go into the personnel records of an
employer. They then compare the information given by workers on the I-9 form to
the E-Verify database, looking for workers who don’t have legal immigration
status. ICE then makes a list of those workers and sends it to the company,
telling the employer to fire them.
This is what happened at Pacific Steel
Castings in Berkeley, California, last year. Two hundred and fourteen workers
were fired as a result. Some had worked in the foundry for over 20 years. Many
lost their homes, and their children’s dreams of going to college were
Over last four years, hundreds of
thousands of workers have lost their jobs in these enforcement actions, called
I-9 audits. Almost five hundred janitors in San Francisco, and over a thousand
in Minneapolis. Thousands of workers doing some of the hardest work imaginable
in meatpacking plants around the country. Farm workers. Construction workers. But
the employers all given reduced fines, and many immunity from punishment
entirely, if they cooperated in firing their own workers.
If unions and communities mount a fight
that exposes the terrible human cost of these firings, it is possible to stop
them. The young Dreamers showed that this is possible. These courageous young
people convinced the administration to stop deporting students brought to the
U.S. without papers as children. They forced the administration to change the
way it enforces immigration law. It can be done for workers too, if there’s a
But we must also change the sanctions
law. Otherwise, our experience over the 25 years since it passed shows that
immigration authorities will simply find another method for making working a
crime for people who don’t have papers.
The other unpleasant truth about
sanctions is that they are linked to the growth of guest worker programs. One
of the main purposes of making it a crime to work without papers is to force
people to come to the U.S. with visas that tie them to their employers and
recruiters. These workers are often more vulnerable than the undocumented,
since they get deported if they lose their jobs or get fired. Guest worker
programs have been called Close to Slavery by the Southern Poverty Law Center
and others who have documented their extreme exploitation. The sanctions law
functions as a way to pressure people into choosing that path to come to the
U.S. to work.
When employer sanctions are used to
make workers vulnerable to pressure, to break unions or to force people into
guest worker programs, their real effect is to force people into low wage jobs
with no rights. This is a subsidy for employers, and brings down wages for
everyone. The sanctions law makes it harder for all workers to organize to
improve conditions. This doesn’t just affect the workers who have no papers
themselves. When it becomes harder for one group to organize, other workers
have a harder time organizing too.
Some Washington lobbyists accept as a
fact of life that the sanctions law will continue, or even worse, that E-Verify
will become a mandatory national program for all employers. But for unions and
workers who have had to deal with its effects , it would be much better to
immediately repeal it, and dismantle the E-Verify database.
The use of the sanctions law against
workers and unions is what led the California Labor Federation to call for its
repeal as early as 1994, a position it continued to adopt in successive
conventions. Other unions joined it including the garment unions and service
employees. Finally labor councils in California and then around the country
passed resolutions making the same call, and sent them to the historic AFL-CIO
convention in Los Angeles in 1999. This led to an historic debate and the
adoption of a new, pro-immigrant policy. Delegates at that convention believed
that we have to stop enforcing immigration law in the workplace, because its
real effect is to make workers vulnerable to employers, and to make it harder
for all workers to organize to improve conditions.
In addition to repealing the national
sanctions law, we should also prohibit states from enacting copycat measures. These
laws have passed not just in Arizona or Alabama or Mississippi. California
passed a state employer sanctions law before the federal law took effect in
What would really help workers to raise
wages and improve conditions is much stricter enforcement of worker protection
and anti-discrimination laws, for everyone. Funding used for immigration
enforcement on the job should be given instead to the Department of Labor, the
Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the National Labor Relations
Board and other labor law enforcement agencies. It will be a good day for all
workers when ICE agents instead become wage and hour inspectors.
Threats by employers who use
immigration status to keep workers from organizing unions or protesting illegal
conditions should be a crime. That makes it necessary to overturn two Supreme
Court decisions, Hoffman and Sure-Tan. In these cases the court said that if
workers are fired for union activity and have no papers, the boss doesn’t have
to rehire them or pay them lost wages, because the sanctions law makes it
illegal to employ them to begin with. But when there’s no punishment for
violating labor rights, workers have no rights. This also hurts other workers
in the same workplace who want to organize a union, since it makes the
undocumented so vulnerable. Instead, we should increase workplace rights by
prohibiting immigration enforcement during labor disputes or against workers
who complain about illegal conditions.
To ensure that in the workplace we all
have the same rights we also have to eliminate the way undocumented people get
ripped off by funds like Social Security and unemployment. All workers
contribute to the Social Security fund, but because undocumented people are
working under bad numbers, they pay in but can never collect the benefits. This
will come back to haunt us when those workers need disability payments or get
too old to work - something that happens to us all. This is the reason we set
up the Social Security system to begin with - because we don’t want old people
eating dog food, regardless of where they were born.
Instead today the Social Security
number has become much more a means to check immigration status, harming
workers instead of providing them the benefits that were its original and true
purpose. There is a simple solution to this problem as well. Social Security
numbers should be made available for everyone, regardless of immigration
status. Everyone should pay into the system and everyone has a right to the
benefits those payments create. By the same token all workers should be able to
receive unemployment benefits regardless of status, since they and their
employers pay into the funds.
In the end, we need an immigration
policy that brings people together, instead of pitting workers against each
other, as our current system does. During a time of economic crisis especially
we need to reduce job competition, rather than stoking fears. In 2005
Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston made an innovative proposal that
would have set up job creation and training programs for unemployed workers at
the same time that it would have given legal status to workers without papers. This
proposal put unemployed workers and immigrants on the same side, giving them
both something to fight for whether they were out of work, or working without
This proposal, and the others made
here, are part of the Dignity Campaign, a plan for immigration reform based on
human, civil and labor rights. In the last three years, local unions and labor
councils in San Francisco, Silicon Valley and Alameda County adopted
resolutions supporting the Dignity Campaign, arguing that trade policy is
linked to the increasing vulnerability of immigrant workers because of the
sanctions law and guest worker progrsms. The Labor Council for Latin American
Advancement adopted a similar resolution.
An immigration policy that benefits
migrants, their home communities, and working people here in the U.S. has to
have a long term perspective. Instead of just trying to please interest groups
well-represented in Congress, we need to ask, where are we going? What will
actually solve the problems that we experience on our jobs and in our homes
with current laws and policies?
We need a system that produces
security, not insecurity. We need a commitment to equality and equal status -
getting rid of color and national lines instead of making them deeper. We need
to make it easier for workers to organize, by getting rid of what makes people
vulnerable -- to end job competition we need full employment, and to gain
organizing rights we need labor law enforcement together with eliminating
sanctions and firings. It’s not likely that many corporations will support such
a program, so the politicians who represent us have to choose whose side they’re
Working people in Mexico, El Salvador,
the Philippines, the US and other countries need the same things. Secure jobs
at a living wage. Rights in our workplaces and communities. The freedom to
travel and seek a future for our families, and the ability to stay home and
have a decent future there too. The borders between our countries, then, should
be common grounds that unite us, not lines that divide us.
Sure, employees have filed at least 10 lawsuits against the founder
and chief executive of sexy-clothing-maker American Apparel, alleging sexual
harassment, bullying, violence, and illegal use of corporate money. His firm
went bankrupt once and has skirted the financial edge two more times.
The newest lawsuit—brought by the male manager of an
American Apparel outlet in uber-cool Malibu, California—claims, among other
things, that Charney spewed obscenities at him for poor sales, called him “a
fag” and “a f***ing Jew,” tried to squeeze and choke him, and then tried to rub
dirt in his face.
Actually, this is an improvement over some of the earlier legal
actions, in which Charney was accused of grabbing his penis in front of one
female worker and using company funds to buy sex videos for himself. At least
this time, he apparently is concerned about store sales.
Yet, the case against Charney is not that simple.
The same bravado and willingness to buck conventional wisdom
that allegedly produce the sexual filth, also propel Charney to open his big
mouth for unpopular causes of social justice.
While other U.S. companies hire undocumented foreign-born
workers mainly to cheat them out of wages and overtime, knowing that they don’t
dare complain, Charney champions their rights. He marches in Los Angeles’s
biggest Latino parade, donates money to immigrant rights’ groups, ran ads
supporting citizenship, and designed two special lines of T-shirts as
While other U.S. clothing-makers ship their production out
to sweatshops in places like Bangladesh, Vietnam, Honduras, and China, seeking
the lowest wages possible, regardless of safety or health, Charney makes
everything in the U.S. At American Apparel’s airy, light-filled main factory,
workers can get subsidized health care, subsidized meals, free loaner bikes,
free massages, free English lessons, discount bus passes, and free international
calls back home (to all those countries they may have illegally come from).
Charney also vigorously opposed California’s Proposition 8,
which banned same-sex marriage.
In short, if you’re concerned about corporate ethics, those
two sides of Dov Charney can drive you crazy. Hate him or love him?
But there is a simple solution: Hate the man, love the
While Charney may be the drum major of the parade, the
qualities that make American Apparel an ethical business should be pretty well entrenched
throughout that factory by now. After 15 years, it would be hard to tear out the
sunny windows or yank away the health care and English lessons. Company
officials claim their “vertically
integrated” manufacturing platform has proved that making clothing in America is
Thus, the good parts should keep running even if Charney
By the same token, the harassment and abuse lawsuits are
only against Charney, personally, No other American Apparel executive has been
accused of talking and acting dirty. Get rid of Charney, and the harassment and
bullying should stop.
Charney probably owns too much of the company to be fired
outright, and anyway, it’s often his creative vision behind the popular
Instead, American Apparel should keep him locked up in a
tower with lots of porn videos, Hungry Man frozen dinners, consenting (and over
18) young women—and a laptop with a good graphics program. Every now and then,
a few upper-tier managers could come by to talk about plans for new hoodies or dresses.
But never, ever, ever let Dov Charney out.
least, before you pull out your wallet, think about the forced student
labor, the warlords who
benefit from mineral smuggling, the children exposed to toxic waste from old phones, and the pile of useless accessories you'll throw
With its constant pitching of the
newest cool thing to replace its previous newest cool thing, Apple has always been
one of the worst violators of the environmentalist credo “reduce, reuse,
recycle.” It barely gives customers a chance to use its toys, let alone reuse,
before making the toy obsolete and unfashionable.
But with the
iPhone 5, Apple has really outdone
instance, customers have recently become aware that iPhones and other Apple
gizmos are made in crowded and unsafe Chinese factories where people toil 15
hours a day for barely $50 a month. That’s
bad enough. Then, just a week before the iPhone 5 went on sale, it was revealed
that the factories had dragooned students onto the assembly lines in a rush to
get the phones made on time, threatening to kick them out of school if they
Nor has anything been done to ameliorate
the environmental problems. As with any product, making an iPhone uses up resources
for the components, ingredients, packaging, and marketing, and also uses fuel
and creates carbon emissions in the manufacturing and shipping processes. Again,
iPhones are worse than the average, because their components include dangerous
metals and ores like coltan, which is found only in endangered gorilla habitats
or in African war zones where the profits get siphoned by warlords.
Bacon writes about labor, immigration, and international politics for The Nation, In These Times, American Prospect, TruthOut, among other publications, and he regularly appears on KPFA and KQED radio. The East Bay Express described his work: "As the US labor movement has come under near constant attack in recent years, the Oakland journalist is one of the last of his breed in the country."
For Labor Day, we've collected some of Bacon's stories about labor as a snapshot of a year in workers' rights.
All photos copyright David Bacon, used by permission of the author.
"Migrant rights activists, artisans and public officials spoke about the important role migration continues to play in Oaxaca's economic, social, political and family life. The state in southern Mexico is the source of one of the largest waves of migration from Mexico to the United States." "Oaxaca's New Government Calls for Migrant Rights," TruthOut, January 5.
"A bruising 16-year battle, the fight brought together African American, white, and Mexican immigrant workers, who were able to find common ground despite the company’s attempts to use racial division and immigration enforcement to try to defeat them." "Common Ground on the Kill Floor: Organizing Smithfield,"Labor Notes, April 20.
In honor of Labor Day, online orders at Beacon.org are 20% off with the code LaborDay12. Offer ends Sept. 4, so shop now!
Bill Fletcher Jr. is the author of "They're Bankrupting Us!": And 20 Other Myths about Unions. Fletcher is a long-time racial-justice, labor, and international activist, scholar, and author. He has been involved in the labor movement for decades, and is a widely known speaker and writer in print and on radio, television, and the Web. He has served in leadership positions with many prominent union and labor organizations, including the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union. Fletcher is currently the director of field services for the American Federation of Government Employees. We conducted this Q&A with him via email in honor of the Labor Day holiday.
How have attitudes toward
labor unions changed in the United States over the past few decades?
Attitudes towards unions have fluctuated depending, in part, on what
segment of society you are talking about. More than half of non-union workers
would like to be in a union or an association of workers. This has been fairly
consistent. What has changed is that unions, particularly public sector unions,
have become punching bags for politicians. This might be the result of trying
to find ways of saving money that do not depend on raising taxes on the
wealthy, or there might be very ideological reasons. In either cases, the elite
in this society has turned on unions with ferocity. As unions have weakened, so
too has their presence in the media. As regular people know less and less about
unions, their opinions can be shaped and reshaped by anti-union forces in and
outside of the media.
Was there ever a time that
unions were viewed more favorably by the public and the media?
Absolutely. Here the answer depends, in part, on what part of the USA,
but in general in the 1930s-the late 1960s, unions were viewed very favorably. In
the 1930s and 1940s they were seen as being at the leadership of a movement for
social and economic justice. This became less true after the Cold War
devastated the unions and frightened them away from anything that was perceived
as being left-wing. But that said, unions were seen as helping to raise all
What are some of the greatest
difficulties that public unions face today?
State, county and municipal budgets rely to a great degree on
regressive taxes. As these bodies have allowed the wealthy and the corporations
to pay less in taxes (and/or get tremendous tax breaks) the revenue had to be
obtained elsewhere. Politicians began looking at public sector workers as a
convenient target. Additionally, as private sector workers have found
themselves to be victims of concessionary demands and, as a result, lose many hard-won
gains, they have often found themselves focusing their anger and resentment on
the public sector workers. Also, public sector unions face the constant threat
of privatization of jobs, so there is a regular defensive battle to protect
what they have. Public sector unions, in too many cases, stopped organizing,
whether that was with regard to other public sector workers or organizing
workers who worked in privatized facilities. In some respects, and quite
ironically, one of the greatest challenges facing public sector unions is to
figure out how to support the re-organizing of the private sector workforce. Federal
workers face many of the same threats as state, county and municipal workers,
and, as we have seen over the last few years, have been made scapegoats for
What do you see as the
biggest benefit of unionizing a workplace?
It provides workers with an opportunity to gain a voice in the
workplace; a possibility for raising their wages and benefits; and a means to
begin to democratize the workplace such that the workers end up having real
rights rather than being the subject of arbitrary treatment by employers.
What advice do you have for
workers interested in unionizing?
First, make sure that there is not, already, a
union at your workplace. If there is, speak with a representative of the union
about it. Second, go to www.aflcio.org
and read up on unions. Contact the central labor council—a body of unions from
across the board who meet regularly and attempt to coordinate their work
(central labor councils are usually at the county or municipal level)—and ask
them which union would be most appropriate for the type of the job in which you
work. Get some of your co-workers together and meet with a representative from
the union. Even if there is no union that covers your sort of job, put together
an informal committee of workers in your workplace who commit to working
together for justice in your workplace...and then call me.
In celebration of the MLK Memorial Dedication, we are also giving away books by Dr. King. Enter for your chance to win hardcover editions of recent titles released by Beacon Press: Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, Why We Can't Wait, The Trumpet of Conscience, "All Labor Has Dignity," and MLK: In Word and Image. One grand prize winner will receive ALL SIX BOOKS. Five winners will receive one book of their choice. For more information and to enter, see the Beacon Press website.
Today's excerpt is from All Labor Has Dignity. People forget that Dr. King was every bit as committed to economic justice as he was to ending racial segregation. He fought throughout his life to connect the labor and civil rights movements, envisioning them as twin pillars for social reform. As we struggle with massive unemployment, a staggering racial wealth gap, and the near collapse of a financial system that puts profits before people, King's prophetic writings and speeches underscore his relevance for today. They help us imagine King anew: as a human rights leader whose commitment to unions and an end to poverty was a crucial part of his civil rights agenda.
Union members and allies are taking part in more than 1,000 events around the nation on and around April 4 in solidarity with working people in Wisconsin and dozens of other states where politicians are attempting to take away the rights of workers.
In the middle of a violent thunderstorm, with tornadoes and lightning touching down in the surrounding area, King arrived at Bishop Charles Mason Temple without a script, with a sore throat, and slightly ill. Violent weather prevented many people from coming, but nearly all thirteen hundred of Local 1733's members came, as did some of their strongest strike supporters. To this humble gathering, King poured out his last testament. He looked back through all of human history to this particular moment in time and called on people to appreciate their opportunity to once again change history.
You can read the entire speech, along with commentary by Michael Honey, in All Labor Has Dignity. You can read an excerpt of one of King's other speeches in the book, one he gave to union workers in Chicago in 1967, here or on Scribd. You can purchase this book for 20% off from Beacon.org using code APRIL4 from now until April 30, 2011.
The 1911 Triangle Waist Factory fire elicited an outpouring of sympathy and helped humanize eastern European immigrant industrial workers in the eyes of affluent white Americans, but reforms aimed at bakeries demonized the workers who the country's single most important food. In today's post, Aaron Bobrow-Strain, chair of the Department of Politics at Whitman College and author of White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, looks at how reforms in food safety did little to help the workers in that industry, and how fear continues to adversely affect workers in today's food chain.
Last weekend, thousands of people attended events commemorating the one-hundred-year anniversary of Triangle Waist factory fire, which killed 146 young immigrant garment workers just off New York's Washington Square Park. The centennial commemorations, coming at a moment when worker organizing is vilified and under attack across the country, were a chance to remind Americans of the suffering and struggle it took to win basic workplace protections that we take for granted (at least for now).
Child labor laws, workplace safety regulations, sprinkler systems in office buildings, and limits on the length of the work week can all be traced back, at least in part, to the outpouring of anger and sympathy that followed the Triangle fire. As David von Drehle notes in his classic account of the fire and its aftermath, key provisions of the New Deal can even be traced to the tragedy of March 11, 1911. Union workers and non-union workers alike, we all owe a debt to the women who died in the Triangle fire and the labor reformers who took up their cause.
But there is also a lesson in the Triangle fire for millions of Americans who care about working to make a better food system. And, sadly, it is not so inspiring.
After the fire, 400,000 people—almost one in ten New Yorkers—took to the streets, joining a funeral procession for the fallen workers. In the weeks and months that followed, union and upper class social reformers demanded action. Pressure built on the government and businesses to do something to prevent similar tragedies. Charges were filed, blame circulated, and blue ribbon investigatory committees were appointed. Of all the inquiries, the most far-reaching was conducted by the newly created New York Factory Investigating Committee.
Garment factories figured prominently in the Committee's investigations, of course, but the Committee extended its mandate to include other industries—particularly small neighborhood bakeries. This focus might sound a little strange today, when we associate small local bakeries with community, pleasure, and authentic eating. But the reality then was a bit different.
Poorly capitalized and facing cutthroat competition, small immigrant bakeries slashed any cost possible. They stretched and whitened cheap flour with plaster of Paris, borax, ground bones, pipe clay, chalk, alum, and other nefarious compounds. They sold underweight loaves, and they worked laborers as hard as they could. Immigrant bakery employees typically worked 14+ hours a day during the week and 24 hours on Saturday. And they worked underground in damp, super-heated and unventilated cellar bake rooms. As the lyrics of an 1884 union anthem from St. Helen, Oregon, asked, "Full eighteen hours under the ground, Toiling and making bread! Shut off from air and light and sound, Are we alive or dead?"
Beginning in the 1870s, labor organizations were able to bring these abuses to light and raise public outcry about "Slavery in the Baker Shops." Sensational descriptions of unventilated and pestilent cellar bakeries filled local newspapers and echoed through the city's lecture halls. Sanitary inspectors painted pictures of dark, vermin-infested caves with raw sewage dripping from pipes into dough mixing troughs, street dust and horse manure blown onto dough, bread cooling on dirt floors, and whole families sleeping on rag piles in bakeries, alongside their chickens. In the worst cases, bakers worked ankle-deep in water and sewage when storms backed up city drains.
But the outcry was not what unions had hoped for. Rather than rousing sympathy for exploited workers, unions and their allies succeeded in focusing the country's outrage on dirty bread and the dirty hands that made it. By the time of the Triangle fire, small local bakeries were terrifying symbols of physical and social contagion in the minds of middle and upper class consumers.
Thus, although social reformers like Frances Perkins hoped that the tragedy's aftermath would spur changes for immigrant food workers, the Committee had other ideas.
When it came to garment factories and other industrial workplaces, the Committee worked to protect workers. When it came to bakeries, the Committee worked to protect consumers—often at the expense of bakery workers who were consistently reviled as the cause of New York's bread problem, rather than its biggest victims.
With a few exceptions, committee members darted around witnesses' appeals for workplace safety regulations, restating the bakery problem as a question of how best to control immigrant workers. One public health doctor who testified before the committee observed that nearly 100 percent of New York immigrant bakery workers showed signs of tuberculosis, bronchitis, and other lung infections. But the Factory Inspection Committee took this as evidence of bakers' poor hygiene, not unsafe working conditions. As city Health Commissioner Ernst Lederle argued, "cellar bakeries themselves were not the problem," the problem was that "the people were dirty and careless."
Anxiety about small bakeries was a gift to the country's growing number of large industrial bread manufacturers, and they fanned the flames of fear, running advertising about the risk of catching typhus and tuberculosis from immigrant bakery bread. But were small local bakeries really that unsafe for consumers?
Probably not—and this is what makes it interesting. Reading pages of testimony and the reports of sanitary inspectors one thing comes clear: while many other pieces of the American food supply—like milk and meat—were, in fact, threatened by germs, bread was fairly sanitary. Sensationalist reports of contaminated bread were just that: sensationalist.
Affluent New Yorkers were not really anxious about bread, they were anxious about unfamiliar immigrants touching food. The bread coming out of small local bakeries wasn't really a public health threat—at least not a threat to consumers.
But, as Frances Perkins argued at the Factory Investigating Committee hearings, bakeries were a threat to the health of bakery workers. Fixated on a potent combination of fear of germs and fear of immigrants (two things that often go together in America), social reformers had a hard time seeing this, however, even amidst the upwelling of sympathy following the Triangle fire.
While young female immigrant garment workers could be portrayed as helpless innocents (despite their active involvement in strikes and struggles to win rights), "swarthy" male bakery workers could not be allowed to touch the nation's food.
In the end, prompted by the Factory Investigating Committee, New York and jurisdictions around the country passed laws regulating sanitary conditions in small bakeries. The laws, designed to ease consumer anxieties, in some cases made life harder for immigrant bakery workers. For example, many cities passed sanitation regulations making it illegal for workers to sleep in bakeries, but didn't address the 14-18 hour workdays that prompted bakers to grab whatever sleep they could, wherever they could.
What lessons can we draw from this story today? As hard as it's been for American workers to win work place safety protections, it's been harder for food chain workers. It shouldn't be that difficult to see that improving conditions for food workers can only increase the safety of food for consumers, but racialized fears of immigrant hands touching the nation's sustenance often get in the way.
Dropkick Murphys collaborate with Michael Patrick MacDonald to bring the story of Cornelius Larkin to life
Win signed copies of Dropkick Murphys' latest CD Going Out in Style and Michael Patrick MacDonald's All Souls! See Beacon.org for details.
On March 1, 2011, Dropkick Muphys released their seventh full-length studio album, Going Out In Style. The songs take the band's own personal experiences and family folklore and roll them into the story of one fictional character, Cornelius Larkin. Fueled by fiery riffs and unforgettable choruses, Going Out In Style traces Larkin's journey, whether it's the Irish immigrant's first person account of his own wake or the band's in depth interpretation of his life and lineage throughout the album's lyrics. Ken Casey (lead vocals and bass guitar) reveals, "Cornelius has passed on to the other side, and the album becomes a retrospective of his life. He's one of those guys who immigrated to America at 16, got drafted into the Korean War, married young, had lots of kids, worked hard, and lived a full life rife with different characters, ups and downs, and trials and tribulations. Some of the stories are fictional, but most are odes to our grandparents, friends, and loved ones."
The Dropkicks felt that there was no way to tell a man's whole story in just thirteen songs. In order to round the story out, the band called on their friend, best-selling author Michael Patrick MacDonald (All Souls, Easter Rising). MacDonald wrote an eloquent obituary for Cornelius Larkin in the album's liner notes, along with the beginnings of a more extensive narrative about the album's main character for listeners to delve into. MacDonald became immensely engrossed in the character's development, particularly as Cornelius began to take on elements of MacDonald's own family history. At that point, the story grew into a much longer saga that is available on the band's and MacDonald's websites in conjunction with the album release.
"Collaborating with the Dropkick Murphys is, for me, a family affair," says MacDonald. "Cornelius Larkin represents all that we come from. And this story is about embracing the good, the bad, the ugly and beautiful that we all come from; ultimately learning to work with all of it. Past is truly prelude."
Casey elaborates, "I wrote an outline which began leading to songs. At the same time, I wanted the obituary to have that author's flair, a little more description, a more detailed narrative, and a deeper story. Michael listened to the songs we'd written, and he fleshed out the story and really put a name and a face on the character. It's a new approach and a unique partnership, especially in this day and age. The songs inspire the story, and the story inspires the songs. It's a deep record, and it celebrates a life."
I'm afraid to turn on my television. Really, it terrifies me. This is not based on a fear of alien mind-melt, a fear of governmental snooping, or a fear of the little people who live inside the box (no flat screen at my house).
I fear clicking the remote control because I live in Wisconsin. Click: teachers are sucking the state dry. Click: public employees are lazy bums. Click: those guys who plow my street again and again and again (and now once more) are just selfish. Click: collective bargaining rights, the right to help shape our own workplaces, are an unnecessary privilege exploited by the spoiled. Click: it's just petty of people with disabilities to think transportation is necessary to get to work. Click: let's pay everyone as little as we get can get away with. Click: education, the essential core of any democratic society, the best grounding for healthy human beings, the cause to which I've dedicated most of my waking hours since I was five years old, doesn't have to be that good and really isn't very important. Mediocrity, indeed, is just fine.
Really, I'm terrified to turn on my television.
Fear, however, is not helping me out. Fear doesn't make for happy people, fear doesn't lead to quality and transformative teaching, fear hinders parenting, and fear certainly obstructs good policy decisions. For my college students, fear is not a place from which good learning happens. Fear is just no fun. And because I'm a historian, and it's secret requirement of the Ph.D. that I quote FDR (don't tell anyone that I told you), "We have nothing to fear but fear itself."
Courage, I tell myself, courage despite fear. Courage to spite fear. At 8 a.m. I will walk before a classroom of students. I will convey to them that they can transform their lives, their family's lives, and their world for the better—and that an education is their tool to do so. That is, of course, why they are in my classroom.
My students, it turns out, have plenty of courage. Most of my students are of the first generation in their families to attend college. They fear not finding employment. They fear that their parents will lose the family home. They fear the loss, or the continued absence of, healthcare. They fear sitting in the classroom while being haunted by memories of rape, of military combat, of things they can't identify. They fear each tuition bill. They fear, more than anything, the loss of hope. They, however, are brave enough to show up in my classroom. And they need, they need, they need me to have hope.
Professor Nielsen, one announces proudly, I got a B on my biology exam. Another student emails me after class, thank you for your concern and I'm sorry I walked out of class but too many of my friends have been raped and I can't even think about these issues. Professor, says a particularly quiet young man, I worked harder on this paper than I've ever worked before. Another student stops by my office… for no stated reason at all, for the third time. One boisterous student who calls me Dr. Kim is thrilled because she just spoke to a state legislator for the very first time. Another cries because her mom attempted suicide, and at nineteen she has to care for her younger brother. One amazed student tells me over and over again that she just can't believe how cool the suffragist Alice Paul was. Amidst all of this, they bolster their courage, they try to study, and they seek meaning.
This morning I woke dispirited, but I need courage for my students and I need courage for me.
Over the last several weeks I've encountered tens of thousands of courageous Wisconsinites. A 12 year old gave her first public speech with a bullhorn, before 5,000 people, in the state capitol rotunda. I love my teachers, she proclaimed, and they deserve more money—not less. Off duty police officers, with signs proclaiming "cops for labor," handed out water to the chanting protesters circling my state capitol as we thanked them for their presence. A wonderful, gruff retired steelworker told me that he didn't think he'd have lived this long without the basic protections his union provides. I laughed along with an animated high school senior, who refused to be cowed by a Republican legislator who threatened to call her truancy officer after she'd spent a day protesting peacefully. She stood proud, proud of herself and of her many teachers who had laughed and hugged while insisting that they deserved the basic human right of collective bargaining. A man who cleans public buildings shows up at our local rallies and sings to the protesters. Assembly Representative Peter Barca, who guaranteed his constituents continued access to him by moving his desk to the cold Wisconsin outdoors after Governor Scott Walker locked the capitol building despite a court order, makes me smile and cheer (send that man wool socks). And the Wisconsin 14 –those wonderful, courageous state Democratic senators who reportedly are braving the wilds of Illinois—are my heroes (especially Dave Hansen, my local Green Bay senator).
The labor rights of the people of Wisconsin, and of the rest of the nation, matter and their loss will impact all of us. My students and the quality of their education matter. The man who plows my street matters. The disability activists who staged a sit-in at Wisconsin Republican Party headquarters matter. Frankly, I and my colleagues matter. And it is unconscionably immoral to have the goal of paying people as little as one possibly can. Most importantly, however, the emerging labor alliance of nurses, social workers, snow plow drivers, fire fighters, college professors, electricians, janitors, ship builders, teachers, and police officers are pivotal to the future economic and social health of this nation. We are the future—not the Koch brothers and not Wisconsin's Governor Scott Walker.
Michael Honey is a historian and Haley Professor of Humanities at the University of Washington, Tacoma. He is editor of All Labor Has Dignity and author of Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike: Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign.
In light of the clash of wills in Wisconsin, we should remember the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. One of King’s slogans that we rarely hear is this one: “all labor has dignity.”
King spoke these words in Memphis on March 18, 1968, in the midst of a strike of 1,200 black sanitation workers that had lasted over a month. After rousing them to a fever pitch, King called for a general strike by all workers to shut the city down on behalf of the sanitation workers.
What was the demand of these workers? Improved wages and benefits, yes, but their key demand was that the City of Memphis grant collective bargaining rights and the collection of union dues, without which they knew they could not maintain their union.
These are the very two items that Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker wants to take away from public employees. He knows, as did Mayor Henry Loeb in Memphis, that if you can kill union bargaining rights and dues collection, you can kill the union.
Also like Loeb, Walker is a fiscal conservative. As he cuts taxes for business he raises costs for workers and says ending union power will benefit the fiscal health of the state. Walker wants to end the right of public employees to bargain collectively, even though the workers have accepted a tripling of their health-care costs and a wage cut to help offset the state’s fiscal crisis.
In nearby Ohio, Gov. John Kasich wants to take away the right to join a union for 14,000 state-financed child-care and home-care workers, among the most overworked and underpaid of public servants. In other states, Republicans want to adopt “right to work” (for less) laws that would take away the requirement that workers in unionized jobs pay union dues. This would undermine the unions while, in King’s words, providing “no rights and no work.”
Even in Midwest states that have been union strongholds, Republicans now have public-employee unions in their cross-hairs. This is the latest and potentially most deadly phase of government assault on unions. Ever since the Reagan counterrevolution, government policies joined with private sector profiteers have vastly worsened racial-economic inequalities, created a gambling casino on Wall Street and paved the way for the current economic crisis.
Conservatives rationalize their attacks on unions by saying unionized public workers are unfairly privileged. But they only look privileged by comparison to the rest of the working class, which is suffering economic catastrophe and has almost entirely lost the benefits of unionization. Yet class envy is an easy means to divide and rule.
In one stroke, by eliminating both bargaining rights and union dues, Republicans can insure that organized, dues-paying workers and particularly minorities and women will no longer provide a potent base for the Democratic Party. There will be few grassroots organizations left to counter the huge infusion of money into politics by the rich.
Workers in Wisconsin have agreed to make sacrifices to get state government out of its budgetary hole. But it would be a huge mistake for anyone to go beyond that and buy into attacks on public employee unions. Loss of unions will further decimate the spending power of working people, thereby intensifying the economic crisis while further removing the voice of workers from politics. That’s a downward spiral.
Republicans most especially wants to undermine the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Founded in Wisconsin, AFSCME flowered after King died in the fight for union rights in Memphis in 1968. AFSCME became one of the largest unions in the country, with King regarded as an honorary member and practically a founder of the union.
In King’s framework, killing public employees unions today would be immoral as well as foolish. He said the three evils facing humankind are war, racism and economic injustice, and that the purpose of a union is to overcome the latter evil. King said the civil-rights movement from 1954 to 1965 was “phase one,” to be followed by a second phase—the struggle for economic advancement. We are not doing very well in phase two, and unions remain essential to carry it out.
I’ve recently finished a new collection of King’s remarkable speeches, titled All Labor Has Dignity,which shows that throughout his life, King stood up for union rights. There is no more important time than the present for us all to follow his lead.
In May 2009 Beacon Press entered into an exclusive publishing relationship with the Estate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “This historic partnership,” in Dexter Scott King’s words, gave Beacon Press not only the right to print new editions of previously published King titles but also to compile entirely new and original books from King’s archives. In this post, editor Gayatri Patnaik discusses the most recent release in The King Legacy Series.
For years, many of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches on labor have been lost to the general public because amassing material from various archives—with unintelligible tape recordings, faded notes, and incomplete transcripts—can be a lengthy and trying process. But, it’s also a rewarding one.
I recall when my colleague Joanna Green and I first received audio copies of King from archivists at the University of Memphis and New York University. Like most Americans, we were very familiar with his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech at the March on Washington but we had never heard, or even heard of, his passionate speeches to unions.
Reading King and listening to him speak are certainly two very different experiences. When we first listened to a prescient speech he gave on economic justice in Memphis as part of his Poor People’s Campaign, we not only heard the rousing rise and fall of King’s voice but also the forceful response of the 1,300 striking sanitation workers he was speaking to.
As of January 2011, Beacon Press has reissued four books by King: Stride Toward Freedom, Where Do We Go From Here?, Trumpet of Conscience, and, this week, Why We Can't Wait. With the publication of All Labor Has Dignity, edited and introduced by historian Michael K. Honey, we offer the first original book in the series. Like most people, I had forgotten that King was every bit as committed to economic justice as he was to ending racial segregation, but King supported union rights ever since he was a teenager, eventually making his strongest appeals for economic justice speaking before unions.
After weeks spent listening, transcribing, and re-checking our work against the original audio, the end product resulted not only with complete texts of little known speeches King gave on labor but also in rescued audio that now accompanies the book. What began as unforeseen meticulous and arduous work ended with the gift of being able to permanently capture King’s stirring voice on CD delivering powerful words (“Let me say to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. . . . All labor has dignity.”).
‘All Labor Has Dignity’ is an unprecedented and timely collection that helps us imagine King anew: as a human rights leader whose commitment to labor rights and ending poverty was a crucial part of his civil rights agenda—and I’m excited knowing that the general public will now be able to hear these speeches and have the same magical and transporting experience that Joanna and I had.
Our goal for books in The King Legacy is to introduce King to a new generation of readers, to show aspects of King that are fresh and original, and to underscore how astonishingly relevant he continues to be today. We hope you’ll celebrate King’s birthday with us and that you enjoy listening to the King excerpt provided here from ‘All Labor Has Dignity.’