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Reflections On Labor Day 2016

labor movementLabor Day means much more than sales events and holiday excursions. The day honors the men and women who provide the work that fuels our economy.

Reports of falling unemployment, growing wages, and rising consumer confidence in the United States mask harsh economic realities for millions of people. According to a recent Pew public opinion poll, 54 percent of respondents describe the national economy as bad. Workplace issues like downsizing, speedup, outsourcing, privatization, capital flight, and unsafe working conditions amount to direct assaults on workers’ livelihood.

While the earnings of the wealthy pull away from everyone else, the income of the working class and middle class shrink and more people slip into poverty. In their 2015 book, $2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, authors Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer found the appalling figure applied to 1.5 million households.

In Iowa, a recent study by the Iowa Policy Project, found that nearly 20 percent of families earn less than a self-sufficient income despite the presence of one or more full-time wage earners. The study also identified single parents and families in rural regions as most likely to fall short of a basic standard of living.

Wage stagnation is a universal problem, regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender. In addition, two-thirds of low-wage employees, especially those in the food service industry, suffer from some form of wage theft. Traditional full-time employment has also declined even as the total number of lower-paying nontraditional jobs—contingent, subcontracted, temp, on-demand—has increased.

Nationwide, just 12 percent of American workers receive paid family leave through their employer. The gender gap continues with women earning less than men. In certain industries like meat and poultry, the work remains exceptionally dangerous.
An estimated 11 million households spend more than half of their income on rent.

There is not a single state where a full time worker earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour can rent an apartment for 30 percent or less of their income.

Workers’ compensation, one of the oldest social insurance programs in the nation, is under attack. As conservative lawmakers in a growing number of states weaken benefits and erect barriers for receiving compensation, the cost of work-related injuries are being shifted onto the backs of workers and the public.

Trade unions have traditionally given agency to those who own no means of production and distribution. They rely on their labor to meet their basic needs for food, clothing, housing, and transportation.

In 1956, a third of the workforce held union membership, which was slightly higher than the share of national income taken in by top earners. In 2013, the figures were 11.2 percent and 47 percent, respectively. Those in the American labor force without the protection of a union are considered “at will” employees with no workplace rights except the right to quit.

Unions provide a recognized and organized counterweight to rising inequality and management power by giving employees a collective bargaining voice in their wages, hours, and working conditions. And polls indicate broad public support for the right of workers to unionize across a range of occupations from manufacturing to fast-food.

The American worker today faces a series of challenges often imposed by large employers and conservative politicians. Unions offer a labor-centered way to address structural and policy changes that help to advance greater equality, expand economic opportunity, and yield universal benefits. Unionists believe that all workers deserve living wages, decent hours, and humane working conditions.

Ralph Scharnau
September 1, 2016

Will Labor Rise Again?

Happy labor day

As America takes its annual weekend to celebrate Labor a person who pays attention to the issues of the day can’t help but wonder what the Labor movement must do to resurrect its fortunes in the United States.

Those who look back to the 1950s as the time when “America was great” seldom mention that one of the reasons that America was great was labor unions and the good wages and benefits negotiated for workers by those unions. At that time what is known as “union density” – the percent of total workers in unions – stood at around 35% According to the NY Times:

The Bureau of Labor Statistics said that the overall unionization rate last year was down from 12.3 percent in 2009 and 20.1 percent in 1983, when there were 17.7 million union members. The peak unionization rate was 35 percent during the mid-1950s, after a surge in unionization during the Great Depression and after World War II.

BLS statistics from earlier this year reiterate the downward trend in union membership:

The union membership rate–the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of unions–was 11.1 percent in 2015, unchanged from 2014, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions, at 14.8 million in 2015, was little different from 2014. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, and there were 17.7 million union workers.

But there is a bright spot in the public sector:

• Public-sector workers had a union membership rate (35.2 percent) more than five times higher than that of private-sector workers (6.7 percent).

• Workers in protective service occupations and in education, training, and library occupations had the highest unionization rates (36.3 percent and 35.5 percent, respectively).

As unions have dwindled so has the American paycheck. Where once a single worker in a household could earn enough to sustain that household, now two earners can barely do so.

Labor unions have been battered by a huge headwinds since Ronald Reagan became president, the first of which was Reagan’s betrayal of the air traffic controllers union after the union felt Reagan would not bother them if they struck. We all remember what happened next.

Since then the battles that moneyed interests had against labor have become an all out war. Some of the tactics that have been used in this war has been to send jobs overseas, end union shop states, the rise of consultants whose business is to stop unions, the enticement of foreign workers to enter our country and be exploited with lower wages and with the dawn of the computer age the use of robots or electronics to replace human workers.

However while the future is not exactly bright right now, there are some silver linings out there. Now more than ever, voting for Democrats at the federal, state and local level has never been more important. So be sure to vote and vote with your best interests interests in mind. Once we elect a progressive slate to congress, to the presidency and to the state house we will need to hold their feet to the fire to make sure our needs are met.

An Iowa Onion Trimmer

Curing Onions

Curing Onions

Between picture perfect onions and the compost heap lies an opportunity.

A friend grows onions using organic practices as part of a Community Supported Agriculture project. Onions are harvested from the field then dried in the greenhouse for storage. Sorting, trimming the tops and roots, and removing excess skin comes next.

As an experienced onion trimmer I work for farmers I know and trust. My compensation is an hourly rate above the current minimum wage plus all the seconds I can use. It’s a good deal, so I take it when offered. For an hour or two after a full time job at the home, farm and auto supply company, and on weekends after a shift at the orchard, I work in the onion shed.

Onion Trimming Work Station

Onion Trimming Work Station

The work is seasonal and temporary. Cognizant of potential competition from other itinerant workers, I work as quickly and as well as I can. The daily chore serves as respite from an intense schedule of lowly paid work that provides income destined mostly to corporations in exchange for stuff needed to operate the household: utilities, insurance, taxes, fuel and the like. I will have worked 100 days in a row by the November election — I’m not complaining, just sayin’.

At the end of each shift in the onion shed, I take home ten or more pounds of seconds. I remove the bad parts in our kitchen and am left with half the original amount in fresh onions. There’ no long term storage for these so they go into the ice box until used. If left on the counter, bad spots would quickly re-emerge.

Onion Shed

Onion Shed

I made and canned the first batch of vegetable soup with three pounds of fresh onions and a bit of everything on hand from the farm and garden. By the time the onions at the farm are in storage, there will be enough canned vegetable soup put up to last until the next growing season. Soup that can make a meal.

With the concurrent harvest of tomatoes and basil from our garden, I plan to make and can pints of marinara sauce using a simple, four-part recipe of tomatoes, onions, basil and garlic. Onion trimming blocks out time from vegetable processing, and some good ones will head to the compost bin before I can get to them. I am hopeful about getting a dozen pints of marinara sauce canned.

The life of an itinerant low wage worker lies on the margin between harvest and the compost bin, That’s true for a lot of professions, not just onion trimmers. If you think about it, that’s where we all live our lives in the 99 percent of the population that isn’t wealthy.

I’m okay with working a job with friends doing work that directly impacts our family’s sustainability. It may be easier to take a big job with responsibilities and varied compensation, but I’d rather deal with the questions like whether something can be made of each onion I encounter.

The pile of second represents hope in a tangible and meaningful way. What’s life for unless that?

$15 An Hour? You Bet!

Here is a brief video from Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (ICCI) concerning the move for a minimum wage of $15 per hour in Polk County.

$15 an hour works out to slightly over $30,000 per year before taxes for a full time worker. This wage does not buy a lavish lifestyle, but in Iowa it does pay for the dignity of a person being able to pay their own way in this society. When you do the math, this is about $2,500 a month before taxes. When you try to stretch that $2,500 to cover taxes, a place to live, food, health insurance (probably at least a partial payment even if supplied by the employer), personal care items, a car to get to work, gas and car maintenance and car insurance it is really tough. There is no room for an emergency in that budget.

ICCI is organizing an event as the Polk County supervisors consider following other progressive counties across the country in raising minimum wages.

Many frame a raise in minimum wage as an issue that is bad for business. Republicans have made claims for decades that any rise in minimum wage drives small businesses out. There has never been any substantiation of those claims. In fact those claims have been refuted over and over and over again in study after study. In a presentation before the New York Wage Board, Billionaire Nick Hanauer refutes these claims with fresh evidence from his own observations:

“When wages go up, employment goes down.” This so-called “theory” is presented by industry and the economists we employ, as if it is an immutable law of physics describing the real world. The focus of my testimony this morning is to show that it is not.
It’s not just that this claim isn’t always true. Or that it isn’t even usually true. It’s more or less never true. The claim that when wages rise, employment shrinks does not describe how the real world works. It is a scam and an intimidation tactic. The only thing true about this claim is that if business owners like me can get workers to believe it is true, that will be very advantageous to business owners like me. Which is why we say it again and again and again, even though it’s not true. It is really just a polite way of saying “I am rich, you are poor. I prefer to keep it that way.” Saying that if wages go up, the economic sky will fall is what I call “Chicken Little Economics.”

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “a review of 64 studies on minimum wage increases found no discernible effect on employment.” And contrary to popular belief, relatively large minimum-wage hikes like those recently passed in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles are not unprecedented. For example, the federal minimum wage jumped 88% in one year, from 40 cents an hour in 1949 to 75 cents in 1950. Yet despite the usual warning from the Chicken Littles at the National Association of Manufacturing that the hike would prove “a reckless jolt to the economic system,” unemployment plummeted, from 5.9% in 1949 to 2.9% in 1953.

< < snip >>

Here’s how that thinking goes. I’ll run my business and pay poverty wages and make high profits. And hopefully, everyone else who runs a businesses will pay their workers well. Your workers have the money to buy what my company makes. But, sadly, my workers will not be able to reciprocate and buy the products your company makes. Your workers will pay taxes. Sadly, my workers won’t be able to afford taxes. In fact, they will need taxpayer-funded services like food stamps and Medicaid that your workers’ taxes will pay for.

So I ask you: who wouldn’t want that deal? But the problem with that deal is that it is both morally questionable and economically unsustainable. It’s what we call a free rider problem. Because while it is awesome if I can get you to go along with that deal, it won’t work out if everyone gets that deal. Because if every company owner paid every worker poverty wages, then who will buy the stuff? And who will pay the taxes?

Hanauer lays out in a very simple way what most economists understand – that to stay in business, a business needs customers. If workers are paid so low that they have can barely pay their bills to live, where do the customers come from? Starvation wages are a much, much bigger threat to businesses than living wages. We can have a downward spiral or an upward spiral.

Here are a couple of other benefits that Hanauer doesn’t mention:

With living wages employees are less likely to be looking around for work elsewhere. Constant hiring and training is expensive. Walmart is a prime example of that. They reluctantly raised wages a little bit because hiring and training was getting so expensive.

With living wages, employees will not have to turn to government assistance for things like food and medical insurance. That will be a relief all of us taxpayers. There is a minimum it costs for a person to survive in this country. If their wages at a full time job doesn’t cover it then someone will have to through the government. That is you and I. In essence we are giving businesses that refuse to pay a living wage a subsidy for each of their workers. That is wrong. Employees who were once using the safety net will become taxpayers themselves.

Employees who get a living wage will be less likely to be distracted at work. Imagine trying to work when you are consumed worrying about debt or hunger.

The less money is concentrated in a few hands and the more it circulates through many hands the better the economy will be for all of us. With a living wage, employees will be going to restaurants and shopping that will create jobs.

Just found this video showing how incredibly confused Donald Trump is on minimum wage.

Women’s Global Leadership Program – Part 2

womens global leadership programWomen’s Global Leadership Program – Part 2  – Click here to read Part 1

In March, I had the privilege to participate in the first-ever AFLCIO Women’s Global Leadership Program alongside nearly fifty other women from a broad spectrum of trade unions across the US. It was an eye opening and inspiring experience that few know takes place each year. The program I participated in ran parallel to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, and participants in both events were able to join together in side panel discussions about issues relating to women’s empowerment, economic status, exploitation, access to potable water and medical care, and human trafficking. This article examines the Economic Status of Women.

No Such Thing as “Gender Neutral”

The UNCSW side panels also examined supposedly gender neutral monetary policies imposed by the IMF and WTO for disproportionately hurting women. In exchange for credit or bailouts the World Bank and other lenders exact “austerity” programs that cut vital programs like health care, welfare benefits, child care credits, and education – programs that women rely on for survival. While deregulation and lowered taxes starve government of funds for public services like public transportation and education that harm the entire population, many women are employed by these sectors. As they are cut, women also lose a source of decent work.

This scenario is not only being imposed on developing nations; it has also become the mainstay of public policy in the US, touted by both Democrat and Republican parties. We have seen draconian education cuts in Chicago shuttering schools in mainly black communities. College grants are simply unavailable or are so precarious that universities no longer offer them for incoming students. Nutrition programs are also being cut for younger children which lessens their ability to do well even in the K-12 system. Many cities have privatized their public transportation and established private charter schools, further diminishing good job opportunities for women workers and services as profits are exacted by the contractor middlemen which have replaced the unionized workforce. You can’t read your morning paper without one or another story on budget cuts.

Just this morning, my local paper reported that the county would cut jobs resulting in the end of six programs, including one that monitors lead levels in children’s blood and another program that provides breast and cervical cancer screening for poor women. This despite the widespread knowledge that early screening not only is better for overall health outcomes it is also a way for the state to avoid expensive delayed treatments.

Unfortunately, these kinds of arguments do little to dissuade the proponents of the neoliberal consensus and austerity in the US. Neoliberal models are based on the myth that there simply is not enough resources in the world, therefore some must do with less. In reality, they have created a level of global inequality that no previous king, czar, emperor, or industrialist has ever accomplished. Voltaire, who had said, “The comfort of the rich depends on an abundant supply of the poor,” would be amazed at how universally accepted the once ironic dictum has become.

The Informal Economy

Another significant barrier to the advancement of women, however, is women’s unpaid work. When we think about work, typically it is work outside the home, with the traditional boss-employee relationship that involves clocking in and out of each shift, and then getting a paycheck with taxes and other deductions taken out at the end of the week. Unpaid work, “labor that is done without direct form of compensation – includes child and elder are and household tasks, anything from cleaning and cooking to gathering basic resources like firewood and water” is dominated by women around the globe, and is not recognized as work in a neoliberal system.

Cultural norms prevail, regardless if you’re in Europe, Asia, the Americas or Africa, that dictate that mothers are primarily responsible for unpaid work like child care. Women do the cooking and cleaning, the running of errands, and care for the elders. There are exceptions of course, but because this has been seen as normal for so long, we ignore the implications of such a system. These gender norms still prevail even as more women, out of necessity or by choice, work outside the home in addition to the unpaid work in the home. The AFLCIO report points out the effects this has on women’s economic opportunities:

“The heavy and disproportionate burden of unpaid work inhibits women’s literal and figurative mobility, forecloses opportunities and reflects a deeply entrenched structural advantage enjoyed by men that transcends cultures. When women spend more hours on unpaid work, they necessarily have less time and flexibility available for market work education or leisure activities.”

Because this work is not acknowledged in the home, when it gets done by women outside the home and for others outside the family, it is devalued and remains among the lowest paid professions. Careers like nursing assistants, domestic workers like housekeepers and nannies, and home health care workers remain low-wage with very little benefits or protections. In fact, most domestic work was excluded when the National Labor Relations Act was passed and it has very little of the job protections most of us take for granted like minimum wage and overtime pay.

Despite what we all know and see to be true about the importance of unpaid work, countries do not measure or account for this in things like GDP. So for instance, even though women and girls collect water needed for nearly ¾ of households in sub-Saharan Africa, this essential task is ignored by economists as having any economic impact. It’s ridiculous when you think of it.

To undo thousands of years of cultural assumptions is no easy task. But it is possible if we first recognize unpaid work as work, then begin to measure its value in economic models and establish policies to alleviate the burden it puts on women. One way this cultural is changing is in Norway where new parents are entitled to a total of nine months paid leave, “three that can be taken by both parents together, three for each parent that are nontransferable, thus incentivizing greater parental responsibility for early child care.” Such policies have the ability to transform perceptions about what we have historically considered “women’s work”, so that women have access to greater economic fulfillment while men also get to break cultural norms and actually partake more fully in the work – and joys – of nurturing children.

Women as Labor Leaders

Another topic of discussion was the need to expand women’s participation in organized labor. Already the labor movement recognizes that the only place a woman is guaranteed equal pay for equal work is in her union. Women who are not union members earn 30% less than their union counterparts. But as unions lose power in the US, largely caused by Republican attacks against unions across the country, this outlet for women to achieve equality is diminishing in the US.

Women now comprise 44% of the US workforce, however very few women have access to union jobs outside the public sector since the service sector has proven difficult to organize under US labor law. Expanding access to collective bargaining to domestic workers, service sector workers, and other professions dominated by women is crucial to turning around this trend and increasing women’s economic and political power.

Still, even where there are unions, women remain woefully underrepresented in union leadership, occupying just 20% of top leadership positions. This not only limits the input women can have in bargaining, it also excludes issues important to women from union’s legislative priorities. Women’s leadership in unions is critical to promoting issues like raising the minimum wage, increasing access to affordable child care, and expanding access to paid medical leave.

Dangers of Co-Option

Each year, the UNCSW establishes Sustainable Development Goals on broad issues like ending violence against women or more efforts to fight human trafficking. These goals are indeed important, but they are just one part of the larger struggle for women’s equality, especially the need to support global labor unions in their efforts to organize women workers so they have a strong bargaining position against the global corporations.

Governments are known to thump their chest and exaggerate their achievements on Sustainable Development Goals, so it is the task of the women coming to the UNCSW to hold those governments accountable in holding up those commitments, even if they sometimes have to shame them to do so. UN ambassadors won’t speak about how women in their countries who have migrated from villages to work in the city factories have to sleep in shifts as they share their bed with other workers. During UN General Assembly, you won’t hear the plight of many of the women without access to shelter due to costs or unavailability who have to sleep in the streets and are more at risk of being raped. But at the side panels, the women who have traveled across the globe at great expense do talk about how women must bear their children with no fathers and who then wander the streets unattended as their mothers must continue to work in the factories.

Ambassadors are also unlikely to share the testimony of a person like Kalpona Akter, a Bangladeshi garment worker and union organizer who was only twelve years old when she went to work in the factory after her father had died. Working in grueling conditions, Kalpoona reported she earned as little as $6 a month for working as much as 450 hours. By the time she was a young adult she had enough. When the company refused the workers their overtime pay started to organize with her fellow workers and they went on strike. The company responded by locking up some of the strikers in a room at the factory. Not even the government, but the company owners kept them prisoner. Finally, they fired her.

Yet Kalpona won’t be diminished. She says the company made a mistake. She went from being an organizer in a plant with 1000 workers to being organizer of millions of workers across her country by founding the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. Since 80% of members of Bangladesh’s Parliament, are themselves profiting from the garment industry, it is unlikely they will be leaders to labor reforms, which is why it is so important that voices like Kalpona’s get the recognition and amplification at the UN Side Panels.

The grassroots networks at the UN Side Panels also issue “Shadow” reports that delve deeper than the government reports. Many of these shadow reports become the basis for the discussions at the side panels. The buildings where they take place are much less well-kept than the UN itself, with old drafty windows, crowded slow elevators, and sad potted plants. There is not coffee or snack for attendees. In fact, there are not even enough chairs in the rooms for the many people who come from all over the world to participate. The overflow crowd sits on the floor along the sides and back of the rooms. The most popular panels have people snaking out the doorway stretching their heads around the corner and above the crowd to try to see the speakers deliver their reports.

Some of the women who come here must fundraise throughout the year to afford the trip. Despite the many obstacles, women still come because this is the largest single event in the world where their concerns are the primary focus. And some of the women have expressed that they are worried that this, the largest meeting of women in the world, where they come and interact and build power and raise awareness, is under threat of being co-opted by neoliberal consensus that is overtaking the UN itself. This year’s UNCSW marked the inaugural meeting of the first-ever “High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment” co-chaired by the CEO IKEA Switzerland and Costa Rican President Luis Solis. It is composed of leaders from the IMF, World Bank, UN Women, other government and NGO leaders, and one token representative from the International Labor Organization.

The worry is that such a panel will further diminish the role of organized labor as a means for empowering women, instead focusing on neoliberal investment models.

While any additional concern for women’s empowerment is good, the fear is that the panel will place more efforts on business-centered efforts to create more women entrepreneurs, ignoring the direct immediate impact that strengthening women’s union organizing effect would have on working class women. “Imagine the potential economic impact it would have if the millions of potential female entrepreneurs, innovators and business leaders, who are right now being airbrushed out of the picture, had the opportunity to choose their own path?” gushed Justine Greening, British MP and Conservative Party member who was appointed to the panel. No doubt we celebrate women owned businesses, however, if they operate under traditional neoliberal economic models, how will this have benefited the majority of women impoverished by such systems?

While we talk about inequality, inequality gets worse
Recent history has made it abundantly clear that economic growth at any costs is devastating to women as well as the environment. The neoliberal consensus for development as being the solution to all the world’s woes is an abject failure. If we are ever to truly empower women, to start, we need to stop governments and corporations from interfering in our rights as workers, our rights as trade unionists, and our rights to collectively bargain. Instead, we continue to witness increasing impediments to organizing, all over the world.

Women don’t need another microloan. They need full rights as workers. Both in the US an abroad. None of us can properly engage in bargaining unless we understand how the supply chain works. If we do not have a new analysis of the intersectionality of gender, race and corporate power dynamics, then we cannot build effective strategies.

If the Women’s Global Leadership Program is something your union or organization would like to participate in next year, please contact the AFLCIO to learn more, and please contact your own union’s international leadership to encourage that the first year of this program isn’t its only year.

The report makes the following recommendations for achieving sustainable economic empowerment for women workers further detailed here:

 – Fully implement international frameworks regarding gender and economic and social rights
– Design macroeconomic policy to mobilize the maximum possible level of resources to realize women’s      economic rights and to reduce gender inequality
– Invest in physical and social infrastructure, particularly women’s human capital
– Reform trade and development policy to emphasize long-term growth and accountable business practices
– Address structural barriers to decent work and equal participation in the labor market
– Protect worker and community organizing


Women’s Global Leadership Program

womens global leadership programWomen’s Global Leadership Program – Part 1

In March, I had the privilege to participate in the first-ever AFLCIO Women’s Global Leadership Program alongside nearly fifty other women from a broad spectrum of trade unions across the US. It was an eye opening and inspiring experience that few know takes place each year. The program I participated in ran parallel to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, and participants in both events were able to join together in side panel discussions about issues relating to women’s empowerment, economic status, exploitation, access to potable water and medical care, and human trafficking. The following article examines the Economic Status of Women.

Every year in March, global leaders and their ambassadors along with 3rd World village women converge on New York City to participate in the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. And despite the fact that few know this takes place, March 2016 was its 60th year.

Many of the official meetings take place on the UN Campus, which is dominated by a gigantic skyscraper, towering above the food trucks and polluted East River, inching toward the clouds and skirted by the ubiquitous array of the flags of the world that only fly when the UN is in session. Inside, where you need a special badge to gain access, diplomats and agency heads discuss their version of our truth.

But on those days when the flag poles stand bare, women from non-governmental agencies continue to meet across the street at the UN Church Building and other less-stunning locations to provide another side of the story of the status of women. And this year, for the first time, the AFLCIO hosted a Women’s Global Leadership Program to run parallel with the UNCSW, bringing together fifty women from unions in the US to participate in side panels and discussions about the conditions for women workers. Outside the steel UN security gates, watched by cameras and guards brandishing military grade weaponry, we women gathered to tell our own story. And it is far more intricate than any spreadsheet could convey.

Often, US workers will tout a sort-of Monroe Doctrine in economics with “Buy American” themes as an answer to our economic woes. Trump is succeeding quite well among US workers hit hard by the economy by vilifying China and Mexico for “taking our jobs away.” However, by ignoring the mechanics of the global supply chain and by lacking global worker solidarity, we remain disempowered to improve working conditions around the globe as well as fail to stop the deteriorating conditions for US workers.

The Global Leadership Program focused on how to understand the intersectionality of worker rights along the global supply chain, how our organizations work with international labor groups to counteract the detrimental impacts of globalization.

While AFLCIO unions exist in the US to represent the interests of US workers, and the International Trade Union Confederation similarly represents trade unionists globally, the International Labor Organization brings together governments, employers and workers to set global labor standards. The ILO emerged after the horrors of World War I based on the premise that a lasting peace can only be achieved if it is based on economic justice. The ILO has established the following as its fundamental labor rights:

– No Child Labor
– No Discrimination
– No Forced Labor
– Freedom of Association
– Collective Bargaining Rights

Unfortunately, the US has only ratified two of these ILO rights, the provisions against child labor and forced labor. While the US Congress has established laws like the National Labor Relations Act to provide for labor protections, the fact that the US has not ratified the other ILO Conventions means it has not promised the world that it wouldn’t take these away – with the exception of slavery and child labor.

In addition to the fundamental rights, the ILO has also established four Governance Conventions, of which the US has only ratified one; 177 Technical Conventions, of which the US has only ratified 11. In comparison, the nation of Uganda has ratified all of the fundamental conventions, and three out of the four governance conventions. Uganda joins countries like Turkey, Tunisia, Argentina, and dozens of others that have ratified more labor rights than the US. In comparison, the US is more similar to Afghanistan in the labor rights it has ratified and pledged to guarantee to its citizens.

Transforming Women’s Work

In conjunction with the UNCSW, the AFLCIO, working with the Solidarity Center and Rutgers University Center for Women’s Global Leadership, also released a report in March, “Transforming Women’s Work.” Although the report acknowledges the strides women have made over the past thirty years in gender equality, it exposes how the neoliberal consensus for economic development causes harm to women.

Neoliberal Trade policies, like NAFTA, GATT, CAFTA, the Permanent National Trade Policy with China, KORUS, and now the TPP and TIPP currently under consideration, are built on gender inequality and further tilt power away from workers in their focus on increasing profits and productivity (GDP) above all other concerns.

The agreements make it easier for foreign-based corporations and hedge funds to invest in low-wage countries while doing little to nothing to establish safety standards, job protections, decent wages and benefits, or address environmental protections. While “women are good for economic growth,” said a representative from Action Aid, “economic growth is not always good for women.”

Women in countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam who had previously lived in extreme poverty with few wage earning opportunities are moving into paid work in factories making clothing for Western consumption. But because of the absence of a labor movement or other wage guarantees or safe working protections, the AFLCIO report found that “a recent analysis of apparel-exporting countries found wages for garment workers fell in real terms between 2001 and 2011.”

One of the most well-known examples of how trade policies harm women specifically is the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, when a nine-story garment factory making clothing for Benetton, Walmart, JC Penny, The Children’s Place, and other western retailers collapsed killing 1,134 and injuring thousands more. Many of the dead bodies remain missing, unable to be unearthed from the debris. The dead were from the ranks of the 4 million who work in Bangladeshi apparel industry, 80% of whom are women.

After the disaster, due to international pressure, the minimum wage was raised from $38 per month to $68. Additionally, minimal safety measures and building inspections and remediation were implemented by three international watchdog groups, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, and one National Tripartite Plan for Fire a Structural Integrity. But two of the agreements to allow inspection will expire in 2018, while thousands of factories have yet to be inspected.

As the Rana Plaza disaster recedes deeper into the past the world will lose focus on industry practices there, and in the absence of a robust labor movement or trade policies that protect workers all along the supply chain, it will only be a matter of time before another tragedy occurs.

Despite the international outrage and mourning, the deaths of thousands of women in Rana Plaza did little to damage the garment industry in Bangladesh. Clothing exports jumped 16 percent, to $23.9 billion, in the year following Rana Plaza, and are now at $30 billion and expected to grow.

The worker organizers at UNCSW reminded western women that though we may be inclined to simply boycott clothing made in their countries, the women in Bangladesh and Vietnam want and need the work, just as western women do, as paid work can help ease their poverty. Rather, they point out, we need to change the terms by which women in the 3rd World are brought into the economy and actively participate with campaigns that work with governments, trade unions, buyers, brands, and stores in our home countries, especially those affiliated with the International Labor Organization.

Next: Part 2 – No Such Thing As Gender Neutral

McChesney, Nichols: Billionaires Do Not Care About Us

nichols and mcchesneyTry not to get too depressed by the bummer title of Robert McChesney and John Nichols’ new book, People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy. They say we just have to do two things:  (1) know what is coming and (2) get organized.

“Humanity is on the verge of its darkest hour or its greatest moment.”

“The consequences of the technological revolution are about to hit hard: unemployment will spike as new technologies replace labor in the manufacturing, service, and professional sectors of an economy that is already struggling. The end of work as we know it will hit at the worst moment imaginable: as capitalism fosters permanent stagnation, when the labor market is in decrepit shape, with declining wages, expanding poverty, and scorching inequality. Only the dramatic democratization of our economy can address the existential challenges we now face. Yet, the US political process is so dominated by billionaires and corporate special interests, by corruption and monopoly, that it stymies not just democracy but progress.

“The great challenge of these times is to ensure that the tremendous benefits of technological progress are employed to serve the whole of humanity, rather than to enrich the wealthy few. Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols, authors of People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy, argue that the United States needs a new economy in which revolutionary technologies are applied to effectively address environmental and social problems and used to rejuvenate and extend democratic institutions. Based on intense reporting, rich historical analysis, and deep understanding of the technological and social changes that are unfolding, they propose a bold strategy for democratizing our digital destiny before it’s too late and unleashing the real power of the Internet, and of humanity.”


Quad Cities Coalition for Worker Justice Holds Rally at Brandt Construction

workersBrandt Construction asks NLRB to postpone hearing while company owner vacations in Italy

Dakota Upshaw has been on strike against Milan, Illinois-based Brandt Construction Company since last July. He had been working for Brandt’s subcontractor Hybrand in Muscatine for a few years and finally decided that he had to speak out about the dangerous conditions he and his coworkers were facing.

Upshaw said he saw multiple incidents where the company’s refusal to follow safety measures resulted in worker injuries, including one who suffered a compound fracture when his harness got caught on a leer of a skid loader.
Brandt also did not provide water for workers on hot summer days, according to Upshaw, and workers were forced to work during lightening storms. Other allegations include not providing safety harnesses for workers who were working on rooftops more than 30 feet high, not paying into workers’ retirement plans, and terminating an unlicensed driver who refused to drive illegally when ordered so by the foreman. The mistreatment went even so far as verbal and physical abuse from the foremen, according to statements by Upshaw and other striking workers.

The workers have repeatedly asked to meet with company officials to discuss dangerous conditions, low wages, and lack of affordable health insurance, but so far, Brandt Construction Company owner, Terry Brandt, has refused to sit down with the workers or with members of the clergy to discuss their concerns. Instead, Brandt Construction has terminated all the striking workers.

Dakota Upshaw, along with other striking workers, filed a complaint against Brandt Construction with the National Labor Relations Board for wrongful termination, and the NLRB agrees that there is enough evidence to hold a hearing on the charges.

However, months into the strike, Upshaw and other striking workers will have to wait a little longer to have their day in court. Terry Brandt’s lawyer has filed a motion for extension of hearing date because, according to the filed motion, “Terrence Brandt is leaving on vacation on May 19, 2016, to Milan, Italy and then on to Rome, Italy and will be back in the office on Monday Jun 6, 2016.”

So while justice is delayed for these workers, the company owner gets to go on a summer excursion overseas.
Workers had been bringing their concerns to city councils that take bids from Brandt Construction, including Colona, Rock Island, Muscatine, Davenport, Galesburg, and others. Their message is clear: do not use taxpayers money to hire contractors who put workers’ lives at risk.

They also held another rally on Wednesday, March 30th to call attention to their cause and to once again ask Terry, “Will you meet with us?”

Tracy Leone: 309-738-3196
Organizer – Iowa Federation of Labor

Flint and Reagan’s Wake

Flint Strike 1937 Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons

Flint Strike 1937 Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons

Driving out of Flint, Mich. on Bristol Road wasn’t in the plans.

I interviewed some 30 people, all but one male, for truck driving jobs at the Days Inn across from the GM plant. Tired and ready for sleep, I went to the van to get my overnight bag and found all four tires had been slashed.

In the parking lot with a driver I later hired, the tire service came and replaced them. Around 10:30 p.m. I decided to drive the four hours back home to Indiana. The drive seemed much longer as I fought sleep and considered the day’s events.

In his film Roger & Me, Flint native Michael Moore identified Nov. 6, 1986 as the date of the announcement that General Motors would start laying off thousands of workers to move jobs to Mexico. Eventually, Mexican labor would prove too expensive and GM moved some of those jobs to Southeast Asia and elsewhere where people would work on the cheap building cars and auto parts.

I made about a dozen recruiting trips to Flint in 1988. There was a lot of interest in our non-union jobs, a lot of anger, and few hires. As a trucking terminal manager in Northwest Indiana I interviewed countless people seeking work in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, Kentucky and many other states. I took a pencil to it, and found I had interviewed well over 10,000 people from 1987 until 1993. My life was forever changed by that experience as one applicant after another told me their stories of adjusting to devastation in the rust belt as the policies of President Ronald Reagan and his cronies eviscerated the middle class. We are still in the wake of his administration.

It was the end of an era as large-scale work sites like Buick City laid people off and eventually shuttered their plants. Flint is just one example of the hellhole the steel, auto, and other manufacturing towns became. Flint went from being an award-winning auto maker to being an EPA cleanup site. People still live there, but what was no longer exists.

Today we hear of the water crisis in Flint.

Nearly two years ago, the state decided to save money by switching Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River, a tributary that runs through town and is known to locals for its filth, according to CNN. Because of the corrosive nature of water in the river, iron oxidized discoloring tap water, and more importantly, lead began leaching from the pipes in the water system.

“Everything will be fine,” former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling said as he downed a glass of water.

It’s not fine. It won’t ever be fine.

Flint went to hell, literally, after GM began shedding jobs to cheap foreign labor. Violent crime rates rose, people left the city, and today 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Employees dependent on union jobs had trouble coping when the jobs were gone, resulting in complex social and psychological problems. I experienced some of their anger that day in Flint and I won’t forget because it permanently changed me.

I get why Reagan is lionized for what he did to Flint and dozens of other manufacturing cities. The anger is still here. We are still in Reagan’s wake.

IFL: Taxes Are The Legislature’s Responsibility


He's not the king only the governor

He’s not the king only the governor

Buried deep in all of the messes that the Branstad Administration has created, there is a little known action going on in the Department of Revenue which will have dangerous consequences not just to the funding of vital services of programs that Iowans depend on, but could upset the delicate balance of power between our three branches of government and their powers within the Iowa constitution.

The Department of Revenue will be considering ARC 2239C, and administrative rule proposal. The rule, proposed by the state Department of Revenue, would apply to the state sales tax on manufactured products but would expand the exemption for items used in the manufacturing process. The price tag for this is somewhere between $30-90 million from the state’s funds.

When the Governor and House Republicans are saying that we cannot afford adequate school funding, moving forward with this rule seems unethical
(emphasis mine). When we allegedly cannot fund mental health institutes, moving forwards with this rule seems morally wrong. When we cannot show that there will be any value for Iowa workers’ wages, nor any link to job creation or retention, this seems like a corporate handout at the worst time possible.

But even more worrisome, we need to not just look at why it is a bad idea, we need to look at how they are going about it. The legislature has rejected this proposal before, as recently as two years ago. But in addition, the legislature has traditionally held that it has the sole authority to tax and spend, not the executive branch. The reasons for this stretch back to the American Revolution, and the slogan “no taxation without representation.” This is a bedrock of American democracy, and it is being undermined.

Normally a proposal such as this should have gone through the proper House and Senate committees, and voted on the floor by both chambers before being signed or vetoed by the Governor. That’s basic “Schoolhouse Rock” stuff we all learned as youngsters. This rule being implemented without legislative action threatens to undo the way our republic works. It doesn’t matter what party is in charge of the legislature and Governorship, this is a bad idea and the repercussions will last for a long time.

I guess the Governor is thinking “Why even have a legislative branch?” They apparently get in his way to rule by fiat, with legislators asking questions about his botched Medicaid privatization scheme, his plan to close mental health facilities, his plan to underfund our schools, and now this.

At first glance this is a bad proposal. But, we’ve never had a chance to work with our business counterparts to find a way that perhaps would give an opening to ensure that this can benefit workers or ensure that our goal here is really to create jobs, not just line the accounts of corporations operating in our state.

We’ve let the Department of Revenue know how we feel. However, the most important thing you can do is make sure that your friends, family, and community know what an injustice this is. The more we lift the veil on these shady practices, the more Iowans wake up and realize their government isn’t working for them anymore. Letters to the editor of your local newspapers are a good way to help bring this to light.

Elections of course have consequences. We will have the opportunity to turn this around, but we need your help. If you’d like to volunteer for the Labor 2016 campaign, please contact us HERE.