Women’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
Try 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.”
Brandt 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
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.
GOVERNOR BRANSTAD: TAXES ARE THE LEGISLATURE’S RESPONSIBILITY
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.
DAVENPORT — The Kraft Foods Oscar Mayer plant on Second Street will be razed as its new owner, Kraft Heinz, plans to move operations and layoff much of the workforce at the long-time meat packing plant.
Wednesday’s announcement, that Kraft Heinz will close seven plants in the U.S. and Canada over the next two years as part of a downsizing that will eliminate 2,600 jobs, or roughly 14 percent of its North American factory workforce, was widely anticipated by workers.
The company plans a new Davenport facility, contingent upon government financial support, however, some view it as a devil’s bargain because the net impact will be to lose about 800 jobs.
United Food and Commercial Workers Local 431 had not been consulted about the changes.
“They threw the union under the bus,” plant employee Curtis Grant of Eldridge said in an interview with the Quad City Times.
Concessionary bargaining is nothing new to Local 431 whose members ratified a four-year contract with Kraft Foods Oscar Mayer on Nov. 13, 2014. The sticking point in those negotiations was insurance and pensions.
“Now with Heinz, the company is basically telling Davenport give us subsidies to shutter the Second Street plant and build a new facility on the north side or we will close completely and take all the work to Missouri,” said a local worker who requested anonymity via email. “Both the city and the union are painted into a corner. And now with them talking about building a new $200 million plant, the building trades are excited to get those jobs. It’s a devil’s bargain.”
In the takeover of Kraft Foods by Heinz, business partners Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway and global investment firm 3G Capital hope to reduce expenses by $1.5 billion by exploiting synergies among operations and consolidating back office functions including supply chain management, accounting and administration.
On Friday, Berkshire Hathaway reported third-quarter profits more than doubled to $9.4 billion as the completion of the Kraft-Heinz merger boosted the paper value of its stake in the food giant. The deal was good for the third richest man in the world.
Thursday, the Iowa Department of Economic Development announced a $4.75 million incentive plan for the Davenport plant closing, including $3 million once the facility is razed.
“We are glad that Davenport, was able to successfully compete for a new, state-of-the-art manufacturing facility that will certainly position it for future growth,” said Debi Durham, director of the IEDA in a press release. “As major brands merge in this sector, consolidation and modernization will be the outcome.”
Durham said to the Quad City Times she is aware of the potential negative perception of providing state-funded financial assistance to a company that is downsizing its workforce both in Iowa and nationally.
“The optics are not lost on us, and believe me, the sensitivity is not lost on us. We care about people,” she said. “So we do the plays that we believe give us the greatest opportunity for the future, and I think that was what you saw here today.”
Durham said offering financial assistance to a company that is downsizing is not unique and could become more common as more large companies merge.
“We’re going to see more of this,” Durham said. “You’re seeing large mergers going on at a very high level between equals. And any time that happens and we have facilities, that’s something to watch for us.”
It appears Durham’s department has become like a turkey vulture picking over the carrion of what used to be a robust manufacturing economy and the middle class it supported.
If we consider what the Davenport plant makes – bologna, Lunchables, and other branded, highly processed meat products – this day had to come. In part, consolidation of the food industry is a reaction to the fact that tastes have changed and sales of some traditional products have declined. The processed meats industry is experiencing declining consumption of meat in general, and an interest in healthier options, according to data aggregator Statista, Inc.
The World Health Organization supports moderation of consumption of preserved meats to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer and has been doing so since 2002. On Oct. 29, WHO released a new report regarding the connection between red meat and cancer. Juxtaposition of this story with news about Kraft Foods Oscar Mayer, and Buffett’s third quarter financial results tells a broader story. Things have changed since Oscar F. Mayer immigrated from Germany and began selling sausages from his butcher shop in Chicago in 1883.
This story hits personally because not only did my maternal grandmother, my father and I work at the plant, the rise of Oscar Mayer as a global brand framed my early participation in our consumer society. I’m not alone in that.
When the Mayer family sold the company to General Foods in 1981, the Reagan revolution that resulted in decimation of the middle class had already begun. While it would have been hard to predict today’s outcome in 1981, what’s happening is not surprising in that context.
The two year transition to plant closure will hopefully enable employees to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives. Perhaps that is the best that can be expected.
Here is the entire statement provided to employees at one of the affected plants:
“Following an extensive review of the Kraft Heinz North American supply chain footprint, capabilities and capacity utilization, we are announcing the closure of seven manufacturing facilities in North America: Fullerton, California; San Leandro, California; Federalsburg, Maryland; St. Marys, Ontario, Canada; Campbell, New York; Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania; and Madison, Wisconsin. In a staged process over the next 12-24 months, production in these locations will shift to other existing factories in North America.
We are also planning to move production from our existing Davenport, Iowa, facility to a new, state-of-the-art location within the Davenport area; and move part of our cheese production from our Champaign, Illinois, facility to other factories within our network, which will create will make Champaign a center-of-excellence in dry and sauce production. Both moves will take up to two years to complete.
Our decision to consolidate manufacturing across the Kraft Heinz North American network is a critical step in our plan to eliminate excess capacity and reduce operational redundancies for the new combined Company. This will make Kraft Heinz more globally competitive and accelerate the Company’s future growth.
We have reached this difficult but necessary decision after thoroughly exploring extensive alternatives and options. This action will reduce the size of our North American factory-based employee population by a net number of approximately 2,600 positions.
At the same time, we will invest hundreds of millions of dollars in improving capacity utilization and modernizing many of our facilities with the installation of state-of-the-art production lines.
We will treat our people with the utmost respect and dignity. At the appropriate time, affected employees will receive severance benefits, outplacement services and other support to help them pursue new job opportunities. Kraft Heinz fully appreciates and regrets the impact our decision will have on employees, their families and the communities in which these facilities are located,” Michael Mullen, SVP of Corporate & Government Affairs.
“Additionally, Kraft Heinz is announcing that in 2016 we will move Oscar Mayer and our US Meats Business Unit from Madison, Wisconsin to our co-headquarters in Chicago. The move will bring 250 jobs to the Chicago area.
Members of the Oscar Mayer and US Meats Business Unit will have the opportunity to move with the business to Chicago. The move centralizes all our U.S. Business Units to our co-headquarters of Chicago and Pittsburgh, which will drive increased collaboration and efficiency.”
Dubuque Federation of Labor to Host
Dubuque Working Families Summit
On Saturday, November 7th, the Dubuque Federation of Labor, AFLCIO, will host a day-long program, “Working Families Summit” at Northeast Iowa Community College Downtown Dubuque Campus from 10am – 4PM
The program will include a day of action, break-out sessions, and interactive discussions that examine ways to create coalitions to work on issues like raising family wages, health and education, and civil rights & immigration.
The Nation Magazine contributing writer John Nichols will keynote the summit. Other community, labor, and policy experts will speak during panel discussions and break out sessions, including Pam Jochum, Iowa Senate President, Mike Owen, Iowa Policy Project, Tammy Wawro, ISEA president, Inclusive Dubuque, and others tba.
“We can help to shape the presidential debate for 2016 to focus more on issues related to working families,” said Bruce Clark, president of the Dubuque Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. “I want to see broader understanding of the number of issues from raising wages, to supporting families, to protecting civil rights, so that we all understand each other’s issues and can support each other.”
The summit will run from 10 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. at the Dubuque campus of Northeast Iowa Community College, 700 Main Street Dubuque. More information about the agenda and arrangements will be provided in the coming weeks.
Participants and Sponsors so far include: the Dubuque Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO; Iowa Federation of Labor, AFLCIO; ISEA; NAACP; Inclusive Dubuque; LULAC; Presentation Lantern Center, and others.
The event is free and open to the public and includes lunch. Free handicapped accessible is available in the city ramp less than one block away.
For more information and to Register for the summit, visit our Facebook Page – Working Families Summit: https://www.facebook.com/events/875056282582209/
WHEN: Saturday, November 7, 10 AM – 4 PM
WHERE: Northeast Iowa Community College; 700 Main Street, Dubuque, Iowa
COST: Free and open to the public!
RURAL JOHNSON COUNTY — The nearby City of Solon is concerned about the impact of the recently passed county ordinance to raise the minimum wage. The city council doesn’t buy in, local businesses don’t buy in.
On Sept. 10, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors held the last of three readings of a new ordinance to raise the county minimum wage in $0.95 increments to $10.10 per hour by Jan. 1, 2017. The board passed the ordinance unanimously.
The Cedar Rapids Gazette reported the Solon city council is considering opting out of the new county minimum wage structure.
According to the Solon city administrator, the city council is considering just such an action.
An agenda of the council’s Sept. 2 meeting lists “discussion on minimum wage ordinance by Johnson County.” Draft minutes from the last council meeting, which have not been posted online, show council members unanimously voiced opposition to the county’s minimum wage ordinance. Local business owners also spoke out against it, saying they couldn’t afford raises for all of their employees while maintaining the same staff levels.
Doug Lindner of the Solon Economist recounted Mayor Steve Stange’s Sept. 2 survey of council members here. The council unanimously opposed raising the wage in Solon as laid out in the new ordinance.
City Attorney Jim Martinek was directed by Stange to review the proposed county law and research the city’s options and responsibilities, according to Lindner. Council is expected to take up the issue at its Sept. 16 meeting.
KCRG – TV9 interviewed local business owners Leo Eastwood and Sam Lensing in a news segment that aired Sept. 11.
Eastwood owns Eastwood’s Sports Bar and Grill. He is well known in the community and has placed political advertisements for favored Republican candidates at his place of business. His business recently moved from a strip mall at the edge of town to Main Street, where he joined a growing group of bars and restaurants in the city of 2,300 people.
“You’ve got to pass that along or you’re not going to be in business long,” Eastwood said to KCRG of a potential mandatory wage increase.
Lensing owns the most visible business on Main Street, Sam’s Main Street Market, a full service grocery store. Another of Lensing’s businesses, D & D Pizza, recently vacated its space across the street from the grocery store and Eastwood moved in.
Sam’s Main Street Market is and has been an important part of the community, sponsoring local events, collecting funds for the local food bank, and preventing the city from becoming a food desert for people with limited transportation.
“If this wage hike does increase that much where people have to raise their prices what’s it going to do for their business?” Lensing asked in the interview.
Sam’s Main Street Market competes with Fareway, Aldi, HyVee, Walmart and Costco. Because Solon is a bedroom community, people who commute to work have an easy option to buy groceries and sundries elsewhere. The convenience of his location brings customers willing to pay more rather than make a special trip to another town. KCRG didn’t report how many employees Lensing has at near minimum wage to validate his concern.
All of this seems like a tempest in a teapot, and here’s why.
The council’s concern, as reported by the news media, seems like a knee-jerk reaction to the minimum wage increase by a small number of business owners. The retail price increase a minimum wage increase may or may not require would have little impact in a community where the median household income is more than $62,000 per year — substantially higher than either the county-wide or state-wide figures. The argument about raising prices is a red herring.
How many low wage workers has the council heard from? I wasn’t at the meeting, but probably zero. In my experience covering council meetings for the Solon Economist I found councilors exercised a reasonable amount of diligence in matters like this. While the composition of the council has changed since I covered them, one hopes they will get feedback from Solon residents who work at or near the minimum wage in the city before opting out of the county ordinance. It is a voice not heard in this discussion to date.
There has been no public discussion of the impact on the Solon workforce of opting out. There are a lot of questions to be answered, including, how many near minimum wage jobs (earning below $10.10 per hour) would be affected? Where do Solon workers in near minimum wage jobs live? Would near minimum wage employees at Solon businesses seek employment at higher wages elsewhere as a result of the city opting out? How do near minimum wage workers in Solon get health insurance mandated by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and at what cost to taxpayers? Has the city council read the ordinance to understand which businesses are required to comply and which are not? At present, there are no public answers.
As I wrote on Friday, the new county ordinance does little to address the underlying causes of poverty here. It turns out getting cities like Solon to buy in will be yet another delay in pursuit of social and economic justice.
The continuing debate over our economic inequality focuses on globalization and technology. These are seen as the determinants of our transformed economy and rising inequality. Remedies usually focus on better education and more training.
But this explanation largely omits discussion of unions and workers’ power. Americans are already better educated than ever, with high school and college graduation rates at record levels. Rapid technological change is not unique to the present as it occurred in other eras since World War II as well. Globalization, furthermore, is not a force of nature but rather a set of trade, tax, and corporate policies that largely benefit employers.
While most workers are producing more and earning less, corporate profits soar. Last year the pay gap between CEOs and typical workers widened to 373-l. Over the last fifteen years, even college graduates have seen little or no economic gains.
In 2014, only 11 percent of all US workers belonged to a union. Rather than just falling victim to natural causes, unions were assaulted. Beginning in the mid-1970s, corporations launched campaigns depicting unions as obstacles to competition, hired union busting law firms, and convinced Congress to pass laws banning effective union organizing tactics. Multinationals wrote trade and tax rules that facilitated moving jobs abroad and threatening labor at home.
The decline of union bargaining power correlates with the wage stagnation over the last five decades. Besides pushing down the wages of the working class, it also increases the incomes of the wealthiest 10 percent.
In much of America today, work no longer results in a decent paycheck and a rising standard of living. The portion of the economic pie that goes to working people currently stands near the smallest on record since 1947. Similarly the gap between worker pay and labor productivity has widened since the 1970s. In a healthy economy, wages and productivity would rise in tandem, but in recent decades, productivity gains have flowed increasingly to executive compensation and shareholder returns, rather than wages. The low-wage business model has essentially turned public aid into a form of corporate welfare.
Restoring shared prosperity and rebuilding the working and middle classes requires recognizing the role of the workforce in creating wealth. Reviving unions will take new forms of organizing, new alliances, and new thinking. In Los Angeles, a creative union movement helped elect officials who then used government procurement and zoning powers to demand that companies pay decent wages, adhere to labor standards, and end sabotage of worker organizing. In last summer’s fast food walkouts, new alliances with religious and community groups and support from elected officials protected workers and helped enlist consumer support for better wages. In Seattle, unions played a major role in the successful push for the $15.00 minimum wage.
Despite opposition from some employers, conservatives, and public officials, unions have brought diverse voices together, and their struggles have elevated the working conditions, the standard of living, and the recognition of not just their members, but of all who labor. Labor’s power comes not from dollars, but from organizing. Unions’ have the ability to take bold action to defend workers’ rights in the workplace, in the street, and at the ballot box.
The challenge for organized labor is to translate the real dismay about wage stagnation and economic inequality into collective action that raises wages and ensures prosperous companies share more of their profits with their workers. This won’t be easy in today’s entrenched big money politics. The first step is to focus on empowering workers to organize and bargain collectively, and thereby rebuild a strong worker voice in both the workplace and in our politics.
Ralph Scharnau teaches U.S. history at Northeast Iowa Community College, Peosta. He holds a Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University. His publications include articles on labor history in Iowa and Dubuque. Scharnau, a peace and justice activist, writes monthly op-ed columns for the Dubuque Telegraph Herald.