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A great article (and an even better socio-economic development) is over at Yes! Magazine.  The timing of it, as I slowly crawl my way back into the habit of writing, couldn’t be better; it ties in rather nicely to the previous piece I put up about new research showing we may succeed in our evolution for social reasons rather than by some “greedy gene”.  It also ties in nicely to a piece I’m just finishing up about my own personal experience in trying (and failing) to bring a worker-owned business into Downtown Montpelier.

The piece over at Yes! Magazine is about the city of Cleveland’s recent boom in worker-owned businesses and the city itself (along with educational and other institutions) playing a key role in getting them off the ground.  See, Cleveland, down on its luck for several decades now, realized (with the help of some pretty smart and creative non-profit organizations and other institutions) that actual economic recovery and stability aren’t just about creating jobs, or even creating green jobs, but are about creating green jobs that increase- directly- the wealth of the people who do the work.

What’s so special about this laundry? In a word, ownership.  The business will be 100 percent owned by its 50 employees, virtually all of whom live in the surrounding community.  Life is tough in this neighborhood, where the poverty rate exceeded 30 percent and thousands of homes lay stripped and abandoned even before the current recession began.

In the midst of this urban distress, the Evergreen Laundry employee-owners will earn a living wage and health benefits.  As members of the co-op, they will enjoy greater job security than workers at more traditional businesses, and, after seven years on the job, they will have built an ownership stake of as much as $65,000.

The laundry is the flagship of a wider network of Evergreen Cooperative businesses, part of an effort to transform the quality of life for Cleveland’s low- and moderate-income residents.

While its planners—the Cleveland Foundation, the Ohio Employee Ownership Center at Kent State University, ShoreBank Enterprise and others—drew on experiences gained in cities around the country, the Evergreen initiative represents some important firsts.  It is the first attempt to bring together the economic power of “anchor institutions”—universities and hospitals, in this case—that have a long-term commitment to the city. Instead of luring outside corporations with promises of tax breaks and lax standards for labor and environmental practices, the Evergreen strategy develops home-grown worker-owned enterprises that can offer ongoing services to these anchor institutions.

This represents the first significant effort to create green jobs that not only pay a decent wage, but also build assets and wealth for employees, since they are not only workers, but also owners. If successful, this initiative could become a national model.

Nice.  While job creation is important because, well, we all need to work and make a living and contribute socially, the modus operandi of capitalist enterprise syphons the vast majority of the wealth that is created by our work to line the pockets of the “owners”.  Well, if everyone is an owner, problem solved.  To see this happening with the backing of major institutions and City Hall- and to see it targeted at the most hard-off neighborhoods- is incredible.  Hopefully other communities pick-up on this; I’m sure they will once they see how successful it becomes.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks I find when talking politics with folks and- oddly- trying to convince them that there is something better than this American version of “democracy” and an “economy” out there is, of all things, unemployment.  One of the easier examples, for instance, is simply to point to Europe, where things like a standard 35 hour work week compare well to our 45+, where health care is provided as a right of being alive rather than treated as another industry where CEO’s can become wealthier, where higher education is offered to those who want it rather than being an extension of high school for the wealthy only, where pretty much the whole continent takes the month of August off for vacation, and where retirement is understood as one’s duly deserved reward for a lifetime of work instead of something that is increasingly a myth told to us by our parents and grandparents (“I did retire when I was 64, though now I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep the house”- “Daddy, what does grandpa mean, re-tie-are?”).  The single most common and almost predictable response to pointing out Europe’s vastly superior- though of course by no means perfect- social safety net and labor and health and education and elder care and drug policy and environmental and (etc) culture- sounds something like “Sure, but look! their unemployment rate is twice ours! their economy is failing, it can’t be sustained.  There aren’t enough jobs for all of them and the whole thing is bound to fall apart.”  Usually the argument isn’t even that nuanced but instead entails “Sure, but they’ve got 12% unemployment.”.

And though I (often) try to counter that this is simply because they calculate their unemployment rate differently then the U.S.- more accurately, mind you- there’s nothing like trying to argue against “statistics” that are well-known and common knowledge.

Which is why I was super-glad to see that someone actually does bother to figure U.S. unemployment by counting it the same way the rest of the friggin world counts it- and, well, the numbers aren’t too shocking (at least if you’re me).  16.7%.  That’s America’s real unemployment rate, if you don’t do really odd things (which the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does) such as not count people who don’t have enough work, or people who’ve been unemployed for so long they’ve stopped looking (though they still want work).

Of course, detractors may smugly point out to me that that “someone” who figured that number is an admittedly liberal organization- Americans for Democratic Action.  Let me counter that critique by saying: whoopty-fucking-do.  Look, I’m not a fan at all of liberalism, liberal organizations, or liberal politics… but counting numbers is counting numbers and if the Kato Institute or the John Birch Society were interested in knowing the U.S.’ unemployment rate as figured by the same method that most of the world figures their unemployment rate, they would look at the same exact statistics and data and (presumably) come to the same exact number.  I may suggest they would even be doing such a thing, since it would give such conservative organizations a bully pulpit from which to preach the evils of Obama from; except to do so would open up the discussion to the illegitimacy of how the BLS currently does calculate the U.S.’ “official” unemployment rate, and thus we could easily go back and look at our artificially low numbers during those boom years, adjust them using an internationally acceptable method, and see that we had nearly identical (I’d assume) unemployment to all those crazy quasi-socialist European countries that do crazy things like allow workers to retire at a reasonable age, with dignity, offer strong social safety nets to the most vulnerable members of society, and ensure that most people live comfortably and still have the spare time to- gasp!- enjoy their goddamn lives.  And that, my friends, could start making people here in America want something similar.  And that, of course, would mean far less money into the pockets of the wealthiest among us.  And that, of course, would be un-American.

Yeah, Whole Foods is a real model of forward thinking.  “This is a third way,” says Whole Foods’ attorney Lanny Davis (nice co-option of integral language).  By “third way” though I guess he means stuff like a Whole Foods store manager holding anti-union meetings with employees where he was recorded saying things like “It’s interesting to note that once you become represented by the union, basically everything, every benefit you have, is kind of thrown out the window, and you renegotiate a contract.”

Er, enter one journalist and the NLRB:

“I think it’s probably fair to construe [that comment] as a threat,” concluded Tim Peck, a representative of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in San Francisco, after Mother Jones read him quotes from the meeting, one of several anti-union trainings held by the company in recent months. Peck pointed out that labor law bars employers from threatening to strip benefits from workers in retaliation for unionizing. “The ‘flying out the window’ [comment] kind of suggests that the benefits are gone,” he noted. Legally, “that wouldn’t pass muster.”

The whole article is here for your enlightened perusal.

The headlines have died down a bit, as well as my hyperbolic coverage, but global resistance in the face of the meltdown of the capitalist system continues.  In the French colony of Guadeloupe a general strike that began on January 20 continues still, and is increasingly violent.  The French recently sent in heavily armed dispatches of troops to the region; it’s the height of the tourist season down in the Caribbean, but over 2/3 of the 15,000 hotel rooms on the island remain empty.  Almost all businesses and government offices have been shut down since the strike began, with nearly a quarter of the population in the streets.  Food supplies are rapidly dwindling and gas stations are long dry.  The uprising against the un-livable costs of living in the Caribbean has now begun to spread to other islands, including Martinique, where heavy rioting is now being reported.  

Libcom.org keeps a pretty cool map of political uprisings over the globe during the past few months.

Closer to home, yesterday students at NYU occupied one of the buildings there.  Their press release lists their lengthy- and well thought-out, demands:

  1. Full legal and disciplinary amnesty for all parties involved in the occupation.
  1. Full compensation for all employees whose jobs were disrupted during the course of the occupation.
  1. Public release of NYU’s annual operating budget, including a full list of university expenditures, salaries for all employees compensated on a semester or annual basis, funds allocated for staff wages, contracts to non-university organizations for university construction and services, financial aid data for each college, and money allocated to each college, department, and administrative unit of the university. Furthermore, this should include a full disclosure of the amount and sources of the university’s funding.
  1. Disclosure of NYU’s endowment holdings, investment strategy, projected endowment growth, and persons, corporations and firms involved in the investment of the university’s endowment funds. Additionally, we demand an endowment oversight body of students, faculty and staff who exercise shareholder proxy voting power for the university’s investments.
  1. That the NYU Administration agrees to resume negotiations with GSOC/UAW Local 2110 – the union for NYU graduate assistants, teaching assistants, and research assistants. That NYU publically affirm its commitment to respect all its workers, including student employees, by recognizing their right to form unions and to bargain collectively. That NYU publically affirm that it will recognize workers’ unions through majority card verification.
  1. That NYU signs a contract guaranteeing fair labor practices for all NYU employees at home and abroad. This contract will extend to subcontracted workers, including bus drivers, food service employees and anyone involved in the construction, operation and maintenance at any of NYU’s non-U.S. sites.
  1. The establishment of a student elected Socially Responsible Finance Committee. This Committee will have full power to vote on proxies, draft shareholder resolutions, screen all university investments, establish new programs that encourage social and environmental responsibility and override all financial decisions the committee deems socially irresponsible, including investment decisions. The committee will be composed of two subcommittees: one to assess the operating budget and one to assess the endowment holdings. Each committee will be composed of ten students democratically elected from the graduate and under-graduate student bodies. All committee decisions will be made a strict majority vote, and will be upheld by the university. All members of the Socially Responsible Finance Committee will sit on the board of trustees, and will have equal voting rights. All Socially Responsible Finance Committee and Trustee meetings shall be open to the public, and their minutes made accessible electronically through NYU’s website. Elections will be held the second Tuesday of every March beginning March 10th 2009, and meetings will be held biweekly beginning the week of March 30th 2009.
  1. That the first two orders of business of the Socially Responsible Finance committee will be:
    a) An in depth investigation of all investments in war and genocide profiteers, as well as companies profiting from the occupation of Palestinian territories.
    b) A reassessment of the recently lifted of the ban on Coca Cola products.  
  1. That annual scholarships be provided for thirteen Palestinian students, starting with the 2009/2010 academic year. These scholarships will include funding for books, housing, meals and travel expenses.
  1. That the university donate all excess supplies and materials in an effort to rebuild the University of Gaza.
  1. Tuition stabilization for all students, beginning with the class of 2012. All students will pay their initial tuition rate throughout the course of their education at New York University.  Tuition rates for each successive year will not exceed the rate of inflation, nor shall they exceed one percent. The university shall meet 100% of government-calculated student financial need.
  1. That student groups have priority when reserving space in the buildings owned or leased by New York University, including, and especially, the Kimmel Center.
  1. That the general public have access to Bobst Library.

And, true to the Twenty-First Century, not only do they have a website/blog up and running, but it includes a live video stream of their occupation.  More to come, I would assume.

Towardfreedom.com has a nice little interview with Mark Meinster, the UE Representative who helped coordinate the factory occupation at Republic Windows and Doors this past December.  It’s a quick little piece, but touches on some nice points.

Firing The Boss: An Interview With Chicago Factory Occupation Organizer

by Benjamin Dangl

 

On December 5, 2008 over 200 recently-fired workers at the Republic Window and Doors factory in Chicago occupied their plant, demanding that they be paid their vacation and severance checks. The occupation ended victoriously six days later when the Bank of America and other lenders to Republic agreed to pay the workers the approximately $2 million owed to them.

But the workers didn’t stop there. They are now seeking ways to restart the factory and potentially operate it as a worker-run cooperative. The workers are also filing charges against their former employer for failing to give the workers sufficient notice of plans to shut the factory down; the workers were only given three days’ notice, and the management refused to negotiate with the workers’ union about the closure.

In this interview Mark Meinster, the International Representative for the United Electrical Workers (UE) – the union the Republic workers belong to – talks about his role as the coordinator for the plant occupation, connections between the struggle of the Republic workers and workers struggles and tactics in South America, the fight to re-open the plant, and what the Republic workers’ strategies say about social change in an economic downturn.

Benjamin Dangl: First, please briefly describe your role in the union, in the occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors factory, and the ongoing struggle of the Republic workers.

Mark Meinster: I’m an International Representative for the United Electrical Workers (UE).  My primary responsibility is to oversee the union’s organizing work and staff in Chicago, IL and Milwaukee, WI.  I was the lead organizer on the effort to organize the Republic workers into UE in 2004 and led negotiations for a first contract in 2005.  Since then I and UE Field Organizer Leah Fried have worked with the local on leadership and steward training, grievance handling and contract negotiations.   I coordinated the plant occupation at Republic Windows and Doors and participated in negotiations with the employer and the financial institutions involved and continue to work on efforts to reopen the plant. Read the rest of this entry »

The current global financial “crisis”* has many people for the first time seriously considering the basis of how our economic system is run and how our government works.  A partial rejection of the status quo may even be seen in the election of Barack Obama, based on his passionate message of “hope” and “change” (though many of us recognize Obama is very much a part of that very system and there are serious limitations of his vision of “change” and the “hope” it may bring- nonetheless, people who are undereducated about politics and economics and who therefore mistake Obama’s vision for the real change that is needed shouldn’t be blamed for their misunderstanding; they’ve been willfully mis-educated on the matter, to the benefit of the very system of which we speak- but that’s a matter for a different article).  However, the “mild reforms will save us” approach is doomed from the outset and those who preach such a course do so either because they are ignorant of the facts, fooling themselves, or they are selfishly prioritizing their personal gains today over the survival of our species.

We could look at any number of examples of how this is true; right now, I’m going to look at an example of one piece of proposed legislation and the forces for and against it.  If this legislation were to pass it would not be the radical change necessary to transform our global economy into a system which is beneficial to all (or even most) nor would it be the necessary move to a sustainable world order.  However, it would be a relative positive, in that it would give more people, here in the U.S., the opportunity to better their material living conditions (material life being the bottom rungs of our human hierarchy of needs and thus setting the stage for all subsequent health and fulfillment).  While this relative advance should be supported, as I said, the reformist approach is painfully flawed: and in looking at the system that will either pass or reject this particular Act we’ll see a bit of exactly why.  But in looking closer at this one proposed bill- this singular “mild reform”- we’ll stumble upon ample evidence that culturally, the whole system is broke, and that’s the real meat to the story.

The legislation I’m referring to is the Employee Free Choice Act.  For those who don’t know about it, the EFCA would allow worker’s to establish a union at their workplace if the required number of people were to sign union cards.  Under current law (enacted in 1935) worker’s who collect the necessary number of signatures in support of a union must then win through a secret ballot, which is held on a set date and at the workplace.  The biggest problem here is that these secret elections allow employers ample time and opportunity to intimidate, coerce, lie to, and just plain fire pro-union workers- every year 23,000 Americans are fired or disciplined for supporting union efforts. Read the rest of this entry »

A bunch of things out there I feel like throwing out at you, my friends.  So lets get right to it, starting off with the video clip that you must’ve seen (cause it’s already everywhere) but deserves to be put here too, just cause it’s, well, it speaks for itself:

If you’ve somehow missed seeing this before, it happened at a press conference while Bush was in Baghdad over the weekend.  You may be aware that in Iraqi culture, showing the bottom of one’s shoe to someone is considered highly insulting; well, I won’t even speculate where they put throwing one’s shoes at someone.  And of course, I’m sure security getting into that press conference- or anywhere near Bush- was incredibly tight, but still, I can’t help but notice the lackadaisical nature of the secret services’ response here- I mean, the guy was able to get both shoes off and chuck them across the room before being tackled by security.  He’s said to still be in custody, and word is that a few thousand people took to the streets of Baghdad yesterday to demand his release.

The social unrest in Greece continues still, and solidarity actions around the world have as well.  Olympia, WA, St Petersburg, Russia, Macedonia have all added their cities to the list of violent clashes with police and Greek consulate attacks.  Boston and other Northeastern U.S. cities plan on taking action tomorrow.

A computer and telecom equipment factory in Southeastern Shanghai, China, is being guarded closely by police trying to keep 1,000 factory worker’s from entering the building as they launch their own sit-in protest.  The worker’s haven’t been fully paid in 6 months, and offer just one more sign of the growing global working class uprising that- as I’ve noted was all but certain- is resulting from the capitalist meltdown in financial markets.

Closer to home, VermontNewsGuy has the “dirt” on the latest round of Republican and Democrat bickering.  While VNG may be a bit hot-headed about the degree of the “controversy”, he’s also essentially right: Tax Commissioner Tom Pelham recently reported (as he’s required by law to do) on the State’s estimated income from the statewide educational property tax and the estimated money that school’s statewide are expected to spend in the coming year.  Well, the report is that there’s an estimated $20.5 million surplus  in the education fund.  By law (Title 32, Chapter 135, Section 5402b) such a surplus directs the Tax Commissioner to recommend a reduction in the statewide property tax rate; well, he didn’t.  For a bit of context, remember that Pelham is an appointee of the Governor and in a letter accompanying his report to the legislature, Pelham explains “Given the extraordinary fiscal choices before us, a recommendation from me regarding 2010 tax rates may be extraneous or even harmful to the flexibility you and the Governor need to craft an overall fiscal course for the state.”  Later in an interview he said “it’s worth leaving the issue of the tax rate ambiguous because there is no certainty in these tumultuous fiscal waters.”  VNG hits this one one the nose:

…put this in context. Pelham is the appointee and ally of Gov. Jim Douglas, especially when it comes to cutting property taxes. And here he is refusing to recommend a cut in property taxes even where the law requires him to recommend a cut in property taxes.

Granted it’s only a recommendation. Pelham has no power to set the tax rate. But just imagine what Republicans would say if a Democrat passed up the chance to propose lower property taxes.

No, don’t bother. No need to imagine. Go back almost four years, to February, 2005. Then as now the Education Fund was projected to be in surplus for the coming year. Douglas wanted to cut the tax rate by more than enough to bring it into balance. The Democrats said no, inspiring then Republican State Chairman Jim Barnett to issue a statement accusing the Democrats of trying to “increase property taxes.”

So are Democrats now taking similar advantage of this inconsistency on the part of the Douglas Administration?

Apparently not.

“Because these are such difficult financial times, (Pelham) doesn’t want to make promises to the schools that he may not be able to keep,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ann E. Cummings of Montpelier. Agreeing with Pelham that this is a “different year,” she declined to take political advantage of Pelham’s letter.

“We’re going to make an effort to do this in a bipartisan manner, which we can’t do if we start out throwing partisan darts at the governor,” she said.

We have here three possibilities: (1) Vermont Democrats (at least as compared to Vermont Republicans) are too responsible about governing to take cheap shots; (2) Vermont Democrats (at least as compared to Vermont Republicans) are wimps with no taste for combat; (3) Both.

Just because the Democrats aren’t complaining doesn’t mean nobody is. In a joint statement, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns and the School Boards Association called on Pelham to propose a tax rate based on the new numbers, a move they say could save taxpayers $18 million next year.

Without such a recommendation, said John Nelson of the School Boards Association, local school districts won’t be able to present their proposed tax rates to voters at least 30 days before town meeting day, as the law requires.

So the Douglas Administration gets by with effectively raising property taxes (by not taking the course of action outlined by the law- reducing the property tax rate to reflect actual school spending) while simultaneously loading-up with ammo to shoot at the education system for not making the timely cost-cutting measures that everyone is demanding in tight budgetary times.  And the Vermont “left”?  No, make that the Vermont Democratic Party (don’t ever let me get away with calling the Vermont Dems the “Vermont left”)- they either too feeble or too disorganized (or both) to do what they let the political right do almost daily, which is to engage in a populist battle over how and where money is spent versus how and where it’s raised (particularly, taxes).  I’m not saying one way or the other that the tax rate should be lowered, or if the money should be used for other budgetary shortfalls; what I am saying though is that Douglas uses every opportunity (and in fact, when there is no opportunity he just creates one) to frame the conversation and place his actions and priorities in the context of doing the best he can to make living more affordable for the average Vermonter while placing his political opposition squarely as representing monied, “specialized” interests.  The truth of the matter may be that both the R’s and the D’s represent that, but it’s the GOP- and Douglas particularly- who represent it the most.  While Douglas will often talk about acting in a bi-partisan manner (while at the same time trash-talking the opposition), he never actually acts in a manner to do so.  But the Democrats, god bless their little mis-guided hearts, simply refuse to take political advantage of the same situations and try to cooperate with this fucker.  Time and again.

The right wing isn’t going to be neutralized by cooperating with them.  While it’s important and admirable to cooperate to get things accomplished, it would best be done by first entirely wiping out the falsehood of the right’s agenda and rhetoric- once their B.S. platform is exposed for what it is and the right’s power is left to the wingnut fringes, cooperate all you want.  In the meantime, WTF? take some action to throw the right’s maddening crap to the dustbin of history.

In the world of housekeeping here at IP, I’ve added a link to the Prog Blog, which is a blog for and from the Progressive Party.  Honestly, I’d seen it mentioned in conversations at other blogs, but had never gone over.  If I’m going to link the the Dem-centric GMD, the Prog Blog deserves one too.  And hey, surprise surprise, the posts over there aren’t bad at all.  A lot more focus on the issues, rather than the names and organization of the Party, which is refreshing.  The always logical and thorough Doug Hoffer helps that to happen.

Finally, no one can claim they saw it coming before it happened: the 9-5, tied for first place Miami Dolphins, who haven’t allowed a touchdown in three games and will enter the playoffs as AFC East champs after beating the Jets in two weeks. 

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