Skip to:

Labor

  • Remembering Memphis

    Written on February 8, 2018

    February marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, Tenn., a unionization attempt by public sector workers that drew support from civil and labor rights leaders across the nation. Martin Luther King, Jr., in town to organize a march in support of those strikers, was assassinated on April 4th of that year. This post is the first in a series, commemorating these anniversaries and the historic links between civil rights and worker rights, especially at a time when the right of public sector workers to unionize is being argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. This post is excerpted from a forthcoming memoir, Climbing the Rough Side of the Mountain, by civil rights and labor activists Norman Hill and Velma Murphy Hill.

    Even as a young man, A. Philip Randolph understood that the economic wellbeing of workers and the political rights of African Americans were inextricably linked. It is one of the reasons why, in the 1920s, he agreed to organize and operate the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black-led labor union to receive a charter from the American Federation of Labor.

    It was his recognition of this coalescence of black economic and political interests that led him to threaten the first March on Washington in the 1940s; which was only preempted when President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed to issue Executive Order 8802, banning discrimination in Civil Service and World War II defense industries. And it was why he named the iconic 1963 march on Washington, which he organized and led, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The complete title wasn't an accident. Randolph understood that the economic component was essential in obtaining freedom and equality for black people.

    READ MORE
  • Contingent Work In The U.S. Labor Market

    Written on June 9, 2016

    For the past 20 or so years, it is fairly common to hear that the U.S. workforce is an increasingly precarious workforce – that is, made up of jobs with non-standard employment arrangements, such as temp jobs, on call work, and independent contracting.

    Because these types of employment arrangements, often called “contingent work,” tend to offer less stability, lower wages, and less opportunities for advancement, compared with “standard” full-time jobs, the growth of the contingent workforce is often portrayed as a cause and/or signal of the erosion of workers’ rights and the decline of the middle class in the U.S. Others see it differently, however, and argue that contingent work offers the flexibility desired by employers and employees alike, and that flexible jobs allow faster and more efficient “matching” of workers with positions, thus boosting productivity. This debate, of course, centers largely around empirical questions, and the body of research on contingent work has been building for a few decades now (see Kalleberg 2000Connelly and Gallagher 2004). Yet not all labor force surveys are designed to capture the full set of nuances of workers’ employment arrangements. Starting in the mid 1990s, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) had the good sense to collect data on this topic, in the form of the Contingent Worker Supplement (CWS) to the Current Population Survey (CPS). The CWS was administered five times between 1995 and 2005, and provided valuable data on these “nonstandard” employment relations.

    The CWS, however, has not been conducted since 2005, substantially decreasing the high quality information available on contingent work at a particularly important time, given that the Great Recession began shortly thereafter. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) made a laudable attempt to fill this hole with an April 2015 report, which uses several data sources to provide an important snapshot on the prevalence of and trends in contingent work in the U.S. (the data go up to 2010). There are a few key takeaways from this report, some of which are long established.

    READ MORE
  • The Civic Power Of Unions And The Anti-Union Political Agenda

    Written on April 21, 2016

    This is the second of two posts on the political dimensions of the Friedrichs case. The first post can be read here.

    Before Justice Scalia’s sudden death, it appeared that, through the Friedrichs case, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority would succeed in imposing “right to work” status on public sector working people across the nation. As discussed in a previous post, there were signs that this conservative bloc was looking to deliver its decision in time to sideline the four largest public employee unions – the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the National Education Association (NEA) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) – from the 2016 elections. Not coincidentally, these are also the unions that have the strongest political operations in the American labor. If Scalia had not died and these intentions were realized, what would have been the impact on the 2016 election and beyond?

    To grasp the full impact of a negative Friedrichs decision, had the conservative justices been successful in their plans, it is necessary to gauge the effect that public employee unions have on the political activism of their members. Ironically, insight into this question can be gleaned from an essay that exhibits a critical attitude toward public sector unions and collective bargaining, Patrick Flavin’s and Michael Hartney’s “When Government Subsidizes Its Own: Collective Bargaining Laws as Agents of Political Mobilization.”1 (Hereafter, F&H.) While not without analytical flaws, a number of which will be discussed below, F&H contributes to the literature with a new way of measuring the effect of teacher unions on teacher political activism and engagement, above and beyond voting. (Teachers have always voted at consistently high rates, with over 90 percent turnout in presidential elections and over 80 percent in mid-term elections.) Consequently, F&H places in relief the union contribution to member political activism that was targeted by the SCOTUS conservatives.

    READ MORE
  • The Political Calculus Behind Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association

    Written on April 20, 2016

    When the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) delivered its March 29 ruling in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, the announcement of a 4 to 4 deadlock was something of an anticlimax.  Ever since the sudden February 12 death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, SCOTUS watchers had anticipated just such an impasse. Based on Scalia’s questions when the case was argued before the Court a month before his passing, the late justice appeared to be the fifth vote for a decision that would have overturned 40 years of precedent – in effect, imposing “right to work” status on all those working in the public sector and eviscerating their unions. Without this vote, the four remaining conservative justices failed to constitute a majority.

    In the days following this decision, observers across the political spectrum described the judicial deadlock in Friedrichs as a victory for public sector workers and their unions (at least for the moment). A more definitive resolution of the issue awaits Senate confirmation of Scalia’s successor, whether President Obama’s pick, Judge Merrick Garland, or someone yet to be named by the next president.

    But, so far, what has been missing from most media commentaries is a recognition of the immediate political import of the Court’s impasse, and most especially, its impact on the 2016 election campaign. To understand the full political dimensions of Friedrichs – how the Court’s conservative majority seem to have been prepared to use the case to sway the election – a brief review of the case is necessary.

    READ MORE
  • Fighting For Fairness For U.S. Domestic Workers

    Written on July 17, 2015

    On September 17, 2013, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced the Home Care Final Rule, which extends the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (FLSA) minimum wage and overtime protections to domestic workers who provide home care assistance to the elderly, the infirm, and the disabled. The Home Care Final Rule is essential to improving the lives of two million domestic workers who, unlike other U.S. workers, are in many states not protected by the FLSA regarding minimum wage, overtime, sick leave, and vacation. Domestic work differs from other jobs in that the work takes place inside other people’s homes, which often puts domestic workers’ wellbeing at the mercy of their employers.

    The exclusion of domestic workers from the FLSA was a concession to Southern politicians in the early 1900’s. It had left many homecare aides vulnerable to abuse and mistreatment by their employers. The rule was scheduled to go into effect on January 1, 2015. However, lawsuits filed by homecare corporations have hindered the change and served as an excuse for states to postpone implementation. For example, in Home Care Association of America v. Weil, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon vacated the portion of the Rule that prevents third-party home care providers from using the companionship services exemption, and later vacated the revised definition of companionship services.

    As of July 2015, only five states have passed the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights: New York; Hawaii; California; Massachusetts; and Oregon. New York was the first state to pass the law (in July 2010) after six years of efforts by domestic workers, unions, employers, clergy and community organizations. The bill was introduced in two other states, Connecticut and Illinois, but has yet to be passed.

    READ MORE
  • In Defense Of The Public Square

    Written on April 30, 2015

    A robust and vibrant public square is an essential foundation of democracy. It is the place where the important public issues of the day are subject to free and open debate, and where our ideas of what is in the public interest take shape. It is the ground upon which communities and associations are organized to advocate for policies that promote that public interest. It is the site for the provision of essential public goods, from education and healthcare to safety and mass transportation. It is the terrain upon which the centralizing and homogenizing power of both the state and the market are checked and balanced. It is the economic arena with the means to control the market’s tendencies toward polarizing economic inequality and cycles of boom and bust. It is the site of economic opportunity for historically excluded groups such as African-Americans and Latinos.

    And yet in America today, the public square is under extraordinary attack. A flood of unregulated, unaccountable money in our politics and media threatens to drown public debate and ravage our civic life, overwhelming authentic conceptions of the public interest. Decades of growing economic inequality menaces the very public institutions with the capacity to promote greater economic and social equality. Unprecedented efforts to privatize essential public goods and public services are underway. Teachers, nurses and other public servants who deliver those public goods are the object of vilification from the political right, and their rights in the workplace are in danger. Legislative and judicial efforts designed to eviscerate public sector unions are ongoing.

    In response to these developments, a consortium of seven organizations—the Albert Shanker Institute; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the American Federation of Teachers; the American Prospect; Dissent; Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor; and the Service Employees International Union—has organized a to bring together prominent elected officials, public intellectuals, and union, business and civil rights leaders “in defense of the public square.”

    READ MORE
  • Tiananmen Anniversary Reflections

    Written on June 4, 2014

    Our guest author today is Andrew J. Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University

    On the 25th anniversary of the June 4, 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, it is worth reflecting on the effect that tragic event had on labor conditions in China.

    Tiananmen is generally thought of as a student movement, but there was also a great deal of worker participation. A group called the Beijing Workers Autonomous Federation took shape during the movement under the leadership of Han Dongfang, then a young railway worker. Today he leads an important worker rights organization, China Labour Bulletin, that works on Chinese labor rights issues from its office in Hong Kong.  Outside of Beijing, demonstrations occurred in more than 300 other cities, also with worker participation. Some of the harshest penalties after the crackdown were imposed on workers, rather than students.

    But workers, students, and other participants had the same goals in the spring of 1989. They all wanted the ruling Chinese Communist Party to open itself up to dialogue with society over issues of corruption, reform, rule of law, and citizens’ rights. One faction in the leadership, headed by Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, advocated that the Party accept this demand. He said that the demonstrators were patriotic and shared the Party’s goals for the nation, and that the Party could work with them. The other faction, headed by Premier Li Peng, argued that if the Party gave in to demands for dialogue, it would lose its monopoly of power and risk being overthrown. In the end, senior Party leaders headed by Deng Xiaoping sided with Li and used military force to end the demonstrations. In doing so, they reaffirmed the basic principle of authoritarian rule: the people have no right to interfere in politics.

    READ MORE
  • Invisible Labor Redux

    Written on May 8, 2014

    Recently, I learned that the Connecticut legislature is considering a bill that would mandate coverage of labor history in high school curricula. I was surprised. And interested. At a time when there are immense pressures to align curriculum --  ever more narrowly --  to standardized tests, these Connecticut politicians were advocating for material that is unlikely ever to appear on a high-stakes test.

    What makes it even more interesting is that the legislation is urging the study of labor history. Let’s face it, unions are in drastic decline in this country and the political climate is as hostile to labor as it has ever been -- so much so that the U.S. is cited by international democracy and human rights organizations as a country where basic worker rights are routinely violated, in law and in practice.

    There has been little public outcry over the years as unions have weakened, although some commentators (here, here) have recently noted that the decline of unions has tracked the decline of real wages and the rise of wealth inequality.  In this context, the economic benefits that unions bring to individual workers (through good wages and benefits) have long been recognized by the World Bank and others, see here, and here for example.   In cross-national studies, the Bank has also noted the ‘negative correlation’ between high rates of union density and collective bargaining coverage, and wage inequality and variance.

    READ MORE
  • In China, Democracy Must Begin On The Factory Floor

    Written on February 20, 2014

    Our guest author today is Han Dongfang, director of China Labor Bulletin. You can follow him on Weibo in Chinese and on Twitter in English and Chinese. This article originally appeared on The World Post, and has been reprinted with permission of the author.

    After 35 years of economic reform and development, China's Communist leaders once again find themselves on the edge of a cliff. With social inequality and official corruption at an all-time high, China's new leaders urgently need to find some way of putting on the brakes and changing direction.

    The last time they were here was in 1978 when, after the disaster of the Cultural Revolution, the then leadership under Deng Xiaoping had no option but to sacrifice Maoist ideology and relax economic control in order to kickstart the economy again.

    Unfortunately, the party relaxed economic control so much that it ceded just about all power in the workplace to the bosses. Workers at China's state-owned enterprises used to have an exalted social status; they had an "iron rice bowl" that guaranteed a job and welfare benefits for life. Some three decades later, that "iron rice bowl" has been completely smashed and the majority of workers are struggling to survive while the bosses and corrupt government officials are getting richer and richer.

    READ MORE
  • Democracy’s Champion: Albert Shanker

    Written on February 3, 2014

    Our guest author today is Richard D. Kahlenberg, senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy (Columbia University Press, 20007). 

    Freedom House recently released the significant – and sobering -- results of its report, “Freedom in the World 2014."  The survey is the latest in an annual assessment of political and civil liberties around the globe.  For the eighth year in a row, the overall level of freedom declined, as 54 nations saw erosion of political and civil rights, including Egypt, Turkey and Russia.  (A smaller number, 40, saw gains.)  Despite the early hopes of the Arab Spring, democracy promotion has proven a long and difficult fight.

    None of this would surprise Albert Shanker, who devoted his life to championing democracy, yet always recognized the considerable difficulty of doing so.  Around 1989, when the world was celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall, Shanker took the long view:  “What we’ve seen are the beginnings of democracy.  We haven’t really seen democracy yet.  We’ve seen the overthrow of dictatorship.  Democracy is going to take generations to build and we have to be a part of that building because they won’t be able to do it alone."

    READ MORE

Pages

Subscribe to Labor

DISCLAIMER

This web site and the information contained herein are provided as a service to those who are interested in the work of the Albert Shanker Institute (ASI). ASI makes no warranties, either express or implied, concerning the information contained on or linked from shankerblog.org. The visitor uses the information provided herein at his/her own risk. ASI, its officers, board members, agents, and employees specifically disclaim any and all liability from damages which may result from the utilization of the information provided herein. The content in the Shanker Blog may not necessarily reflect the views or official policy positions of ASI or any related entity or organization.