Skip to:

Labor Unions

  • Where Al Shanker Stood: Labor Law Reform

    Written on April 11, 2018

    This month marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was working in support of the union rights of striking African American sanitation workers. We thought it was an opportune time to reprint this July 17, 1977 piece, in which Al Shanker turned over his weekly column to his friend and mentor Bayard Rustin, advisor to King on nonviolent protest strategies, chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, and founding president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute.

    The nation's labor laws need to be reformed to give workers a fair chance to organize. Enlightened opinion has long recognized that unions are essential if workers are to have any hope of dealing on an equal basis with their employers.

    The nation's basic labor relations policy was expressed in the Wagner Act of 1935 as "encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining" and "protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization and designation of representatives of their own choosing." The Taft-Hartley and Landrum-Griffin amendments to the Wagner Act undermined those principles by creating an imbalance in favor of employers.

    Although companies no longer employ the brutal anti-union methods of the past, many have adopted a sophisticated arsenal of devices -- legal, illegal, and extralegal -- to interfere with and frustrate the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively.

    READ MORE
  • 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
  • Domino Effect: The AFL-CIO And The End Of Communism

    Written on June 15, 2017

    Our guest author today is Paweł Zyzak, an award-winning Polish historian, civic activist, and currently an advisor to the Polish Investment and Trade Agency. The following is drawn from a recent talk about his new book, Efekt Domina: Czy Ameryka Obaliła Komunizm w Polsce? (Domino Effect: Did the United States of America Overthrow Communism?).

    Surprisingly, the Polish publishing industry has very few works on the topic of Washington’s policies towards communist Poland. There are a few reprints of books by American authors dealing with Polish issues, but these are hardly Polish experts and they focus on secondary issues, such as John Paul II’s cooperation with Ronald Reagan or the CIA’s support for Solidarity, which is in fact hard to trace. Or, for example, Empowering Revolution: America, Poland, and the End of the Cold War (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), in which Greg Domber tells mainly an official version of the Reagan Administration.

    Thus, mine is the first history published in Poland to recognize the American labor movement and the American anti-communist Left as having a rightful place in bringing about the Polish transition from communism. Thanks to a grant from the Albert Shanker Institute, I was able to reach all available American archives and historical witnesses, as well as articles and studies on the AFL-CIO’s activities and the American government’s policies towards Poland. And thus my book, which one might say is a “missing link,” deals with not only Poland’s modern history, but America’s as well.

    Poland was indeed an element in the political strategy of the Reagan administration as part of the destabilization of the Soviet empire (at least during President Reagan’s first term), but the title of my book (Efekt Domina) recognizes that it was the AFL-CIO‘s leadership that argued Poland was the place from which the domino effect leading to the collapse of the Eastern Bloc would originate. And it was the AFL-CIO leadership that actually had the decisive impact in bringing that about.

    READ MORE
  • Build A Precariat Strategy

    Written on February 9, 2017

    Our guest author today is Guy Standing, a professorial research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and co-founder of BIEN, the Basic Income Earth Network. This post is part of a series of posts by speakers at our 2016 conference, "The Challenge of Precarious Labor," videos of which can be found here.

    All forward marches towards more freedom and equality are led by and for the emerging mass class, not by and for yesterday’s. Today, the political left in America and Europe is in disarray because they have not taken heed of that historical lesson. Trump is one nightmarish outcome of that failure.

    Today’s mass class is the precariat, not the old industrial proletariat. It is scarcely news to say we are in the eye of the storm of the Global Transformation, the painful construction of a global market system. The crisis, analogous to the crisis moment of the Great Transformation that preceded it, is epitomised by the aggressive populism of Trump, playing on the fears, deprivations and insecurities that had been allowed to grow in the preceding three decades.

    But the left needs to step back from entering the vortex of the storm Trump is generating, to reflect on a strategic response, to build a new vision of a Good Society that responds to the insecurities and aspirations of the precariat.

    READ MORE
  • The Future Of Worker Voice And Power

    Written on January 30, 2017

    Our guest author today is David Madland, Senior Fellow and the Senior Adviser to the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress. This post is part of a series of posts by speakers at our 2016 conference, "The Challenge of Precarious Labor," videos of which can be found here.

    My goal is to provide a long-term vision of how we can address the fundamental economic and democratic challenges faced by our country, as well as to discuss some realistic steps for state and local governments to take to move us toward this vision.

    Today’s economy does not work very well for most people. Wages have been stagnant for decades and inequality is near record highs. Many voters blame politicians for these problems – for doing the bidding of CEOs while leaving workers with too little power to get their fair share.  Voter anger and the politicians fortified by it have put our democracy in real trouble.

    There are of numerous reforms necessary to ensure that workers have sufficient power to raise wages, reduce inequality, and make democracy work for all Americans – including those that reduce the influence of money in politics and that promote full employment.  But among the most important reforms are those that give workers a way to band together and have a strong collective voice.  Collective voice enables workers to negotiate with CEOs on a relatively even footing and to hold politicians accountable.  When workers have a strong collective voice, not only can they increase their own wages, but also improve labor standards across the economy and provide a key counterbalance to wealthy special interests, making politicians more responsive to the concerns of ordinary Americans. 

    But we need new and better ways for workers to achieve that strong collective voice.  Fewer than 7 percent of workers in the private sector are members of a union – meaning that 93 percent are left out of the current system.

    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
  • Where Al Shanker Stood: Union-District Partnerships

    Written on September 3, 2015

    In this New York Times piece, which was published on March 9, 1986, Al Shanker discusses a study suggesting that union-district partnership, not confrontation, is the best way to enact and implement reforms that will improve schools.

    In the last 25 years, teachers' unions have grown in size and influence. In the minds of many they represent an establishment just as much as the local board of education and the superintendent of schools. Many critics of our schools have been eager to portray teacher unions as supporters of educationally undesirable rules and procedures, such as seniority, which were borrowed from the industrial sector. They view teacher unions as fighting for these rules at any cost and using their bargaining powers to shoot down constructive change whenever it threatens to infringe on teachers' vested interests.

    But an interesting new study gives us quite a different picture of the impact that teacher unions and collective bargaining have on the reform process. In preparing Teacher Unions, School Staffing and Reform, a Harvard Graduate School of Education research team led by Susan Moore Johnson analyzed 155 contracts chosen at random from a variety of school districts around the country. And, from June of 1984 to February, 1985, they did extensive, in-depth field work in 5 of the districts, where they examined documents, sat in on meetings and interviewed 187 teachers, principals, union leaders and central office administrators.

    What emerges is a valuable insight into the dynamics and complexity of the reform process, why some proposals work and why others fall flat. Though new programs tend to be formulated in legislative chambers or in governors' mansions, the key to success, the authors conclude, is what happens on the district level, within the individual collective bargaining unit. And some interesting patterns emerge.

    READ MORE
  • Is There A Pension Crisis?

    Written on July 28, 2015

    Our guest author today is David Cay Johnston, a distinguished visiting lecturer at the Syracuse University College of Law and a former Pulitzer prize-winning financial reporter at The New York Times. This article is adapted from his remarks to an ASI-sponsored conversation on the topic in March, which also included remarks from Chad Aldeman, Teresa Ghilarducci, and Dan Pedrotty. A video of this event can be found here.

    So the question is whether there is a pension crisis. The answer is yes, absolutely. It’s just not the one that politicians always talk about.

    Contrary to that you hear about on TV, in market economics, defined benefit pensions are the second most efficient way to provide for income in old age. The most effective way would be a national program that spreads risks to everyone. The least efficient way to do it is through defined contribution plans.

    There is abundant evidence for this. Defined contribution plans work very well, but only as supplements for prosperous people such as me and my wife, who is a public charity CEO, they are not at all effective for most people. That’s be because defined contribution plans violate specialization, one of the most basic tenets of market economics as taught to us by Adam Smith, the man who first explained market economics.

    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

Pages

Subscribe to Labor Unions

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.