Your Weekly, Sunday Interlude: “Joe Hill” #LaborDay

Tomorrow is Labor Day. For most it’s lost its meaning. That’s probably intentional. For many, Labor Day is just another sale day at a retail job. For fewer, it’s a day off before the kids start school or the chance to snag some gadget for cheap on Amazon. Sales, barbeques and back-to-school lists certainly distract from a day meant to honor employees. But distractions serve our 1%-ers and so-called public servants well, don’t they? I’ll bet most of you are reading this on one of the greatest contemporary distractions right now.  Pay no attention as to why we have a day to honor workers – the vast majority – or the power within that number. Because when all the people who serve, create and make things become truly aware of their massive strength in unity, it tends to balance the social and economic playing field far too much for employers.

Joe Hill was an US immigrant, laborer and union organizer in the early 1900s. And he was charged with murder for which many, including his birth country of Sweden, believed he was scapegoated as a way to punish him for his prominent role in the IWW (International Workers of the World) or Wobblies to organize workers. The song, written by  Earl Robinson, speaks to his legacy, which lives on. Many folk singers have performed and recorded “Joe Hill.” I selected the version sung by Joan Baez at Woodstock.

Industry was new when the Wobblies were demanding safer workplaces, better wages and weekends off. And that era did achieve many of the protections we have for workers today. (Note: “Protections” for people are “regulations” on employers.) Society has changed tremendously since 1910. But the dichotomy between what an employer wants and what employees want continues. Only big business has lobbyists representing them with big checks to influence policy and tip the scales just the right way. Wages are set just low enough for those working at or near minimum wage to survive week to week, so long as the government subsidizes those people with housing, food and medical assistance. Meanwhile, unions seldom even get a seat at the table when Congress considers wages or trade. They’ve have lost membership drastically, from about one-third of all workers in the 1950s to about ten percent today. You can make a pretty strong argument that the loss of union membership has hurt the working class and is quickly vanishing the middle class.

Dad often said, “Some day, there will be a revolution in this country.” And when he said it, he was referring to the rebellion of the majority toward their cultural oppression and suppression; the oppression of economic power, public policy, bigotry, division and greed. Should there be a country-wide (world-wide?) workers’ strike? Long overdue. But a vast majority of workers can’t afford to take off a day and risk losing their jobs to fight it! Yet workers of every stripe have that power right now. The 1960s brought many causes for social justice together; minority rights, women’s rights, farm workers’ right, the right for 18-year-olds to vote. This could be another tipping point for we the majority. Never forget, those striving to make life better and fairer have the power. It’s the unity that secretly terrifies the ones who win through exploitation.

R.I.P. Joe Hill.



W Is For Workers Unite #atozchallenge

It is cold, cruel and criminal that full-time employment keeps folks in poverty and that economic advancement, social mobility and simple self-respect are becoming but a quaint memory for too many of us. People are hurting and this recent uprising by fast-food employees may be the tipping point that begins to reverse the ever-increasing struggle to survive. Let, “We can’t survive on $7.25,” becomes a rallying cry for all workers. Income disparity is the foremost cause of social rebellion, as evidenced in Egypt during the 2011 Arab Spring. Egypt is suffering under vast income inequality, but it may surprise you to know that Egypt’s disparity is not as great as ours, even though the Right will argue that the poor aren’t really poor because they have smart phones and flat-panel TVs. While technological trinkets may make us look rich, the true pain of living paycheck to unemployment check is a painful reality for too many. Unity is the only power employees have and if all workers would rally behind the fast-food workers who are protesting for higher wages, we might capture the momentum needed to slow the ever-widening divide between the “haves” and the “have-very-little.”

One of my heroes, my dad, always said there was going to be a revolution in this country some day when workers found they had enough. I agree with one modification. Now that multinational companies control the majority of global workers and all workers now are fighting the race to the bottom in wages, I believe it will be a global. revolution. And I believe we are overdue.

As another one of my heroes, Senator Ted Kennedy once asked, “When does the greed stop?” I don’t just wonder why the billionaires would sacrifice the basic comforts of so many of their workers with poverty wages, I wonder why they would want to live in a poor country. The fact is, America is not poor and it’s not “broke,” as Congressman John Boehner claims. It’s just lost its moral compass. Workers regaining some of their power would be a win for everyone. The one-percenters and Congress would have to follow.


U Is For Unions #atozchallenge

When compared to the steady decline in middle-class income over the past 30+ years, a nearly identical, parallel decline in the number of union jobs in this country seems to have an undeniable connection, particularly since organized labor and collective bargaining serve as a great equalizer between employees and employers. Union membership saw its last uptick just before Ronald Reagan took office in January of 1981 and it has declined steadily since, along with middle-class income. Since August, 1981, when President Reagan abruptly fired the striking, unionized air-traffic controllers, unions have experienced a decline in membership, and have seen their representational power at the bargaining table nearly disappear. Coupled with our vanishing middle-class, the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs, our halted generational mobility and our economic decent, it is hard to see any winners from the fall of organized labor, unless you count the mega-wealthy and multinational corporations, who have benefited from taxes incentives and trade agreements that have rewarded them for moving good-paying jobs overseas. The losers are lots of skilled workers, much of the middle class and our economy. Corporate lobbyists have fought successfully to weaken workers’ power, suppress wages and eliminate tariffs and tax regulations that protected America-made products. In the long run, everyone is harmed by these short-sighted policies because as workers’ wages fall and their skills diminish, our economy suffers and it becomes more difficult to compete.

A Decline in Unions since Reagan

Reagan’s 1981 firing of the air traffic controllers hushed many unions, as the newly empowered Phelps Dodge and International Paper quickly followed suit, replacing their striking workers. The next great blow to manufacturing, most of which comprised of union jobs, came in 1994, when President Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), resulting in the loss of 682,900 manufacturing jobs. Then, in 2004, President Bush signed the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), from which followed the closing of 40,000 manufacturing plants. According to the National Association of Manufacturing (, the U.S. claimed 19.5 million manufacturing jobs in 1979 and 17.2 million today, but union jobs in that sector is down to 9.6% today, from 24.1% in 1979.

More recent efforts to weaken unions and eliminate collective bargaining abilities have occurred in various states, through the “Right to Work” legislation that is now the law in 25 states. This legislation dilutes unions by forcing them to represent and defend non-union employees in labor disputes and even allows those nonmembers to sue the union if theyare dissatisfied with their representation. Other laws have been inserted into the bargaining process to make it more difficult for unions to represent members. For example, a law now requires employees to prove their individual support for their bargaining representative before collective bargaining can begin. This not only slows the process, but it contributes to additional and early conflict among members even before the negotiating can begin.

Prominent Economists Support Strong Unions

According to many economists, the loss of strong, unionized workers hurts business and the economy in the long run. A statement signed by forty prominent economists on February 25th, 2013, called for businesses to help restore unions and cited studies showing that businesses with union employees are no more likely to fail than those with non-union workers. In fact, dedicated, better-trained and well-paid union workers have a greater stake in a company, which helps stabilize businesses, particularly in a recession.

UnionStrikeFurthermore, it is misguided for businesses to view employees as adversarial, when all parties benefit from a profitable company and collaboration. The only businesses that benefit from an adversarial relationship are the vulture capitalists, who profit from using their vast wealth to buy successful businesses, leverage their assets by acquiring debt and then file bankruptcy, reaping great capital gains for themselves, but leaving the carcass of the once thriving business and workers in the dust.

Years of favoring such practices have left a tremendous tear in our economic fabric. The middle-class has been beaten down by wrong-headed policies and their struggle just to survive is evident in the country’s overall decline in competitive innovation and economic standing. They have been burdened by a Federal and corporate income tax structure that favors the ultra-rich and corporations. The deregulation of banking and Wall Street crushed middle-class retirement savings and the value of their homes. But the middle-class has the power to reverse these harmful policies, stop the cyclical recessions, help restore our economy and strengthen our global, competitive strength. When more Americans are well paid and have job security, they stimulate the economy through increased local spending.

Signs of Unions’ Sprouting Rebirth

There was a time in this country when labor was recognized as the driving force behind capitalism, from which grew the great middle class that built this country on “American ingenuity,” making the U.S. the king of industry and innovation. Written into the National Labor Relations’ Act of 1935, was the recognition that business benefits and protects itself “from injury, impairment, or interruption…by encouraging practices fundamental to the friendly adjustment of industrial disputes arising out of differences as to wages, hours, or other working conditions and by restoring equality of bargaining power between employees and employers.”

There are some hopeful signs that there may be a restored interest in unionizing workers. The “Occupy Wall Street” movement of 2011 demonstrated the need for people to unite in shared economic interests. UnionOccupyAnd the recent protests for better wages by fast-food workers are showing younger and unskilled workers that there is power in the collective. The “Employee Free Choice Act,” which simply allows workers the choice to organize a union through a simple majority, is catching on, too. And, finally, the Affordable Care Act is the first legislation that begins to unchain employers from providing medical insurance to employees, thereby equalizing labor costs with other industrialized countries. The odds are still stacked against workers, but there may be a glimmer of hope that the U.S. will be on the leading edge again. And global competitive factors may force these changes sooner than we may think.

Public Employees Tell Supreme Court: Union Dues Violate Free Speech

February 9, 2014

Last week, the Supreme Court began hearing the case concerning free-speech infringement, brought by Illinois’ nonunion home care workers, who object to paying their ”fair share” of union dues. A 5-to-4 conservative decision could overturn a 1977 law, and impact 65 years of established labor law. Both conservative and liberal justices delivered a striking contrast of impassioned questions, raising the drama in what might seem like a dull case, thus revealing what is truly at stake for public unions. A decision is expected this summer.

The 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education decision established the right for public unions to collect a portion of the dues that go toward bargaining expenses, from nonunion employees, when a pay raise results from the union’s collective bargaining. However, in this Harris v. Quinn case before the court, William Messenger, counsel for the workers, argued a finer, First Amendment point. He stated that any negotiations with the government, even when the government is an employer, is political, which permits nonunion employees to “opt out” of paying union dues (and from receiving higher wages), under freedom of speech.

Conservative Justices Hint to Expanding Scope of Case

Statements and questions by conservative Justices Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia indicate that they may be intending to broaden their consideration in this case to include the constitutionality of any public union representation, which could overturn or weaken labor laws going back to the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. Recently, numerous states have adopted right-to-work laws, permitting employees to opt out of public unions. Wisconsin received the most publicity among these right-to-work states, when it stripped public employees of their collective bargaining rights in 2011. Debra Strege 2

Calling Messenger’s First Amendment argument, a “comprehensible argument,” Scalia compared the right to “opt out” of paying union dues to the right to oppose Planned Parenthood. Alito added that collective bargaining in the public sector violates individual free speech because it influences government policy. He added, “What I don’t understand is why the union’s participation in this is essential.”

Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, counsel for the State of Illinois, said earlier rulings had already established that, like any employer, the government has a right to make “effective and efficient” business decisions that lie outside of public policy and, therefore, exclude employment contracts from the First Amendment standard.

The home-care worker contract is estimated to have saved the State if Illinois $630 million, by increasing pay, reducing turnover and keeping more people with disabilities in their own homes, But Alito said he suspected that the contract was “payback” by former Governor Rod Blagojevich for SIEU’s campaign contribution. Verrilli responded that a “large bipartisan majority” of the Illinois Legislature voted for the law, adding that the legality of the state law was not an issue before the court.

Liberal Justices Curb Conservatives with Collection of Questions

It appeared that Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor may have learned from the 2010 Citizens United decision, and crafted a collection of questions from the left side of the court, to keep the five conservatives from broadening the scope in this case. In Citizens United, Chief Justice John Roberts’ expanded the court’s consideration of whether a film about a presidential candidate was a campaign ad, and Debra Strege 3

overturned two major decisions in modern campaign-finance law, that removed restrictions on private campaign donations to support or oppose a political candidate.

Ginsburg ask Messenger pointedly if his underlying intention was for the court to consider the constitutionality of public employee collective bargaining. He evaded the answer but replied, “Yes,” when she asked if he was arguing that compulsory union participation was unconstitutional. She then asked him to clarify if he was arguing against public unions in this case, or just the required dues. He replied, “For now,” just the dues.

Breyer added that Messenger was asking the court for a “new, special labor law for government employees” using “the First Amendment as a weapon.”

Kagan’s words were more direct, calling the case “a radical restructuring of the way workplaces are run,”

Some analysts think that Scalia might be the swing vote on this one. For now, it’s anyone’s guess.