This site may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in an effort to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. we believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law.

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

FAIR USE NOTICE FAIR USE NOTICE: This page may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. This website distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for scientific, research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107.

Read more at: http://www.etupdates.com/fair-use-notice/#.UpzWQRL3l5M | ET. Updates
FAIR USE NOTICE FAIR USE NOTICE: This page may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. This website distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for scientific, research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107.

Read more at: http://www.etupdates.com/fair-use-notice/#.UpzWQRL3l5M | ET. Updates

All Blogs licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Confronting the Myth that Low Wages Are Necessary for Profits in the Fast Food Business


Why In N Out Burger is far more attractive than McDonalds. 

Editors note:This is the third in a series of reader-supported—i.e. crowdfunded —articles about the powerful National Restaurant Association and the plight of low-wage workers who are being screwed at every turn by industry lobbying tactics and misleading propaganda. An amazing 387 AlterNet readers contributed more than $5,500 to support this ongoing investigative project. Many of the donors are listed at the end of the article. Read part 1&2 of the series here and here.

The more you look at what it means to work in America’s restaurants—especially at the corporate-run chains—the less you will want to eat out.
The ongoing protests by fast-food workers for higher wages and paid sick days underscore the most visible problems. There’s also wage theft. There’s gender and racial harassment. There’s discrimination in pay and promotions. There’s slick public relations efforts that paper over this exploitation, with corporate lobbyists repeatedly telling politicians that they can’t pay wokers more—while other executives tell Wall St. analysts about using their profits for stock-buybacks, expansion plans and shareholder dividends.

The nationwide fast food worker walkouts are highlighting and rejecting a predatory low-wage, low-benefit business model that’s all too common in service sector jobs. Ironically, some of the nation’s top business school professors say the restaurant industry’s scorched employee policies aren’t even the best way to build companies.

“If paying more is considered part of a bigger strategy, then yes, I think companies can afford to pay more,” said Zeynep Ton, a MIT Sloan School of Management professor and author of the forthcoming The Good Jobs Strategy: How the Smartest Companies Invest in Employees to Lower Costs and Boost Profits. “The only way to pay more (as well as invest in training, offer more stable schedules, etc.) without hurting business is if employees are more productive and more part of the company’s success.” 

But Ton’s prescriptions of investing in workers and empowering them are all-but absent in the restaurant industry, especially at the corporate chains. Instead, millions of the U.S. industry’s 12.2 million employees are all-too-often treated like robots and abused like serfs. And Ton and labor activists say that will not change until the public demands it.

“When we care, companies might start caring as well,” she said.

What follows are profiles of three trend-setting chains illustrating the issues that separate terrible employers from somewhat better ones. The fast food strikers want raises to $15 a hour and paid sick leave, as most are adults with families and not teenagers in first jobs. But they face other issues, too, such as gender and racial discrimination and harassment, segregated workplaces, and few opportunities for advancement.

Racing To The Bottom: McDonald’s.

McDonald’s is across-the-board terrible. They require employees to work at Christmas and Thanksgiving, but don’t pay overtime. They pay as close to minimum wage as possible. Their marketing to kids is predatory and creepy. Some salads have more calories than burgers. They use “pink slime” for chicken entrees. They encourage employees to get food stamps to offset low pay. And they’re everywhere.

This spring, USAToday and 24/7WallSt.com said that McDonald’s—more than any fast-food chain—was one of “eight companies that most owe workers a raise.” McDonald’s can afford to pay the vast majority of its 800,000-plus U.S. employees more, the paper reported, citing the firm’s own financial reports. Its stock was up 6.9 percent over last year, and up 68.2 percent over the past five years.

Most companies don’t make payroll data public, unlike their earnings reports. But there are websites that post jobs, average salaries and employee comments. Glassdoor.com lists hundreds of entries for McDonald’s. Almost all of its wages hover near legal minimums. For cashiers, the hourly average is $7.74. For crew member, it’s $7.70/hour. For a crew trainer, it’s $8.14. For drive through cashier, it’s $7.73. For grill cook, it’s $7.72. For fry cook, it’s $8.20. For swing manager, it’s $9.33. For general manager, its $43,862 a year, or $21.08 hourly. For assistant store manager, it’s $29,574 annually or $14.22/hour.

These are not living wages for adults or families. The federal mimimum wage is $7.25 an hour, although nearly two-thirds of the states have raised it a dollar or more. The striking fast-food workers are seeking $15 an hour, plus paid sick time. As USAToday noted, in late 2012, McDonald’s announced that it planned to return $5.5 billion to shareholders via increased dividends and stock buy-backs. It has paid dividends every year since 1976, the paper noted. Meanwhile, its senior executives have sent memos to franchise owners conveying customer complaints about poor service.

This big picture—chiseling employee wages and funneling profits to investors—is the reason for customer complaints, MIT’s Ton said. But it’s also part of a corporate culture that demeans workers. Writing of last Thanksgiving’s mandatory work and no overtime in the Harvard Business Review, she said, “employees are once again reminded of how little their companies care about their lives and well being.”

McDonalds’s can afford to pay its employees more, but, critically, it chooses not to. And that’s not the only thing that trouble employees. Its website, of course, boasts of careers and benefits. But employee share of paying for benefits is unaffordable, workers said on Glassdoor.com. And then there are other dimensions of restaurent and kitchen work that are abusive—and accepted as part of the work culture.

“Low pay, no insurance, top managers waste time on cell phones and… get involved in personal relationships with subordinates that caused preferential treatment,” a Newton, Mississippi, employee wrote on September 2. There’s little chance for advancement, an ex-assistant manager in Aurora, Colorado, wrote. “Rather hire in than train up.” There’s unreliable schedules. “Franchise stores focuses their hours around labor. Labor must be an overall 19 percent at the end of each month,” an Atlanta employee wrote this month. “So if store labor is 24 percent… be ready to have your hours cut.”

There’s also sexual harassment and a trail of lawsuits from it. The pro-worker advocacy group, Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC), issued a report last year about gender inequities—starting with lower pay for women in the same jobs as men—that also discussed sexual harassment. Its review of the previous four years of suits by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that “McDonalds was named in 16 percent of the cases, including possibly the most egregious one, where an 18-year-old employee strip-searches and assaulted for several hours by staff and management at the behest of a caller impersonaing a police officer.”

Across the country, polls regularly find that 80 percent of the public supports minimum wage increases. But most people staring at pictures of the fast food protesters, most of who are women, have little idea what it’s like to work in these kitchens. A former McDonald’s cook from Wyoming, Pennsylvania, summed it up this month on Glassdoor.com, using their format of first describing the pros and then the cons.

“I worked at McDonald’s fulltime for more than three years,” he said, then list the pros. “If you already worked in the restaurant business, this job is a cakewalk. High volume, yes, but the work is easy and not very physically demanding… You don’t have to worry about over- or under-cooking food. You don’t have to do tons of prep work. You don’t even need to have a solid grasp of health and safety standards until you move up to management.”

And then the negatives. “If you never worked in a restaurant before, you’ll think this job is terrible. You’re on your feet all day, performing what feels like intense cardio exercise during peak hours. After your shift, you will be coated in a layer of grease and filth, and you will smell like cooking oil… You will make close to the minimum wage the entire time you work there, even when you’re promoted to low-level management.”

Jim Crow Jobs: The Capital Grille

There are more dimensions to poor working conditions than just wages. The restaurant industry is America’s largest employer of people of color and it is rife with segregation. Servers are predominantly white. Kitchens are predominantly people of color. And even though some chains have non-white CEOs, the culture and abuses are not very different from what’s depicted in the new movie, The Butler, profiling a self-educated African-American man who was a longtime butler at the White House.

Capital Grille is the high-price, fine-dining chain run by Darden Restaurants, the world’s largest full-service—meaning sit down—restaurant corporation. Darden also owns Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Longhorn Steakhouse, Bahama Breeze, Eddie V’s, Seasons 52 and Yard House. “We own and operate 2,100 restaurants, employ more than 200,000 people, and serve more than 425 million meals a year,” its website says. “At the Capital Grille, it’s guests enjoying a personalized dining experience reminscent of being in a private club.” It says that more than 80 percent of workers like Darden and their job.

Darden boasts that its values include “sustainability,” from reducing energy to treating employees well. But in late 2011, ROC and Capital Grille employees in five states sued Darden for wage theft and racial discrimination. The lawsuits are ongoing. This spring, ROC issued a report, Darden’s Decision, as part of a campaign to pressure the Florida-based corporation into treating workers better. “If it lived up to these values, Darden could serve as a model for the entire restaurant industry,” ROC said. “Unfortunately, there is a gap between Darden’s stated values and their actual practice.”

The Capital Grille is the chain’s flagship. It has dark wood-paneled dining rooms, a menu emphasizing meat, fish and wine, and formally attired servers. There are 49 grills around the country, with annual sales at each restaurant averaging $7 million, it told investors in June, estimating that sales would grow 4.5 percent this year. It pays a few dollars an hour more than for the same job at Darden’s other chains, according to Glassdoor.com. A host at Olive Garden averaged $8.99/hour, versus $11.38/hour at Capital Grille. An Olive Garden’s server averaged $10.99/hour, versus $12.62/hour at Capital Grille.

As a chain, Darden pays low wages and lacks paid sick days, ROC said, even though its website says “you will receive excellent benefits including health insurance, 401(k), paid vacations and advancement opportunities.” ROC Research Director Teófilo Reyes said that benefits are for the full-time employees—and many don’t get those hours, and, as is the case at McDonald’s, “you do have to pay in. It’s a pretty significant cost.” 

But ROC’s biggest complaints about Capital Grille have to do with intentionally stealing wages from its employees of color, and discriminating against them in promotions. Some “claim that their restaurant hired employees of color in the rush to open and replaced them with white workers once the restaurant was established,” ROC said in its Darden’s Decision report, which, in part, recounted claims from its lawsuits. A Darden company spokesmen has repeatedly called these allegations baseless. 

“We know what happens in the industry.We know that there is segregation,” Reyes said. “The question is, ‘Is it conscious and are restaurants discriminating against individuals?’ You are less likely to be hired into a better-paying job if you are a person of color.”  

Capital Grille employee comments at Glassdoor.com re-enforce ROC’s claims, but they are not quite as edgy. An ex-host from Troy, Michigan, said, you “must have ‘game face’ on 24/7,” and that he faced a “very stuffy work environment, have to use ‘Capital Grille’ vocabulary, [and] I was never offered a raise in the two years employed.” An ex-maitre’d from Palm Beach, Florida, said, “no career advancement… they want you to wear very pricey dresses, but not suits, at your own expense.”

The picture that ROC paints is more severe, particularly with employees of color who are segregated to the kitchens. There are many ways that workers can be treated poorly, ROC said. They can be denied sick days. “I called in sick once because of throat problems,” said Ignacia Villegas, a Capital Grille pantry station employee. “My manager told me, ‘If you don’t come, you already know what could happen. You could get fired.’”

They cannot be paid for all their hours worked—which is wage theft. Franz, a Haitian immigrant and dishwasher from Miami, said that he was routinely being “clocked out” by the sous-chef before he was finished cleaning. Elose Arestil, another Haitian dishwasher, complained about the same thing and was fired. But the vengeful treatment didn’t stop there, she said, because her managers stopped her from receiving unemployment checks. “My boss had told them [state officials] that I had quit when I was actually fired.”

Other ex-employees talked of “haves and have-nots,” ROC said, referring to the chain’s bias against non-white servers. “The Capital Grille’s regional manager told the General Manager that he wanted certain servers gone because they ‘didn’t fit the company image,’ Keith [Jones, an ex-Memphis, Tennessee, server] noted. Upper management wanted to remove black servers and used corporate image as an excuse.”

“Darden positions itself as being so conscientious,” Reyes said. “We find that’s not the truth of the matter.”

Taking The High-Road: In-N-Out Burger

The striking fast food workers have been calling for better working conditions, starting with higher hourly wages and paid sick time. They, and advocates like ROC United, and academics such as MIT business school professor Zeynep Ton, all say that paying more will not just improve job performance, employee morale and customer service, but it will save money in the long run that’s lost when new workers have to be hired and trained.

ROC’s founder and executive director, Saru Jayaraman, singed out one fast-food chain, In-N-Out Burger, which is privately owned and was started by a family with Christian values, as a chain that paid better than most and offered opportunities for advancement. In-n-Out, as its name notes, is a classic hamburger chain whose wrappers and cups cite biblical quotes. Bloomberg reports that the chain has almost 280 units in five western states, $625 million in 2012 sales, and a five-year growth rate of 4.6 percent.

What does it do that McDonald’s and Capital Grille does not? Compared to McDonald’s, they start by paying all workers, including new hires, several dollars above the minimum wage. They have been doing that for years, according to Harvard Business School Professor Youngme Moon, who chairs its MBA program. In a Harvard Business Review article a decade ago, she wrote, “In 2003, new employees were paid $8.25 to $9.25 per hour, almost $1.50 to $2.50 more than California’s minimum wage, and they received benefits that included paid vacations, a 401(k) retirement plan with matching company contributions, and discounted medical, dental, and vision coverage… As a result of this treatment, employee turnover at In-N-Out was low.” 

Today, the chain still pays several dollars above minimun wage. Where Glassdoor.com lists most McDonald’s salaries at below $8 an hour, the lowest-paid jobs at In-N-Out average above $10/hour, with some non-management jobs paying more than $13/hour. Their assistant managers average $51,200 annually, which is $24.61/hour. Employee comments on Glassdoor.com notice this difference. “Great compensation for industry,” said a level 5 ($11.58/hour) employee from Chico, Califonia. “This place starts you off with more than the minimum wage hourly. You get one free meal per shift,” a former associate said, adding. “They are very strict on your conduct. But it’s understandable being they are the only fast-food place that pays well.” Another wrote, “Starting pay is $10.50 in most areas.” An older employee commented, “Good for students, but pay is still low, but better than other food places.”

Compared to Capitol Grille, In-N-Out’s employees did not talk about discrimination or a lack of opportunities for advancement. An associate level 4, averaging $10.78/hour, from Las Vegas said, “Fast-paced, lots of room for growth, once you’re in, you’re pretty much in. Extensive hiring process, but all that means is they are selective in taking the best.” A Davis, Califronia, associate said, “This is a good paying job for the background required… good opportunities for advancement if you work hard.” But one employee from Palmdale, California, complained, “you can never get full-time hours and benefits once you’re hired. Lucky at some store[s] if you get more than 25 hours a week.”

As ROC’s Reyes notes, it’s important to keep In-N-Out’s pay and benefits in perspective, at least compared to what the striking fast-food workers are seeking. “The bar is set pretty low,” he said, referring to the restaurant industry’s pay and benefit standards. “They don’t pay $15 an hour, which is what the fast food workers are looking for.”

Where Can Progressives Eat Anymore?

The closer you look at America’s restaurant industry—especially the fast food and dining chains—the more you’re likely to pause before eating there. The reality of what goes on behind the practiced smiles of servers and kitchen doors does not inspire confidence.

The fast food worker protests are attempts to shame their employers into boosting wages, especially because the National Restaurant Association, the industry’s lobbyists, have a record of stopping or delaying minimum wage increases and paid sick day laws. (Similar walkout are planned for 15 Walmart stores this Thursday). ROC has created a guide for consumers that grades restaurants across the country, including those paying living wages and offering opportunities for a advancement. The guide contains postcards that can be left behind for management to consider and contact the group.

These activists don’t just want the public to pause before eating out; they want the public to gently push restaurant owners and managers to treat their staff better, just as they have demanded fresher ingredients in the menus. MIT’s Ton has reached the same conclusion, although she knows that the management mindset can be very inflexible.

“I imagine that executives are noticing [the fast food protests] but I don’t know if they’ll do anything to change,” she said. “What I really hope is that consumers are noticing. We as customers can choose where to eat and where to shop and we can start choosing businesses that treat their employees better. When we care, companies might start caring.”


AlterNet extends a special thanks once again to the following generous donors who made this article series possible:
Deidre Adams |Top AirFrames |Donna Alley |Robert Armstrong | Robert Atwood |David Aughey |Bobbie Aust |Bruce Babcock |Norma Bader |Judith Barnett |Richard Baron |Kenneth Barta |Al Bedrosian | Daniel Beerthuis |Samuel Benesch |Mark Beringer |Alan Bickley |Gary Billey |Beth Birnbaum |Gerald and Louise Blume |Valera Bochkarev |Duane Bogart |Alice Boston |Susan Bower |Rebecca Brackman |Linda Broadley |Robert Brodie |Karl Bronn |Susan Bryan |Lynne Bundy |Christian Burgess |Stephen Burton |Canary Burton |Terry Campbell |Christopher Carman |Robert Carrick |Andrew Carson |Marian Carter |Jane Chamberlain |Susan Christensen |Bruce Cohen |Sharlene Cole |Randall Collins |William Collins |Nancy Comas |Lauren Coodley |Gilberto Cooper |Johnny Costello |Harry Coverston |Paula Cronin |William Cross |Lili Cummins |Chase Dahl |Charles Daniels |Geoff Davis |Food Dolls |Alexander Domschot |Paul Donohue |Virginia Downs |Shona Dudley |Michael Duncanson |Jean Durel |Nancy Eckel |Margaret Edwards |William Ellwin |Peter Epprecht |Kelly Epstein |Tom Ericson |Garold Faber |Richard Fauconier |Annette Fenner |Ernest Ferguson |Kenneth Fingeret |Jerry Flach |Mark Flitter |Roy Ford |Thomas Ford |Audrey Franklin |Tommie Frye |Nivair Gabriel |Douglas Gallagher |Edward Gasperi |Donald Gates |Vida George |Robert Gilbert |Mandeep Gill |Richard Ginnold |Marianne Ginsberg |Cosimo Giovine |Miryana Golubovich |Carlos Gomez |William Gorman |Mark Gormley |David Graham |Kevin Graman |Bedene Greenspan |William S. Greer |Jason Gregory |Bruce Greif |Troy Grieves |Terry Grim |Joseph Grimaldi |Sarah Grimes |Seymour Gross |Linda Guffin |Steve Guillory |Lyn H. |Marghi Hagen |Angela Hailey |Carol Halsey |Dr. Rhonda Hammer |Roger H. Harrell |Dennis Harry |David Hart | Frederick Hein |Louis Hellwig |Louis Hellwig |Jason Herring |Maureen Hickey |Gary Hildreth |Claude Hillinger |Gregory Hofmann |James Holland |Jimmy Hollingsworth |James Hopkins |Ellen Hopkins |Michael Horner |John Hubertz |Alex Huss |Chad Irvin |Anthony Jeffries |Daryl Jennings |Tyson Jensen |Bruce Jewell |Darrell Johns |Kelley Johnson |Myna Johnstone |Miriam Jolidon |Prasanth Joseph |Jack Keaton |Lee Kefauver |Anne Kerrebrock |Ana Kimsey |Colleen Kinerk |Patrick Kirk |Diana Kistler |Dana Knickerbocker |Donald Kotval |Christine Krueger |John Kyler |Margaret Lane |Words for Health |Steven Laudano |Rachel Leip |Paul Leuenberger |Barry Lia |Marcia Liotard |John Lott |Steve Lull |Andrea Lurie |Jonathan Lynch |Neahle Madden |Anitra Makoni |Gail Mansouri |Bruce Marshall |Judith McCarthy |Thomas McConnel |Al McCullough |Herb McDonald |Patricia McHugh |Laureen McLaughlin |John Meng |Michele Metts |Erin Meyer-O'Day |Mark Miles |Kathleen Miller |John Moore |David Morgan |Karen Morris |Susan Mullins |Carol Mulrooney |Heather Myers |Phyllis Nunn |Norma Odell |Mary Oehlerich |Joan Oneill |Amanda Orchard |Odessa Osby |Dusan Palka |Leslie Parrish |Nick Pearson |Margaret Peeples |David Pettus |Aravinda Pillalamarri |Mary Pinto |Lucinda Plaisance |Leroy Pletten |James Polshek |Donna Pope |Angelina Popp |Clif Power |Elena Powers |Mark Proulx |Sherman Puckett |David Radcliffe |Verun Rahimtoola |Bettina Riedel |Richard Riggs |Elin Riley-Weiss |Randall Roberson |Joe Robinson |David Robinson |William Root |Dee Rosenfeld |Evan Rotner |Daniel Rous |Betty Rousey |Hannah Rush |Troy Sanders |John Sarette |Emily Sato |Kevin Schmidt |Roberta Schonemann |Gary Schreiner |Gordon Schultz |Sybil Schweitzer |Kenneth Scott |Charles Sereno |Joseph Sherman |Gloria Shin |Aida Shirley |Suzanne Shobe |Harold Shuckhart |Debra Simes |Crystal Sloan |Richard Smith |Berdine Smith |Neal Snyder |Priscilla Solomon |Joshua Stafford |Keith Stephenson |Edward Stewart |Robert Stimpert |Reba Stone |Peter Stromberg |Ramon Subscriber |Carolyn Sumners |Elda Tate |Joel Taub |Joan Taves |Lynn Tharsing |Kathleen Tucker |Daniela Turcios |Pauly Vachal |Frank Vandervegt | George Vincent |Martha Vinick |Andrea Vos |Carol Walker |Rita Walton |Henry Wasielewski |Schuyler Webb |John Weber |Robert Weissfeld |Gary Weldele |Thomas Wells |Todd Wermers |John Werntz |Clifford Westfall |Harrison White |Sissy Wiggin |Janice Wilfing |Alan Willard |Ellen Willcox |Andrew Willis |Wendy Wilson |Mark Worden |Iris Xie |Jeannine Yates |Zeus Yiamouyiannis |Alan Young |Dallas Young, Jr. |Chen Yu.
Steven Rosenfeld covers democracy issues for AlterNet and is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).

Friday, August 30, 2013

Labor Day Is a Time to Mobilize

August 30, 2013   


Labor Day Is a Time to Mobilize

Posted: 08/30/2013 2:31 pm

For far too many Americans, Labor Day is simply another day off, another store sale and another small parade. The meaning of the holiday has been dulled by both rampant commercialism and public apathy. Where is the passion for elevating the wellbeing of American workers? Shouldn't Labor Day be a time to gather, contemplate and celebrate more just treatment of all those who toil without proper recognition or compensation?

Labor Day is the ideal time to highlight the hard-fought, historic victories already enjoyed by American workers, and push for long-overdue health and safety measures and increased economic benefits for those left behind by casino capitalism. After all, it was the labor movement in the early 20th century that brought us such advances as the minimum wage, overtime pay, the five-day work week, the banning of child labor and more.

The reality is that big corporations have abandoned American workers by taking jobs and industries to communist and fascist regimes abroad -- regimes that oppress their workers and enforce serf-level salaries and hideous working conditions. America's working men and women have also largely been abandoned by the corporate dominated Republican and Democrat two-party duopoly, whatever their rhetorical differences may be. The federal minimum wage has been allowed to languish far behind inflation as corporate bosses' pay skyrockets. The gap between worker salaries and CEO pay widens, even as worker productivity rises. Corporate CEO's in America make approximately 340 times more than that of the average worker. In 1980, by comparison, CEO pay was 42 times greater.

Look to the fast food strikers around the country for inspiration. Backed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), workers in cities across America are demanding fair pay at $15 an hour and the right to unionize. Beginning in New York City and spreading to other major cities, workers are beginning to rally and speak out against their poverty wages from hugely profitable fast food chains. Willietta Dukes, in a piece for The Guardian, writes:
Burger King says they can't pay employees, like me, higher wages because it would force them out of business. Yet last year it made $117m[illion] in profits and its CEO took home $6.47m[illion]. It would take me 634 years to earn that much.
I've worked in fast food for 15 years, and I can't even afford my own rent payments. We just want fairness and to be able to provide for our families. No one who works every day should be forced to be homeless.
Where are the other advocates for American workers? Now is the time to speak out and push for long-overdue action.

Where is President Obama? Candidate Obama promised that he would press for a $9.50 federal minimum wage by 2011. Now, in 2013, he has settled for $9 by 2015. This is far less than what workers made in 1968, adjusted for inflation. If the minimum wage had kept up with inflation, it would be $10.70 today. If it kept up with worker productivity in the corporate sector, it would be $22.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act into law in 1938 -- which established the federal minimum wage amongst other things -- it was in the face of considerable opposition and criticism from Big Business, not to mention in the midst of The Great Depression. This is the type of courageous leadership we need from the White House today.

A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal cited an analysis by Mark M. Gray, a researcher at Georgetown University, who found that President Obama "mentions the poor in his speeches less than any other president in decades" -- even Ronald Reagan mentioned the poor in his speeches and public statements about twice as frequently.
What of the AFL-CIO, which represents 13 million American workers? I recently wrote a letter to its president, Richard Trumka, asking for his leadership in pushing for more attention about the plight of workers on this Labor Day. No response. The AFL-CIO has an opportunity for a major showing with rallies before the White House and Congress. Some reporters in the mainstream press have indicated they do not think the push for a higher minimum wage is serious without Mr. Trumka, President Obama, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid exerting serious efforts.

What of former President Bill Clinton? In his speech to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, President Clinton made passing rhetorical reference to "building a modern economy of good jobs and rising incomes." But the time for simply talking about these issues is long past. What about publicly supporting Rep. Alan Grayson's bill in Congress (H.R. 1346) which provides for a $10.50 minimum wage to catch up with 1968, and allow $30 million workers to afford more of life's necessities for themselves and their children? The support of Mr. Clinton might help galvanize the media and those in Congress to make this into the front burner issue it deserves to be.

And, what about the leading Democratic Presidential candidates for 2016 -- Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden? Why aren't they seriously championing this important cause that is both good for the economy and for workers and their children?
In an ideal world, the Sunday political shows the day before Labor Day would feature various prominent labor leaders and discuss key issues like the minimum wage, income equality, trade and more.

Labor Day should be a moment for the nation to shine a light upon the rights and plights of the nation's workers and recognize the need to reform restrictive labor laws, such as the notorious Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. After all, workers are the backbone of the economy.

(See here for facts and information on our efforts to raise the minimum wage to catch up with 1968, inflation adjusted, and find out how to get involved.)

Monday, July 1, 2013

Our Sad, Misunderstood Labor Unions

Dissident Voice: a radical newsletter in the struggle for peace and social justice 

Our Sad, Misunderstood Labor Unions

Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as the exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.
— John Steinbeck
A union official I correspond with (the International Vice-President of a West Coast labor union) recently shared an interesting anecdote. He said that whenever he meets someone for the first time and they casually ask what he does for a living, he answers by saying he’s a “workers’ rights activist.”

Because people are, typically, intrigued by his reply and want to hear more, he goes on to explain that his job consists of doing things like making sure retired workers get their pensions, meeting with management to clear up wage or hours disputes, helping laid-off employees get unemployment benefits, representing employees who feel they’ve been unfairly reprimanded, and discussing with company officials such on-the-job issues as bullying and sexual harassment.

Almost invariably, people express their approval of what he does for a living. They respond by saying things like, “Wow, what a cool job,” or “I didn’t even know jobs like that existed,” or “Hey, we need more people doing stuff like that.” But when he ends the conversation by telling them he works for a labor union, he gets a totally different response.

People are stunned. They appear shocked or confused. According to this fellow, some people actually exhibit hostility at hearing he’s a union officer, believing they’ve been unfairly tricked into momentarily respecting a person they would otherwise have nothing but contempt for.  Such is the warped perception of labor unions.

When I was a rep, I used a slightly different approach with union-haters. After listening to their tiresome litany of complaints (i.e., unions are corrupt, they go on strike too much, their economic gains are eaten up by monthly dues, they’re undemocratic, etc.), I would respond with this: “Say what you will about unions, but name another institution that’s solely dedicated to the welfare of working people. Name me one. Just one.” Of course, no one could name any because there aren’t any.

Not the President of the United States, not the Congress, not the Church, not the Chamber of Commerce, not Facebook, not the American Legion, the Elks or the Moose, not charities or philanthropic groups. Only us. The only institution solely dedicated to the welfare of working people are labor unions. And if you can’t understand that, you can’t understand anything.

As for “complaints,” they were rebutted by a simple appeal to reality. Regarding corruption, we’re confusing unions of today with New Jersey Teamster locals, circa 1959. But if it’s “corruption” that pulls our chain, then look no further than Wall Street, because we could take all the money embezzled by every dirty union officer from 1959 onward, add it all up, and it would be a tiny fraction of the money Wall Street scams us for every hour.

Union dues are misunderstood as well. Across the board, they probably average about $50-60 a month, which is a pittance compared to what a union contract provides us. As for strikes, unfortunately, they occur so rarely these days, they’re practically a non-factor. And as for being “undemocratic,” that’s an outright lie. If the government were as wildly democratic as your typical labor union, we wouldn’t be using the Electoral College.

Still, even after we made what we considered a pretty decent case for the role of labor unions, most people remained unconvinced. They continued to cling to their deep-seated negative perceptions. Somewhere along the way, organized labor has failed to define itself. Somewhere along the way, it has lost its ability to reach the masses.

Granted, part of that can be blamed on the propaganda being disseminated by right-wing conservatives, and part of it can be blamed on the loss of America’s manufacturing base. But a large part of it is the fault of organized labor itself for not knowing how (or being unwilling) to promote its virtues. When you’re the only institution solely dedicated to the welfare of working folks, you need to make people realize it.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor), was a former union rep. He can be reached at: dmacaray@earthlink.net. Read other articles by David.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Seven Reasons Why the Labor Movement Has Stalled

Dissident Voice: a radical newsletter in the struggle for peace and social justice

Seven Reasons Why the Labor Movement Has Stalled

A self-described “McGovern Democrat” whom I shall call “Fay” told me that, alas, she could no longer support organized labor because, in her own, stunning words, “unions have become too powerful.” A UCLA honors grad and longtime political activist, Fay is probably the most “left-wing” person I’ve ever personally known.

She dropped this bombshell on me despite the undeniable fact that (1) labor is clearly outmanned and outgunned, (2) private sector membership is less than 7-percent, (3) the middle-class, which was “invented” by organized labor, is shrinking faster than the glaciers, and (4) without institutional resistance, businesses will run wild on us. My initial thought? If we lose the support of smart people like Fay, we’re sunk.

There’s no denying the labor movement has stalled. While there still seems to be strong and genuine “pro-worker” sentiment throughout the country, there’s precious little codified social/political activism to go along with it. In a recent edition of CounterPunch, Jeffrey St. Clair provocatively questions the very existence of a “leftist movement.”

St. Clair notes, “There is, of course, a Left ideology, a Left of the mind, a Left of theory and critique. But is there a Left movement?” It’s a fair question. Clearly, anything resembling a Left movement has, historically, included an active and energetic show of support for organized labor. And just as clearly, that show of support is disturbingly absent.

Listed in no particular order are seven factors that have contributed to the decline of the American labor movement.

1. Federal and state laws co-opted much of what organized labor used to provide. People think unions are anachronistic because the government now handles the welfare of working people. Although it’s true that many job-related rules have been enacted into law, if the government were indeed looking after the welfare of working people, the rich wouldn’t be getting richer and the middle-class wouldn’t continue to erode.

2. Democrats have abandoned organized labor. Unions continue to donate money, but Democrats continue to disappoint them. When labor complains, Democrats tell them to shut up and be patient. When labor threatens to seek help elsewhere, Democrats laugh in their faces and say, “Who are you going to ask? The Republicans?”

3. Manufacturing jobs have been sent abroad. Because big-time manufacturing was once the gold-standard of organized labor, when those jobs left (not to avoid paying union wages, but to avoid paying American wages), the heart and soul of industrial unionism left with them.

4. The propaganda is working. Astonishingly, labor’s enemies have been able to convince people that unions are corrupt and sinister. It gives us no pleasure to admit this, but had it been revealed that the IRS was unfairly focusing on labor unions (instead of conservative groups), the public likely would not only have accepted it, they would’ve rejoiced in it.

5. American individuality is resistant to collectivism. We Americans are a remarkably self-sufficient and independent-minded people. That trait is both our strength and weakness. The 19th and early 20th century U.S. labor movement—the social/economic phenomenon that defined us a nation—was largely led by European immigrants whose cultures embraced collectivism and proletarian rights. Those days are over. An every-man-for-himself philosophy now permeates the workplace.

6. Union leaders are lazy and unimaginative. Too many of these union honchos seem to care more about covering their butts and finishing out their careers than going head-to-head with management and reinvigorating the membership. Instead of the firebrands of old, they’ve become bureaucrats and glorified clerks.

7. People don’t want to be identified as “working class”. It’s hard to launch a political movement led by working people when there’s only a few self-avowed members of the working class willing to step up to the plate. Understandably, given what occurred in post-Reagan America, maintaining one’s pride as a working man or woman is difficult.

Instead, today’s working class Americans see themselves as budding entrepreneurs and future millionaires, temporarily forced to earn a living by other means. It’s just a matter of time before they hit it big. Not exactly the folks you’ll see marching in Labor Day solidarity parades.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor), was a former union rep. He can be reached at: dmacaray@earthlink.net. Read other articles by David.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Who Will Lead the U.S. Working Class?


Who Will Lead the U.S. Working Class?


Michael D. Yates(mikedjyates [at] msn.com) is associate editor of Monthly Review and editorial director of Monthly Review Press. He is the author of Why Unions Matter and Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate, and the editor of Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back, all published by Monthly Review Press.

This article is based upon an interrogation of two books: Gregg Shotwell, Autoworkers Under the Gun: A Shop-Floor View of the End of the American Dream (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012), 200 pages, $17.00, paperback; and Jane McAlevey with Bob Ostertag, Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting For the Labor Movement (New York: Verso Books, 2012), 318 pages, $25.95, hardcover. Each book is about an iconic union. Gregg Shotwell writes about the United Auto Workers (UAW), and Jane McAlevey the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). What they report gives us reason for both deep concern and hope concerning the future of organized labor.
The U.S. labor movement is in disarray, with declining union density and fewer members each year. There have been positive signs of movement revival, such as the revolt of public sector workers in Wisconsin in 2011 and the Chicago school teachers’ strike in 2012. But overall, the future of the labor movement does not appear very bright. In what follows, we examine the state of organized labor through the lens of the recent history of two unions, as seen by a rank-and-file worker and an itinerant union organizer. We ask what kind of people might lead the U.S. working class.

The U.S. labor movement is in disarray, with declining union density and fewer members each year. There have been positive signs of movement revival, such as the revolt of public sector workers in Wisconsin in 2011 and the Chicago school teachers’ strike in 2012. But overall, the future of the labor movement does not appear very bright. In what follows, we examine the state of organized labor through the lens of the recent history of two unions, as seen by a rank-and-file worker and an itinerant union organizer. We ask what kind of people might lead the U.S. working class.

The United Auto Workers

Gregg Shotwell, now retired, was for more than thirty years a rank-and-file machine operator for General Motors and Delphi, one of the world’s largest auto parts manufacturers. Angry with the UAW’s increasingly cozy relationship with the companies, he started an in-plant broadside, Live Bait &Ammo, which he hoped would be bait for the bosses and ammo for the workers. His provocative and lively prose, combined with good fact-based analysis, struck a chord with his fellow unionists, and the newsletter gained a wide circulation in union auto plants. His book is an organized collection of Live Bait & Ammo essays, covering developments in the UAW and the automobile industry from the late 1990s until the Federal government’s bailout of General Motors and Chrysler in 2009. The wonderfully rendered essays are cries from the heart of workers degraded daily by their employers and betrayed by their union.
Some background on the UAW will put Shotwell’s dissidence in historical perspective. The UAW was forged in the courageously fought and radically led sit-down strikes of the Great Depression. Its members, their families, and their communities built upon these bitter struggles to make the UAW a militant industrial union. Not only did those who labored on the assembly lines and in the shops transform themselves from factory serfs to class-conscious workers, but they also took control of the shop floor from a management notorious for oppressive treatment of its “hands.”

Shotwell tells a story on the first page of his book that illustrates the power of the union:

I hired into GM and joined the UAW in 1979. I didn’t know much about how unions worked. I soon learned. At six thirty one morning, we were sitting around sipping coffee and trying to wake up to a new day of the same old shit. A foreman who was new to the area told us to get up and get to work. “Right now,” he said. “I’m the boss.” We said, “Yes sir, boss.” We went right to work. Thirty minutes later, every machine in the department was down. The skilled trades came out, tore the machines apart, and went off to look for the missing parts. They didn’t come back. There was no production that day. Every department behind us went down like a domino.

The next morning, the same foreman said, “Good morning, gentlemen.” Then he left us alone to do our jobs.

The shop floor was our turf. We controlled the means of production because we were the masters of the means. We didn’t plan this direct action. It was automatic. It was natural. We called it “showing the boss who’s boss.” That’s what old timers taught me about unionism.1

As his book makes clear, this does not happen today. The UAW has hit hard times. Membership has plummeted from a peak of 1.53 million in 1979 to 380,719 in 2011. Most commentators point to the decline of domestic manufacturing in the United States and the corresponding increase in the foreign operations of U.S. car companies, along with a ruthless anti-union strategy begun by employers when profit margins fell sharply in the mid–1970s, as the reasons for this. However, Shotwell provides many examples of how the failure of the UAW to organize the foreign “transplant” automobile manufacturers in the United States and the auto parts segment of the industry has also played a major role.

Much of Shotwell’s book shows why the UAW has not organized the nonunion sections of the industry, and worse, how it has become complicit with capital in making certain that these will not be organized. The union has, in effect, become the junior partner of the companies. As he says about former UAW president Ron Gettelfinger:

Gettelfinger is a corporatist: that is, he believes our fortunes as union members are tied to the company’s apron strings. At the Ford sub-council, where union members convened to devise a bargaining strategy, he invited Lord Ford and his stooges to explain how sacrifices would be necessary. Ford’s problems are not the fault of union members or union wages. Does Ford invite UAW members to Board of Directors meetings to advise them how they should make sacrifices for the good of the community?

The beginning of the UAW’s demise can be found in the employer backlash against the radicalization of much of the labor movement during the Great Depression and the tremendous strike wave after the Second World War. The latter, along with the onset of the Cold War, provided good public relations cover for the corporate counteroffensive, as a war-weary public wanted to buy the commodities they were not able to purchase during the war (and still could not because of the strikes) and also began to succumb to relentless Cold War propaganda against the Communists. The first big postwar victory of capital was the Taft-Hartley legislation, which, among other things, compelled union officers to sign an oath stating that they were not Communists.

Most union officials signed the oaths, and many leaders used refusals to sign as an excuse to purge radicals from their ranks. The UAW was home to a large number of reds, and they were among the best, most class- conscious members and leaders. Unfortunately, Walter Reuther, one of the leaders of the agitations that helped form the union in the 1930s, used Taft-Hartley to red-bait his left-wing opponents and win power.

Reuther and his successors parlayed the postwar prosperity of the industry into pacesetting wages and benefits for autoworkers. At the same time, they built a UAW political machine, the Administrative Caucus—Shotwell refers to it as the “Rollover Caucus”—which has been called accurately a “one-party state.” They worked out an “accord” with employers: the union promised to let the bosses manage free from the threat of wildcat strikes and work slowdowns. In return, the corporations agreed to regular wage increases, cost-of-living adjustments, and generous health-care and pension benefits. UAW leaders used the power of incumbency to contain any challenges to their control of the organization.

As democracy in the UAW waned and members chafed at the union’s concession of workplace control to management, rank-and-file movements arose. The union suppressed these efforts, but it was impossible to eliminate dissent altogether. One of Gregg Shotwell’s UAW mentors, the late Jerry Tucker (who wrote the Foreword to the book), engineered several “work-to-rule” campaigns at UAW plants in the Midwest. Patient education convinced workers to slow down production by sticking strictly to the letter of their collective bargaining agreement and their supervisors’ instructions. Workers refused to show the initiative that makes every workplace run smoothly and efficiently. Inevitably, production fell dramatically. As Shotwell notes, each of these “in-plant” work stoppages succeeded; all concessions that management wanted were denied, workers won better contracts, and none lost their jobs.

Tucker became so popular that he was elected a Regional Director. But when he brought his rank-and-file empowerment strategy to the national union leadership, they mounted a vicious campaign to unseat him (union staffers were forced to give part of their salaries to his opponent’s campaign). He lost his directorship, but then helped form the New Directions movement to wrest control of the union from a leadership now far removed from the shop floor. These efforts failed, but the New Directions spirit lived on. Shotwell and other union dissidents began Soldiers of Solidarity, to return the UAW to its members. Work-to-rule, national strikes, solidarity, an end to concessions, and union transparency are the weapons Soldiers of Solidarity argues are needed if automobile workers, and by extension all laborers, are to reverse the downward spiral in which the working class finds itself.

There are startling revelations of UAW autocracy and disdain for the rank-and-file in Autoworkers Under the Gun, which the author describes in vivid language but can be simply summarized here:

Members cannot democratically influence what the union does. The union’s conventions are run dictatorially, and most of the delegates are appointed staff persons. The chair silences the microphone when dissidents make critical comments or ask embarrassing questions. “You’re done brother, shut off the mic,” UAW president Yokich said to Shotwell at a union convention when he had had enough of Shotwell’s trenchant analysis of the union’s self-imposed weakness.

Dissidents are spied upon, and the top officers routinely lie about what they have done in collective bargaining. Shotwell gives especially detailed examples for his employer, Delphi. Union leaders guaranteed Delphi workers that they would always have the same contract provisions as GM employees, that GM would still be the majority owner of Delphi after it was spun off by GM. Not only were Delphi workers soon earning a fraction of what those at GM earned, but they lost all their GM pension credits. Things only got worse when Delphi declared bankruptcy.

Autocracy in the UAW is so blatant that the Administrative Caucus voted to transfer tens of millions of dollars from the union’s seldom used strike fund to pay the salaries of the national staff. Interest on the strike fund is similarly diverted.

The UAW sells its locals short. It does not inform them about national negotiations; complex issues are presented to members at the last minute, with dire warnings that failure to agree will lead to disaster. The union settles national agreements before local agreements have been completed, leaving the locals with little leverage over their employer.

A particularly egregious example Shotwell gives of the union’s betrayal of its locals concerns Local 2036 in Henderson, Kentucky. The UAW sanctioned a strike against wheel supplier Accuride in 1998. When the workers rejected a company proposal but agreed to return to work, the corporation locked them out. A dance then began in which the union paid strike benefits, then stopped payments, threatened the local with trusteeship, and, in 2002, when at least 100 employees were still holding solid against Accuride, disavowed any interest in representing the workers. The disavowal letter was sent to the company but not to the long-suffering strikers. The union never organized solidarity actions by union members who were installing the scab wheels in Ford and GM assembly plants. The best it did was urge GM, Ford, and Chrysler to convince Accuride to settle. Shotwell contrasts the UAW’s (in)action with that of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), which seceded from the UAW in 1984: “When Navistar attempted to bust a Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) local, CAW president Buzz Hargrove said, ‘We are prepared to shut down all of our operations. We are not going to allow them to scab our plants and steal our members’ jobs.’ The CAW kept scabs out and won a fair contract.”

As capital’s anti-union campaign accelerated in the 1980s, the UAW rejected a militant counterattack, as New Directions was demanding. Instead, they embraced class collaboration—more benignly called partnership, or “jointness.” The union and the corporations would work together to ensure the profitability of their joint enterprise. If workers labored hard to make their plants more profitable, employers would share some of the money with them. The union agreed that foreign competition, mainly from Japanese manufacturers, was the source of industry distress. To beat the foreigners, UAW members would have to work harder, smarter, and in cooperation with their employers. The tacit deal was that if the workers did not go along with this, the union would discipline them itself.

To sweeten the pot, the corporations agreed to pay several cents per hour of employee labor into jointness funds, set up as independent corporate entities and administered by union and management. These funds, which soon contained millions of dollars, are not subject to the financial disclosure obligations that unions have under the Landrum-Griffin Act, and the UAW has refused to show the members how the funds’ monies are used. Shotwell tells us that they, in part, pay the salaries of hundreds of union staff persons who work in the plants as the union counterparts in labor-management teams that deal with all manner of workplace issues.

With jointness and the jointness funds, the UAW committed itself fully to a class-collaboration strategy. Corporations have as their aim the accumulation of capital, made possible by the exploitation of wage labor. The latter is realized by management’s attainment of as much control as possible over the labor process, that is, of how work is performed. Labor-management cooperation means that the union is an ally of its class enemy, committed to helping it achieve its goals.
The first targets of the union-employer partnership were Japanese automakers, who were accused of unfair competition. The degree to which the company-union partners vilified the Japanese can be seen in an early program paid for by the funds, a week-long educational, with mandatory attendance by every union member. I witnessed this firsthand when I taught economics in a one-day session in such a program to groups of Pittsburgh autoworkers; the session held just prior to mine was an eight-hour orgy of Japanese bashing, with the most blatant stereotyping of Japanese culture and behavior.

Once the competitive ethos began to be instilled in union members, the focus shifted from foreign competition to that between domestic automobile companies. Workers at GM were now in competition with those at Ford and Chrysler, even though they were in the same union. From there, it was a short step to pitting employees at one plant against those at another of the same company. So as the corporations began to close plants to remain competitive, workers were forced into a competitive mode, doing whatever they could to keep their particular plant open. Solidarity went out the window, replaced by a war of all against all.

Shotwell predicted what would happen:

Competition between workers will decimate, not solidify, our ranks. A Competitive Operating Agreement is a Trojan horse loaded with three lethal concessions:
  1. the expanded utilization of temps, which is in effect two-tier;
  2. the implementation of nonunion labor into the plants;
  3. the manipulation of union members as “team leaders” in supervisory roles.
He was right. The end result was a sequence of corporate demands and union concessions: lump-sum wage increases instead of percentage raises built into the base wage; two-tier wage agreements in which new hires earn much less than senior workers (now less than half as much); fewer benefits, with workers paying more and more for them; defined contribution pensions instead of defined benefit plans; pensioners sacrificed to ease the pension cost burdens of the businesses; and on and on, with no end in sight.

Union givebacks ultimately led to the decimation of the UAW during the Great Recession. GM and Chrysler declared bankruptcy, and the federal government demanded—and received—draconian concessions from the union in return for a bailout, in which the owners suffered nothing. And in a final blow to workers and the union, partnership and the resultant worker demoralization helped make possible the recent enactment of a right-to-work law in Michigan, the very cradle of industrial unionism.

Throughout all of this, the automobile manufacturers continued unilaterally to pursue their interests. While the union bashed the Japanese, the corporations partnered with Japanese companies. They took the profits they made from union concessions and invested them in foreign operations, which, the author informs readers, are now the major source of their profits, and where corporate assets are not subject to U.S. bankruptcy laws. They began to spin off their parts components, converting them into quasi-independent corporations that now supplied modular components to them (such as steering wheel assemblies and seats). These new entities either operated union-free or, with UAW cooperation, remained union but with much lower wages and benefits, and weaker work rules.

A union that collaborates with employers, must, by definition, be hostile to the rank and file. In any workplace, laborers face a relentless enemy. Management continually imposes new stresses on the workers, routinely violating the collective bargaining agreement. A cooperative union must then either negotiate ever-weaker contracts or ignore the grievances that workers file. As Shotwell documents in the latter case, when workers grieve they must confront the union-management teams in the plant, both parts paid for by the employer, who have a stake in shunting the grievance aside or settling it jointly in a corporation-friendly manner, regardless of the needs of the aggrieved employees. When this fails and grievances accumulate, the national union simply concedes them in the national bargaining. When workers protest, the one-party state votes them down.

What then should workers do? How do you wage a struggle against both your employer and your union? Shotwell is a proponent of “work to rule,” which he correctly sees as a potent form of sabotage that both pressures employers to settle disputes with workers and helps workers stop and reverse the erosion of their control over the labor process. But to put this into practice will require much patient organizing both inside and outside the workplace. It will be a difficult process, but really there is no other choice, except complete capitulation. As he poetically puts it:

Strike back.
Strike back because your brothers and sisters are laid off.
Strike back because you hate the bastards.
Strike back to redeem your dignity.
Strike back for full employment.
Strike back to abolish inequality.
Strike back because your job is a bore and your boss is an ass.
Strike back for freedom.
Strike back to restore the balance of power.
Strike back because you are human and care about life.
Strike back to break the corporate chokehold.
Strike back to get the leeches off our backs.
Strike back for more democracy.
Strike back because they never listen to you.
Strike back to control the means of production.
Strike back because Medicare doesn’t cover prescriptions for your mother.
Strike back because politicians retire in splendor.
Strike back because injunctions are only against unions and never against management.
Strike back because judges are the lackeys of industry.
Strike back because no one believes in the system.
Strike back to show we can strike back.
Strike back.

The Service Employees International Union

Unlike Shotwell, Jane McAlevey was never a rank-and-file worker. She was appointed to various union staff positions after working in a number of social-change organizations. Most of her book describes her tenure as executive director of a large local of public and private sector workers in Las Vegas. She tells readers that Raising Expectations is about organizing; it is, but it is also a memoir centering on herself and her wars with the SEIU’s top leadership. Nonetheless, she has much of interest to say about both how successfully to help workers organize unions and negotiate good collective bargaining agreements and why most unions do neither.

Just as with Shotwell’s book, McAlevey’s account of her time with SEIU should be put into historical perspective. Founded in 1921, the Building Service Employees International Union (BSEIU) initially organized janitors, elevator operators, window washers, and doormen. It eventually began to organize other types of workers and to merge with other unions. In 1968, it became the SEIU, and since then it has continued to grow and to merge, most notably with a majority of the locals of the left-led hospital workers’ union, 1199. Today the SEIU is one of the largest labor organizations in the country, with about 1.8 million members. It is a major union in health care—where McAlevey did most of her SEIU work—with nurses, hospital staff persons, nursing home employees, and home health-care workers among its members.

The two persons most associated with SEIU’s rapid growth are John Sweeney and Andrew Stern. Sweeney led the large New York City local of SEIU, the often-corrupt Local 32BJ, and moved from there to the presidency of the national union, where he helped engineer the famous Justice for Janitors organizing drives. Not long after Sweeney became president of the AFL-CIO in 1995, Stern was elected SEIU’s president.

Stern believed that only by raising union density, through organizing in a particular market, could a union gain enough power to improve the lives of its members and achieve enough political leverage to gain further improvements, for its members and the entire working class. However, Stern’s other ideas undermined this model’s logic. Like most top union leaders, he was a proponent of labor-management partnership and an enemy of the strike. He said that strikes and class struggle were remnants of a bygone era; the modern union had to offer employers “added value,” that is, a bigger bottom line. As we saw with the UAW, such a philosophy ultimately weakens the union and stifles democracy.
As in the UAW, the SEIU’s partnership strategy faced internal resistance. And like the UAW, the SEIU is a one-party state, intolerant of internal rebellion. Stern demoted or fired those who opposed him and trusteed (took over) dissident locals. When one of the largest, most militant, and successful locals, California’s United Healthcare Workers (UHW), led by Sal Rosselli, was trusteed in January 2009, SEIU’s UAW-like class-collaboration trajectory reached its logical conclusion. Rosselli was an Executive Board member; a great organizer; had work experience as a SEIU member; had helped workers win pacesetting wages, benefits, and working conditions; and was a strong advocate for patients in the hospitals his local had organized. However, in 2007–2008, he began to question SEIU’s partnership approach and to argue in favor of greater membership control over the national union through direct rank-and-file election of its top officers and board members, rather than the convention selection method used by SEIU that was more easily controlled by Stern. This won him Stern’s enmity. Rosselli then defied Stern further by bringing a platform of reforms and constitutional changes to the union’s convention in Puerto Rico in 2008. He ran as an independent for election to the Executive Board, but was defeated by the Stern slate. A few months later, Stern trusteed his local. Rosselli and his allies left the SEIU and formed a rival health-care workers’ union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). This organization has achieved considerable success, but it has faced unrelenting hostility from SEIU, which has spent millions of dollars filing lawsuits against NUHW and individual members of it, and has actively colluded with employers to defeat NUHW in certification elections.

Jane McAlevey’s account of her labor union work begins during the exciting early days of John Sweeney’s New Voice team, which took charge of the AFL-CIO in 1995. The new officers were committed to organizing, and the author tells us that she was tapped to help lead an innovative project in Stamford, Connecticut, one that would build union power by concentrating on what she calls in her book, “whole worker organizing.” Unions would aim to organize the “whole worker,” that is, not just in the workplace but in all of the institutions and structures that constitute working-class life.

The major tool McAlevey used in Stamford, and in all of her organizing efforts, was Power Structure Analysis (PSA). She describes the PSA as follows: “You identify the real power players in a given community or area, determine what the basis of their power is, and find out who their natural allies and opponents are. Based on that knowledge, you formulate a plan for enhancing the power of your allies and neutralizing that of your opponents.”

The “quantitative phase” involved an “exhaustive study of demographics, voting trends, political donations and the like.” To this, she added “the qualitative phase,” an “equally exhausting pooling of the collective knowledge of our members.” The quantitative part of the PSA was conducted by professionals, hired by McAlevey, while the second was done by the members themselves.

Not only was the PSA important as a descriptive device, pinpointing who had power, but it also served as an educational tool. With it, McAlevey taught workers about power and showed them how to increase and use their own strength. In Stamford, the PSA-inspired mobilization of the members of the unions participating in the project succeeded in increasing union membership in the area, stopping the planned demolition of a large tract of public housing (where many union members lived), and winning millions of public dollars to improve that housing. And in nearly all of the places McAlevey worked in her ten years as an organizer, the PSA technique proved exceptionally useful: in identifying public housing as a key concern of workers in Stamford; in mobilizing support in Kansas City to stop the sale of a public hospital; in figuring out in several places which local politicians could be compelled to support her organizing efforts and which could be defeated in elections; and in how to pressure employers to meet bargaining demands.

Most of McAlevey’s organizing was done for the SEIU. She agreed to work for the SEIU because it had the money to make organizing possible, but she tells readers that the union was riven with “turf wars” waged by various powerful union chieftains, and that these hampered her efforts wherever she went.

McAlevey was an unusually talented organizer. So, even though she frequently ran afoul of union turf wars, she always managed to have powerful allies who sought out her skills. In 2004, she was appointed Executive Director of SEIU Local 1107 in Las Vegas. Her four years there were tumultuous. The local had 9,000 members—some were county public employees and others worked at private and public hospitals—but many of the workers under contract were not in the union. The local’s officers were not much concerned with organizing; finances were in disarray; contracts were expiring; some negotiations had stalled; prosperous private hospitals remained unorganized; and member morale was low.

McAlevey set about bringing 1107 to life and making it grow. She had considerable success. Her account of what she did, and why, makes for riveting reading and valuable “how to” lessons for organizers. It is what anthropologists call “thick description,” so detailed that the description itself becomes an analysis. How does an organizer identify the persons in each department of a workplace who are its natural leaders? How do you get them to lead the union, or in some cases, become union members? How do you meld the leaders into a coherent team? How do the leaders organize the workers? How do you prepare workers for inexorable employer antagonism? How do workers show the employer that they are not afraid? How does the union win allies politically and in the community who will help it defeat adversaries? How does an organizer negotiate the tensions that might exist between local and national union strategies? These and many other questions are effectively answered by the author as she tells readers what she and her allies did in “Sin City.” McAlevey’s ability to think and act creatively is graphically and humorously portrayed in her description of her first bargaining session with a large private hospital.
Breaking with typical bargaining protocol, which limits the union negotiating team to a few members, she had scores of nurses at the bargaining table, with individual nurses making the initial union proposal to the flabbergasted management team. Not only was the employer thrown off guard, but the workers felt a sense of empowerment that carried over to future sessions.
The Las Vegas chapters of the book are exceptional in terms of the nuts and bolts of organizing and bargaining. In them, she conveys a message of utmost importance to those who want to rebuild the labor movement. Workers can be organized. They are willing to join unions in large numbers, even when they face hostile labor laws, brutal employer opposition, and considerable personal risks.
McAlevey’s work in Las Vegas was short-circuited, according to her, by the endless turf wars in SEIU. She says,

I operated on the assumption that, if you just kept winning in a principled way, the work you were doing would create the conditions for its own continued existence. The people at the top might not like youbut if you consistently succeeded at the assignments they gave you, ultimately they would give you more assignments and the work would go forward. I was wrong. Past a certain point, winning actually becomes a liability, because the people at the top will feel threatened by the power you’re accumulating unless they can control it; they cannot imagine that your ambition would not be to use that power in the same way they use theirs. It took ten years of banging my head on a wall to finally knock that into it.

The militant local she had built was, in her view, just too much for Stern, who was more interested in partnering with the employers against whom McAlevey was waging war. The pretext for her departure took place in 2007 when she faced charges by members of her local of illegally interfering with elections to the local’s Executive Board. She writes that she was unaware that she had violated any laws. She says that she was so burned out from the constant turf wars and several years of nonstop work that she was simply “off her game” and caught off guard. To keep the peace, she agreed to resign her post in June 2008, as did the local’s president, who had been her long-time adversary.

While Raising Expectations contains much of interest, it contains critical flaws: problems that are reflective of what is wrong with organized labor in the United States, and are associated with the intra-union power struggles and top-down governance criticized by the author.

For example, the author has a limited sense of history, of the truth that we all build on the efforts of those who came before us. Nothing that McAlevey did was new, but she often writes as if it was. She makes it appear that she invented Power Structure Analysis, at least its adaptation to labor organizing, when in fact such techniques have often been used by labor unions. Jerry Tucker did a sophisticated PSA in his 1978 defeat of a right-to-work initiative in Missouri, and in many other campaigns. Similarly with “whole worker organizing,” she ignores a long history of union efforts to integrate workplace and community organizing. Packinghouse workers in the 1930s spread their organizing from the meatpacking plants into the workers’ communities, leading the drive for the racial integration of local businesses. Unions have built hospitals and housing for their members. The UAW strongholds in Michigan and Ohio created entire “union towns,” in which victories in the factories translated into the creation of local working-class democracies. This history escapes McAlevey, who gives the impression that every situation in which she finds herself is a tabula rasa, to be filled by her innovative strategy and tactics, always in the face of ignorant and recalcitrant labor leaders.

McAlevey also often fails to see that building a labor movement is a collective effort. She makes much of her isolation in the right-to-work state of Nevada. However, Las Vegas is not an isolated town in the nonunion South. It is home to a strong labor movement, with a vital and large union of culinary workers, and considerable political muscle. Furthermore, California, with strong unions facing the same employers she did, was just across the border. Private-sector hospitals in California had been organized, with workers winning superior wages, benefits, working conditions, and patient protections. She would not have been able to win good contracts with the private hospital corporations in Las Vegas without the prior success of her California counterparts. Yet, she gives them no credit and seems to go out of her way to say that they did not help her at all, which, I have learned since reading her book, is not true.

Finally, a reasonable reader might question the depth of her commitment to rank-and-file workers. She frequently denigrated the local’s officers, but instead of doing a PSA of the local to find out how they could be won over to her vision, she illegally tried to overthrow them. She argues that a modern union needs a paid professional staff, presumably comprised of people like her, recruited from outside of the local union. But it seems not to have occurred to her that the rank-and-file members could be trained to be professionals, to do anything she could do, and with the advantage of having performed the work of the members they represented.

I was surprised to find out, again after reading the book, that despite all of her sharp and accurate criticisms of Stern and the SEIU leadership, she agreed to serve on the national union’s Executive Board in 2007; in fact, she was appointed by Stern. Then in 2008, she ran (and won), on Stern’s team, in Executive Board elections, after the SEIU had long since gone down the path of UAW-like partnership. How is it possible that you can be a champion of member empowerment and serve on the very executive body of a union that opposes it?


The trajectories of the UAW and the SEIU tell us something profoundly depressing about organized labor in the United States. Despite their radically different histories and recent growth rates, both unions embraced labor-management partnership with gusto, with the attendant autocratic leadership, member disempowerment, and limited gains from collective bargaining. How can this be? Consider something I once wrote:

organizations workers form to combat their oppression will find it difficult to avoid being influenced by the hegemony capitalism seeks to impose over society. It has been the rule rather than the exception that labor unions become bureaucratic and conservative, even if they were radical in the beginning. The labor movement in the United States, for example, was an active participant in the anti-worker Cold War, purging and persecuting its left-led unions and radical union leaders. Unions in the rich capitalist countries have actively supported the imperialism of their nation’s businesses and governments. Unions around the world have been sexist, racist, and homophobic, dividing workers just as surely as have the employers they fight against.2

Capitalism brings forth behaviors and modes of thought in its own image and likeness. We are forced to act in certain ways if we want to survive and prosper. But these cannot liberate us; they only help to recreate an oppressive system. Unions might raise wages, improve working conditions, and force governments to enact worker-friendly laws. These are good things, but they do not challenge the rule of capital. And if unions come to mirror their class enemy, they would not even be able to achieve these victories. If the UAW and the SEIU hold themselves up to a mirror today, the faces they see will be those of GM and Health Corporation of America.

And still, capital’s power is never absolute, and this is what gives us hope. The brutality of its rule always calls forth rebellion. Shotwell and McAlevey show us two kinds of rebellion. Shotwell’s is rooted in the daily misery of his fellow workers. He expresses what they feel and helps make them conscious of the sources of their subjugation. His essays reflect their desire for escape from the bosses’ control and to use democratically what is rightfully theirs—the union they and their forebears sweated to create. When automobile laborers look at Shotwell, they see themselves. When they read his words, they feel what he expresses. He is an organic intellectual, risen up from the ranks to give voice to his class.

Shotwell grasps that it is only through the power workers have in their workplaces that they can challenge capital. Work-to-rule is his preferred method of class struggle, but he is not averse to anything that might defeat the employers. Upon the intelligence and efforts of the Shotwells of the world, and with their leadership, a working-class movement worthy of the name might yet be made, one that both the employers and their union junior partners will fear.
McAlevey’s rebellion, however, centers too much on herself. Her actions were not rooted in the daily work experiences of those she helped organize and whom she represented at the bargaining table. This was not just because she did not have such work experiences. She simply does not have a working-class consciousness, a sense of herself as an interchangeable part of a collectivity. Her sensibility is essentially bourgeois—individualistic and narcissistic. Collective give-and-take, much less self-criticism, are not in her vocabulary. When workers see her, they do not see themselves, just her. In the end, capital and the union chieftains are not afraid of such people.

While these two books chronicle the specific experiences of two people in two unions, they contain the seeds of several general lessons for building a labor movement. First, unions as presently constituted are hostile to the attainment of class power. They are often nearly as much the enemy of workers as are employers. Second, people from outside of the working class can ally themselves with workers, but they cannot comprise the bulk of its leadership. Such persons cannot understand what it means to be a worker, to feel the stress and alienation of the assembly line, the hospital ward, the office cubicle. Unless they at least spend time laboring in such places, they are bound to be separated from those they lead. Third, the most important thing experts can do is teach workers to become experts. Workers must lead themselves, and there is no reason why they cannot learn whatever is necessary for them to do so. Fourth, a labor movement has to concern itself with every aspect of working-class life: jobs, unemployment, community, politics, family, the environment. Fifth, while workers can be organized and unions can make their lives better, unless these efforts are part of an explicitly anti-capitalist project, victories will always be partial and temporary. Human liberation will never be at hand unless we strive for the abolition of the working class, for an end to wage labor, for a society in which the empowerment and improved circumstances of each is but a moment in the struggle for the collective betterment of all.


  1. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from the Shotwell or the McAlevy book.
  2. Michael D. Yates, “Removing the Veil,” from In and Out of the Working Class (Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2009).

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

When America Came 'This Close' to Establishing a 30-Hour Workweek


Saturday, April 6, 2013, marks the 80th anniversary of a long-forgotten event in American history that bears remembering, especially by progressives.

The April 15, 1933 issue of Newsweek, one of the first in the magazine’s history, contains a remarkable cover headline:  Bill cutting work week to 30 hours startles the nation. Indeed only nine days earlier, on April 6th, the Black-Connery Bill had passed in the United States Senate by a wide margin.  The bill fixed the official American work week at five days and 30 hours, with severe penalties for overtime work.

In his new book, Free Time, labor historian, Benjamin Hunnicutt of the University of Iowa, explains that the bill originally had broad support as a means of increasing employment during the recession and maintaining full employment in the future.  

“We stand unflinchingly for the six-hour day and the five-day week in industry,” thundered AFL president William Green to a labor meeting in San Francisco that spring.  Franklin Roosevelt and Labor Secretary Frances Perkins also initially endorsed the idea, but the president buckled under opposition from the National Association of Manufacturers and dropped his support for the bill, which was then defeated in the House of Representatives.  

In its place, Roosevelt advocated job-creating New Deal spending and a forty-hour workweek limit, passed into law on October 24, 1938, as part of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

But we came that close to an officialthirty-hour workweek in America.  Close, but no cigar…


Nonetheless, many American companies did go to a 30-hour workweek during the depression, most prominently, the Kellogg Cereal Company, which established five-day, six-hour, shifts in December, 1930.  Kellogg’s and the workers split the pay loss resulting from the cut in hours; Kellogg’s initially paid his workers for seven hours a day, but upped that to the amount they had previously received for eight-hours work two years later, when he saw that hourly productivity had soared.  

In his earlier books, Work Without End and Kellogg’s Six-Hour Day, Hunnicutt reports that the measure added 400 new jobs to Kellogg’s Battle Creek, Michigan, work force, while improving family and community life dramatically.  After World War II, Kellogg’s began abandoning the six-hour shifts in favor of eight hours, largely because increasing benefit packages made it cheaper to hire few workers and keep them on the job longer.  But the end of the six-hour shifts didn’t come until 1985, when the last six-hour workers were told that if they didn’t accept the longer work days, Kellogg’s would leave Battle Creek.

The six-hours workers were angry but there was little they could do to prevent the change.  They held a “funeral,” complete with a mock coffin, for the six-hour day at Stan’s Place, a local Battle Creek pub, and Ina Sides, an African-American woman who had worked most of her life at the plant, wrote a eulogy:

Farewell, good friend, oh six hours!

Tis sad, but true,

Now you’re gone and we’re all so blue!

Get out your vitamins, give the doctor a call,

Cause old eight hours has got us all.

In 1992, I traveled with Hunnicutt to interview former thirty-hour week workers in Battle Creek.  They spoke movingly of the free time they had when they worked shorter hours—“you weren’t all wore out when you got home,” one man told me.  One couple, Chuck and Joy Blanchard, who had both worked at the plant, claimed that the six-hour day made Chuck a “feminist” long before the women’s movement.  He and his wife shared the housework and he was a “room parent” at his children’s school.

The Blanchards spoke to us about how crime had gone up and volunteering down in Battle Creek after the six-hour day ended, as people had less time to look out for their neighborhoods.  The Blanchards said they had little materially, but their lives, blessed with abundant leisure, were happier than those of young families today, who seem to have so much more stuff, but never enough time.


If the idea that the thirty-hour work week almost became the law of the land EIGHTY years ago comes as a shock, consider a New York Times headline on July 31, 1910:


At a time when workers produced a tenth of what they do today, William Howard Taft, a conservative Republican, argued that all workers needed two or three months of holiday time each year to improve health, family connections and productivity.  Yet, more than a hundred years later, Americans average two weeks of paid vacation and a quarter of us get none at all.  

When the organization I represent, Take Back Your Time worked with Florida Congressman Alan Grayson to propose a very modest paid vacation law in 2009, we were practically accused of plotting the end of western civilization as we know it, and of “trying to turn our America into a 21st Century France,” as if we were going to force everyone to appreciate good food and wine.  All this, when the evidence shows that stress from overwork plays a role in five of the six leading causes of death in the US and that workers who don’t take vacations are twice as likely to have heart attacks as those who do.

How is it that the world’s richest country is one of only a handful (the other five are tiny and poor) of countries with no law requiring paid vacations (although residents of Puerto Rico are guaranteed 15 days off each year)?

How is it that we understood the need for shorter hours of work in 1910 and 1933 but have forgotten it today?


Progressives who want to end unemployment in a way that improves health and limits unsustainable economic growth should be advocating that America provide real vacation time and shorten working hours.  Although workers often say they’d prefer more money to more time, the evidence shows they appreciate the time off when they get it.  

A recent experiment with a compressed four-day workweek (albeit with ten hour days) was extremely popular in Utah.  

More importantly, in Amador County, California, workers voted 71 to 29 percent to retain a reduced work-week of four nine-hour days rather than return to a five-day, forty hour week with higher pay. See “Life Away From the Rat-Race: Why One Group of Workers Decided to Cut Their Own Hours and Pay” (AlterNet, July 2, 2012).

Undoubtedly, for poor workers, shortened hours would need to be combined with a higher living wage minimum, as they would otherwise take on extra jobs to make up for reductions in pay that usually accompany shorter work-time.  But in fact, there is no reason why a nation (the US) where the median worker has seen almost no pay increases since the 1970s despite a doubling of worker productivity, should not reduce working hours without a pay cut, at least for the middle-class and the poor.  

Eighty years ago, the American Federation of Labor and the United States Senate understood that the healthiest and most sustainable way to reduce unemployment was to sharply reduce working hours.  The anniversary of the Black-Connery’s bill passage in the Senate marks a time to pause and ask why progressives aren’t raising this issue again.
John de Graaf is a filmmaker and co-author of "Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic" and “What’s The Economy For Anyway?”