Saturday, September 29, 2007

More on UAW, GM, & Health Care...

Here is a really good article from journalist David Moberg about GM, the UAW, and the health care crisis in the United States. I think his comments on the VEBA, prove once again, that it is a big mistake. But of course the bigger mistake is that we still don't have a mass movement mobilized behind single payer national health care. It is the number one domestic issue in this election cycle, but all the "top tier" democratic candidates are offering mickey mouse proposals that seek to save the asses of the HMOs rather than establish real universal coverage, where the profit motive is removed. Even the labor movement is partly to blame for this, as over the years they have avioded supporting specific single payer legislation. That is changing. The NNOC (National Nurses Organizing Committee) has launched a serious campaign behind HR 676, the Conyers Bill, in conjunction with Michael Moore's film Sicko...

http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?article=the_labor_lessons_gm_never_learned

Thank you to Carlos at Chicago JWJ for calling my attention to this article!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

R.I.P. UAW…


OK, I realize those are harsh words, but I can’t help feeling real sadness today as I read reports of what the UAW agreed to in its settlement with GM. As I am sure you have all heard already, the strike was ended today (after just two days), with the announcement by Gettelfinger that a tentative agreement had been reached. The exact details of the agreement won’t be known till at least late this week, when the members vote to ratify (or not) the contract.

You can listen to audio of Gettelfinger’s announcement here…
http://www.uaw.org/

Now I am not saying we should relish the idea of a long strike. Strikes are always much harder on the individual worker than they are on their corporate bosses. No one wants a long drawn out strike that leads to workers losing their homes, pulling kids out of college, sinking deeper into debt, etc., etc., etc. Let me say right of the bat, even though I have been a labor activist for 15 years, I have never myself had to endure the pain of a strike. But I have seen what it can do to working families who are forced to endure them. And I have suffered through my own bouts of unemployment. I know what it is like to eat Ramen noodles for breakfast, lunch and dinner for days on end. I know what it is like to live with cold showers and cold food because the gas was cut off when I couldn’t pay the bill. I know what it is like to move out of an apartment and into small room in someone else’s home, because that is all I could afford. Hell, with my current meager income and mountain of debt, I am still only one or two paychecks away from disaster. I have no desire to see other workers in the same situation. But from what we know so far about the deal struck between the UAW leadership & GM, it seems hardly even worth the two days pay the members gave up.

Again, the full details of the agreement are yet to be revealed, but most reports are pretty consistent. The best article I have read so far, detailing the wins and losses for the UAW & GM can be found here…
http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=5503

Here is a summary of the situation…

Loses for the UAW & it’s Members:
1. Acceptance of an under funded VEBA (Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association) for retiree health care.

2. A two-tier wage structure where new workers receive lower wages.

3. Lower wages for "non-core" jobs.

4. No actually wage increases for current workers.

Gains for the UAW & it’s Members:
1. Some 6-7,000 temporary workers will be made permanent (but will fall into the lower wage, new worker category).

2. Lump sum payments equaling around $4-5,000 (or bribes as some have called them).

3. Vague promises of job security for the current workforce.

VEBA (Vandalizing Employee Benefits Again):
I confess. That line is stolen from the Soldiers of Solidarity (SOS) website. But I think it sums up the situation pretty well. Gettelfinger is upholding the VEBA agreement as a victory. Some analysts are arguing that some retiree health care funds under union control is better than no retiree health care funds if GM eventually goes bankrupt. But the truth of the matter is the UAW has accepted an under funded retiree health care package that will be a boon for GM and its investors, but might very well spell disaster for retirees in the future. GM has been let of the hook, and the union has taken on a tremendous burden. Increased co-pays and benefit reductions are a practical financial certainty. As Greg Shotwell of SOS points out, at least there are legal and contractual obligations with the retirees and GM under the current arrangement. It is a very dangerous gamble, with market forces, and talents and trustworthiness of UAW money managers playing a huge role in the success or failure of the plan. And if it fails, the workers will have the UAW to blame, and not GM. As former UAW executive board member Jerry Tucker suggested in his interview with Building Bridges in May, at least the UAW could have demanded that GM agree to use its political muscle and financial resources to push for universal health care legislation.

Two-Tier Wage Structure – Selling Out the Next Generation:
The death knell of worker solidarity, there is nothing worse than two tier wage structures. No union can accept such conditions and remain health. New workers will inevitable feel stabbed in the back. The inequality will be felt on the shop floor. And future retirees will have less credibility when they look to the future workforce to defend their pensions and benefits.

Of course, many will say GM’s workers can’t ask for more from a company with such a bleak financial outlook. They will argue that Gettelfinger and the UAW leadership have gotten the best deal they can without jeopardizing the future of the U.S. auto industry. But I’m sorry, that is really just a load of B.S.! The bastards running GM aren’t going to arrest the race the bottom because of the goodwill of the UAW bosses. To whatever extent they can, and at every opportunity, they will keep outsourcing jobs to labor markets where workers are as close to slavery as our diminished governmental institutions will allow. They will take this round of concessions the same way they have taken every other concessionary contract in the past – as a sign of the weakness of the U.S. labor movement.

This country is in such desperate need of a real working class victory. After decades of being beaten down by declining real wages and benefits cuts – longer work days and less control over conditions of work– de-industrialization and corporate globalization – the U.S. working class is demoralized, degraded and disempowered. We need a break, a turning point, a line in the sand. We need a battle of Gettysburg & Vicksburg, of Midway & Stalingrad, in the class war that we are so badly losing right now. We need the UAW of the 1930’s sit-down strikes which checked the power of capital for decades. Or at least the UAW of the 1960’s with it’s commitment to social movements and civil rights. Instead what we got is the UAW of the 80’s and the 90’s, and one more in a long line of concessionary contracts. One more nail in the coffin of the U.S. industrial working class.

OK, my hyperbole is exhausted. UAW rank & file, it is up to you now to turn defeat into victory - VOTE NO!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Support Striking UAW Members!!!


After years of concessions and job cuts, GM, despite it’s enormous profits (and don’t be fooled – they are enormous) still wants to extract more wealth from the sweat and tears of its workers. IT IS TIME TO SAY ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! No more concessions to multi-billon dollar multi-national corporations. Stop this race to the bottom. Defend the hard won gains of manufacturing workers in the United States and around the world. Its corporate mis-management that is the ultimate source of U.S. automakers woes, so why do the workers always pay the price, while the bosses are offered golden parachutes. Its time the bosses got a lead boot in the ass instead!

As a proud member myself of UAW Local 1980 – the National Writers Union, I call on all working people to aid and assist in whatever ways possible our brothers and sisters at GM.

Here is audio of UAW president Ron Gettelfinger, explaining the reasons for the strike at a Press conference on Monday (the original audio and a transcript can be found on the UAW website - http://www.uaw.org/…
http://www.archive.org/details/RonGettelfingerUAWStrikePressConference

For More info check out the UAW website…
http://www.uaw.org/

I interviewed Gregg Shotwell of Soldiers of Solidarity (SOS) earlier today, to get his take on the strike. Gregg is an auto worker, a member of UAW Local 1753, and one of the founders of Soldiers of Solidarity, an activist group in the UAW which opposes the union leaderships lack of militancy and concessionary bargaining. The interview started with Gregg providing a little background on SOS (this was a phone interview - please excuse the poor quality audio)…
http://www.archive.org/details/GreggShotwellUAWStrike

You can read more about Shotwell’s critique of the UAW leadership at…
http://www.soldiersofsolidarity.com/

Another great website by a UAW activist…
http://futureoftheunion.com/

Friday, September 21, 2007

Domestic Worker Organizing



The following is an article I wrote on domestic worker organizing for Labor Notes, based on my interviews over the Summer with organizers in this emerging social movement. An edited version of this piece will appear in next months Labor Notes...

http://labornotes.org/magazine


Domestic Worker Organizing: New Front in the emerging “Non-Traditional” Labor Movement by Jerry Mead-Lucero


For over two years, Marian, a Colombian immigrant and a housekeeper in Roslyn, New York, worked 18 hours a day, six days a week for about two dollars an hour. The family that employed her fired her without notice, kicking her out of the home and leaving her with nowhere to turn for support. After enduring months of verbal and physical abuse by her employer, “Vivian”, an Indian immigrant and nanny in Manhattan, refused the orders of her boss. Her boss’s response was to strike her with a sandal and kick her out the house without her pay or her passport. “Judy” a Malaysian immigrant and housekeeper on one occasion found herself locked in the basement of the home where she worked, by the son of her employer. In desperation to escape from her confinement she injured herself, and had to be taken to the hospital with the assistance of the household’s nanny. When Judy’s frustrated employer came to the hospital to retrieve her housekeeper, she stated…”I should have left you for dead, no one knows you are here anyway.” Judy realized at that moment that her employer was right…”If something more terrible happened to me, who would know? Who would help?”

These stories of exploitation and abuse may sound extreme, but according to research conducted by Domestic Workers United (DWU) in New York, and similar organizations around the country, these experiences are all to common among the hundreds of thousands of domestic workers in the United States who live and work largely in the shadows, far from the public eye. A study conducted by DWU entitled “Home is Where the Work Is” found that 41% of domestics in New York earn low wages, with a quarter of them earning below the minimum wage. Another study found that 79% of Latina domestic workers in Los Angeles earn below minimum wage. Two-thirds of these workers are not paid overtime and the vast majority have no health benefits. Worst of all, 33% of all domestics and 48% of live-ins report experiencing some form of verbal, physical or sexual abuse in their workplace. Perhaps no other workforce is more isolated and hidden than domestics, whose workplaces are for many also their homes. This isolation is compounded by the fact that the vast majority of domestic workers are immigrants, either undocumented or residing in the U.S. via special domestic labor visas that make them especially vulnerable to exploitation by their employers. Much like agricultural labor, domestic work is closely tied to the legacy of slavery and a history of racial exclusion dating back to New Deal and the early days of American labor law. The result being that domestics have been denied the most basic legal protections, including the right to organize, the right to bargain collectively and the right to an 8 hour work day. Indeed, domestics continually struggle just to be recognized as employees, in a patriarchal culture in which women’s labor is de-valued and the employers argue, that their housekeepers, maids, nannies, and elder care givers are not workers, but are instead “members of the family.”

Despite such formidable obstacles, across the nation in the past decade, increasing numbers of domestic workers have begun to organize themselves and challenge their status as a hidden and easy to exploit workforce. Domestic worker organizations are an important emerging form of “non-traditional” labor organization, similar in many ways to other more high profile forms of creative, non-traditional organizing such as worker’s centers and regional or local worker’s associations like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Much like their day labor and agricultural labor counterparts, domestics, until recently, have been largely ignored by the mainstream labor movement. Such neglect is both a cause and the effect of domestic’s exclusion from all or part of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA). As a result, domestic worker organizing has arisen, not out of the union movement but from the efforts of community and immigrant rights group, and has developed unique methods and approaches to labor organizing.

CASA de Maryland offers a prime example of domestic worker organizing emerging from within the immigrant rights community. CASA formed in the 1980’s to defend the rights of the growing number or Central American migrants in the D.C. area who were forced by war and political persecution to flee their countries of origin. According to CASA staff member Alexis de Simone, about 6 years ago, in an effort to build a women’s empowerment program within CASA, members -- a large number of whom are domestic workers -- began to share with one another their experiences of exploitation in their workplaces. “Among themselves when they would come to sign-up for employment, or sign up for classes, they would start talking, and they’d see that they had a lot of the same problems. A lot of the people were denied wages, were denied overtime, almost nobody had health insurance, and a lot of the women who were live-ins, or used to work as live-ins, reported cases of employers stealing their passports, not being allowed to leave…From realizing they had so many common problems it seemed to make sense that we form a women’s committee around domestic work.” In a similar fashion, organizations like Mujeres Unidas Y Activas in San Francisco, Pilipino Workers Center in Los Angeles, and DWU in New York, have arisen from within community organizations and immigrant advocacy groups and have only very recently come to the attention of the traditional labor movement.

Denied collective bargaining rights by law, domestic workers have been forced to pursue creative strategies to win concessions from their employers and changes in their working conditions; much like their counter-parts in the CIW, who have utilized their status as a workers association or community organization to pursue campaigns against Taco Bell and McDonald’s that would have been declared illegal secondary boycotts under the Taft-Hartely Act if the CIW was legally recognized as a labor union. In the case of domestic workers, the most often employed tactics have been direct actions of domestics and their community allies such as rallies outside the homes and workplaces of employers, and legislative strategies such as the Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights, which is working its way through the New York state legislature. This proposed legislation would dramatically alter the status of Domestic Workers at the state level, including such improvements as a the right to a living wage, the right to overtime pay, family and medical leave provisions, paid vacations, health care coverage, termination notice and mandated severance pay. Perhaps most importantly, the bill would alter language in current state law that legally excludes domestics from being defined as employees, opening up access for domestics to a whole range of labor protections already afforded other working people. Founded in 2000, DWU has already succeeded in establishing New York City Local Law 33, which requires employment agencies to obtain signed codes of conduct from prospective employers and the organization claims to have won over $300,000 in back wages for domestics in New York. Ai-Jen Poo of DWU feels confident that the Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights will be passed by the state legislature soon. A year ago it was approved by the New York State Assembly’s Labor Committee and just this past June it was passed on for a vote of the full state Senate by the Senate’s Labor Committee. Poo attributes the bill’s success so far to the strong support of persons of color caucuses in both levels of the state legislature, even in the republican dominated senate. Similar bill of rights type legislation is being pursued by CASA de Maryland at the county level.

The first United States Social Forum (USSF) held in Atlanta in late June, provided the space for domestic worker organizations from around the country to meet for the first time. As if to highlight their efforts to break the silence that surrounds domestic labor, perhaps no other group of workers at the USSF was more visible and vocal. Whether it be through frequent renditions of the Domestic Worker’s Calypso (a song written by a number of New York domestics which seemed to become an anthem of sorts for domestics at the USSF) or their boisterous and enthusiastic participation in sessions at the Forum, domestic workers were proud to make their presence known. As de Simone from CASA puts it…”I think a lot of these women are tired of having been shut up for so long, of always hearing well you’re just a domestic worker…you need to be quiet…this is my house, please do as I tell you, and so this is their chance to take charge…the chance to give visibility…because it is such invisible work…Its work that a lot of people never even recognize as work, so to say were here, were workers and we are demanding the same rights that everyone else has.” Through a series of both public and private workshops, plenary sessions and meetings at the USSF, domestics from the east coast, west coast and even a few places in between, compared notes and discussed common challenges. The result was the announcement at the Worker’s Rights Plenary on the last evening of the USSF, of the formation of a national alliance of domestic worker groups. The use of the space created by the forum, by domestics and farm worker groups to develop and advance national organizing strategies was one of the more promising successes to come out of the USSF. According to Ai-Jen Poo, the new national organization of domestics remains in its formative stages at this point. She expects more details on organization and strategy to be released around labor day weekend. However, one clear outcome of the discussions has been a national effort of domestic worker groups to support the efforts of DWU to win passage of the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in New York. In an interview I conducted with her at the USSF, de Simone stated that CASA is also interested in pursuing some sort of national retirement program for domestics.

Despite such success and excitement in the domestic worker community, organizers are very aware of the substantial obstacles that stand in the way of efforts to organize domestics; the isolation of workers from one another and their lack of geographic centrality being the most obvious. Organizations like DWU seek out domestics in such places as city parks, mass transit stations, and outside the private schools attended by children of the households in which domestic workers labor. As Poo explained to me in a recent phone interview, the challenge of organizing is compounded by the commitment of DWU to utilize a member driven rather than staff driven organizing model in which domestics themselves are responsible for most of the outreach efforts. This can be quite difficult for women who frequently work much longer than the typical 40 hour work week. My experience in meeting with domestics at the USSF has lead me to conclude that one area in which domestics need little improvement is in their level of consciousness about their place within the wider world of labor and global economics. As Joycelyn Campbell, a nanny, an immigrant from Barbados, and a member of DWU put it in at one of the public workshops at the USSF…“Our workplace conditions are tied both to the nation’s history of slavery and our nation’s current role in the global economy. Pushing people to migrate away from their home countries and pulling people into service work here. Neo-liberal globalization has put into place policies that are destroying peoples livelihoods in their home countries and pushing people to migrate to places like New York…As New York continues to develop as a global capital, it must also lead the way in innovative protection and rights for those who work and enable that development.” Perhaps the most powerful words uttered by a member of the labor movement at the USSF came from Ai-Jen Poo at the Worker’s Rights Plenary when she argued…”We hope to build our labor movement, to a place where, when we call for a strike as domestic workers it will be for domestic workers rights and for global justice, legalization for undocumented workers, and an end to the war in Iraq. Or maybe, maybe it will be a strike of all informal sector workers or better yet a strike of all workers, union and non-union, the entire working-class.” It is this energy, inclusiveness and forward thinking that is typical of most non-traditional organizing. Driven by changes in the global economy that have lead to an increase in the number of low wage workers taking jobs in sectors of the economy historically ignored by most unions, these new forms of labor organization are breathing much needed new life into what has been a largely moribund labor movement in the United States while also challenging traditional organized labor to return to its own roots as a social movement.

The Domestic Workers United study, “Home is Where the Work Is”, can be found on their website…
http://www.domesticworkersunited.org/

Sunday, September 9, 2007

MIRA! and the Struggles of Guest Workers in Pascagoula, MS.

















One of my first stops on my Summer travels in the South was Pascagoula MS., were I meet with members of MIRA! (The Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance). MIRA! Organizer Socorro Leos was kind enough to spend a day talking with me about the struggles of workers in Pascagoula, post-Hurricane Katrina. Socorro is herself an immigrant worker who was displaced by the storm and has been struggling with city officials to allow her to continue to live in this bustling industrial city. Pascagoula was the site of a major successful strike by members of IBEW at the Northrop Grumman Shipyards this past Spring. But the port city has also become famous for producing some of the most egregious cases of the exploitation of guest workers (H2B program workers) in recent years. The numbers of guest workers in the shipyards and docks of the Gulf Coast has dramatically increased post-Katrina, and so has the level of disregard for these worker's basic human rights. A recent attempt by Indian guest workers at Signal international, a subcontractor of Northrop Grumman, to protest their retched living conditions resulted in the attempted firing and forced deportation of a number of these workers and the attempted suicide of one of the fired workers. These workers had basically been tricked by recruiters with promises that they would be placed in high skilled, high paying jobs, and have the opportunity to become permanent residents in the U.S. Instead they received wages below industry standards and were forced to level in metal sheds, packed in like sardines – as many as 20 to a room the size of a small trailer. They were allowed only limited access to the world outside company grounds and were detained by armed guards of the company when they complained about their living conditions. Luckily, through the efforts of MIRA! and other organizations, these workers were allowed to leave Signal, without facing deportation.

Above you can see the small windowless metal boxes, "tool sheds" as Socorro calls them, that guest workers at Signal International are forced to live. You can also see a photo of Socorro and one of the injured guest workers who is currently fighting for compensation for his workplace injury. His case is procedding very slowly as the company refuses to take any responsibilty.

In this following audio, you will here Socorro describe to me her own struggles to survive in Pascagoula, as well as the struggles faced by H2B workers, as she drives me around town to see the various facilities at which these workers work and live. You will also hear in the background the steady sound of falling rain on Socorro's car window and the distant sound of Mexican music emanating from her car stereo…

Monday, September 3, 2007

Katrina survivor and Common Ground Collective activist Albert Bass











During my recent travels in the South to meet with workers and gather their stories for broadcast on Labor Express Radio, I returned once again to New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward - the historic black working class neighborhood that bore the brunt of the flood waters following the levee breach durng the Huricane Katrina disaster. Members of the Lower 9th are now fighting for the neighborhoods survival in face of efforts to snatch up the land by developers. There I meet Katrina survivor, long time Lower 9th resident, and Common Ground Collective activist Albert Bass. In this interview, he talks about living through the levee breach and the ongoing struggle for a right of return for Lower 9th Ward residents...

The IWW Organizes Warehouse Workers in NYC


The IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), is viewed by many as a relic of organized labor’s past. A heroic attempt by militant trade unionists in the early part of the 20th century to build radically inclusive industrial unions – a shining moment in the history of the U.S. labor movement – that long ago was eclipsed by other organizations of labor. The truth is that the IWW is a living breathing organization that is currently involved in some of the most exciting worker organizing going on anywhere. Their efforts in the last two years to organize immigrant Latino & Asian warehouse workers in New York City is a case in point. It was the worker’s themselves who began to organize two years ago and sought ought the IWW’s help. Since that time, IWW organizers and members have been tireless in their efforts to win these workers millions of dollars in unpaid wages, improved wages and working conditions, and a shop floor organization that can further challenge the boss.

In this interview conducted for Labor Express Radio, IWW organizers Alex van Schaick & Daniel Gross discuss the IWW’s efforts to organize these warehouse workers…