LONG ARM OF THE WAL

Apparently, Wal-Mart has discontinued its policy of aggressively pursuing prosecution of those who steal even the cheapest of goods from the store. Now, you have to steal things worth at least $25 before the long arm of the Wal sets about trying to shut you down for good the way they would, say, a unionized store.

Some of Wal-Mart’s critics are pointing to this new leniency on Wal-Mart’s part – a policy which matches what most of the industry was doing anyway – as another example of what’s wrong with the store. Seems to me there’s a better example of what’s wrong with Wal-Mart: the fact that until a few months ago, it was aggressively pursuing the prosecution of people who shoplifted socks.

The old policy, as the article notes, put a disproprotionate and needless strain on government resources, just as Wal-Mart’s refusal to adequately ensure its workers does – even as Wal-Mart provides critical support to the conservative project of drowning government in a bathtub.

It evinced the same punitive callousness that Wal-Mart’s comfort with locking its employees inside the building does.

And the company’s comparatively vigilant defense of its property against shoplifting customers still contrasts tellingly with its lesser attempts to protect its customers against violent crime.

So it’s good news, if only marginally so, to see Wal-Mart tempering its response to one-time offenders who try to abscond illegally with candy bars. Bad news is, that just leaves that much more energy to rain down illegal punishments on workers trying to exercise their legal rights. That union-busting is a high-stakes crime, and one who costs – not just to Wal-Mart workers, but to all of us living under a Wal-Mart economy – make stealing a pair of socks seem trivial.

Not that that’s hard to do.

STANDING UP FOR LUX ET VERITAS

The good folks at Yale Alumni for Social Justice have kindly posted a paper I wrote sophomore year about the organizing campaign through Yale clerical workers won union representation twenty years ago and the strike which achieved their first first contract. It explores how they won and what implications it has for some of the prevalent theories about gender and union organizing. If you’re interested, check it out, and if you’ve written an article or paper about social justice struggles at Yale, send it to them.

“Restoring the American Dream: Building a 21st Century Labor Movement that Can Win,” the platform released by UNITE HERE, SEIU, the Laborers, and the Teamsters on Monday, is on-line here. Its Agenda for Worker Strength has five points, the first of which, “Uniting Workers for Economic Strength,” articulates the structural proposals which have been at the center of the controversy over the future of the AFL-CIO. It calls for the federation to:

Use incentives to focus unions on uniting workers in core industries.More of the national labor movement’s resources must be directly devoted to the task of bringing millions of new workers into the labor movement. The AFL-CIO budget must be used to create incentives for unions to increase their organizing and focus on uniting workers in their core industries in order to maintain and build bargaining power. We believe that half of what unions now pay to the AFL-CIO should be rebated to unions that have a strategic plan and commitment to organizing in their core industries based on the formula outlined in the Teamster proposal.

Actively support mergers that unite workers by industry. Many AFL-CIO affiliates do not have the resources or strength or effectively take on large employers that are driving standards in their industries or to help workers organize on a large enough scale in their industries…The AFL-CIO should play an active and direct role in working with affiliated unions to facilitate mergers – subject to approval by the affected members – that lead to increased power for workers in the same or complimentary industries…

As this platform recognizes, the responsibility of a single national labor federation, if we are to have one in this country, is to grow the labor movement by protecting the right to organize and providing resources and facilitating coordination for organizing. In an era of declining union density and increasing corporate consolidation, coordination within industries is crucial to turning the tide, and mergers – when they are strategically savvy and democratically supported – are a powerful tool for building power and solidarity. And most of all, as John Sweeney himself has repeated over the past decade, the straits in which working Americans find themselves today make it imperative to organize or die. The unions bringing forward this proposal are right to recognize that spurring organizing requires more than rhetorical leadership from the AFL-CIO. The reason they represent a significant fraction of the membership of the federation is that they have prioritized an aggressive organizing program over the past decade, and in so doing have realized the right to collective bargaining for millions out of the more than half of American workers who say in polls that they want union representation at a time when only one in twelve in the private sector has it. Because union membership is a source of greater strength when greater numbers of workers are in unions, it is not only justifiable but crucial for a federation funded and supported by fifty-some internationals to use its resources to push each of those unions to grow. Remitting a portion of those dues to those unions committed to spending money to directly grow the density of the movement is directly in the service of the broader movement. If the AFL-CIO is kept from aggressively push greater organizing and coordinated action, it risks being reduced over time to little more than an occasional media and turnout apparatus of decreasing usefulness. The document continues:

Strategically leverage labor’s existing bases of industry strength…It means identifying lead and dominant unions by sector, industry, employer, market, and where appropriate, craft, along with the responsibilities that go with it. It means that industry or area bargaining standards need to be made central to the inter-union dispute process and central to labor’s efforts to focus resources…rules must be updated and revised to reflect the pressing need for organized labor to deter the “race to the bottom” caused by employers seeking to use one affiliate as a means of protection from another, and to encourage unions to devote precious resources to building power in core industries and coordinate bargaining. Where multiple unions have members in the same industry, industry in a market, or employer, the AFL-CIO will facilitate coordinated bargaining. Affiliates undercutting standards should suffer penalties.

I’m not sure yet what to make of the assignment of dominant unions in each sector, but the need for clear and unyielding standards in bargaining is inarguable. As long as weaker unions cut deals with employers to keep out stronger unions, the labor movement is shooting itself in the back and it is those workers who most need effective representation who suffer. Critics of the New Unity Partnership are right to remind us that the absolute right of a worker to join a union of her choosing is not to be compromised. No one wants to see workers shoehorned into pre-selected unions based on negotiations in which they have no part. But the fundamental economic freedom of union representation is not served when weak unions take on the role of the company unions of the pre-Wagner era and push out internationals which threaten an employer because they have the power to win real gains. The only way I can see to empower workers to organize and to win is through the formation and standards and the facilitation of negotiation, and the reformers are right to identify a role for the AFL-CIO, as a voluntary union federation, to play here in maximizing the effectiveness of its member unions in growing and serving the ranks of its member workers. Too often, this issue is discussed as a matter of big unions versus small unions. But the assumptions that small unions are always more democratic and that that big unions are always more effective are both misguided, and neither is borne out by history. Much more salient is the division between those unions which prioritize organizing and industrial democracy and those which do not. Somewhat less controversial is the next proposal:

Make the AFL-CIO the strategic center for a permanent campaign to take on powerful anti-worker employers and help workers unite their strength in new growth sectors.…Well-funded, movement-wide campaigns are required to make low-road employer respect their workers’ freedom to form unions…We support the creation of a dedicated fund of $25 million out of the current AFL-CIO to finance large, multi-union movement-wide campaigns directed at reversing the Wal-Marting of our jobs and out communities by large low-road employers.

Fortunately, after years of unsuccessful and largely unnoticed and uninspiring organizing attempts by the UFCW at Wal-Mart, there’s a growing awareness that the viral expansion of Wal-Mart and its noxious business model will mean diminishing returns for the entire movement until we take it on head-on, and that organizing Wal-Mart represents a momentous challenge which cannot be overcome by a single union alone. As John Wilhelm wrote to John Sweeney last year, however the November election went there would have been no greater priority for the American labor movement in its wake than winning a robust right to organize for millions of Wal-Mart workers. As we saw in the supermarket strikes in LA, as long as Wal-Mart pushes forward a race to the bottom at an unprecedented rate, all working people lose. And it will take the commitment of the whole federation to reverse that trend.

Make growth and worker power our political focus…To empower workers politically we must have a growth agenda to build larger, stronger and more effective workplace organizations. Increased political spending without a program for growth will not lead to either increased power for workers in the workplace or in politics…Our program must be workplace-centered, worker-oriented, and independent of any party or candidate. Our purpose is to be the voice of workers in the political process, not the voice of politicians or parties to the workers…The AFL-CIO’s political program at the local, state, and national levels should have as its highest priority encouraging public officials to actively support workers who are trying to form unions, as well as to support the maintenance and growth of union jobs…those politicians of either party who support the union-busting agenda of the Right to Work Committee, the Associated Builders and Contractors, or any other similar organization should face rebuke from all unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO regardless of their stand on other issues. The AFL-CIO needs to develop a strategic growth and political plan focused on critical swing states that will make the difference in changing the direction of our nation, and to which state and local bodies and affiliates are held accountable…an increase in union density in the State of Ohio, for example, from 16% to 26% would have put John Kerry in the White House.

This document is absolutely right to recognize the failures of the AFL-CIO in holding accountable Democrats who cast anti-labor votes, in forcing the right to organize onto the national political agenda, and in using the political system to protect and further workers’ rights. I think the problem has much more to do with the federation’s treatment of anti-labor Democrats than of pro-labor Republicans – in fact I’d say too often labor has bent over backwards to bestow the pro-labor Republican label for the appearance of a bipartisan pro-labor consensus of the kind we have yet to create. And the reformers are right that a resurgence in labor’s political clout cannot come without a resurgence of union organizing. Here labor and the Democrats should have a shared interest in creating more union members, given that union membership is the only thing that makes white men with guns who go to church vote Democratic; would that the Democrats put as much effort into trying to multiply the ranks of union members as the Republicans are into trying to create more investors. Putting the right to organize front and center would help Democrats doubly by creating more union members and by giving them more reason to vote Democratic; this platform attests to the ways the AFL-CIO has to go in pushing for politicians to do so. The legal right to organize cannot itself be labor’s entire political agenda however; while this paragraph almost reads as if it is, the platform later devotes entire sections to coalition-building around healthcare and global trade. The line later on refering to “social issues” as outside of the purview of labor is as unsettling as it is intentionally ambiguous. It certainly doesn’t represent the approach that’s yielded success for SEIU and UNITE HERE over the past decade. A path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and freedom from discrimination for women, workers of color, and queer workers, are fundamental issues of workers’ rights, and any labor federation which shies away from them does so to its own detriment and that of this country’s most marginalized workers. A recognition of the urgency of broadening the movement is more clear in the sections on diversity within the AFL-CIO and international solidarity.

New Standards of Accountability and Governance…If labor as a whole is to grow the AFL-CIO must be the movement’s strategic growth center…democratic change requires the creation of a streamlined Executive Committee comprised of the largest unions that represent most AFL-CIO members and are responsible for uniting workers in the major sectors of the economy, with several additional rotating seats to ensure diversity…Financial and organizational accountability and openness must be the operating principal of a new AFL-CIO. Ongoing senior level staff meetings between unions on issues of AFL-CIO policy must take place between meetings of principals…The AFL-CIO must establish and enforce standards in such areas as bargaining, strategic industry plans and results; political fundraising and participation by members and their families, workplace organization, among others.

I’m not sure what structural arrangement best serves the ends of openness and representativeness within the AFL-CIO. But inter-union dialogue is certainly a must, as is transparency in decision-making and accountability in producing results. This accountability must apply both to the federation’s leadership and to its member unions. The AFL-CIO is, after all, a voluntary compact, and affiliation should signify a commitment to organizing and building the movement.

These proposals, all the more so when taken together with the other four points of the platform (focused on representation, strategic use of union money and purchasing power, global solidarity, and healthcare and retirement security), represent a blue-print with at least the potential to bring real change to a federation in deep need of it. I support its broad vision, including the final point of that first section:

Leadership Committed to Building a Movement that Can Win. The AFL-CIO needs leadership that is committed to the kind of fundamental restructuring of the federation that we are proposing.

Keith Urbahn makes an unpersuasive comparison between graduate student workers and allies fighting for the right to organize and flat-earthers:

Our lovable but deluded Flat-Earthers are the members of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO), the self-proclaimed representatives of graduate students. GESO’s unremarkable history is marred by failure and distinct feelings of apathy and even opposition from many graduate students — both realities the organization continues to deny. Never mind the fact that the Yale administration has always refused to consider it a legitimate interest group, or that over the summer the National Labor Relations Board unequivocally struck down any right for students to organize as employees at private universities, or that GESO just might be the only group in history to lose its own rigged election, as it did in April 2003.

As I argued at the time, the vote by the Bush-appointed majority to overturn a unanimous decision and strip graduate student workers of their rights as employees is one of a constellation of anti-labor decisions pushed through by right-wing activist NLRB judges over the past three years. Other recent targets have included non-union workers, casual workers, and disabled workers. Hell, even the prophets of classlessness at The New Republic have taken notice. It wasn’t so long ago in this country when publice employees, or agricultural workers, or workers as a whole were denied a legal right to unionize. It’s hard to imagine that the same Yale administrators who blithely ignored the NLRB’s historic NYU decision now expect graduate student workers to roll over because lobbying by, inter alia, those administrators has yielded a new one.

As for the election Keith calls “rigged,” the date and time were well-publicized, the qualifications were clear and well-scrutinized, and the whole process was overseen by the League of Women Voters. Every graduate student who showed up, whether or not they were on the list of those who would be part of the bargaining unit, got to cast a provisional vote, and GESO chose not to contest any of them. Certainly, GESO should have done a better job of turning out their supporters, more of whom went out on strike with the union than made it out to vote for it. Unfortunately, Yale’s strategy of depressing pro-union turnout through publically describing it as “like getting your friends together to have an election,” while hiking anti-union turnout through intense pressure from advisors on advisees, particularly in the sciences, was more effective than many had predicted. Read more about Yale’s anti-union campaign here. Even under those circumstances, the result was a near tie. Nearly two years later, last month three out of five teaching assistants in the humanities and social sciences declared they had signed union cards and demanded Yale recognize their union. But Keith is unfazed:

And indeed, a 12-week process of soliciting names from a predetermined list of eligible “voters” had finally created the results GESO organizers long desired. Sixty percent of 521 eligible TAs in the humanities, social science and language departments voted in favor of unionization. In a crude attempt to lend at least a veneer of legality to the sham of an election, GESO solicited the help of Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz to certify the “vote.” What Bysiewicz and giddy GESO supporters failed to mention at the Dec. 14 meeting was that the card count was hardly representative of the whole graduate student body. In an effort to exclude departments predominately opposed to unionization — most notably those in the natural sciences — GESO changed the eligibility requirements, denying the right to vote to hundreds who differed with the group’s agenda.

What the vote was representative of is a three-fifths consensus of those whose primary employment is teaching in the humanities and social sciences supporting a union of teaching assistants in the humanities and social sciences. For years now, Yale has been claiming that GESO was illegitimate because its proposed bargaining unit included both students in the sciences and the humanities. Since the new NLRB decision, the union’s opponents have flipped their argument. Negotiations over the shape of a bargaining unit are a standard part of a unionization process. The problem is, Yale is still maintaining its dozen-year policy of refusing to negotiate – or meet – with GESO about anything. That includes the nature of a fair process for unionization, another issue on which Keith takes the administration’s side:

Furthermore, the method of a “card count,” a process in which GESO representatives solicited support for unionization by approaching eligible TAs, is hardly a fair way of gauging the graduate community’s interest in unionization. The card count allowed for the possibility of intimidation and coercion — both well-worn GESO tactics according to some graduate students.

Card count neutrality agreements provide workers a measure of protection against the employer intimidation made possible by the asymetrical power relationship in the workplace. As Kate Bronfenbrenner’s research demonstrated, majorities of workers during NLRB election processes strongly fear losing their jobs if they vote for the union, and a third who vote against the union themselves identify their vote as a response to employer pressure. That’s why politicians of both parties are pushing the Employee Free Choice Act in support of card check processes. That said, GESO’s demand for years was an agreement with Yale on a fair process whose results both sides would follow. But Levin, while with one breath telling GESO only an NLRB process was acceptable, that “democracy means elections,” with the other maintained that he would appeal the results of any election, leaving the ballots uncounted and impounded, as his allies in the Penn, Brown, and Columbia administrations have done in response to NLRB elections there. Democracy means following the results of elections. And as I’ve said before, I don’t think a graduate school in which students refrain from trying to win over students who might disagree with them on the issues they face is one living up to the values of liberal education. If you think it’s hard being an anti-union graduate student in a department where most of your peers are in the union, trying being a union member whose research funding depends on a supervisor who hates the union. Now imagine that situation if, say, losing your research funding means being deported out of the country. The plight of international students is, incidentally, one of many issues on which GESO’s lobbying has successfully brought change from the administration. But Keith isn’t too keen on GESO’s issue agenda either:

GESO has become increasingly involved with locals 34 and 35 on issues that are at best tangentially related to graduate student organization…Duped by that word “union” and the “Norma Rae” fantasies of some Yale graduate students — or more likely, attracted to the opportunity of political allies in the fight against the Yale administration — members of the real unions locals 34 and 35 attended the December meeting, dutifully holding up signs and chanting in support of the new “union” of graduate students.

This is the classic “narrow agenda/broader agenda line of argument Yale’s administration has been firing at its unions for at least as long as Keith and I have been at Yale: Either the unions are parochial institutions only narrowly concerned with their members’ wages and benefits who could care less about the greater good, or they’re shadowy, expansive conspiracies with designs to meddle everywhere they’re not wanted. The truth is, unions best protect the rights of their own workers and of all Americans when they have broad agendas. That’s why the trade union approach of the CIO did more for American labor, and for America, than the craft union approach of the AFL ever could. GESO is right to recognize that fighting for graduate student workers means fighting for their rights as immigrant workers against capricious deportation. And GESO is right to recognize that graduate student workers’ voices are most powerful, and their interests are best represented, when they stand together with other Yale employees on issues of common concern, like diversifying Yale’s workforce and supporting working mothers. And members of Locals 34 and 35, far from being the ignorant dupes Keith labels them, are right to recognize that their rights as workers are best protected and advanced by safeguarding the right to organize for all Yale employees and joining them in struggle over common challenges. That’s why, for so many in Yale’s service, maintenance, and clerical workforce, it rings hollow when Dan Koffler argues that:

The suggestion that Ph.Ds in waiting have a common class interest with lifelong wage-laborers, least of all Yale Ph.Ds in waiting, is an unfunny, borderline obscene joke. It is, moreover, a notion that can only hurt the cause of real workers.

As I argued here before, the salient question is not and should not be whether a teaching assistant or a secretary is more exploited or more sympathetic. The question is, do these workers face common challenges? And out of these common challenges, how do they find common cause and better effect progressive change in their own lives and in Yale as an institution? The argument that different kinds of workers should keep to themselves is not new. It was a hallmark of Yale’s anti-union campaign against clerical and technical workers before Local 34 was finally recognized in 1984. Unions are all well and good for the largely male, largely minority, blue-collar workforce of Local 35, Yale clerical and technical workers were told, but are they really the kind of institutions that Yale’s “pink-collar” clerical and technical workers should be associated with. Local 34 and Local 35 stood together, in the face of threats of reprisals against Local 35 by Yale’s administration, and after Local 34 won its ten-week strike and its first contract, Local 35’s new contract was settled quickly once Local 34 made clear its intention to stand in support of Local 35. That’s what winning looks like. And so it’s strangely appropriate how Keith chooses to end his article:

…we know whom they truly stand for: themselves.

Yes, graduate students signing union cards are standing for themselves, and for each other. And because many undergraduates see themselves as future graduate students, its understandable that those who believe in a comfortable dichotomy between service and self-interest have more trouble getting on board with GESO. But now more than ever, in the face of the growing casualization of the academy (a trend which makes Dan’s description of graduate students as “YalePh.D.s in waiting” more misleading), graduate students are right to organize for better working conditions and a better university, and others in the Yale community are right to stand with them.

There’s much to dislike about the institution of tipping in this country. It transfers the responsibility for compensating employees from employers to customers, substantively removes wages from the realm of negotiation, pits employees against each other, encourages acceptance of demeaning and inappropriate behavior towards employees, and provides cover for employers to pay employees below minimum wage. That said, in a perverse variation of the collective action problem, an individual’s choice not to tip, or to tip conservatively, simply punishes the victims all over again without shifting the responsibility for compensation back to the employer. So what can we do? Well, we can start by supporting legal actions like these in Connecticut:

In the suit, filed three weeks ago in New Britain Superior Court, she charges the restaurant did not pay her or other wait staff the minimum wage for time spent performing non-service duties, thereby violating the state’s minimum wage act…”I think people aren’t aware of provisions of the law,” said Daniel S. Blinn, the attorney representing Galberth. “Restaurants have commonly taken advantage of staff by requiring them to do jobs that qualify for minimum wage and staff put up with it,” said Blinn, who has sent letters to dozens of waiters and waitresses in the state notifying them of the possible minimum wage violations. “Either they are afraid to challenge the employer or aren’t aware that they should be receiving minimum wages for the work.” Under the state act, restaurants are allowed to pay 29 percent less than the minimum wage to those who customarily receive gratuities…According to the law, employees such as waiters and waitresses are supposed to receive regular minimum hour wages of $7.10 when they perform duties outside of those associated with waiting on customers. When they do general tasks, such as setting up before a restaurant opens, cleaning after it closes, doing odd jobs such as washing dishes, cleaning bathrooms or mopping floors, the employer is to pay them minimum wage…

Complaints have begun piling up because of a flurry of publicity over some recent complaints against Brinker International, the parent company of such chains as Macaroni Grill, On the Border and Chili’s, and a separate class action suit against the Outback restaurants chain. “I filed after they called me a liar after I showed them how much of my time I was spending on the side work,” said Michael Peruta, a Rocky Hill resident who is part of a class action suit against Outback restaurants. Peruta said he spent more than half of his time as a waiter in the Newington store cleaning tables that were not in his assigned area, sweeping floors and stocking food, all tasks that he believes qualify for the minimum hourly wage.

…Websites on the issue have begun popping up, including one by Rocky Hill resident Rhonda Dupuis, who successfully sued Brinker while she was employed as a waitress by Chili’s. Dupuis documented her work activities from late 2002 to July 2003, records she says proved that she was not properly paid for side work she was forced to do at “tip credit” scale. The increase in complaints has prompted state Sen. Edith Prague to consider new legislation to try to stop violations and get a more active response from the state labor department. “I think it is outrageous that restaurants, especially these big chains, would do this,” said Prague, a Democrat from Columbia, who is meeting with Dupuis this week. “I would suggest legislation that makes it very clear that they can only use the `tip credit’ formula for waiting tables, and nothing else,” Prague said. “I think it’s a shame we have to do this at all, although I’m not surprised at anything anymore.