A WIN IN NEW YORK

Had a great weekend in New York, and got to see several friends (including this one) in various parts of the city, thanks in no small part to the hard work of the MTA employees who make the subway run every day. My sense is that Steven Greenhouse is largely right in his assessment that the deal represents a real victory for the Transport Workers’ Union. The biggest concession made by the union, its agreement to have workers pay a small portion of healthcare costss, is a real and unfortunate one. But it managed to hold the line on pensions and dramatically retroactively improve the the pensions of many workers while winning maternity leave and an MLK Day holiday. And the union routed the MTA on the issue likely to have the greatest long-term significance: the MTA’s bid to create a two-tiered workforce by convincing current workers to sell out the men and women who will do their jobs in the future by consigning them to inferior contracts.

That transit workers were derided as selfish for striking to protect the benefits of future workers is one of the bitter ironies of this strike (there are others, like the absence from the press of mention that the MTA’s insistence on pension concessions was as illegal as the union’s strike). But evaluating the nobility of choices based on whether they are in the self-interest of those who take them is a bankrupt approach anyway. These workers made the difficult choice to strike their jobs and picket in the face of freezing weather and hostile media to secure better livelihoods for themselves and their current and future co-workers. And then they went back to work at a job few of the perpetually aghast conservatives heaping racialized insults on them could imagine doing.

It’s a shame it had to come to a strike. This contract could have been signed a month ago if George Pataki had wanted it. The last minute worsening of the MTA’s contract suggests that what he wanted is a strike, and he got it. In terms of public opinion, however, things didn’t quite go the way he planned.

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THE COSTCO ALTERNATIVE

In yesterday’s New York Times, Steven Greenhouse profiles Costco, its Chief Executive Jim Sinegal, and the model he’s providing as an alternative to the Wal-Mart economy:

Costco’s average pay, for example, is $17 an hour, 42 percent higher than its fiercest rival, Sam’s Club. And Costco’s health plan makes those at many other retailers look Scroogish. One analyst, Bill Dreher of Deutsche Bank, complained last year that at Costco “it’s better to be an employee or a customer than a shareholder.” Mr. Sinegal begs to differ. He rejects Wall Street’s assumption that to succeed in discount retailing, companies must pay poorly and skimp on benefits, or must ratchet up prices to meet Wall Street’s profit demands. Good wages and benefits are why Costco has extremely low rates of turnover and theft by employees, he said…If shareholders mind Mr. Sinegal’s philosophy, it is not obvious: Costco’s stock price has risen more than 10 percent in the last 12 months, while Wal-Mart’s has slipped 5 percent…

Despite Costco’s impressive record, Mr. Sinegal’s salary is just $350,000, although he also received a $200,000 bonus last year. That puts him at less than 10 percent of many other chief executives, though Costco ranks 29th in revenue among all American companies. “I’ve been very well rewarded,” said Mr. Sinegal, who is worth more than $150 million thanks to his Costco stock holdings. “I just think that if you’re going to try to run an organization that’s very cost-conscious, then you can’t have those disparities. Having an individual who is making 100 or 200 or 300 times more than the average person working on the floor is wrong.”…Costco also has not shut out unions, as some of its rivals have. The Teamsters union, for example, represents 14,000 of Costco’s 113,000 employees. “They gave us the best agreement of any retailer in the country,” said Rome Aloise, the union’s chief negotiator with Costco. The contract guarantees employees at least 25 hours of work a week, he said, and requires that at least half of a store’s workers be full time.

CostCo continues to prove, as I wrote here last year, that the choice Americans face isn’t between policies that are “friendly” or “hostile” to business, or between “big government” and “economic freedom.” Government policies can force a race to the bottom of ever-worsening standards and quality of life for the working Americans who make prosperity possible. Or they can pave the high road by rewarding companies that invest in the economic security of workers and consumers. It’s the latter choice which fosters and expands the real economic freedom which comes from workers’ voice on the job and control over their lives, and whose expansion increases the humanity of our economy.

Steven Greenhouse reports on the success of HERE Local 226 in organizing a largely minority and immigrant culinary workforce and fighting in solidarity to seize middle class status:

In most other cities, these workers live near the poverty line. But thanks in large part to the Culinary, in Las Vegas these workers often own homes and have Rolls-Royce health coverage, a solid pension plan and three weeks of vacation a year. The Culinary’s extraordinary success at delivering for its 48,000 members beckons newcomers from far and wide. By many measures, the Culinary is the nation’s most successful union local; its membership has nearly tripled from 18,000 in the late 1980’s, even as the rest of the labor movement has shrunk. The Culinary is such a force that one in 10 people here is covered by its health plan, and more than 90 percent of the hotel workers on the Strip belong to the union. The union is also unusual because it is a rainbow coalition, 65 percent nonwhite and 70 percent female. It includes immigrants from Central America, refugees from the Balkan wars and blacks from the Deep South.

The Culinary’s success cannot be separated from the industry’s wealth. With the profits rolling in, the casinos have decided to be relatively magnanimous to their workers to ensure labor peace and a happy work force. “When you’re in the service business, the first contact our guests have is with the guest-room attendants or the food and beverage servers, and if that person’s unhappy, that comes across to the guests very quickly,” said J. Terrence Lanni, chairman of the MGM Mirage, which owns the MGM Grand, the world’s largest hotel, with 5,000 rooms and 8,200 employees. “These are people who are generally happy. Is it perfect? No. But it’s as good as I’ve seen anywhere.”

Under the Culinary’s master contract, waiters are guaranteed $10.14 an hour before tips, the highest rate in the nation. In Las Vegas, unionized hotel housekeepers generally earn $11.95 an hour, 50 percent more than in nonunion Reno. The Culinary contract guarantees workers 40 hours’ pay each week, meaning housekeepers earn at least $478 a week, while in other cities housekeepers often work 30 hours and earn just $240. The Culinary’s workers pay no premiums for health care, and they often pay just $10 for a dentist’s visit, while nonunion workers often pay upwards of $150. “Our wages are higher, the medical benefits are great, and we have a guaranteed 40-hour week,” said Marianne Singer, a waitress at the unionized MGM Grand. “Thanks to all that, I have a beautiful 2,000-square-foot home with a three-car garage.”

…”In Las Vegas, more so than any place in the country, the hospitality industry and the union have realized it is not mere rhetoric to say, ‘We’re all in this together,’ ” said John W. Wilhelm, president of the Culinary’s parent union, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union.

The article identifies some of the key strategies which will define twenty-first century unionism: Mobilizing resources for a tremendously threatening corporate campaign when necessary to pressure management, working cooperatively to marshall human and political resources when possible for goals shared with management, aggressively pursuing card-check neutrality, and most fundamentally, focusing on organizing and empowering formerly disenfranchised workers to achieve tangible results.

And in another article, Greenhouse profiles one of those workers:

Ms. Diaz arrived illegally, but she eventually obtained a green card and citizenship through her father, who had been granted amnesty. For years, he had worked at a carwash in Los Angeles. Today, her whole family – parents, two sisters and five brothers – lives in Los Angeles. Once in Las Vegas, Ms. Diaz took a series of nonunion housekeeping jobs that she did not love, at a Best Western hotel, at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino, and finally at the luxurious Venetian. “In the hotels, the hardest job is housekeeping,” Ms. Diaz said. “It’s really hard when you come, and you don’t know the language. You want to be somebody, but it’s very hard.”

Two years ago, Ms. Diaz learned from the wife of one of her husband’s co-workers that there were unionized restaurant openings at the Luxor. Weary of making hotel beds and cleaning bathrooms, she landed a job busing tables at La Salsa. It paid $9.24 an hour, plus about $4 an hour in tips. The health plan was so good that she paid no premiums and made only modest co-payments. But Ms. Diaz had greater ambitions. After she passed the Culinary Training Academy course, she was immediately promoted to waitress. Now she is responsible for a half-dozen tables in the ocher-colored restaurant, which has the music of a Mexican crooner piped in. She greets customers with her big smile and tentative English, often recommending her favorite dish, the fajita salad.

As her status at La Salsa has risen, so has her pay. Las Vegas’s unionized busboys and waiters make the same base salary – $10.14 an hour, the highest rate in the nation. (By comparison, most waiters in New York City make $3.30 an hour before tips.) But waiters make much more from tips than busboys, who must be content with the often-meager amounts that waiters share with them.