UNITE HERE LOCAL 634 MEMBERS BEAT BACK SEIU RAID BY 2:1 VOTE

Check out my first post at Young Philly Politics.

Advertisement

ANALYZE THIS

Last month I highlighted the “Sleep With the Right People” campaign led by AIDS Quilt creator Cleve Jones in conjunction with UNITE HERE’s Hotel Workers Rising campaign. This campaign marks essential progress in building a broad-based progressive movement committed to ensuring that people of all sexualities, nationalities, and occupations have the opportunity to achieve freedom from fear and freedom from want as full citizens.

It didn’t go over too well with Hilton management. Hilton’s Director of Performance Analysis wrote this letter to Cleve Jones about the website. Here’s Cleve’s response:

…We aren’t accusing Hilton of failing to market to the LGBT community, nor are we denigrating the personal fundraising efforts of Hilton employees, especially considering the low wages paid to most of them…

BEDROOM POLITICS

Last year, Grover Norquist told a New York Times reporter that he had little trouble getting the culture warriors over at the Eagle Forum to stand with the auto industry in opposition fuel efficiency standards because “it’s backdoor family planning. You can’t have nine kids in the little teeny cars.”

Certainly, leaders on the modern American right, as well as the left, struggles with how to keep its constituent movements working constructively together, or at least keep them from actively undercutting each other. But those struggles seem to turn out better on the right. Arguably, that’s because the right has real power to mete out amongst the groups and individuals who make it work and can therefore keep them in line. But there’s as strong a case to be made that being out of power is more unifying – that’s why, in the fall of 2004, well-justified and broadlyy shared anti-Bushism made it so much easier to imagine that there really was a coherent, unified left in this country. That example itself suggests one of the problems we face: while there’s more discussion these days about the importance of broad-based, multi-issue progressive coalitions, the people most vocally pushing for them want such coalitions to work essentially as extensions of Democratic Congressional and Senate Campaign Committees. “Netroots” folks like Kos actually pride themselves on their lack of ideology (and get vouched for on this count over at The New Republic).

Meanwhile, while a certain amount of the hand-wringing on the right about Bush’s supposed unconservatism is just a strategic response to his unpopularity – that is, an attempt to save the conservative brand from public dislike of its most prominent example – there is a genuine gap between certain aspects of what Bush is doing and the preferences of the grassroots activists and house intellectuals of the conservative movement, and it seems to be spurring renewed consideration at least in the pages of the right-wing mags about whether there can be a multi-issue conservative ideological coalition that’s not a partisan one. If conservatives do a better job than liberals of organizing across issues for a vision beyond the electoral fortunes of a party, even as conservatives and not liberals are running the government, then the left will have been outmaneuvered again.

That’s why folks across the left should be excited about UNITE HERE’s Sleep With the Right People campaign, part of the union’s international Hotel Workers Rising project, through which hotelworkers in cities all over North America are using concurrent contract expirations to leverage strategic pressure on major hotel chains to raise the standard of living for all their workers and agree to fair organizing conditions for those without collective bargaining rights (I start work with HWR tomorrow; views expressed here are my own). Sleep With the Right People represents a crucial alliance of progressives committed to the dignity and empowerment of people too often marginalized based on sexuality, class, gender, race, or the intersection of these identities.

As Hugh argues here and here, this campaign represents a critical stand against the view that “difference” should be “a cause of fear.” It recognizes the interconnectedness of the freedoms to join a partner in building a life together, and to partner with co-workers to build a more democratic workplace, each without sacrificing safety from violence or freedom from want. It’s a step towards the ameliorating the too-frequent insensitivity of the labor movement towards identities other than class and the too-frequent insensitivity of the LGBTQ movement towards identities other than sexuality. There are more steps ahead.

YES IT WILL

Ezra Klein claims that

making Wal-Mart do better will not change [T]arget, or whoever dominate[s] the next major industry.

Of course it will.

Right now, Wal-Mart is militating against living wage employment with human rights nationally by forcing higher-wage employers out of business and inspiring competitors to ape its strategies for temporarily squeezing as much labor power as possible out of each of their employees before dumping and replacing them. Puffed up with public subsidies, Wal-Mart is the pep squad as well as the front-runner and the finish line in the race to the bottom. Transforming Wal-Mart into a progressive ally, as Ezra rightly seeks to do, would cease the damage Wal-Mart is currently doing far beyond the ever-multiplying communities which it’s entered.

And transforming Wal-Mart will send a clear signal to its competitors. Wal-Mart does business the way it does – locking employees indoors, forcing them to work off the clock, vetting them for class consciousness – because it can get away with it. When Wal-Mart changes, it will be because a broad-based coalition has used effective mobilization and pressure to show that they can’t.

The longest strike in the history of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International (HERE, now merged to become UNITE HERE) was the strike at the Las Vegas Frontier Hotel and Casino, fought against a viciously anti-union family which preferred to run their hotel into the ground rather than settling with the union. These people reprogrammed their sprinkler system in an effort to target picketers. Once they caved in 1998 (the family essentially went bankrupt and had to sell the hotel to someone else willing to settle), after a six-and-a-half year strike during which none of the 550 strikers crossed the picket line, workers at each of the neighboring hotels were able to win recognition without having to go on strike for a day.

The same principle, writ large, is at work in the campaign to transform Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart is the biggest and the baddest, and a movement which fought them and won would entirely reshape the playing field in the struggle over whether we a s a country will race to the bottom or pave the high road. Change them, and you change the country.

AMERICAN APPAREL

Last month, Zach linked to this Village Voice piece reporting that American Apparel, the New York clothing outfit promoting itself as worker-friendly and advertising itself in the left alternative press, treats its workers in a manner which falls far short of its progressive image (much like, well, the Village Voice itself):

In September 2003, American Apparel workers began organizing with UNITE to address concerns like no paid time off, problems with production methods, conflicts with supervisors, and lack of affordable health care…Charney resorted to time-honored bad-boss techniques: interrogating and intimidating employees, distributing anti-union armbands (and T-shirts!), holding captive meetings, and worst of all, threatening to close down the plant altogether if the drive was successful. The union filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board, the result of which was that the company had to promise to drop its union-busting tactics, but for now, at least, the union drive is derailed…three employees have filed two suits alleging, among other things, that Charney invited an employee to masturbate with him, gave an employee a vibrator as a gift, exposed himself to an employee, conducted business in his underpants, and instructed an employee to offer a shopper a job on the spot because he wanted to have sex with her.

Some other folks showed up to defend American Apparel in the comments section, and Zach responded ably, and further in a post here:

Attempts by commenters to dismiss the sexual harassment complaints strike me as contrived, as extremely sketchy, as insufficient, and cast doubt on the veracity of other claims they are making. Whether or not any of this goes to trial, these claims, like all claims of sexual harassment at work, need to be taken seriously. Otherwise you end up with Clarence Thomas. I find Dov Charney’s statement in the infamous Jane article, quoted by a Washington Square News columnist, that “women initiate most domestic violence,” deeply troubling…Commenters claim that UNITE HERE duped workers into believing Charney didn’t want the union but offer no proof of this. I remain skeptical…Commenter “Julio” argues that workers could have simply gone up the block to the LA Times to complain. I wonder how long they could have kept their jobs if they had done so openly or had been discovered doing so clandestinely. I’m not buying Julio’s argument…Why is Dov Charney so opposed to his workers having a collective voice? What kind of equilibrim has he created in which workers can’t speak unless through channels initiated and controlled by management? Just who printed those armbands anyway? How does an ostensibly “pro-labor” or “pro-worker” company justify captive audience anti-union rallies and threats of plant closure? High wages, benefits, and even paid time off are no substitute for a voice on the job. If American Apparel’s corporate brand managers want to keep representing their product as “socially responsible,” they have some questions they need to answer.

Check it out (as well as this intriguing digression reminding us of what noble and necessary worker resistance to reactionary unions actually looks like). Looks like – as is all too often the case (check out Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool– American Apparel’s “progressivism” exists more a marketing strategy than as a principled commitment. Just listen to Dov Charney – who claims his company is sort of “capitalist-socialist fusion”, defend busting unions: “”If you ask 1,000 CEOs worldwide if they thought a union would be an obstacle to the company, I think the majority would say it’s a risk.” No surprise from the man who believes that “women initiate most domestic violence.”

AFL-CIO SPLIT IMMINENT

Saturday, the United Farmworkers announced that they’re joining the Change to Win Coalition. Yesterday SEIU, UNITE HERE, the Teamsters, and the UFCW voted to boycott the AFL-CIO’s convention which began this morning. Today, several sources are reporting that after failed last-minute negotiations, SEIU and the Teamsters, at a minimum, are on the verge of announcing a split from the federation. What other Change to Win Coalition members will do remains unclear – the UFCW seems closest to following, while the Laborers, who are attending this week’s convention, seem the least likely.

The Change to Win Coalition has a compelling vision based on strategies which unions like SEIU and UNITE HERE have used effectively to broaden the labor movement and increase its efficacy at a time when the story for the movement has too often been one of dashed hopes and diminished returns. There’s good reason to be concerned that a split could divert resources into unnecessary competition. But in the face of a uniquely hostile government and economy and a series of costly failures, I think there’s even more reason to hope that a split can reinvigorate the movement by spurring both groups to more effective organizing and more importantly, by making it possible to apply a winning model on more of the fronts where we need desperately to win.

One of the Key choices now facing John Sweeney is whether to encourage, or at least condone, cooperation where possible between two federations. His message to Central Labor Councils hasn’t been encouraging on this front. Neither is this:

Before 2,000 Sweeney supporters, Linda Chavez-Thompson, Mr. Sweeney’s running mate for executive vice president, laid into several entities that she said had sought to weaken labor – the Bush administration, the United States Chamber of Commerce, Wal-Mart – and then she surprised her audience by adding, “the Change to Win Coalition.”

A QUIET CONVENTION AFTER ALL?

The latest from the Change to Win Coalition is that there’s apparently a good chance that all six internationals will skip Monday’s AFL-CIO convention entirely. One leader told Harold Meyerson:

What’s the point of going when clearly there’s a majority that feels that they don’t want to make fundamental changes? We don’t want to fight with them. Why have a big fight?”

Thing is, they do want a fight over the future of the labor movement, and it’s a fight that’s sorely needed. It’s the Change to Win dissidents who’ve rightly been arguing to this point that contentious soul-searching, not superficial unity, is what the federation needs right now. So seems to me like showing up to the Chicago convention to argue for their ammendments and their vision is worth the trip, even if the deck is stacked against them We’ll see whether that happens.

Meanwhile, John Wilhelm has resigned as head of the AFL-CIO’s Immigration Committee, a post from which he built a unanimous consensus, in the face of strong initial opposition, behind the federation’s historic reversal in favor of the rights of undocumented immigrants. That change, which started out of vision and necessity in progressive locals around the country, has been and will be critical to the future of the movement. Wilhelm’s role in it demonstrates that one can and must fight for reform within the movement and for empowerment of the movement within society at the same time. His letter of resignation is here; John Sweeney responds here.

And yesterday, the Executive Board of the Teamsters voted unanimously to follow SEIU, UNITE HERE, and the Laborers in authorizing their leaders to leave the AFL-CIO:

The General President and the Presidents of the other CTWC Unions have been discussing these issues with the AFL-CIO and those discussions are continuing. It is apparent, however, that, without dramatic change in structure and leadership, the Federation and its affiliated Unions will be unable to accelerate the organizing necessary to reverse the downward trend in union membership and will be unable to protect existing contract standards that establish fair wages and working conditions for our members and the members of other responsible Unions.

If there is not substantial change at the AFL-CIO, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters must chart its own, independent course, must work with the like-minded Unions that are part of the Change To Win Coalition, and must pursue our own programs to accelerate organizing, increase Union density in our core industries, rebuild the labor movement and insure a better future for workers and their families.

I’m headed off for the weekend to a libertarian seminar (no, I haven’t gone over to the dark side – I’m just willing to accept free room and board and senior essay fodder from them) – more on all this once I escape from Hayek-ville…

GETTING DENSE AGAIN

A week ago, TPMCafe opened its House of Labor, a collaborative blog on the future of the Labor Movement with the likes of Nathan Newman, Bill Fletcher, and Jo-Ann Mort, and the discussion has remained unusually articulate, informed, and relevant ever since. Over the past few days the contributors have been debating the organizing agenda of the Change to Win Coalition (now chaired by Anna Burger), a topic on which there’s been all-too little discussion in the blogosphere and the media in general.

Tuesday Bill Fletcher considered a letter from Machinists President Tom Buffenbarger making the case that the AFL-CIO under Sweeney has done the best it could under the circumstances – a position Fletcher, like me, rejects – and that those circumstances deserve a more serious examination in this debate. Fletcher writes that

His argument is that the workforce has jumped in size dramatically and events, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks (and other problems such as deindustrialization) have been devastating to organized labor. These issues, he asserts, are not being discussed. He is basically right: they are not being discussed in any serious way. Further, he asks what percentage of the workforce should we be trying to organize. What is interesting about this question is that i cannot remember anyone EVER attempting to answer it. The implicit question here is what percentage of the workforce needs to be organized such that there is a QUALITATIVE improvement in the power relation between labor and capital…What has largely been missing from the debate, as i asserted in an earlier blog, is a real analysis of the objective conditions facing workers generally and unions specifically. It is, for instance, very unclear in the debates what people actually mean by “power” for workers outside of bargaining power…while the debate has focused on the AFL-CIO, the reality is that it is the individual unions that have the major resources AND RESPONSIBILITY for organizing, yet this seems to have been largely ignored in most of the discussion.

Yesterday, Nathan Newman took up Bill Fletcher’s challenge to engage with Buffenbarger’s argument, agreeing that we need better ways to evaluate where we stand and how to get back on track than just comparing density percentages. One key, he suggests, is density within industries, and a more promising approach to building density is what distinguishes the Change to Win dissidents from the team that Buffenbarger is defending. He cites a piece from Justice for Janitors head Stephen Lerner which, as he summarizes

Lerner first argued that the key was dramatic comprehensive organizing, not incremental work by unions…He laid out the argument for consolidation around sectors where such strategic organizing would have the resources to make dramatic changes…He specifically argued that there is a critical point where the combination of density and militant action by unions makes employer opposition too costly; that is the point where employer resistance fades and unions make dramatic gains in a sector..The problem was that most unions were too diffuse in their organizing to achieve that critical mass in any particular sector, so they made small organizing gains that failed to counterbalance other losses. And he argued that unions had failed to grapple with changes in the global economy that made these diffuse organizing efforts even less effective…his steps to rebuilding the labor movement involved both a social vision and reorganization of the union structures…The key, he argued, was to exponentially expand the resources spent on organizing, not incrementally but in dramatic ways. In a sense, Lerner completely agreed with Buffenbarger that the problem was not in the AFL-CIO itself but in the international unions responsible for organizing…The solution was to set concrete goals…with a whole range of other resource and political commitments, from achieving legalization for undocumented immigrants to punishing anti-worker companies as examples to other employers.

While criticizing Lerner’s lack of emphasis on union democracy or racial equality, Nathan argues that the broad strategy he laid out was right then, and that the Change to Win unions are right to push the same one three years later.

Jo-Ann Mort echoes Nathan’s argument that the Change to Win approach to building density offers more hope of reversing the decline in union membership, and she suggests that that decline has brought us so far down that Buffenbarger’s question of “how much is enough” becomes an academic one:

SEIU and Unite-HERE, to name two unions, have strategies, it seems to me, on how to build critical mass in key industries and therefore increase bargaining power. These unions have even been willing to trade members in a particular industry so that their membership is more homogenous, and they can build strength within a certain industry or company. Sectors–both domestic and global matter more today than overall numbers, in a certain sense, but numbers also do matter. The fact is that with organized labor’s numbers having sunk below 10%, it makes it difficult not only to organize new workers, but also to advocate for new laws regarding union organizing, labor law, workers’ rights, etc.–let alone elect a union-friendly politician. Today, it’s a too rare occurance when someone even engages with a member of a union. There are whole regions of the country where labor members are nearly completely scarce. This makes it impossible for labor to build any kind of public support. No matter how you cut it, there is a crisis in labor, a crisis which the Buffenbarger letter doesn’t seem to acknowledge.

Responding today to readers’ comments, Nathan acknowledges that manufacturing unions have faced more hostile organizing conditions than the service unions who’ve been Sweeney’s strongest critics. But like the service unions, he argues, they have strategies available to respond – and they parallel the Change to Win approach:

I’d suggest four possibilities- (1) Abandon new manufacturing and organize associated services; (2) leverage their existing density more strategically; (3) organize the world; (4) organize Wal-Mart, the largest manufacturing company in the world…Given the fact that such a large part of employment in the US is in services — many of them not subject to easy overseas outsourcing in almost any scenario — why not concentrate all of the union movement’s extra resources on the “low hanging” fruit of local services, especially those services most related to a union’s core industry? In a sense, that’s what UNITE’s been doing for a number of years, shifting its organizing focus from garment manufacturing, which has been decimated by global competition, over to related industries like the industrial laundries who wash the clothes UNITE workers once sewed…Unlike the garment industry, a lot of big manufacturing like autos are still building factories in the US– often non-union as with the Japanese transplants — but the industry isn’t disappearing. And the UAW for example, as Frank no doubt knows better than me, is getting smarter at using its incumbent power at the Big Three to leverage new organizing through contract agreements– whether going after parts suppliers or through Chrysler negotiations to get agreements at Mercedes…If unions are stronger in developing nations, companies will only move plants there if it’s really more efficient– not just because they’re running to a non-union environment. And the reality is that US unions could help fund a hell of a lot of organizers in those countries precisely because wages and the cost of living are so much lower– and with more global allies, it would help keep the pressure on the manufacturers across the world…Organize Wal-Mart, which is far more than a retailer, but really the global headquarters directing the operations of thousands upon thousands of manufacturing subcontractors who produce what and when Wal-Mart tells them. Get a handle on Wal-Mart and the union movement could get a handle on organizing a heck of lot of manufacturing companies, both domestically and globally. And that’s a goal both the service and manufacturing unions can share.

UNITE HERE and SEIU absolutely were dealt a better hand as unions in industries where fewer jobs can move overseas. But the organizing victories they have to show from it would have been impossible if they hadn’t played those hands much better than most by prioritizing strategic organizing of the unorganized, including marginalized Americans, and strong community-based coalition-building. And, contrary to Buffenbarger’s implication, this is not a specialized strategy for the service industry.

As Nathan reminds us, while differences between industries are certainly something, they aren’t everything. The aggressive organizing strategy which made Detroit a city where auto workers join the middle-class and the one which made Las Vegas a city where hotel workers do have essential similarities we’d do well to recognize. So do the challenge of choosing interracial solidarity over union-backed racism in an earlier generation and the modern challenge of organizing across lines of citizenship and borders.

Bad news for those of us who’ve been rooting for new leadership at the AFL-CIO, as the UAW, one of the crucial remaining swing votes, yesterday endorsed John Sweeney for another term. This leaves little chance of a change in leadership this time around, as Thomas Edsall writes, and is prompting a shift in focus to the next choice the reformers have to make – should they stay or should they go:

While Sweeney, 71, now appears certain to win, the nation’s largest union, the Service Employees International Union, is more likely to follow through on threats to bolt from the AFL-CIO. “The challenge here is to make sure we have a labor movement that can change people’s lives,” said SEIU President Andrew L. Stern, noting that all of his union’s locals are voting on a proposal that would authorize the union to sever its ties to the labor federation…The dissident unions, calling themselves the “Change to Win” coalition, had been counting on the UAW to give them new momentum, and lift the collective membership of their unions to well over 5 million. There are about 13 million members in the 58 unions that make up the AFL-CIO, so it takes unions with a total of 6.5 million members or more to win a leadership fight. At the moment, the dissident unions have just under 5 million members. Stern said beating Sweeney had been a long-shot proposition from the beginning. “It’s always been hard to imagine defeating an incumbent leader,” Stern said. “John Sweeney has probably always had the votes.” Unite Here President John Wilhelm, who was widely viewed as the most likely person to run against Sweeney, contends that winning majority support for restructuring will precede any leadership change. He said he has spent his “entire life in the House of Labor,” but he did not rule out joining Stern and leaving the AFL-CIO.

This a sad development for Americann workers, and it’s a shame that for now, an AFL-CIO guided by a reformist vision of what was the New Unity Partnership and by more inspired leadership has become a much more distant possibility. Hopefully John Sweeney will continue to feel and respond to the pressure to build a federation which leads its member unions to revived power by prioritizing aggressive organizing facilitating effective cooperation, and encouraging tactics which work.

The AFL-CIO, unfortunately, has not been working for a long time, in part because too often its approach has looked more like the narrow approach of the old AFL than the agressive broad-based approach of the CIO. There’s plenty to fear about a potential breakaway from the federation. The kind of union raiding which the reformers have identified as a challenge to labor’s effectiveness could become uglier were some or all of these unions to move outside of the structure of the AFL-CIO. And the red-baiting and purging of early post-war period can be pinned in part on the division between the AFL and the CIO. But that said, the same competition between the federations also sparked a great deal of tremendous organizing which, if not for the CIO’s existence as an independent organization, might very well never have taken place. Unions like SEIU and UNITE HERE have a model which is working, though certainly imperfectly, and it’s a model which has has achieved some impressive successes despite the failure of the federation to effectively serve the functions they’ve rightfully called for it to execute. If pulling out means a renewed ability to marshall resources for maximum efficacy in organizing, to build stronger coalitions with other progressive organizations with shared worldview, to more effectively hold politicians accountable (good cop, bad cop, et al), and to press the AFL-CIO from the outside to reform, it could be more than worthwhile.

The narrow lense through which this has all been read in the Times and Post and such, unfortunately, is “Labor = Democratic Turnout Machine” and ergo “Division in labor = peril for Democrats.” This slant is both short-sighted and wrong-headed. What the Democratic party needs, and should be doing much more to foster, is a reversal of the decline in American union membership. Any change that leads to more effective organizing broadens the Democratic constituency. Internal debate about how to make that happen is certainly healthy; if a split is effective in making union membership a reality for the millions of Americans who want it, then that spells great things for the Democratic party. If it can’t accomplish that, then it’s already a terrible move. But there’s no reason to assume that two federations would be fatally less effective at political turnout than one. The Democratic politicians who really have a reason to be afraid are the ones coasting on their partisan affiliation without keeping promises to American workers. If these newspapers are committed to assessing what a split would mean for the Democratic party, first they’ll need to engage the conversation on what it means for the labor movement.