WIFE SWAP CONSERVATISM

While on vacation out East, I got the chance to pick up and read Walter Benn Michaels’ 2006 book The Trouble With Diversity. Might as well spoil the suspense and start by saying Benn Michaels didn’t convince me when he argues (like Michaels Lind and Tomasky) that left-wing “identity politics” around race and gender stand in the way of a serious left-wing class politics. The book reminded me at various points of Catherine MacKinnon’s argument (in Towards a Feminist Theory of the State) that feminists and Marxists view each other with suspicion because each party could undo one kind of oppression while leaving the other oppression intact. It’s often not clear to whom Benn Michaels, an English professor, is addressing his argument. He offers criticisms (often clever, always articulate) of some academic arguments about identity, but he doesn’t engage with many pivotal ones – like the literature on intersectional (rather than additive) approaches to identity, considering how identities mediate each other – how being identified as a poor Black woman has different social and economics meanings than just being poor plus being Black plus being a woman. He calls Omi and Winant’s Racial Formation in the United States “certainly the most influential academic text on the social construction of race,” but cites only two sentences from it.

If the argument is directed at political practitioners, we’re left wondering how he actually pictures the left gaining power and effectiveness by throwing race and gender overboard. In a telling line criticizing the focus on sexism at Wal-Mart as a distraction from exploitation there, Benn Michaels asserts that “Laws against discrimination by gender are what you go for when you’ve given up on – or turned against – the idea of a strong labor movement.” Tell that to all the folks in the labor movement and labor-allied groups who’ve worked to support the Dukes lawsuit and the fight against Wal-Mart’s sexism as part of a broad-based critique of a company that helpfully illustrates the connections between conservatism’s threat to gender equality, economic justice, environmental sustainability, and other values progressives and most Americans hold dear. Benn Michaels’ approach, which denies that rich people can be victims of oppression or that poor people can be oppressed by more than only poverty, would render the left unable to fully understand, let alone seriously engage, with what Betty Dukes and millions of women like her are facing (see also Whitewashing Race). As badly as Benn Michaels may wish for a revived labor movement, in advocating a disregard for identity politics he’s echoing the disconnection from progressive social movements which contributed the labor movement’s decline in the first place. Those blinders regarding oppressions besides class mirror the blindness to class of too many in, for example, the pro-choice movement – blindness of which Benn Michaels would be rightly critical.

That said, we needn’t accept Benn Michael’s arguments about the irrelevance of race- and sex-based politics to appreciate the book’s critical insight: that the plutocrats triumph when poverty is understood as an identity to be respected rather than as a problem to be eliminated. Conservatives, as he argues, have masterfully reframed our class problem as being about the elitists who look down on poor people rather than about the robber barons, de-regulators, and union-busters who make them poor. Examples abound in conservative literature (Tom Wolfe comes in for some enjoyable criticism in The Trouble With Diversity), but Benn Michaels is right that seemingly liberal takes on class often suffer from the same problem. And he’s right that conservatives draw on the language we use to talk about race to pull this off.

I was reminded of People Like Us, a very engaging PBS documentary about class in America that explores a series of interesting situations – working-class folks fight with ex-hippies about what kind of supermarket to bring into their neighborhood; tensions within African-American communities about whether Jack and Jill clubs aimed at well-off Black kids are elitist; a daughter’s embarrassment about her “trailer park” mom – but all from the perspective of how different classes can get along, not how we can reduce or eliminate class differences. The least sympathetic characters in the movie are a bunch of snotty high school kids at a mixed-income public school talking in awful terms about why they wouldn’t talk to the poor kids they go to school with (“What would we talk to them about?”). It’s a good movie. But you could walk away with the sense that our class problems would be solved if the rich kids would befriend the poor kids. Which, as Benn Michaels would argue, would be much less expensive or destabilizing for the powers that be than making those kids’ families less poor. As Benn Michaels writes (in one of many paragraphs that makes you wish more political books were written by English professors) about an episode of Wife Swap:

At no time, apparently, did it occur to the makers of the show, the people in it or the people reviewing it, that what the show really demonstrates is how much better it is to be rich than to be poor. Or perhaps one should say not that the show ignores this point but that it is devoted to denying it, and that it succeeds so completely (this is its brilliance) that we find ourselves believing that run-down shacks in the woods are just as nice as Park Avenue apartments, especially if your husband remembers to thank you for chopping the wood when you get home from driving the bus. The idea the show likes is the one Tom Wolfe and company like: that the problem with being poor is not having less money than rich people but having rich people “look down” on you. And the rich husband is bad because he does indeed look down on the poor people, whereas the rich wife (the one who has never done a day’s work in her life and who begins the show by celebrating her “me time,” shopping, working out, etc.) turns out to be good because she comes to appreciate the poor and even to realize that she can learn from them. The fault here is not in being rich but in thinking that you have better taste – more generally, in thinking that…you are are a better person.

FUN WITH COLLECTIVE BARGAINING

Kay Steiger, guest-blogging (with Alyssa) at Matt Yglesias’ site, considers sexism in “trade professions” and after pointing out that jobs like hair dressing aren’t counted as such precisely because women do them, suggests that

What would help is first what these truck mechanics Harding points to are already doing, mentoring young women in non-traditional fields. Secondly, unions that represent those industries need to not only be free of sexism themselves, but aggressively pursue lawsuits that would discourage sexual harassment. This is happening with some larger trade unions already, but it’s not as wide as it should be.

I think this really sells short the potential for trade unions to take on discrimination. Any kind of organization with the resources can file a lawsuit – or individuals or groups can do it with no organization at all. In some cases, like the Dukes suit against Wal-Mart (largest class action suit ever in this country), that can contribute greatly to leveraging pressure on a company. But workers with a union can change the behavior of their employer in a slew of other ways. That includes negotiating with them.

Union workers can and do win binding contracts obligating companies to take on unequal opportunity by creating training programs, by collaborating with community leaders and/ or non-profits, by submitting to oversight by workers, clergy, politicians, or whoever else to judge progress, to change work rules or job descriptions that create needless barriers for people who could otherwise do the job – and in any number of other ways. And these workers can enforce these commitments, as well as the company’s legal obligation not to discriminate, through collective action and through a grievance process that moves faster, cheaper, and more accessibly than a lawsuit. The limits are defined by power on the shop floor and nationally or internationally in the industry.

As Thomas Geoghegan wrote last year in his book See You in Court,

a big change has been the way we have moved from contract to tort. For most working Americans, the kind of people I represent, this accounts for the biggest change in the way the law now impacts their lives. In the 1950s and 1960s, up to 35 percent of workers, especially men, were covered by collective bargaining agreements…In the last thirty years, there has been a loss of contract rights – to a job, a pension, or even health care – unlike that in any other developed country. It is really a new legal regime that many Americans experience as infuriating, without being able to express that fury in an appropriate way.

Now the missed opportunities within substantial chunks of the labor movement to link arms as part of movements for sexual and racial inequality in the twentieth century is not unrelated to the steep decline in union power and union membership. But those workers Kay is talking about, who have unions, have an arsenal at their disposal to attack discrimination in the workplace – not only through contract language of course, but also through the kinds of action, client pressure, media strategies, and such that play part in winning recognition and winning contracts – without depending on the prospects of a lawsuit.

"ANATHEMA TO FREE-MARKET SUPPORTERS"? I’M QUAKING IN MY BOOTS

From Jon Chait’s rebuttal of the aforementioned indecent proposal:

If I understand Lindsey, he is proposing the following bargain: Libertarians will give up their politically hopeless goal of eliminating two wildly popular social programs that represent the core of liberalism’s domestic achievements. Liberals, in turn, will agree to simply eviscerate these programs, leaving perhaps some rump version targeted at the poorest of the poor. To be fair, Lindsey offers these ideas only as the basis for negotiation, but the prospects of bridging this gulf seem less than promising.

It’s worth noting that even the libertarians at the Cato Institute, in a study Lindsey touts and Chait pokes some holes in, could only come up with 13% of the population to label libertarian. And half of them are already voting for Democrats, despite the “anti-nafta, Wal-Mart-bashing economic populism” that Lindsey warns will be the party’s undoing. You wouldn’t know it from visiting most elite universities, but libertarianism is not a big hit. That’s why Bill Kristol urged congressional Republicans not to go wobbly against the Clinton healthcare plan: Not because an expansion (insufficient and needlessly complex though it was) of the government’s role in the healthcare system was contrary to the will of voters, but because if it passed it would cement the popularity of the party that passed it.

BUSINESS CASUAL

I agree with Asheesh that the quality of university teaching by tenured professors would improve if the tenure process took teaching into greater consideration relative to research output. And based on my own college experience (reaching back to a good four months ago), I think the unstated faith that the folks who produce the best research will also produce the best teaching is a faith which dare not speak its name for good reason.

But considering which professors get tenure tells you a decreasing amount about the quality of undergraduate teaching, because less and less of it is done by tenured professors. The trend over the past years has been a shift of teaching hours away from tenured faculty and ladder faculty (those with a shot at tenure) and instead onto various forms of transient teachers: non-ladder faculty, adjuncts, post-docs, and graduate student teachers. The academy is being Wal-Mart-ized – labor is being shifted towards workers with less job security, more precarity, and less institutional support.

This trend poses three kinds of challenges to undergraduates concerned with the quality of their classroom education: First, to protect the presence of enough long-term secure faculty to provide effective mentorship and continuity. Second, to ensure sufficient economic and institutional support for transient teachers to allow them to provide the best teaching they can under the circumstances. And third, to foster progress, rather than backsliding, in the diversification of the academy even in the face of casualization and the coercive economic pressures it intensifies.

That’s part of why undergraduates have so much at stake in struggles like this one.

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.

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.

GOOD LABOR NEWS

In the spirit of the holiday, three pieces of good recent labor news with good long-term implications as well:

The same week Wal-Mart announced its lowest profits in years, the launch of Robert Greenwald’s film “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price,” with thousands of showings nationwide was a huge success, as was WalmartWatch’s coordinated “Higher Expectations Week.” Last week showed definitively that just as battling the Wal-Marting of our economy has become a top priority of the labor movement, it’s moved into a position of prominence on the national radar as well. This issue is finally coming to be understood for what it is: the frontline in the struggle over whether democratic majorities or corporate ultimatums will shape our economy. And its potential to bring together feminists, environmentalists, unionists, trade activists, anti-sprawl activists, and immigrant rights activists is finally being realized in a way it hasn’t before. The foundations for a truly effective targeted international campaign are finally being laid. Also, my Mom is telling everyone she knows to shop at CostCo instead of Wal-Mart.

The AFL-CIO and the Change to Win Coalition announced a tentative compromise on the issue of non-AFL-CIO local participation in country and state labor federations. This was the first serious test of the ability of an American labor movement split for the first time in half a century between two competing federations to lay the groundwork to work together on common challenges at the local level. A compromise here – like the SEIU/ AFSCME anti-raiding agreement – bodes well for a future in which each federation pursues different national organizing strategies while pushing their locals to work together to push for progressive change and hold the line against anti-labor candidates, initiatives, and employers.

And Histadrut Head Amir Peretz unseated Shimon Peres as Head of Israel’s Labor Party. Much of the analysis in the wake of that election has understandably focused on its role in prompting Peres and Ariel Sharon to bolt from Labor and Likud, respectively, to form a “centrist” party of their own (it’ll be interesting to see what this means for Labor’s relationship the left-of-left-of-center Meretz Yachad party, itself the result of a recent merger). But Peretz’s ascension is historic in its own right, as it represents the reclamation of the Labor Party by Israel’s foremost Israeli labor leader. Peretz won by doing what few Israeli politicians have done much of recently: talking about issues beyond hamatzav (the situation, i.e., the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). That includes mounting unemployment, extreme poverty, and severe economic inequality largely mapped along lines of race and immigration status. These issues have only worsened from neglect, and Peretz’s ascension to head of Labor offers a real chance to put them back on the national agenda – and offers Labor a chance to pull impoverished voters away from more conservative parties, like Shas.

Happy Thanksgiving.

WAL-MART: CAST OUT THE SICK

Wal-Mart’s Vice President sends the Board a memo suggesting the company cut down on the costs of providing health insurance when employees get sick by driving away any employees who could use health insurance:

Redesign benefits and other aspects of the Associate experience, such as job design, to attract a healthier, more productive workforce…Decrease cross-subsidization of spouses through higher premiums or other charges…[life insurance] is also a high-satisfaction, low-importance benefit, which suggests an opportunity to trim the offering without substantial impact on Associate satisfaction…reducing the number of labor hours per store, increasing the percentage of part-time Associates in the stores, and increasing the number of hours per Associate…Wal-Mart should seek to attract a healthier workforce. The first recommendation in this section, moving all Associates to consumer-driven health plans, will help achieve this goal because these plans are more attractive to healthier Associates. The team is also considering additional initiatives to support this objective, including: Design all jobs to include some physical activity (e.g., all cashiers do some cart gathering…It will be far easier to attract and retain a healthier workforce than it will be to change behavior in an existing one. These moves would also dissuade unhealthy people from coming to Wal-Mart.

Put simply, Wal-Mart’s strategy is one of cost-cutting through squeezing workers out of full-time work and discrimination against qualified applicants. As Jacob Hacker writes:

what this memo makes clear is that Wal-Mart’s recently touted effort to “upgrade” its health plan ultimately amounts to a gutting of the very concept of health insurance…how to deal with these exploding costs? In a nutshell, get rid of “cross-subsidization” (yes, the memo actually uses the word) — of spouses, of the old, of the sick. Newman points out that this may be grounds for an ADA suit. But equally important, it is a view totally at odds with the concept of insurance. Insurance, after all, is all about cross-subsidies

This comes after a weekend Wal-Mart devoted to pitching itself as a progressive employer. Tough sell there.

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.

WAL-MART VERSUS THE DISABLED

It’s not just folks who care about workers’ rights, women’s rights, racial equality, environmental stewardship, fair trade, free speech, or responsible development who have issues with Wal-Mart. The world’s largest retailer is also bad news for those of us who believe in the Americans with Disabilities Act. As this Daily Kos diary reminds us, the company was ordered in Feburary to pay 7.5 million dollars in damages to Patrick Murphy for reassigning him based on his disability. Now the New York Law Journal reports that the judge has cut the damages by $4.7 million to reflect the $300,000 cap on punitive damages under federal law. Judge Orenstein observed that within the limits of the law, it’s impossible to charge Wal-Mart enough to actually have the deterrent effect that punitive damages are supposed to:

“The preceding ruling respects the law,” Orenstein wrote, “but it does not achieve a just result.”…”There is no meaningful sense in which such an award can be considered punishment,” Orenstein wrote, pointing out that Wal-Mart had $300,000 in sales every 37 seconds last year…Orenstein said that Wal-Mart would not be deterred by the amount of punitive damages. He found that in dealing with Brady, the company had not adhered to a consent decree it entered into with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2001 requiring it to train managers and change hiring practices. “The most generous conclusion I could draw … was that the Wal-Mart employees who testified are well-intentioned people whom the company willfully failed to provide with sufficient training to abide by the anti-discrimination law,” Orenstein wrote. “The result,” he concluded, “was that Brady was subjected to the kind of discrimination against the disabled that both the law and the prior consent decree was designed to prevent.” The $300,000 punitive cap, he held, “appears unlikely … to restrain Wal-Mart from inflicting similar abuses on those who may be doomed to follow in Brady’s footsteps.”

Next time you hear someone arguing that arbitrary caps on the freedom of juries to assign punitive damages will protect the little guy against hordes of greedy trial lawyers, remember Patrick Murphy. And remember whoever becomes the next victim after Wal-Mart concludes once more that in the long run, discrimination is cheaper than equal opportunity.

“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.

Wal-Mart Watch: A disappointing op-ed today from Robert Reich, who should know better. Somewhere in there, he’s trying to make the accurate point that government regulation has a role to play in overcoming the collective action problem under which consumers who prefer high-roading companies nonetheless patronize low-roading ones for the cheaper prices (this is a point he makes better in his book I’ll Be Short). Indeed, there is a structural problem which could be ameliorated by changing the perverse incentives behind the corporate race to the bottom. Thing is, it’s not only national legal change which could better reward companies which invest in their workers. It’s also coordinated organizing and media campaigns by labor and community folks organizing workers and consumers to reward better companies and punish worse ones. Taking the fight to Wal-Mart in particular is the defining challenge facing labor in the next decade. Because Wal-Mart is indeed bigger and badder than anyone else. So to write a piece called “Don’t Blame Wal-Mart” suggesting that all employers squeeze their workers equally is simply false and counterproductive. Reich gets a pedestal from which to play broker state technocrat, rising above parochial concerns, calling no one out in particular, pleading with both sides to be more fair-minded. Meanwhile, millions of Wal-Mart workers continue to face prejudicial treatment based on gender or immigration status, poverty wages, anti-union intimidation, and Triangle Shirtwaist Factory-style work rules. Sure, blame Bush, blame Nike, blame ourselves. But let’s blame ourselves in part for not blaming Wal-Mart nearly enough or as often as it deserves.