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In Support of WalMart Strikers on Black Friday: “The Belly Button Theory of Economics” November 23, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Labor.
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Roger’s note: Several years ago while I was in Los Angeles, workers in three major supermarket chains were on strike because their employers wanted to lower them to WalMart standards of salaries and benefits.  I spent some time at one of the picket lines and had the opportunity to speak with several of the shoppers who were crossing the picket line.  It was disheartening to hear shoppers, working people themselves, complain that supermarket workers had benefits that they lacked and therefore deserved no sympathy.  It reminded me of the world’s oldest political strategy: divide and conquer.  Instead of advocating for higher standards for everyone, employer, politicians and the media play on the emotion of envy to promote the notion of lowering standards to the bottom.  This experience inspired me to write the following essay, which I re-post here in solidarity with the striking WalMart workers.

 

The Belly Button Theory of Economics

 

Roger Hollander

 

Call it the belly button theory of economics, if you will.  Every one knows there are two types of umbilicals: innies and outies.  Well, when all is said and done, all complexities aside, doesn’t one’s economy simply break down into what comes IN and what goes OUT?

 

Let’s talk about the ordinary working person.  She earns from her job (IN), and she meets her needs and pleasures by making purchases (OUT).  The well-being of her “economy” depends upon there being at least enough IN to take care of all the OUT.

 

One might be tempted to say that both are equally important, that is income (IN) and the cost of things (OUT).  Here is where I would argue that many economists miss the boat.  I believe that what one does through her work to acquire the means to live (IN) is fundamental, whereas the cost of things (OUT), while important, is secondary.  Think of is this way.  If you are unemployed you sure appreciate a good bargain, but what you really need is a good job.

 

There can also be a “dialectic” between IN and OUT.  Take health care.  It is something we purchase (an OUT).  However, for millions of Americans, their health care comes as a benefit attached to their work (an IN).  In other words, health insurance as a benefit is an IN that offsets the cost of health care, an OUT.

 

That is why I believe it is so important for all working people that in the current labor dispute that grocery giants — Safeway, Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons — do not succeed in their efforts to cut drastically the wages (IN) and health benefits (IN) of their workers.  They argue that this is necessary in order to compete with the Wal-Mart super stores, who pay their workers substantially less in wages and benefits[note: cf. Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed On (Not) Getting By in America] Wal-Mart does this by keeping its prices (OUT) lower than anyone else.  Interestingly, and here is that dialectic at work again, Wal-Mart is able to offer such low prices (OUT) by pressuring its suppliers to cut labor costs (their workers’ IN) in order to provide Wal-Mart with its goods at cut-rate prices.

 

In the end, you see, it always boils down to IN(come).  Of course, the worker is also a consumer and naturally loves low prices.  We all appreciate a bargain, and who can blame us?  But if the price of bargains is that, in the long run, we don’t have a living wage (IN) that meets our needs to provide for our expenses (OUT), then the bargain is, in effect, no bargain.  It is a cruel trick disguised as a bonus.

 

Human beings are by nature, first and foremost, producing animals.  We produce the means by which we survive and thrive.  Only then are we able to “consume.”  I am no great fan of capitalism because it treats human labor as a commodity, just one more expense for the capitalist along with things such as materials, rents and other overhead costs.  But as long as capitalism exists, working people have no choice but to demand wages and benefits that meet their fundamental needs.  Health care, along with food and shelter, is one of the most basic of human needs.  Because the United States government, the only one in the world of industrial nations, has not seen fit to provide universal health coverage for its people, then this need for most of its working people gets fulfilled through employer health care plans.  It is not an “extra.”

 

I have spoken with shoppers crossing the picket lines at the supermarkets, fellow working people, who justify their non-support of the grocery workers on the basis that they too must pay part of their health care costs (“If I can’t have it, you can’t have it either”).  This sad lack of worker solidarity is a product of the divide and conquer strategy of the supermarket chains, and it is in contrast to the solidarity the chains themselves have shown by sharing their profits amongst themselves, possibly in violation of anti-trust legislation.  How ironic that the supermarket industry is turning around that famous dictum to read: “chains of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your workers!”

 

Think of this the next time you are tempted to support them by shopping in one of the on-strike or locked out supermarket chains.

 

The Largest Prison Strike in American History Goes Ignored By US Media December 23, 2010

Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Human Rights, Media.
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By Joe Weber Thursday, December 16, 2010

www.deathandtaxesmag.com

Today marks the end of a seven-day strike where tens of thousands of inmates in Georgia refused to work or leave their cells until their demands had been met. The odd thing is, that until today, no one had ever heard about this strike.

Inmates in ten Georgia prisons, Baldwin, Hancock, Hays, Macon, Smith and Telfair State Prisons, to name a few, went on strike last Thursday to protest their treatment and demand their human rights.

According to an article by Facing South, Department of Corrections have been nervous about deteriorating conditions in Georgia’s prisons since early 2010. Wardens started triple bunking prisoners in response to budget cuts—squeezing three prisoners into cells intended for one. Prison officials have kept a watchful eye out for prisoners meaning to riot, for prisoners’ rights lawyers to litigate, or both.

Poor conditions and substandard medical care are also on the inmates’ list of demands. However, the jailed’s main gripe seems to center on landing recognition as workers entitled to fair pay.

As it goes, prisoners in Georgia are forced to work without pay for their labor—seemingly a violation of the 13th Amendment, which prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude.

For months the prisoners had apparently used cell phones to get in touch with inmates from other prisons, organizing a non-violent strike. The outcome began the morning of Dec. 9—by Dec. 13 the GDC issued a statement that four prisons were completely on strike.

An interview with one of the strike leaders revealed that every group of inmates in the prison had been working together. “They want to break up the unity we have here,” said an anonymous strike leader in an interview with the Black Agenda Report. “We have the Crips and the Bloods, we have the Muslims, we have the head Mexicans, and we have the Aryans all with a peaceful understanding, all on common ground.”

The largest prison strike in American history seems like a topic ripe for the press, however there was no mention of it anywhere in mainstream media. Smaller outlets like Black Agenda Report and Facing South (Institute for Southern Studies) have been covering the strike since day one.

Perhaps there was a larger hand at play—one that did not want the deplorable conditions of the Georgia prison system to surface. If Wikileaks has taught us anything, it is that the revolution will be televised.

The prisoners demands:

  • A LIVING WAGE FOR WORK: In violation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude, the DOC demands prisoners work for free.
  • EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES: For the great majority of prisoners, the DOC denies all opportunities for education beyond the GED, despite the benefit to both prisoners and society.
  • DECENT HEALTH CARE: In violation of the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments, the DOC denies adequate medical care to prisoners, charges excessive fees for the most minimal care and is responsible for extraordinary pain and suffering.
  • AN END TO CRUEL AND UNUSUAL PUNISHMENTS: In further violation of the 8th Amendment, the DOC is responsible for cruel prisoner punishments for minor infractions of rules.
  • DECENT LIVING CONDITIONS: Georgia prisoners are confined in over-crowded, substandard conditions, with little heat in winter and oppressive heat in summer.
  • NUTRITIONAL MEALS: Vegetables and fruit are in short supply in DOC facilities while starches and fatty foods are plentiful.
  • VOCATIONAL AND SELF-IMPROVEMENT OPPORTUNITIES: The DOC has stripped its facilities of all opportunities for skills training, self-improvement and proper exercise.
  • ACCESS TO FAMILIES: The DOC has disconnected thousands of prisoners from their families by imposing excessive telephone charges and innumerable barriers to visitation.
  • JUST PAROLE DECISIONS: The Parole Board capriciously and regularly denies parole to the majority of prisoners despite evidence of eligibility.

Employee Free Choice Act: Fight of a Lifetime? March 4, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Labor.
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www.talkingunion.wordpress.com

Posted on by dsalaborblogmoderator

by Jane Slaughter

efcaNobody wants to say it on the record, but the buzz is we won’t get the Employee Free Choice Act in its current form.

President Obama says he’s pro-EFCA but wants unions to “accommodate” the other side—despite labor’s $450 million and countless hours of volunteer work devoted to electing him.

Employers aren’t interested in compromise, spending $50 million just on anti-EFCA ads last fall in states where Senate seats were up for grabs, and vowing to spend tens of millions more.

In October Bank of America hosted a conference call for executives led by Bernie Marcus, a co-founder of Home Depot. Marcus lectured CEOs to give money to prevent EFCA and “the demise of a civilization.”
A favorite argument against EFCA is that it would deny workers the right to vote on unionization. Union strategists point out that EFCA actually permits either “card check” or a secret ballot—workers would decide which they wanted. Under current law, only the employer can decide.

Another argument is that there’s no precedent, in the private sector, for the right to arbitration of first contracts. And employers moan, like they did in the Depression, that too much unionization would wreck the reeling economy.

What Employee Free Choice Would Do

If a majority of workers in a workplace sign union authorization cards, validated by the NLRB, the company must recognize the union. If a majority of employees call for an election instead, the NLRB will hold one.

Penalties for companies breaking the law are increased.

• Up to $20,000 per violation for willfully or repeatedly violating employees’ rights during organizing drives or bargaining the first contract.

• Triple back pay for workers fired or discriminated against for pro-union activity during a drive.

• The NLRB must seek a federal court injunction when there is reason to believe a company has violated workers’ rights during a drive, such as firing or threatening to fire union supporters. Precedent says an injunction would be issued immediately.

Companies may not drag out first-contract bargaining indefinitely. If the two sides cannot reach a contract within 90 days, either one may request mediation from federal mediators. If mediation doesn’t work, they go to binding arbitration.

Supporters counter that union-won higher wages are exactly what the economy needs. After all, the debt-driven economy has utterly failed.

BALANCE OF POWER WINS

But in the end, the arguments don’t matter. The bill that passes will reflect the balance of power between business and labor. If EFCA is gutted, or fails to pass at all, it will be because not enough Senators were convinced it was in their interests to vote the right way.

How have labor and other movements in the past persuaded reluctant politicians to vote our way? By creating enough turmoil in the streets that legislators know they’d better do something.

The civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the worker upheavals of the 1930s—all led Washington decision-makers to do things they didn’t want to do.

It’s possible to admire labor’s efforts for two million petition signatures for EFCA and still ask, if this is the fight of a lifetime, why aren’t we acting like it?

Could the energy unions channeled for Obama last fall be reawakened for creative actions in 2009? For a huge march on Washington, for civil disobedience at senators’ offices, for informational picket lines outside the corporations bankrolling the bosses’ campaign, like Home Depot?

Less than three years ago, immigrant workers—most of them not union members—pulled a one-day national strike, bringing more than a million workers, families, students, and supporters into the streets in the largest series of demonstrations our country has ever seen. They were fighting for survival. So is the union movement. This is not the time to be timid.

This piece originally appeared in Labor Notes and is part of a special March issue on issues related to the Employee Free Choice Act. Talking Union encourages our readers to subscribe to Labor Notes.

Jane Slaughter started working with Labor Notes in 1979, eventually serving as editor and director. She is the author of Concessions and How To Beat Them and co-author, with Mike Parker, of Choosing Sides: Unions and the Team Concept and Working Smart: A Union Guide to Participation Programs and Reengineering. Her work has appeared in The Nation, The Progressive, In These Times, and Monthly Review, among others.

Urgent Call For Solidarity With Mexican Miners January 10, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Labor, Latin America, Mexico.
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Written by John L. Lewis

January 10, 2009 at 4:41 am

Union News, http://unionnews.wordpress.com/2009/01/10/urgent-call-for-solidarity-with-mexican-miners/

The National Union of Mineworkers, Steelworkers, Steelmakers and Allied Workers of the Mexican Republic (SNTMMSSRM) is being subjected to fierce repression by the fraudulent government of Felipe Calderon and by the Grupo México, the mining monopoly that seeks to destroy the union. What is the mineworkers’ crime? It’s defending the right of workers to decide who their leaders should be without government interference; it’s defending their collective-bargaining agreement.On December 4, Carlos Pavon Campos, Secretary for Political Affairs of the mineworkers’ union, was arrested in Mexico City. He was immediately transferred to the city of Monclova in the state of Coahuila (in the north), on charges of alleged fraud. The day before, Juan Linares Montufar, president of the union’s Main Committee of Vigilance, was transferred to Mexico City. Linares Montufar had been arrested in the city of Morelia in the state of Michoacan.

 

A few weeks earlier, the government “froze” the bank accounts of the union. On December 9, a judge ruled “Illegal and non-existent” the mineworkers’ strike in Cananea, Sonora. Those workers, together with mineworkers in Sombrerete and Taxco have been on strike for over a year to defend their working conditions and the existence of their union. Grupo Mexico has simply refused to negotiate with the union. Today [Dec. 13] the media report that 50 mineworkers in Cananea were issued arrest warrants.

The crackdown against the union began under the Fox administration (2000-2006) through the creation of “white [scab] unions” in opposition the National Union of Mineworkers. Legal charges were brought against Napoleon Gomez Urrutia, president of the union, who was forced to seek political asylum in Canada. The crackdown has intensified under the government of Felipe Calderon and has reached a level of absolute arbitrary force, outside legal norms, with the appointment by the government of Francisco Gomez Mont Urrueta, a man who had previously been the legal assessor of Grupo México, that is, the very company set on destroying the union.

The government aims to break the will of those fighting to defend the freedom of association and workers’ conquests. The government does not tolerate the union’s demand that the circumstances of the deaths in the Pasta de Conchos mine (in the state of Coahuila) be clarified and the union’s demand for the recovery of the bodies (still buried deep underground) of the deceased workers in this mine.

All these repressive actions taken against the mine workers’ union are an indicator of what the government is preparing with the labor counter-reform it seeks to impose in 2009 (as announced by the Secretary of Labor). This new law aims to eliminate labor rights, to exert even greater pressure on the unions to impose individual and test contracts and to facilitate lay-offs.

The defense of the Mexican mineworkers’ union requires the support of mineworkers and of all unions and union activists the world over. An urgent solidarity response is needed on an international with these embattled mineworkers.

We urge you to demand of the Mexican government:

* The immediate release of Carlos Pavon Campos and Juan Linares Montufar, leaders of the Union of mineworkers
* The withdrawal of all arrest warrants against mineworkers in Cananea
* The return of the bank accounts of the union
* The strict observance of union autonomy and independence
* No to government interference in the internal affairs of the union
* Observance of ILO Conventions 87 and 98

Please send your petitions to:
LIC. Felipe de Jesús Calderón Hinojosa,
Official Residence de los Pinos Casa Miguel Alemán
Col. San Miguel Chapultepec, CP 11850, Distrito Federal, MÉXICOTelephone and fax: (55) 50935300
Felipe.calderon@presidencia.gob.mx

LIC. FERNANDO Francisco Gomez MONT Urueta
Bucareli 99, 1er piso Colonia Juarez CP 06699 México DF,
>Fax: (00 52) 5 55 546 5350, (00 52) 5 55 546 7388

DR. José Luis Soberanes Fernánde
PRESIDENT OF THE NATIONAL COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS

The American Worker November 27, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis, Labor.
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by: Rick Kepler, t r u t h o u t | Perspective

photo
Members of the United Auto Workers at a monthly benefit meeting. (Photo: Getty Images)

   

 

 I am an American worker, and you are damn right I want the wealth to be shared and spread. I am talking about the wealth my hard work helped to create, but was taken from me by George Bush’s base, the very rich, or as I know them, my corporate bosses. For the past eight years I have watched W.’s and McCain’s (Country Club First) base grab the largest share of our country’s wealth. Where did they take it from? They took it from my family’s pocketbook, and my co-workers’ families’ pocketbooks. They stole the wealth that I was trying to build for me and my family when they stripped my pension plan from me and told me to invest in a 401k. Then they stole most of that 401k and other workers’ 401k savings with this economic meltdown. This was a massive transfer of wealth from the workers’ pockets into the already stuffed pockets of the rich. My retirement savings and my coworkers’ savings all across America have been looted by the corporate bosses, who just got bailed out while we got left out. Again!

    The American worker, whether black, brown, white, red, yellow, or rainbow color, has been fleeced over these past eight years. We are the ones who go to work every day. We don’t own our places of work, nor do we help manage them. We just go in and do the job. And we must be doing one hell of a good job because we are told that we are the most productive workers in the world. We are working longer and harder, but our paychecks keep shrinking! Where are those productivity gains going then? Not into our pockets. Our standard of living has been going down these past eight years ($2,000 less in family income since W. took office) This is another damn transfer of wealth into the hands of the extremely rich.

    Their greed is insatiable. Take our family’s health care. They do. They keep passing on their increased costs to us, or they just drop coverage for the worker completely. That means we either join the 50,000,000 who have no health care, or we end up having to buy it privately, thus eating up a huge portion of our family’s income. If we manage to hang onto our health care plans, our deductibles, co-pays, and out-of-pay contributions keep skyrocketing. This amounts to another massive transfer of wealth from our pockets into the overflowing pockets of our corporate bosses.

    The list goes on for the American worker. We saw overtime pay stripped from millions of workers during this past nightmare eight years. The worker was still working overtime, but due to a new “boss law” passed by W. and McCain’s party that assists these thieves, the workers didn’t receive overtime pay because they were declared exempt. They also weakened the workers’ health and safety standards or just plain didn’t enforce the laws already on the books. As a result, the American worker pays the price in lost days due to accidents from unsafe conditions or from lingering, expensive illnesses suffered from unhealthy working conditions. This too is a massive transfer of wealth from our pockets into our corporate bosses’ bulging pockets.

    To further sweeten their own pots, they took full-time jobs and converted them to part-time with no benefits, or they just made their employees line up and reapply for their exact same jobs at half the pay. Are we beginning to see what a true transfer of wealth looks like? So, do I want to see a spreading of the wealth? You bet your sweet hind-end I do. But all I ask of Obama is to give me and my co-workers the ability to retrieve some of the wealth that has been stolen from us.

    Strengthen the laws that give workers the right to organize and bargain for a contract with our bosses. The current laws on the books have been torn to shreds by W. and McCain on behalf of their base. This is just part of their attack on American workers. Under globalization, the bosses seek a much cheaper workforce, which always means non-union, which means “can’t fight back.” That is why they have gutted the laws that protect workers. The laws that once gave us a level playing field with our bosses have been rendered useless, including our legal right to strike. That law said I had a right to strike, and could.

    The American worker doesn’t want a handout. Never did. We do want a hand up from our government. We still believe and have hope that this is a government of, by and for the people. We do want to know that our government will finally stand with us against this onslaught, this Robin Hood in reverse, being conducted by the bosses against the workers. The bosses know that W. and McCain have been on their side for the past eight years – and so do we workers. We just want our government to now stand on our side as we stand up against this corporate attempt to create third world working conditions right here in America. Restore our right to fight for a better living for ourselves and our families, and let the power of pissed-off workers, united in struggle, spread corporate America’s stolen wealth back into the pockets of those whose pockets got picked these last eight years – the American worker.

»


Rick Kepler has driven beer trucks in New Orleans, Louisiana; Colorado Springs, Colorado and Oakland, California. He has tended bar in San Francisco, and worked on the railroad and loading docks in Ohio. Currently he’s a Teamsters organizer who speaks to thousands of unorganized workers every year.

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