Two Reports from the Murphy Institute:
The Mounting Guerilla War against the Reign of Walmart
2012-2013 was a big year for Wal-Mart workers and their allies fighting for better labor
standards and an end to management retaliation. It saw the first-ever strikes in the history
of the company, as well as the first strikes by warehouse workers contracted with Wal-Mart; a
campaign against abuses among Wal-Mart suppliers and logistics chains; policy initiatives
targeting the high cost to the public of the company's poverty wages and benefits; and a vigorous
international campaign for better standards at Wal-Mart. These imaginative actions have ratcheted
up the pressure on the company—which has become the poster child for the immiseration of workers
in the first world and the exploitation of workers in developing countries—and laid the basis for
further intensification in 2013-2014.
The success of the past year's actions has come as a result of lessons drawn from past campaigns at
Wal-Mart, as well as the impetus of other national political protests. Over the past two decades,
the campaign for better standards at Wal-Mart has gone through several iterations. First, workers
in certain divisions—meat-cutters, tire and lube workers—attempted to organize with limited success
and aggressive employer opposition. Then, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) attempted to
organize workers geographically, with a strong focus on Wal-Mart and Sam's Club stores in Las Vegas.
Third, the Wake Up Wal-Mart (coordinated by UFCW) and Wal-Mart Watch (coordinated by the SEIU)
initiatives educated the public about poor working conditions and employer retaliation with
significant impact, including in the case of Wake Up Wal-Mart on the Democratic presidential primary.
Finally, the current campaign is much more focused on the activism of Wal-Mart workers, especially
through the strikes and protests coordinated by OUR Wal-Mart, which has also benefited from changes
in the external environment caused by Occupy Wall Street, the fast-food worker strikes, and other protests.
First-Ever Strikes in Walmart's History
September and October 2012 saw the first strikes in Wal-Mart's half-century-long history.
The stoppages started with a series of spontaneous walkouts by employees in Southern California in
September 2012. After a 24-hour strike at a store in Los Angeles, October saw strikes at Wal-Mart
stores in San Francisco, Sacramento, Seattle, Dallas, Miami, and suburban D.C. In November, the strike
action escalated significantly across the country.
Impossible Unity: Adjuncts and Tenure-Track Faculty
In 2005, an estimated 42.6 million Americans (about 31 percent of the U.S. workforce) toiled as contingent workers
outside full-time, regular year-round employment. And the problem is getting worse. By 2020, more than 40
percent may work under insecure conditions: underpaid and without job protection as well as lacking many
benefits such as health insurance, pensions, and vacations with pay. Unionizing this large segment of the workforce
has proved difficult. Only about 6 percent of part-time employees are union members, compared to 12.5 percent for
full-timers. As the labor movement increases efforts to reach these workers, questions remain about the best
organizational forms to represent them. Should contingent workers join locals that enroll full-time employees in
their industries or should part-timers form their own independent unions? Can solidarity exist between full-timers
and part-timers within the same organization?
I would like to consider the union prospects for a large sector of contingent workers probably familiar to many
readers of New Labor Forum: adjunct or part-time college and university teachers. Today, there are more than 1.3
million contingent adjuncts—about 75 percent of all college teachers. Why a two-tier labor system has become
entrenched in academia is beyond the scope of my argument here. My main point is that unions need to devote more
resources to organize this large group. About one-fifth of adjuncts nationwide already are represented by collective
bargaining units and they have shown a high degree of receptivity to organizing efforts. But, critically, adjuncts
need to look beyond the teachers unions, which are dominated by full-time faculty and have provided them very weak
representation. Another path is possible. The formation of a national adjunct labor union could fight for a more just
and fair distribution of employee earnings and benefits. It also could mount a challenge to the very existence of the
two-tier labor system. Democratic equity goals are essential to help preserve the integrity and quality of higher
education. After all, teachers have a special role as "idea workers" to promote critical thinking, truth, freedom, and
human development and growth. Their unions should reflect these ideas. A labor reform movement led by adjuncts might
spur organizing among part-timers in other professions and industries.
Solidarity: An Argument for Faculty Unity
As in many industries and professions, stable and coveted careers in higher education have transformed into contingent,
low-paid jobs. As tenured full professors retired, they were replaced with adjuncts, part-time instructors, full-time
non-tenure-system faculty, and other "contract" faculty. The shift was rapid and dramatic: from 1975 to 2010 part-time
faculty increased by 300 percent, and the full-time tenure-track professoriate lost more than half its members. Now more
than 75 percent of college and university classes are taught by non-tenure-system teachers who have little job security,
may be "on call" from one semester to the next, work at several universities at the same time, and can earn as little as
$1,500 per course.
Organizing such a dispersed workforce is difficult, but in many places non-tenure-track faculty have mobilized to demand
better pay and working conditions. Citywide efforts to organize adjuncts at private colleges are underway in Boston,
Pittsburgh, Washington, DC, and elsewhere. All of these various forms of organizing are crucial and deserve active support
from other faculty, students, and the wider community.
But non-tenure-system faculty need more power; how can they best achieve it? At public universities, organizing with
tenure-system faculty holds the most potential. Not only can contingent faculty gain a voice in their workplace, job
security, career ladders, and significant pay raises—but all of this is in the interest of their tenured colleagues.
In the best cases, by organizing together both groups have realized that their own self-interest, rightly understood,
depends on solidarity.
In the fall of 2003, the UMass-Amherst faculty and librarians' union, the Massachusetts Society of Professors (MSP),
prepared for contract negotiations. We conducted a survey to ask members what issues were most pressing. The MSP
(MTA/NEA) represents 1,400 members, including about 1,000 full-time tenured faculty and 400 lecturers and adjuncts
(on our campus these non-tenure-system faculty call themselves “contract faculty,” elsewhere they prefer "adjunct" or
"non-tenure-track" or NTT; we use these terms interchangeably). While salaries almost always came up first in
bargaining surveys, that year was different: more members were concerned about the sharp decline of tenure-system
faculty. In the 1980s UMass had employed over 1,200 tenure-system faculty but in 20 years the number had fallen to
950, while the student body was steadily growing. Faculty recognized that their increased workload, larger classes,
teaching and service demands were caused by the shrinkage of the tenured faculty.
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Immigration Reform: Corporate Demands Trump Human Rights
Immigration reform has been the year's most feared, least effective, most popular, and most hated
legislative discussion in Washington. You might say that "comprehensive immigration reform"—the
awkward legislative compromise that emerged last summer as Senate Bill 744 and now languishes in
the gridlocked House—was dead on arrival because of its attempt to straddle so many competing,
often conflicting interests, pushing for a panoply of reforms that would either open or harden
the country's porous borders.
While the Republican-dominated House of Representatives wrestles with issues of war, budget deficits,
and Obamacare, the chaos of Capitol Hill may well smother any chances of passing reform legislation
this year. Despite its narrow chances of passage, however, the bill provides a crucial window for
understanding the current alignment of powerful stakeholders advocating immigration reform.
Senate bill 744 has drawn a melting pot of supporters who blur ideological lines. Earlier this year,
the framework proposed by the so-called "Gang of Eight," a bipartisan cluster of leading Senate reformers,
drew broad support from labor organizations, including the AFL-CIO; civil rights groups like the ACLU and
NAACP; and business lobbyists such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—groups who usually stick to their
own political orbits and, in the case of labor and employers, whose interests often collide.
The Senate bill establishes clear preferences regarding the type of immigrant the U.S. should accept
within its borders: the upward striving student with an impeccable record, the computer programmer
recruited from Mumbai to Silicon Valley. And behind these elite migrants stand laborers in high
demand, like the farmworkers who fuel our agricultural system. Under the reform plan sketched out
by the Senate, these aspiring Americans would be incorporated into the workforce as long as they are
deemed beneficial to the economy. Tens of thousands of immigrant workers would also be admitted
through a convoluted scorecard system, allotting "points" based on economic and professional merits.
The UAW's Do-or-Die Battle in Canton
Walter Reuther saw an opportunity to forge the link between labor and civil rights when he stood beside
Martin Luther King Jr. and A. Philip Randolph on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago. "When Bull
Connor with his police dogs and fire hoses destroys freedom in Birmingham, he is destroying my freedom in
Detroit," he told the crowd at the 1963 March on Washington.
The United Auto Workers leader, vilified as "top labor fuehrer" by the segregationist press in the South,
called for "fair employment" and a "great crusade to mobilize the moral conscience of America ... from Michigan
King, in a speech to striking sanitation workers in Memphis five years later, said workers' rights are civil
rights. "Let it be known everywhere that along with wages and all of the other securities that you are struggling
for," he said just before his assassination, "you're also struggling for the right to organize and be recognized."
This link between labor and civil rights is important in the modest local headquarters of the United Auto
Workers just off Nissan Parkway in Canton, Mississippi. A black-and-white photograph of Reuther and King together
hangs prominently on a wall here. Workers, organizers, strategists, and college student volunteers walk past it
every day as they plot the unionization of the nearby 5,200-employee Nissan plant, organized labor's most
important campaign in decades.
The photograph is a reminder of another time, another battle, when the odds were overwhelmingly against success,
yet success came. Bull Connor is no longer in Birmingham. Mississippi's arch-segregationist governor,
Ross Barnett, is no longer waving a Confederate flag and blocking the doors to keep a black man out of Ole Miss.
But outside the UAW's offices, just up the road, is a 3.5 million-square-foot, gleaming white fortress where
another formidable foe rules, a man touted by admirers for his "vision of greatness" yet the polar opposite of
Walter Reuther, a man whose vision has no room for Reuther's UAW inside his fortress.
The Disaster Inside the Disaster: Hurricane Sandy and Post-Crisis Redevelopment
"We have all experienced the devastating effects of natural and unnatural disasters in America."
So began a speaker at a post-Hurricane Sandy rally at Zuccotti Park on July 31, 2013, recalling
two previous disasters that the audience knew well: the World Trade Center attack of September 11,
2001, and Hurricane Katrina's flooding of New Orleans on August 29, 2005. Yet by "devastating
effects," he wasn’t just referring to the terrorist attack or breached levees. As he went on to
say: "the recovery efforts were the disaster inside the disaster." His first example was close
at hand: the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), the public-private conduit through
which $20 billion in post-9/11 recovery funds flowed, housed in the reconstructed Deutsche Bank
building now rising on Zuccotti's northern edge. Shaking a fist at the tower, the speaker listed
the major corporations and Wall Street firms that were primary recipients of New York's aid.
He drew a parallel to the "recovery" following Katrina, where despite $32 billion in aid, the city,
state, and federal governments were unable to rebuild the neighborhoods or fund the return of New
Orleans' poorest and most vulnerable communities. After Katrina, he said, "We vowed never to have
that same situation arise on our soil."
The speech was one of many along the route of a "Turning the Tide" march led by a new
labor-community coalition, Alliance for a Just Rebuilding (AJR). Beginning at the Staten Island
Ferry terminal and culminating at City Hall, speakers represented the diversity of Sandy-impacted
individuals and organizations from across the five boroughs, including public housing residents and
renters still displaced or living with mold; day laborers who worked as first responders under
abysmal conditions for little pay; and trade unions and community organizations whose members continue
to face economic, health, and emotional hardship. Their immediate goal, as AJR director Nathalie Alegre
put it, was to remind the many New Yorkers—including the then-New York City mayoral candidates—for
whom Sandy was already a "distant memory" that thousands were still affected and in need of aid. Yet
AJR had a longer-term goal: to "turn the tide" on the top-down approaches to recovery and redevelopment
that were established in the wake of 9/11 and Katrina. They unveiled a "people’s agenda" for post-Sandy
rebuilding with four demands: good jobs, affordable housing, sustainable energy, and community involvement.
What's striking is how radical this basic platform appeared up against the "new normal" of twenty-first
century post-disaster redevelopment.
Working Class Voices of Contemporary America
Calling All Carwasheros
As a child growing up in the campo of Oaxaca, Mexico, my parents and I worked in fields of maize, beans,
garbanzos, and wheat. I was the oldest of seven children and on our farm we harvested enough to survive,
weather permitting. Treatment for any illness neared unaffordable, and after I finished the sixth grade,
education was a luxury we could not afford. As it became harder and harder to provide care for my
diabetic mother, in November 1999, at 27 years old, I decided to travel to the United States to find work
in order to help my parents and younger siblings have a better life.
After a brief stay in Los Angeles, a friend suggested I pursue my American Dream in New York City. There,
he said, the police bothered immigrant workers less and work was more plentiful. He had a brother, Juan,
in New York who could offer me a bed in a two-bedroom apartment with 5 other guys while I figured things
out. All of my roommates worked at car washes, and it was Juan who took me to speak to the manager at my
first car wash in Queens. Without having any idea what the work entailed, I convinced the manager that I
could quickly learn to do any task he assigned. In the first real winter of my life, I stood in the cold
and dried wet cars. I worked twelve hours a day for six days a week. I could barely handle the cold; it
felt like my legs and arms were frozen each day and my fingers would numb. Never in my life had I imagined
that this type of weather existed, let alone that I would have to work in it. I thought about leaving the
job all the time, but had no idea what I would do if I left. I knew that in order to survive and succeed
in this country, and be able to support my family, I had to bear the conditions. My pay was just $3.50
per hour. With multiple layers of socks and pants, I braved the cold and managed to send my family some
money ($200 to $300) every week. Most carwasheros are paid much less than the minimum wage. Many car
wash owners make us pay for any damage that happens to any car out of our tips.