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Winter 2014 Edition

The Mounting Guerilla War against the Reign of Walmart

By John Logan

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.

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on the contrary
  • Impossible Unity: Adjuncts and Tenure-Track Faculty

    By Ivan Greenberg

    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.

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  • Solidarity: An Argument for Faculty Unity

    By Eve S. Weinbaum and Max Page

    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

By Michelle Chen

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.

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The UAW's Do-or-Die Battle in Canton

By Joseph B. Atkins

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 to Mississippi."

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.

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The Disaster Inside the Disaster: Hurricane Sandy and Post-Crisis Redevelopment

By Miriam Greenberg

"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.

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Working Class Voices of Contemporary America
Calling All Carwasheros

By Patricio Santiago with Sebastian Sanchez

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.

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