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Posts Tagged ‘Harold Meyerson

Don’t Mourne, Organize! : Harold Meyerson on the Labor Movement

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Harold Meyerson has a substantial and important piece surveying the problems of the union movement, and the problems of a liberalism facing a disappearing union movement, in the Prospect.  It’s well timed, given the inspiring Chicago Teachers’ Union strike that happening as I type this.  Meyerson notes, as he has in the past, a pessimism among unnamed leaders of in the movement – although it seems clear this includes top people at SEIU (see below)

Coming on the heels of the failure of the Democratic Congress of 2009–2010 to amend the National Labor Relations Act so that private–sector workers wouldn’t risk their jobs by forming a union, the Midwestern setbacks struck a growing number of commentators as labor’s death knell. Losing jobs as technology transformed workplaces, losing both jobs and middle-class wages as globalization transformed the economy, and blocked by statute and employer opposition from expanding—unions, some concluded, were history.

Within the labor movement, a number of leaders and activists quietly shared the same pessimism. They had invested in organizing with little to show for it. They had invested in politics but found that the Democrats they’d helped elect could not—or worse, would not—come to their aid. In 2008, they had seen the entire edifice of deregulated capitalism totter and almost collapse, plunging the nation into its deepest and most intractable recession since the 1930s. But unlike the ’30s, when workers flocked to unions, the current recession has only intensified labor’s downward spiral and business’s ascent. “What would it take for labor to come back?” one senior union staffer asked earlier this year. “This was the crisis we were waiting for, and it didn’t do it.”

But has the investment in organizing been substantive or symbolic?  I think it’s been real for some unions, but for the union movement as a whole it hasn’t been the case.  In part this is because in a time when union membership has been declining for over a generation, there is declining funds, and these are going towards electing Democrats who have repeatedly failed to bring about labor law reform that (supposedly) justifies these expenditures.  As Meyerson notes later:

In 2008, SEIU spent more than $60 million in its campaign for Barack Obama and congressional Democrats. This year, labor is likely to spend about $400 million on the election.

That’s a lot of money–money that isn’t being used to organize.  Whether unions should be involved in electoral politics isn’t the issue –it’s the relative magnitude of the resources involved.  I simply doubt that most are spending anywhere near as much on organizing as they are on elections.  Again, SEIU is instructive.

In an even more radical move away from organizing workers, SEIU last year suspended its unionization drives and instead invested tens of millions of dollars in community–organizing projects in 17 cities. The union hoped to create a massive network of minority voters that could move American politics leftward, but the campaign proved largely unsuccessful.

But there are examples where individual unions have seen increases, both in membership and even more crucially to my mind, in density.  Some are discussed in the piece. And there are examples of political strategies that have seen great success as well – Meyerson discusses the role of Miguel Contreras, of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and Madeline Janis of Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE).  The activities of LAANE are particularly important because they have successfully challenged the notion that many corporations are getting returns based simply on “the market”.

Janis’s thesis was that businesses that operate on government-owned or -assisted properties or that have government contracts should repay the city by bettering the lives of the workers they employ and the communities in which they operate. LAANE’s first major victory was persuading the city council to require cleaning companies with which it had contracts to pay their workers a living wage—a sum several dollars higher than California’s minimum wage (or a bit lower than that if they provided their workers with health coverage). Over the years, the scope of such ordinances was broadened to encompass card-check unionization at hotels and sports arenas that received redevelopment funds; local-hiring requirements for developers of major projects; and clean-air standards for trucks at the Port of Los Angeles. Some of these ordinances have served as models for living-wage and other laws in more than 140 other cities. “A bank that makes an investment wants a return for its money, and so does the public,” Janis says. “The returns to the public should include good jobs, child-care centers, cleaner air, affordable housing.”

Ultimately, I’m not as pessimistic as some of Meyerson’s sources are about what’s possible, but I do fear the impact of that view.  Labor law change is important (and for many workers who aren’t covered under federal labor law, could be achieved at the state level where that’s possible, even without scrapping the NLRB, one of the options discussed in the piece.) But that doesn’t mean it’s necessary to move forward.

One last point: An idea Meyerson neglects is the idea of  making labor organizing a civil right, which it should be noted, could also be done at the state level for those not currently covered by federal labor law. That should definitely be part of this conversation.

Written by David Kaib

September 13, 2012 at 1:08 pm

Economic Myths and Other Possible Worlds

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Harold Meyerson has a really good piece on “The Failures of Shareholder Capitalism.” I like this for a number of reasons, including that the idea that having socialized ownership (by numerous individuals or more often, institutions) isn’t really the same as 1) the way the economic system was ordered when the economy was far healthier, i.e. in the 50s and 60s, or 2) as the idea of capitalism, which focuses more on individual ownership. (Ok, that bit about stock holding as a form of socialism is my gloss, but it’s a good point whether it gets that label or not).

The whole thing is great but this is especially important.

Still, the myth of shareholder power, and especially individual shareholder power, is continually attested to by corporate managers and their apologists because it legitimates the current system of corporate governance and the division of corporate riches. CEOs don’t acknowledge that the system is rigged in their favor. But the rise of shareholder capitalism — the doctrine that has dominated corporate conduct since the early ’80s, as corporations’ raison d’etre has been reduced to maximizing shareholder value — has been a boon to top executives. They have been able to tie their compensation packages to rising share value (and untie it when share value falls).

The transformation of the shareholder from an individual with a long-term interest in the company to an institutional short-timer with myriad other investments raises a deeper question about corporate governance: Why is it that shareholders, at least theoretically, are entrusted with electing corporate boards? Why aren’t more long-term stakeholders with a genuine interest in the company’s success — say, their employees — also represented on corporate boards, as they are required to be in Germany? German corporations are thriving, even though (or more likely, because) their CEOs are paid radically less than ours and their workers command a higher share of gross domestic product than ours.

I’ve long thought we do ourselves a disservice by simply adopting terms developed long ago to describe very different economies that today serve mostly to legitimate the rule of the powerful and which are not generally taken very seriously by their proponents.  (James Galbraith makes this point is his excellent book The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too.)  The legal realists* did this once before in the lead up to and wake of the Great Depression.  In the aftermath of the Great Recession, brought on by a second resurgence of market fundamentalism, we need to recover that past and extend it.

*Agnostic Liberal had a good post the other day discussing this that’s also worth a read.

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