What’s Going on in the Workforce?
Excellent piece from Forbes on the hazards that sharing economy workers face AFTER they get hurt at work.
If robots have temp agencies, can a robot union be far behind?
Sarcasm is a beautiful thing. Henry Blodget cheers on capital for “crushing” labor, and laments the probably outcome.
Labor is, God willing, at a turning point in this country. New campaigns have started to infuse fresh energy into a moribund and declining movement, and new models of collective action are being proposed in the course of these ongoing efforts. While the existing NLRB/NMB certification election-contractual bargaining system still functions on paper, in practice it has broken down. Employers do not hesitate when flouting the law while trying to head off a union vote going against them. Even when they lose, bosses are willing to sandbag their workers by refusing to even bother to negotiate, and striking has been gelded as a tactic through injunction and wrongly decided precedent about permanently replacing strikers. While corporate campaigns, which focus on pressuring shareholders and embarrassing companies into acting humanely, have met with some success they have not delivered the kind of widespread worker empowerment that the postwar period did. There’s absolutely no doubt that if workers are going to ultimately make their own destiny that a new model or approach is needed for unions. One that has been proposed, separately by the UAW and by Benjamin Sachs, is the implementation of works councils in the United States.
The works council model is one that is used across Europe, with the most prominent examples being in Germany, although works councils also exist in the United Kingdom, France, and Belgium. There, employees are elected to four-year terms on the works council, where they negotiate the terms of employment and workplace conditions with the employer. In Germany this is enabled through the Works Constitution Act, which was first passed through the Bundestag in 1952 and allows the formation of works councils in any private workplace of at least five people. While the employees who serve on the works council are not required to be in a union, over 77 percent of them are. As such, the works council functions as a strong facilitator of union power in German labor relations, especially in the large auto plants there.
(It should be noted that the works council system is different from a worker cooperative. The chief distinction is that workers in a cooperative have full control over the means of production, while a works council is, essentially, what we would consider to be a labor union bargaining unit in the United States.)
It is imagined in the United States as an unprecedented form of economic democracy. Our conception of a Board of Directors has very little to do with a company’s employees or their demands; rather it is an oligarchy of investors and corporate officers who run our nation’s business apparatus. So the thought of workers getting a say in the dealings of two of our nation’s largest industries, automotive and fast food, is one that is understandably exhilarating for those supportive of the labor movement.
There’s a couple of problems with implementing such a model in the US, though. Firstly, the National Labor Relations Act explicitly bans company unions in Section 8(a)(2). Sachs makes that clear in his piece, saying that implementing a works council model at McDonalds would require significant legal wrangling to avoid being proscribed by Section 8(a)(2), though far more optimistically than we would.
Another big concern is that the works council model could mollify working-class radicalism at a time where it is on the upswing. Few could have predicted that fast-food workers would be engaging in waves of walk-outs with the demand of a $15 an hour minimum wage. Combined with the recent demonstrations against state violence in major cities across the country and the connections between these two movements, working-class organizing might be in a stronger position now than in any other time since mass deindustrialization began in the 1970s.
Furthermore, story after story is raising awareness of how other countries have paid their fast-food workers a living wage and still managed to turn a profit. To turn all of this potential for a paradigm-shifting movement and steer it towards a highly formal and bureaucratic process before any real gains have been secured would seem to be an error. In fact, it could be argued that the bureaucratization of the labor movement is a key part of why it is in such dire straits in modern times. Why voluntarily repeat the errors that got us where we are today for a system that we are not even sure will work in the United States?
Finally, is winning a process that, from its beginning, privileges the interests of management at the same level as the interests of the workers really worth it? Given all of the effort, energy, and time that would get put into organizing works councils, is it a big enough win? Make no mistake, the purpose of works councils is for smooth functioning of commerce at a given employer by addressing the collective concerns of its workers. Whether the emphasis falls on the front half of that statement or the back half in an American implementation of works councils remains up in the air. At a time when labor is frequently discussing things in terms of labor-management partnerships and jointness, will workers’ interests be better served by a system where the union is not even an independent body but rather an organ inside the corporate structure?
Works councils have significant power in Europe and are able to redress major issues for the workers who participate in them. However, they gained this power in the shadow of the Cold War, at a time when capitalism had to show it gave a damn about Western workers lest they fall “victim” to Communism. That threat does not exist now. There is no indication that the works councils that are being proposed would be able to address the larger problems that the working class faces on a day-to-day basis. While alternatives to a dysfunctional NLRA-focused process should be considered, the notion of labor-management partnership can only function when labor has sufficient power to make everything stop.
We will only rebuild power through advancing the interests of the working class as a whole. Investing more in organizing, training, mobilization, and educating union workers about their rights is a part of this equation, but only by fundamentally aligning the labor movement with the communities it represents will we start to recover.
Last week, Douglas Williams had some thoughts about Solidarity, the AFL-CIO and Ferguson.
“The greatest challenge for humanity will be to decouple income and work.” Cosmos Mag takes a look at our robot future.
“Coming from the technology world, we were confounded when technology failed us.” What happens when some Fellows are assigned to build an app for low-income Americans?
What’s Going on in the Workforce?
If you don’t believe robots will be able to do emotional labor someday, you probably haven’t seen this Furby-like video. I do have a hard time envisioning a food-delivery quad copter with facial expressions, myself.
How do you make yourself irreplaceable, in the face of automation? Get creative. Or start asking—why is work necessary at all (okay, that last point is mine.)
If you know me, you’ll know that I read practically every word that Jaron Lanier writes. Here he is, talking about AI—and how it can’t evolve to something better than human, because it REQUIRES humans to populate the big data sets it needs to function. But mythology leads us to believe that things might be possible that aren’t possible. Watch & learn, or read & learn.
Great piece about how Hollaback uses online engagement to foster offline organizing to prevent street harassment.
“New power values participation and is all about do-it-yourself.” Jeremy Heimans on what new power means for organizations.
Reputation, reputation, reputation
At what point will my cyborg have a higher Klout score than I do?
Are you a Flickr user? Might be time to check your license. At what point do you stop owning “your” photos?
Sharing, Solidarity & Sustainability
If we want more walkable communities—are we enacting public policies that encourage them at the point of development?
Shareable lists 8 great things that coops do to strengthen communities. And while we’re on the subject of co-ops—the Small Business Administration just funded a support group for them in Seattle that hopes to incubate more.
“The way some pessimists put it is that all the low-hanging fruit has been picked. I would argue that there never was any low-hanging fruit; it was always of intermediate height and the question was, were people reaching for it? I’m frustrated because I think technology is progressing slowly, but I’m optimistic because I think it could be better.”
Peter Thiel, MIT Tech Review Vol. 117, No. 6
The protests in Ferguson, Missouri have been, if nothing else, a working-class struggle. The people who are flooding into the streets to make their voices heard are not simply protesting the decision by a grand jury not to indict Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, they are railing against social, political, and economic systems that seem to put more distance between their machinations and the protestors’ humanity every single day. They are condemning a neoliberal state that appears to give license to murder so long as it is under the guise of “law and order”. And they are telling the world that they have had enough.
The most obvious facilitator of working-class power in these current systems is the labor union, and Richard Trumka has been amazing in his role as AFL-CIO President on this issue. Whether it was his speech to the Missouri AFL-CIO in the immediate aftermath of Brown’s death, or his brief remarks following the grand jury’s decision last night, Trumka has never wavered in his (accurate) assertions that the problems underlying Ferguson are rooted in classism and racism. He says that we will be hearing a lot from the labor federation in the future, which begs the question:
Why not now?
When I was interviewed by Colorlines a couple of months ago, I told Carla Murphy that the power of Trumka’s words were amplified because of the large numbers of law enforcement and correctional officers who belong to unions that are within his labor federation, particularly within the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE). In the wake of news stories detailing the ways in which the local police union raised money for Wilson (a police union that included a sitting Democratic state representative on its fundraising board), hearing Trumka’s words were a direct challenge to anyone within the labor movement who did not express 100 percent solidarity with those in the streets throughout Ferguson.
But now it is time to transition from statements into actions, and the labor movement should be at the fore.
Polls since time immemorial have shown that Black workers support unions at a much higher rate than their white counterparts, and research by Roland Zullo found that Black women were the group most likely to be involved in a union until retirement, layoff, or termination. As the labor movement expands its organizing efforts into the South, it will be dependent upon Black workers for its success here, much as it depended on Black workers in the organizing campaigns of previous generations, such as Operation Dixie. But much as the Democratic Party found out in the recent midterms to their chagrin, Black support for labor is not written in stone, a permanence to passed on from generation to generation. It requires attention to be paid and work to be done on the issues that affect their communities on the day-to-day. And if there is an issue that looms over Black communities like a malevolent cloud, it is the specter of state violence and brutality.
When I was a teenager, I would fly to Chicago and spend the summer with my father, who was a labor educator for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW). We would travel throughout the Midwest as he gave stewards’ trainings and, in many cases, we would encounter workers walking a picket line in some sort of boycott or strike action. Whenever we came across these workers, we made it a policy to go to the nearest bakery or coffee shop and order donuts and coffee for the workers. Sometimes we would even walk the line with them for a little bit. It was the least we could do to show solidarity to people pushing for economic justice and equality.
The AFL-CIO must make it a policy to put the full force of solidarity behind oppressed people wherever they are. That means more than speeches; it means raising bail money, allowing protestors to use labor halls as staging areas for direct action, and many other actions to show that the labor movement has their back. Simply put, it means being there.