Solidarity, the AFL-CIO, and Ferguson.

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.

Not A Cut Above: The Workonomics of Grass

Bought your first bag of grass seed yet? Thinking about a new hose? Scrolling through Angie’s List for a good lawn service? Uh-huh. Well think about where your lawn maintenance money is going, because these are $24 Billion questions. As Wilson Pickett sings “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You.” What I’ve found is that we seem to place such a high value on the perfect lawn but yet, don’t place much value on those who care for them. 

This Plot of Green, an American Obsession 

We can be fools about our lawns. Obsessive would be an understatement for some. Be it Beverly Hills or any patch of green in Piscataway or Akron I suspect. We like to look at them, sprawl on them, breathe nostrils-deep and admire them. It says something. There was a man near my childhood home in North Carolina named “S.L.” – that’s what everybody called him – and every afternoon after finishing a hard day’s work as a house painter, he would stand out on his finely cut lawn, smoke a cigarette or two and just gaze out far beyond the horizon. He was in his domain. He was proud. He was figuring out a lot of things about the world on his lawn and you knew it. Now that I can respect but its the folks that go over the top with their odd fascination with their lawns and the people who do the hard work to make them look good that concern me. For the frontline workers, the grass is definitely not greener. 

From Grass Seed to Grass Cut, Let’s Follow the Money 

We spend a pile of dough on this obsession. An industry report  from HighBeam Business says that “according to Dun and Bradstreet in 2010, 92,325 establishments in the lawn and garden services industry brought in revenues of $23.98 billion. Companies with fewer than 100 employees accounted for 99 percent of employees and 80 percent of revenues.” The lawn services game is hella packed with thousands of small businesses. Most firms (80 percent) have four or fewer employees. No surprise there. But this translates into grounds maintenance workers holding about 1.2 million jobs in the 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Roughly 36 percent of workers were employed by companies providing landscaping services to residential and commercial customers. And then there’s the unaccounted like your kids or the day laborers that some(ok, most) people paid in cash as this Fox News article about a proposed Georgia law affirms.  But who is really getting paid? Well, stakeholders in the ‘let’s keep up a façade in a bad economy’ game are one set. You see, even in empty homes – say those vacant due to foreclosure, there’s money to be spent on grass. Last year, ABC reports, American taxpayers will spend more than $40 million just to keep the lawns mowed at these addresses. 

Mowing Down The Wages 

There are many other winners and losers in this gigantic grass economy. Like, the owner of Scotts Miracle Gro, James Hagedorn whose compensation was $5.4 Million in 2012. Yet, out of 204 jobs recently listed for Scotts on the job search website Indeed, 134 of them were pegged at being likely under $30,000. And that’s not counting the person just cutting the grass for one of Scott’s Lawn Care franchises that are popping up like weeds. The market on wages can seriously vary. On discussion boards on Yahoo! and elsewhere, folks are saying no more than $10 an hour. Others proposed pay based on square footage, a little extra for trimming perhaps, different if done by a team. Its all over the place. But no matter how you slice it, its unlikely that those in frontline lawn service will have a lawn or home like Mr. Hagedorn. Let alone healthcare, health and safery protections or other benefits.   

Golf Courses and Other Pastoral Illusions of Grandeur 

And while many might want to cite the big number of small businesses as a signal of grass as some mighty entrepreneurial engine for the economy, the truth is the average lawn guy or gal is barely making ends meet. Like taxi drivers or maids and others jobs regarded as  “independent contractors,” the cost to be in business is more like hacking out of a bunker. Which brings us to golf, clearly a world that values a well-cut lawn, right? Not exactly. The wages of lawn care there are below par at best. In a US Golf Association article called The Escalating Cost of Golf Course Maintenance, despite its title, lays bare a wage ceiling that has not been raised much:

“Fifteen to 20 years ago, hourly wages at a golf course were superior to those of many competing businesses (fast food, retail, etc.) and were very attractive…The gap between golf course wages and other work options [now] is far less than in the past.”

Think about that at Augusta National this year in addition to their normal, um, “diversity challenges.”   “Beautiful place, bad work environment”, a former Groundskeeper wrote online. In addition, there’s serious environmental impact with all of this perfectly manicured lawn mania, as noted by Duke’s School of the Environment Dean Bill Chameides.  

Which all brings into question the very notion of what having a home is supposed to mean in the first place. Keeping up with the Joneses is turning more into keeping up with the Rockefellers, and in lawn care, we’re led to think we can and should manage that competition. 

About fifteen years ago, I visited the Canadian Centre for Architecture which dug deep into this world full force with an exhibit dedicated to lawns. Yes, you read that correctly. As CCA wrote in the exhibit program guide “The American Lawn: Surface of Everyday Life reveals the lawn as a domestic symbol, civic showplace, economic force, and national icon. Bungalows in tract developments, suburban corporate headquarters, and the White House are all alike in that they sit behind a lawn: a carefully contrived patch of “nature” that lies open to the sky.” 

And with the inequities found in the care of lawns empires big and small have and will continue to rest on them.

Wyatt Closs is a writer from Los Angeles. He can be found at @wyclo

Click below to listen to Wilson Pickett’s “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You”