Wanna see how much your city is losing to corporate tax breaks? Here’s how.

 

If you’re looking for public money to increase the budget of a social program your members care about, a semi-obscure NGO called the  Government Accounting Standards Bureau (aka GASB) may have just given you one of the tools you need to find it.

Organizers who work on school district, city or state budgets should be able to start figuring out how much that city or state has given away in corporate tax breaks, thanks to GASB’s Statement 77 which requires that, in order to comply with good accounting practices, governments must reveal how much revenue they’ve lost due to tax abatements.  Interestingly, governments have to report not only the revenue lost to their own tax abatements, but also the revenue lost to tax abatements levied by other governments (so school districts, which usually do not have input into property tax abatements, are still required to disclose how much revenue they are losing due to those abatements).

So your school district (which probably doesn’t get to make any of the decisions about economic development that gives tax breaks to corporations, now have to disclose how much revenue they’re losing.

The GASB-77 rule passed in April of 2015, and 2016 government expenditure reports were the first ones subject to it–and Good Jobs First has been doing a banner job of documenting how states and cities are doing at tracking and releasing this info in a meaningful way.

Economic development deals are often shrouded in secrecy–most local or state elected officials do not want to brag about the fact that they hand out millions (or sometimes billions) in tax breaks to big corporations. The recent race for Amazon’s second headquarters has provided an instructive example of this process–for all the buses wrapped by Visit Philly, or products reviewed online by Kansas City’s mayor, for the most part, cities have been not that interested about revealing the nuts & bolts details of their Amazon pitches to the press. If you’re about to give the richest man in the world a bunch of public money (or allow him to stop paying taxes), you might legit fear a group of your constituents showing up with pitchforks and torches.

Here are some tips for an organization or group who wants to use this data in a campaign in your community:

  • If you’re not already working with them, find the EARN affiliate in your state (don’t know who they are? search our directory by filtering for the network “EARN” and your state). These folks help marry civic activism with expert budget analysis. It’s possible that they’ve already taken a look at the GASB 77 reporting that’s come out of the major cities & states–if not, they may be able to partner with you to do so.
  • Is there a local reporter that works on city or state budget issues who might be interested in this information? Send them a respectful email and ask them if they know about this new rule.
  • Be clear that what the rule says is that the government has to reveal the total dollar amount they are losing to tax abatements–but they don’t have to disclose which companies they’re giving  it to. That could, of course, be the basis for a local campaign (we’re giving away $XXX million and they won’t tell us who’s benefiting–let’s make them!).
  • In your public communications about the lost revenue, make sure that you are framing this as a choice the government is making–to fund X while not funding Y. Governments will often frame these kinds of deals as being about growth of jobs in the region–ask them how many jobs have been created, and cost out the dollar value of each job.
  • Read these great materials from Good Jobs First, to familiarize yourself with the language that economic developers use.
  • And of course, if you can, kick down a financial contribution to your local EARN affiliate, or to Good Jobs First (or both!)

As of right now, states and cities are not required to disclose WHICH corporations are getting specific tax breaks, according to the GASB rules. Of course, this is something that your group could use as an organizing hook for future work with city council people or state legislators–why don’t we get to see what companies you’re propping up with our money? In addition, it can be a way to talk to local small businesses about why they should be engaged in the fight–as they usually don’t benefit from these kinds of development deals.

 

 

why expanding the map matters (Pt. 2)

There’s a popular trope in electoral organizing that involves a young field organizer, dropped into a turf which hasn’t seen a contested election in a while, who tries to bring the newest tactics in their ground game and is told by the county chair, “That’s not the way we do things around here*.” Spoiler: the young organizer does it her way despite the resistance of the entrenched party, and wins the election.

While we don’t have a federalized election process in this country, our elections, for organizing purposes, are still pretty much on a plug-and-play model. There are variations from one state to another–is there early voting? how hard or easy is it to vote by mail? is there same-day voter registration? But at the end of the day, there are  similar rules to follow from one place to the next. Both sides are competing for a fixed endpoint. Pro-worker electoral organizers may not get to set the rules of the election in one place or another, but we do know what they are–as government practices go, the rules for elections are transparent. As a result (while not advised), it is possible to win elections by dropping organizers into a place they don’t know well.

We get into problems, though, when we think we can win policy or worker organizing victories with this kind of plug-and-play thinking–especially when the reliance on plug-and-play means we don’t invest in places where sustaining work is harder. Organizing for policy victories–or organizing to build community support for workers who are taking actions to build power at work that could risk their jobs–both require the kinds of relationship building that plug-and-play organizing doesn’t prioritize.

Particularly when it comes to organizing in support of policy, it is imperative that local organizers understand the mechanics of how their government works–and the rules for how to affect legislation at the city or state level are rarely as clear as those that govern how elections are run. We have made a collective decision that, as a democracy, the state has to at least give the appearance that outsiders can win elections. We have not come to a similar collective conclusion about making the legislative process transparent.

In the last post, I talked about the need to invest in organizing ecosystems, not just individual organizations. As we think about what comes next, in the evolution of the labor movement and worker organizing, it is unlikely that we will see the exact replication on a wide scale of the functions that local unions and their internationals play in the movement. Let’s think about what a 501c5-style labor union can do, in addition to both representing current members and organizing new ones. Unions can make endorsements and spend money on electoral organizing within their membership base; can have a legal department that focuses on electoral law and legislative expertise, as well as labor and/or immigration law; can invest in a legislative director or team that is embedded in policy & legislative work focused at the state or city level; can have organizers that are responsible for building relationships with faith leaders and other community organizations with similar goals; and can have a communications department that is focused both on producing internal content for members and on producing issue-based content that targets the general public. Some unions also have affiliated PACs that can raise hard money from their members, which can be used to influence the general public in elections or can be contributed to candidates running for office. There are, to  my knowledge, no other kinds of organizations in our movement that have this kind of flexibility in combining organizing work with electoral & legislative advocacy–this is the kind of ecosystem, however, that we need to be thinking about, if we want to build deep support for organizations that want to win for workers.

What if every national funder, network or organization, when making their plans for expanding investment into worker organizing in a particular city or state asked themselves the following questions:

  • Does the ecosystem in this place provide legal support, that will both support individual workers in fights on the job and also support a broader strategy for changing the landscape through policy change or litigation?
  • Does the worker organization have a civic engagement strategy to build the habit of voting among its members, or a partnership with a local group that will help with that?
  • What partners in the region will be helping to drum up community support for this effort? If the organization plans to do this itself, is it adequately resourced to build relationships, or is this an add-on for an already-stressed worker organizer?
  • How will the word get out? Does the area have a local group that is focused on building relationships with the media and developing messages that resonate with the public?
  • Who is tasked with building relationships with not just elected officials, but their staff? Is this a part of the work that will be internal to the organization, or is there an outside consultant that can be hired, who knows how the target legislative body functions?

I’m not, of course, suggesting that any one organization is going to play all of these functions–but all of them are required, if we want to win. We need to do a better job of figuring out the support that worker organizations need, and providing it holistically, rather than opportunistically.

 

 

*if you’re in the mood for lots of cynical takes on the inside game of campaigns and party politics, I can’t recommend CampaignSick highly enough.

$15/hour? Done. What’s Next?

There has been a debate within the labor movement for years about what role unions should take in supporting social policy that helps all workers, regardless of whether they are in a union or not. Some union staff and members feel that if workers can get higher wages or better benefits through political action, they won’t have a reason to join a union. This seems to me to be a sort of lazy logic, along the lines of “I can’t figure out how to make my product appealing, I can only sell it if it’s standing alone with zero competition.” It eliminates the idea of a union being part of a social and political movement, and leaves us with the merely transactional elements of collective bargaining.

The Fight for 15 has done an incredible job of showing us what it looks like to capture the imagination of a group of unrepresented workers, and putting them in motion to win significant raises not just for themselves but for an entire generation of Americans. While we’re quite a ways a way from raising the national minimum wage to $15/hour, the victories that workers have won in cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles have given workers everywhere the courage to keep fighting for higher wages. Workers in many other cities and states have seen their base pay rise to $10 or $12/hour—and they continue to fight for $15. Right now, some unions are choosing to intervene in those fights by having their members exempted from legislation that raises wages—arguing that they have secured other kinds of financial concessions from employers, in the form of health and retirement benefits—that are worth more than the financial improvements that come with just raising wages. I’m curious to see at what point those unions will start to have an easier time at the bargaining table, because their members are no longer competing for jobs with people earning half of their wage—and to see what lesson union leaders take away from that experience.

In addition, lots of groups (led nationally by the Working Families Party & the Partnership for Working Families) are doing great work to win paid leave of various kinds, both at the ballot and in city councils and legislatures. The United States routinely ranks among the worst among industrialized countries when it comes to paid parental or sick leave—and limiting those benefits to the 7% of the workforce that happens to have a union is bad public policy. We’re all at risk of public health problems when restaurant workers have to go to work sick, and the union movement doesn’t do its members any favors by sitting on the sidelines when non-union workers fight to win the right to take a day off with pay.

It got me thinking about what other kinds of contractual benefits we might be able to put on the ballot, on the desk of a friendly governor or mayor, or on the legislative agenda of a progressive city council. Here are some ideas I came up with—if you have others, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

1. Shift differentials. Mandate a $1.50 bump in pay for every hourly worker who has to work between 11 pm and 6 am. If you’ve gotta have Taco Bell at 1 in the morning, shouldn’t the worker serving it to you make a little more money than the one who’s there at 1 pm?
2. Language bonuses. The US is increasingly a multilingual country. People who can demonstrate fluency in a language that serves a market of some statistical significance in a city should be rewarded for it. Can you pass a conversational test in Spanish and English in Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Miami? Great, here’s a $.50/hour bonus for you.
3. Scheduling. There has been a good deal of attention paid recently to the struggle that some workers go through just to know what their hours will be from one week to the next. San Francisco recently passed a law to protect workers’ schedules, and to encourage employers to offer more hours to their existing part-time workforce, before they make new hires. What if we took this practice one step further, and mandated that employers create a scheduling committee made up of workers? For women workers in particular, the right to control one’s schedule (and to know it in advance) can make an even bigger quality-of-life difference than a small raise.
4. Pay transparency. Governments should have an interest in what companies are paying to their constituents, in order to protect them from racial and gender-based pay disparities. We should start demanding that companies report annually on their actual (not average) rates of pay, broken out by demographics of the workforce. Publishing that information on the web will let a city’s residents make informed choices about the kind of companies they apply to work for.
5. More regulatory & licensing levers. Boston recently announced that they will provide free salary negotiation training for all women. That’s a great idea, and they deserve a lot of credit for thinking creatively about how to empower women workers. But I wonder what they are doing to deal with the fact that managers don’t always like it, when workers ask for raises? Can they require that every business who renews some kind of license in the city has to put their managers through salary negotiation training too?

I am of the train of thought that we’re able to win much more for our members when the basic standards they’re bargaining from are pushed higher by governments and vibrant social movements. In other words, it’s a lot harder to win wage increases (particularly when bargaining for low-paid workers) when the minimum wage has been stuck in place for 10 years. It’s easier to win wage increases when all workers are receiving regular raises, than it is when employers are looking at a labor supply thirsty to do even the tiniest bit better than $7.25 per hour. While these kinds of campaigns aren’t possible in all cities due to pre-emption laws, mayors (and governors in states with hostile legislatures) are usually still able to set wage & sometimes benefit standards for city contractors and subcontractors. Our movement should be pushing the envelope of what’s possible, instead of opting out to keep hold of the things that only union workers have, right now.

Because it is my name…

The notion that any ordinary worker might build a career is a relatively recent one. In the centuries of agricultural work, before the Industrial Revolution, the closest thing we had to a career path was the trajectory craft workers took from apprenticeship to becoming a master craftsmen (or in some rare cases, craftswomen). Similarly, lawyers, doctors and scholars had long periods of training that built their knowledge base before they were allowed to practice on their own. But most workers—whether they were laborers on a farm, or sold bread in a bakery—didn’t have any hopes of significant changes in their work circumstances. Because most workers spent their entire lives in a single village, they were well-known in the community—the farmer in search of a new milkmaid probably knew the extended family of every available candidate. People trusted each other, in part, because they literally knew each other’s life histories.

Even in institutions with large numbers of employees it was difficult to work your way from the bottom to the top. Take the military for example; most generals did not work their way up from the bottom ranks—officers tended to come from the higher classes, while working class soldiers might at best aspire to become non-commissioned officers. For foot soldiers, advancement within the military relied on job performance more than just about anything.

During the Industrial Revolution, a massive diversification in occupations occurred, and with that diversification, the concept of building a career became much more widespread. Large firms needed many managers, and increasing mechanization meant there were many more kinds of machines that required a specialized knowledge base. Bookkeeping and accounting blossomed, Human Relations became a thing, and bankers begat hedge fund managers, analysts, and of course, lobbyists who fought for deregulation. While the ability to build what we currently think of as a “career” was almost exclusive to white men, there was an increasing sense that one might work one’s way up to the highest heights, from relatively modest beginnings.

The ability to build a reputation has been a crucial element of advancing in a career. Moving from a less responsible to a more responsible job requires some kind of skill validation—whether through certification by a state agency, by the personal knowledge of the person doing the hiring, or by validators that can attest to an individual’s capacity (think about all those times you’ve been asked for references, when applying for a new job—or to give a reference for someone you used to work with).

For what it’s worth, when it comes to my career, I own my reputation. My ability to get jobs, or consulting work, has been predicated on the work I’ve done before, and the people who noticed it—either because they worked directly with me, or someone else told them. When I left my job at SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania in 2013, I took my reputation with me—the union didn’t own it, though part of it was built while I worked there.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately, about reputation and the on-demand economy. It has occurred to me that a lack of reputation ownership is a key attribute of the on-demand economy in its current form. A recent paper by David Rolf & Nick Hanauer imagined a woman named Zoe, who cobbles together an income through Task Rabbit gardening, renting her apartment on AirBnB, giving rides on Uber, and yes, having a part-time job. In only one of those gigs—the traditional part-time job—does she own her own reputation.

The platform itself, in these cases, is the thing that allows Zoe’s customers to feel secure in hiring her. The more positive reviews she racks up on AirBnB, the more likely it is that I will feel comfortable staying at her apartment. Similarly, the more ratings I have as a clean, respectful houseguest—the more likely Zoe is to accept my reservation to stay in her home. Software platforms rely on having many users with good reputations—both as service providers and consumers—in order to provide the economies of scale that make them profitable.

Unfortunately, at the moment, any platform that an on-demand worker uses to secure work can fold tomorrow, and take with it the workplace reputations of hundreds of thousands of workers, maybe even millions. What recourse will workers have, when their reputation disappears overnight? Additionally, what worker, having spent countless hours building an online store with Etsy, will find it easy to leave that platform behind if the company decides to radically change their terms of service in a way that significantly disadvantages sellers?

Will I be able to sue Uber, to recover my five star rating as a driver, if that platform suddenly goes out of business? Can I take my reputation as an Etsy seller, and transfer it to Ebay? Sadly, that recourse seems out of reach.

There is a diversification of occupations going on in the Digital Revolution, that will, without question, be as transformative as the diversification that occurred during the Industrial Revolution. If Rolf and Hanauer’s vision is right, we might all be evolving to have multiple income streams, and little that is recognizable as a career, in today’s terms.

When we’re contemplating new ways to provide benefits for the future of work, it is incumbent on us to think about ways to protect people’s reputation on online platforms. The security of owning one’s reputation will be a critical one for both consumers and workers—but for workers, the urgency to protect one’s “work” reputation seems more urgent, since it is directly tied to one’s ability to earn a living. As people rely more and more on gig economy platforms to get to work, portability of reputation will become important as well. If you want a better understanding of how people might feel trapped in seemingly commitment-free ‘gigs’ when communities arbitrarily change the terms of service for their users, check out the forums that Mechanical Turkers have set up to talk about it, at places like Reddit or mturkgrind.com, or the discussion in posts about various on-demand driver apps at the Rideshare Guy’s blog.

Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!
~Arthur Miller, The Crucible

If we’re envisioning new ways of creating benefits for workers who lack them, we should also be thinking about the new kinds of benefits that workers in non-traditional jobs need. While there have been considerable efforts to build tools for companies to track their brand’s reputation, and even some which incorporate the idea of tracking reputation by individuals (what’s my Klout score today, anyway?), we have yet to see a way for gig-economy workers to be able to track their reputation collectively, across a number of platforms.

Of course, as pointed out here, reputation as a host on AirBnB doesn’t automatically translate to mean that a person might be a reliable carpenter, as they advertise themselves on Task Rabbit. Similarly, in the world of my offline work reputation, my skill as a political organizer doesn’t automatically translate to success as a writer of thought pieces. However, there are certain traits that are necessary to success in both fields that cross over—for example, do I generally deliver work on time? Are my communication skills clear, in establishing & maintaining relationships with collaborators? Am I able to prioritize multiple competing demands?

One might similarly ask—what are the qualities that signal a successful worker can be relied upon to work in a new setting, providing a different service. Might Zoe’s landscaping clients care that she’s always late to her hotel desk job? If her Uber rides complain about the fact that her car is never clean, might that not be of interest to her AirBnB guests? And on the flip side—might Zoe be able to start a new gig economy gig more easily, if she has a sterling reputation for timeliness, clear communication, and attention to detail on all the other platforms that she offers services?

As Rolf & Hanauer have pointed out—in the digital age, it is possible to envision a world where every ‘employer’ who wants part-time or on-demand ‘employees’ in the gig and traditional economy are responsible for providing pro-rated contributions to benefits—so Zoe will earn a fraction of an hour’s paid time off, for every hour that she drives with Uber, works at the hotel, or hires out to be a gardener on Task Rabbit. It is similarly possible to envision a world where, along with that financial contribution, Zoe’s ‘employers’ also regularly rate on her work on that same shared platform—some of it on basic job skills like timeliness or communication skills, some of it on job skills that are specific to that platform like driving history, understanding of computer software, or ability to make plants flourish.

If the transition from the Industrial Revolution to the Digital Era means that we’re moving away from having the kinds of careers that workers have enjoyed in the 20th century, we need to design structures that will allow us to have the kinds of deeply well-known reputations that existed for workers in the pre-Industrial era. But the commons, as we know it now, is no longer the village square—the new reputation engine for workers will have to be built in the cloud.

American federalism and the case for reevaluating labor’s priorities.

On March 8th, Wisconsin became the 25th state to legalize the open shop. The provision commonly referred to as “right-to-work” by the corporations and right-wing politicians who back it has very little to do with economic freedom and liberty for workers, and everything to do with the destruction of a movement that has given the American economy a tiny measure of democracy. Ever since the 2010 elections that swept Republicans to power across the country, the push to make America an open shop nation has been stronger than at any time since the policy’s genesis in the Jim Crow South. Nineteen state legislatures have seen right-to-work proposals during the 2015 session, a clip similar to the period between 2011-2014, and there is no reason to believe that the pace will be slowing down anytime soon.

In Local Elections and the Politics of Small-Scale Democracy, J. Eric Oliver notes that the people who are most likely to vote in local elections are those who own homes. This makes sense in a way; the homeowner is more directly affected by changes in their land values than those who rent, and are thus more likely to be in tune with the ways in which local government engages in land management. Oliver notes that as land management is the most important function that most local governments provide (since many communities contract their emergency services and utilities to county or regional authorities), it will be the concerns of the homeowner that dominate election issues at the local level.

But another thing that drives the disparity between homeowner turnout and renter turnout in local elections is the gap in outreach to the two groups of people. According to data the author pulled from the National Elections Studies in 2008, homeowners were reported to be 60 percent more likely to have been contacted by a political campaign than renters. Combine that with educational disparities (renters are twice as likely to not have a high school degree), and homeowners are engaged with at a rate at least double that of renters. While Oliver makes the case that low turnout in local elections should not be automatically seen as a delegitimizing force in our democracy, the fact that there are some who are being engaged in the political process and others who are not is something that is deeply troubling. This goes double when you consider that renters are three-and-a-half times more likely to earn under $15,000 a year (the rough estimate of the federal poverty line for a family of two) than homeowners. These stats underline a long-standing contention by political scientists and leftist organizers alike that American democracy is regressing in its responsiveness to working-class concerns.

But the question becomes: how do we change this for the better?

A disengagement from federal politics….

The labor movement has given generously to federal politicians, particularly the Democratic Party. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, well over 90 percent of all donations go to Democratic candidates. In addition to the money spent directly on campaigning, labor unions have spent nearly $428.6 million on lobbying members of Congress on their top issues. What does labor have to show for it? Not the Employee Free Choice Act, despite having the largest Congressional majority in over four decades. Not a public option for Obamacare. Not any kind of deal that will prevent the so-called “Cadillac plan tax” under Obamacare from hitting the health benefits that labor has won through negotiation and struggle. And all the money spent on ensuring that a Democrat remained in the White House did not keep the President from appointing judges and cabinet members who have worked against the working class throughout their careers.

If we could not get decent labor policy during a Democratic bonanza at the federal level, what are we honestly to expect when the party of Scott Walker controls Congress? Maybe we get another Democratic president, but Hillary Clinton ain’t exactly Norma Rae. It is clear that both parties have failed unions and the working class at the national level and that a reassessment of priorities for movement resources is required.

….and a rededication of resources to the local level.

Recent years have brought with them some very encouraging news for the working class in local politics and policymaking. In 2010, local labor unions in New Haven, Connecticut backed city council candidates and defeated candidates backed by the long-serving Mayor (and failed 2006 Democratic gubernatorial candidate) John DeStefano. The year 2013 would be even better: in addition to the election of socialist Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council, a slate of independent labor candidates stormed the city council elections in Lorain County, Ohio; in that election, nearly two dozen candidates defeated people backed by the long-dominant Democratic machine in the union-dense county.

But winning the election was not enough; these candidates had to produce once they were in office. And produce they have:

  1. While the Fight For 15 was a movement that predated Sawant’s ascension to the city council, her dogged determination on the issue pushed the council and mayor to an agreement that will bring in a $15 minimum wage for Seattle workers in the next few years
  2. The New Haven councillors crafted an agreement that allowed a charter school into the city, but mandated them to allow the unionization of its employees and the acceptance of disadvantaged children who were not already in one of their schools elsewhere

And in Lorain County, the councillors have simply given an ear to the working class that had not been there before, when the former mayor took it upon himself to break a picket line and do sanitation work for a day. That work can be just as valuable as a concrete policy outcome. Increasing the political efficacy of the working class is what spurs the development of social movements and efforts at an independent political voice in a landscape where common concerns can fall on deaf ears. The capital class knows this all too well, and has seemingly cleared the floor for the advancement of anti-worker policies.

I thought I read that the New Haven effort began as some sort of worker center?

You read correctly.

That is the last plank of this community engagement plan. It has nothing to do with labor unions, of course, as worker centers are barred from engaging in activities that could be seen as preparing workers to join a union. Doing so would bring them under the administrative clutches of the Landrum-Griffin Act, which has odious reporting requirements that often hamstring union organizing budgets. But they should be more than just a means of entry into traditional labor unions, anyway: they should independently act as a means of mobilizing the working class around issues of democracy and economic justice, as well as educating communities about the ways in which capitalism continues to fail them on a regular basis.

Local and state governments are often referred to as the “Laboratory of American Democracy”, and it is not hard to see why: the pilot projects that begin in a neighborhood, city, or county can become national policy under the right circumstances. The dismantling of our national welfare system did not begin with President Clinton in 1996; it began over a decade earlier with Gov. Tommy Thompson’s (R-WI) efforts to change the federal matching system for funding to a block grant system that would severely curb the flexibility of state governments in managing their welfare systems. After a reduction in welfare rolls (but, notably, not a reduction in relative poverty), the program was greenlighted for other governors who wanted to do the same. Eventually, it became federal statute with the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which is the welfare reform bill that President Clinton signed into law. So it was with this thing that its proponents called “right-to-work” in Florida during the early 1940s. After its passage in a statewide referendum, the policy spread like wildfire across the South and the Great Plains, eventually finding federal backing in the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, better known to opponents and allies as Taft-Hartley.

With an increased focus on communities and local politics, the labor movement can begin to turn the tide against the right-wing onslaught of the last couple of years. Otherwise we are just waiting for the next catastrophe to take hold.

Power & the Wage

This piece is adapted from remarks I gave at a recent NELP conference, on a panel about using minimum wage campaigns to build power.

 

When I was asked to be on this panel, my immediate reaction was, “we can’t use the minimum wage* to build power,” so really until yesterday, I’ve been struggling to decide what I was going to talk about.

I understand that, in a room full of people who have spent years working to increase the minimum wage, that may sound disempowering or diminishing—and I don’t mean to diminish the work of anyone in this room. Winning minimum wage increases is important for millions of workers, and we should keep running these campaigns—but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that we’re building power by doing it.

Real power—the kind of power I think everyone in this room is striving for—is built by moving people to take action to improve their own lives. We’ve talked a lot here about how the fast food and Wal-Mart campaigns have catapulted the minimum wage campaign forward—but I’m here to tell you, brothers and sisters, no one who works in poverty is going on strike for an issue advocacy campaign.

Building power is about being on offense.

I come out of the labor movement, and in my union, we talked a lot about the ways to get people to take huge risks. We had this shortcut way of talking about it—which is that you need anger, hope and a plan. Anger, because sometimes you need to remind people to be angry about the things that keep them from getting ahead, or keep them locked in poverty. Hope, because no one will take a big risk if they don’t think there’s something there to risk it for. And a plan, because a worker needs to see that there is some kind of logic behind the things that you’re asking them to do—things that might not seem obvious.

There were two things that folks on the first panel yesterday talked about that I want to highlight, a little bit, in my comments today.

Arun Ivatury talked about giving people a vision—and I think that is incredibly important, as we move forward in the design of these campaigns. Hope matters. People are willing to sit down in streets, and walk off their jobs in McDonalds all over this country, because they had a vision of something they might win—and that thing was $15 an hour and a union. They aren’t walking off the job to go do a legislative visit to ask a state rep to raise the state minimum wage. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t ask them to do that—but I am suggesting that until we connect it to a vision of a MUCH better life, we’ll have a hard time persuading them to do it.

And Ken Jacobs gave this great history lesson on the minimum wage that went back to 1912—over 100 years of fighting for the minimum wage. 100 years. And we’ve gotten to $7.25 an hour, nationally.

Some of you are kind enough to read my blog, and I have had some lovely comments here about my weekly email, Hack the Union—and so I hope no one is going to be shocked, when I talk a little bit about robots, because there was an exchange yesterday about automation & work that I kind of can’t let slide.

Right now, in New York, there is another conference going on, with a bunch of other super-smart people who are also thinking about the future for low-wage workers—it’s called the Digital Labor Conference, and it’s being held at the New School. If you live in NY, and you’re not doing anything this weekend—I’d advise checking it out, it’s free.

Those folks are having a whole different conversation than we are—but a lot of the conversation they are having would not be unfamiliar to the folks here. They’re talking about wage theft, and employers trying to shed the responsibility to pay for benefits, and all the things we care about. One of the main differences, though, is that they’re talking about how to do it in all the new jobs that are being created, in the largely freelance, or gig economy. Sometimes, I think we’re just the movement for the old economy—the one where people are still employees.

We can argue about whether automated transport is going to happen by 2020, or 2030, we can argue about whether the share of US jobs that are freelance or contract work will hit a majority in 2025 or 2035—but those changes are happening. The new economy is on us, and we’re still acting like all we have to do is get everyone back into the old economy. At the same time that we’re pushing to have flexible scheduling turn to predictable schedules, millions of employers across the country are trying to figure out how to do more with fewer employees, whom they pay for fewer hours.

I started my work life 30 years ago, in 1984. My first job was a minimum wage job, working in Joanne Fabrics in the Echelon Mall, in Voorhees, NJ, for $3.35 an hour. In the thirty years of my work life, we’ve essentially done a little more than double the minimum wage. As Ken told us yesterday, in essentially 80 years of having a federal minimum, we’ve added $7/hour to the minimum wage.

It took the labor movement 200 years to win the 8-hour day. Why on earth do we think we should wait to start planning a vision for how we’re going to protect workers from capitalism in the new economy until we actually have self-driving cars? Do we think that we can organize around such a profound shift in our economy five years out from every human delivery driver becoming unemployed?

We aren’t going to get power, until we articulate a vision that engages people about the things they’re angry at, and give them hope & a plan to achieve it. And it has to involve the people who are thinking about the new economy in much different ways than most of us are used to thinking about it.

We haven’t built power through our minimum wage campaigns, because if we had built it, we wouldn’t have suffered such devastating losses in the mid-term election. And in order to build the power that we need to win victories for workers, we need to use all the tools that exist to create leverage—we need to use elections, we need to use lobbying, we need to use street action, and we don’t always do those things. We don’t always have the capacity to do them, we don’t always have the right kind of funding to do them. But worse, we don’t always have the vision to do them.

We don’t have the vision to win things that involve substantially challenging the status quo–especially when we are invested in sustaining the status quo, because we helped to build the traditional employer-employee relationship. I would argue that the non-labor parts of the economic justice movement is in a place that the labor movement was in, thirty years ago. We are losing the traditional employer relationship, and instead of trying to redefine it, to protect as many workers as possible, we’re trying to push everyone back to the old way of doing things.

There are no doubt plenty of employers who should be pushed to reclassify their workers as employees–and plenty of workers who want the security of  a traditional job. But there are also plenty of workers in the world who’d like some security, coupled with the flexibility of being contractors. What are we doing to innovate public policy solutions to their problems? Why aren’t more of us talking to the folks who are at the Digital Labor conference, to come up with new ideas of how to move a more just society forward?

We will win increases in the minimum wage—and win things that help workers in the New Economy—as a side effect of building power, because we tap into people’s anger, we give them hope, and we show them a plan that makes sense.

 

 

*To clarify–I am, in this post, talking only about campaigns to raise the minimum wage to $10.10/hour–not campaigns that raise the wage to a liveable standard, like $15 or more per hour.

Robots vs. Apps: What’s an Organizer To Do?

When I started writing this blog, around this time last year, I wanted to get more folks in the economic justice community thinking about technology, and the ways it is changing work. Historically, the labor movement has been painted as a foe of technological change, and I didn’t (and still don’t) think that’s an accurate picture. But I also get that the rapid pace of technological change makes all but the most tech-savvy nervous, at times. And those times seem to be increasing.

In the intervening year, it feels to me as if this topic has gotten a lot more coverage in the mainstream, particularly when it comes to the apps of the sharing economy. There was a little worry, a year ago, about Uber and what it might do to the taxi industry–but there hadn’t been, yet, local government taking action against the company (or Lyft, or any of the other big ride-sharing apps). There was some concern about what AirBnB might mean for hotels, but there hadn’t yet been regulatory action pushing them to pay taxes, or to protect their users. It feels, now, like we are starting to have more of a conversation about the gig economy and what it means for workers today–and I’m happy to have played some very small role in that conversation.

But I’m also worried that we haven’t started yet having the bigger conversation, which to my mind is not about apps, but robots. I’m going to use the term “robot” here pretty broadly–basically meaning any mechanization of work that was formerly done by humans.

If you haven’t yet watched this video that was linked in this week’s newsletter, go do it.

Our movement can be great at reacting–and it’s easy to feel, in the light of so many challenges that face us RIGHT NOW that we don’t have bandwidth to think about what might happen in ten, fifteen or twenty years. But if we don’t, who will be worrying about the impact of widespread job displacement on workers of all kinds?

Next month, as my own celebration of the US’s Labor Day, I’m hosting a tweet chat about robots and work. Please join me–8 pm Eastern, Monday 9/1/14. #robotwork will be the hashtag.

Recap of the Supreme Court’s decision in Harris v. Quinn.

Case: Harris v. Quinn

Question being answered by decision: Are the First Amendment rights of public employees who do not wish to join a union violated when those workers have to pay a representation fee to their union?

Prior to the decision: In 1947, the Michigan Legislature passed, and Gov. Kim Sigler (R) signed, the Hutchison Act. This Act established the rules under which Michigan’s government employees at the state and municipal levels would be able to form labor unions and collectively bargain. It was designed to regularize labor-management relations in the public sector and locate workers’ rights under one statute, rather than having a patchwork of state laws governing the workplace. But the law was also quite harsh in its treatment of public employees engaging in collective action: Any employee that engaged in strike action was to be terminated from their employment forthwith. The Michigan Legislature would eventually return to the table and drastically alter Hutchison with Public Act 379, which would become known as the Public Employment Relations Act (PERA). This new law brought the Michigan statutes in line with the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and granted public employees the right to form unions. Amongst many other things, PERA created a mechanism by which workers could elect a particular union to represent them at the bargaining table and required that all public employees pay an agency fee to the union that represented them. Agency fees are important because the NLRA requires that a union represent all those who are in the bargaining unit equally, regardless of their membership status; mandating the paying of representation fees gets a union over the free-rider problem that plagues unions in so-called “right-to-work” states.

This fee was too much for some Detroit teachers, who felt that they were being forced to pay into an organization whose political goals they disagreed with. Detroit educator D. Louis Abood filed a lawsuit against the Detroit Board of Education in 1969, two years after the Detroit Federation of Teachers became the bargaining agent for the city’s K-12 teachers. While the case wound its way towards the U.S. Supreme Court, the Michigan Supreme Court found in another case that state law prohibited the agency shop; this discrepancy was resolved through a 1973 statute legalizing the agency fee. When Abood hit the state’s highest court again, they found the 1973 statute constitutional with the caveat that the fees had to go towards non-political activities. The U.S. Supreme Court would find no differently in May 1977, rejecting the plaintiffs’ arguments that collective bargaining was “inherently political” and that the Hanson and Street decisions which prior courts had relied on for their rulings were limited to the private sector only.

Abood provided a way for public sector unions to virtually eliminate their free-rider problem, provided they did not operate in a state with “right-to-work” laws.

The lead-up to today’s decision: The Illinois General Assembly passed a bill in 2003 that designated home care workers as state employees with the purpose of allowing them the right to collectively bargain with the state. After Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) signed the legislation, a majority of workers voted to affiliate with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), making them the workers’ bargaining representative. Patricia Harris and seven other home care workers filed suit against the state of Illinois, arguing essentially the same case that D. Louis Abood had argued nearly 40 years ago: that joining the union was an infringement on their First Amendment rights. Judging from the oral arguments and the justices’ reactions to them, as well as the decision in Knox v. SEIU that declared the protections laid out in Abood to be “an anomaly”, most seemed to be expecting that the Court would find for the plaintiffs. This became even less shocking when Justice Samuel Alito, who authored Knox, was revealed to have also written Harris. We were largely waiting on the scope of the ruling, and whether it would end the precedent set forth in Abood.

Decision: The 5-4 decision in favor of the appellants did not overturn Abood, but it essentially limited the precedent to full-time public employees. As Benjamin Sachs points out in a great roundup of his own over at On Labor, the language of the decision spoke loud and clear: Alito wanted to completely overturn Abood. He devotes all of Part II, Section D (pgs. 17-20) to pointing out the reasons why Abood should not be allowed to stand: the 1977 court misunderstood the rulings, the differences between public and private sector employees should have been given more weight, the line between representation costs and political activity is blurred in public sector unionism, and that exclusive representation does not depend on classification as an agency shop. My guess is that Justice Antonin Scalia, who recognized the free rider problem faced by labor unions in his partial affirmation in Lehnert v. Ferris Faculty Association, did not see a need to strike down Abood for these reasons. In any case, the framing of the decision practically begs for a full challenge to Abood from organizations like the National Right to Work Committee, representing someone who would be considered a “full-fledged” public employee. Justice Alito also argues that because Illinois law dramatically limits the role of the state in dealings between a patient and their home care worker, the Abood precedent did not apply here.

Implications: This deals a big blow to those unions who organize in the home care industry, as the decision essentially makes the industry “right-to-work”. As Prof. Sachs points out, the unions will find a way to get around this; I agree with that sentiment, having written about the struggles of building unions in right-to-work states previously. It also has a gendered component as well, as Sarah Jaffe points out in her piece for In These Times. The only home care workers I have ever known, not just in my personal life but also in my very brief time organizing for the Missouri Home Care Union, were Black women. And as Roland Zullo points out in his 2012 article for Labor Studies Journal, this particular group of employees is the most likely to enter unionized employment from either unemployment or non-union employment. For a Supreme Court that seems willing to reverse the few labor rights that workers have in their corner, it is obvious that they would seek to halt the drive to organize a large group of underpaid care workers. Others have noted that this increases the importance of voting for a Democrat in the next presidential election but, considering the union-busters in President Obama’s cabinet and some of his nominees for the lower courts, to say nothing of the likely Republican filibuster of any decent nominee that would switch the Court’s composition, that seems like a bit of a stretch. The best line of defense against a ruling like this will come from the organizers and field representatives on the ground, engaging in quality service of their membership and negotiating contracts that will bring workers into the fold.

Kagan’s dissent: In a dissent joined by Justices Sotomayor, Ginsburg, and Breyer, Justice Elena Kagan laid out the case for why Abood is sufficient for a finding in favor of the state of Illinois. She points out that while the person receiving care sets the terms of employment in that particular context, the state sets parameters for the industry’s operation as a whole. That gives the state more than the small interest that Alito’s decision limits it to, and undermines a key argument for said decision. Kagan also gets into an area that Alito’s decision misses, presumably because it is close to the bottom of his priority list: The working conditions experienced by those who provide home care. In addition to feeding, clothing, bathing, and cleaning, sometimes they have to deal with the attitudes of those they serve; the home care worker that worked with my Uncle Junior after his stroke had to deal with his abuse as much as we did. Because of this, the industry is notorious for having high amounts of turnover, which can be destabilizing for patients at a time when a familiar face can make all the difference. Kagan also hit out at Alito’s notion that because workers are all paid the same according to state law, that there was no need for an agency agreement. This sounds ridiculous on its face and Kagan hammers him on it, pointing out the benefits that all workers have accrued because of the SEIU’s bargaining on their behalf. This is the important part, however, and signals what Alito is trying to accomplish with his opinion: “The idea that Abood applies only if a union can bargain with the State over every issue comes from nowhere and relates to nothing in that decision—and would revolutionize public labor law.”

Additional reading: Matthew Heron, Public Employment Law in Michigan and the Unfair Labor Practice Strike (2002).