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.

“Having a Facebook page is not the same as having a new power strategy.”

Original Content

I recently made some comments about using minimum wage campaigns to build power. This is a blog post adapted from those remarks.

Organizing Theory

“Having a Facebook page is not the same as having a new power strategy.” Fascinating read from the Harvard Biz Review on the ways that old power & new power (aka, the traditional & innovative) structures behave.

Can community groups and unions work together to win fights around housing AND workplace issues?

What’s Going on in the Workforce?

“In the 19th & early 20th centuries, individuals were either considered employed or unemployed; now, there is an entire gray spectrum of employment possibilities.” How to organize workers in the digital economy, where traditional organizing models don’t work?

“…robots get only better at everything they do today, and only cheaper…” h/t to reader Matt Richards for pointing out this interview with Carnegie Mellon’s head of robotics, Allah Nourbakhsh, who goes on to say, “…maybe  people should own shares in the robots that take their jobs, so that the people who are laborers today become the capital owners of tomorrow.”

The next time you’re feeling like the gig economy can’t get any worse? Remember Giri.

Crazy, unpredictable work schedules don’t just have an impact on workers. They also mean kids spend more time in day care. Enter the world of 24 hour daycare facilities.

Uber had a pretty bad week. Tom Slee has an excellent look at everything wrong with the sharing economy company that the left loves to hate. (Well, primarily because they’re so good at making themselves hateable.)

From Partners

Jobs with Justice has a new database out, showing info on guest workers in all 50 states, including which companies are petitioning most often in each state.

Geeking Out

“Too many people live frightened lives trying to scratch a living in the dark. We have to move these people to the light.” The Homeless World Cup brings together soccer players who are also street paper sellers from countries around the globe.

The K Chronicles Keith Knight makes a stark, graphic description of what income inequality is like in this cartoon, “A look behind the curtain.”

Sharing, Solidarity & Sustainability

Can we create enough demand, through city purchasing power, to jump start a  local economies’ manufacturing or service sector?

Many people want to figure out a way to fund the delivery of content without using advertisements. Here’s Google’s shot at that.

I think it’s fair to say that most readers of this newsletter will not be hanging out a Best Buy at 4 am on Black Friday, hoping to get the best deal on the new Xbox. If you’re practicing non-consumerism, why not share a photo on this Story of Stuff project?

This Philly student has launched a new platform to help forgive student loan debt.

Final Thoughts


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.

“When we have computers that can do more and more jobs, it’s going to change how we think about work…”

Sharing, Solidarity & Sustainability

I don’t like the frame, “universal basic income will save us from technology” (how about, “UBI will allow us all to benefit from technology?”), but otherwise, this is a great piece.  Even Google founder Larry Page thinks, “When we have computers that can do more and more jobs, it’s going to change how we think about work….You can’t wish it away.”

One way to increase the number of worker-owned co-ops in the US? Convince retiring baby boomer business owners to sell to their employees.

Looking for some ideas about how to democratize the economy? Why not join the fight against work?

Peers has launched a radical redesign of their website, with much more focus on sharing tips & services for people working in the sharing economy.

Reputation, reputation, reputation

“…the divide between who has a device, as opposed to who has the data, reflects an important and widening disparity in the ownership of information…” On surveillance in the workplace.

Full disclosure—I wear a Fitbit. Not sure I’m ready for that data to be shared in court (I take the stairs when I can! I promise!).

Organizing Theory

How are co-ops using digital? In all kinds of ways.

From Partners

The always-excellent Ben Werdmuller has written a post about how to write open source web apps. Even if you don’t code, it’s a good read. Because “It’s never okay to be a dick” is great advice in almost any context.

What’s Going on in the Workforce?

A new study shows that 10M British jobs could be replaced through automation, over the next 20 years.

Do you collect data in your work, and need a place to store and analyze it? Check out this project, researching the feasibility of a data co-op.

Tremendously interesting piece on whether online platforms like Lyft, Uber & AirBnBn do enough to protect users from discrimination, on both sides of transactions.

More takes on the end of capitalism than you’ll read in any other newsletter, this week.

I’m starting something I’ve been wanting to do for a while, related to this blog. When I first had the idea for Hack the Union, part of my theory was that there wasn’t an obvious place in our movement for organizers that organized workers in different industries to exchange ideas and figure out common problems — and potentially, public campaigns that might address multiple industries, or cover a whole city or region. I’ve launched a Loomio site to being building a place to have that discussion—if you’re an organizer or policy wonk who’d like to be added, let me know via email what kind of workers you are organizing, and what email address you want to be invited with. For the backstory on Loomio, read this.

Sharing, Solidarity & Sustainability

“ can we imagine a successful capitalism, that produces products it can no longer sell, because an increasing number of contributors are no longer paid for their value creation?” Michael Bauwens, on how the current iteration of the sharing economy may need to be hacked, in order for all of us to survive and thrive.

Is there anything really “new” about the so-called New Economy? Kwabena Nkromo on how the economic structure of the sharing economy doesn’t seem that new to many communities of color.

Mitch Kapor, venture capitalist: “Our portfolio is brimming with companies that are solving problems in society because their founders had a personal problem to solve.” So to stop building apps that only serve elites, hire people who have experienced real societal problems.

Reputation, reputation, reputation

I quit Facebook this year, because the “we’re experimenting on users’ emotions” story just creeped me out way too much. But Facebook isn’t just experimenting on whether baby pictures make you happier. They also want to see if they can make users more likely to vote (or presumably, less).  In a related story—Facebook is making it harder for campaigns or other political efforts to capture your “friends” list.

From Partners

Really excellent long-read about the future of labor organizing, featuring the very good friend of this blog, David Rolf.  Rolf recently announced the opening of applications for The Workers Lab, an accelerator which plans to award first-round funding to applicants who have a plan to build economic power for workers. Application for the first round can be found here.

I kind of am in love with Code for America. This new tool they’ve developed allows you (yes you organizer, or you policy wonk, not just developers) to find out where people who are working on civic tech projects need help from the community—whether online or in person.

Organizing Theory

Are you thinking about launching a crowdsourcing project? Here are some good dos and don’ts for both digital and offline use of volunteer labor.

Geeking Out

In order to believe that I’ll have a robot in retirement, I’d have to first believe that I will be able to retire…

What’s Going on in the Workforce?

“What would suffice to remunerate people for the dispossession they experience?” Another great paper from Data Society on how we’re struggling to balance a need to innovate in the workplace, with people’s fears of being replaced or just plain spied on by the boss.

If you haven’t read the superb McClatchy year-long investigative report “Contract to Cheat,” you’re missing out. Here are their public policy recommendations, on how to prevent misclassification of workers.

Are you an Uber driver, or just interested in the concerns of Uber drivers? Check out Uberpeople, an independent web platform for drivers to share info with each other.

Finally, Jeremy Rifkin argues that the end of capitalism is upon us, and a new type of economic system will emerge from the ashes.