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.

“…as much leverage as cows on a dairy farm.”

Original Content
Do you like the stuff that gets posted in this section? Wish there was more of it? Guess what—you can help make that happen!
What’s Going on in the Workforce?
“…writ­ers who limit them­selves to pro­vid­ing “con­tent” for some­one else’s “branded plat­form” are go­ing to end up with as much lever­age as cows on a dairy farm.” On Medium and the push for making every piece of content look the same.
In the next round of “people who don’t think they’re employers, but probably are,” I give you—Instacart.
Argentinian workers have been turning “recovered” businesses into worker-owned cooperatives. These are businesses that closed or went bankrupt, due to bad economic conditions during their country’s economic crisis in the last decade.
Geeking Out
So you’re looking for a list of the bad-assest women to ever fight for labor rights in the US, in honor of Women’s History Month? Look no further.
Reputation, reputation, reputation
Why is data-anonymizing important? Well, imagine that your next date gets served up ads based on your most recent google searches, while scrolling through your Hulu account…
Sharing, Solidarity & Sustainability
“Between the recession (which is only over if you were making real money to begin with) and the crushing of our spirits by death-ray-wielding, 40-foot-high titanium monsters, perhaps there’s time to reimagine society.” I say that to myself almost every day…
You know what’s a much better name for the robot apocalypse? Fully automated luxury communism. Shouts out to both Joe Dinkin & Matt Ewing for sending this one in. You know who wants to support Universal Basic Income in order to fix it? Tech website Fast Company.
Should we support the sharing economy, or sharing per se? Your answer might be different, depending on where you sit.

“When money becomes an idol, it controls man’s choices.”

Original Content
Do you like the stuff that gets posted in this section? Wish there was more of it? Guess what—you can help make that happen!
week 11 2015
Sharing, Solidarity & Sustainability
“When money becomes an idol, it controls man’s choices.” So said the Pope, in a speech endorsing worker-owned co-operatives. And no, I never thought this newsletter would quote the pope either. My mom will be excited, though.
Five things businesses in the sharing economy should do to regain users’ trust, according to Saul of Hearts.
Organizing Theory
An Argentine political party got VC funding to build an app to better engage voters. See how they’re marrying political activism with online technology.
What’s Going on in the Workforce?
ICYMI—two separate judges ruled against Uber & Lyft last week, about whether or not drivers are really independent contractors—or if they are employees of the companies.
Saul Kaplan, on why the minimum wage should go up if we want to promote corporate innovation.
Do we call what dairymen do “harvesting” milk? I guess we do. Even if they’re dairyrobots. Of course, dairyrobots also harvest data. About cows.
Is treating low-wage workers better about to become an approved business strategy?
“Most of what we call tech is really a vehicle for more effective advertising rather than a proper technological advance.” On how women and non-technical men end up getting paid less in tech companies.

Speech recognition may also require lip reading.

week 10 2015

Geeking Out
It turns out, speech recognition software might also need to learn to lip read. Or throat read.
Do you have an idea for an app that could help families that earn less than $25,000 per year? If so, you might want to apply for this fellowship.
What’s Going on in the Workforce?
The AP, which started out using a software program to write financial stories, is moving to use software to write about college sports too.
Some ride-sharing service drivers are crossing over to use multiple platforms. And they’re at least coming closer to gaming the system in a way that maximizes their earnings.
Organizing Theory
Greenpeace takes a look at one month’s worth of digital engagement, and posits some theories about what worked.
From Partners
In reaction to the FCC’s recent decision on net neutrality, some cities might begin building their own wireless infrastructure. Before they do, they should read up on how Philly’s effort to do so failed (10 years ahead of its time? That’s my city!). h/t to Hannah Sassaman, for that one.

Net Neutrality For the (Workers’) Win!

week 9 2015

Organizing Theory
Here’s a good analysis of the campaign to win net neutrality—which a year ago, seemed like it was on its deathbed.
What’s Going on in the Workforce?
“Those who claim to be advocating on behalf of the interests of Black and Latino workers in tech companies but ignore the pressing issues facing hourly workers in those very same tech companies are not doing Black and Latino communities any favors.”
Still think Net Neutrality is just about streaming video faster? Here’s Etsy’s CEO, talking about how it’s a workers’ rights issue for all those who make a living selling stuff online.
Geeking Out
Japan may soon house half as many robots as it does humans.
This doesn’t really fit any category on this blog…but Craig Newmark reflecting on his decisions in launching & nurturing craigslist is worth reading.
I’m continually impressed by Contributoria’s efforts to set up a site that essentially crowd-funds investigative journalism. This month, they launch “Topic Ideas,” where members can indicate interest not just in specific articles, but broad topic areas for coverage. (Can you guess which one I voted for?)
Sharing, Solidarity & Sustainability
If you make most of your income from freelancing, it can be hard to get a mortgage. Enter a new startup.
Worker-owned co-ops are starting to gain traction as a type of economic development worth investing in. How do we make sure that the voices of worker-owners are heard, as more cities and states move forward on these efforts?
In NYC? You might want to hit up this event next Tuesday night. Cooperatives & the Sharing Economy.
An interesting in-depth look at how Chicago’s civic hackers are building apps that help their city. The best thing you’ll read about sewage today, I guarantee it.
Reputation, reputation, reputation
I have a lot of thoughts about this new app. Mostly, they involve wishing I was the kind of person who could easily block the people who cause me the most stress. Sadly, some of us are stuck having to manage relationships the old-fashioned way.
From Partners
Last year, I interviewed Brett Scott about his book, The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance. Brett just let me know that there’s a pirated pdf of it floating around the interwebs—so if you’re interested in reading it and couldn’t afford the book, you can find it here. Of course, you could also throw him a buck or two, if you find it worthwhile.
“In the new on-demand economy, companies are turning the Internet into the equivalent of a street corner hiring site and turning workers into day laborers.” NELP’s Rebecca Smith on the legal state of things in the sharing economy.