Jane Slaughter

The Chinese Working Class Is the Most Strike-Prone in the World: A New Book Details a Movement You Probably Haven't Heard Much About

The editors of China on Strike must be encouraged by July’s news from Walmart. Not only did workers in at least five Chinese stores strike against flexible scheduling, they did so with the aid of the Walmart Chinese Workers’ Association, a loose cross-workplace group established in 2014 by two former Walmart workers.

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Three Recent Wins Prove Old-Fashioned Union Power Isn’t Dead Yet

Three big wins for workers in the last nine months arrived where you might least expect them: in the old, blue-collar economy. That’s the economy where unions are down to 6.7 percent, where wins are rare and workers are supposed to be on their way out.

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The Subtle, Insidious Game of Undermining Social Security From Within

When the Alliance for Retired Americans rallied at an Orlando Social Security office November 8, workers came out, spoke to the crowd, and said they would put up “Don’t Cut My Social Security” signs in their cubicles.

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10,000 Protesters Converge on Michigan Capitol as Gov. Snyder's Assault on Workers' Rights Signed Into Law

Union protesters in front of the Michigan Capitol today knocked down an enormous tent erected by Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-brothers-funded group that helped bring right to work to the state. State troopers arriving on horseback were helpless, bringing to mind images of Humpty Dumpty and all the king’s men.

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Dueling California Measures Set to Tax Rich, Gut Unions

This piece was originally published at Labor Notes

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What We Learn from Two Strikes at Walmart Warehouses

This story was originally published at Labor Notes.

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Teamster Sympathy Strikes Defeat Lockout

A series of one-day sympathy strikes by Teamsters in five cities helped convince the giant waste-hauler Republic Services to back off a six-week lockout of its workers in Evansville, Indiana. The lockout was Republic’s attempt to convince the workers to gut their pensions. In May and June workers in California, Michigan, and Illinois honored picket lines set up by locked-out Indiana workers.

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Supply Chain Workers Test Strength of Links

  This piece was originally published by Labor Notes. Come to the Labor Notes conference May 4-6 in Chicago, the biggest gathering of grassroots labor activists and all-around troublemakers out there! More than 100 workshops and meetings to ‘put the movement back in the labor movement.’  

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American Workers Versus the Tea Parties

As tens of thousands of activists rally in Washington October 2, not all union members will be on the same page. No one knows how many unionists attended Glenn Beck’s “Restore Honor” gathering last month—they were surely a small minority—but the national political climate has opened some to the message of over-taxation, government-bashing, and fear of foreigners.

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Labor Against the War Shifting Sights to Afghanistan Occupation

U.S. Labor Against the War is preparing for its third national assembly in December as the original motivation for its founding --the Iraq war -- is winding down to a more limited but permanent presence. No worries that the nearly seven-year-old USLAW coalition has outlived its usefulness, though: delegates to the Chicago meeting will debate the Afghanistan war.

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Unions Talk Race as Election Nears

Labor leaders who want desperately to chase the Republicans from the White House are confronting a hurdle in their outreach to members: the question of race. Obama's record on economic issues, they say, should put him way ahead of John McCain with working-class voters. But will the facts be enough to overcome some members' deep-seated prejudice?

"We have people disguise it by saying he doesn't have enough experience, or they're not comfortable voting for him," says Kyle McDermott, field director in the Steelworkers' political department. "And we have people come at us and say, 'Look, I'm not going to vote for a black person.' They don't use as kind words as I just did."

Henry Nicholas, a vice president in the public employees union AFSCME, tells of a white member at a Philadelphia hospital who a few weeks ago hung a noose up at work. (He was fired.)

"There's nobody in America," he says, "who, when they have their thinking caps on, believes that racism has disappeared. This [election] is an opportunity to overcome it and deal with it. It won't disappear unless we work on getting rid of it."

The Union Vote Matters

Union households were 24 percent of the electorate in 2004. That year, as in 1996 and 2000, union-household voters went 59 percent for the Democrat. AFL-CIO says 65 percent of union members casting a ballot chose John Kerry over George Bush.

After years of all-out effort, with hundreds of millions of dollars and untold staff time poured into campaigning, it might be hard to be believe that only 59 percent of voters in union households members pull the lever for a Democrat.

In 2000 and 2004, that wasn't enough. Winning union voters and their families by an even larger margin is crucial to Obama's chances to win the presidency this year. Pat Gillespie, president of the Philadelphia Building Trades Council, says, "You'd think it would be a 70-30 split, but it's almost even, and the only reason I can attribute it to is the color of his skin."

And in a special edition of his union's newsletter, John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), bemoaned polls that show union members too close to splitting their votes down the middle.

"Why then is it close?" Gage asked. "Many, including me, think race. Union leaders have felt the sting of anonymous e-mails and coded language at union meetings."

What Tack to Take?

A September 8-10 national poll of likely voters by Democracy Corps found that in white union households, Obama gets 44 percent of the vote, 8 points below the local Democratic candidate for Congress and 9 points below the number of those who identify as Democrats. In 2004 white union households backed John Kerry by a 52.4 percent margin.

At the August meeting of the AFL-CIO executive council, talk was unusually frank about the need to deal with the race question. But what to do?

Jeff Crosby, head of a central labor council near Boston, says, "There's two approaches -- one is just to talk about the class issues, not race. The other is more complicated: let's talk about race.

"In any legislative campaign we have this issue. It's the one moment people are actually willing to talk. Do you try to do education in that teachable moment? Or do you just try to get the vote?"

Most unions are trying to get the vote by any means necessary, but some see this election as part of unions' responsibility to challenge racism, whether it's in the voting booth or in the shop.

"You've got to break down all of those barriers that stop us from respecting the guy we work next to," said Donna Dewitt, president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO.

Speaking to the Steelworkers convention in July, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Rich Trumka said, "There's no evil that's inflicted more pain and more suffering than racism -- and it's something we in the labor movement have a special responsibility to challenge."

The Steelworkers are instructing their political activists how to deal with bogus charges made against Obama, from the flag-pin flap to "is he a Muslim?"

One of the Steelworkers' talking points, "Racism," says, "There are a thousand good reasons to support Barack Obama, and one really bad reason to not support him -- and that's the color of his skin."

Organizers are then instructed to "pivot back" to the union's key economic talking points on jobs, trade, and health care.

"In 2004 we had the wedge issues -- guns, God, and gays," McDermott says. "Unions don't have a position on those pieces, so our message to our membership and activists was always, 'Don't talk about those issues.'

"But the blatant falsehoods out there about Obama -- we have talked to our members and trained our activists to address them but then work our way back to the issues we care most about as a union."

The 2.5-million-member AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department polled its members in battleground states and found Obama leading McCain 55-30 percent -- not enough. To discover the pressure points, it held focus groups with white members who were leaning to McCain or undecided.

The department then produced and distributed a video in which a white painter from Chicago tells viewers that getting the best man is what's important, not his skin color.

Indirect Mail

Many union campaigners for Obama, though, are reluctant even to raise the race question. They fear they'd put fence-sitters on the defensive, which could backfire.

As Trumka told the Steelworkers, "I don't think we should be out there pointing fingers in people's faces and calling them racist."

Bill Lucy, secretary-treasurer of AFSCME, says, "We recognize that people might have a problem with [Obama's race], but you can't focus on trying to correct it because you don't know who they are!

"The big game plan is to go to people with the issues. McCain is opposed to everything they want. The core issues are strong enough to outweigh the latent racism that exists."

If past trends hold, white union members will vote Democratic in greater proportions than the general white population. The question is, how much greater?

Whether their unions address race head on, sideways, or not at all, it's clear that members will have a lot more on their minds than pocketbook issues on November 4.

Says Sharon Pinnock, organizing director for AFGE, "The last couple of elections the fear has been about the terrorist threat. Whether we have some members out there who have a different kind of fear -- that can be just as dangerous."

Paul Abowd, Mischa Gaus, and Tiffany Ten Eyck contributed to this article.

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Corporate America Trying to Make Union Activities Illegal

Is it illegal for an activist group or union to criticize a company's business practices? Is it a "conspiracy" if advocates call for boycotts, organize rallies, or press for resolutions from elected bodies?

Smithfield Foods, the largest producer of pork products in the world, is hoping so, after a lawsuit it filed last October passed an initial court challenge. The suit aims to halt the United Food and Commercial Workers' campaign to unionize 4,600 workers in its Tar Heel, North Carolina, slaughterhouse. The company is using a 1970 statute originally designed to battle gangsters' extortion schemes -- the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).

"This is a terrible menace to rights of free speech and protest, and constitutional rights and freedom of expression," said Lance Compa, Cornell University labor relations professor and an expert on the meatpacking industry. "It's a really dangerous new offensive that employers have seized on to try to snuff out legitimate protest about abusive employer conduct."

Jobs with Justice, which is named as a defendant in the suit, is launching a campaign against corporations' use of the RICO act, which has surfaced intermittently as one legal tactic among an arsenal to silence corporate critics. The act has been used to file suits in recent months against campaigns by the Service Employees (SEIU) at the Wackenhut security firm, and the UFCW at an Arizona-based grocery chain.

JWJ expects to work with unions, central labor councils, and city councils to pass fresh resolutions condemning the lawsuit.

"Our goal is to protect the right of not only unions to engage in these activities, but everybody fighting corporate abuses," said Russ Davis, director of Massachusetts JWJ. "Hopefully we can deter corporations from going down this road. But if these things occur again we want to be ready."

A VAST CONSPIRACY?

Smithfield sees a wide array of plotters conspiring against it, naming UFCW, JWJ, Research Associates of America, and Change To Win, the labor federation to which the UFCW belongs. Also named are eight individuals, including UFCW President Joe Hansen, the union's Smithfield campaign director Gene Bruskin, and Andy Stern, SEIU president.

The defendants' supposed crime? They employed strategies long used by unions and social movements to educate the public, garner support, and pressure corporations.

Since the UFCW's Justice at Smithfield campaign began in June 2006, the union has asked city councils to pass resolutions and boycott Smithfield products, demonstrated at stockholder meetings, and filed health and safety complaints with OSHA. Stores in Massachusetts pulled Smithfield products from their shelves.

All these actions the company cites in its lawsuit as evidence of "formation of the conspiracy," "delivery of the threat," and "publication of false, misleading, baseless, negative and/or damaging information on the Internet and in the newspapers."

"Whatever economic consequences flow, they are not considered in the law sufficient to deprive people of free speech," said Joan Bertin, director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, a member of the anti-RICO coalition.

The union said it had to turn to an aggressive campaign for consumer and community support because Smithfield repeatedly violated laws that are supposed to allow workers to organize.

The UFCW has lost two National Labor Relations Board elections at the plant, both of which were overturned after reams of unfair labor practice charges were sustained against the company. Smithfield's violations include firing workers for talking about the union, and attempts to spy on and intimidate them.

"A TERRIBLE DISTRACTION"

"They're trying to box us into a slow, NLRB process, because it doesn't punish them for violations -- all (workers) get is back-pay and reinstatement," said Renee Bowser, UFCW's assistant general counsel.

Court-watchers doubt the suit will survive. A similar RICO suit brought by Detroit's newspapers last decade against striking newspaper workers ultimately failed.

"This form of coalition building, holding demonstrations -- all of these are classic forms of freedom of association, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly," Compa said. "Ultimately the case won't hold up. In the meantime it's a terrible distraction."

For more information, see JWJ's Free Speech at Risk.

Boring Meetings and Weird Parents

Split: A Counterculture Childhoodby Lisa MichaelsHoughton Mifflin, $23, 307 pp.I read Split: A Counterculture Childhood because I was looking for tips. It's the memoir of Lisa Michaels, born in 1966 and raised by parents who were a political radical (dad) and an anti-materialist semihippie (mom). For political parents, our greatest fear is that our children will be rebels -- against us, that is. When Michaels was interviewed by Terry Gross on National Public Radio, I got the impression that she wasn't an activist, but agreed with her parents' political convictions. Good enough, I thought. Let's find out how they did it. It seems to me that, in general, radical parents do a pretty good job of passing on their values to their kids. But it seems likely that, in an era such as ours, when exciting movements are few and far between, "politics" could come to be equated, in a child's mind, with "boring meetings" and "Mom not home to tuck me in." Michaels says her father's countless meetings were indeed boring and hard to understand, but at least they were held in her living room. She dragged her feet about going to rallies for affirmative action or farmworkers, and her feelings about being there, logically enough, changed with the circumstances: "I was full of self-congratulatory heroism when it looked like the public mood was in our favor. But when the turnout was slim, or it rained, or the police walked the streets in riot gear, I shrank back. ... We were few and weak. They could crush us under their thumbs." Michaels describes the things she missed, or was embarrassed by, because of her mother's values. In kindergarten, "I soon learned how other families spent their nights. Half the recess chatter involved recounting the previous evening's television shows -- a whole world I knew nothing about." She watches "Tom and Jerry" at the neighbor's whenever she can. She observes the strange dinnertime rituals at her friend's house -- saying grace, asking to be excused at the end of the meal -- and begs her parents to teach her etiquette. Her mother feeds her mostly out of her huge garden, and bakes her own bread ("dark, of course"), while Charlene and Jill next door get white bread and bologna, Lucky Charms and potato chips. Michaels nags her mother to wear blush and mascara. In second grade, the kids make fun of the "hippie girl" because she keeps her paper in a red velvet box made by her mother, instead of in a binder. Here Michaels voices an ambivalence that recurs: "To join in the shrill laughter would betray my mother's thoughtfulness, and yet part of me blamed her for sending me into the world without proper equipment." In high school, she yearns for a suburban tract house.What's more striking than Michaels' perceived deprivations and embarrassments is the guilt she often felt. The way I read it, some of this was because her father was a bit of a jerk. A former Weatherman, he had moved to the Bay Area and joined a Maoist group. At the end of each summer visit -- the two parents split up when Michaels was 4 months old -- Michaels and her father and stepmother would do "criticism/self-criticism" of her stay. How was her relationship with her stepmother progressing? How was the daycare? How was Michaels' own behavior? Michaels says she entered into these reviews enthusiastically. Her father urges her to read a biography of Paul Robeson, for self-improvement. Her stepmother gives her a book on Chinese revolutionary youth, ever noble. Passing a porn theater is one of many opportunities for an earnest moral lesson. Even her mother's customary send-off is "think of the other guy." Dad writes in one of her book-gifts that there are two kinds of people in the world: Those who live for themselves and those who live for others. What kind of trip is that to lay on a child? At one point, Dad scares 12-year-old Michaels by turning the living room stereo up loud (to foil possible bugs) and telling her he may have to move to Kentucky to help the coal miners. It's a "crucial fight," and surely the assistance of an outside agitator from California is just what they need. The effect on Michaels is often, not always, feelings of fear and guilt. "I wanted to slip into the bland flow of passersby; I wanted to live a life that aroused no suspicion or trouble ... I would lie in bed despairing over my lack of courage. I was afraid that if I had lived in Nazi Germany, if I had been a Christian with an empty attic, I would have turned the Jews away." The comforts of her life -- compared to those of migrant farmworkers, living in cardboard boxes -- make her feel afraid, because she's done nothing to deserve them. On the other hand, her father's politics lead him to not waste time yelling or moralizing over certain subjects. When she's caught shoplifting, she writes, "If my father had tried to speak of profit margins or the businessman's right to a fair buck, I would have laughed through my teeth. He had spent his life questioning the rights of big capital; he certainly wasn't going to take their side over a vial of eye drops." Instead his advice is practical: "They're cracking down on this kind of thing. It's not worth it anymore." Despite a certain heavy-handedness, in the end Michaels seems to feel that her parents have sent her into the world with proper equipment. She's a beautiful writer, with many an evocative phrase that makes you know just how it was (and wonder how she can remember so well). At her wedding (planned for a year and catered, in contrast to her parents' and stepparents' casual trips to city hall), she thinks, "I'd become what they had given me, a girl with enough wild days to fill a story, and the faith to think I could tell it."Jane Slaughter can be contacted at metrotimes@metrotimes.com.

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