Tag Archives: Gordon Lafer

The War on Workers’ Rights

19 May

I have an oped in the New York Times on the Republican war on workers’ rights at the state level. My conclusion:

The overall thrust of this state legislation is to create workers who are docile and employers who are empowered. That may be why Republican legislators in Idaho, Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine, Ohio, Minnesota, Utah and Missouri have been so eager to ease restrictions on when and how much children can work. High schoolers should learn workplace virtues, says the conservative commentator Ben Stein, like “not talking back.” Early exposure to employment will teach 12-year-olds, as the spokesman of an Idaho school district put it, that “you have to do what you’re asked, what your supervisor is telling you.”

And if workers don’t learn that lesson in junior high, recent Republican changes to state unemployment codes will ensure that they learn it as adults. In 2011, Florida stipulated that any employee fired for “deliberate violation or disregard of the reasonable standards of behavior which the employer expects” would be ineligible for unemployment benefits. Arkansas passed a similar amendment (“violation of any behavioral policies of the employer”). The following year so did South Carolina (“deliberate violations or disregard of standards of behavior which the employer has the right to expect”) and Tennessee. The upshot of these changes is that any employee breaking the rules of her employer — be they posting comments about work on Facebook, dating a co-worker or an employee from a rival firm, going to the bathroom without permission — can be fired and denied unemployment. Faced with that double penalty, any worker might think twice about crossing her boss.

What might Adam Smith, often claimed as the intellectual godfather of the American right, have said about these legislative efforts? “Whenever the legislature attempts to regulate the differences between masters and their workmen,” wrote Smith in “The Wealth of Nations,” “its counsellors are always the masters. When the regulation, therefore, is in favour of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the masters.”


The oped is based on Gordon Lafer’s eye-opening report last fall for the Economic Policy Institute, “The Legislative Attack on American Wages and Labor Standards, 2011-2012,” which you should also read.

ALEC supports worker collectivism and redistribution of wealth

8 Nov

From Gordon Lafer’s report for the Economic Policy Institute:

In Wyoming, a bill co-sponsored by a group of ALEC-affiliated legislators and backed by the Restaurant Association would have given employers the right to force employees to pool their tips.159 While employees may have previously pooled tips, this was done voluntarily. In many restaurants, bussers, who are legally considered tipped employees, in fact receive little tip income.160 In such cases, employers are required to pay them the regular minimum wage. By forcing more highly tipped wait staff to pool earnings, employers may avoid this obligation—essentially cutting the take-home pay of wait staff by making them pay the bussers’ wages, with employers pocketing the difference as increased profits.

In 2011, Maine legislators adopted a new law declaring that “service charges” do not legally constitute tips, and that they are therefore not the property of wait staff and may be taken by the employer.161 The statute—sponsored by an ALEC task force member and supported by the Restaurant Association—does not require restaurants to notify customers that the “service charge” does not go to servers; many patrons likely believe this charge constitutes the gratuity, and therefore provide little if any additional tip.162 As in Wyoming, then, the Maine law constitutes a direct transfer of income from employees to owners, accomplished through the latter’s political power.

Footnote 162 reads as follows: “The law stipulates that an ‘employer in a banquet or private club setting may use some or all of any service charge to meet its obligation to compensate all employees'”.

Dictatorships and Double Standards

25 Oct

I’m hoping in the coming days to do a longer blog on the stories about employers instructing employees how to vote, forcing employees to attend rallies for Romney, etc. In the meantime, Gordon Lafer has one of the best pieces yet on this story. He makes the point, which came as news to me, that the Bush Administration repeatedly condemned elections in other countries where because in part bosses there were doing the exact same thing they’re doing here.

The Bush Administration, for instance, rejected Ukrainian elections as illegitimate, in part because international observers found that managers of state-owned enterprises had “instructed their subordinates to vote for [the ruling party].”

One step beyond even the Kochs is GOP mega-donor Bob Murray, who required employees at an Ohio coal mine to attend a Romney campaign event. The resulting photo-op could have been at home in the old East Germany – candidate standing before a crowd of miners, replete with banner reading “Coal Country Stands With Mitt,” with no notice that miners were attending under the direction of their boss, forced to give up a day’s pay in order to serve as human props. Again, we routinely condemn such charades when carried out by foreigners. The Bush Administration criticized Armenia’s elections, for instance, after observers reported that “factory workers … were instructed to attend the incumbent’s rallies.”  But what we reject for Armenians and Ukrainians, the business lobbies now want to institute at home.

He also responds to a claim I often hear—including on this blog—that since employers can’t really know how an employee votes, employers can’t be said to be intimidating or coercing employees.

An employee whose boss tells them hot to vote may still ignore this advice in the privacy of a voting booth. What they won’t do, however, is display a button or bumper sticker, write a letter to the editor, or be seen attending a rally of the opposing party. This strikes at the very heart of democracy.  Elections are only “free and fair” if voters are free to speak out, write in, and publicly support the candidate of their choice, without fear for their livelihoods.

What sets democratic elections apart from the sham votes of authoritarian regimes is not secret ballots – after all, even Saddam Hussein had secret ballots – but the ability of all voters to participate in what the Supreme Court termed “uninhibited, robust and wide-open debate” without fear of retaliation.

Update (October 26, 4 pm)

Gordon sends me a followup email:

You mentioned in your post about my article that even people on your blog wonder why it’s a problem for bosses to tell workers how to vote, since you still have the secret ballot.  I noticed similar comments on the The Hill site where the piece went up — even “why shouldn’t employers tell their employees what they think the impact of certain policies will be?” and “don’t they have a moral obligation to do that”?  I got similar questions yesterday afternoon in a radio interview about the Milwaukee manufacturer emailing his employees that they’ll lose their pension funds if Obama is reelected.

One of the things this makes me think about is this: If I as a professor told my students who to vote for, and even if I gave good reasons — the Republicans are going to de-fund higher education and destroy the economy, your future will be bleak, Social Security will be destroyed if you vote for them, things I actually believe are true and you could say I had a moral obligation to pass on to my students — if I told people who to vote for based on that, I’d be subject to ethics charges for abuse of power.  Because then any student who disagrees, who wants to wear a Romney button or submit a class paper that argues for GOP policy, they’d have to worry about how this would affect their grade.  Certainly, I think that if Wisconsin school teachers, for instance, went into class and told their students that Governor Walker is destroying the school system and destroying their chances of getting a middle class job when they graduate — they’d be accused of abusing their authority as teachers, and “politicizing the classroom.”  But the power teachers and professors have over students — giving grades and writing letters of recommendations — is much less than what bosses have over employees.

The Kochs’ Libertarian Hypocrisy: It’s Worse Than You Think

15 Oct

In response to my last post, Gordon Lafer sent me an email:

Unsurprisingly, there’s a glaring contrast between the standards that the Kochs and other employers insist on for themselves—i.e., they should be maximally free to tell their employees who’s worth supporting for public office— and what they are trying to impose on workers’ organizations around the country.

For instance, Alabama’s Act 2010-761, an “ethics” law adopted in 2011 which banned payroll dues deductions for unions that engage in any type of political activity, also includes this:

Any person who is in the employment of…any…governmental agency, shall be on approved leave to engage in political action or the person shall be on personal time before or after work and on holidays.  It shall be unlawful for any officer or employee [of the government] to…coerce or attempt to coerce any subordinate employee to work in any capacity in any political campaign or cause.  Any person who violates this section shall be guilty of the crime of trading in public office and upon conviction thereof, shall be fined or sentenced, or both…

The law defines “political activity” very broadly, to include: “engaging in… any form of political communication, including communications which mention the name of a political candidate.”

So…school teachers can’t talk to each other about which candidate their union endorsed, or who attacked teachers’ rights, when they’re on lunch break or in the break room or pissing in the men’s room, without fear of fine and imprisonment.  And certainly an administrator or senior teacher can’t tell junior teachers that they hope they’ll be out there at the rally in support of school funding.

When it comes to public employees mobilizing around politics, the law upholds a very strict standard.  But in the private sector, supervisors and owners telling their dependent subordinates how they should vote—which in pre-Citizens United law was treated as implicitly coercive because it would dissuade employees from wearing buttons, sporting bumper stickers or being seen at events of the opposition candidate—is no problem.  Like Stephen Colbert’s “I don’t see race,” the Kochs, the Chamber of Commerce, and ALEC “don’t see employer coercion.”

When I asked Gordon to clarify the Kochs’ role in the Alabama law, he wrote back:

The bill was co-sponsored by Alabama Senate Majority Leader James Waggoner, a member of ALEC.  It was trumpeted as a key bill by the National Right to Work Committee and supported by the Alabama Policy Institute, a local ALEC-affiliated think tank.  Both ALEC and the NRTW Committee receive financial support from the Koch brothers.  That’s all the smoking gun there is.  But the Kochs support things like this more explicitly in other states. Americans for Prosperity, the most clear-cut Koch vehicle, doesn’t have an Alabama chapter, but in Arizona was a key backer of another bill banning union dues deductions if those deductions were used for broadly construed “political” purposes.

Gordon Lafer Weighs in on Wisconsin, again

3 Jul

At the Nation, Gordon Lafer responds to some of the criticisms of his original article. Here are some highlights:

My disagreement with Doug Henwood has nothing to do with whether unions should be “sucking up to Democrats” or pursuing “business as usual.” I believe that Doug and I see the same crisis; we disagree about what caused it, and what is to be done.

Public confidence in unions has declined, which Henwood insists is because the public correctly perceives that unions are selfish and fail to promote the common good. Yet the most important facts at the heart of Henwood’s argument—42 percent of the country would like to see unions have less influence, and only 30 percent want more influence – are a product of the last five years. Another part of the same poll, which Henwood chose not to discuss, shows that as recently as 2006, the proportions were reversed, with 38 percent of Americans wishing unions had greater influence, and only 30 percent preferring less. So something happened in the last five years to turn public opinion against unions. What’s the more likely explanation—that unions actually became more self-serving in the last five years, and the public correctly perceived this? Or that a massive campaign of corporate advertising and right-wing newscasters encouraged downwardly-mobile Americans to vent their anger on unions?

For that matter, these same polls show that desire to limit union influence is overwhelmingly Republican; 69 percent of them want to see union influence curbed, compared with only 17 percent of Democrats. So for Henwood’s theory to be true, it would have to be the case that Republicans are much better than Democrats at perceiving the truth about unions, and that many Republicans would turn pro-labor if only they saw unions advocating for Canadian-style healthcare. Uh, right.

The point of highlighting these and more recent campaigns is not to be a cheerleader for union accomplishments, but the opposite: to be clear-eyed about the fact that if all it took to win was unions’ willingness to think outside the box, we’d have been celebrating a long time ago.

Why focus on the labor movement? After all, 93 percent of the private sector is unorganized. If the primary barrier to progress is bureaucratic union leaders, the field is – unfortunately – wide open to go around them. Why not create the people’s movement in the 93 percent of the economy, instead of harping on the 7 percent?

Read the rest here.

In related news, it looks like Bill Moyers is going to be having a terrific discussion with Steven Lerner and Bill Fletcher.

With a sharp decline in union membership, a legion of new enemies, and a series of legal and legislative setbacks, can American labor rebound and once again act strongly in the interest of ordinary workers? On this week’s Moyers & Company, Bill talks to two people who can best answer the question: Stephen Lerner and Bill Fletcher, Jr. The architect of the SEIU’s Justice for Janitors movement, Lerner directed SEIU’s private equity project, which worked to expose a Wall Street feeding frenzy that left the working class in a state of catastrophe. Fletcher took his Harvard degree to the Massachusetts shipyards, and worked as a welder before becoming a labor activist. He served as Assistant to the President of the AFL-CIO, and is author of the upcoming book “They’re Bankrupting Us!”: And 20 Other Myths about Unions.

Adolph Reed Speaks Truth on Wisconsin

27 Jun

Over at The Nation, Adolph Reed weighs in on the great debate about Wisconsin. (His piece, as of this writing, is second from the top, just after Bill Fletcher’s and Jane McAlevey’s.) Adolph, whose credentials as a thinker and activist I assume no one (at least no one in her right mind) would question, has got some choice words of wisdom that I hope we’ll all heed.

Many observers have noted that the Madison occupation depended on intense, aggressive, even extraordinary mobilization by unions, and not only unions in Wisconsin. That point has underscored the labor movement’s centrality to any mass action of that sort because it alone has the capacity – people and organizational and economic resources — to pull it off and sustain it. The other side of that coin, however, is that the intensity of effort required to sustain that kind of action could not be maintained indefinitely. It is too easy to imagine, as the numbers in Madison grew, that the mobilization had taken on a life of its own, that the People were rising. However, generating and sustaining that mass action required great commitment of effort and resources – effort and resources that weren’t going toward meeting other pressing needs and commitments.

Mass protest is not the end all and be all of political action. It does not necessarily mark going on the offensive or seizing political initiative; it can just as easily be the opposite – an act of desperation or an attempt to create a little space or breathing room to try to recover from a serious blow. It is only the fetish of the Spark that underwrites the default assumption that mass protest or street action equates with radicalization and expansion of the struggle. How many of us have ever really seen (i.e., not simply read or heard about – everybody tells that fish story) a protest action grow entirely on its own to a point where it overwhelms political opposition or converts into a new insurgency?

The tendency to scapegoat the labor movement for Walker’s most recent victory in Wisconsin – and, to be clear, that is what I see in Henwood’s, Rothschild’s and Kroll’s arguments – stems from frustration and desperation and, ironically, recognition, if only backhanded, of the fact that labor was the only element of the coalition challenging Walker with the material and organizational capacity to set and pursue a strategy. What other organized political forces could be identified in order to be blamed? This scapegoating not only rests on a naïvely formalist juxtaposition of street action and electoral action; it also feeds on a long-standing suspicion in many precincts of the post-Vietnam era left of a politics rooted in institutions in general and unions in particular. Gordon Lafer is correct that these criticisms misunderstand what unions are and how they operate as democratic structures, the realities of union leaders’ accountability to their members. I don’t need to reiterate that argument, which he makes very well. I would also commend Corey Robin’s blog posting offering a “Challenge to the Left” to consider what actually attempting to organize a constituency to support an unconventional program requires. For those who want to build a left, that’s the mindset of slow, steady, face-to-face base-building we need, not lurching from one self-gratifying but unproductive action to the next. The point of politics is after all, to resuscitate an old Maoist dictum, to unite the many to defeat the few. Our objective has to be to create that “many,” not merely assume it’s out there already.

Whither Wisconsin: A Guide to the Perplexed (Left)

15 Jun

Gordon Lafer on how to think—and not think—about the Wisconsin recall:

After all, if the real problem was overpaid union bureaucrats, then radical unions like the Wobblies or United Electrical workers—unburdened by highly paid staff or Democratic politics—should be meeting greater success in organizing. But, of course, they are not. The problem is not what unions are doing; it’s the coercive power of employers.

Read the rest here.


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