“And if we want to say something different about our economy, I think it begins with this workforce”

I saw some comments about immigration reform and labor on one of the threads. I read quite a bit on labor issues, because honestly they’re the only people who talk about work and the economy in a way that makes sense to me. I’m just done with the Tom Friedman’s of this world. I think pundits get more than enough time to talk, or, to relay the interests of the 250 people they talk to.

This is a conversation with a newer labor leader. You may or may not agree with what she says, but I think sometimes there is this perception that the politics around unions involve trying to convince older white unionists to support Democratic politicians or liberal issues. I think pundits promote this misconception, with the whole “lunch bucket” theme they like where “labor” is frozen in time, but I may have also inadvertently promoted it because that’s what we do where I live (convince older white unionists to support Democratic politicians or liberal issues). We do that here because this is an area with a large manufacturing presence and a population that is probably 98% white.

It’s bigger than that. It’s much more ambitious and inclusive and it’s changing:

The past decade has seen a surge of organizing by domestic workers in the United States. These workers, who care for children, senior citizens and disabled people in their homes, are explicitly excluded from many of the basic protections of federal labor law, including union organizing rights. Their job is characterized by low wages, long hours and meager benefits, and it’s among the fastest-growing in the US economy. Last Friday, The Nation sat down with Ai-jen Poo, a founder of New York’s Domestic Workers United, who now directs the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

What is happening is that work is becoming more unstable, insecure, dangerous and vulnerable. When I first started organizing domestic workers, people kind of perceived it as this very exotic shadow workforce at the margins of the economy. But when you look around these days, the conditions that define domestic work are not so different from the conditions that define every American worker’s realities. As more and more people become temporary, part-time or contracted, nobody knows who their real boss is, no one has collective bargaining, no one even knows what bargaining is, and no one works in a workplace where bargaining is actually feasible. We’re essentially all becoming domestic workers.
When we really go up against [restaurant giant] Darden or Walmart, what we have is simply insufficient. I think it will take a combination of these models getting to sufficient sophistication and scale, and a very broad-based movement of people who are invested in the future of work, and can connect to it on a deeply personal and emotional level, and want to take action.

This is the immigration piece:

But as far as I can tell, all of the unions seem to be communicating and working together on this, and even working with us on it, so so far, it’s OK. I think everything’s going to change once there’s a bill. That’s when it’s going to get really interesting.
Immigration reform, it’s just a huge opportunity to potentially win legal status for millions of workers, including care workers and domestic workers. So we’ve been really all in, trying to push to make sure that happens, and to make sure that the path to citizenship is as inclusive as possible. Our main strategy has been actually to contextualize the domestic worker piece in the context of a women’s agenda for immigration reform.

And I hadn’t heard this before:

[Meanwhile,] we’re trying to knit together the interests of immigrants and the aged and people with disabilities, so that those interests don’t get pitted against each other.
Similarly, last year we reached about half a million moderate-to-conservative seniors in five swing states and talked to them about Medicaid and Medicare, but mostly wanted to talk to them about what it would look like to be in alliance with a rising electorate of color. And we’re framing what we’re doing as building the “caring majority alliance,” which actually knits together the interests of a rising electorate of color with the interests of a rising older white electorate. With the age wave, and the boomer generation, and people living longer, we are potentially going to be very racially and generationally polarized in this country. So we’re trying to say that white seniors and younger people of color actually have a shared destiny, and very clear material self-interest in working together.

Edit! I forgot this part:

One state to watch — because it often sets the precedent for the rest of the country — is California, where the labor chant “Si, se puede” (Yes, we can) seems to be coming true for unions. While national union membership is at a record low of 11 percent (versus 20 percent in 1983), union membership is, in fact, growing in California. While the nation shed about 400,000 union members in 2012, California signed up about 110,000 new union members, according to BLS data.

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41 replies
  1. 1
    Schlemizel says:

    70% of the US GNP comes from consumer purchasing. We have fewer people working full-time today that 40 years ago and average income, adjusted for inflation is lower now than 40 years ago. While our masters have been crushing organized labor, far too often with the willing cooperation (and certainly under the active cheering) of workers they may have missed that they are killing the goose that laid their golden eggs.

  2. 2
    Chris says:

    I think sometimes there is this perception that the politics around unions involve trying to convince older white unionists to support Democratic politicians or liberal issues. I think pundits promote this misconception, with the whole “lunch bucket” theme they like where “labor” is frozen in time, but I may have also inadvertently promoted it because that’s what we do where I live (convince older white unionists to support Democratic politicians or liberal issues).

    I agree.

    Partly it’s a frozen-in-time thing like you said, by people who still think white working class salt of the earth voters are the country’s political center. But partly it’s a very deliberate attempt to identify labor with said white working class and separate it from the nonwhite immigrants that’re remaking the country’s landscape.

    Republicans (and all their mouthpieces) love the narrative of unions being trademarked by “working whites” and live in terror of seeing the Mexicans and Central Americans they rely on for cheap labor organize themselves to demand higher wages in the same way the Irish, Italians and Poles did a century ago.

    I congratulate the unions who do it for reaching out to domestic workers; it’s exactly what they should be doing. Don’t play to the establishment’s narrative.

  3. 3
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    So we’re trying to say that white seniors and younger people of color actually have a shared destiny, and very clear material self-interest in working together.

    This is a big thing.

    ETA: Which is why it was bolded in the OP.

  4. 4
    Kay says:

    @Chris:

    it’s a very deliberate attempt to identify labor with said white working class and separate it from the nonwhite immigrants

    I agree with that, but I also think it’s because they simply don’t see people who may not have an actor portraying them in a commercial for a pickup truck. I’m not sure they even see a lot of work as “work”, actually. They certainly don’t see what public employees do as “work”.

    Just to be clear, the point is not to set one group against another, or to demean or devalue ANY of the work that people do. It’s just bigger than it’s sometimes portrayed.

  5. 5
    c u n d gulag says:

    For those of us old enough to remember regular “Labor” columns in almost every newspaper, whether it was more than once a day (OY! – I’M OLD), to daily, to weekly, to monthly, reading this is all very, very, depressing!

    But, I’ll take anything “we,” regular people, can get.

  6. 6
    red dog says:

    I know that when I need invalid care I want a stable happy person helping me and not some poor gal or guy working their second or third shift for minimum wage. The same applies when my hotel room is cleaned or my food prepared. I will be happy to pay more to ensure a competent workforce. I hope unions can represent all these workers and give them a fair living.

  7. 7
    rikyrah says:

    another informative post…never thought of labor issues this way, Kay

  8. 8
    Ultraviolet Thunder says:

    I work around a lot of old school union guys. And they’re almost all guys, but not exclusively. Plumbers, electricians, riggers, welders, etc. There are very few under the age of 40. Many are in their 60s. Their sons and grandsons are unlikely to have traditional union jobs.
    Standing outside factory gates with leaflets at shift change just doesn’t reach the people who need to be reached any more.
    Personally I’d love to see food service and hospitality workers unionized. having worked in that field I know how much worker abuse goes on. Pay more for a steak or a hotel room but pay a decent living to the people who provide it.

  9. 9
    Ruckus says:

    I still work in the same type of job I had when I was 17 and graduated HS. But there are many fewer of these jobs and while they pay OK, they are still somewhat dangerous and dirty. What I heard growing up in a lower middle class family was that one worked at an honorable profession, doing dirty and/or dangerous work. IOW what most union jobs are. But that’s not what I got from school or anywhere else. The whole point was not to have to do that kind of work anymore. There really wasn’t anything presented to replace it though and the country has suffered from the idea that working with one’s hands and back rather than only with one’s head is beneath contempt.

  10. 10
    Ruckus says:

    @Ultraviolet Thunder:
    …pay a decent living to the people who provide it.
    When so many in charge have never seen/experienced what it is like to have a hands on job in the service/production industries, they just don’t see the value in paying for that job because they don’t see the value in the job or the people doing it.

    BTW given your job I like your handle change.

  11. 11
    Sly says:

    @Schlemizel:

    While our masters have been crushing organized labor, far too often with the willing cooperation (and certainly under the active cheering) of workers they may have missed that they are killing the goose that laid their golden eggs.

    IBGYBG. A prerequisite of being a Master of the Universe is to lack any kind of vision or long-term planning skills.

  12. 12
    Another Halocene Human says:

    What she’s talking about, Kay, is adopting the tactics of NNU (National Nurses United) but letting the clients take the lead in PR because they are the US natives and English speakers.

    All of the service industry unions are looking at this sort of thing because they’ve taken away our ability to strike, forcing us to pursue these kinds of political strategies.

    Service professions have more common interests with the clients than competing interests.

  13. 13
    Another Halocene Human says:

    @red dog: Without a union, you will pay more but the middleman will take the premium. You’re supposed to feel satisfied because the middleman will let you “fire” people whenever you like. The dubious pleasures of sadistic bossery should make up for the mistakes, inattention, cost-cutting, and incompetence.

    Help us fight Right to Work and other union-busting measures. Help support minimum wage increase, mandatory sick leave, mandatory breaks and other minimum standards measures that benefit even the lowliest and un-unionized workers. And don’t let them carve out exemptions for ANYTHING.

  14. 14
    Another Halocene Human says:

    @Ruckus: There really wasn’t anything presented to replace it though and the country has suffered from the idea that working with one’s hands and back rather than only with one’s head is beneath contempt.

    True. You are an asshole. Because if you don’t make it to retirement, if you have to get disability, you are a “taker” not a “maker” despite giving up your life and health to that job (for your family).

    CF the sneering towards the 50-55 retirement age for low-end professions in Greece by people who worked white collar and could expect to work into their 70s unless they were forced out. People at the top of the totem pole live longer and can expect to work longer. People at the bottom don’t make it. There’s nothing more cruel than promising a pension and pulling it away because you’re working class and your body wore out before the retirement age determined by some suits whose biggest injury risk in on the golf course.

  15. 15
    Kay says:

    @Another Halocene Human:

    Good! The perseverance and persistence amazes me.
    You are certainly outnumbered or at least out-shouted.
    Have you ever been on Meet The Press?
    Why not? Does The Press not want to meet you?

  16. 16
    Bruce S says:

    Didn’t know that about California growing union membership – great news. Hooray for us!

  17. 17
    Ultraviolet Thunder says:

    @Ruckus:

    Thanks. My old nym was accidentally linked to my real name by a Really Huge Blog that’s impossible to ignore. The new nym was Kim Jong Il’s handle in a text RPG in an Achewood comic. Because that’s weird and hilarious.

    I worked in one restaurant where the owner said “If I hear the word union one more time I will close this place and put you all out on the street”. Everybody had rent to pay so we didn’t call him on it. I imagine it’s the same for all bottom-rungers.

  18. 18
    Ruckus says:

    @Another Halocene Human:
    Of course the problem is I am a maker. I have been making things my entire working life.

    Oh you meant a maker of (lots and lots of) money. Yeah on that one note song, a complete failure.

  19. 19
    Ruckus says:

    @Ultraviolet Thunder:
    I actually didn’t used to understand unions. When I owned my first company I used to pay top dollar and benefits. Well no retirement program but then I was a small business, 4-10 employees. And I knew what others paid because I belonged to a trade organization that surveyed all it’s members once a year about costs and supplied the results to all the members. We all knew that we were competing for a limited number of qualified employees and what it took to hire and keep them happy and working.
    Then I found out that lots of companies actively tried to fuck their workers, in many ways and for really bad reasons. Now, unions all the way.

  20. 20
    Ruckus says:

    @Ultraviolet Thunder:
    I thought it was because of your job. The comic book thing is way better.
    I didn’t know about Uncle Ruckus until about 2 years after I started using mine, so I’ve just kept it.

  21. 21
    Chris says:

    @Schlemizel:

    While our masters have been crushing organized labor, far too often with the willing cooperation (and certainly under the active cheering) of workers they may have missed that they are killing the goose that laid their golden eggs.

    That really depends on your point of view. If they really don’t care about anything other than making money, then you’re right, they’re killing the goose. But as several people (myself included) have theorized here before, it’s possible that they care more about power and control than about money, so the prospect of turning America into a full fledged third world country appeals to them.

    Sure, everyone’s poorer, including themselves, but ruling over an impoverished mass of serfs gives you the kind of power over them that you could never have over an enfranchised, middle-class population.

  22. 22
    Schlemizel says:

    @Sly:

    Our world is owned by sociopaths.

    I had never seen ‘IBGYBG’ before but the concept is painfully obvious

  23. 23
    Chris says:

    @Ruckus:

    There really wasn’t anything presented to replace it though and the country has suffered from the idea that working with one’s hands and back rather than only with one’s head is beneath contempt.

    This, quoted for truth.

    The only jobs that are still considered worthy of respect and popular admiration are being a businessman (Job Creator! Captain of Industry! Brave Galtian with skin in the game!) or being a uniform (police or military). The rest of us are a mass of ungrateful peons who should be thankful that the Makers have the generosity to pay us and the Warriors have the generosity to protect us.

    (Although the uniform-worship is largely just a show for the cameras, too. In practice, if you’re not Galtian, you’re little people).

  24. 24
    schrodinger's cat says:

    BTW the undocumented and people with temporary work visas, as in for example the people on the hated H1-B, contribute FICA and Medicare taxes. They can avail of the benefits if and when they become citizens not before. So the hated immigrants are already helping to keep the SS and Medicare solvent.

  25. 25
    Ruckus says:

    @Chris:
    I wonder how many think like I do that I wasted my life being a productive person(in the old sense) rather than a complete fucking thief, stealing and grifting from any one and any where possible. At least then the last 20-30 years of my life wouldn’t be spent wondering which flavor of cat food tastes better than it smells.
    And I also wonder how this relates to Doug’s post about wanting to see the worst sociopaths dead, who is on the side of dead, on the side of pissing on graves, and those who wish well of everyone.

  26. 26
    Ruckus says:

    @Sly:
    Enough money makes up for a lack of any long term analytical skills. One doesn’t care because one doesn’t have to care. Having only job skills means one has to at least give nod to the possible ending of a “career” meaning that food and shelter become scarce. Or non existent. And do we really have to mention lack of (affordable) health care?
    An entire adult working life should not end with nothing as it’s reward. Especially when the assholes of the world lived that life (and can easily afford early retirement) in luxury and on our backs.

  27. 27
    Baud says:

    I don’t know why this post is categorized as naval-gazing. Real good stuff, as usual, Kay.

  28. 28
    Maude says:

    @Baud:
    She’s modest. She doesn’t want to tell us she has a lovely navel.

  29. 29
    gene108 says:

    @Chris:

    They don’t need the little people to keep their wealth. A preferential tax code and the ability to seek rents with their existing money means they are relatively insulated from the struggles of the common folk.

    In their simplest form, rents are nothing more than re-distributions from one part of society to the rent seekers. Much of the inequality in our economy has been the result of rent seeking, because, to a significant degree, rent seeking re-distributes money from those at the bottom to those at the top.
    But there is a broader economic consequence: the fight to acquire rents is at best a zero-sum activity. Rent seeking makes nothing grow. Efforts are directed toward getting a larger share of the pie rather than increasing the size of the pie. But it’s worse than that: rent seeking distorts resource allocations and makes the economy weaker. It is a centripetal force: the rewards of rent seeking become so outsize that more and more energy is directed toward it, at the expense of everything else. Countries rich in natural resources are infamous for rent-seeking activities. It’s far easier to get rich in these places by getting access to resources at favorable terms than by producing goods or services that benefit people and increase productivity. That’s why these economies have done so badly, in spite of their seeming wealth. It’s easy to scoff and say: We’re not Nigeria, we’re not Congo. But the rent-seeking dynamic is the same.

    http://www.vanityfair.com/poli.....inequality

    Stiglitz explaining the rent-seeking behavior in our economy. As long as the government has policies favorable to rent seeking, there’s no reason to actually do things to grow the standard of living for most people.

    Since Republicans are the 100% the party of the rent-seekers and they have very strong appeal in parts of this country, I’m not sure things can ever get bad enough to force serious change.

    The overwhelming popularity of raising the minimum wage could be a starting point to push for an evening out of the pie and maybe something to be used against Republicans come 2014. As long Republicans can get electing doing what they do, I don’t expect major changes to happen.

  30. 30

    While we’re on the topic, please everyone boycott Hyatt.

    Along with this story, a few years back they lied to their permanent housekeeping staff, telling them they were training temporary fill-ins from a contractor, only to have those “temps” take their jobs. Of course, robust union jobs were placed with crappy nonunion contractor jobs.

  31. 31
    jamick6000 says:

    Our main strategy has been actually to contextualize the domestic worker piece in the context of a women’s agenda for immigration reform.

    what it would look like to be in alliance with a rising electorate of color. And we’re framing what we’re doing as building the “caring majority alliance,” which actually knits together the interests of a rising electorate of color with the interests of a rising older white electorate. With the age wave, and the boomer generation, and people living longer, we are potentially going to be very racially and generationally polarized in this country.

    This seems like a lot of buzzwordy b.s. to me. And it has to be, I think, because she’s trying to paper over the fact that the interests of the two groups (middle/lower class workers and immigrants) don’t align. When you have millions more workers competing for jobs, wages and benefits are going to go down. At the same time, we restrict the number of foreign professionals that can work here (ie doctors, lawyers), keeping their wages high. So the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. I don’t think this dynamic is going to change any time soon.

    I guess I don’t see what a compromise that benefits both sides will look like.

  32. 32
    Narcissus says:

    Somebody needs to come up with a secure, easy way to organize workers in all workplaces and to allow organization between workplaces and professions. The internet would be a fantastic tool if we were using it. I’m thinking of something like Facebook or Google +, only not organized by corporate whores.

  33. 33
    jamick6000 says:

    @Narcissus: something like that would be easy for employers to monitor though! so people might not want to use it.

  34. 34
    Narcissus says:

    @jamick6000: Yeah there’d have to be someway to maintain anonymity or prevent ratfuckery.

  35. 35
    Kay says:

    @jamick6000:
    There are no “two sides”. She works on behalf of domestic workers. They are overwhelmingly brown, black and female. They make rock-bottom wages because they were exempted from federal wage laws decades ago.
    There is no existing domestic worker force sparring with immigrants. They’re the same people. If she success in this, people who work in other people’s homes ALL benefit.

  36. 36

    @jamick6000: Starts with a living wage. Immigrants and working-class indigens don’t have conflicting interests by nature, they have conflicting interests due to the fact that bosses can pay immigrants less. This game has been played for a couple of centuries. If there’s an enforced minimum wage, if it applies to the undocumented, and if it is adjusted fairly for tipped workers, the conflict isn’t there. Because there is no fixed amount of labor that needs to be done such that immigrants take it away from those born here; rather, by their presence and economic activity fairly paid immigrants create new opportunities for those born here.

  37. 37
    Kay says:

    @jamick6000:

    The rising American electorate, the electorate she wants to organize, is young, brown and female.
    It isn’t hypothetical. They’re looking at California.

  38. 38
    Keith G says:

    First, thanks Kay. You are at the top of value added blogging. I learn a lot less from some bold-face types who get a salary doing this.

    Second, “caring majority alliance,” is an idea that needs and deserves as much nurturing as possible. Do you know or can you find out is that is being scaled up? I would be interested in helping out with such an effort.

  39. 39
    anon says:

    @jamick6000:

    And it has to be, I think, because she’s trying to paper over the fact that the interests of the two groups (middle/lower class workers and immigrants) don’t align. When you have millions more workers competing for jobs, wages and benefits are going to go down. At the same time, we restrict the number of foreign professionals that can work here (ie doctors, lawyers), keeping their wages high. So the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. I don’t think this dynamic is going to change any time soon.

    Completely agree.

  40. 40
    anon says:

    @Yastreblyansky:

    Because there is no fixed amount of labor that needs to be done such that immigrants take it away from those born here; rather, by their presence and economic activity fairly paid immigrants create new opportunities for those born here.

    This seems extremely unlikely. Which is why, for example, the AMA keeps the supply of doctors limited.

  41. 41
    Sondra says:

    dfernandez@flaflcio.org
    This is our Florida AFL-CIO organization and we are very active here. More so because this is a right to work State perhaps, or because our older white citizens are older more experienced activists. They come from the east and were part of the first and second great waves of union organizing: they were beaten up and jailed back in the day and their wisdom and experience is amazing.
    When we picket for labor rights they come out and stand or sit in their wheelchairs with us. They don’t need to be convinced to back Democrats because they are already on board.
    Maybe it would be worth net-working with our State AFL-CIO because we are fighting the big Wage Theft problem here and many of the people for whom we are fighting are not organized or even in a Union. Just a thought.

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