Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Labor Day 2017

Happy Labor Day! It’s too easy to take for granted the important victories of the labor movement in the past, and also to overlook the attacks on workers’ right in the present. Some good pieces for the day:

The Nation, "The Rollback of Pro-Worker Policies Since Trump Took Office Is Staggering":

Last week, as most of us in the United States were riveted by Hurricane Harvey’s descent on Texas, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration removed from its Internet home page a list of workers who died as a result of workplace injuries, burying it deep within the website. At the same time, it changed how the list is compiled; it will now only include instances where the company was cited for safety violations leading to a worker’s death. Details such as the name of the deceased worker are also no longer considered worthy of inclusion. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution worked out that of the at least 32 Georgia workers it determined died as a result of work-related injuries since October 1 of last year, only two even get a mention on the new list.

Then on Tuesday, the day Trump visited hurricane-stricken Texas, the White House announced it had put a stop to a 2016 Obama-administration ruling requiring companies with 100 or more employees to report pay by gender, race, and ethnic background to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Advocates had hoped it would help combat the United States’ stubborn pay gap. But Ivanka Trump, a self-described advocate for women’s rights, was not disappointed. “The proposed policy would not yield the intended results,” she sniffed in a statement accompanying the White House decision. “We look forward to continuing to work with EEOC, OMB, Congress and all relevant stakeholders on robust policies aimed at eliminating the gender wage gap.”

Those “robust policies” won’t include the Obama era Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces order. That’s gone too. That 2014 executive order required prospective federal contractors to disclose workplace safety and discrimination violations. It also mandated pay transparency and forbade mandatory workplace arbitration in cases of discrimination and harassment at the covered businesses. Supporters proclaimed it a major advance in civil-rights regulation. Management-side law firms and business interests were less than impressed. Legal powerhouse Littler Mendelson, which says on its website that it’s the largest “global” employment and labor-law practice, claimed it “dramatically increases risks for government contractors.” Well, that wouldn’t do. “The rule simply made it too easy for trial lawyers to go after American companies and American workers who contract with the federal government,” then–Press Secretary Sean Spicer explained when asked. Maybe Ivanka Trump wasn’t available to offer cover that day.

Then there is worker pay. Last year, the Obama administration announced a major revamp of the nation’s overtime rules. Proponents expected the change to boost the pay of 4.2 million workers and ultimately add about $12 billion to American paychecks over the next decade. Opponents—including 21 state governments and the US Chamber of Commerce—took to the courts, and, almost week before it was set to take effect, a Texas judge issued a temporary stay.

The Atlantic covers regressive measures in "How St. Louis Workers Won and Then Lost a Minimum-Wage Hike", Robert Reich provides a useful summary on Facebook:

Republicans and their big business patrons have shafted workers in Missouri just in time for Labor Day. Last week, a new state law went into effect that slashed the minimum wage for workers in St. Louis and Kansas City from $10/hour to $7.70/hour. The measure also prohibits these cities from setting a higher minimum wage in the future.

It all began a few years ago when St. Louis passed an ordinance to gradually boost the city's minimum wage to $11/hour (A living-wage for an adult without children in the area is roughly $10.50). Business groups immediately challenged the increase in the courts. This year the courts sided with the city and wages increased to $10/hour, so businesses turned to their Republican allies in the legislature to pass a statewide cap. Now, more than 30,000 workers could see a pay cut. Business groups are trying to pass similar caps in over 20 states across the country.

This is ridiculous. No one who works full-time should be forced to raise a family in poverty. Adjusted for inflation, the federal minimum wage of 1968 would be be well over $10/hour today. It's also good for the economy. When workers earn more, they spend more on local businesses, which in turn creates more jobs.

Los Angeles Times, Behind a $13 shirt, a $6-an-hour worker":

The U.S. Department of Labor investigated 77 Los Angeles garment factories from April through July of 2016 and found that workers were paid as little as $4 and an average of $7 an hour for 10-hour days spent sewing clothes for Forever 21, Ross Dress for Less and TJ Maxx. One worker in West Covina made as little as $3.42 per hour during three weeks of sewing TJ Maxx clothing, according to the Department of Labor.

Those sweatshop wages are the hidden cost of the bargains that make stores like Forever 21 impossible to resist for so many Americans.

A knee-length Forever 21 dress made in one of the Los Angeles factories investigated by the government came with a price tag of $24.90. But it would have cost $30.43 to make that dress with workers earning the $7.25 federal minimum wage and even more to pay the $12 Los Angeles minimum, according to previously unpublished investigative results from the Labor Department.

Forever 21 would have had to pay 50% more in order for sewing contractors to pay workers the federal minimum, the investigation found.

The Department of Labor discovered labor violations at 85% of the factories it visited during that four-month period and ordered the suppliers to pay $1.3 million in back wages, lost overtime and damages — but it couldn’t touch the brands.

Via Erik Loomis, who covers labor issues at Lawyers, Guns & Money, comes "How Labor Scholars Missed the Trump Revolt" by Jefferson Cowie at The Chronicle of Higher Education:

The new labor history splintered in dozens of fruitful directions, but the ceaseless decline of working-class power pushed those engaged in the central mission of the field from panic to despair. Labor scholars seemed to fall into an ideological trap: When workers managed to win, it was because of their drive and capacity. When they lost, which was more often the story, it was capital’s dark machinations at fault. Rarely did anyone want to probe the strange and heady brew of anti-statism, anti-elitism, fragile pride, and, often, individualism (a word all but banned from labor history) that are part of class consciousness in America.

Many of the most recent generation of kindred spirits to the new labor history have jumped on the train of studying conservatism. But in American historiography, conservatism still seems to smack of the other and the exotic and the conspiratorial — rather than part and parcel, central to the very DNA of American politics. The residue of our own politics, and the revelation of all of the real radicalism in U.S. history, prevents me and my colleagues from confronting something fearful: what we like to call "backlash" is deeply intertwined with everything, including some of the left-wing movements.

What’s interesting about Trump is that he won, not that his strain of politics is new. It’s always been around. Let’s not go wild trying to figure out what happened: The crazy train of American history happened. The lineage that winds from Andrew Jackson to Tom Watson to Joe McCarthy to George Wallace to Pat Buchanan to Trump is not just "conservative," nor is it just "working class" in any way an intellectually driven conservative or Marxist or liberal would recognize or celebrate. The conservative/liberal divide is a deeply tenuous construct. Looking for a populist savior, however, is bedrock Americana.

Historians need to reconcile their intellectual frameworks with a "real-world" America that is a messy stew of populist, communitarian, reactionary, progressive, racist, patriarchal, and nativist ingredients. Any historical era has its own mix of these elements, which play in different ways. We should embrace Thompson’s admonition to understand class as a continuing, sometimes volatile happening, and not be blinded by our love affair with dissent as a left-wing movement. Trump voters are dissenters, after all.

On a related note, there's the Rolling Stone piece, "Republicans Will Let America Burn While Holding Out for Tax Cuts," by Ed Burmila (of Gin and Tacos):

At the same time, though, Republicans are making it clear that talk is all we are going to get so long as there is any chance of pushing through tax cuts before Trump has a Chernobyl-level meltdown. If the breakdown of the rule of law and the institutions of government troubles them, it doesn't trouble them enough to give up the prospect of getting the wealthiest Americans their 100th tax break of the last four decades. The GOP claims its corporate tax cut from 35 percent to 15 percent will not raise the debt, an assertion that relies upon the repeatedly disproven claim that economic growth will skyrocket after tax cuts. Paul Ryan urges you not to notice that due to extensive loopholes, American corporations currently pay nowhere near the nominal 35 percent rate. Oh, and they're also sitting on $2 trillion in cash, which negates the argument that investment is being held back by the tax rate. . . .

Their priority will not change no matter what Trump does and no matter how many vastly more pressing problems confront the nation. The core principle of the GOP is to make the rich richer, and that is more important to people like Ryan than any of our institutions. As reality dawns on the naively hopeful GOP members who believed they could "manage" Trump, their willingness to keep the nuclear codes in the hands of a giant toddler says a lot about their values.

Unfortunately, conservatism has always had a anti-labor, anti-worker, anti-employee strain, typically favoring management, owners and investors. That strain has completely taken over the Republican Party, which has become almost entirely plutocratic, with the goals of funneling more money and power to the already rich and powerful, slashing the social safety net, and impoverishing and immiserating the middle class and poor.

Finally, at Hullabaloo, Dennis Hartley provides "Lord I am so tired: Top 10 Labor Day films." It's a fine list.

If you have a post celebrating labor or Labor Day, feel free to link it in the comments.