Posts Tagged ‘labor’

Unions Resurgent

Photo: CNN.
Starbucks Workers United partners celebrate a victory after watching the union vote count in Mesa, Arizona.

On Labor Day weekend, I’m thinking about traditional labor unions and how they benefited not only members but nonunion workers, too. I know there were abuses once the leaders got too powerful, but power has swung back too much in favor of corporations, I think.

So today I’m taking a look at recent actions on the fringes of the movement and pondering what it might mean for the future.

In April, Chris Isidore and Sara O’Brien of CNN reported on the relatively small but meaningful wins at Starbucks and Amazon.

“Labor unions haven’t had this much success in decades. After years of failed organizing efforts and a long, steady decline in the number of private sector workers represented by unions, two grassroots upstart groups have scored recent victories at two of the nation’s largest employers: Amazon and Starbucks. …

” ‘I think it’s very significant, even though it’s a small percentage of the workforces so far,’ said Alexander Colvin, dean of Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School. …

“The National Labor Relations Board reports that from October 2021 through last [March], 1,174 petitions were filed at the agency seeking union representation. That’s up 57% from the same period a year earlier — and the highest level of union organizing in 10 years.

“The Amazon and Starbucks victories are important to union organizing efforts, Colvin said.

“That sentiment is echoed by Chris Smalls, who went from fired Amazon employee to the the leader of the Amazon Labor Union, which recently became the first union to win a representation vote at one of Amazon’s facilities. …

” ‘I think what we did … is a catalyst for a revolution with Amazon workers, just like the Starbucks unionizing effort,’ he said on an interview on CNN+. …

“Over at Starbucks, since December workers at 17 stores from Boston to its hometown of Seattle have voted to be represented by Starbucks Workers United — a separate grassroots union effort that has filed to hold votes at more than 100 additional stores.

“Starbucks has about 235,000 workers spread across 9,000 company-operated US stores. Fewer than 1,000 workers at the 17 stores have voted for the union. It’s similar at Amazon, where some 8,300 hourly workers were eligible to vote at the Staten Island facility. That’s not even 1% of the company’s US workforce of 1.1 million employees, including both warehouse and office workers. …

“Still, the efforts seem to be having an effect. Starbucks recently announced it suspended repurchases of its stock, a move that would benefit primarily its shareholders, in order to invest more in its employees. The company also instituted two wage increases in the last 18 months, and in October said it would raise wages. …

“Many of the unions’ demands stem from the difficulties of working during the pandemic during the last two years, said John Logan, professor of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University.

” ‘Part of what’s changed is we’re just in a different moment, [with] frontline workers feeling they were not rewarded or treated with respect during the pandemic,’ said Logan. …

“It’s an uphill battle for unions to win new members, but that doesn’t mean they can’t succeed, said Erik Loomis, a labor historian and associate professor at the University of Rhode Island.

” ‘Amazon is the GM or the US Steel of our time — and it took decades to organize those places,’ he said last month, before the vote results at Amazon were known. ‘It took many different forms of campaigns led by different ideologies, different modes of organizing … before these kind of companies were finally successfully organized.’ “

Lauren Kaori Gurley at the Washington Post had more to add in August: “Workers have voted to unionize for the first time in recent weeks at Trader Joe’s and Chipotle. Unions have also made significant inroads at AmazonStarbucksApple and REI, employers that have long resisted unionization.

“Behind these small, but notable, victories is renewed popular support among Americans for the labor movement: Seventy-one percent of Americans approve of unions, matching a 53-year high, according to a Gallup poll released Tuesday. …

“According to a monthly report released Tuesday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of people who quit their jobs remained elevated although below its peak, at 2.7 percent, as record numbers of Americans continue to reconsider their employment options. The report offered signs that workers will remain emboldened to engage in workplace activism. …

“The July jobs report shocked many economists: Employers added 528,000 jobs, shattering expectations. … Economists say tight labor markets tend to give workers more leverage to form unions and to demand higher wages and better working conditions, while downturns leave workers less willing to make collective demands of their employers.

“ ‘Unless the labor market cools off a lot, there’s going to continue to be a lot of workers demanding collective bargaining power,’ [Guy Berger, principal economist at LinkedIn] said.

“Still, even a cooling-off economy would not necessarily undo cultural shifts that have resulted in the rising popularity of unions, particularly among young, college-educated workers. …

“Despite a 56 percent uptick in filings for union elections nationwide in the first three quarters of the 2022 fiscal year, labor experts say that many of these victories at major employers such as Amazon and Starbucks are mostly symbolic, covering a mere sliver of these companies’ enormous workforces. Meanwhile, although support for unions has been steadily increasing since the pandemic, union membership in the United States declined last year; only 1 in 10 workers are union members. …

“ ‘There’s still a huge disconnect between this recent organizing wave and long-term national membership trends,’ said [Logan]. ‘The real significance of these campaigns is not in the number of new members, which is pretty meaningless, but the excitement, optimism and inspiration they generate in some sections of the labor force — especially among young, politicized, educated workers in the low-wage service sector.’ ” More at CNN, here, and the Post, here.

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Photo: Barrett Doherty, Cultural Landscape Foundation.
D.I.R.T.’s corporate campus for Urban Outfitters in the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

When you rehab a Superfund site or other industrial dead zone, should you wipe out the history or make the interesting parts work for a new generation? You can guess that I’m going to answer that question on the side of the landscape architect mentioned in today’s story. Read on.

Justin Davidson reports at Curbed, “If there was a childhood moment when Julie Bargmann had intimations of her future as a landscape architect, it came not during some backwoods tromp or while touring a lavish garden but when she was sitting in the back seat of her family’s station wagon on the New Jersey Turnpike. The great chemical plants exhaling sulfurous plumes seemed to her like magic kingdoms, and she wondered about the lives of the people inside. Later, when she was in college at Carnegie Mellon in the 1980s, Pittsburgh’s ozone-laced air gave her the same jolt of industrial excitement. …

“Bargmann, who has just been awarded the first $100,000 Cornelia Hahn Oberlander prize in landscape architecture, never lost her taste for such wounded and poisonous places, even after they’ve stopped being productive. Old industrial areas bring out her desire to nurse them slowly back to health.

As a professor at UVA and the founder of a firm she called D.I.R.T. (short for ‘Dump It Right There’) studio, she rejects the urge to demolish dead factories and scrub the land of memory, to conflate cleanup and obliteration.

“ ‘For me, the modest or the genuine way to approach these ugly-duckling sites is to be empathetic. I see a place that’s impregnated with the labor of generations of workers. That goes deep. How do you honor that history without just resorting to plaques?’

“The answer lies in projects like Detroit’s Core City Park, where Bargmann unpaved a parking lot and bared the foundations of a fire station that had been razed long ago. ‘I blurted out “Dig!” and up comes this beautiful red sandstone from the former engine house,’ she says. ‘The miraculous moment was when they hoisted out of the ground the cornerstone with “1893” written on it. The client wanted to stand it up and put it on a pedestal, and I said no — “Put it in the ground and put it back to work.” ‘ Stones, bricks, and asphalt became the raw materials for a new pattern of pavers, interspersed with trees to form an urban woodland. The result is a public space layered with memory.

“Bargmann preaches an ethic of modesty and restraint. Instead of moving great mountains of earth, making the land conform to a drawing, sift through what is already there. Don’t delete; preserve. …

“The conventional technique for cleaning up a contaminated site is [scooping] polluted soil and carting it to other dumps — essentially, moving dirty dirt around. Bargmann prefers to leave as much of the stuff in place as possible to avoid spreading toxins ‘to someone else’s backyard’ and help nature perform its slow-motion cleanup. She starts by visualizing the different levels of contamination and letting those variations suggest a strategy. ‘I love to take the data from the engineers and do a map of what’s hot and what’s not,’ Bargmann says.

“Where conditions allow, she opts for phytoremediation: using plants to clean the soil. At AMD&ART Park in Vintondale, Pennsylvania, acidic mine runoff filters through a series of rock-lined ponds that raises the pH to safe levels, then washes through a sculpture park and flows into a restored wetland.

“The mission to use landscape as a ledger inscribed with both heroic and unsavory history can smack up against her clients’ goals. Sometimes she finds herself working for the companies that ravaged the landscape in the first place and then want to erase that stigma as quickly and cleanly as possible. When Ford opened its River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan, in 1928, it was a marvel of Machine Age efficiency that beguiled filmmakers, painters, and photographers. …

“ ‘They were going to wipe out everything, and I was just … Why?‘ Bargmann recalls. ‘This is the most critical part of an integrated manufacturing world — the first anywhere! Some structures were really nasty and best dealt with off-site, but we also planted remediation gardens in front of the old coke ovens, which were preserved. If you’re going to honor history and work on the toxic legacy, storytelling is a really powerful tool.’ …

“Bargmann’s approach coexists uneasily with Instagram culture, in which landscape is treated as a frame for a preening object. Her projects aren’t conceived to be photogenic on opening day since they set up processes that can grind on for years. Rather than plant meticulously coordinated gardens that require constant tending, she pops in trees and grasses that can be relied on to fend for themselves. Bargmann also has a soft spot for rough hardscape. …

“She has trained contractors to chop up concrete into big reusable slabs she calls ‘Barney rubble’ and mix smaller chunks with crushed brick to produce ‘Betty rubble.’ The combination can produce results that verge on the chic, as at Urban Outfitters’ headquarters at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.”

Read more — including why a developer in Detroit says he “inhales her ideas” — here.

More at Curbed, here.

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I feel especially grateful to essential workers, mail carriers, and delivery people this Labor Day. Workers really make the world go ’round any year, not just during a pandemic, and many get no credit for it.

As Kenya Evelyn noted in the Guardian in April, Amazon the company was doing just great thanks to quarantine; workers not so much.

“The Amazon CEO and entrepreneur, Jeff Bezos, has grown his vast fortune by a further $24bn so far during the coronavirus pandemic, a roughly 20% increase over the last four months to $138b. …

“[Meanwhile] Amazon reported its first warehouse worker death on Tuesday. The man, an operations manager who worked at the company’s Hawthorne, California, warehouse, died on 31 March.

“Several workers have organized strikes and walkouts in protest at lack of worker protections. Chris Smalls, a former manager assistant, was fired by the retailer after leading workers at the JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island, New York, on a walkout. …

“Memos leaked by Vice News revealed company executives suggested coordinating an attempt to smear Smalls as ‘not smart or articulate’ in response to the backlash over his firing.

“Several Amazon workers have since alleged retaliation for organizing. In an op-Ed for the Guardian, Smalls urged Bezos to spend more time on protecting his workers instead of stifling dissent.

‘Without us working, what are you going to do,’ he asked. ‘You’ll have no money. We have the power. We make money for you. Never forget that.’

Something to think about.

For more on how our society has moved away from appreciation for workers, you might check out a fat book my husband has been fascinated by for months called The Enchantments of Mammon, which suggests that when capitalism has become a religion, it’s gone too far. “Everything in Moderation,” advise the Greeks.

Do you like traditional songs from the labor movement? Nick Noble’s Folk Revival on WICN radio plans to feature them this week and you can stream his show.

Here’s a word on the Folk Revival, in case you’re interested.

“The Folk Revival features the ‘folk of the folk renaissance’ from the second half of the last century right into the millennium. Focusing on the folk boom of the 1950s and the 1960s, this four-hour show also visits recordings from both before and well after that period,  highlighting folk music as a living and ever-changing tradition, connecting listeners and music through an eclectic mix of traditional songs, topical and  protest music, singer-songwriter creations, the blues, folk rock, and more. …

“Do you want to suggest a theme? Request a song? Talk about the music? React to the show? Correct the host (nicely, of course)? Share and/or find out more about the folk music tradition? Feel free to contact the host: nicknoble@wicn.org.”

Workers who matter, and not just in a pandemic.

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I Hear America Singing

By Walt Whitman

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.


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Let me tell you about these photos.

I first noticed the shoes of the gentleman riding the subway. Then the white suit, the pocket hankerchief, the bow tie, and the hat. I was concentrating so hard on taking a photo surreptitiously that it didn’t occur to me to check out what he was reading. Somerset Maugham? Proust? William Dean Howells?

You never know what photo ops you might see on the MBTA, and I hope to get adept at taking pictures unobtrusively.

Next we have a fanciful teapot in the window of the Lacoste Gallery.

Moving right along: dappled shade on Summer St., Boston, near South Station; and a row boat for rent in Fort Point Channel.

Today’s Dewey Square excitement was a labor rally for striking airport workers demanding a $15/hour minimum wage. Lots of speeches. I photographed a T-shirt and a Boston politician. The politician had such an energetic speaking style, the photo came out blurry, but I’ll add it if you want it.

The last three pictures are of a fake snake — perhaps intended to keep passersby from sitting on a resident’s stonewall — and grapes. The grapes were the most surprising thing that happened to me today. I must have walked past that fence twice a day for years and years, and I never noticed a grape vine growing there. Did someone drape it over the fence while I was at work?

Goes to show you don’t really have to go anywhere much to find surprises.









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Photograph: Ginnette Riquelme for The New York Times
Artist Amor Muñoz pays workers at her mobile factory about $7.50 an hour. “I’m interested in sharing the experience of art,” Ms. Muñoz says.

An artist in Mexico City hires people off the street at $7.50 an hour to help create “electronic textiles.”

Amor Muñoz uses a megaphone to shout, “One hundred pesos an hour!”

Damien Cave at the NY Times continues the story. “The rush was on. By the time Ms. Muñoz parked in her usual spot outside a hospital in one of Mexico City’s peripheral neighborhoods, a line had already formed. Women of all ages squeezed together — one held a baby, another was nearly too old to walk — as Ms. Muñoz opened up a white wooden box revealing thread, needles, cloth, timecards and employment contracts. The work involved creating interactive art pieces that combine the old craft of sewing with 20th-century electronics and 21st-century tags allowing smartphone users to look up who worked on a given piece. …

“Her maquiladora, or factory, she said, is a ‘fantasy’ meant to condemn the harsh reality of a global economy that uses and discards poor workers, especially women, to keep prices low. …

“She described Mexican wages as an insult to human dignity, and every time her mobile factory appears, the power of work for reasonable pay goes on display. The crowds that gather are typically large. Sometimes people push and shove for two hours of work and $15, though once the day’s employees are selected (first come first hired), a calm tends to follow. …

“Many of the women seemed to appreciate a chance to be involved in an art project. María González, 75, smiled widely when handed a needle and adjusted her purple scarf, excited to be creating something rather than worrying about her husband in the hospital. ‘This,’ she said, sewing without looking down, ‘is a wonderful distraction.’ ”

Read more about how happy the women are to work at that wage on art, even if it’s only for two hours.

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Some days I walk in Boston and snap the sights down side streets. The first photo was taken near the harbor. The others were taken near Downtown Crossing.

I like the Adrienne Rich line painted on a bookstore wall: “You must write, and read, as if your life depended on it.”

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The president recently handed out the Medal of Freedom awards. Maybe in the excitement around around Bob Dylan, Toni Morrison, and John Glenn, you missed that Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers union, also was honored.

Fox News-Latino wrote, “The White House will present the lifelong unionist and immigrant rights advocate with the Medal of Freedom. …

“Huerta’s sense of justice developed from an early age. Raised in Stockton, Calif., Huerta watched her father work for little pay in the fields, while her mother managed a hotel that often let poor migrants stay for free, according to the Daily Beast.

“Along with César Chávez, Huerta founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962, which later evolved into the United Farm Workers of America. …

“Using strikes, marches, boycotts and hunger strikes, the UFW has defended the interests of farm workers. … Huerta has been arrested 22 times and been beaten for her activism.

Notwithstanding her run-ins with the law, Huerta has been influential in passing far-reaching legislation. Her accomplishments as a labor rights activist include helping pass California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975 and helping secure disability insurance for California farmworkers. …

Huerta launched the Dolores Huerta Foundation in 2002, with the mission of supporting community organizers and budding political leaders.Read more.

Getty Images

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Back before “labor” became a dirty word in the minds of some politicians, “workingmen” were more appreciated.

A corporation might even honor workers in the architecture of a headquarters. (Note the photo taken in Boston’s financial district.)

These days, looking around the subway at the tired bodies heading home at night, I’ve begun to think of almost everyone as the workingman. All but a few folks who are very well off. There is hardly anyone in the middle anymore.

The people slogging back and forth, doing whatever they have to do, are unconscious of a kind of heroic aura that envelops them collectively. You can see it if you look.

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Philip Levine, 83, is a poet laureate for our times. He expresses, as the NY Times puts it, the “gritty voice of the workingman.”

“Half an hour to dress, wide rubber hip boots,
gauntlets to the elbow, a plastic helmet
like a knight’s but with a little glass window
that kept steaming over, and a respirator
to save my smoke-stained lungs. I would descend
step by slow step into the dim world
of the pickling tank and there prepare
the new solutions from the great carboys
of acids lowered to me on ropes — all from a recipe
I shared with nobody and learned from Frank O’Mera
before he went off to the bars on Vernor Highway
to drink himself to death. A gallon of hydrochloric …”

Read the Times article.

Levine’s appointment as poet laureate feels timely to me for several reasons.

While income inequality in the country has become increasingly pronounced over the last few decades, public attitudes toward the labor unions that worked to level the playing field have become markedly negative. Are unions really no longer needed? Certainly, there have been abuses of their power: for example, the way some teachers unions have protected bad teachers. And weak government officials in Central Falls (RI), having routinely succumbed to the demands of public safety workers, now find there is no money to pay the promised benefits. This summer Central Falls filed for bankruptcy.

But intensely hostile antilabor actions in Wisconsin, Ohio, and even Maine are like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

A balance between workers and other stakeholders seems to make more sense. Workers are still sometimes abused, after all. That’s why I was happy to see unions helping out foreign “cultural exchange” students to protest conditions at a Hersey’s plant in Pennsylvania last week. (I blogged about that here.)

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