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  • An Attempt To Decapitate: Turkey's Trade Unions On Trial

    Written on January 29, 2014

    Our guest today is Eric Lee, founding editor of LabourStart, the international labor news and campaigning site.

    On a chilly Thursday morning in late January I found myself standing at the entrance to an ultra-modern building that looked exactly like a shopping center or hotel.  An immense atrium, mirror-like glass everywhere, it was certainly designed by architects with ambitions.  The building was the main courthouse in downtown Istanbul — the largest courthouse, we were told, in all of Europe.

    I was there in order to attend the opening of the trial of 56 members of KESK, the Turkish trade union for public sector workers.  The KESK members are accused of membership in an illegal organization, and making propaganda for that organization.  A handful of them were accused of being leaders of the organization.

    The organization they are accused of joining is the Devrimci Halk Kurtuluş Partisi-Cephesi (DHKP-C) — the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party–Front — which for more than three decades has conducted an armed struggle against the Turkish state.  The DHKP-C is considered a terrorist organization not only by the Turkish government but also by the European Union and the United States.

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  • Unionization And Working Poverty

    Written on January 28, 2014

    Our guest author today is Ian Robinson, Lecturer in the Department of Sociology and in the Residential College’s interdisciplinary Social Theory and Practice program at the University of Michigan.

    Poverty is (by definition) a function of inadequate income relative to family or household size. Low income has two possible proximate causes: insufficient hours of employment and/or insufficient hourly wages.  In 2001, there were four times more poor U.S. households in which someone had a job than there were in households in which no one did.  The same is still true today.  In other words, despite levels of unemployment far above post-World War Two norms, low wage jobs are by far the most important proximate cause of poverty in America today.

    Perversely, despite this reality, the academic literature on U.S. poverty pays less attention to such jobs than it does to unemployment. A recent article, published in the journal American Sociological Review, both identifies and makes up for that shortcoming. In the process, its authors arrive at some striking conclusions. In particular, they find that unions are a major force for reducing poverty rates among households with at least one employed person.

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  • Can Solidarity Rebound?

    Written on November 6, 2013

    Our guest author today is Eric Chenoweth, co-director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe. In 2011, the Republic of Poland awarded him with the Commander Cross of the Order of Merit, one of its highest civilian honors, for his contributions to Poland’s democratic transformation and role in providing support to Solidarity Underground during Martial Law.

    In the West, Poland’s Solidarity trade union remains a symbol of the triumph of workers, united in defense of their fundamental rights, against the might of communist dictatorship.

    Its remarkable rise in 1980 after nationwide strikes, its nearly ten-year struggle for freedom after the government tried to crush it using  martial law, and its 1989 electoral victory that led to the collapse of communism throughout the region — all of this has become the stuff of historical legend. The story of Solidarity after 1989, however, is less well known. It is the story of how free trade unionism was nearly destroyed by extreme “free market” policies carried out in the name of democratic reform.

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  • Why Do So Many Workers Have Bad Jobs?

    Written on October 9, 2013

    About one in five American workers today have jobs that offer low wages, poor benefits and few opportunities for advancement. But what can you do, right? After all, don’t we know that what’s good for business is often not good for people?

    Not really, argues Zeynep Ton, an adjunct associate professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, in this recent article. Although the conventional wisdom is that companies have no choice but to pay their employees poorly to remain competitive, Ton’s research suggests the opposite is true: When companies invest in their workforce, everybody wins.

    Ton studied the practices of four highly regarded retailers – Mercadona*, QuikTrip, Trader Joe’s, and Costco – and found that “highly successful retail chains not only invest heavily in store employees but also have the lowest prices in their industries, solid financial performance, and better customer service than their competitors." Indeed, low wages are “not a cost-driven necessity but a choice." Her analysis suggest that one key to breaking the perceived trade-off is “a combination of investment in the workforce and operational practices that benefit employees, customers, and the company."

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  • Egyptians Who Protest Worker Rights Abuses Are Labeled “Terrorists”

    Written on September 9, 2013

    Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli.  She has 25 years of experience in the promotion of democracy, independent trade unions, political and economic development. She has worked with institutions and leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to challenge authoritarian regimes. Currently she is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University's Center for Democracy and Civil Society. The views expressed here are her own.

    Amid the political and social chaos that reigns in Egypt today, a semblance of normality persists: People go to work; they buy food; they try to feed their families.  And, as in the past, Egyptians employers, with the active support of the Egyptian government, flagrantly violate fundamental workers rights. Workers are fired for trying to organize unions and they are not paid what they are owed, including legally mandated bonuses, profit-sharing and health care benefits or proper safety equipment.

    There is a familiar political dimension to these events. Elements in the police and military are accusing workers who protest employer abuses of being “terrorists” -- which in today’s Egypt means members or supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). In a recent New York Times article, two Egyptian media sources claimed that the workers striking at the Suez Steel company were infiltrated by MB activists attempting to “destabilize” the country.

    This is an accusation supported neither by the facts, nor the history of blue collar unions.

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  • Learning From The 1963 March On Washington For Jobs And Freedom

    Written on August 28, 2013

    Today marks the actual calendar day of the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In honor of that day, we republish Al Shanker’s tribute to A. Philip Randolph, the director of the March, on the occasion of Randolph’s passing in 1979. One of the themes of Shanker’s comments is the distinctive place of A. Philip Randolph in the African-American freedom struggle, distinguished from Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey, by his focus on the empowerment of African-American working people and his commitment to non-violent, mass action as the means of empowerment. One of the lesson plans the Shanker Institute has published for teaching the 1963 March focuses precisely on this distinctive contribution of Randolph. Other lesson plans look at Randolph’s close partner, Bayard Rustin, who was the organizing genius behind the March, and examine the alliance between the labor movement and civil rights movement which made the March a success. All of the Shanker Institute lesson plans can be read here.

    It may be said - I think without exaggeration - that no American in this century has done more to eliminate racial discrimination in our society and to improve the condition of working people than did A. Philip Randolph, who died this week at the age of 90. 

    For A. Philip Randolph, a man of quiet eloquence with dignity in every gesture, freedom and justice were never granted people. They had to be fought for in struggles that were never-ending. And progress was something that had to be measured in terms of tangible improvements in people's lives, in the condition of society generally, and in the quality of human relationships.

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  • Richard Parrish And The March On Washington For Jobs And Freedom

    Written on July 18, 2013

    Our guest author today is William P. Jones, history professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and author of The March on Washington:  Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights (W.W. Norton & Co., 2013)

    If Richard Parrish had his way, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom would have occurred in 1941 rather than 1963.  As President of the Federation of Colored College Students in New York City, the 25-year old student was a key organizer of the mass demonstration that union leader A. Philip Randolph called to protest discrimination in the armed forces and the defense industries during the Second World War.  He was furious, therefore, when Randolph cancelled the march in exchange for an executive order, issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, prohibiting defense contractors from discriminating against workers on the basis of their race, color religion, or national origin.  Parrish agreed that this was a major victory, but pointed out that it would expire when the war ended and do nothing to address discrimination in the armed forces.  Accusing Randolph of acting without consulting the students and other groups that supported the mobilization, he insisted that the March on Washington be rescheduled immediately.

    Randolph refused—accusing Parrish and other young militants of being “more interested in the drama and pyrotechnics of the march than the basic and main issues of putting Negroes to work”—but the disagreement did not prevent the two black radicals from working closely together to build a powerful alliance between the civil rights and labor movements in the postwar decades.  After completing his bachelor’s degree in 1947, Parrish worked as a teacher and union leader until his retirement in 1976.  He also worked closely with Randolph to open jobs and leadership positions for black workers in organized labor.  When Randolph decided to reorganize the March on Washington in 1963, Dick Parrish was one of the first people he turned to for support.

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  • Red Card For Morsi

    Written on June 3, 2013

    Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli. Currently a visiting professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Democracy and Civil Society, Prof. El-Shazli  has 25 years of international experience in political and economic development, including democracy promotion programs and  support  for independent trade unions. She has worked with trade unions, political parties, and leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The views expressed here are her own.

    Egypt has become a land of stark, astounding contradictions. There is so little stability that political pundits cannot predict or even explain what is happening in the political sphere or society. As it is in politics, it is in daily life. Some examples:

    Driving in Cairo has become the art of the detour. Demonstrations and protests can materialize any time of day and anywhere. If a protesting mass of humanity does not impede your way, then one of the new cement block walls will. These walls are erected by the government across major streets to contain demonstrations. Surely the time is right for some inventor to launch a new app -- “Avoid Protests - Egypt” -- to guide drivers and protesters alike.

    Times are not tough for everyone. In the affluent areas of Cairo, youngsters still sport the latest fashions, shoppers carry home their purchases, and restaurants brim with high class clientele. New restaurants are opening and one even sells fancy “cupcakes," the craze imported from the US. One would hardly believe that, for the average Egyptian, the country is indeed sinking into a financial abyss. But that is what's happening.

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  • ‘A Single Garment Of Destiny’ For American And Bangladeshi Workers

    Written on May 2, 2013

    “Injustice anywhere," Martin Luther King famously wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny."

    Two events last week which might seem worlds apart provide evidence that working people around the globe are indeed tied together in King’s “single garment of destiny."

    In Texas, fourteen people died and up to 180 were injured in an explosion that obliterated a fertilizer factory and leveled the surrounding town. In Bangladesh, over 400 garment workers died when a factory building collapsed with thousands inside. Rescue and recovery operations continue to find additional Bangladeshi dead, with hundreds still missing. The human toll makes this the deadliest accident in the history of the garment industry worldwide, even before the terrible final count is known.

    Neither of these terrible events was “an accident." In both cases, factory management engaged in dangerous and reprehensible conduct, creating entirely avoidable conditions that made these events possible, even predictable.

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  • America’s Union Suppression Movement (And Its Apologists), Part Two

    Written on April 18, 2013

    This is part two of a two-part post. The first part can be found here.

    As the war against American unions reached a fever pitch in recent years, there emerged a small group of right-wing academics and think tanks that have taken up the anti-union cause in intellectual circles. Of particular note for our purposes are Terry Moe’s book, Special Interest, and a recent study, How Strong Are U.S. Teacher Unions?, which was jointly sponsored by the Fordham Institute and Education Reform Now. [6]

    Since I’ve already written a critique of Moe’s book for the American Political Science Association’s journal, Perspective on Politics, my focus here is mainly on the Fordham/ERN report.

    Both publications tell a very similar story (all the more remarkable given the political and economic context I discussed in Part I of this post), in which incredibly powerful teacher union Leviathans invariably win the day in all manner of educational and public policy fights. The Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli offered a ten-second sound bite for this meme, when he recently wrote that teacher unions "were the Goliath to the school reformers' David."

    How does one find one’s way to such an unfounded conclusion? With an ideological analysis that has only the thinnest veneer of social science.

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