July 31, 2008

On Hold

I dutifully dialed in five minutes ahead of yesterday's conference call with John Sweeney and the AFL-CIO's recently endorsed presidential candidate, Barack Obama. The muzak was terrible, failing even to effectively stylize a familiar tune. Every two minutes a calm, computer-like woman came on to thank us for joining her in patience.

“We are still waiting for Senator Obama to join us…please continue to hold."
I held for over 30 minutes. I know Barack is very busy these days, but I couldn't get past the feeling of recurring abandonment. (Clinton's NAFTA, and welfare "reform". And the failed '06 Congressional rush to end the war.) Working people once again kept in the waiting room, their co-pay registered, their political support taken for granted. But labor leaders still kissing ass and making appointments.

At 3:47, Obama arrived for a speech that was too short to contain anything more than platitudes. Broadly, he would champion the cause of working people, and restore the middle class dream with universal health care, and fair(er?) trade deals. Seven minutes later he was gone, the stench of lip service in the air, diffused only by the sycophantic applause from Sweeney's crowded DC boardroom.

The transparent display was insulting, leading me to wonder, (less and less):

Is Obama not only not working in the interest of working people but against them? (either we are in for a disappointment
or Goldman Sachs).

Or; Are the Democrats
well-intentioned, aiming to help working class people, but consistently wrong in their strategy? This is what they would have us believe. ("we were fed misinformation!" on Iraq) Or this hedge by Hillary, on NAFTA.

Obama signed off with the consistently empty; "god bless you, god bless america," and hung up. There was a pause for about ten seconds, then more muzak.

The computer woman returned: "The conference call is not concluded. Senator Obama’s line has been lost, and we are trying to re-establish." Negotiations commenced behind the scenes.

Two minutes of muzak. Then: "The call is over. You may now disconnect."
I waited for a few seconds just in case. Then a piercing beep came over the line and I hung up quickly.

July 29, 2008

University of California Service Workers Lead Five Day Strike

In August 2008 print edition of Labor Notes

After months of fruitless negotiations with the University of California, AFSCME Local 3299 members escalated their contract fight with a five-day strike in mid-July. Demanding a living wage of $15 an hour, custodians, groundskeepers, and bus drivers rallied at UC campuses and five medical centers from Sacramento to San Diego. They oppose a contract without guaranteed pay raises for most workers and bumps to $12 an hour for only a few.

Of the 8,500 service workers, about 8,200 are eligible for food stamps and other public assistance. The same jobs at UC state and community colleges pay 25 percent more.

The local also represents 11,000 patient care workers at university medical centers, who likewise have yet to agree on a contract. Though the patient care workers have been offered a raise of 26 percent over five years, it won’t help the service workers who lead the strike.


Medical centers threatened to revoke licenses from patient care workers who honored the picket lines outside hospitals. Still, entire departments stopped work for a day or two in support. Seven hundred strikers from both units rallied at UC Davis on day four to demand better pay and seniority.

“Service workers have no step system for pay,” said Secretary Treasurer Gail Price. “New people make the same as someone working here for 20 years.”

The action, which caused delays to bus routes, cafeteria service, and garbage collection, went on despite a court-ordered temporary restraining order. Workers in building trades unions refused to cross picket lines, temporarily halting campus construction projects.

Accused of leading an illegal strike that endangered patients, Local 3299 officials said they gave sufficient notice to employers about the stoppage. The strikers are challenging the injunction in court, accusing administrators of using illegal forms of intimidation.

“The university first argued this would cripple our medical centers,” said Kathryn Lybarger, a gardener at Berkeley, who sits on the bargaining committee. “After the strike they said it didn’t affect them at all.”

In a July 15 letter to the school president, 34 state legislators decried reports that “managers are advising picketers they will lose their jobs short of immediately returning to work.” If workers have exhausted mediation and negotiations, California law allows workers in higher education to strike once their contract has expired.

The university blames its belt-tightening on the state’s budget gap, but only 8.6% of the union’s members receive their wages from state funds. While UC claimed to have its hands tied, new president Mark Yudof was hired this spring into an $828,000 position. On day five, the strike culminated outside his Oakland office. Workers are infuriated by the meager offer of poverty wages. A year of bargaining, however, has hardened their resolve. “A lot of people are saying ‘let’s strike again,’” said Lybarger.

July 28, 2008

Labor Board Becomes Government’s ‘Rip Van Winkle’

In August 2008 Print Edition of Labor Notes and Monthly Review

Returning to school after winter break, Austin Garrido found that ULoop, an online marketplace for college students, had cut his hourly pay. Elsewhere on the
University of California-Polytechnic’s campus in Pomona, his co-worker Sarah Doolittle also discovered a light paycheck.

Unhappy about $8 an hour and shrunken bonuses from the Craigslist-type outfit, the two posted their grievances at Uloop’s online message board for workers. “It’s the only way for employees on different campuses to communicate with each other,” Garrido said.

They started a thread that raised the prospect of unionizing, but management was reading, too. ULoop removed the post five minutes later, and 20 minutes after that the company fired Garrido and Doolittle over the phone.

Their new manager, hired to oversee the wage cuts, cited under-performance, but it was clear that Garrido and Doolittle were singled out for their online organizing via the message board. “They didn’t have a stated usage policy,” said Garrido. “There were a number of non-work-related posts on there.”

Claiming violations of their right to self-organize, the two filed a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) complaint, seeking back pay and their jobs.

Much to their surprise, the grievance quickly rose to the NLRB's Office of Advice in Washington, D.C, where it entered into a contentious national debate over workers’ rights to online communication.


Just before Garrido and Doolittle's complaint against ULoop, the Labor Board had laid out its first major ruling on electronic communications, in December 2007.

The controversial 3 to 2 Register-Guard decision stemmed from an incident in 2001, when management at the Eugene, Oregon, newspaper disciplined a copy editor, the Communications Workers (CWA) local president, for sending three union-related messages to the workforce on the company email system.

The Board majority said that the newspaper’s property rights allowed it to decide how the email system would be used—and that employees have no right to use the company email for “concerted activity.”

As long as the ban on concerted activity is not wholesale, the three argued, employers are not compelled to facilitate the most convenient method for worker communication about union matters.

CWA argued that the company’s policy banning “non-work” emails was illegal because it effectively banned union talk. On top of that, the company was selectively enforcing the policy by allowing solicitations about birthday parties and charity donations while punishing union use.

The Board majority broke NLRB precedent and gave employers the right to decide what types of “non-work” communication they wanted to allow.


The two dissenting members cited precedents dating to 1945 that said the employer’s property rights must yield to the rights of employees to self-organize and take action on the job.

Arguments for employer restrictions don’t hold up in the digital age, says West Virginia University law professor Anne Lofaso. “The Board talks about telephones and bulletin boards as having cost or space concerns,” she said. “Neither of these concerns apply to email."

Because electronic communications are the primary tool for workers to maintain connection in virtual and remote workplaces, Lofaso called the Board decision disingenuous. “Everyone knows that people rely on email at work, so why did the majority decide to ignore that?” she asked. “Because it weakens their case.”

The two dissenters called the decision hopelessly out of touch with workplace realities, and accused the majority of making the NLRB the “Rip Van Winkle of administrative agencies.”


The Register-Guard decision appears devastating for workers' rights, but its effect will depend on how or whether it is enforced.

In Eugene, CWA Local 37194 President Randi Bjornstad noted that the new company policy against mass emails bars the union from sending the types of message that led to the original conflict.

Still, Bjornstad says that union-related emails remain common, without reprisals from the paper.

“Through our entire bargaining process, we have sent emails back and forth to company reps and to each other,” she said. “It has been a rather nebulous kind of ruling in terms of how it has been put into practice.”

Meanwhile, the Register-Guard case is in the Washington, D.C., appeals court, where CWA is challenging the new employer powers to single out union speech for punishment.

In the wake of Register-Guard, the Los Angeles office of the NLRB saw test case written all over the ULoop complaint. However, the Mountain View, California, company is inching toward a settlement, in order to avoid litigation.

The Register-Guard precedent continues to restrict workers’ rights to electronic communications, but Lofaso is confident that the ULoop case exposes its fragility. “Even a McCain-appointed NLRB could overturn this ruling,” she said.

July 16, 2008

Dark Shades of Green

On the origins of Toyota's Prius in this month's In These Times.

July 10, 2008

I'll Remember Remembering You Fondly

I saw a Ford Escort parked at Michigan and Trumbull with a magnetic "security" sign on its roof last week. Tiger Stadium will be falling soon, demolition began June 30. I went back to see the stadium today, now with a gaping hole in the left field wall. All the backhoes and bulldozers seemed like a whole lot of wasted energy, precisely because it's fallen into disuse since '99.

I'm not exactly kicking myself for failing to get a pocket full of dirt from the infield, and I've never grappled in the stands for a home run ball. I don't even much enjoy baseball.

But as I walked over the pedestrian bridge and back to my car, I felt an uncontrollable reverence, near mourning, for the passing of a great Detroit ruin. I hear it all the time in reference to assorted buildings that have long since lost their initial purpose: "knock it down," and in reference to the city itself "just flatten the thing."

There's a value, sometimes tragic, to these relics when they gain new life by conversion. But they also serve a purpose by merely sitting dormant. Nostalgia fills many yawning voids throughout the city. Why should we destroy the markers of bygone greatness? Detroit, the old man on the examining table, proud and naked, exhibits its estrangement from vitality like no other.

I wish the marble floors of Michigan Central Station still clapped with traffic. But I'd prefer a slow crumbling to the wrecking ball. After all, there's no shortage of space around here.

Most fans have memories of games with Pops, but I mostly remember craning from the backseat to catch a glimpse of the orange Tiger growling through the big blue D on our drive along 75 to the east side. The stadium hovered close to the highway, like a white aluminum battleship merging into traffic.

I had no choice but to cheer for the Tigers after their prime, despite an auspicious beginning. The week after I was born, they won the '84 series. I watched and waited through the nineties for it to happen again, but the Tigers brought up the rear for the bulk of my youth, showing an uncanny knack for failure.

So I set about memorizing the happy days and the entertaining 1984 roster as if it were my own Detroit squad. At the helm, Sparky Anderson, directing an all-star cast including Kirk Gibson, Trammell, Chet Lemon, "Sweet Lou" Whitaker, and Rusty Kuntz.

I only went inside once when I was nine (I took my glove to catch foul balls more often at Toledo's Ned Skeldon stadium, former home of the scrappy AAA-feeder Mud Hens). My aunt Shelly took me and my cousins for "run the bases" night in Detroit, where everyone under four foot five got to trot around the diamond, basking in their moment under the big lights. I slid into home, it was great. Let the kids in again.

July 08, 2008

Thirty-year-old Palestinian Hossam Dwayat turned his Caterpillar bulldozer into a lethal weapon last week in West Jerusalem, killing three Israelis and injuring many more. It's not easy (in America) to contextualize this terrifying act without being accused of excusing it. I certainly don’t support the forms of resistance that kill innocents. It is impossible, though, to separate Dwayat’s attack from his daily experience under colonial rule.

Dwayat left his family in East Jerusalem, where 250,000 Palestinians have lived with military occupation since 1967. Juan Cole points out that most of the international coverage of the July 2 attacks omitted a key detail: Dwayat was working construction on the major thoroughfare of Jaffa Road, building a causeway for Israel’s light rail system.

If completed, the light rail line would join the western part of the city with Pisgat Ze'ev, the largest settlement in “Greater Jerusalem,” a euphemism for the city plus its illegal settlements (often softened to Israeli “neighborhoods”) on the West Bank. These colonies are connected by exclusive roads for Jewish Israelis, and tap into Palestinian aquifers. They are also the breeding ground for a violently anti-Arab culture. The line is one more attempt to normalize the settlements and integrate them into an expansive Israeli capitol while the "peace process" drags on.
It is not difficult to imagine Dwayat going mad with the realization that he had become an agent of his own colonization, literally laying the tracks for the Israeli colonial project.

July 02, 2008

Late for School in Los Angeles

Appearing in print edition of July 2008 issue of Labor Notes

Forty thousand Los Angeles teachers delayed the start of classes for one hour on June 6 to protest threatened cuts to education funding. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed cutbacks are part of an attempt to close an estimated $17 billion statewide budget gap. The reductions would create a $560 million shortfall in the next two years within Los Angeles schools, the state’s largest district. Cuts to education across the state could well top $4 billion in total.

The teachers union, United Teachers-Los Angeles, said the funding drop would equal an 8 percent pay cut for all district employees. Despite a no-strike clause in their contract and a loss of pay, more than three-quarters of UTLA members joined the hour-long “late-in” outside their schools. “It is fair to say this may have been the largest job action for teachers ever in California,” said UTLA Vice President Joshua Pechthalt. “It was definitely the right thing to do given the statewide response to the budget cuts.”

The turnout was built with community support. Across the district, members of California’s largest teacher local held weekly meetings with chapter chairs and parents’ councils. Robin Potash teaches at Wadsworth Elementary, where parent-teacher solidarity has grown for several years, and especially since April, when they fought a charter school’s attempt to use Wadsworth classroom space. When June 6 arrived, more than 15,000 parents, students, and community members closed ranks with the teachers.

“This was really a statement from parents and the community that we will protect public education,” Potash said. The Los Angeles school board went to court to prevent the widely publicized protest, but failed. Superintendent David Brewer dispatched recorded calls to 48,000 teachers and 700,000 parents the night before the action, accusing UTLA leaders of jeopardizing student safety.

Union president A.J. Duffy argues that the proposed cuts go beyond just schools. “There could be cuts to aid to the blind and disabled, food programs for low-income kids, and health clinics,” he said.

At the state level, the California Teachers Association (the state’s NEA affiliate) launched a “Cuts Hurt” spring bus tour and a “Day of the Teacher” action in May, which brought out thousands of teachers against the governor’s crippling proposals.

“We’re offering a broader strategy, fighting not just for public education but for all social services,” said Pechthalt.

The California Federation of Teachers (the AFT affiliate) has joined in the challenge with a progressive tax campaign which calls for boosting income taxes for those who make more than $400,000 a year. The 1.7 percent bump would create $5 billion in new revenue.

Duffy also points to a potential $1.3 billion windfall from taxing oil production. “We are the only state in the country, the only governmental entity in the world, that does not tax oil companies for taking oil out of the ground,” Duffy said.

UTLA has also had to fight just to get its members paid. The union filed a lawsuit last June against the school board over a faulty payroll system, another factor in teachers’ mounting
frustration that peaked with the late-in.


UTLA teachers are considering another one-hour work stoppage in the fall in conjunction with the CTA.“The idea of a statewide teachers strike needs to be on the table,” said Pechthalt.

While pushing their big-picture strategy, UTLA teachers continue a protracted contract fight. After winning a 6 percent pay raise in early 2007, the latest round of contract talks produced an offer with no salary increase. Despite reports of a $700 million budget surplus last year, the school board has stonewalled teachers in negotiations for nine months.

After the June 6 action, the school board’s revised budget proposal removed the threat of teacher layoffs. But the board also unilaterally imposed furlough days for teachers, while capping health care spending without accounting for rising costs.

Teachers across California expect a long fight. “Students didn’t create this budget
crisis,” said CTA president David Sanchez. “And their education shouldn’t be ransomed to solve it.”