Monday, October 25, 2010

Near Tie In Jimmy John's Union Election

After the votes were counted in Friday's union election at 10 Minneapolis Jimmy John's franchise locations, the tally was 85 workers for the union, 87 against, and two unknown contested ballots. Even if both contested ballots had gone for the union, under the National Labor Relations Act, a tie goes to the employer. (Surprise.)

This means that the franchise company, MikLin Enterprises, is not legally bound to recognize and negotiate with the union. It does not mean that there is no union or that workers cannot act in solidarity and fight for decent wages and better working conditions.

Although the vote results are disappointing, this organizing campaign is pretty impressive when put in perspective. Across 10 store locations, roughly half of all the workers voted to join the Industrial Workers of the World. 85 people wanted to be officially recognized as Wobblies. And remember this vote comes after all the usual (and effective) pre-vote tactics from the bosses--bribes, coercion, threats of firing, forced anti-union lecture sessions. In fact, the union is charging MikLin Enterprises with 22 violations of the National Labor Relations Act. So the fight goes on.

Some more perspective: MikLin, like virtually any corporation facing workers who are organizing for their own good, hired a third-party anti-union "consulting" firm called Labor Relations, Inc. Among the services provided by Labor Relations, Inc. are captive audience meetings, where the firm details the horrors of unionization to the workers, who are required to attend these meetings. It's estimated that MikLin paid $84,500 to fight off the union drive. In other words, it cost them almost $1,000 for each "no" vote they got. It would be interesting to that compared with an estimate of the union's expenses. Perhaps $5 per yes vote?

I will be watching to see what the union does next. They've gotten national attention. They've built a group of supporters around the country. And they've inspired other fast-food and low-wage workers. I think we'll be hearing more from the Jimmy John's workers.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Workers Vote On First Fast-Food Union

Today about 200 workers at ten Minneapolis-area Jimmy John's sandwich shops will vote on joining the Industrial Workers of the World and creating the first fast-food union in the United States. The workers have been meeting for over a year to talk about a Jimmy John's Workers Union. They are fighting for a raise above minimum wage, sick days, consistent scheduling and minimum shift lengths, regularly scheduled breaks, no-nonsense workers compensation for job-related injuries, an end to sexual harassment at work, and basic fairness on the job. The owners, Mike and Rob Mulligan of Miklin Enterprises, have so far refused to meet with workers' negotiating committees.
There are plenty of reasons why fast-food has been totally non-union up until now. High employee turnover make it difficult organize before workers move on. Part-time schedules mean that workers are often busy with other jobs as well. And perhaps most of all, the low-wage fast-food industry has union busting down to a science. All of this has made traditional unions wary of organizing drives at fast-food chains. It looks like a big investment with little chance of success.

And that's where the Wobblies come in. The IWW was formed over a century ago as a union for all working people. The union grew in the early 1900s by organizing where other unions would not: migrant workers, unskilled immigrants, nonwhites, and women. Industries that were ignored by other unions became hotbeds of Wobbly activism. The IWW was far, far ahead of its time. For example, Wobblies were winning free speech fights with civil disobedience across the American West 56 years before the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley. Wobblies were organizing interracial unions in the Deep South 50 years before the Civil Rights Act.

So back to fast-food. The progressive movement and the middle class need a powerful labor movement as their foundation. A powerful labor movement will require unions in what are currently low-wage service sector jobs. These are the jobs that are increasing as a proportion of the overall economy, as heavily unionized manufacturing jobs continue to go overseas. Either we make the jobs of the new economy good ones, or we watch more and more Americans slip into poverty. Or as Jimmy John's Worker and IWW member Ayo Collins says,
"Service industry jobs are the future and our future needs to have quality jobs for working families with living wages, affordable healthcare, paid time off, consistent hours, and basic respect. It's time for change in America, we hope this will be a turning point for all workers."
So at a time when most progressive activists are focused on the upcoming midterm elections, let's not overlook what's happening in Minneapolis. And let's hope the Wobblies once again lead the way.

(This article was cross-posted at Daily Kos.)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Democrats Start Speaking My Language

As we pull into the home stretch of the midterm campaigns, it's refreshing to hear the Democrats finally gaining their voice. Because let's be honest, their previous argument ("Things are bad, but they would have been much worse under Republicans."), though true, was pretty lame. That was never going to energize the base, bring the winning 2008 coalition back together, and drive voters to the polls.

Enter the new strategy: Cast the Republicans as puppets of megacorporations. What makes this an easy sell to voters is that everyone basically already knows it. We just don't talk about it much in campaigns.

For most of last week the message coming from Obama and national Democrats was about the huge amounts of corporate money being funneled into Republican attack ads and races. To sharpen it a little more, they pointed out that a lot of the campaign money being spent by the Chamber of Commerce, the premier lobbying group for big business, is coming directly from foreign corporations. Bangalore, Hyderabad, Frankfurt, Zurich. In a political system where corporate money knows no borders (but of course people still do), these are now centers of Republican power. The Chamber's response to all of this being exposed (essentially a shrug of the shoulders) makes it clear they think the bad PR is a small price to pay. It's well worth it if it means bringing even more money to bear upon smashing the progressive movement in America.

There's little the American people can do other than expose what's happening, make a lot of noise about it, and organize against it. And that's what Democrats from the president on down and progressives have been doing. I was happy to see last week throw their weight behind this. (Check out their satirical RepubliCorp, the result of the complete merger of the Republican Party and Multinational Corporations.) It's true there's little else we can do other than agitate, educate, and organize against the corporate tidal wave sweeping these elections, but that's all we'd need to do, if we did it right.

I'm glad to see Democrats following this line of attack. Make this election--and every election--a choice between Republicans, transnational corporations, and the rich vs. Democrats, workers, and the middle class. (Virtually all of the contradictions to that dichotomy would be cases where Democratic elites join Republican elites and big money against the peoples' interests. So for now, yes, the Democratic party is too "conservative" to make this "choice" 100% accurate. Still, it's pretty good.) The problem is, you can't simply pull this out every October of an even-numbered year to fire up your base for get-out-the-vote efforts. Democrats shouldn't just campaign like this; they should govern like this. This should be the basic organizing principle and the foundation of the Democratic coalition. One party offers more power for the powerful, excuses for why corporations should run roughshod over the Earth, and the other party offers a real chance at democracy, peace, and a sustainable future. This should not be merely campaign rhetoric. It should be part of our national subconscious.

That's all for now. I plan to write a couple more posts on the upcoming midterms, so stay tuned.

Monday, October 4, 2010

One Nation Fed Up With Corporate Power

I spent Saturday down on the National Mall at the One Nation Working Together rally. It was a beautiful Fall day, and it was refreshing to see a whole host of progressive organizations marching together for jobs, justice, and education. I spent most of my time walking around observing the crowd, reading signs, and carrying my own sign.

Two Observations

1. I am always pleasantly surprised at how progressive marches, rallies, and protests have the feeling of celebrations. Every big march I've been to has felt like a street festival. There are virtually always drums and dancing. This was the case even back in March when we were protesting at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, where the health insurance industry's biggest lobbyist group was meeting to plot strategy to block reform. Activism and joy mixed together. What does this say about the Left? Of course I have not been to many right-wing rallies, but I don't think they have this kind of thing going on. Is there dancing in the Tea Party, at an anti-immigrant rally, or a gun rights rally? I don't think I've ever seen this difference between Left and Right discussed.

2. The crowd at the One Nation rally was as ethnically diverse as America itself. Latino, Asian-American, White, African-American, Buddhist, secular, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish. Not just individuals, but organizations were there representing each of these groups. This is what you get when your movement is based on the common good instead of on the wishes of only the most powerful ethnic group or of only the wealthy. It stands in stark contrast to the snow white Glenn Beck rally back in August and the right wing in general.

Proposing A Theme For The Progressive Movement

Here's me holding my homemade sign the day of the rally. (Face hidden so I won't be fired from my job.)
"Democracy vs. Corporations: Which side are YOU on?"
I chose this sign because I believe all the various progressive constituencies (labor, environmental groups, peace groups, civil rights organizations, etc.) need a unifying theme. Well, how about this? On virtually every pressing social issue we face, corporate power stands in the way of progress.

Big corporations keep wages low and working conditions poor.
Big corporations fund fake science to create public doubt about climate change.
Big corporations lobby for ever-increasing defense budgets and new imperial adventures.
Big corporations stoke racist feeling to keep the public divided and powerless.

In short, big corporations thwart true democracy by empowering the few over the many. Therefore, all progressive individuals and organizations should act as one anti-corporate power, pro-democracy force. That should be the underlying struggle that unites all of the Left's various causes.

More Cell Phone Pictures I Took

From the World War II memorial looking west toward the Lincoln Memorial:

On the south side of the reflecting pool. We were near groups from the NAACP and the UAW.