Sunday, May 31, 2009

This Date in Arkansas Labor History

May 31, 1936. St. Francis County Judge E. A. Rolfe and Sheriff J. M. Campbell ask Governor Futrell to send Arkansas National Guard to put down Southern Tenant Farmers Union strikers asking for higher wages.

May 31, 1960. Local Union No. 131 of the Glass Bottle Blowers Association (AFL-CIO) prevails in federal court, enforcing arbitration for claim of wrongful discharge of a union member by Arkansas Glass Container Corp.

May 31, 1965. Arkansas Supreme Court holds that involuntarily unemployed workers of the International Shoe Company were entitled to unemployment benefits denied by company after two-week shut-down of two plants in 1963.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Labor Vigil in Fayetteville

The Northwest Arkansas Labor Council joined with the NWA Workers Justice Center, UA Students Against Sweatshops, and the OMNI Center for Peace, Justice and Ecology for a labor action in support of enacting the Employee Free Choice Act. Twenty-six workers and supporters walked an informational picket line outside Senator Blanche Lincoln's office in the Federal Building at Fayetteville this afternoon, asking the Senator to stand up for working families and make sure that the economy works for everyone.

Senator Lincoln is one of the few Democratic members of the U.S. Senate who has refused to support the Employee Free Choice Act, despite the fact that the Washington County Democratic Central Committee, the Senior Democrats of Northwest Arkansas, the Washington County Democratic Women, and the UA Young Democrats have all overwhelmingly adopted resolutions asking her to co-sponsor the legislation and vote for cloture to stop the Senate Republicans from preventing a vote on the bill.

AFSCME Local 965 members Kasey Walker, Michael Pierce, Mark Swaney, Larry West, and Stephen Smith were among those participating in todays informational picket to remind Senator Lincoln that a majority of Americans support the Employee Free Choice Act.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Michael Pierce to Senator Lincoln

Please, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, change your mind on the Employee Free Choice Act.

Earlier this month, Lincoln announced that she would oppose the Employee Free Choice Act, an AFL-CIO-supported initiative that would simplify the process by which the National Labor Relations Board would certify unions as the collective bargaining agents for workers. Rather than holding costly, complicated and often drawn-out elections, the NLRB would certify a union when more than 50 percent of the employees sign union cards - a method commonly called "card check."

The best way to help Arkansans in these troubled economic times is to put more money in the pockets of those who go to work every day, and making it easier for people to join labor unions would do just that. In 2006 and 2007, unionized workers in the state - there are about 80,000 of them - averaged $17.29 per hour, and non-union workers made but $12.70 an hour. In other words, union workers made 36 percent more than non-union workers. Even within the same job categories, unionized workers make more.

In Little Rock, workers at Kroger grocery stores earn about 25 percent more than their counterparts at Wal-Mart. This is because the union that represents Kroger workers - the United Food and Commercial Workers - sees to it not only that its members receive a living wage but also that they cannot be fired for simply having accrued too many seniority raises or reaching an age that causes insurance rates to rise.

Since consumer spending represents about two-thirds of our nation's economic activity, making it easier for workers to join unions would also create more jobs - the very thing that Lincoln says is her top priority. With more money in their pockets, union families would spend more on food, clothing, computers and books, and this increased demand for goods would stimulate the economic growth needed to get the nation back on a sound economic footing.

Recent surveys suggest that more than half of American workers would join unions if given the opportunity. But currently about 12 percent of the nation's workers are union members. The major reason for this disparity is simple: the process by which the National Labor Relations Board certifies unions provides too many opportunities for companies to coerce those seeking to join unions. Elections to certify unions are held on company premises. Employers threaten their employees that they will lose their jobs if the union is certified. Legal challenges drag out the process in hopes that employees will give up in their attempt to organize, and workers are often forced to sit through sessions designed to intimidate them. This is the process that the Employee Free Choice Act seeks to simplify.

The opponents of the Employee Free Choice Act - among the most strident are Wal-Mart, The Home Depot and bailout poster child Bank of America - have been disingenuous in their opposition. Instead of telling people the real reason that they oppose card check - they don't want to pay their employees higher wages and they want to be able to fire workers without due process - these companies have hid behind claims of wanting to preserve the "secret ballot."

Arkansans should remember, though, that the secret ballot does not guarantee free or fair elections. For political elections, the state introduced the secret ballot (also called the Australian ballot) in 1892 specifically to stop blacks and poor whites from voting. A Democratic campaign song that year explained:

The Australian ballot works like a charm,

It makes them think and scratch,

And when a Negro gets a ballot

He has certainly met his match.

As Harvard University historian Jill Lepore has written, "The year after Arkansas passed its Australian-ballot law, the percentage of black men who managed to vote dropped from 71 to 38." The total white vote declined by more than 25 percent, with the poor making up most of those disenfranchised. In other words, history makes clear that the secret ballot can be used to some very undemocratic ends.

A strong labor movement is good not only for union members but for all Arkansans. Over the course of the 20th century, the Arkansas labor movement was at the forefront of nearly every positive reform in the state, reforms that were denounced as "too radical" by the economic elite at the time but are now taken for granted. In the century's first two decades, the Arkansas State Federation of Labor helped push through direct legislation, child labor laws, educational reforms, women's suffrage, maximumhours laws and minimum-wage legislation. In the 1930s, it was the architect of the state's workers' compensation and unemployment plans. In the postwar years, it led the way in integrating public facilities, increasing aid for education, fighting for the repeal of the poll tax and opposing the doctrines of nullification and interposition that the segregationists wanted to use to keep African-Americans second-class citizens.

A vibrant labor movement is Arkansas' best hope for a progressive future.

· · ·

Dr. Michael Pierce is an assistant professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, where he teaches Arkansas history and serves as associate editor of the Arkansas Historical Quarterly. He is a member of AFSCME Local 965.

This entry originally appeared in the Benton County Daily Record, May 10, 2009.

Women Workers Less Likely to Have Secure Retirement

Women workers are less likely than men to have enough money to retire comfortably because they generally live longer than men and earn less on the job, according to a new report. It will take a three-pronged approach to help women have a secure retirement, the report says: traditional pensions, supplemental 401(k)-type savings and Social Security.

Shattering the Retirement Glass Ceiling: Women Need a Three-Legged Stool,” released this month by the non-profit research group National Institute on Retirement Security (NIRS), found that because of her longer life expectancy, a woman with an annual income of $50,000 would need to save $1,000 more toward retirement every year than her male counterpart to have an equal retirement experience. Yet, more than 45 years after the Equal Pay Act was signed, women in the United States still earn only 78 cents for every dollar men earn—even with similar education, skills and experience—and African American and Hispanic women earn even less. The wage difference makes saving money more difficult for many women.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Celebrating May Day

May 1, 1886, became historic. On that day thousands of workers in the larger industrial cities poured into the streets, demanding eight hours. About 340,000 took part in demonstrations in Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Baltimore, Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Boston and other places. Of these nearly 200,000 actually went out on strike. About 42,000 won the eight-hour day. Another 150,000 got a shorter day than they had had before.

Chicago workers supported the movement most vigorously. To combat labor organization and activity, Chicago employers organized and acted. Pinkerton detectives and special deputies were in evidence. Policemen were swinging billies and breading up knots of workers on street corners.

At the factory gates of McCormick Harvester Co., where a strike meeting was being held on May 3, policemen swung their clubs and then fired into the running strikers....The speaker at the meeting was August Spies, a member of the Central Labor Union, which had supported the May First strike. He was also a member of a militant labor group that was at the time influential in the Chicago Labor movement. Six workers were killed that day and many wounded.

Anger ran high through the Chicago labor movement. About 3,000 attended a protest meeting the next day at Haymarket Square....The Chicago press reported the speeches were less "inflammatory" than usual. Mayor Carter H. Harrison who was present testified later that the meeting was "peaceable." But as it was about to adjourn, policement swooped down and ordered the audience to disperse. Then some unknown person threw a bomb. It exploded, killing a police sergeant and knocking several core to the ground. The police opened fire. At the end of the day, seven policemen and four workers lay dead.

At once several Chicago labor leaders were rounded up and thrown in jail. Eight of these finally came to trial--Albert Parsons, August Spies, Louis Lingg, George Engel, Michael Schwab, Samuel Fieldon, Adolph Fischer and Oscar Neebe. The presiding judge helped pick the jury which was strongly anti-labor and hostile to the defendants. The trial lasted 63 days. All of the men were declared guilty of murder. All were given death sentences, except Neebe who got a 15-year prison sentence.

A nationwide defense campaign won wide popular favor...At the last moment, as a result of widespread protests, the Governor of Illinois communted to life imprisonment the sentences of Fieldon and Schwab. It was reported that Lingg "committed suicide" in his cell.

On November 11, Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolph Fischer and George Engel were hanged. On the gallows Spies cried, "There will be a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today." Straightway the defense movement, now led by Albert Parsons' widow, Lucy Parsons, turned to efforts to have the remaining three men freed. Fieldon, Schwab and Neebe were finally pardoned by Governor Altgeld in 1893. He was fully convinced, he said, of the innocence of all the eight men.

Out of the eight-hour struggle which culminated in the strike of May 1, 1886, and its aftermath, the Haymarket tragedy, came international May Day. In Paris, France, on July 14, 1889, leaders from organized proletarian movements in many countries came together to form once more an international association of workers....At the first congress of the Second International, delegates listened to the story related by the United States representatives, considered a request from the American Federation of Labor for support of their eight-hour fight, and voted to make May 1, 1890, a day for an international eight-hour day demonstration.

--Holt Labor Library