Friday, January 31, 2014

American Progressives should look Northward and Learn

It’s been stated and repeated countless times: the American labor movement needs its own political party.  (For anyone who still believes the Democrat Party is the party of the American labor movement, I can only say, I’m sorry, but you haven’t been paying attention).

Those of us who are involved in US politics look with envy toward the Canadian labour movement, which has the New Democratic Party (NDP) as its steadfast ally.  At the same time, US unions are forced to deal with two parties; one that wants to end our existence, and the other that ignores us.

Meanwhile, our Canadian sisters and brothers find the NPD stands unflinchingly with unions on virtually every important workplace issue.  Certainly, there remain a few areas of disagreement – we are talking about politics after all.  Still, Canadian unions remain confident that the Party-that-Jack-built (that’s Jack Layton for you Americans who don’t know) will stand strongly with them in the tough fights.

On the other hand – and with notable exceptions that I’ll get to later – far too many Democrats seem to exist on a motto of “I may not have done much for you in the past, but I’m still better than the alternative.”  They come to labor unions seeking endorsements, volunteer workers, and financial support.  Then, after winning, they forget about the people who supported them.  When the next election rolls around, those same lawmakers come back to the unions looking for support again.  If the unions balk, the Dems simply recite the previously cited motto.  Except that now, the “alternative” is even more anti-labor than the last one.  Faced with such a threat, the unions support the Democrat, who then regains his/her selective amnesia after winning.  And the circle continues.

So, the cry goes out from American union leaders, “Let’s get our own party like the Canadians’ NDP.”

The problem with that idea is that by running a Labor Party candidate against a Democrat, the unions’ forces and resources will be divided.  This could ensure a win by the opposition.  And when the opposition is a Right-to-Work union-hating corporate wonk, dividing our resources to teach some weak-kneed Dem a lesson is not a very good idea.

There are other problems with creating a Labor Party.  Old-time hard-line Dems will oppose the concept.  Many local union members as well as national union leaders will view the notion as too uncertain.  It could risk turning fair-weather friends into devoted enemies.  Finally, there is the issue of money – which we don’t have much of.

Nevertheless, I still believe creating an American Labor Party is a worthy goal.  But realistically, I don’t envision it happening any time in the foreseeable future.

I have an alternate idea.  It’s something that’s both realistic and very doable

Simply put, there needs to be a Progressive Caucus within the Democratic Party.  (I’d call it a Labor Caucus, but that’s too limiting, and our current numbers are too low.)

Go back to those notable exceptions I mentioned earlier.  I’m referring to the Democrats who stand strongly with us on nearly every issue.  On a national level, these would include people such as George Miller, Elijah Cummings, Gwen Moore, Sherrod Brown, Elizabeth Warren, and Mazie Hirona; to name only a few.  Admittance to the Progressive Caucus by a new and unproven legislator could be done via a given set of litmus tests on worker/labor and social issues.  Veteran lawmakers would have to earn their way into the Caucus through their proven track records.  It’s sort of like pay-for-performance, but without the favoritism.

Sound far-fetched?  This really isn’t a great deal different than the concept that led to the creation of the Democratic Leadership Caucus (DLC) in the early 90’s.  That group of corporate-friendly Dems was led by Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton and boasted such members as Virginia Governor Doug Wilder and Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas.  When they and their centrist colleagues convened in 1991, Democratic Party leaders who weren’t pro-business enough to be allowed in the DLC (Sens. Ted Kennedy and Paul Wellstone among others) weren’t invited.  They were all still colleagues within the same party, but there was a clear distinction between their core principles.

In creating a Progressive Caucus, we’d still have the Democratic Party we’ve all come to know and gripe about.  We’d still be able to tabulate voting records prior to elections.  But when a Progressive Caucus candidate would run against a “I vote your interests once in every blue moon” Democrat, our members and leaders – along the media and the voting populace will know which Dems have sold their souls to their corporate donors and which ones have earned the Progressive Caucus “Seal of Approval.”

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Martin Luther King Day - 2014

A member of my union recently shared a wonderful quote with me.  St. Francis of Assisi once said,  "Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words."

At the time he told me this, my fellow union member was referring to some high-ranking government officials who seem to have adopted a creed, which says that flowery words can make up for a lack of action.  As our meetings progressed, the compelling quotation proved to be right on point.

After that day's meetings, the words of St. Francis stuck with me.  I was particularly moved by the notion of letting one's actions declare his or her beliefs.  The thought stayed with me through Martin Luther King Day.

Surely, there can be no better example of a person whom, though immeasurably profound in his speech, was defined by his actions.  And I can think of no better way to celebrate Dr. King's legacy than following the sage advice of St. Francis.

As we do each year, we take the day to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King.  Yet, we need to extend ourselves further, by sharing his life's lessons with all those whom we meet.  If necessary (but only if necessary), we should use words when we do so.  

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

My Memorable Visit with FLOC

September 12, 2012

At its meeting in August of 2012, the AFL-CIO Committee on Civil & Human Rights was given a presentation from the committee’s chairperson, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt-Baker, on her recent trip to meet with the immigrant farm workers in North Carolina.  Sister Holt-Baker had been invited to visit the workers by Baldemar Velasquez, the President of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC).  I, along with the other members of the AFL-CIO Executive Council, was invited by Brother Velasquez to travel to North Carolina to meet with the immigrant workers.  I proudly accepted, and I made the trip late last month.

IFPTE and FLOC don’t have many opportunities for interchange.  However, I thought it was important for me to make the trip for two reasons.

First, we can learn much from this organization.  Although FLOC is a small and relatively poor national union, through massive member mobilization and by following some rather ingenious strategies, the organization has shown to have more muscle than one might expect.  By raising public awareness on their issues, they have put unexpected power into their struggles, and their union has won some remarkable victories in the past few years.

Secondly, and more importantly, theirs is a battle for basic human rights.  Their struggle is not strictly about immigration.  It’s about whether we, as unionists, as Americans, as fellow humans, will agree to the heartless treatment of others.  It’s about whether we will stand by silently, while other people on American soil are forced to endure inhumane treatment by those who so callously wield power over them.

FLOC President Velasquez started my trip with an extensive briefing, during which he freely answered all of my questions.

Much of our discussion centered on his internal strategies, and for the sake of discretion, I won’t divulge any of that here.

To my question regarding the workers’ legal status as immigrants, Mr. Velasquez said that all of the workers we would meet are undocumented.  Mr. Velasquez explained that it’s nearly impossible to gain legal entry into the US as a farm worker.  Those few who do get working visas are only permitted to do so to provide the farm owners with a semblance of legal hiring practice, and the handful of employees who are documented immigrants serve as supervisors over the actual workers.

When I asked why immigrants don’t try to enter the US legally, Mr. Velasquez explained that such a thing is all but impossible.  In order to gain a working visa or a “green card,” foreign workers need to have an employer-sponsor, and the farm owners have no interest in sponsoring workers to whom they would be required to pay a minimum wage.  Instead, the owners rely on a well-funded and well-organized recruitment/smuggling ring that operates by extracting a fee from each immigrant (money which is acquired by a loan from the ring itself) and then, the workers are shipped to various parts of the country to work as fruit & vegetable pickers.  In those rare instances in which a worker has a passport, the document is often seized by the employer and kept until the worker has fulfilled his/her obligation.  In other words, the worker is prevented from quitting.

I asked why the undocumented workers don’t try to save enough money to go back home, and then, come back to the US legally.  Mr. Velasquez explained that such a thing is not possible.  In order to apply for a working visa, a prospective immigrant must declare whether he or she has ever entered the US illegally.  A “yes” answer brings an automatic and permanent denial of a working visa along with any hope of legal re-entry into the US.  As to the prospect of saving any money earned, Mr. Velasquez told me the workers are paid such meager wages that saving even a portion of it was simply ridiculous.

When I asked whether the farm owners know their entire workforce of farm laborers was undocumented, Mr. Velasquez laughed as he assured me that, of course, they know.  That’s the way the farm owners can get around any wage and hour laws, he explained.  The farm owners depend on their workforce being undocumented, and the workers’ substandard pay, along with the absence of any benefits, is an essential element of the farm owner’s profits.  Mr. Velasquez added with a laugh, “Besides, a lot of people would object to paying double for a jar of pickles just to ensure the workers get paid the minimum wage.”

As a side note, Mr. Velasquez told me that FICA tax is withheld from the workers’ pay, however, since the workers are undocumented, they don’t have valid US Social Security numbers.  So, the workers simply give fake numbers.  It’s a sad but running joke that the undocumented workers are supporting the Social Security benefits of American workers, while the undocumented workers have no chance of receiving any benefits themselves.

We discussed the value of the workers’ membership in FLOC.  First and foremost, when a union has a roster of the workers, the union demands that the workers are paid minimum wage and receive fair treatment consistent with prevailing law.  Union members have the right to file grievances against their employer.  These grievances often involve workers being shorted their rightful pay, especially when the workers are paid by the count of produce picked in lieu of being paid a set amount of money per hour.

There is no protection against employer retaliation for workers who are deemed troublesome because of their union activity.  In fact, there are NO laws that govern farm workers’ rights.  Therefore, the union has no regulatory body to which the union or the workers can file appeals or unfair labor practice charges.

At the Work Camps

When the day is done, the workers are sent to their work camps (I can hardly believe I’m using such a despicable term), where they eat, sleep, bathe, and live while they are employed on any given farm.  Mr. Velasquez and I, along with some staff representatives of FLOC and some other worker advocates visited a few of the work camps.  (We didn’t want to get in the workers’ way while they were picking produce, so we waited till they had finished their work for the day.)

We were lucky enough to be there when the temperature was only around 90.  But this was central North Carolina, and the temperature regularly swelters in the 100’s.

In short, each complex was filthy and disgusting.  The grounds were a mixture of rutted and uneven rocks, stones, and weeds.  Gnats and flies were so thick, we had to walk with our mouths closed, and all of us were continuously swatting and waving our hands in front of our faces – as though that would do any good.  Of course, the ever-present haze of flying bugs was always denser nearer to where the workers had to cook and eat their meals.  Whatever else the workers ate, I have no doubt they couldn’t help but consume some insects with their food.

The work camps are made of rows of shacks that encircle a stony yard.  The shacks rest on concrete slabs.  The crude buildings are made of bare wood with bare pipe in the few buildings that have running water (the kitchens, the laundry rooms, and the bathrooms are all located in the same buildings).  A lone fifty-gallon water heater is used to accommodate up to 100 people, who all need to bathe, wash their clothes, and eat in the same complex.  When the hot water runs out, the workers simply have to shower and do their laundry in cold water.  There is no running water in any of the shacks used for sleeping.

We arrived in time to find most of the workers had just washed after the day’s work.  They were all incredibly friendly and in good spirits, although none of them could hide the fact that they were dog-tired.  At this point in their day, the simple act of sitting down was a joyous experience.

The workers all knew who Baldemar Velasquez was.  If they didn’t know him, they’d all obviously heard of him, and they accepted him like he was a saint.

I refrained from waving the haze of bugs away from my face while I was talking with the workers, because I didn’t want to appear perturbed by such a minor inconvenience in the face of such appalling hardship.  At the same time, I couldn’t help but think of how my own family reacts when there’s a single fly or a moth in the house.

The workers all welcomed us and freely spoke with us.  We were careful not to take too many pictures of them without their approval, and we were told beforehand (by the FLOC staffers) not to take photographs of any of the children.

I sat and spoke with a worker named C for a few minutes.  Like all the other workers around him, C is a slightly built man.  He is small and wiry, without an ounce of fat on him.  As I sat down, C glanced at the FLOC staffers, and I assume they nodded that it was safe to talk with me.  (The FLOC staffers served as our interpreters.)  C said he was doing fine, except that he was incredibly tired.

They’d picked sweet potatoes that day, and C lamented that it was a lot harder than picking oranges in Florida.

“Why?”  I asked.  “Because of the strain on your back from bending down?”

“No.  It’s because we have to pick while running the entire day.”

It was explained to me that with certain produce, like sweet potatoes, the workers are paid nothing per hour.  Instead, their pay is based on the number of buckets of vegetables they pick.  The vegetables must be ripe and the skin cannot be damaged, so the workers need to pay attention as their fingers sift through the plants.  When a worker turns in a full bucket to the supervisors waiting in the back of the truck, the worker is given a ticket.  His/her daily pay is then based on the number of tickets amassed by day’s end.

I asked how much a worker receives for each sweet potato.  The remittance varies, but it’s only a few cents.  The price is higher if the workers are unionized.

I asked C if he planned to pick oranges in Florida when the season is right.  He said he did, but not until the work in North Carolina is done.  I asked him how he knew about the picking in Florida or where the next bit of work might be.  He didn’t seem to know how to answer.  He only said that the word got around.

He said it’s hard to get to Florida because the police are always on the watch for undocumented immigrants.  States like Georgia and Alabama have laws similar to Arizona’s, where immigrants can be apprehended simply for appearing to be undocumented workers.

The farm owners who freely and openly exploit the undocumented workers are never arrested.  Although the farm owners knowingly violate US wage and hour laws (to say nothing of the blatant disregard for common decency and humanity), the owners are never brought to justice.  Nor are the recruiters and the smugglers.  Instead, only the workers, who are forced to toil, as indentured servants, are the ones treated as criminals.

I asked C if he prefers working in Florida.  He said, no, he’d prefer to do construction work, and he wanted to go to Texas, but there isn’t much construction laborer work there right now.  He said he’s got a wife and three daughters living there, and he’d like to see them again soon.  His eyes brightened at the thought, but then, they watered up on him.

We switched the subject and went back to discussing North Carolina.  C is well aware that his living and working conditions are horrible.  He did his best to shrug it off.  I asked him what happens when he gets sick; on the days he can’t work.  He thought it about the question and answered with a laugh, “I can’t let myself get sick.”

We met with a worker named J.  J had sliced his foot earlier in the day, and he’d tried to continue working on it, but it got too painful, and he had to leave the fields after only a half-day.  He seemed furious with himself for getting injured and needing to miss a half day’s work.  (I didn’t ask how he was transported back to the work camp in the middle of the day or what he’d eaten, having missed lunch in the field.)  One of the FLOC staffers checked J’s injured foot.  There was nothing resembling medical supplies anywhere in the camp.  J said he’d found some ointment (that was intended for insect bites), and he’d applied some of that to his sliced foot.  The cut didn’t appear to be too deep, but J seemed to be a lot of pain and had a hard time standing on his injured foot.

The inside of the shacks used as living quarters are about 12’ x 16’.  These were the ones we saw.  There are smaller shacks, but they were locked, so we didn’t see the insides.  The walls of the shacks are bare, except for partial sheets of particle-board that cover random portions of the wall.  There are no light fixtures.  The floors are concrete.  The unshaded windows are about eight feet off the floor, so while they provide light, the only thing that can be seen through them is the sky.

The workers are provided a cot with a bare mattress.  No blankets, sheets, or pillows.  A wooden cabinet, about a foot high and a foot deep and about three feet wide hangs above each cot.  Everything in life that the worker owns is stored in his or her cabinet.  When we were at the camps, there were six cots in each shack, but when picking season is at its peak (and when the weather is hottest), as many as ten workers reside in each shack.

We visited other shacks and other work camps.  The stories were all similar.

Outside of the work camps were signs telling us that trespassers were not allowed on the property.  We ignored the signs – as did the clouds of gnats and flies.

The bathrooms were too disgusting for the written word to fully describe.  Some pictures of the filthy conditions can be found on my Flickr site.

I apologize for the poor quality.  The pics were taken with my phone.  Here are some better ones that were taken by Ron Carver – a photographer and an organizer with a significant amount of talent.

On the way out of the last camp, we stopped in a tobacco field.  Mr. Velasquez had me pick a couple of ripe leaves from some plants.  The leaves were covered with a filmy substance, and when Mr. Velasquez saw me rub at the stickiness on my fingertips, he explained that the stuff on my hands was tar from the tobacco.  He said that after a day of picking tobacco, a worker’s hands and clothes will be completely black from the tobacco tar.  The clothes cannot be worn again until they’re washed, or the tar will cause the worker to become violently ill.

When I rubbed the stickiness between my fingers and thumb, one of the FLOC staffers warned me not to touch my face until I had washed my hands.

“And whatever you do,” he quickly added, “don’t rub your eyes.”

I thought of a worker in 100-degree weather, toiling under the hot sun.  And I thought of a person’s normal reaction when sweat runs into the eyes.

Two of the people who accompanied us on the trip were young workers from the Japanese and the Taiwanese embassies.  Both repeatedly exclaimed their horror and their near-disbelief that such deplorable living conditions exist in 21st century America.

At the moment, I don’t know what else to do about the outrage I feel, except to tell as many people as I can about what I saw and learned in North Carolina.

Friday, August 31, 2012

My open Labour Day letter

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

As we take a well-deserved holiday weekend and enjoy our Labour Day, we should also remember to celebrate the many fruits of our labour.

Both Canada and the US were built by working class people.  It wasn't the CEOs.  It wasn't the politicians.  It sure wasn't the investors or the venture capitalists.  It was everyday working class men and women.

To the upper crust, the first Monday of September is just another day off.  But, we, in the union movement, pay particular notice on Labour Day to acknowledge the essential and the often thankless work of our sisters and brothers.

We honor the faceless millions who live from paycheck-to-paycheck.  We pay tribute to those who juggle family budgets and priorities to make ends meet - who, through it all, bring their best efforts to their individual jobs.  Those who have endured those years of daily toil and endless worry will never forget the experience.  Those who never lived it, will never understand it.

As union people, we value the hard work of others, and we honor them on their special day.  On the first Monday in September, we take time to pay our special moments of grateful for the contributions of the working class.

Whether they're technologists or teachers, soldiers or scholars, labourers or lab assistants; we unionists, bless them for their work.  We demand they are paid a fair and decent wage, and that they are provided a safe and healthy workplace.

Our colleagues and co-workers bring progress and profitability to their employers, and we insist that they receive responsible benefits.

Our fellow workers give tirelessly of themselves, and we will fight with every ounce of energy to protect their retirement packages and privileges.

Most importantly, we, in the union movement, respect all workers, and we insist that every woman and man be treated equally and fairly without facing harrassment or discrimination.

We believe employer-provided training and education should be focused on continuous progress and improvement, and should not simply be a defense against potential job loss.

We believe workers should enjoy the freedom to engage in collective bargaining. They should be free to organize without employer’s threats or intimidation.  And we believe unions should be legally recognized through a simple majority of those workers who willingly sign authorization cards.

The labour of American and Canadian workers, be they for-profit mployees or public servants, are essential to building our communities, our cities, and our nations.   The labours of working class people are essential to the progress of business enterprises and government institutions alike.  We know well that employers cannot survive without the dedicated efforts of their workforces.  We understand the differences between the cause and the effect of workers’ efforts and employers’ successes, and we will never allow them to become interchanged or confused.

These are among the ideals and principles, which we in the union movement stand for.

And these are among the reasons we honor workers on their special day.

Happy Labour Day!

Greg Junemann
IFPTE President