Posted by: kokoro | 16th Apr, 2009

Greenhouse, Chapters 10-16

The rest of Greenhouse’s book still hasn’t done anything to make me feel better about my future prospects, or my mother’s future prospects for that matter.

American workers continue to face many of the same problems. Technological advances continue to threaten jobs, while making new ones. Working conditions remain terrible in many places, with issues ranging from lack of safety to sexual harassment. Immigrants taking jobs from American-born workers is also a continuing problem. Companies still do their best to destroy or keep unions from forming with intimidation and other means.

There are also new problems that the country’s workers face. Americans are becoming increasingly overworked, all the while their wages have not grown to match their productivity. Temp agencies, contracting, and downsizing all threaten worker’s positions and help to make them open to exploitation. Technology can also be used in new ways to alter worker’s records, like their hours. Globalization threatens American jobs, and illegal immigration lowers the bar for all workers because illegal immigrants allow employers to get away with terrible exploitation because they can’t speak up against it. Young people are increasingly falling into debt, and college is becoming more expensive as financial assistance remains mostly stagnant. A college education isn’t even necessarily a sure way to a good job anymore either. Retirement is also becoming a figment of the imagination. While employers continue to challenge unions, the way that they do so has become increasingly insidious. The outright violence that was once used may be preferable to the backhand, bureaucratic means they use now. At least direct violence was a sure way to win the sympathy of the public, but then, employers have learned some things since then.

So, to recap, American labor basically faces all the old problems that it’s always faced, while at the same time facing a plethora of new problems. It makes you wonder whether we can fix any new problems if we can’t even fix the old ones. However, things have improved for the American worker before. With revitalization, innovation, and organization, hopefully the labor movement can improve things in the future. But before anything can be improved, we first need to figure out how American labor has reached this low point.

Posted by: kokoro | 13th Apr, 2009

Greenhouse, The Big Squeeze Chapters 1-9

So far, Greenhouse’s book has been majorly depressing. It doesn’t really give me much hope for the future, specifically my future in the workforce. Though the type of work has changed in America in our postindustrial economy, worker exploitation goes on just the same as it always has, as well as in new ways. At the very least, this book proves that labor unions are not obsolete, as some critics have said. If anything, workers more than ever need to have their interests looked after.

I think Greenhouse’s book has been the easiest of our class books to read because he interweaves so many personal stories into his overview of the state of American labor. In some ways, those stories also make it the hardest book to read. While the other books we’ve read have had moments that get me riled up enough to use my barn voice (thank you 30 Rock!), I think this book provokes a larger emotional reaction simply because these are current issues.

These are also issues that I can somewhat relate too. I lived in the same apartment my whole life, in a relatively low-income neighborhood with my single mother. We pretty much live paycheck to paycheck, with no yearly vacations or vacation homes. Our special trips usually consist of staying with family for a few days. It’s always been a treat to eat out at a fancy place, not some kind of weekly tradition, and I’ve never had any music/dance/whatever lessons outside of school. The company branch where my mom worked closed down a few years ago, leaving her unemployed for a year, not to mention increasingly depressed, until she found a new job that leaves her in traffic for hours every day and every night. Of course, the majority of Americans live this way, and for many people, much worse.

Fortunately, chapter nine is a little more cheery. It’s good to know that there are some companies out there that take steps to look out for their workers, even if these companies are relatively small in number.

Posted by: kokoro | 5th Apr, 2009


I think my favorite part of the whole book may have been the appendix. I found it very interesting to read about how Wellman integrated himself into the longshore community. I’m used to thinking of ethnographies as based on accounts from tribal people from far off lands, so this book is a nice reminder than ethnography can be right here at home.

The part I found particularly interesting is that Wellman recognized that he wasn’t a neutral observer, as he had a natural slant towards the union, but both the longshoremen and the managers saw him as neutral and put him into that position. They expected it of him, so he had to act in that fashion by going to meetings of both sides, sitting in between the two sides during joint meetings, and what not.

I think Wellman’s book provides, aside from a great ethnographic study of San Francisco longshoremen, an intriguing counterpoint to the argument that the natural trajectory of unionization is towards business unionism. However, I don’t think, as Wellman mentioned himself, that his account alone proves that the ILWU isn’t an exceptional union or that it is proof that radical unionism isn’t dead. Still, Wellman’s study is a good starting point to investigate other unions for comparison to the ILWU.

Posted by: kokoro | 31st Mar, 2009

Wellman,The Union Makes Us Strong

Wellman focuses on the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU), Local 10 in San Francisco, to argue that radical unionism is not dead.

In Part One Wellman argues against previous scholarship that assumes that the industrial unionism of the 1930s became business unionism following WWII. The trajectory into business unionism is assumed to be a natural course, and the left-wing unions that didn’t follow that trajectory, like the ILWU, are considered “exceptions.” Wellman believes that the survival of ILWU-like unions calls into question the beliefs about radical labor’s demise. He argues against putting too many distinctions between industrial and business unionism and against assuming that control contests end with contracts. The early CIO of the 1930s fought for working-class participation in U.S. institutions, shopfloor democracy in the workplace, and industrial demands in national politics. Wellman points to the demise of labor in the national political agenda as the failure scholars point to, but he argues that issues of control and participation in everyday workers’ lives are another example of radical labor. Participatory politics continue today in the ILWU and beyond.

In Part Two Wellman investigates the political aspects of Local 10 in San Francisco. In the late 1940s and 1950s bargaining contracts and anti-Communism led to the CIO to become dependent on the Democratic Party, acting as a pressure group within the party. Political attacks allowed the leftist ILWU to avoid bureaucratizing. Unable to rely on federal protection, the union remained politically independent.

The community resources of Local 10 remain important for its struggle for control of the workplace. Public politics and the culture of participation are organizational mainstays, and workers participate is in nearly every part of the union. The community of Local 10 is both cultural and institutional. The practices of fraternity, equality, and liberty are resources for disobedience, challenging management’s control, and avoiding the centralizing, bureaucratic tendency of the union.

Union halls are the fabric of the community. The union continues to operate as it has for over a half century, through a participationist, egalitarian “tumultuous democracy.” It is another source of opposition to employer control and the centralizing tendencies of unionism. Deliberations become the business of the entire membership, and officials are joined at the bargaining table by the rank and file. The grapevine, daily dispatch, and flexible work hours also allow longshoremen to keep an eye on elected officials. Politicos are longshoremen who run for office and participate regularly and extensively in union activities. They “make the record” through their militarism at the bargaining table and union meetings, and through their accomplishments, issues raised, and programs produced. Longshoremen learn practical democracy in the union hall and practice it on the docks.

In Part Three Wellman discusses how the introduction of technology impacted work on the docks, as well as codes of conducts for working. In the 1960s the union signed a contractual agreement, called the “Mechanization and Modernization Agreement” (M&M), which introduced new technology. Longshoring became capital intensive, and work came to resemble factory tasks. However, employers still relied on workers for many reasons. Technological renovation didn’t live up to its expectations. Workplace governance was not settled despite changes in dockwork, and while traditional skills became less important, they were replaced by new skills. The community also remained political active, as longshoremen insisted on being taken into account and objected to being disregarded.

While new technology did not alter class relations, it did create two debates within the longshoremen community based on the nature of skilled labor on the waterfront. One group argues that modern longshoring requires technological equipment. They equate skill with containerization. The other group argues that running equipment doesn’t require much skill. The supporters of the first argument are longshoremen who work with modern technology on container docks and union officials who defend the M&M Agreements. The supporters of the other argument include men working out of hiring halls or in gangs with conventional technology. The debate is fueled for many reasons. New technology fractured the understanding of skilled labor. It created a definition of skill determined by the employer, which ruins traditional longshoremen respect for experience. Equipment operators tend to be young men, which inverts the traditional relationship between experience, ability, and reward. Also, steady technology based work decreases dependency on the union, which hurts the community of fraternity, equality, and liberty.

Wellman also discusses the codes of conduct for longshoremen. They are principles that distinguish acceptable and unacceptable, fair and unfair, work practices. These standards of accountability and principles of self-regulation are enforced by the longshoremen.

In Part Four Wellman examines Local 10’s contractual encounters with the Pacific Maritime Association. He argues that the battle for shopfloor control did not end with the M&M Agreements. Longshoremen challenge management’s control over the waterfront through informal means on the docks (through knowledge to autonomous work) and contractually (through grievance processes). The disagreements between longshoremen and management have remained virtually the same since the 1930s based upon which side’s rules will be followed in relation to how to work, language, and merit.

Determining how to work results in disagreements over the distribution of the rewards and burdens of the work process and over flexibility and managerial prerogatives. Language disagreements are based on formulating and interpreting. Local 10 and PMA don’t share the same vocabularies, and they don’t even agree on the language specifying the terms of their cooperation. They argue over which side’s understanding will be used in contract negotiations and in grievance processes. In acknowledging merit, both sides argue over defining a fair day’s pay, choosing supervision, determining skill, and promotion and salary differentiation.

In Part Five Wellman argues that like in the 1930s the fight over workplace control continues between the ILWU and PMA, but unlike then the matter is technically contractually settled on the employer’s side. Practically, it is not settled, and the ILWU uses the contract as a weapon. Though defensible disobedience, each side tries to gain the advantage over the other while staying within the language of the contract.

Three conditions are required for defensible disobedience. First, troubles must be translated into grievable issues. Longshoremen act on their complaints if they are defendable in the contact. “Good beefs” refer to complaints that leave the union with little to lose and everything to gain and are contact defendable. Second, both sides must keep the agreement. Both sides take advantage of the contract and stretch it to fit their needs, but a living contract must be maintained by appearing to keep their side of the bargain. Third, the appearance of cooperation must be maintained. Even when one side is taking advantage of the other, the impression of cooperation must be kept to maintain a living contract. Both sides maintain the appearance of reciprocity through the illusion of negotiation, saving face for the other side, and through the appearance of justice.

Posted by: kokoro | 30th Mar, 2009

Babson, Chapter 5

In chapter five Babson discusses the labor movement’s increasing vulnerability since the 1960s and 1970s. The labor movement was spilt in response to Vietnam, and employers took advantage of those weaknesses. AFL-CIO leadership was interested in supporting the status quo, but other members, particularly African Americans, women, and antiwar protesters, dissented. The UAW, for instance, spilt from the CIO and joined the Teamsters in a coalition (though only temporarily). Labor still made gains, with increasing unionization in the public sector and private sectors not previously federally protected, like hospitals workers and farmers. Nonetheless, while unions were considered effective in improving wages, protecting against unfair labor practices, and increasing job security, many people began to feel that labor leaders were in it for themselves.

As the gap between leaders and members grew and the labor movement fragmented, employers became more aggressive. Management reevaluated post-WWII accommodations with organized labor in response to the widening gap between union and nonunion wages (which put organized employers at a disadvantage), to the growth of the nonunion sector (which would make for low-cost-labor), and to the end of the dominance of corporations (which left management looking for low-cost alternatives). In the 1980s and into the 1990s, employers began using different tactics to fight unionism. Employers began using the 1939 private sector Mackay Radio Supreme Court decision that allowed employers to permanently replace striking workers as long as they were given the next first available positions. Of course, new positions were barely ever open. Corporations used a union avoidance policy involving psychological tactics rather than violence or intimidation, including warning workers of the negative aspects of unions. They also tried to cut unions out by emphasizing teamwork and empowerment in the workplace to give workers the impression of control.

John Sweeny became the president of the AFL-CIO in the 1990s and was able to help restore some of labor’s power. As the leader of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) he focused on organizing and using demonstrations and community pressure to challenge corporate power rather than focusing on reforming labor law. He brought those tactics to the labor movement on a larger scale. He also had many new concerns and organizational issues based on globalization and free trade. Ultimately, the labor movement can take lessons from 1930s organization, but those lessons can’t always be applied to union revival on the world scale.

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