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Women And “Husband Issues”: We Work Hard, But Who’s Complaining?

When a couple dozen brawny, uniformed and helmeted firefighters, led by a bagpipe player, marched through a crowd of pro-union protesters in Madison, Wis., last month, I knew, almost to a certainty, that Gov. Scott Walker had picked a fight with the wrong crew.

As the firemen assembled on the Statehouse steps, the swelling, boisterous crowd, which had raucously encircled and occupied the Capitol for days, pushing back against Governor Walker’s plan to strip public employee unions of their collective bargaining rights, all of a sudden slipped into silent reverence.

While the plan exempts policemen and firemen, the first responders rallied under the oldest first principle of militant unionism: An Injury to One is an Injury to All. And the presence of these mostly white, husky, mustachioed firemen — many with soot still speckling their uniforms — had highlighted a major issue that generally goes undetected by the news media when covering labor conflicts.

In short, it’s what my old union called “the Husband Issue.”

Allow me to explain.

I spent five years as an organizer, and hundreds of hours in the living rooms, at the kitchen tables and on the porches of countless low-wage nursing assistants, hospital food workers and clinical lab scientists, trying to talk them into our union.

These were almost always women. No surprise, really. Whatever growth there has been in organized labor over the last few years — and there hasn’t been much — has been primarily among service workers, that near-invisible class of underpaid workers who clean bedpans, vacuum hotel rooms and mop the floors of operating rooms. I recall one heady organizing drive in Southern California that unionized 9,000 hospital workers, and they were almost exclusively low-wage immigrant women.

Most of those I was recruiting had never been in a union before, had no relatives in unions, and were being introduced to a strange new concept, collective bargaining. For any question a woman had, whether about dues, strikes, seniority, pensions or what she had to gain from forming a union, I had an answer ready to go. (Dues give you power; strikes are rare; every one deserves to retire with dignity. You want a direct say in your wages and benefits, don’t you?).

There was one rebuff, nevertheless, against which I was utterly powerless. It had nothing to do with politics, the boss or dues. Seven simple but devastating words: “I need to ask my husband first.”

Despite the endless training we got on how to ease workers’ doubts, we could never really establish a convincing response for the Husband Issue. It would shift the dynamic so suddenly, and require treading on such volatile emotional territory, that we would often politely say goodbye and scuttle out the door.

(For the record: No man I ever spoke to said, “Excuse me, I have to check first with my wife,” before signing a union card.)

In the current storm over public employee unions rattling the Midwest, this issue of gender is usually overlooked. Women, working as state clerks, teachers and nurses, dominate the organized public sector. And just as Rust Belt Republicans have deftly exploited longstanding stereotypes about public workers as lazy, pampered and gorging themselves on the taxpayers’ teat, they have also made cynical use of gender clichés to try to keep female-dominated unions in their place.

The reality that women are increasingly the breadwinners, providing the financial stability for middle-class families through a good union job, doesn’t seem to inform the Republican state of mind. Instead, women’s income and benefits are still perceived by many as strictly supplementary to the nuclear family, if not entirely superfluous. And therefore they are a prime target for budget cuts.

In addition, pink-collar jobs already require a saint-like disposition and an overall doing-more-with-less attitude. Cutting the pensions of these female workers, freezing their wages and curtailing their rights seems, to many, one of a piece with the suffering and forbearance reserved for our mothers.

The error committed by the antiunion governors is that their attack this time around was so slashing that it cut to the very marrow of organized labor: middle-class white men who saw their futures and their rights threatened. In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich even signed a law that goes so far as to prohibit policemen and firemen from negotiating over their staffing, or even the number of patrol cars and trucks at their disposal.

Police officers and firemen? Who is going to successfully argue that these guys are pampered and spoiled?

Call it what you want, and ascribe it to whatever motivation you please, but there’s just a radically different emotional atmosphere, a very divergent set of optics and ultimately an explosive political dynamic established when stoic firemen in bulky parkas and red helmets are on the picket line rather than teachers in pink T-shirts.

For better or for worse, they are still the Alpha Males of American society, our designated and respected protectors. They might be routinely taken for granted as a reliable conservative force, but someone forgot they are also still union men. These are men who recall clearly how the old-line male-dominated industrial unions — the steelworkers, autoworkers, miners and millworkers — have been whittled down or expunged. And to fiddle around with their livelihoods is like watching someone push your dad around. The reaction is an instinctive anger, horror and a sensation of the bottom falling out.

So, when those firemen took the steps of the Madison Capitol a few weeks ago, I was among those heartened and stirred. I could not resist, though, feeling more than a twinge of disappointment. I fear if it had been just some state home care workers or public school kindergarten teachers up there on the steps, it would not have ignited the same public sympathy and this fight would not be taken as seriously as it is.

By: Natasha Vargus-Cooper, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, April 2, 2011

April 3, 2011 Posted by | Class Warfare, Collective Bargaining, Employment Descrimination, Equal Rights, Governors, Income Gap, Jobs, Labor, Media, Middle Class, Politics, Union Busting, Unions, Wisconsin, Women | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lawmakers And Lobbyist: Cutting Out the Middleman

For six years, Doug Stafford was a lobbyist for the National Right to Work Committee, an anti-labor group financed by business and conservative interests. His job changed last year but his duties did not when he became the chief of staff to Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky. Mr. Paul is a chief sponsor of the National Right to Work Act, which he said would end forced unionization and “break Big Labor’s multibillion-dollar political machine forever.”

Brett Loper’s career path is a similar one. When he was an executive for the Advanced Medical Technology Association, an industry group, he lobbied hard against President Obama’s health care reform. Now, as the chief policy adviser for Speaker John Boehner, he is helping to organize the effort to repeal the health care law. The only difference is that the taxpayers are paying his salary.

There has long been a regular shuttle service between Capitol Hill and Washington’s K Street, but the numbers now are striking. Since last year’s Republican victories, nearly 100 lawmakers have hired former lobbyists as their chiefs of staff or legislative directors, according to data compiled by two watchdog groups, the Center for Responsive Politics and Remapping Debate. That is more than twice as many as in the previous two years.

In that same period, 40 lobbyists have been hired as staff members of Congressional committees and subcommittees, the boiler rooms where legislation is drafted. That again dwarfs the number from the previous two years.

While some of those lobbyist-staffers were hired by Democrats, the vast majority are working for Republicans. Representative Raul Labrador, a freshman from Idaho, hired John Goodwin, previously a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, as his chief of staff. Representative Fred Upton, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, hired Howard Cohen, a longtime lobbyist for the health care industry, as his chief counsel.

In many cases, those hiring lobbyists were Tea Party candidates who vowed to end business as usual in Washington. As The Washington Post reported, when Ron Johnson ran against Wisconsin’s Senator Russ Feingold, he accused Mr. Feingold of being “on the side of special interests and lobbyists.” Now that he is a senator, Mr. Johnson has hired as his chief of staff Donald Kent, whose firms have lobbied for casinos, defense industries and homeland security companies.

Ethics laws put limits on elected officials who move to lobbying firms. But there is nothing to stop lobbyists from getting immediately hired on Capitol Hill. This year’s class of staffers argues for a tough ban. After collecting millions from industries or unions or others, lobbyists should not be allowed to turn around and write laws that favor these special interests.

By: Editorial, Opinion Pages, The New York Times, April 2, 2011

April 3, 2011 Posted by | Big Business, Congress, Conservatives, Corporations, Democracy, Democrats, GOP, Labor, Lawmakers, Lobbyists, Politics, Republicans, Teaparty, Union Busting, Unions | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Under The Supreme Court, Women May Get The Shaft In Walmart Suit

A class action suit that may include as many as 1.5 million women who claim sex discrimination on the job by Walmart is the biggest in U.S. history — though there are signs it won’t remain so for much longer.

The class action already has been approved by a federal judge and a federal appeals court, but it took a beating during argument at the U.S. Supreme Court last week.

Some analysts had said if the high court even accepted the case for review, instead of letting the lower-court verdict stand, it would be a sign that the 5-4 conservative majority wanted to strike the class certification.

Professor Deborah Hensler of Stanford Law School told the Chicago Tribune last year, “If the Supreme Court takes this case, it will signal this business-friendly court is hostile to class actions against corporate defendants.”

“This is the big one that will set the standards for all other class actions,” Robin S. Conrad, executive vice president of the National Chamber Litigation Center, an agency of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told The New York Times. The center filed several friend of the court briefs supporting Walmart at the Supreme Court.

The implication is that Walmart, headquartered in Bentonville, Ark., and one of the world’s largest corporations, is just too big to be the target of a class action.

The company tried to emphasize the massive nature of the class in its petition to the Supreme Court asking for review.

“This nationwide class includes every woman employed for any period of time over the past decade, in any of Walmart’s approximately 3,400 separately managed stores, 41 regions and 400 districts, and who held positions in any of approximately 53 departments and 170 different job classifications,” the company’s petition said. “The millions of class members collectively seek billions of dollars in monetary relief under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, claiming that tens of thousands of Walmart managers inflicted monetary injury on each and every individual class member in the same manner by intentionally discriminating against them because of their sex, in violation of the company’s express anti-discrimination policy.”

The Supreme Court review does not involve the merits of the suit — whether Walmart is guilty of discrimination against women — but whether the enormous class action, driven by statistics, should be allowed to proceed or whether the women must sue individually or in small groups.

The case started in 2001 in San Francisco when six women filed suit claiming Walmart discrimination, in part because they were passed over for promotion in favor of men. One of the six says she was told, “It’s a man’s world.”

Washington attorney Joseph Sellers, who argued for the women before the Supreme Court last week, told United Press International last year, “There’s a substantial body of evidence that comes from Walmart’s own workforce data,” including “very sophisticated analysis” to show what company policy was. Despite the size of the class, Walmart can use that evidence in an attempt to show that there was no company-wide discrimination, just as plaintiffs can use the same evidence to show there was, he said.

“We have evidence that there is a culture at the company that condones or says women are second-class citizens,” Sellers said, some of it surfacing at managers’ meetings at strip clubs or at Hooters restaurants.

Sellers had to think fast on his feet last Tuesday — ironically during Women’s History Month — as justice after justice tried to shred his argument from the bench.

Four of the court’s five-member conservative majority — Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito — were expected to give Sellers a tough time, with Justice Clarence Thomas asking no questions, as is his custom.

The four-member liberal bloc was expected to give him help. The female members of the court, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan did their best to steer the argument in favor of the class action. Ginsburg argued the concept of gender discrimination into law in a series of brilliant cases in the 1970s.

But the fourth member of the bloc, Justice Stephen Breyer, barely spoke Tuesday, and kept his cards close to his vest.

The time allotted for Walmart’s lawyer, Los Angeles attorney Theodore Boutrous Jr., was relatively calm except for pointed questions from the women, but Sellers got a grilling.

Roberts was the first to strike, asking Sellers, “Is it true that Walmart’s pay disparity across the company was less than the national average” for similar retailers?

“I don’t know that that’s a fair comparison,” Sellers replied, adding Walmart was making that comparison “with the general population, not with people in retail.”

Kennedy was more acerbic. “It’s not clear to me: What is the unlawful policy that Walmart has adopted,” he asked Sellers, “under your theory of the case?”

“Justice Kennedy, our theory is that Walmart provided to its managers unchecked discretion,” Sellers said, with women getting fewer opportunities and less pay even with more seniority and higher performance reviews.

“Your complaint faces in two directions,” Kennedy said from the bench. “No. 1, you said this is a culture where … the headquarters knows everything that’s going on. Then in the next breath, you say, well, now these supervisors have too much discretion. It seems to me there’s an inconsistency there, and I’m just not sure what the (alleged) unlawful policy is.”

“There is no inconsistency any more than it’s inconsistent within Walmart’s own personnel procedures,” Sellers replied. A federal judge “found specific features of the pay and promotion process that are totally discretionary. There’s no guidance whatsoever about how to make those decisions. … But the company also has a very strong corporate culture … what they call the ‘Walmart way,’ and the purpose of that is to ensure that in these various stores that, contrary to what Walmart argues, that these are wholly independent facilities, that the decisions of the managers will be informed by the values the company provides to these managers in training.”

“Well, is that disparate treatment?,” Kennedy asked. “Disparate” or unequal treatment is a necessary element for discrimination.

“It is disparate treatment,” Sellers insisted. “It is a form of disparate treatment because they are making these decisions because of sex.”

Scalia echoed Kennedy.

“I’m getting whipsawed here,” he said. “On the one hand, you say the problem is that (local managers) were utterly subjective, and on the other hand you say there is … a strong corporate culture that guides all of this. Well, which is it? It’s either the individual supervisors are left on their own, or else there is a strong corporate culture that tells them what to do.”

Sellers replied that managers have broad discretion, but don’t make their decisions in a vacuum.

Scalia kept charging ahead.

“What do you know about … the unchallenged fact that the central company had a policy, an announced policy, against sex discrimination,” he asked, “so that it wasn’t totally subjective at the managerial level? It was, ‘You make these hiring decisions, but you do not make them on the basis of sex.’ Wasn’t that the central policy of the company?”

“That was a written policy,” Sellers said. “That was not the policy that was effectively communicated to the managers.”

Post-mortem evaluations of the argument were almost uniformly pessimistic for the class’s survival.

Lyle Denniston, dean emeritus of the Supreme Court press corps, wrote on SCOTUSBLOG.com that it took only a few minutes of argument “for a potentially fatal flaw … to stand out boldly.”

The basic claim in the suit is that Walmart maintains a common culture — “the Walmart Way” — to ensure uniformity in its 3,400 stores, Denniston wrote, but the corporate headquarters gives local store managers unlimited discretion to decide pay and promotions — resulting in lower pay and fewer promotions for women.

Kennedy’s point was those factors may seem contradictory.

But for a class action to survive under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, “the legal and factual issues must share commonality” at a minimum, Denniston wrote. Much of last week’s argument focused on that key requirement.

In the Los Angeles Times, an article partly written by veteran Supreme Court correspondent David Savage said the statistics may support the women. Lawyers say two-thirds of Walmart’s employees were women though men made up 86 percent of store managers when the stats were gathered five years ago.

But the article said “the tenor of Tuesday’s argument suggested that the massive, decade-old suit may run aground before it can move toward a trial.”

The Times said even though the male conservative justices were more aggressively negative, all of the justices expressed at least some reservations.

The justices should rule before the summer recess.

Bottom line from UPI: Justices could certainly change their minds, but based on their behavior during argument, look for the class to be struck down by at least a 5-4 vote, and a larger margin, 6-3 or 7-2 or more, is certainly within the realm of possibility.

By: Michael Kirkland, UPI.com, April 3, 2011

April 3, 2011 Posted by | Class Warfare, Conservatives, Corporations, Employment Descrimination, Equal Rights, Income Gap, Jobs, Labor, Republicans, Supreme Court, Walmart, Women, Womens Rights | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“An Inherent Relationship”: A Primer on Class Struggle

When we study Marx in my graduate social theory course, it never fails that at least one student will say (approximately), “Class struggle didn’t escalate in the way Marx expected. In modern capitalist societies class struggle has disappeared. So isn’t it clear that Marx was wrong and his ideas are of little value today?”

I respond by challenging the premise that class struggle has disappeared. On the contrary, I say that class struggle is going on all the time in every major institution of society. One just has to learn how to recognize it.

One needn’t embrace the labor theory of value to understand that employers try to increase profits by keeping wages down and getting as much work as possible out of their employees. As the saying goes, every successful capitalist knows what a Marxist knows; they just apply the knowledge differently.

Workers’ desire for better pay and benefits, safe working conditions, and control over their own time puts them at odds with employers. Class struggle in this sense hasn’t gone away. In fact, it’s inherent in the relationship between capitalist employer and employee. What varies is how aggressively and overtly each side fights for its interests.

Where else does class struggle occur? We can find class struggle wherever three things are at stake: the balance of power between capitalists and workers, the legitimacy of capitalism, and profits.

The most important arena outside the workplace is government, because it’s here that the rules of the game are made, interpreted, and enforced. When we look at how capitalists try to use government to protect and advance their interests — and at how other groups resist — we are looking at class struggle.

Capitalists want laws that weaken and cheapen labor. This means laws that make it harder for workers to organize unions; laws that make it easier to export production to other countries; laws that make it easier to import workers from other countries; laws and fiscal policies that keep unemployment high, so that workers will feel lucky just to have jobs, even with low pay and poor benefits.

Capitalists want tax codes that allow them to pay as little tax as possible; laws that allow them to externalize the costs of production (e.g., the health damage caused by pollution); laws that allow them to swallow competitors and grow huge and more powerful; and laws that allow them to use their wealth to dominate the political process. Workers, when guided by their economic interests, generally want the opposite.

I should note that by “workers,” I mean everyone who earns a wage or a salary and does not derive wealth from controlling the labor of others. By this definition, most of us are workers, though some are more privileged than others. This definition also implies that whenever we resist the creation and enforcement of laws that give capitalists more power to exploit people and the environment, we are engaged in class struggle, whether we call it that or not.

There are many other things capitalists want from government. They want public subsidy of the infrastructure on which profitability depends; they want wealth transferred to them via military spending; they want militarily-enforced access to foreign markets, raw materials, and labor; and they want suppression of dissent when it becomes economically disruptive. So we can include popular resistance to corporate welfare, military spending, imperialist wars, and government authoritarianism as further instances of class struggle.

Class struggle goes on in other realms. In goes on in K-12 education, for example, when business tries to influence what students are taught about everything from nutrition to the virtues of free enterprise; when U.S. labor history is excluded from the required curriculum; and when teachers’ unions are blamed for problems of student achievement that are in fact consequences of the maldistribution of income and wealth in U.S. society.

It goes on in higher education when corporations lavish funds on commercially viable research; when capitalist-backed pundits attack professors for teaching students to think critically about capitalism; and when they give money in exchange for putting their names on buildings and schools. Class struggle also goes on in higher education when pro-capitalist business schools are exempted from criticism for being ideological and free-market economists are lauded as objective scientists.

In media discourse, class struggle goes on when we’re told that the criminal behavior of capitalist firms is a bad-apple problem rather than a rotten-barrel problem. It goes on when we’re told that the economy is improving when wages are stagnant, unemployment is high, and jobs continue to be moved overseas. It goes on when we’re told that U.S. wars and occupations are motivated by humanitarian rather than economic and geopolitical concerns.

Class struggle goes on in the cultural realm when books, films, and songs vaunt the myth that economic inequality is a result of natural differences in talent and motivation. It goes on when books, films, and songs celebrate militarism and violence. It also goes on when writers, filmmakers, songwriters, and other artists challenge these myths and celebrations.

It goes on, too, in the realm of religion. When economic exploitation is justified as divinely ordained, when the oppressed are appeased by promises of justice in an afterlife, and when human capacities for rational thought are stunted by superstition, capitalism is reinforced. Class struggle is also evident when religious teachings are used, antithetically to capitalism, to affirm values of equality, compassion, and cooperation.

I began with the claim that Marx’s contemporary relevance becomes clear once one learns to see the pervasiveness of class struggle. But apart from courses in social theory, reading Marx is optional. In the real world, the important thing is learning to see the myriad ways that capitalists try to advance their interests at the expense of everyone else. This doesn’t mean that everything in social life can be reduced to class struggle, but that everything in social life should be examined to see if and how it involves a playing-out of class interests.

There is fierce resistance to thinking along these lines, precisely because class analysis threatens to unite the great majority of working people who are otherwise divided in a fight over crumbs. Class analysis also threatens to break down the nationalism upon which capitalists depend to raise armies to help exploit the people and resources of other countries. Even unions, supposed agents of workers, often resist class analysis because it exposes the limits of accommodationism.

Resistance to thinking about class struggle is powerful, but the power of class analysis is hard to resist, once one grasps it. Suddenly, seemingly odd or unrelated capitalist stratagems begin to make sense. To take a current example, why would capitalists bankroll candidates and politicians to destroy public sector unions? Why do capitalists care so much about the public sector?

It’s not because they want to balance budgets, create jobs, improve government efficiency, or achieve any of the goals publicly touted by governors like Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Rick Snyder, or John Kasich. It’s because of the profit and power they can gain by destroying the last remaining organizations that fight for the interests of working people in the political sphere, and by making sure that private-sector workers can’t look to the public sector for examples of how to win better pay and benefits.

Other parts of the agenda being pursued by corporate-backed governors and other elected officials also make sense as elements of class struggle.

Selling off utilities, forests, and roads is not about saving taxpayers money. It’s about giving capitalists control of these assets so they can be used to generate profits. Cutting social services is about ensuring that workers depend on low-wage jobs for survival. Capitalists’ goal, as always, is a greater share of wealth for them and a smaller share for the rest of us. Clear away the befogging rhetoric, the rhetoric that masks class struggle, and it becomes clear that the bottom line is the bottom line.

If class struggle is hard to see, it’s not only because of mystifying ideology. It’s because the struggle has been a rout for the last thirty years. But a more visible class struggle could be at hand. The side that’s been losing has begun to fight back more aggressively, as we’ve seen most notably in Wisconsin. To see what’s at stake in this fight and what a real victory might look like, it will help to call the fight by its proper name.

By: Michael Schwalbe, Professor of Sociology, North Carolina State University, Originally Published March 31, 2011, CommonDreams.org

April 3, 2011 Posted by | Capitalism, Class Warfare, Corporations, Education, Governors, Ideology, Income Gap, Jobs, Labor, Media, Minimum Wage, Politics, States, Unions, Wisconsin | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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