Neoliberal Feminists Don’t Want Women to Organize

Lean any way you want; the view from the bottom of the economic system doesn’t change.

 

**This article appears in PRA’s upcoming Fall, 2014 issue of The Public Eye magazine, a special edition on neoliberalism and the Right**

To say that Sheryl Sandberg ruined my life would be to make the same mistake that Sandberg herself makes—it would be to assume that the successes or failures of an individual woman, feminist or no, equal the successes or failures of feminism.

Nevertheless, writing about feminism and the workplace in the shadow of Lean In has been a task in itself. One must, it often seems, either define oneself as for or against Sandberg. Critique of her was critique of feminism, at least for the heady months around her book’s publication when well-known feminists felt compelled to take sides.

Sandberg is not herself the problem, but she exemplifies it in a way that has been instructive. When Jill Abramson was fired from her position as executive editor at the New York Times, reportedly after she confronted the paper’s publisher over her discovery that her pay was less than that of her (male) predecessor, among the many outraged reactions from feminists was the response that leaning in doesn’t work after all. Abramson’s experience, similar to that of so many women, seemed a rebuke to the idea, promoted in Sandberg’s book, that individual women were holding themselves back. It reminded us that no matter how hard we try, sexism—sexism in the workplace—cannot be defeated individual success story by individual success story.

One of the insidious things about neoliberalism is how it has managed to absorb our vibrant, multifaceted liberation struggles into itself and spit them back out to us as monotone (dollar-bill-green) self-actualization narratives. The way this has happened to feminism is particularly instructive. As I wrote in Dissent last winter, the so-called “second wave” of feminism fought for women to gain access to work outside of the home and outside of the “pink-collar” fields. Yet in doing so, as Barbara Ehrenreich has written, some feminists wound up abandoning the fight for better conditions in what had always been considered women’s work—whether that be as teachers and nurses, or the work done in the home for little or no pay.

National Domestic Workers Alliance members protest

National Domestic Workers Alliance members protest

In fact, the flight of middle-class women into the paid workplace left other women, namely domestic workers, cleaning up the mess left behind, and many of those middle-class women seemed unwilling to deal with the fact that they too, sometimes, could oppress. As Ehrenreich wrote in “Maid to Order,” a piece published in the anthology, Global Woman, which she co-edited with Arlie Russell Hochschild, “To make a mess that another person will have to deal with—the dropped socks, the toothpaste sprayed on the bathroom mirror, the dirty dishes left from a late-night snack—is to exert domination in one of its more silent and intimate forms.”

While some women have experienced the workplace as a site of liberation and increased power, for many others, the workplace was never a choice. Particularly for women of color, whose domestic work was excluded intentionally from New Deal-era labor laws, the workplace was and remains a site of oppression. And to this day, women remain concentrated in the economy’s lowest-paying jobs—some two-thirds of minimum-wage workers are women, and three of the fastest-growing occupations in the country are retail sales, food service, and home health care, which are both low-wage and female-dominated jobs. Home health care workers, in many ways the face of the new service economy, were just ruled only “partial” public employees by the right-wing Roberts Supreme Court. More than 90 percent of them, according to the Economic Policy Institute, are female.

Those are jobs at which, no matter how hard one leans in, the view doesn’t change.

And these days, the conditions for more and more workers are beginning to resemble those at the bottom; fleeing the female-dominated workplace, rather than improving it, has left middle-class women more, not less, vulnerable. The devaluation of work that involves care, work for which women were assumed to be innately suited, continued apace when feminism turned its back. As other jobs have disappeared, the low wages that were acceptable when women were presumed not to need a “family wage,” because they ought to be married to a man who’d do the breadwinning, became the wages that everyone has to take or leave.

Though the movement for paid sick leave has gained some important wins in recent months and years, alongside a growing movement to raise the minimum wage, a more expansive family policy that would actually allow more than a few days’ paid leave or allow workers more control over their own schedules remains a pipe dream.

Equal pay for equal work means little when the wages for all are on the way down. You would be hard pressed to find a self-proclaimed feminist, even of the most neoliberal variety, who doesn’t argue in favor of equal pay, but this focus has often served, as I have argued, to stifle discussion of other concerns in the workplace. As Marilyn Sneiderman, lifelong labor organizer and director of the New Labor Center at Rutgers University, told me for Dissent, the fight for fair pay might seem an individual struggle for high-end workers like Abramson, but for a hotel housekeeper, a nurse, a janitor, the best way to improve your job isn’t to get promoted through the ranks, but to organize with your fellow workers.

Neoliberal feminism is a feminism that ignores class as a determining issue in women’s lives. It presumes, as Tressie McMillan Cottom pointed out in an article on her personal website, that giving power to some women will automatically wind up trickling if not power, than at least some lifestyle improvements down to women with less power.

This applies internationally as well as domestically. Nancy Fraser, in her book Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis, cites Hester Eisenstein’s argument that feminism has entered into a “dangerous liaison” with neoliberalism, embracing critiques of the state and men’s economic power that allowed for deregulation. Fraser sees neoliberal feminism embracing a pro-globalization mentality that regards women in the developing world as in need of “saving” by enlightened Western feminists.

Take Somaly Mam, the Cambodian NGO entrepreneur who built her career on her own fraudulent tale of being sex trafficked as a child. Westerners flocked to her story and her cause, joining her on trips to “save” women from brothels. Sheryl Sandberg was on the board of her foundation, alongside Susan Sarandon. Hillary Clinton was a fan. Mam’s rise to fame dovetailed with the rise, across the U.S., of an obsession with “saving” sex workers and increasing criminal penalties for sex trafficking.

Her fame attracted prominent feminists to a cause that continues, as Melissa Gira Grant writes in her book Playing the Whore, to be supported by the Religious Right and to criminalize women who are trying to make ends meet any way they can. Yet the solutions offered to the women saved by Mam’s organization (currently undergoing a name change after Newsweek published its expose of Mam’s fabrications) were mostly low-wage sweatshop jobs producing clothing for Western consumption. As Anne Elizabeth Moore, who has spent years working in and reporting on Cambodia, writes in Salon of Mam’s organization and others like hers, “What they do is normalize existent labor opportunities for women, however low the pay, dangerous the conditions, or abusive an environment they may be. And they shame women who reject such jobs.”

This is neoliberal feminism at its finest. As Gira Grant writes, the idea that women in Cambodia—or in the United States—can organize themselves and change their working conditions is almost always absent from the conversation.

Selma James, one of the founders of the 1970s Wages for Housework movement and a leader in the Global Women’s Strike, criticized how some feminists turned grassroots organizing projects into “jobs for the girls” as a way for some women to have power by creating mechanisms to save others. In today’s political climate, we must be wary of claims that feminism is best served by increasing the power of individual (white, middle-class) women, and question over whom they exercise that power. We must understand the difference between power for a few and a real change in how power affects us all.

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The Shell Game of Contingent Employment

When subcontractors, freelancers, and independent contractors get hurt or abused on the job, these workers are finding it harder to hold employers accountable. This is no accident—it’s a direct result of a neoliberal labor agenda.

**This article appears in PRA’s upcoming Fall, 2014 issue of The Public Eye magazine, a special edition on neoliberalism and the Right**

In 2011, Host Hotels & Resorts, Inc., a corporate partner of the Marriott hotel chain, used a general contractor that it had hired to renovate guest rooms at the Host-owned Copley Marriott in Boston.   A convoluted web of subcontractors emerged, as the general contractor subcontracted the work to several other companies, and some of that subcontracted work was then further subcontracted, with more than a dozen firms working on the same project.

construction site

A state-led, multi-agency investigation found that 15 contractors on the project committed a wide array of labor law violations. Workers from a church-sponsored rehabilitation project in Philadelphia were paid only four dollars an hour—just half the state minimum wage—and no overtime, though they were required to work 12-hour days and more than 60 hours per week. All told, contractors failed to report or pay taxes on more than $1 million in wages, and at least one of them failed to maintain workers’ compensation insurance policies for the hazardous work. They misclassified many of the workers as independent contractors, thus evading tens of thousands of dollars more in unemployment insurance taxes, workers compensation premiums, and employer-side taxes, while stripping workers of basic workplace rights.[1]

Because so many layers of contractors were involved in the project, investigators had difficulty determining which ones could be held responsible for the violations. Host Hotels, which ultimately benefited from the sub-minimum wages and tax evasion, asserted that it had no legal obligation to the workers and should not be held liable for any of the violations committed by the subcontractors or their subcontractors.[2]

Companies at every possible level of the project avoided accountability for the mistreatment of the workers.  Despite having found that 15 companies had broken the law and abused their workers, authorities only held three subcontractors to the most immediate sanction—Stop Work Orders. The general contractor neither faced significant penalties nor admitted wrongdoing. As a summary of the investigation put it, “The issue of which entity was legally the employer and responsible for the wages was never resolved.”[3]

 An Old Neoliberal Paradigm

We increasingly see businesses like the Marriott (and corporate partner Host Hotels) seeking to shed the burden of government regulation by passing off liability to intermediaries, like staffing agencies, or by falsely claiming that no labor laws at all apply because the workers are either independent contractors or corporations in business for themselves. By restructuring work relationships in these ways, some of the nation’s largest corporations aim to shift much of their workforce outside the scope of employment laws and employment taxes that apply to “employees”—as defined by a set of labor laws that still presume a conventional workplace with one employer and the on-site workers it directly hires.

The isolation from fellow workers that the “independent contractor” designation engenders cuts against workers’ ability to organize to challenge abuses resulting from subcontracted work structures.

This shift in work structures, combined with increased attacks on the labor movement and the de-funding of the nation’s labor enforcement agencies, has depressed workers’ income and weakened their ability to claim basic workplace rights like overtime pay and health and safety protections. Outsourcing and independent contractor misclassification have also drained millions from local, state, and federal coffers, undermining the social safety net just as workers need its protection even more.  The isolation from fellow workers that the “independent contractor” designation engenders cuts against workers’ ability to organize to challenge abuses resulting from subcontracted work structures.

Reorganization of work structures also acts to direct workers’ anger away from the company calling the shots (such as a general contractor) and onto the direct employer, or even to the workers themselves, who may believe their situation stems from their own failings as independent business people.  All of these factors undermine workers’ ability to organize into unions and worker collectives, one of the fundamental goals of neoliberalism and its pursuit of an unregulated free market.

 Free Markets, Unfree Workers

The rise to power of Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom ushered in a new era of economic policy. Minimal corporate taxation, privatization of public goods, and the deregulation of businesses became the dominant policies promoted for economic growth. The attacks against organized labor, progressive organizations, and community groups that opposed the new regime were brutal. The percentage of workers in unions plummeted.

Across the country, new formations emerged that tried to deal with this onslaught of attacks on workers.  Coalitions of organized labor, grassroots organizations, and worker centers began fighting back together and winning campaigns using a combination of militant rank-and-file membership, intelligent planning, and strategic organizing. The target of these campaigns was often a clearly identifiable owner of the business, and so workers and community allies knew whom to hold responsible for the conditions of work. This, however, is no longer the case, as seen in the Copley Mariott and other examples where companies pass on liability to their subcontractors and outsourced agencies, making it difficult for workers to hold real employers accountable.

Such interruption in the employer-employee relationship is reminiscent of the neoliberal structural adjustment policies the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have imposed on so-called developing countries.  As the IMF and World Bank required national governments to loosen labor laws and other regulations to promote free trade and supposed foreign investment, corporations have similarly restructured the relationship between employer and employee to avoid government regulation altogether and to create confusion over who is responsible for workers. Ultimately, the result is the same: structural adjustment and debt repayment policies increased poverty and stripped local governments’ ability to provide basic health care, education, and employment for their citizens, while the restructuring of employer/employee relationships has helped create a shadow (or underground) economy free from regulation and has reduced the government’s ability to provide an adequate safety net for the growing low-wage, contingent workforce.

In Massachusetts, the Joint Task Force on the Underground Economy and Employee Misclassification has collected more than $55 million in the past five years from individuals and businesses that engage in strategies to avoid responsibility to their workers.[4] The Task Force utilizes existing labor laws and regulations to recover nonpayment of wages and payroll taxes; licenses and permit fees; unemployment and workman’s compensation insurance, and other important monies owed to workers and the state. Despite its successes, the Task Force is limited by existing labor law and is unable to broaden its scope of accountability to include companies who surely profit from workers, but may not be legally defined as their direct employer.

 Toward A New Legal Framework

Extensive use of abusive subcontracting and misclassification schemes and other outsourcing tools are eroding the 80 years of labor protections that many have come to take for granted. Community Labor United and the Immigrant Worker Center Collaborative are working to close that accountability gap in Massachusetts with a new legal framework, being developed by the National Employment Law Project, that holds all entities in the labor supply chain responsible—whether they initiate the demand for the work, orchestrate a project, or directly hire and supervise the workers. We call this the “accountable employer” framework.

Accountable employers know what work is being performed, often control the conditions under which it is performed, and have the power to ensure compliance with labor laws and regulations. All entities and creators of supply chain or outsourced work arrangements would then be held liable for performing these key employer functions.

In the Copley Marriott case, the Accountable Employer framework would hold multiple parties responsible because of the labor violations they perpetrated. The Philadelphia church that supplied $4-an-hour workers would be accountable for creating and ending the employment relationship; the general contractor and its subcontractor would be accountable for managing the enterprise internally and externally; and Host Hotels would be accountable because it received the fruits of the workers’ labor.

Similarly, a new Accountable Employer statute would make a large corporate employer like Wal-Mart responsible for wages and working conditions in its supply chain even if it outsources much of the labor (and even management). Wal-Mart controls the timing and manner of delivery of the goods on its store shelves, decides how goods are handled when they are unloaded and delivered, and uses its market dominance to force contractors to keep costs as low as possible. Wal-Mart engenders labor violations in its supply chain and therefore should be on the hook for these abuses.

As corporations continue to look for ways to skirt government regulations and increase their profit margins, many will continue to hire intermediaries or misclassify workers as a way of outsourcing their responsibility and escaping liability. This shift is part of neoliberalism’s broader political realignment towards deregulation of markets and the empowerment of corporations.  However, employer accountability can be restored through legislation that holds all entities throughout the web of contractors and subcontractors responsible for their workers.

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Article Authors:

Darlene Lombos started with CLU in 2006 as a Senior Organizer, became OrganizingDirector then Co-Director in 2008, and finally Executive Director in 2011. She is also the Vice President of the Greater Boston Labor Council.

Sarah Leberstein is a staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project (NELP). She advocates for policy reforms promoting the workplace rights of non-standard workers and enforcement of wage and hour and workplace laws.

Elvis Mendez is a coordinator at the Immigrant Worker Center Collaborative in Boston, Mass.

 


Endnotes:

[1] Massachusetts Joint Enforcement Task Force on the Underground Economy and Employee Misclassification (JTF), 2013. “2012 Annual Report,” p. 6. [http://www.mass.gov/lwd/eolwd/jtf/annual-report-2012.pdf]

[2] Casey Ross, “Marriott Copley Place project flouted pay law.” Boston Globe, 4 September 2012. [http://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2012/09/03/investigators-find-widespread-labor-violations-copley-marriott-renovation/iIRlNeRovG05Dkbta3rOTI/story.html]
[3] Massachusetts Joint Enforcement Task Force on the Underground Economy and Employee Misclassification (JTF), 2013. “2012 Annual Report,” p. 6. [http://www.mass.gov/lwd/eolwd/jtf/annual-report-2012.pdf]
[4] Massachusetts Joint Enforcement Task Force on the Underground Economy and Employee Misclassification (JTF), 2014. “2013 Annual Report,” [http://www.mass.gov/lwd/eolwd/jtf/annual-report-2013.pdf]

 

To Shock the Heart of the Nation

An Interview with Rev. Dr. William Barber II, President, North Carolina NAACP

**This interview appears in PRA’s upcoming Fall, 2014 issue of The Public Eye magazine, a special issue on neoliberalism and the Right**

“We had some happy clients when we found out they wouldn’t have to pay the North Carolina estate tax,” Elizabeth Quick, an estate lawyer in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, told Forbes magazine in July 2013. The state’s Republican governor, Pat McCrory, had just signed a repeal of the estate tax that removed the obligation for one wealthy family to pay more than $2 million, and another family $680,000, into state coffers.

So that those two families (plus around 20 others) could keep the entirety of their estates intact, the governor and state legislature eliminated the Earned Income Tax Credit, depriving 907,000 low-income North Carolinians of state funds that many counted on to pay their utility bills and rent.

Tax cuts for the wealthy are a common Republican tactic, but this wasn’t just a Republican maneuver. McCrory and the GOP-dominated legislature were just getting started on a set of policy changes reflective of a comprehensive and far-reaching neoliberal agenda. Within the first 50 days of the 2013 legislative session, the lawmakers, whose campaigns had been backed by some of the wealthiest families in the state, enacted a string of new laws that transfer wealth from poor to rich. The state moved to refuse federal dollars for expanding Medicaid to cover 500,000 more people under the Affordable Care Act; suppress the vote with a restrictive Voter ID law; cut off unemployment benefits for 170,000 North Carolinians; and slash teacher salaries to bring North Carolina to 46th place nationwide for teacher pay.

These policies were among the wishes of Art Pope, a retail tycoon and former state representative whose interest in politics is so keen that he became McCrory’s state budget director (a position from which Pope just stepped down amid controversy over how concentrated his power had become).  Pope, along with organizations such as the (billionaires and political allies of Pope) Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity—exerts such influence on Gov. McCrory and state legislators that even some Republicans in the state have suggested it is too much.  In one egregious example, in 2013, Pope entered the statehouse during debate on a bill that would have allowed public funding of campaigns for judgeships and collared a GOP lawmaker who was considering a compromise, reminding the lawmaker of Pope’s past contribution to his campaign and thus personally ensuring the bill’s death.

Pope also funds NC-based think tanks—such as the Civitas Institute and the John Locke Foundation— that generate research to support the neoliberal agenda that has, in two short years, come to dominate the political process in North Carolina. “He drives the budgetary policy goals of this administration,” complained one anonymous North Carolina Republican lobbyist to the Washington Post in July 2014.

But a grassroots movement is underway to fight back against Pope and the free-market incursions he and other neoliberals are making against the state’s hard-won policies for racial and economic justice.  Tapping into the same religious core that fueled the Civil Rights Movement, state NAACP President Rev. Dr. William Barber II has energized a broad swath of people in the state to take to the streets at least 70 times since 2012 to say that enough is enough. Rallying thousands of North Carolinians around a 14-Point People’s Agenda, the Moral Marches (or Moral Mondays, as they were first popularly dubbed) have come to be seen as a touchstone for a renewed social justice movement across the South. As Barber prepared to spread a message of hope and democracy through a week of actions Aug. 22-28 in Raleigh and other Southern state capitals, he talked with me about North Carolina’s free-market ideology and how it has already affected the people who live there.  Barber, referring to the billionaire-backed Tea Party, the national group that pushes free-market policies at the local and state level, says these past two legislative sessions have been a “coordinated, premeditated attempt to undermine progress and engage in regressive Tea Party policies.”

William Barber

Rev. Dr. William Barber II

“This is really Robin Hood in reverse,” Barber told me. “It is government of business, bought by business, for business. And not just business—because lots of business leaders disagree with them—but this is Tea Party greed. This is Koch brother-type greed.”

“This is really Robin Hood in reverse,” Barber told me. “It is government of business, bought by business, for business.

Barber bristles, though, at the notion that conservatism or partisan politics are at the root of the problem. “I fuss against these terms ‘liberal’ versus ‘conservative’,” he says, “because I want to conserve the essence of our Constitution and then liberally make sure everybody has access to them. What we’re dealing with is extremism, and you can’t just define it as ‘conservative.’”

At the local level, says Barber, the state legislature’s extreme adherence to free-market neoliberal policy is gutting the state’s public school system. “Five thousand teachers being fired, being removed, and local school boards decrying [this] because of the impact that it was having on classroom sizes and students,” he says.

Barber adds that, because of the salary cuts, he sees teachers actively leaving North Carolina. “In fact,” he said, “one state, Texas, sent memos out and said if you’re in North Carolina, come to Texas. And you know that’s kind of sad, considering Texas’s regressiveness, when they actually can offer teachers more than North Carolina.”

Barber also described the legislature’s attempt to shift $10 million earmarked for public schools to voucher programs that could only be used to pay for private schools. In shifting these public funds into private hands, said Barber, the legislature refused to require that private schools benefiting from the vouchers maintain the same non-discrimination standards that public schools must uphold, meaning that private schools receiving voucher funds would have been allowed to restrict enrollment however they chose. A Superior Court judge declared on Aug. 21 that the state’s school voucher program is unconstitutional, citing the lack of accountability inherent in the program, and issued a permanent injunction stopping the voucher program from going forward.

Art Pope and the Tea Party aren’t just alienating teachers and progressives, says Barber. They are also alienating Republicans across the state. Barber says that the legislature and McCrory never made clear, even to their own constituents, what they were planning to do once they achieved a supermajority in the statehouse and won the governorship. “They did not run saying,  ‘Elect me, I’m going to take your health care, cut your public education, and strip you of your unemployment even if you lost your job at no fault of your own,’” says Barber. “So, we’ve had a Republican unemployed person stand on the stage [at a Moral March] and say, ‘I’m a Republican, but I’m unemployed—I didn’t vote for this.’”

Even Republicans holding public office are objecting to the legislature’s actions. Adam O’Neal, a self-described conservative Republican mayor from Belhaven, NC, began a one-man march of 273 miles to Washington D.C. on July 14 to dramatize the impact of Gov. McCrory’s and  [House Speaker] Tillis’ refusal to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. O’Neal explained that the lack of Medicaid funds had forced the only hospital in his coastal community to close, creating a “medical desert” that would certainly cost lives. O’Neal also laments the potential economic impact of the hospital closing; he told NPR, “How many people go retire somewhere where it doesn’t even have a hospital?”

I asked Barber what he believes is the neoliberals’ vision for North Carolina. “They believe that the way to a great North Carolina is to deny necessary funds and access to public education.  Attack teachers. Deny unemployment. Deny earned 

“They believe that the way to a great North Carolina is to deny necessary funds and access to public education.  Attack teachers.

income tax credit and other safeguards for the working poor.  Deny affordable healthcare and access to healthcare, even if it allows people to die. Deny labor rights, LGBT rights, women’s rights, immigrant rights … And then, if you really want a great America after you’ve done all these things, then suppress the right to vote and attempt to use your power to stay in office.  And then, after you’ve done all of that to create all this tension,  ensure that everyone has access to guns easier than they have access to the polls. Now, that sounds crude and sinister, but those are their policies.”

Having set this grim scene, Barber continued with a surprisingly upbeat message:  “Whatever we’re facing now, it’s not greater than slavery, it’s not greater than Jim Crow, it’s not greater than women being denied the right to vote.  We won those battles.  But we did not win those battles by merely engaging in political arguments. We had to tap into the moral and social consciousness of the nation.”

“I am hopeful,” he went on, “because I believe in the deep moral consciousness at the heart of America. Those of us who believe in justice and who believe in freedom, we are the heartbeat of this nation. Our role now is to be like a social defibrillator, to shock the heart of the nation, to cause it to revive and to remember what the real enemy is: regressive extremism. And it’s not just about winning all the elections, but changing the context in which our politicians have to operate.”

Barber said he hopes that the momentum of the Forward Together Moral Movement (as one of the core groups organizing Moral Marches is currently called) will spread. He sees it moving across the South from North Carolina to help change the political context and create the possibility for the state NAACP’s 14-Point People’s Agenda to be written into legislation both in North Carolina and beyond. The Agenda includes anti-poverty, pro-labor policies; equality and equitable distribution of resources in public education; access to healthcare for all; fairness in the criminal justice system; and protection and expansion of the right to vote and the rights of immigrants.

Barber acknowledges that the neoliberal forces in his state—and across the country—remain powerful. “We’ve got to fight in the courts, we’ve got to fight the legislative halls, we’ve got to fight in the streets, we’ve got to push at the pulpit, and we have to work at the ballot box,” he says. “If we do all of this with what I call a moral critique, so we’re not trapped with the language of Republican versus Democrat, I believe we can continue to work towards the reconstruction of this nation.”

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Neoliberalizing Public Higher Ed: The Threat of Free Market Ideology

When we talk about the privatization of public education, we often think of K-12 education. Certainly, the growth of charter schools and voucher programs and attacks on teachers unions indicate that the “education reform” movement poses a major threat to the traditional public school. As prominent education historian Diane Ravitch writes, “‘Reform’ is really a misnomer, because the advocates for this cause seek not to reform public education but to transform it into an entrepreneurial sector of the economy.” But discussions of the entrepreneurialization of public education institutions must also be understood within the context of higher education.

IMG_00301-e1321400465457

Image via Turnstyle News.

The current crisis within higher ed is often discussed primarily in terms of rising tuition and student debt, but the debt crisis is just one particularly ugly manifestation of a larger trend involving increased corporate investment in college campuses, the exploitation of adjunct faculty, and a de facto attack on scholarly and professional training that does not  directly lead to corporate opportunities for graduates. Taken together, these seemingly distinct problems in higher education, and public higher ed in particular, point to a common, underlying ideology that is consistent with that of the K-12 education reform movement: a rationale of neoliberal corporatization and privatization.

As Wendy Brown, a prominent political theorist based at UC Berkeley, writes, neoliberalism represents a “unique governmental and social rationality—one that extends market principles to every reach of human life”:

[Neoliberalism] formulates everything in terms of capital investment and appreciation (including and especially humans themselves), whether a teenager building a resume for college, a twenty-something seeking a mate, a working mother returning to school, or a corporation buying carbon offsets. As a governing rationality, neoliberalism extends from the management of the state itself to the soul of the subject; it renders health, education, transportation, nature, and art into individual consumer goods, and converts patients, students, drivers, athletes, and museum-goers alike into entrepreneurs of their own needs and desires who consume or invest in these goods (emphasis is mine).[i]

Neoliberalism is thus a turn away from collectivity and commitment to the public good and a turn toward individualism and an acceptance—embrace, even—of structural inequality. Such ideologies prepare students for life under the domination of large corporations.

But public universities should not act like corporations. They should train students to be great citizens; they should provide academics with resources and security to challenge convention by producing novel ideas and inventions for the public good; and they should be affordable and attainable to any qualified student, and particularly those who come from communities that have historically been isolated from higher ed. Unfortunately, the neoliberal corporatization of public universities is responsible for a number of dynamics that directly undermine these principles.

Rising Tuition = Supply and Demand

Contrary to popular belief, tuition hikes at public universities date back to the 1980s, far before the 2007 financial crisis. According to Salon reporter Thomas Frank, the rise in tuition took off in 1981, the same year that Ronald Reagan took the White House. While politicians and journalists have blamed students, professors, and the new demands for a diverse student body from a more liberal society, it’s now clear, Frank says, that the real culprits behind rising tuition are administrators and other decision makers who have long embraced a neoliberal, corporate approach to university administration. This shift was further exacerbated by increasing economic inequality. Indeed, tuition pricing became subjected to “market forces” at the same time that degrees were becoming ever-more important for middle-class employment and upward social mobility.

Donations with Strings Attached

Another reason why universities have increased tuition is the lack of adequate state funding—a trend that has only grown worse since the recession. Disinvestment in state universities has forced colleges to look elsewhere for funding sources, and the corporate sector has eagerly stepped in.

For example, John Allison, former chairman of BB&T Corp.,  has worked through the BB&T Charitable Foundation to provide schools with “as much as $2 million” under the condition that they “create a course on capitalism and make [Ayn] Rand’s … Atlas Shrugged required reading.” Former hedge fund manager Jim Simons has tried to privatize tuition practices within the SUNY system, wielding an apparently conditional pledge of $150 million at Stony Brook as a bargaining chip. The Koch brothers have also been widely criticized for their politicized contributions (particularly for funding economics professorships at Florida State University); the Charles Koch Foundation can rescind funding for professors’ salaries if their work is deemed “unacceptable.” These donations, which come with ideologically charged strings attached, use a not-so-invisible hand to influence university administrators and to promote development strategies and curricula lauding capitalism and the super-rich.

Squeezing the Workforce

Public universities have also sought to shift financial burdens onto faculty and staff. The rise in the percentage of contingent faculty, the precariousness of their positions, and the effect it has on academic integrity and teaching quality are all characteristics of what Claire Goldstein calls the “emergent academic proletariat.”

In 1970, “78% of faculty were permanent and full time;” now, says Goldstein, “close to 70 percent of all faculty appointments in degree-granting institutions are off the tenure-track, a number that includes over one million people.” Contingent faculty are more likely to be overworked, under-resourced, and left out of important decision-making groups. Lacking job security and other resources, contingent faculty may be less likely to include controversial course material, too. As law professor and free speech activist Marjorie Heins has argued, the dominance of corporate rationality recalls an earlier era of academia, before tenure was a well-established policy and professors could be dismissed for championing scholarship or causes that went against the outlooks of university boards. Now, the public university is again squeezing out those who might otherwise push for some much needed progressive thinking, teaching, and learning.

Entrepreneurializing the Public U

Given the landscape of public disinvestment, rising tuition, and a persistently weak labor market, many have called for the American university to embrace the entrepreneurial spirit they claim is required in an increasingly competitive global economy. As universities take heed—and follow the money—the “entrepreneurial university” is being born before our eyes.

Great public universities can certainly be centers for innovative and pragmatic partnership, and the production of quality goods and services that benefit the larger world should indeed be a part of the university’s activities. But in the long term, focusing exclusively on entrepreneurship and the development of “marketable skills” is a different and even dangerous project. Private investors and firms that support an entrepreneur are, by their very nature, interested first and foremost in the profitability of their investment. When an entrepreneurial profit motive is the driving force of decisions instead of a desire to make people’s lives better, the university stops being a center for the betterment of society and becomes another means of capital accumulation.

Under this paradigm, certain fields of knowledge yield a higher return than others—as do certain students, namely those who are willing to pay full tuition, accumulate assets of their own as well-paid professionals, and give back to their beloved alma mater. It just so happens that the kinds of learning and teaching deemed most useful—what Henry A. Giroux would call “instrumental pedagogy”—are not those that are essential to progressive social thinking: the critical orientation and self-reflexivity of the humanities and interpretive social sciences pose a threat to neoliberal rationality. And given the price, projects, and results that neoliberal education demands, students from historically marginalized backgrounds or who present points of view challenging corporatization are often shunted aside.

Conclusion

When the market rules, ordinary people and inclusive social structures do not. Instead, rigid hierarchical structures proliferate, free market ideology dominates, progressive and critical thought declines, and disparities among employees abound. Those who have money and influence—corporate billionaires and university administrators—accumulate more of it, while those who do not—students and their families, contingent academic workers— are further marginalized.

In the post-war era, a democratic project began to establish a widely and rigorously educated general public through well-funded and subsidized public higher education. It was an imperfect project at best—African Americans and other people of color were largely denied access to many of these programs—but we should do well to remember the democratic promise of the public university before we relegate it completely to the cold hands of the neoliberal market and corporatization.  The stakes are high: who and how we are educated forges us into the kind of society we become. A vigorous public education system, higher ed included, is the best defense against an ascending neoliberal plutocracy where democracy is deemed second to entrepreneurship and capital accumulation.

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[i] Brown, Wendy. Neoliberalized Knowledge. History of the Present Vol. 1, No. 1 (Summer 2011). University of Illinois Press. pp. 113-129

 

The Economic Argument for Raising Women’s Pay

As Amy Traub’s recent DEMOS report shows, women working in the retail industry face stark choices. A typical wage of $10.58 per hour in that industry means women must often choose between buying groceries or paying the electric bill. Traub writes, “if present trends continue, there will be 4.1 million American women working in low-paid retail jobs by 2025—a population larger than the entire city of Los Angeles.”

The situation for these millions of low-wage working women is dire. But why should the rest of America care? What reason is there for someone who is not working and struggling in poverty to take action on behalf of these working women? Many writers on the Left are failing to make the economic argument for raising women’s pay.

This failure is contributing to delayed action on the policy front, and is prolonging the poor conditions that many are enduring in the wider economy. The failure to properly show how depressed wages for some workers contribute to a depressed economy for all is akin to climate writers failing to point out that a coal-fired power plant that pollutes the air is contributing to the melting of the polar ice caps. It is not something people can easily observe, but once it is pointed out, they can’t un-know it.

Fortunately, the Shriver Center’s 2014 report, which uses 2012 data from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), can help to make this broader economic argument for raising women’s wages.

14x As Effective As Federal Assistance Programs

From the IWPR: “The total increase in women’s earnings with pay equity represents more than 14 times what the federal and state governments spent in fiscal year 2012 on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF).”

In other words, bringing women’s wages to a level on par with men’s wages would result in a transfer of 1400 percent of the amount spent on public assistance programs directly into families’ wallets. The return on investment will be much better than that of public assistance programs, too, since better wages don’t come with the time limits and strings attached that TANF does, and that severely limit families’ ability to escape poverty.

Overall Economic Growth

“The U.S. economy would have produced additional income of $447.6 billion if women received equal pay; this represents 2.9 percent of 2012 gross domestic product (GDP).” When GDP grows, if you own a small business, or run a coffee shop or a summer camp or a real estate company, you’ll have more customers walking in the door with money to spend.

Reducing Poverty

“The poverty rate for all working women would be cut in half, falling to 3.9 percent from 8.1 percent. The very high poverty rate for working single mothers would fall by nearly half, from 28.7 percent to 15.0 percent, and two-thirds would receive a pay increase.” Like Dorothy with her ruby slippers, the US doesn’t need a Wizard to eradicate poverty for half of all working women. It has the power to do so already—by mandating equal pay.

Increased Tax Revenues

Women who make more will also pay more in taxes, to be used for police, fire, trash collection, schools, and other county/city services that make communities safer, improve kids’ chances for success, and raise the quality of life. At present, much of that revenue has been drained away by tax breaks given willy-nilly to the same corporations that are employing women at poverty wages. The watchdog group Good Jobs First has tracked many of these public subsidies and tax breaks, and has built an online tool that taxpayers can use to see which corporations are taking public dollars.

Taxpayers and voters should demand of policymakers that they give women a raise and start letting all of these potential earnings–earnings that belong to everyone–flow into the economy. Additional research is also needed to provide a more robust economic argument for raising women’s wages—one that no right-wing Congressional hearing can puncture.

Not Waiting

 

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

New research out this month from the Center on Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) shows that working women aren’t just waiting for politicians to give them a raise. They’re joining unions and demanding a raise. The graph on the right from CEPR’s Janelle Jones, John Schmitt, and Nicole Woo shows that women are on trend to become a majority of union members by 2030. Despite the well-documented decline of traditional unions’ membership thanks to conservative attacks, women’s steady climb to overtake men within unions could yield some beneficial results for all of us as their voices grow more dominant in collective bargaining, strikes, and policy debates.

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Strong Grassroots Energy Pushes Congress to Unanimously Pass Anti-Wage Theft Measure

As workers’ rights advocates around the country raise their voices in ever-louder protest of wage theft, it appears some in Congress may finally be listening. This week the Congressional Progressive Caucus, led by Reps. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) and Keith Ellison (D-MN), decided to persist in re-introducing an amendment to the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill that would take away federal contracts from contractors who engage in wage theft.

Wage theft protest in Seattle, Aug 1, 2013. Photo via TheStand.org

Wage theft protest in Seattle, Aug 1, 2013. Photo via TheStand.org

Just a few weeks ago, House conservatives blocked a similar amendment to deny contracts to employers with documented wage theft violations (see our timeline of attacks on low-wage workers), so nobody was expecting this new amendment to pass.

But as the votes were tallied, the amendment not only passed, it received a unanimous “yea” vote from the Republican-controlled House.

“Sometimes employers ask workers to show up 30 minutes before their shift starts, while others pay workers with debit cards that charge fees for every use,” Grijalva and Ellison said in a statement released Wednesday. “It doesn’t matter which form it takes—wage theft is wrong and it needs to stop.”

Despite President Obama unilaterally raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers to $10.10 an hour back in February, it’s still possible—given the rampant problem of wage theft for all low-wage workers—that some of those earning the minimum on government contracts are still experiencing some form of wage theft.  Rescinding the contracts is a first step to establish the principle that if you’re getting taxpayer money and you’re engaging in illegal activity, then you won’t get taxpayer money anymore.

The National Employment Law Project found in a recent survey that low-wage workers make up about 77 percent of government contract employees who work in food service, retail or janitorial service.

Building on grassroots success

The grassroots energy that pushed Mr. Obama into signing the $10.10 minimum wage for federal contract workers also gets the credit for pushing the anti-wage theft amendment. At a time when bankers and corporate executives are hoarding so much of the nation’s cash that they resemble the robber barons of the early 20th century, workers and their advocacy organizations are grabbing headlines with true tales of employers who rob their own workers. Wage theft, as Sally Dworak-Fisher of Maryland’s Public Justice Center told me in an interview for my PRA report on attacks on low wage workers, “has become for many industries the way they do business.” (Even hiphop icon Snoop Dogg stands accused of failing to pay $3 million in wages to his own bodyguards, who are reportedly now suing him.)

“I’m grateful to the President for raising my wage to $10 an hour, but it’s not enough to care for my son,” says Rodelma Acosta, a McDonald’s worker at the Pentagon, in a statement from the group. “As a single mom, I still have to rely on food stamps and Medicaid because there’s nothing left after paying the rent. Most of my coworkers are like me – we’re single moms and barely making it. We need more than the minimum wage, we need a union to win the living wages and benefits necessary to take care of our families and give our kids a chance to succeed in the world.” – Ned Resnikoff at MSNBC

Low-wage worker advocacy groups like KIWA in Los Angeles are leading the fight to publicize and combat wage theft.

Though the rules for implementing and enforcing Congress’ new anti-wage theft measure for federal contractors haven’t come out yet, the rules did just come out this week for implementing and enforcing the $10.10 minimum wage for federal contract workers. The workers, many of whom work at fast-food and retail companies housed in federal buildings, were right there to meet the new wage with additional demands. As Ned Resnikoff at MSNBC reported in a blog post earlier this week, Good Jobs Nation is the name of the organization representing the low-wage federal contract workers.

We’ll be watching this summer, as the Congressional Progressive Caucus plans to add the wage theft amendment to every single appropriations bill left in the Congressional session. Will they all get the same unanimous votes from a House that has tended not to care much about workers’ rights?

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Dark Money, Dirty War: The Corporate Crusade Against Low-Wage Workers

Corporate interests have taken credit for reducing private-sector unions to a fraction of their former strength, and for eroding public-sector collective bargaining, especially since the  2010 “Tea Party midterms.” A resurgence in low-wage worker organizing, sparked by growing inequality in the United States, promises to help defend the rights—and paychecks—of vulnerable workers. But corporations and their paid shills aim to snuff out the movement before it catches fire. 

PE Cover Spring 2014 NO DATE

During an April 16 event at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Joe Kefauver—a lobbyist and PR man for the National Restaurant Association and the Convenience Store Association—warned the audience of business leaders about an emerging challenge to their corporate dominance. The threat comes, he said, from groups that “have the ability to leverage infrastructure to bring a multi-pronged attack, and force internal corporate changes [that] they wouldn’t have been able to get through [union] collective bargaining.”Though the organizing efforts the Chamber warns about take many forms, corporate PR lumps them together under the label “worker centers.”

At the same Chamber event, Kefauver gloated about industry’s recent successes in weakening “the union movement,” which, he said, “has hit a lot of roadblocks, in large part due to the good work of a lot of folks in this room.”1 Building on their victories, over unions, corporations are now deploying their firepower against a resurgence in low-wage worker organizing prompted by the worst economic inequality in a century.

The stakes are high. For too many working Americans, chronic debt and economic insecurity have become inescapable facts of life. Institutions that once offered refuge and the hope of escape from poverty have been hollowed out by decades of policies that concentrate wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Labor unions have been decimated by business interests’ relentless anti-unionization campaigns, and by their successful lobbying in Congress and state legislatures for laws and regulations that favor employers.

As workers face intimidation and legal challenges to their right to join unions (including a case that would damage public sector unions, Harris v. Quinn, on which the Supreme Court is about to rule2), the United States has gained a reputation for lousy treatment of workers. In a new report, the International Trade Union Confederation used a five-point scale to rank countries on their commitment to workers’ rights, with five being the worst. The United States received a ranking of four, meaning there are systematic violations.3 Only about 11 percent of U.S. workers are now represented by unions, down from a peak in the private sector of around 35 percent in the 1950s.4 Today, most union members are public-sector employees such as police officers, teachers, and government workers.

Without unions to advocate for workers’ rights at the local level, employers are able to keep wages low and suppress worker self-organization with impunity. Workers’ rights advocates have documented abuses—such as wage theft, intimidation, and sexual harassment—being committed against immigrant and low-wage workers without fear of prosecution. Inequality is at its highest level since 19285, and studies show that 95 percent of the financial gains made during the current recovery have gone to the top one percent of income earners.6

Into this breach has stepped small but vibrant constellation of low-wage and immigrant-worker organizations. This organizing resurgence features a variety of structures and approaches striving to ensure that workers’ voices are heard in public-policy debates on wages and employment practices. According to a recent briefing paper by United Workers Congress, a federation of such groups, Worker centers [and other low-wage and immigrant worker advocates] have won changes in local policies and practices, built vocal and active membership, and raised public awareness of workers’ issues. These efforts have laid the groundwork for the recent spread of legislative efforts to protect the rights of workers not covered under existing labor law, and to raise the minimum wage for all workers.”7

Such organizing efforts have also drawn the attention of corporate wolves—PR flacks and conservative-leaning think tanks answering to the same business interests that are responsible for the decline of unions and other anti-poverty institutions. While some new worker organizations have endured and even thrived in the face of relentless attacks, their antagonists have generally hailed from the particular industry (restaurant, agribusiness, big box retail, etc.) or social sector (e.g. anti-immigrant movement) that they challenge.

In the court of public opinion, low-wage and immigrant worker organizing campaigns are gaining a reputation for being scrappy underdogs, standing up for the little guys. (More often than not, these “little guys” are actually women; a recent study from the National Women’s Law Center found that women represent almost two-thirds of minimum wage workers.8) But the business lobby is trying to use its megaphone to reverse that momentum. Groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Restaurant Association are taking advantage of low public awareness of new worker organizations to frame these loosely connected groups as part of the union “Goliath”—a familiar frame that allows corporations to repurpose decades of anti-union messages and tactics.9

Although the attacks are well-coordinated, there are opportunities for low-wage and immigrant worker organizing to respond strategically. The business community is trying to hit a field of small, moving targets with independent leadership. The strength of the field lies partly in its diversity—its networked strength rather than its deep pockets. The opposition is trying to homogenize a heterogeneous field of grassroots organizing in order to simplify, vilify, and attack it. The experienced operatives at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce refer to their chosen targets as “worker centers,” using the term to merge all organizing efforts—union and non-union, immigrant rights’ groups, domestic workers, food service and retail workers, day laborers, supply chain workers, and more— together into one single, seemingly formidable enemy.10

Wage Thieves

OUR Walmart challenges poor working conditions outside the Walmart Home Office in Bentonville, Arkansas. Photo courtesy of Marc F. Henning.

OUR Walmart challenges poor working conditions outside the Walmart Home Office in Bentonville, Arkansas. Photo courtesy of Marc F. Henning.

Attacks on worker organizing are taking place against a backdrop of an economy in crisis. A 2013 New York Times article, quoting a report by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, noted that the “median income for working-age households (headed by someone under age 65) slid 12.4 percent from 2000 to 2011, to $55,640. During that time the American economy grew more than 18 percent.”11

As real wages stagnate or fall, consumers have less money to spend. In response, big corporations seek to preserve their profits in ways that further squeeze workers and their disposable income. This squeezing takes many forms: scheduling workers for fewer hours on the shop floor, spreading fear and anti-union propaganda, cutting back on benefits packages, and, perhaps most shockingly, committing outright wage theft.

Imagine being hired as a cashier at a big-box retailer and being told that you’ll make $8.81 per hour, the average wage of a Walmart cashier.12 Imagine getting your meager paycheck and finding that it’s even less than you expected. Now imagine learning that the missing money isn’t being withheld by mistake. It’s being stolen by your employer. Such wage theft is pervasive across all U.S. industries, and the sums involved amount to much more than petty larceny.

“When we measure it,” Gordon Lafer, a political economist at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education & Research Center, recently told Moyers & Company, “the total amount of money stolen out of American workers’ paychecks every year is far bigger than the total amount stolen in all the bank robberies, gas station robberies, and convenience store robberies combined.”13

“It really has become for many industries the way they do business,” said Sally Dworak-Fisher, lead attorney in the Workplace Justice division at the Public Justice Center in Baltimore, Maryland. “By not paying overtime or paying less than the minimum wage, they are eroding the bedrock of labor protections in this country.”14

As real wages stagnate or fall, big corporations seek to preserve profits by further squeezing workers and their disposable income: scheduling workers for fewer hours on the shop floor, spreading fear and anti-union propaganda, cutting back on benefits packages, and, perhaps most shockingly, committing outright wage theft. As political economist Gordon Lafer has asserted, “The total amount of money stolen out of every American workers’ paychecks every year is far bigger than the total amount stolen in all the bank robberies, gas station robberies, and convenience store robberies combined.”

The phenomenon of wage theft is especially cynical given the amount of money that low-wage employees already produce for their employers: McDonald’s, for instance, makes an average per-employee revenue of $65,000, according to a report from the business blog “24/7 WallStreet,” derisively titled “The Companies with the Least Valuable Employees.”15

In an article for Alternet in 2013, Paul Buchheit wrote that “McDonald’s employs 440,000 workers worldwide, most of them food servers making the median hourly wage of $9.10 an hour or less, for a maximum of about $18,200 per year.”16 That $9.10 per hour McDonald’s employee is being paid less than one-third of what she earns for her employer in a year. Now she is also having those meager wages stolen, as the Labor Department found in at least two recent cases in New York and Pennsylvania.17

Wage theft is just one of a variety of weapons that private-sector businesses have deployed in order to cheat workers and maximize profits. Other tools include public policy instruments like so-called right to work laws that hamper union organizing; threats of deportation to keep unauthorized immigrant workers from asserting their rights; and lobbying to carve out loopholes in new worker-protection laws, among other devices.

For the past few years, in metro regions and states, workers and their communities have galvanized around the problem of wage theft, standing together to sue and win back money that rightfully belongs to the workers who earned it and the local communities where they spend their paychecks. Additionally, low-wage and immigrant workers are seeking relief from abusive and exploitative working conditions by expanding the laws that defend their interests—raising the minimum wage, creating stiffer penalties for wage theft, and instituting paid sick days and other basic workplace protections. Their grassroots organizing—sometimes, but not always, conducted in partnership with unions—has been effective, and a growing number of cities and states are passing these new laws.

Corporate interests are striking back with bills to pre-empt cities from passing their own minimum wage increases or to mandate paid sick days. These pre-emption bills are produced by right-wing bill mills like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and pushed by state lawmakers who are often groomed for office by corporate lobby groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.18

The legislative attack is well underway. Eleven states, including Wisconsin, Florida, and Oklahoma have already passed state-level “pre-emption” laws banning cities and counties from mandating employer-provided paid sick days. At least six other states, according to the watchdog group Center for Media and Democracy, are currently considering similar pre-emption bills that would prohibit local governments from raising the minimum wage.19

Chamber of Horrors

When the Los Angeles-based Koreatown Immigrant Workers’ Alliance (KIWA) began urging city voters in 2012 to support a state bill that would allow workers to place a temporary lien on the business owner’s property if the business owner committed wage theft, KIWA’s members were excited. The bill would have allowed workers whose employers had stiffed them to place a lien—that is, a transfer of possession— on the employer’s property until workers received the back pay they were owed. A lien is a red flag for lenders and can become a PR problem for employers. “We see this lien as a tool to bring employers who are committing wage theft to the table,” said Alexandra Suh, KIWA’s executive director. “If there’s a lien on the table, they’re going to pay attention.”20 One state—Maryland—passed a similar lien law that went into effect in October 2013.

Dworak-Fisher of the Public Justice Center said she expects that Maryland’s law will deter employers from committing wage theft. “We’re just getting it up and running,” she said. “We’ll be bringing wage lien claims over the summer and into the fall. The unscrupulous employers will be on notice.”21

As the California campaign gained steam, however, local politicians and business owners—some of whom were involved with KIWA projects in the community—started getting notifications from the California Chamber of Commerce. These Facebook ads, blog posts, and other advertising materials claimed that the anti-wage theft bill posed a danger to homeowners.

In one ad shared with PRA, the California Chamber falsely claimed that if the bill passed, it would mean that a third-party homeowner who had a contractor or cleaning service work in the home could wind up with a lien on the home. “Despite the fact that the third party homeowner had absolutely no control over the employee’s work or the wages he/she was paid,” read the statement from the California Chamber, “that homeowner could have his/her property leveraged for unpaid wages of the company’s employees.”22

In reality, the bill explicitly prevents third-party liens, or liens from one company’s workers on a third party’s, or homeowner’s, property. Yet the Cal Chamber’s lie confused and frightened California homeowners. The anti-wage theft measure died in the state Senate in January 2014. When it was brought up again for a vote in the State Assembly on May 28 of this year, it passed by a vote of 43-27. It now moves back to the California Senate for a potential vote later this year.

The corporate smokescreen also obscures the widespread nature of the problem, which continues to be “very, very serious,” as Suh said.23 Indeed, a 2010 UCLA-sponsored survey showed that the vast majority of workers are experiencing some type of wage-related violation on the job in Los Angeles County. “Low-wage workers in L.A. County frequently are paid below the minimum wage, not paid for overtime, work off the clock without pay, and have their meal breaks denied, interrupted, or shortened,” according to the report. “In fact, 88.5 per­cent of workers in the L.A. sample had experienced at least one type of pay-related workplace violation in the week of work before the survey.”24

Lies, Smears, and Innuendo

The high-profile battle in California may have helped provoke an aggressive response from the national business lobby: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber’s Workforce Freedom Initiative (WFI) has released three faux-academic reports on low-wage worker organizing since last fall, starting with one in November 2013 that purported to expose a cabal of left-wing, foundation-funded, low-wage worker advocacy groups like KIWA.

The report presents a kind of historical analysis of how low-wage and immigrant worker organizations emerged; labels this highly diverse landscape of organizations “worker centers”; charges that they are “union front groups” (UFOs) that circumvent the many restrictions that tie the hands of unions; and maps foundation funding for the low-wage organizing sector (implying that foundations are as responsible as unions for its existence). The report fingers worker-advocacy groups of varying forms and sizes—from small worker centers such as KIWA to larger national organizing efforts like Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United) and Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart).25

Each subsequent U.S. Chamber report builds on the insinuations and distortions of the previous ones. Common to all of them is an effort to redeploy the rhetoric and regulatory efforts developed over decades against unions to attack these varied immigrant and low-wage worker projects that, while generally small, have become among the most dynamic sites of the worker-organizing resurgence. The Chamber’s approach requires convincing the public, policy makers, and judges that so-called “worker centers” are more or less all the same—that they are functionally unions, trying to represent workers for the purposes of collective bargaining while evading the regulatory scrutiny and restrictions on their behavior and funding that unions must endure.

In reality, worker organizing groups use a variety of tactics to achieve their strategic goals: a community organization files a lawsuit to stop local police from using traffic stops to hand immigrant workers over to immigration authorities; a worker center holds workshops to train members to prevent wage theft; or a local domestic workers’ organization holds a rally to call for an end to deportations. In none of these cases is a worker organization “seek[ing] to negotiate with employers on behalf of employees,” as the WFI report asserts.26

It is unsurprising that the corporate Right should want to fight on familiar ground. The loud “union front” accusation represents a clever bit of bait: an invitation for community groups to deny the charge of being unions (as if that were a bad thing) and thereby enter into a potentially endless cycle of defending themselves from that charge. In fact, the relationships between traditional unions and low-wage/immigrant worker organizing groups vary greatly: some have no working relationships with unions, some work occasionally and amicably with unions, and others engage with unions quite frequently and even openly aspire to become more union-like.

But the broad-brush labeling of “worker centers” could have potential legal and regulatory consequences, too. The U.S. Chamber is using its reports–plus attack ads, articles from right-wing think tanks such as the Manhattan Institute, and op-eds in major newspapers echoing similar refrains—to persuade the public and the government that all low-wage and immigrant worker organizing groups should be subjected to the same financial reporting and internal structuring requirements that unions face. They aim to impose severe restraints on charitable contributions and to limit or ban secondary boycotts (among other activities). If their opponents are successful, the low-wage worker sector—including groups with no active relationships with unions—could be hobbled.

The Chamber is not only recycling anti-union tactics. In one particularly revealing statement in its first report, author Jarol Manheim compares the loose network of worker centers to the anti-poverty network ACORN, which was targeted and ultimately broken apart by right-wing attacks in the mid-2000s. Manheim names a foundation (Needmor) that supports “organizing to achieve social justice, and was once a major contributor to ACORN chapters in several communities. Between 2009 and 2011, its grantees included, among others, the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Association (KIWA).”27

This comparison of worker centers to ACORN may be a dogwhistle to business leaders that low-wage worker groups are vulnerable to the same take-down tactics, including pseudo-journalistic video exposés, congressional hearings, and public defunding. As Lee Fang pointed out in an April article in The Nation, the case of ACORN, which dissolved its national structure in 2010 in response to this onslaught, could be seen as a sort of cautionary tale for immigrant and low-wage worker organizing efforts: to avoid the same fate, they will need to recognize and strategically respond to this national threat.

Chamber of Secrets

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s stated mission is “representing the interests of more than 3 million businesses of all sizes, sectors, and regions,” but watchdog groups say the U.S. Chamber represents the interests of a select few big industry groups that want to crush worker organizing.28 In some states, where the local Chamber of Commerce and local business leaders tend to operate from the same playbook as the U.S. Chamber, anti-worker campaigns tend to proliferate. The California Chamber of Commerce, for example, has been actively lobbying to prevent the state legislature from passing a bill that would help to prevent wage theft. Watchdog groups such as ChamberWatch have had some success in persuading smaller Chambers of Commerce and even a few big corporations to leave and/or denounce the U.S. Chamber for its history of opposition to any regulation of corporate behavior, including environmental and safety regulations.29

But identifying who is—and isn’t—part of the U.S. Chamber can be a challenge. Unlike many local Chambers of Commerce, the U.S. Chamber keeps its member and donor lists secret. Despite its claim to represent three million businesses, watchdog groups have documented that its actual membership hovers around 300,000. What’s more, local chambers of commerce have publicly denounced or left the U.S. Chamber by the dozens in recent years. U.S. ChamberWatch reported that nearly 60 Chambers have done so since 2009. Though it does not disclose its donors, OpenSecrets has been able to track major donations to the U.S. Chamber from industry groups such as the American Petroleum Institute, the Associated General Contractors of America, and the Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, itself a hard-line, right-wing business association.30

These and other industry groups are funding a broader, coordinated push to preserve the low wages and exploitative working conditions that now characterize many industries. Their targets include groups such as ROC United, which is a national network of worker centers that is challenging the American model of low-wage service sector employment.

ROC United “really carefully looked at the restaurant industry and thought about what it would take to improve wages and working conditions and standards,” said Janice Fine, a scholar of labor studies and worker centers at Rutgers University. “They are doing a number of interesting innovative things.”31 These include  surveys of restaurant workers to find out what their wages and working conditions actually are; a code of conduct that employers can adopt to take the “high road” and treat workers better; picketing bad-actor employers; and promoting “high road” employers to socially-conscious diners.

In addition to attacks from the corporate sector, some worker organizing efforts have been under constant assault from nativist anti-immigrant groups. Other vectors of attack have come from cultural conservatives such as the American Life League, which has used smear tactics to pressure faith communities and congregations.

For their efforts, ROC United has been subjected to consistent and intense attacks from industry, and has fought back doubly hard. A January 16 New York Times article exposed the restaurant industry’s PR campaign against ROC: “A prominent Washington lobbyist, Richard Berman, has run full-page ads attacking the Restaurant Opportunities Center, accusing it of intimidating opponents,” according to the piece. “He has even set up a separate website, ROCexposed.com, to attack the group.”32 Restaurant owners have also filed frivolous lawsuits against ROC, aiming to force ROC to spend money and time fighting in court instead of organizing.

In one 2005 case involving ROC’s New York chapter, reports the National Employment Law Project (NELP), “Three restaurants filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board claiming that ROC-NY’s activities made it a labor organization subject to the National Labor Relations Act. If ROC-NY were subject to the Act, it would also be subject to a series of requirements… and potentially jeopardize its tax exempt status. The restaurants said that ROC-NY’s filing of litigation, and seeking settlements that provided for improvements in working conditions…, such as promotion policies or language access policies, made ROC a labor union.”33 Such lawsuits are another attempt to shut down new worker formations by calling them unions and seeking to restrict their activities accordingly.

“It’s a sign of their effectiveness,” Fine said.34 And, indeed, the workers’ groups are winning in court. The National Guestworkers Alliance, a network that advocates for guestworkers who are brought in from other countries to work for a specific employer, won more than $200,000 in back wages and damages for a group of McDonald’s employees who had been forced to live in a manager’s basement and were paid sub-minimum wages and denied overtime. ROC United, according to an issue brief from the United Workers Congress, also has had a significant track record of court victories on behalf of workers: “The Restaurant Opportunities Center has won 18 campaigns against exploitation in large, high-profile restaurant corporations that resulted in higher wages and better benefits for these workers, as well as $9 million in recouped wages.”35

Even if these numbers don’t significantly affect the bottom line of mega-corporations such as Walmart or Darden Restaurants (which owns the Red Lobster and Olive Garden chains), Fine said, the undeniable power of workers winning back their rightfully earned wages is pulling public opinion over to the workers’ side. “Before, they might have been irritants, but not enough to raise the ire of big, corporate dark-money groups like the National Restaurant Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.”36

Another approach that worker organizers have taken, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 Hoffman Plastic decision—which stripped undocumented immigrants of the right to win any back pay that is withheld during a unionization campaign—is to seek relief from workplace abuses under international human rights law. The Hoffman decision has had real consequences for workers trying to organize themselves into unions to combat wage theft and other abuses. “Workers have abandoned trade union organizing campaigns because of the fear instilled by the Hoffman decision,” wrote Human Rights Watch in a 2005 report on human rights violations in the meat-processing industry.37

In addition to the attacks from the corporate sector, some worker organizing efforts have been under constant assault from nativist anti-immigrant groups. These include groups like FAIR, JudicialWatch, and NumbersUSA. Other vectors of attack have come from cultural conservatives such as the American Life League, which has used smear tactics to pressure faith communities and congregations into withdrawing their support for the Interfaith Worker Justice coalition of worker centers.

A Gathering Storm

If halting low-wage and immigrant worker organizing efforts is the goal, then it appears corporations and industry groups are testing out a variety of strategic models for achieving this goal.

Previous attacks have generally targeted specific worker centers or specific organizing campaigns through legal strategies or PR campaigns. The pattern of recent attacks against new worker organizations suggests not only a growing frequency and intensity but also a kind of nationalization of the attacks. The flurry of op-eds, attack videos, legal briefs, and state legislative interventions draw on a broad range of right-wing infrastructure and tactics (see PRA’s related timeline of attacks on low-wage workers).

One example is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s recent series of reports purporting to “expose” worker centers as being well-funded efforts to unionize low-wage workers.

So far, it appears that the organized opposition to the resurgence in low-wage and immigrant worker organizing has not landed on the kind of PR, legal, and policy package (e.g. “right-to-work,” “paycheck protection,” anti-public employee collective bargaining) that has proven devastating to unions and other anti-poverty groups such as ACORN. But the Chamber, NRA, and others are moving aggressively to box in and take down any challengers to their corporate dominance.

Meanwhile, big businesses are finding that former campaign managers for Mitt Romney and other GOP candidates are willing to act as PR attack dogs to spread rumors that worker centers are corrupt, or “commies,” or fronts for unions. “Picking fights with restaurant workers has been good business for out-of-work GOP operatives,” writes Lee Fang in a recent article in the Nation.38

The battle is joined. The U.S. chamber’s Workforce Freedom Initiative is stafed with lobbyists and consultants, who visit industry associations and present worker centers as a threat to business. Meanwhile, members of Congress use their subpoena power on Capitol Hill to advance the anti-worker organizing cause.

And so the battle is joined. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Workforce Freedom Initiative is staffed with lobbyists who, along with consultants like Kefauver, visit local and state-based industry associations, presenting worker centers as a threat to business. Meantime, members of Congress use their subpoena power on Capitol Hill to advance the anti-worker organizing cause.

In September 2013, Reps. Phil Roe and John Kline, two Republican House committee and subcommittee chairs, convened a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions titled “The Future of Union Organizing,” which featured speakers from lobbying groups claiming to represent small business owners, as well as anti-union lawyers. Speakers called on Congress to subject worker centers to same restrictions as unions.

Earlier in the summer, Roe and Kline had also penned a letter to Labor Secretary Tom Perez, requesting that he designate six specific worker centers as labor organizations under the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA). Perez refused; but had he fulfilled their request, legal experts say it could have resulted in worker-organizing groups losing the right to picket bad-actor employers, loss of their tax exempt status, and other restrictions.

And should additional industry groups and big companies decide to join the U.S. Chamber’s campaign to squash worker organizing, recent events have made it clear they will find eager friends in high places. At that April 16 U.S. Chamber event hosted by staff at the Workforce Freedom Initiative, the chief of staff for Steve King (R-IA), a right-wing representative who carries the flag for anti-immigrant groups, took the microphone during the Q&A period. He asked a question that low-wage worker organizations and the foundations that fund them might view as a chilling signal that the recent wave of attacks may be mere prologue to an intensified onslaught. “Is there something on Capitol Hill,” the Congressional aide asked the panel of industry lobbyists and lawyers, “we could be doing?”39

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1 Notes from the webcast of this event (held on April 16, 2014)—titled “Shifting Tides: Worker Centers and a New Model of Representation”—were shared with the author by a staff member for Center for Media and Democracy. The webcast was subsequently removed from the Chamber’s website:  www.uschamber.com/event/shifting-tides-worker-centers-and-new-model-representation.
2 Joel Rogers, “Why ‘Harris v. Quinn’ Has Labor Very, Very Nervous,” Mar. 27, 2014.
3 “The World’s Worst Countries for Workers” (International Trade Union Confederation, 2014), www.ituc-csi.org/IMG/pdf/survey_ra_2014_eng_v2.pdf.
4 Steven Greenhouse, “Share of the Work Force in a Union Falls to a 97-Year Low, 11.3%,” New York Times, Jan. 23, 2013, www.nytimes.com/2013/01/24/business/union-membership-drops-despite-job-growth.html?_r=0.
5 Drew Desilver, “U.S. income inequality, on rise for decades, is now highest since 1928,” Pew Research Center, Dec. 5, 2013, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/12/05/u-s-income-inequality-on-rise-for-decades-is-now-highest-since-1928.
6 Steven Greenhouse, “Our Economic Pickle,” New York Times, Jan. 12, 2013, www.nytimes.com/2013/01/13/sunday-review/americas-productivity-climbs-but-wages-stagnate.html.
7 “The Rise of Worker Centers and the Fight for a Fair Economy,” United Workers Congress (April 2014), www.unitedworkerscongress.org/uploads/2/4/6/6/24662736/_uwc_rise_of_worker_centers-_sm.pdf.
8 “Minimum Wage,” National Women’s Law Center. www.nwlc.org/our-issues/poverty-%2526-income-support/minimum-wage.
9 David Sirota, “Making Goliath Walk,” In These Times, Sept. 9, 2008, www.inthesetimes.com/article/3895/making_goliath_walk.
10 David Kinkade, “Old Wine in New Bottles: Worker Centers Are the New Face of Union Organizing,” U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Jan. 31, 2014, www.uschamber.com/blog/old-wine-new-bottles-worker-centers-are-new-face-union-organizing.
11 Greenhouse, “Our Economic Pickle.”
12 “FY 2013 Sam’s Club Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Field Non-Associate Pay Plan,” Huffington Post, http://big.assets.huffingtonpost.com/Walmart_0.pdf.
13 Joshua Holland, “Inside the Dark Money-Fueled, 50-State Campaign Against American Workers,” BillMoyerscom, Nov. 5, 2013, http://billmoyers.com/2013/11/05/inside-the-dark-money-fueled-50-state-campaign-against-american-workers.
14 Sally Dworak-Fisher, interview with Mariya Strauss, May 23, 2014.
15 “Companies with the Least Valuable Employees,” 24/7 Wall St, Sept. 26, 2012, http://247wallst.com/special-report/2012/09/26/companies-with-the-least-valuable-employees.
16 Paul Buchheit, “Apple, Walmart, McDonald’s: Who’s the Biggest Wage Stiffer?” Alternet, July 28, 2013, www.alternet.org/labor/apple-walmart-mcdonalds-whos-biggest-wage-stiffer.
17Candice Choi, “McDonald’s hit by lawsuits over worker pay,” Associated Press, Mar. 13, 2014, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/mcdonalds-hit-lawsuits-over-worker-pay.
18 Mary Bottari, “Efforts to Deliver ‘Kill Shot’ to Paid Sick Leave Tied to ALEC,” Huffington Post, Apr. 3, 2013, www.huffingtonpost.com/mary-bottari/alec-paid-sick-leave_b_3007445.html.
19 Amy B. Dean, “The drive to ban mandated paid sick days,” Aljazeera America, May 6, 2014, http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2014/5/sick-days-corporatelobbyistsalecnra.html.
20 Joel Rogers, “Why ‘Harris v. Quinn’ Has Labor Very, Very Nervous,” Mar. 27, 2014.Alexandra Suh, interview with Mariya Strauss, Apr. 7, 2014.
21 Joel Rogers, “Why ‘Harris v. Quinn’ Has Labor Very, Very Nervous,” Mar. 27, 2014.Dworak-Fisher, interview with Mariya Strauss, May 23, 2014.
22 Joel Rogers, “Why ‘Harris v. Quinn’ Has Labor Very, Very Nervous,” Mar. 27, 2014. “CalChamber Stops ‘Job Killer’ on Assembly Floor,” CalChamber, Jan. 31, 2014, www.calchamber.com/headlines/pages/01312014-calchamber-stops-job-killer-on-assembly-floor.aspx.
23Joel Rogers, “Why ‘Harris v. Quinn’ Has Labor Very, Very Nervous,” Mar. 27, 2014. Suh, interview.
24Joel Rogers, “Why ‘Harris v. Quinn’ Has Labor Very, Very Nervous,” Mar. 27, 2014. Ruth Milkman, Ana Luz Gonzalez, and Victor Narro, Wage Theft and Workplace Violations in Los Angeles (KIWA, 2010), http://kiwa.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/LAwagetheft1.pdf.
25Joel Rogers, “Why ‘Harris v. Quinn’ Has Labor Very, Very Nervous,” Mar. 27, 2014. Jarol B. Manheim, The Emerging Role of Worker Centers in Union Organizing (Workforce Freedom Initiative, 2013) www.workforcefreedom.com/sites/default/files/WFI%20Manheim%20Study%2011-21-2013.pdf.
26Joel Rogers, “Why ‘Harris v. Quinn’ Has Labor Very, Very Nervous,” Mar. 27, 2014. U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Blue Eagle Has Landed (Workforce Freedom Initiative, 2014), www.workforcefreedom.com/sites/default/files/REPORT%20WFI_MembersOnlyUnions_Report_FIN.pdf.
27Joel Rogers, “Why ‘Harris v. Quinn’ Has Labor Very, Very Nervous,” Mar. 27, 2014. Manheim, “The Emerging Role of Worker Centers in Union Organizing.”
28Joel Rogers, “Why ‘Harris v. Quinn’ Has Labor Very, Very Nervous,” Mar. 27, 2014. See Sam Jewler, The Gilded Chamber (Public Citizen, 2014), www.citizen.org/documents/us-chamber-of-commerce-funders-dominated-by-large-corporations-report.pdf.
29Joel Rogers, “Why ‘Harris v. Quinn’ Has Labor Very, Very Nervous,” Mar. 27, 2014. “Local Chambers vs. U.S. Chamber,” Public Citizen’s U.S. Chamber Watch, www.fixtheuschamber.org/issues/local-chambers-vs-us-chamber.
30 “Top Organizations Disclosing Donations to US Chamber of Commerce, 2014,” OpenSecrets.org, www.opensecrets.org/outsidespending/contrib.php?cmte=US+Chamber+of+Commerce&cycle=2014.
31 Janice Fine, interview with Mariya Strauss, April 28, 2014.
32 Steven Greenhouse, “Advocates for Workers Raise the Ire of Business,” New York Times, Jan. 16, 2014, www.nytimes.com/2014/01/17/business/as-worker-advocacy-groups-gain-momentum-businesses-fight-back.html.
33 Rebecca Smith, Take Action against Wage Theft! (National Employment Law Project, 2007), http://nelp.3cdn.net/a1eaf7bc861e8d5ae7_kpm6bf4qn.pdf.
34 Fine, interview.
35 “The Rise of Worker Centers and the Fight for a Fair Economy.”
36 Fine, interview.
37Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants (Human Rights Watch, 2005), www.hrw.org/reports/2005/01/24/blood-sweat-and-fear-0.
38 Lee Fang, “Look Who the Folks Who Took Down ACORN Are Targeting Now,” Nation , Apr. 30, 2014, www.thenation.com/article/179616/look-who-folks-who-took-down-acorn-are-targeting-now?page=0,1.
39 Sam Jewler, “Corporate center points finger at worker centers,” Citizen Vox,Apr. 21, 2014, www.citizenvox.org/2014/04/21/corporate-center-points-finger-at-worker-centers.

California Wage Theft Prevention Bill Puts the Thieves On Notice

“NOTICE TO PROPERTY OWNER, if the person that has given you this notice is not paid in full for work performed at real property you own, a lien may be placed on your property after a period of 20 days from the date this notice is served. Foreclosure of the lien may lead to loss of all or part of your property. You may wish to protect yourself against this by (1) ensuring that the person that has given you this notice is paid in full for work performed, or (2) any other method that is appropriate under the circumstances.”

Wage Theft Protection Bill CASo reads the opening part of the notice that could soon be sent by certified mail to California employers who illegally withhold, steal, or deny their workers’ wages.  Passed by the State Assembly in a 43-27 vote on May 28, California’s Wage Theft Prevention bill is designed to address wage theft, a catch-all term that workers’ rights advocates use to cover the range of abuses that low-wage workers in the state suffer “all too frequently,” according to a 2008 report  from the UCLA Labor Center. “Almost 30 percent of workers surveyed were paid less than the minimum wage in the previous week,” according to the study’s authors, and “and almost 80 percent of workers who worked more than 40 hours a week were not paid the legally required overtime rate of pay.” Other violations that fall into the category of “wage theft” include being denied paid breaks and lunches, and being forced to work off the clock.

What’s more, a 2012 study  from UCLA and the National Employment Law Project (NELP) found that when workers sue to get their stolen wages back, even when they win, they rarely get anything back. In California, the study found, between 2008 and 2011, just 17 percent of workers who prevailed in their wage claims and received a judgment were able to recover any payment at all.

Finally, though, workers’ rights advocates appear to have located a pressure point for unscrupulous employers who steal wages from their workers: the lien. “Nobody wants a lien on their property,” said Sally Dworak-Fisher of the Public Justice Center in Baltimore, Maryland, where a wage lien law slightly different from the one being considered in California was passed in October 2013. “We expect to begin changing the playing field with this new law by using this simple process.”

“Passing the Assembly was a victory for low-wage workers,” says Alexandra Suh, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance (KIWA), “Workers deserve to be paid for the work they have done.”

JanitorIndeed, nobody wants a lien. Liens can spook creditors, sometimes causing lenders to withdraw existing lines of credit–such as a mortgage–that can lead to things like foreclosure. A business with a lien against its property is also a poor risk for investors, who will quickly look elsewhere for places to put their money. Business owners, then, may rank high among the groups of people who would not want a lien on their property.

The California Chamber of Commerce revved up its lobbying machinery when the bill was first introduced in 2013, beginning with a PR campaign designed to confuse and frighten the electorate. Using every tool at their disposal to spread the word, they falsely claimed the bill could be used to file a lien against a private homeowner if cable or other utility contractors were underpaid for their service calls. The wage theft protection bill subsequently died in committee that year. Afterward, the Cal Chamber gloated about its death in a press release, and on their Facebook page called the bill a “Job Killer,” asserting that “It is patently unfair to hold an innocent third party liable for the alleged, unproven acts of another.”  This claim that “innocent third party” homeowners could have liens placed on their homes for unpaid contractor work done in the home, which Suh says is false, has been repeated over and over in the press. It even appears in a May 28 Associated Press  article  about the bill’s passage in the Assembly.  Since 2013, though, the bill has been changed, so that now, according to Suh, no private residence can have a wage lien placed on it unless the worker who did the work was hired directly by the homeowner.  The bill, Suh emphasizes, is designed to target commercial employers that employ many low-wage workers.

Of course, few business owners are willing to self-identify as lawbreakers in order to fight something as virtuous-sounding as the CA Wage Theft Prevention Act. But, it appears, they will pay the Cal Chamber to fight it. KIWA, along with Assembly member Mark Stone (who authored the bill), is part of a coalition of ethical business owners, workers’ rights groups and community members who plan to work through the summer to move the bill through the state Senate and to expose the Cal Chamber’s defense of wage-stealing bad-actor employers.  “As we head into the Senate fight, it’s going to be a fight with the Chamber,” said Suh. “It’s definitely going to be a hot summer.”

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Minimum Wage and Attacks on Worker Organizations

 image via CNN Money

image via CNN Money

May Day – Yesterday, Senate Republicans shut down a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. A recent poll put popular support for the increase at 72%. Not incidentally, the Senate defeat coincided with the National Restaurant Association’s national lobby day. Known among restaurant workers as “the other NRA” for its political clout in Washington, the NRA is among the leading forces opposing efforts to raise the minimum wage currently underway in cities and states around the country, as well as in Congress.

This is a David v. Goliath contest, with the (other) NRA representing industry giants such as McDonalds, Taco Bell, and Starbucks. Calling out the NRA’s undue influence over workers, the economy, and Congress, earlier this a coalition of economic justice groups published a full-page ad in the New York Times challenging members of Congress to stop taking NRA campaign contributions. The contest between everyday working people and industry power over questions of basic economic fairness is intensifying in communities across the country. And the corporate is taking notice.

Groups representing low-wage workers—including domestic and agricultural laborers excluded from New Deal-era reforms—are building power.  We’ve seen domestic workers Bill of Rights legislation pass in New York and California; the recovery of millions of dollars in wages stolen from low-income workers; powerful organizing in fast-food restaurants; momentum toward a $15 minimum wage; and paid sick-days legislation in states around the country.

This resurgence of low-wage worker organizing—which builds on decades of effort to win living-wage standards—is a hopeful sign in an economy otherwise characterized by falling wages, precarious job security, and a massive expansion of corporate power over our workplaces, politics, and society. As might be expected, the Chamber of Commerce and other industry groups that have worked to decimate private and public sector unions are now determined to prevent the rise of new worker organizations that dare to challenge their dominance.

Last November, a group of demonstrators with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) were out in the streets of Washington, D.C. calling on the Wendy’s chain of fast food restaurant to sign a “fair food agreement.” The measure earns Florida farmworkers an extra penny per pound of tomatoes. Industry giants like Burger King and Walmart have signed on, and those pennies have added up to more than $10 million passed on to workers over two years.

The D.C. action drew more than supporters, however. Among the demonstrators appeared a young man, unknown to CIW, wearing an Obama cap and brandishing the red flag of the former Soviet Union, with its distinctive hammer and sickle. He refused organizers’ requests to put the flag away and posed among CIW supporters for a man with camera lurking nearby.

Fortunately, quick-thinking CIW activists foiled the apparent redbaiting stunt, snapping their own picture of the photographer – who turned out ot be none other than Ryan Williams of Worker Center Watch—a hatchet-job PR project funded by The Chamber of Commerce. The incident evokes the notorious right-wing smear tactics used against ACORN and Planned Parenthood. The intensifying PR attacks on new worker organizations are one prong of an evolving industry campaign to attack the low-wage worker field.

The same month as the Soviet flag stunt, the national Chamber of Commerce’s “workforce freedom initiative” issued a 50-page report arguing that worker centers are simply unions by another name, and suggesting they should be brought under the same union regulations that ban secondary boycotts and restrict foundation funding. That same line was used at a September Congressional Subcommittee hearing, championed by the National Restaurant Association. The Chamber is promoting a road show to educate local chapters about the so-called “ominous threat” of new worker organizations.

Meanwhile, right-wing policy groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) are pushing state-level “pre-emption” bills that ban improvements to sick leave and other common-sense public policies. The National Restaurant Association is a key player in these policy fights, lobbying to deny states the right to pass nutrition labeling requirement and fighting women’s equality by opposing the Paycheck Fairness Act, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, and the Family Medical Leave Act.

The Chamber’s new focus on worker centers and other grassroots economic justice groups is a significant threat given industry’s history of expending massive resources to bring down worker organizations. A new report from the United Workers Congress finds that “corporate forces are building a dark money infrastructure of lobby groups and public relations firms to weaken public support for worker centers” and distract from the fundamental problem of growing economic inequality.

At PRA, we’re closely following the mounting corporate attacks on the low-wage organizing sector. Watch this space.

**Also: read this important piece by The Nation‘s Lee Fang on the campaign to take down low-wage worker groups.

“Zero Tolerance” for Silenced Histories: Neglecting Civil Rights Education in Schools

photo credit: Standing On My Sisters' Shoulders

photo credit: Standing On My Sisters’ Shoulders

It’s been a busy few weeks for education policy in America. (Then again, when is it not?)  Just last week, the College Board announced changes in the SAT to make the test a better assessment of school curricula and predictor of college success.  Mayor Bill DeBlasio and charter school champion Eva Moskowitz continued to butt heads over the role of charter schools in New York City.  The Center for American Progress released a new report, Beyond Bullying, focusing on LGBTQ students and the school-to-prison pipeline. And with the snow beginning to thaw and spring right around the corner, teachers and students are gearing up for a new onslaught of high-stakes testing designed to ensure “accountability” and “achievement.”

Many leading advocates of school choice and education “reform” are actually well-established right-wing players whose other political priorities—including anti-unionization efforts, regressive tax policies, and cuts to welfare—demonstrate little interest in defending public institutions or promoting racial justice.  Yet by using people of color as the spokespeople for privatization campaigns, these reformers can claim to be strengthening public schools and combating inequality even as they advance a pro-privatization agenda that is fundamentally at odds with commitments to racial and economic justice.

For example, as Political Research Associates’ fellow Rachel Tabachnick and others have documented, the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) has been a vocal advocate for vouchers and private school choice in Washington, D.C., Louisiana, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.  Its founder, Howard Fuller, previously played a pivotal role in establishing a voucher program in Milwaukee.  The resulting voucher and corporate tax credit programs have helped redirect millions of public dollars from public schools to private schools.

People for the American Way has described BAEO—which was established in 2010 and receives major funding from both the Walton (i.e. Walmart) and Bradley Foundations—as “better known for supporting education privatization and affirmative action rollbacks than empowerment of the African-American community or low-income families.”  Indeed, the promise of the education reform movement to “close the achievement gap” and “end educational inequality” is disingenuous at best and empty and pernicious at worst when considering the role of its primary funders in perpetuating racial, economic, and gender inequality.

A few other recent news stories, however, have suggested ways to engage with substantive questions of racial justice in public schools.  President Obama, for example, recently announced “My Brother’s Keeper,” a new initiative that, while far from perfect (particularly in its neglect of female and LGBTQ students), is designed to support young men of color and intervene in the school-to-prison pipeline.

Additionally, the Southern Poverty Law Center just released an updated version of Teaching the Movement, which evaluates civil rights education across the United States. The report serves as a powerful reminder that improving public schools must go beyond debates over high-stakes testing, reading comprehension, and complex fractions.  Unfortunately, the report also makes clear that we still have a long way to go.

The authors note that some states have made important improvements to their curricula since the report was first released in 2011. Still, 20 states still scored a big red “F” according to the SPLC’s criteria, and an additional 14 states still earned a “D.”  As the report’s authors state bluntly, “We remain concerned that students are likely to remember only two names and four words about the civil rights movement: Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and ‘I have a dream.’”

While education reformers remain hyper-focused on test scores and “achievement,” SPLC’s criticism regarding a lack of civil rights literacy is about far more than just getting 11th graders to ace the Advanced Placement U.S. History exam.  In his introduction to the report, Henry Louis Gates Jr. describes, 

“All of us are aware of the pressures our teachers and children are under to keep pace with the world’s students in science and math, but without a steep grounding in our history, what will rising generations have to pivot from? What will inspire them to remake their world with the confidence that comes from knowing it has been done before?”

Too often, debates over public education sidestep discussions of how schools can teach students not only to master Common Core standards, but also to be active, thoughtful, justice-driven members of society. Quoting civil rights historian Taylor Branch, the report offers one response: “If you’re trying to teach people to be citizens, teach them about the civil rights movement.”  Notably, Branch does not mention suspensions, high-stakes testing, or Teach for America as citizenship-building.  In the conclusion to Teaching the Movement, the report emphasizes just how high the stakes are: “When students learn about the civil rights movement, they learn about the democratic responsibility of individuals to oppose oppression and to work for justice. We gloss over the civil rights movement at our own peril as a nation working to achieve equal opportunities for all citizens.”

Meanwhile, as reformers lament a (non-existent) decline in test scores and wax nostalgic about the 1960s when American students “were so much smarter,” they obscure critical gains in public education access for students of color since the end of Jim Crow-era segregation and the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision.  Even after Brown in the 1960s, Black students in the United States often still found themselves in segregated, woefully underfunded classrooms.  “At the same time,” the report notes, “the very school districts that Brown desegregated have now re-segregated”  While some charter schools have managed to raise test scores, they may contribute to the resegregation of public schools, while also pushing out ELLs, students with disabilities, and others.

Ultimately, our failure to prioritize civil rights education in American classrooms is not an isolated problem.  Rather, it reflects a much broader and arguably misguided discussion about what constitutes racial justice within public education.  We talk endlessly about the “achievement gap,” but we do far less to fight back against efforts to ban ethnic studies in Arizona and elsewhere.  Many charter schools—the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) being the most well-known—place a heavy emphasis on character development and strict discipline policies. But as we debate discipline and “zero tolerance,” we neglect the shoddy teaching of the Civil Rights Movement and other substantive discussions of curriculum.  In doing so, we fail to make schools critical sites of intervention against a history of oppression and injustice, prioritizing “grit” and “zero tolerance” over the too often hidden histories of people resisting, dreaming, and building toward a better future.