LABOR IN THE NEWS

 

 

BACK TO INDEX

   
Mad in the USA

By Stacy Mitchell, AlterNet 

September 8, 2003

More than 1,000 people attended a rally a few weeks ago in Connecticut to demand fair trade and denounce the sweatshop buying habits of big retailers like Wal-Mart. The speakers were passionate, the crowd pumped. But this rally differed from the usual fair trade gatherings in one key respect: It was not organized by labor, student, or environmental groups. It was organized by an alliance of small and mid-sized manufacturers.

"The major retailers and big manufacturers are doing us in," explained rally-organizer Fred Tedesco, owner of Pa-Ted Spring Co. in Bristol. "They're destroying small- and medium-sized businesses. They're destroying jobs. They're destroying the middle class. . . That's the dirty secret of this whole thing."

Giant retail chains like Wal-Mart, Target, and Home Depot, have been muscling large manufacturers to move their factories overseas, primarily to China. With more than nine percent of U.S. retail sales and a third of the market for numerous products from dog food to diapers, what Wal-Mart says, goes. The company does so much business in China that it ranks as the country's 8th largest trading partner, ahead of Britain and Russia.

The retailers' cost-cutting strategies have precipitated 34 consecutive months of U.S. manufacturing job losses and an unprecedented crisis among thousands of small firms, like Tedesco's, which make parts for large companies that have abandoned their domestic operations. Tedesco believes job losses will accelerate over the next year as corporate decisions made this year cascade through the economy. Next on the chopping block, he says, are more white-collar jobs in computer programming, insurance, and accounting.

The members of Tedesco's coalition are angry the group's name is Mad in the U.S.A. and they're not alone. The rally was backed by prominent trade associations, including the Manufacturing Alliance of Connecticut, and several local chambers of commerce. Organizers say the turnout included both owners and employees. Several unions have contacted Tedesco to get involved. He has also heard from disgruntled small business owners across the country. Many are now organizing locally and working to build a national network that will culminate in a march on Washington, D.C. the "Million Manufacturers March."

None of this is good news for Bush and Party. Tedesco emphasizes that Mad in the U.S.A. is nonpartisan. The coalition's policy agenda includes trade reform and incentives for U.S. investment, and they are reaching out to Congresspeople on both sides of the aisle. Republican House member Nancy Johnson spoke at the rally. But he also notes of his fellow manufacturers, "I've never seen so many diehard Republicans say they are going to vote Democrat."

The Bush Administration has been using small business as cover to push a big business agenda of regressive tax cuts, deregulation, and race-to-the-bottom trade. Just count the number of times Bush says "small business" when defending his tax cut. Right-wing groups like the Federation of Independent Businesses which represents less than five percent of all small business owners have promoted the notion that what's good for GM is good for small business.

But it's not. The notion of a single, unified business interest as in "a pro-business policy" or "business vs. labor" is long gone, if it ever existed. The natural allies of small business today are not those advancing corporate interests, but those fighting consolidated economic power: organized labor, environmental groups, and consumer activists. These unfamiliar allies are beginning to work together. And when they do, the combination is potent.

Earlier this year in Taos, New Mexico, a coalition of more than 400 business owners and dozens of unionized grocery store employees orchestrated a successful campaign to block a Wal-Mart supercenter. For Fritz Hahn, owner of the Taos Herb Company, it was an obvious partnership. "They're seeing their wages cut and their jobs thrust out of the country," he explained, "while small businesses are being ground underfoot by the same corporations." Hahn's employees and unionized grocery workers earn about double what Wal-Mart pays. The coalition's message resonated with residents, who voted 61-to-39 percent against the supercenter in an advisory referendum before the Town Council voted it down.

Coalitions of labor, environment, and small businesses are beating Wal-Mart in other cities as well. The activity has opened rifts in traditional business groups. While some chambers of commerce have given heed to the plight of their independent members, many remain mouthpieces for big business. In about a dozen cities, including Austin and Salt Lake City, small businesses have broken ranks and formed their own independent business alliances. They want city officials to stop subsidizing big box stores and adopt land use policies that favor small-scale enterprise. Back at Pa-Ted Spring in Bristol, Fred Tedesco says the growing indignation of small manufactures is causing a "bellyache" for the National Manufacturers Association, which represents both small and large manufacturers.

Democrats in 2004 have a golden opportunity to reestablish themselves as the champions of small business. They will have to prove themselves. After all, many have had their hand in ruinous trade policies and corporate giveaways. What's needed is enough backbone to stand-up to corporate America and its campaign contributions, and a strong small business platform.

Trade reform should be one plank, tax fairness another. Large corporations receive lavish tax benefits unavailable to their smaller rivals. Major retail chains are skirting billions in state corporate income taxes through loopholes that allow them to move profits from local stores to subsidiaries in tax-haven states like Delaware. Federal policy exempts internet retailers from collecting sales tax, giving companies like Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com a 4 to 8 percent price advantage over Main Street businesses.

Democrats should call for end to the state and local subsidies that routinely flow to big box retailers. Billions in public dollars have fueled chain store expansion and done little for employment other than trade jobs at shuttered small businesses for jobs at Wal-Mart that typically pay less and offer fewer benefits.

We need to revive antitrust enforcement, especially in those long-dormant areas that are of most concern to small businesses: predatory pricing, an accusation commonly made against Wal-Mart, and buyer power, i.e., big retailers pressuring manufacturers for sweetheart deals that ultimately harm both small retailers and small manufacturers.

These are just a few of the policy issues that could inspire small business owners. Their vote is up for grabs to a degree it hasn't been for decades. It's an exceptional opportunity for Democrats, not only to build a new constituency, but to offer an appealing economic plan focused on spurring America's entrepreneurial energies rather than enriching global corporations.

Stacy Mitchell is a researcher with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and author of "The Home Town Advantage: How to Defend Your Main Street Against Chain Stores and Why It Matters."

 

 Copyright 2003 AlterNet

  Forward - Labor Day 2003

Finding AFL's Gompers

By AVIVA KEMPNER

I have lived in the nation's capital for 30 years. Yet it was only this summer that I discovered Washington's grand tribute to Samuel Gompers. Located in downtown Washington, the monument is positioned in Samuel Gompers Memorial Park on Massachusetts Avenue, a major artery, between 10th Street and 11th Street, N.W.

When I conducted an informal survey about the 16-foot-tall statue's existence among well-educated friends, only a few knew about it. I have made it a personal mission to tell locals as well as visitors about this impressive statue and the Gompers legacy.

Too few American Jews are aware of how pivotal this one man, Gompers, was to the early history of the labor movement. Too few have visited this glorious monument dedicated to his accomplishments.

Born into a Jewish working-class family in London in 1850, Gompers migrated with his family to New York City in 1863. He was the founding father and longest-running president of the American Federation of Labor, serving from 1886 until his death in 1924. During his incumbency, Gompers was involved in numerous strikes and passionately advocated for higher wages, shorter hours, safe working conditions and collective bargaining with employers.

After his death, it was only fitting that labor would erect a memorial in honor of the leading trade unionist who legitimized their cause.

Gompers is the commanding centerpiece of the memorial, sculpted in bronze and granite and designed by Robert Aitken. Dressed in a dapper three-piece suit, Gompers sits attentively, a sheaf of papers on his lap and a coat draped behind him. In such an attentive position, Gompers strikes a powerful leadership pose. This realist depiction of Gompers is in sharp contrast to the idealized statues behind him. He is surrounded by six figures, each symbolizing different labor ideals. These include domesticity, education, justice and unity of the labor movement, the guiding principles of the AFL. Two standing workers shake while a man sits reading a book and a woman sits holding a child. Flanking them are the "goddesses of wisdom and justice." Three excerpts of Gompers's speeches are engraved on the memorial base. On the back is inscribed the AFL slogan and seal, the clasped hands of labor.

The memorial was dedicated in front of 7,500 spectators on October 7, 1933. As a testament to Gompers's importance, President Franklin Roosevelt and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt attended the ceremony. The president spoke of his personal friendship with Gompers. The morning dedication allowed attendees to watch the afternoon World Series game between the Washington Senators and the New York Giants.

Gompers started out as a cigar-maker. And so it hit a chord when, on a recent visit to the park, I noticed several cigars lying on the statue base. It might have been a coincidence, but it's possible that another fan of the labor leader was honoring him with the tools of his trade paying tribute by leaving cigars instead of the traditional grave-side stones.

Labor Day was created in 1882 as a celebration of the American worker. In 1898, Gompers declared Labor Day as "the day for which the toilers in past centuries looked forward, when their rights and their wrongs would be discussed." Also lingering on the memorial's foundation on my recent visit were two homeless people, proving that Gompers's dedication for obtaining dignified work for all Americans has not achieved its final goal.

Aviva Kempner, who directed "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg," is making films on Samuel Gompers and Gertrude Berg: America's Molly Goldberg.

Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

  Sept. 10, 2003, 11:22PM

Senate defiant on overtime rules Amendment blocks Bush's changes

By T. SHAWN TAYLOR 

 The Bush administration's effort to overhaul overtime rules suffered a major setback Wednesday after a divided Senate approved a measure to block rule changes that would deny workers overtime pay.

The Republican-led chamber, defying a White House veto threat, voted 54-45 to attach an amendment to a $138 billion spending bill that would prevent the Labor Department from changing white-collar overtime exemptions under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

"Senate Democrats, joined by six Republicans, stood with working Americans and took a critical step toward turning back a Bush administration proposal to take overtime pay away from millions of people," said Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D. "During these hard economic times, the last thing we should be doing is cutting Americans' pay."

But Wednesday's victory was only the beginning of a process, Daschle added, and said the overtime debate is far from over.

The White House has threatened to veto the spending bill if the amendment, sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is attached to a compromise bill that now has to be worked out among members of the House and the Senate.

If the White House does defeat the spending bill, it could delay funding of U.S. health, labor and education programs, requiring a temporary spending bill and even more debate on the overtime issue.

Still, Wednesday's vote was hailed as a major -- and rare -- victory for pro-labor forces over the Bush administration. Critics of the Labor Department's proposed changes to white-collar overtime exemptions say it would strip 8 million workers -- including nurses, firefighters and police officers -- of overtime pay.

Administration officials deny those claims and have estimated 644,000 workers would lose overtime under the proposal but have said 1.3 million low-wage workers would gain it.

The Harkin amendment keeps intact the part of the proposal that benefits low-income workers by raising the minimum yearly salary to $22,100 a year for workers to qualify for overtime.

In recent weeks, foes of the plan have campaigned to defeat the portions of the plan they don't like, which would change overtime eligibility rules in three traditional categories of workers: executive, administrative and professional. Groups have organized protest rallies and bombarded members of Congress with e-mail messages to persuade lawmakers to block the new rules even before the Labor Department issues its final version.

"America's working men and women have won a tremendous victory," said John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest union federation, which ran television ads in three states -- Maine, Ohio and Missouri -- in the past week to drum up support for the Harkin amendment.

While the Senate vote represents a blow to the Labor Department's effort, it remains to be seen whether it will effectively block attempts to update the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Depression-era law that spells out which workers are eligible for overtime pay.

An attempt to attach an identical amendment to the U.S. health, labor and education appropriations bill earlier this summer in the House was narrowly defeated on a vote of 213-210. The Senate action means a conference of members from both chambers will have to scramble to work out a compromise before Congress adjourns in October.

Meanwhile, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said the department plans to continue to update the overtime rules, done at the behest of employer groups who have complained for years that the current rules are confusing and antiquated. However, because of the Senate action, it is unlikely that any changes will go into effect by early next year as originally planned.

Some employer groups on Wednesday expressed outrage over the Senate vote and urged Congress to allow the department to complete its regulatory process before seeking to block it.

"Supporters of the Harkin amendment showed that they were more interested in supporting labor unions than in supporting workers," said Tracy Mullin, president and CEO of the National Retail Federation.

The six Republican senators who voted with the Democrats were: Ted Stevens of Alaska, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Olympia Snowe of Maine, Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Democrat Zell Miller of Georgia voted against the measure.

 

 Copyright 2003 Chicago Tribune