News and Features
In Stamford, Connecticut, organizers are putting the movement back in labor.
International solidarity is the key to consolidating the legacy of Seattle.
Activists have achieved power. Now they need to figure out how to use it.
Only months after a major victory on China trade, Big Business is again scavenging for cheap labor. This time, the high-tech industry is pressuring Congress to allow additional foreign technicians--particularly computer programmers and engineers--to work temporarily for US corporations. Congress, with the President's blessing, is poised to deliver a sweet deal to the industry, at the expense of US and foreign workers.
The 1990 Immigration Act set aside 65,000 H-1B visas each year to allow "the best and the brightest" from around the world to work in the United States for up to six years. In 1998, when the high-tech industry complained about an unbearable shortage of skilled US workers, Congress raised the annual H-1B ceiling to 115,000. The industry promised it was a one-time solution. But tech companies devoured the visas. Now their Washington lobbyists claim they are still starving for qualified workers.
Such evidence as exists, however, casts doubt on the alleged labor shortage. A recent study by the IT Workforce Data Project concluded that over the past fifty years, "there is no evidence that any serious shortages of technical professionals--engineers in the past, information technology specialists now--have ever occurred." If the industry faces a tight labor market, it's self-imposed. The industry has largely ignored its vast underrepresentation of women and minorities. Few tech firms recruit at African-American job fairs, and less than 1 percent of blacks with high-tech degrees have Silicon Valley jobs. The corporations also often shun older workers, who might require retraining or better pay.
The tech industry craves cheap labor, not skilled workers. H-1Bs, which are temporary and prohibit the holder from switching employers, fill the bill. H-1B workers cannot unionize, are likely to accept uncompetitive wages and do not receive the employment benefits that similarly skilled Americans would demand. Many companies reportedly force their foreign employees to work in factorylike conditions and routinely withhold wages and violate contracts. Foreign workers, dependent on their jobs for legal residence in the United States, are defenseless: If they complain, they risk being fired; if they quit, their employer can sue them. Their only legal remedy is a bureaucratic federal complaint process with few enforcement options. These foreign temps--indentured servants of the new economy--can either put up or go home.
Nonetheless, Bill Clinton, Congress, Al Gore and George W. Bush support raising the H-1B ceiling to approximately 200,000. Why? The computer industry alone has pumped more than $72 million into federal campaigns. Orrin Hatch and Spencer Abraham, sponsors of the Senate's leading H-1B bill, have received nearly $1 million in high-tech campaign contributions. David Dreier and Zoe Lofgren, authors of the industry-endorsed House legislation, each enjoy tens of thousands in Silicon Valley funding. Other powerful legislators have also profited handsomely from cooperating with Big Technology.
The industry is reminding its political welfare recipients that expanding the H-1B program is a top priority for the nation's tech firms. Their lobbyists are meeting one-on-one with politicians and are barraging Capitol Hill with daily "fact sheets." Chairmen of House and Senate campaign committees have received letters explicitly warning that tech companies will not support legislators who dawdle on H-1B. With control of Congress up for grabs, opposing the industry hardly seems worth the risk.
Representative Tom Davis, who chairs a GOP campaign committee and supports raising the H-1B ceiling, acknowledged, "This is not a popular bill with the public. It's popular with the CEOs." Once again, powerful corporations and unprincipled politicians are preparing to take advantage of vulnerable foreign labor, while many US workers are left out in the cold.
In May 1928 Marie Curie, the famed discoverer of radium and double Nobel laureate, received a disturbing letter from an American journalist. It told of young women at a radium watch-dial plant in Orange, New Jersey, who were dying from necrosis of the jaw, a rare degenerative disease. The women would tip radium-laden brushes in their mouths, blithely ingesting this intensely radioactive substance--at levels more than 10,000 times those allowed under today's standards. Plant managers had told them that ingesting radium would enhance their vitality.
At the time, Madame Curie herself was paying dearly for her pioneering work. Reading the letter was not easy, as she suffered from radiation-induced cataracts and from painful radiation burns on her hands. True to form, she refused to accept that her discovery had anything to do with this tragedy and advised the women to eat calf's liver. By 1934 Curie was dead from severe bone marrow damage and America was experiencing its first industrial epidemic of radiation-induced diseases.
Madame Curie's denial of radiation dangers is emblematic of the legacy we now face as America's romance with the atom draws to a close. The once dynamic and sprawling US nuclear weapons program, which underwent spectacular growth in the past fifty years, is winding down, leaving behind a tragic health legacy that, once again, is borne by working people. In the next few weeks, Congress will decide whether to enact a federal compensation program for the 600,000 people who helped make our nuclear weapons.
The current attention dates to the summer of 1999, when the Clinton Administration, spurred on by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, proposed legislation to compensate nuclear weapons workers. In January of this year, a report prepared for President Clinton found that workers at fourteen federal nuclear facilities across the United States have higher than expected risks of dying from cancer or nonmalignant diseases following exposure to radiation and other substances. This official concession that nuclear weapons workers were harmed led to an unprecedented public outpouring in politically conservative company towns near federal nuclear sites. Workers told of being overexposed, getting sick and then having to battle against the government, which spared no expense to block claims. "The people in this area have been forced into poverty--they fall through the cracks, and they die," said Kay Sutherland, a cancer victim, at a meeting near the DOE's Hanford site in Washington.
In June an amendment to the 2001 defense authorization bill offered by Senators Fred Thompson and Jeff Bingaman was unanimously adopted by the Senate. The measure would create a federal program to provide compensation for illness, disabilities and deaths due to exposure to radiation or to beryllium or silica, two hazardous substances. The Senate provision is far from perfect, but it's a good start. However, it looked likely as we went to press that the provision was in jeopardy. Republicans in the House were at work fashioning a symbolic gesture that greatly reduces the benefits and provides no funding to compensate people.
I started working on this issue twenty-five years ago, first as an environmental activist involved in the lawsuit on behalf of the parents of Karen Silkwood, a contaminated nuclear worker in Oklahoma who was killed in November 1974 while trying to deliver safety documents to the New York Times. While it is personally gratifying to see this change take place, it still remains a tragedy for many who could have been helped as long ago as 1951, when the first official recommendations to help sick, overexposed weapons workers were secretly turned down. As we come to terms with the aftermath of the nuclear arms race, it is time for Congress to provide justice to working people who were put at risk without their knowledge and who paid with their health and lives.
In the area of labor law it's not the Supreme Court that's the primary problem, it's the law itself. If the toothlessness of the National Labor Relations Board allows the bosses to violate the law at will, with no truly serious penalty, there is nothing any Court, even one full of William Kunstlers, can do to bring back a meaningful right to organize.
So my concern is not what the Supreme Court might do under a Bush Administration. It's highly unlikely that the present law will change. My worry is that the conservative Justices Bush might appoint will be around long after he leaves office. If a more progressive administration succeeds him and pushes through new labor law that would give US workers a real right to join unions, a Bush Supreme Court packed with Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas types would gut it. Suppose, for example, that a future Democratic Congress, stripped of a filibuster, passed a law similar to Canada's, where if enough workers sign cards saying, in effect, they want a union, there is no election--a union is in place. The Bush Supreme Court might declare that such a law violates the employer's First Amendment right to present the anti-union view, to "speak" to (i.e., to intimidate, threaten) the workers before they sign the cards.
Right now, however, what hurts labor, day to day, is the wins and losses in the lower courts. That's because in labor and civil rights, the Rehnquist Court sometimes works by proxy, and many of the lower appellate courts (e.g., the District of Columbia, the Fourth Circuit) are worse. In the 1999 term, the Supreme Court gave opinions on only seventy-five cases, mostly ones that the Justice Department asked it to take. Just by turning down or not reading cases, the Court can effectively "rule" without ruling. Consider the one real labor-law reform attempted by the Clintonites: to stop federal purchases from employers who use striker replacements. The right-wing Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down Clinton's power to do this by regulation. The Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal. The Clintonites probably would have lost anyway, but this is a good example of how a conservative Supreme Court, by proxy, can block an attempt to restore union power.
Still, the Rehnquist Court has handed down some bad decisions. In Lechmere v. NLRB (1992) Justice Thomas's opinion was very touchy about the employer's property rights in a union organizing drive. It made clear, again, the policy of keeping nonemployee union organizers off the property, except in circumstances (vague) when there is no other way to communicate with workers.
Apart from strict labor cases, there are many rulings from the Rehnquist Court on class actions, federalism and other areas that indirectly shrink labor's power. Why does the High Court's taste for states' rights seem to whet when it can hurt a public union--as it did in Alden v. Maine (1999)? Apart from its states' rights silliness, the Alden opinion bars more than 4 million state workers from suing under federal wage laws in state court.
Alas, the real advance in workers' legal rights has come mostly in state courts. Some state courts have set limits on certain types of firings. That's something, but it does little to help Americans raise wages or reduce income inequality.
To be fair, in civil rights, we owe a bit to the Rehnquist Court, and to Scalia especially. In cases in the late eighties, the Rehnquist forces so vigorously whacked away at Title VII and related laws that the Democratic Congress was roused to action. Instead of just reversing these bad cases, Congress expanded the remedies for Title VII violations. Now we have jury trials and punitive damages. We owe at least a little thanks to Justice Scalia. Almost a year ago, a former clerk of the Court complained to me about how badly we labor types presented those cases in the eighties. "And," she said, "that's why we got those bad rulings from Scalia." Ah, but thanks to our bungling, we expanded civil rights remedies.
Only now, if we bungle with a Republican Congress, such mischief would linger on. This may be so with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Incredibly, last year the Court parsed the term "disability" to exclude, arguably, even an amputee with prosthetic limbs. In his majority opinion, Justice O'Connor tried to "intuit" what Congress "must have meant"--something that conservatives, as formalists, are famous for saying they never do.
Never, except when it hurts disabled workers. But in labor law especially, judges often rule from scratch. It often seems that the whole country has, without knowing it, drifted into a civil law, European-type legal system, in which we don't use precedent in the old Anglo-American common law way, for the simple reason that there isn't any precedent--especially with new laws like ADA and in the realm of civil rights, where the judges have to "make it up" the most.
Precisely because we have to make it up more and more, we should care who's on the Court. In labor, especially, by making it up for the decades to come, the Rehnquist Court et al. will help decide how much the rest of us Willy Lomans can get out of the lives we so recklessly throw away at work.
Marc Cooper's July 24/31 "Where's Hoffa Driving the Teamsters?"
provoked a storm of controversy from Honolulu to Brooklyn.
The New York of 1945 was the victorious city of the New Deal and World War II, one that can barely be glimpsed today beneath postmodern towers and billboards for dot-com enterprises.
There was a time when the very word "Teamsters" evoked some pretty dark images: a bloated and notoriously corrupt union president, carried into the Teamsters convention on a gilded sedan chair by
After the House passed President Clinton's China trade bill, Richard
Trumka, AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer, issued a threat: "The 163
Republicans and 73 Democrats that voted for China trade yeste