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Nation Topics - Unions

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The New School University is one of Manhattan's most storied progressive institutions. But don't tell that to the people who work there.

Taking privatization to extremes, a new law ends the public sector as we knew it.

Even as the labor leaders who support him are redoubling efforts to
secure the Democratic presidential nod for Dick Gephardt, it is becoming
increasingly clear that the former House minority le

While fighting givebacks, unions can't lose sight of the big healthcare
picture.

Freshly unearthed documents may force the AFL-CIO to face up to past betrayals.

While we wait for labor law reform, here are a few things unions can do.

President Bush, a scion of great wealth who has never had to earn an honest living, has abruptly wiped out the jobs, retirement security and health benefits of 850,000 blue- and white-collar

At a "Lean Workplace School" for union members, sponsored by the monthly
magazine Labor Notes in 1996, the discussion centered around how
to fight employers' speed-up and worker-manageme

Unions have improved their political game but are unhappy with the
results.

he Powers That Be constantly try to keep the progressive majority
divided: workers against environmentalists, enviros against farmers,
farmers against consumers, consumers against workers, and around and
around it goes. As we squawk and squabble with each other, they scoot
off with ever more of our money and power, laughing all the way.

It's when we break this self-defeating circle that we put a little
progress back in "progressive," much to the consternation of those
Powers That Be, as we've seen recently with coalition efforts to pass
everything from living-wage ordinances to public financing of elections.
It's never easy to forge such coalitions--about like trying to load
frogs in a wheelbarrow--but it's essential to the development of a true
progressive movement that can be stronger than our separate parts.

If you were to map out a rational coalition strategy for a movement, you
probably wouldn't start by trying to link farmers and farmworkers, two
groups that have a long history of animosity and conflict. But
organizing a movement sometimes has less to do with rationality than it
does with creativity and opportunity, and, as Guadalupe Gamboa puts it,
"In times of trouble is when people are open to new ideas."

A Different Way

Lupe Gamboa is a regional director of the United Farm Workers of
America (UFW), and from his base in Washington State this grassroots
union leader knows plenty about times of trouble. The number-one crop
there is apples, mostly produced around the central Washington towns of
Wenatchee and Yakima. The apples are picked and packed by some 60,000
farmworkers, of whom 95 percent are Mexicans, averaging only $7,000 a
year in pay, with no benefits. They live in cramped and often squalid
housing, are constantly exposed to pesticides and suffer everything from
ruined backs to early death as they toil in one of America's most
dangerous industries.

So, time to strike against the apple growers, right?
¡Huelga!

No, says Gamboa and the UFW, we need a different way, because family
farmers are not really the power in this multibillion-dollar industry.
Indeed, farmers are suffering too, typically getting less money for
their apples than it costs to produce them, which means they're being
squeezed out of business. It's not that they're inefficient producers
but that, ironically, both the apple farmers and workers are literally
at the bottom of a food chain controlled by massive, monopolistic
middlemen dictating prices from far-away corporate headquarters.

In the big-business fresh-apple economy, those who do the most get the
least, which is perverse since, after all, an apple is an apple. From
tree to you, very little has to be done to it. Yet only a pittance of
what you pay in the supermarket trickles back to the actual producers.
Here's how today's apple dollar is sliced: Workers get 4 cents, the
farmer gets 7 cents, wholesalers and transporters take 21 cents and then
comes the hog. The retailers, dominated by Wal-Mart and Safeway, grab 68
cents of every dollar.

These powerhouses have consolidated and nationalized their purchasing
operations, eliminating regional buyers that dealt with individual
growers. This further concentrates the big chains' buying power.
Wal-Mart, now the largest grocery chain in the United States, proudly
proclaims that it offers "Low Prices, Always," but those low prices (and
high profits) are derived from its ability to bully the last dime from
suppliers and extract the last ounce of toil from labor. Someone down
the line always pays for Wal-Mart's cutthroat practices, and in apples
those someones are the hard-hit farmers and the oppressed farmworkers,
neither of whom Wal-Mart's ruling billionaires have to look in the eyes.

"Up to now we've been fighting with the employers," says Lupe Gamboa,
"but it's time to take on the retailers." Taking them on, however,
includes a positive and creative initiative that UFW is proposing: Fair
Trade Apples. Rather than surrender to the top-down restructuring of the
industry, the Fair Trade campaign creates an economic partnership among
the union, willing growers, retailers and consumers.

A Nickel's Worth of Fairness

At the heart of the plan is a Fair Trade price premium that would come
back to the growers and workers. Retailers would pay a bit extra per
pound, either eating this small increase or passing it along to us apple
buyers. Fair Trade Apples would bear stickers with the UFW's black eagle
symbol, certifying to consumers that these fruits allow the farmer to
earn a fairer return and workers to earn a fairer wage. As little as a
nickel-a-pound premium could make the difference, a negligible sum on a
high-volume, highly profitable grocery item.

The Fair Trade process begins in the orchards, where growers would agree
to a union contract assuring better wages, a small pension and safety
and health protections for apple workers. In turn, the farmers get an
able and stable work force, a certified UFW label on their apples that
carries special clout with consumers, and a premium price. Grocers get a
premium product that can generate extra sales and a ton of community
goodwill.

The key is you and me. As retailers have learned from organics, fair
trade coffee and no-sweat garments, there's a growing market of
consumers who care about how products are produced--care to the point
that they'll pay more if necessary. UFW is betting that we'll also be
there for apples, and it's planning a grassroots campaign through
churches, campuses, unions, consumer groups and other networks.

One grower of organic apples is on the verge of signing the first
contract, and some two dozen co-op grocers on the West Coast and in
Minnesota are prepared to be the first retailers to market them. If it
works with apples, it can work with other crops, solidifying the
farmer/farmworker coalition and bringing a measure of progress to fields
long barren of justice. To offer your support, contact the Fair Trade
Apple Campaign at (206) 789-1947 or apples@ufwmail.com.

Blogs

A supporter of public schools and teachers pushes Democrats to get on the side of the future.

April 3, 2015

First Scott Walker, and now a struck corporation claims unions pose a threat to Little League baseball.

March 5, 2015

Disregarding and disrespecting protests of teachers and nurses does not prepare him to see off global threats.

February 27, 2015

Voters force school-closing Mayor Rahm Emanuel into a runoff and demand an elected school board.

February 25, 2015

The 2016 contender who last year warned new anti-labor measures were divisive and “a distraction” is back in for a fight with unions.

February 20, 2015

The mayor’s spending millions, but unions and progressives are fighting for grassroots democracy.

February 19, 2015

Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner is getting bipartisan pushback against his attack on labor unions.

February 16, 2015

We banned police from the “house of labor.” Look at them now.

January 9, 2015

San Francisco employees of the green-capitalism giant are organizing themselves to fight for livable working conditions.

November 14, 2014

This is not a time to panic. It is a time to get things right.

October 12, 2014