My path from strawberry and blueberry fields to college

By Alma Hernandez, NCL Child Labor Coalition Summer 2022 Intern

Alma attends the University of South Florida, where she is pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Public Health.

Alma Hernandez (far right) is joined by fellow National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association  farmworker youth interns Jose Velasquez Castellano and Gizela Gaspar. NCL CLC Coordinator Reid Maki is also in the photo.

Imagine being a five-year-old child – happy and carefree. The age where you either attend pre-K or start kindergarten. But can you imagine a five-year-old working in farm fields in hot 90-degree humid weather with her parents? I was that child. I wore a long-sleeved shirt, jeans, closed-toed shoes, and a hat to protect me from the hot sun. At five years old, I was unaware of how difficult agricultural labor is. My mom had enrolled me at the Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA), a Migrant and Seasonal Head Start program, but she also wanted to teach me to value my education.

My mother’s life lesson started during the weekend after I did not want to wake up for school. My mother remembers that I was full of confidence when asked if I wanted to go to work with her and my father. However, I did not know what was in store for me.

Arriving at the fields around 7:30 am, I first saw endless rows of strawberry fields. I felt enthusiastic. My task: collect as many bright red strawberries as I could and place them in my pink Halloween bucket. After filling my bucket, I would give the strawberries to one of my parents. Around 12, I felt the heat. It was around 90 degrees. The humidity made it feel worse. I felt like I was in 100-degree weather; I did not like that at all and wanted to go home. I was already tired and asked if we could leave. My mom said no; I had to stay until they finished. And so I kept working.

I do not recall what happened the rest of the time I was there, but I remember what happened afterward. I went home and sat on the stairs of the house with a red face, a headache, and clothes covered in dirt, and reflected on the decision I had made to join my parents in the strawberry fields. I went inside. I was so tired that I ignored dinner and skipped a shower and went straight to bed just to wake up the next day, to repeat another day of long, hard work. My parents had me help them one more day; and convinced that my lesson was learned, they let stay home where, in the next few years, I could help take care of younger siblings when my parents could not find childcare.

Although my work in the strawberry fields was short-lived, I have much more experience harvesting blueberries. I started working on blueberry farms when I was 12 years old and worked every summer until I was 16. The blueberry season starts in the summer after school ends in Florida.

My family and I would leave Florida near the end of June and start the 17-hour drive to Michigan. Unlike the strawberry season, I liked picking blueberries because I did not have to bend down low to the ground all day; blueberry plants grow higher. My job was to fill up my six buckets. Once they were all filled, I would carry all the buckets to place them into plastic containers and have them weighed. On average, six buckets would be 42 to 45 pounds, and depending on who we were working for, the average pay was 0.45 to 0.55 cents a pound. I had to pick as many pounds as I could. On good days, I would be able to pick 200 pounds or more; on many other days, I would pick less.

The clothing I wore was also the same: long sleeves, jeans, closed toes shoes, and a hat to protect myself from the sun. The weather in Michigan is not as humid as it is in Florida; usually, it was in the mid-80s to low 90-degrees however it was still hot being there all day. We would go in each morning at 8:30 or later depending on how wet the blueberry plants were and leave the fields around 8 or 9 at night.

I did not like going to a new school in Michigan every September just to leave in late October and return to Florida and start school. The curriculum was very different; I would excel quickly in Michigan since what I was learning I had already studied in Florida. But I also did not like how every time I would go to a new school, I’d be the “new girl,” struggling to make friends but knowing I would soon be migrating. “What is the point?” I would wonder. So I always kept to myself and only spoke when I was spoken to, and to this day I still do.

I also did not like the “what did you do during the summer?” question on the first day of school when I returned to Florida because all I did was work all summer and had no fun. Work caused my parents to miss many school functions that other parents would attend. Sometimes, it felt like a lack of support, but I understood that this type of work was their only way to generate income to provide for the family.

This summer, after four years away, I came back to Michigan with my family for the blueberry harvest one more time. Now that I am 20 and reflecting on my family’s agricultural experience, I appreciate my parents for what they have done for my siblings and me. They wake up early every day, go to work, come home to cook, and still spend a little bit of time with my younger siblings. I help around as much as I can because I know they cannot do everything on their own, especially now that they are getting older. I know they are tired and have no rest days. But thanks to them, I am the first person in my family to go to college and serve as an example to my siblings which proves to them that there is a reason for our parent’s sacrifices.

Child Labor Coalition welcomes the reintroduction of the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment and Farm Safety 2022 (CARE Act)

March 31, 2022

Media contact: National Consumers League –  Katie Brown, katie@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2832

Washington, D.C.—The Child Labor Coalition (CLC), representing 38 groups engaged in the fight against domestic and global child labor, applauds Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) and Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) for introducing the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment and Farm Safety (CARE). The legislation, introduced on Cesar Chavez Day, would close long-standing loopholes that permit children in agriculture to work for wages when they are only age 12. The bill would also ban jobs on farms labeled “hazardous” by the U.S. Department of Labor if workers are under the age of 18. The children of farm owners, working on their parents’ farms, would not be impacted by the CARE Act.

“Today, I am re-introducing the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment and Farm Safety (CARE Act) with my friend and co-lead Congressman Raúl M. Grijalva to protect the rights, safety, and future of [children who work on farms],” said Congresswoman Roybal-Allard, Thursday.

“I’m proud to co-lead this important legislation with Rep. Roybal-Allard to protect the children of farmworkers. Farmworkers remain some of the most exploited, underpaid, and unprotected laborers in our nation. They and their children deserve legal protections, better working conditions, and higher workplace standards to protect their health and safety. It’s past time we updated our antiquated labor laws to give children working in agriculture the same protections and rights provided to all kids in the workforce,” said Rep. Grijalva.

“Children working for wages on farms are exposed to many hazards—farm machinery, heat stroke, and pesticides among them—and they perform back-breaking labor that no child should have to experience,” said CLC co-chair Sally Greenberg, the executive director of the National Consumers League, a consumer advocacy organization that has worked to eliminate abusive child labor since its founding in 1899. “Current child labor law discriminates against children who toil in agriculture. It’s time these dangerous exemptions end. We applaud Rep. Roybal-Allard and Rep. Grijalva’s leadership in re-introducing CARE.”

“Ending exploitive child labor on American farms is long overdue and this legislation will result in healthier, better educated farmworker children and help end the generational poverty that afflicts many farmworker families,” said Reid Maki,Coordinator, Child Labor Coalition and Director of Child Labor Advocacy, National Consumers League. The CARE Act has been endorsed by 200 national, regional, and state-based organizations, noted Maki.

“Children as young as 12 are being hired to do backbreaking work on US farms, at risk of serious injuries, heat stroke, pesticide poisoning, and even death,” said Margaret Wurth, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, a CLC member. “Existing US child labor laws are woefully out of date and put child farmworkers at unacceptable risk,” Wurth said. “Congress should act swiftly to adopt the CARE Act and ensure that all children are protected equally.”

The CLC’s strategy for child labor on U.S. farms is guided by its Domestic Issues Committee Chair Norma Flores López who worked in the fields as a young girl. “Decades ago, my family and I were crowding into the back of a pickup truck with our few belongings, and starting our two-day journey towards the fields of Indiana, Michigan, or Iowa. What awaited me, starting at the age of 12, were long hours of back-breaking work earning low wages. I was one of the faces you see in photographs from the fields, hidden behind a bandana.  Fast forward more than 25 years, and we are still fighting for young girls –and boys — who are enduring exploitation, harvesting the fruits and vegetables we eat. The same reality that I once lived awaits the approximately 300,000 children who work on American farms today,” said Flores López, who also serves as Chief Programs Officer of Justice for Migrant Women and was the 2021 recipient of the U.S. Department of Labor Iqbal Masih Award.

“For too long, children laboring in U.S. agriculture have been denied the protections they deserve to ensure their health and well-being. Too often, kids working on commercial farms are subjected to dangerous, unhealthy, work that’s detrimental to their education and far too often results in harm or even death. The CARE Act would address this problem and give children working on farms the same protections as children working in other industries,” said Bruce Lesley, president of the First Focus Campaign for Children, a bipartisan children’s advocacy organization.

In addition to raising the minimum age at which children could work in agriculture, CARE would increase minimum fines for employers who violate agricultural child labor laws when those violations lead to serious injury, illness, or death of minors. The legislation would also strengthen regulations that protect minors from pesticide exposure and improve analysis of child labor health impacts.

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About the National Consumers League (NCL) 

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.

Happy belated Labor Day!

I have an excuse for not writing a Labor Day Blog last weekI had a draft all written and then CNN ran a wonderful editorial with a very similar thesis. The gist was that without immigrants–many of whom are denied citizenship, pay taxes, and perform a vast number of jobs–this country couldn’t function. They build our skyscrapers, mow our lawns, take care of our children and parents, bus tables at our restaurants, drive our taxis, Lyfts, and Ubers, serve us at fast-food restaurants, and so much more. So, I’ll try a variation on my original theme.

All four of my grandparents were immigrants. My dad’s parents came over as children from Lithuania, and my mom’s were from Romania. They were poor and didn’t speak English. My maternal grandpa crossed the Atlantic in a ship in steerage (below the deck) with just a few bucks in his pocket. He worked as a delivery boy and went on to found a thriving company. Why did they choose America? To escape pogroms aimed at Jews, for freedom of religion, and for economic opportunity.

Sound familiar? These are precisely the reasons immigrants from Central and South America, Asia, and Africa seek refuge and, ultimately, citizenship in the United States.

Yes, my relatives came here legally, but the path to citizenship was easier at the turn of the 20th Century. You basically just needed to be healthy to be admitted. But that changed in the 1920s when anti-immigrant sentiments ran high. If my grandparents hadn’t emigrated, they likely would have been murdered by the Nazis–and I wouldn’t be here. That’s true for millions of Americans today.

Today’s immigrants have many more barriers thrown in their path. And why should they? They want what my family came for: economic and educational opportunity and to work hard while raising families without the constant fear of violence and poverty. To be sure, we need a sound immigration policy–that means screening those seeking to immigrate for criminal backgrounds or health concerns. But banning all but a trickle of certain “favored” immigrants is crazy and hurts both our economy and social fabric.

Whenever I hear virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric from the White House or elected officials, I want to ask, “didn’t your family immigrate here? Weren’t they seeking the very same things today’s immigrants want?” The answer, of course, is “yes.” That’s why proclamations like “build the wall” and “ban Muslims” are so offensive, unfair, and not at all in keeping with the famous words of Lady Liberty: “give me your tired, your poor, your wretched masses yearning to breathe free.” These are the words that should be the theme for celebrating Labor Day.

Raise the Wage Act 2019: House majority looking to lift millions out of poverty

headshot of NCL Health Policy intern Alexa

By NCL Health Policy intern Alexa Beeson

June 16 marked the longest period the United States has gone without an increase in the federal minimum wage. The federal wage floor was last raised a decade ago, in 2009. The current minimum wage is just $7.25 an hour, which is a poverty wage by federal standards, but tipped workers and people with disabilities often make even less. Worse yet, the value of this wage has decreased by 13 percent since its enactment due to inflation.

Many states have increased their minimum wages, including some red states like Arkansas and Missouri. These states have done so through the popular-vote referendum process. There is widespread support from all Americans–Democrats and Republicans alike–on this issue. In fact, 70 percent of Republican voters want a raised federal wage floor. There are still 21 states, however, whose workers receive only the bare minimum federal wage or, even worse, a tipped wage.

The U.S. House of Representatives, now led by a Democratic majority for the first time in many years, will be taking up the Raise the Wage Act (H.R. 582), and there is a companion bill by the same name in the Senate (S. 150).

The Raise the Wage Act will incrementally lift the federal wage floor to $15 an hour over the next five years. If enacted, the legislation would reduce levels of poverty across the nation without driving vulnerable populations into unemployment. It will also help decrease the wage gap between minimum and median wage workers. The House is expected to have a roll call vote on H.R. 582 before the August recess. If it does pass in the House, the act will have a hard time making it through the Republican-controlled Senate. However, this is still a progressive step in the right direction.

This act will also end subminimum wages for tipped employees. If employees make less than the $7.25 federal minimum wage, including tips, employers are supposed to add the rest to their paycheck. However, some employers fail to do so. The affected employees can make as little as $5 less than the minimum wage. The way the system works now, customer gratuities act as wage subsidies that we believe should be covered by the employer. For those concerned with whether raising the minimum wage will stop customers from tipping, studies show that eliminating the tiered wage system will not stop patrons from leaving tips.

Raise the Wage will end the subminimum wage for people with disabilities, some of whom make mere pennies an hour. Subminimum wages act as a form of legalized discrimination, and this bill will make it impossible for employers to get new special exemptions to pay their employee’s subminimum wages. It will also end current exemptions because all wages will be increased to $15 an hour in the next seven years.

Some fiscally conservative groups have claimed that raising the wage to $15 an hour would lead to high unemployment or business closures, with small businesses burdened by the extra costs. However, studies contradict those claims. Many show that raising the minimum wage would have little or no impact on employment. A study conducted by the University of California at Berkeley Institute for Research on Labor and Employment found that when the town of Berkeley raised the minimum wage, it actually saw a decrease in unemployment and a reduction in poverty. Further research showed that wage increases in 51 counties over 45 states had no adverse effect on employment hours or weeks worked.

NCL has been a long-standing advocate for fair minimum wages. In the early 1900s, the League’s General Secretary Florence Kelley ran a minimum wage campaign, which passed laws in 14 states. We are encouraged to see the House of Representatives taking affirmative steps to raise the federal minimum wage.

Alexa is a student at Washington University in St. Louis where she studies Classics and Anthropology and concentrates in global health and the environment. She expects to graduate in May of 2020.

Labor Day reflections: Challenging time for U.S. workers – National Consumers League

As another summer winds down, and we plan for one last extended weekend before turning the page onto fall, Labor Day offers a time to reflect on the increasingly challenging environment that working families face securing fair wages, benefits, and working conditions.

Currently 16,000 members of the United Steelworkers union are waiting to hear whether they’ll be going on strike when their employment contract with U.S. Steel expires in just days. Union and management are reported to be at a near-stalemate over a new contract that the union has described as “extremely insulting” and would offer marginal wage increases for workers, who would be locked into a proposed 7-year term.

For the first time, incarcerated workers are courageously raising their voices, and are in the middle of a multi-week, nation-wide strike organized in response to the slave-labor wages they are forced to accept as further punishment for their lives behind bars. It’s shameful that we treat prisoners like chattel.

And the courts continue to batter workers, spurred on by a Chamber of Congress and a business community that attack working folks’ right to organize at every turn. Earlier this summer, a narrow 5-4 anti-worker and anti-union ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in Janus v. AFSCME, found hat unions cannot collect “fair share fees” from workers who have not joined the union but receive the benefits of organizing—a major blow to unions in their efforts to improve working conditions for all employees.

In Washington, DC, where NCL is headquartered, we are fighting alongside restaurant and other hourly workers to preserve Initiative 77 from being rescinded by the D.C. City Council. Initiative 77, a worker-led campaign that passed by a 56 percent to 44 percent margin, would raise the paltry $3.89 hourly tipped wage by $1.50 a year until it reaches $15 by 2025. After its passage, seven members of D.C. City Council pledged to overturn the initiative, undermining the 46,000 DC voters who supported it.

Wage theft, misclassification, and other employer abuses continue to plague our workforce, but at the National Consumers League, which was founded by a group of Progressive-era women concerned about factory conditions for workers—including children’s—we will continue to fight for worker protections alongside our allies to ensure that protections for America’s working families are strengthened, not eroded.

Earlier this year, we observed the 80th anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act with a national conference. This landmark legislation—which NCL helped to pass in 1938—provided our nation’s basic minimum wage and overtime pay laws, lifted wages, and improved working conditions. But advocates agree that the FLSA is in dire need of updating, and many of the problems facing workers today could be addressed by an FLSA for the 21st Century.

This Labor Day, we are grateful for the improved quality of working conditions for many of our nation’s employees, but we lament the constant attacks on unions, workers’ rights, and fair and equitable working conditions for so many. The struggle continues, and we are proud to be part of it.

D.C. City Council Angers Voters by Moving to Overturn Initiative 77 – National Consumers League

By NCL Public Policy intern Melissa Cuddington

After the passage of Initiative 77, seven members of D.C. City Council pledged to overturn the initiative, essentially suppressing the will of the voters. This move by the City Council has further outraged D.C. voters, who already feel disenfranchised. Considering the 80,000 DC voters who weighed in on this issue, its no wonder.

In the past few weeks, there has been controversy surrounding Initiative 77 and its hope of survival in D.C. City Council. Initiative 77, a worker-led campaign that passed by a 56% to 44% margin, would raise the minimum tipped wage by $1.50 a year until it reaches $15.00 by 2025. Currently, in the District of Columbia, the minimum tipped wage is a mere $3.33. Employers are allowed to pay tipped workers this small amount if tips make up the difference. Therefore, if tipped workers make at least $13.25 in tips, the current minimum wage, then employers are “off the hook” for covering the difference.

According to a recent article in The Washington Post, even those who voted against the initiative agreed that the City Council should not negate the will of the people. Those interviewed for the article responded with heated comments saying, “it enrages me,” and, “the City Council shouldn’t assume an electorate…doesn’t know what they are voting for.” These are not isolated responses; many voters have reached out to their City Council members, strongly protesting the possibility of repeal.

NCL supported the OFW campaign but regardless, it is not democratic or just for the City Council to overturn the decision of the voters. Many, including the leading group in this effort, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United), have accused the City Council of voter suppression and stomping on democracy. 

NCL believes in Initiative 77 and shedding the distinction between a tipped and minimum wage. We also strongly believe that civic participation is the foundation of our democracy. If the City Council moves to overturn this measure, it will send a very negative message to voters about the importance of the democratic process and the value of their voice in it.

80 years of the Fair Labor Standards Act and its unfinished business – National Consumers League

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 is celebrating its 80th Anniversary this year. The work of the National Consumers League (NCL), founded in 1899, and Florence Kelley, laid the groundwork for this landmark worker protection legislation. The FLSA set the first federal regulations for child labor, minimum wages, and maximum hours laws. It was signed into law by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose labor secretary, Frances Perkins, started her career with the NCL.

So 80 years later, NCL thought it would be useful to review the history and impact of the FLSA by inviting experts from across the country to speak. NCL and the American Constitution Society cosponsored our Unfinished Business: The Fair Labor Standards Act 80 Years Later” at Georgetown University Law Center March 28.

At the outset, it’s important to note that worker rights are under attack all the time: the trucking industry is trying to lower the age to allow teens as young as 18 to drive 80,000 pound rigs because there’s a manufactured labor shortage, thanks to threats to immigrant workers from ICE and the Trump Administration. Indeed, the state of New Hampshire is increasing the hours to 56 that teens can work each week when they aren’t in school.

That said, the conference attendees were able to cheer the recent victory—and how great advocacy prevented eroding restaurant workers’ salaries—when Congress included in the Omnibus bill signed by President Trump last week a prohibition on restaurant owners’ keeping workers’ tips. Saru Jayaraman, who spoke at the conference, and the Restaurant Opportunity Center, launched an all-out campaign to protect $5.8 billion in tips and, with the help of democrats in Congress, won these protections.

The conference included a panel on the history of the FLSA, testimony from three hourly workers talking about the sexual harassment and wage theft they experience daily on the job, a keynote by Obama-era DOL Wage and Hour Director David Weil – who brought with him many of his former DOL colleagues, and a rousing keynote from SEIU International President Mary Kay Henry. Panelists also talked about efforts to erode worker protections – like states preempting localities that want to raise their local minimum wage or making employees sign forced arbitration papers that prevent them from going to court if there’s discrimination or wage theft on the job. By the way, NCL wants forced arbitration banned in labor and consumer contracts, but that is a hard sell in a conservative Congress.

Gaps in the law and erosion of the FLSA were very much at the top of our conference agenda. Workers labor on farms sometimes up to 90 hours a week during the harvest with no protections. They should be making overtime pay.

Other agenda items:

  • Adding paid sick leave and vacation leave to federal law
  • Banning forced arbitration contracts for workers
  • Enforcing the FLSA for gig economy jobs like driving for Uber or Lyft
  • Resisting incentives to turn employees into independent contractors
  • Adding restaurant workers to be covered by the FLSA
  • Expanding overtime pay
  • Enforcing the law against persistent violators and double the penalties
  • Legalizing private class-action suits under the FLSA
  • Changing policy to make sure immigrants aren’t exploited and allow them to take the thousands of vacant jobs where there’s much demand

While the list of unfinished business is long, everyone agreed that the worker reforms brought by passage of the FLSA in 1938 provided desperately needed protections that helped workers in America improve their experience as workers, their incomes, and their quality of life. Setting the agenda is critically important because – like the victory on tipping – we have to be ready to move quickly to get provisions enacted when opportunities come up. The NCL is proud to be continuing our 118-year history of advocating for workers’ rights with this conference.

National Consumers League statement on today’s U.S. Supreme Court argument on Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association – National Consumers League

January 11, 2016

Contact: Cindy Hoang, National Consumers League, cindyh@nclnet.org or (202) 207-2832

Washington, DC–The National Consumers League, the nation’s pioneering consumer and worker advocacy group, has released the following statement about Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, scheduled to be argued before the Supreme Court today.

Friedrichs v California Teachers Association is a case handpicked by special, powerful anti-worker interests asking the Supreme Court to overrule a longstanding precedent established under Abood v. Detroit Board of Education.

Last fall, NCL joined a Friend of The Court brief, signing on with the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights and the National Women’s Law Center, arguing that the Court should uphold Abood v. Detroit Bd of Ed (1977), holding that public sector collective bargaining agreements may include “fair share” provisions. The brief details how unions provide one of the most successful vehicles for providing economic and professional opportunities for women, people of color, and LGBT individuals, including lowering the income gap and increasing access to basic benefits like health insurance and parental leave, and providing important protections against discrimination.

The National Consumers League believes that Abood is based on the constitutional principle that those covered by a union contract should be required to pay their share of fees. When employees elect a union to represent them, everyone who benefits from a negotiated contract should contribute to the costs of securing that contract, even those who might not agree with every union position.

Indeed, there are communities right here in Washington that work within this current fair share regime to very positive effect. In Montgomery County, MD, the superintendent, along with the three unions in the county, actually all sit at the table together each year to create a budget that aims to keep necessary cuts away from directly affecting students.

“It’s unfortunate that the Supreme Court is revisiting Abood, a case that has stood for 35 years. Since our founding in 1899, the NCL has supported the rights of workers to organize, be represented by a union, and have a communal voice that allows them to have an equal say over working conditions, benefits, and health and safety,” said NCL’s Executive Director Sally Greenberg. “That means that those benefitting from these contracts should contribute their fair share in dues and fees. The current system benefits the whole community because it brings better public services, stronger public schools, and more vibrant communities. If the Court bans fair share, it will make it more difficult for teachers, firefighters, and nurses to negotiate for wages, benefits, and improved public services. We call on the Supreme Court to uphold the constitutionality of Abood v. Detroit Board of Education and affirm the obligation of all covered by union contracts to pay their fair share.”

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About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.

Summer grill season is here! Think American union-made – National Consumers League

With the unofficial start of summer right around the corner, it’s time to start thinking about firing up the grill and looking forward to our favorite summer foods. This summer, make your grocery shopping mean more than just great food and support good paying American jobs. As a consumer, you can support the actions of thousands of hard working Americans by buying American-made products and union-made products. 

Check out the list below and try to serve some union-made treats this Memorial Day weekend and all summer.

Untitled

Text MADE to 235246 for more union-made-in-America product lists.
Our list comes courtesy of Union Plus, the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTGM), the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor’s website Labor 411.

Anti-union propaganda leads to defeat for UAW – National Consumers League

Last Friday the workers at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee voted against joining the UAW. In the weeks and months leading up to this vote, VW had agreed to stay neutral and over half the workers had indicated they were in favor of union membership. But that all changed due to a sustained propaganda campaign lead by Bob Corker the notorious anti-union Senator from Tennessee and the Koch brothers.

They, and their right wing allies, believe that if Tennessee  – a right-to-work (for less) state – opens the door to the union, the rest of the South will open up to labor.

Other threats were lobbed – Senator Corker claimed to have been told by an unnamed top company executive that a vote against the union would guarantee that Chattanooga would be chosen as the production site for a new line of SUVs — the union denied it. State officials apparently said if the plant were unionized, the legislature would refuse to appropriate an estimated $700 million in state subsidies necessary to build out an SUV plant.

I don’t understand why these Southern politicians are so threatened by the union. European companies, like VW, which stayed neutral in this discussion, are used to the notion of workers and employers having a place at the table; they support the concept of worker representatives sitting down with management and arriving at mutually beneficial policies, including work rules, wages, safety and health requirements, and vacation benefits. Everyone understands that there’s money to be made  – a lot of it – by both workers and industry. What is so infuriating about so many American businesses, and this campaign against UAW so demonstrates this problem, is that they don’t get that sharing the wealth is GOOD for companies and workers. So many American companies are all about grabbing profits for their higher ups and skimping on wages and benefits whenever possible.  Here was a chance to change that paradigm with the company’s support.

But because this is the US, that wasn’t to be.

The anti UAW propaganda was effective, comparing Tennessee to Detroit and scaring the current VW workforce, which currently makes a good salary, by blaming the UAW for Detroit’s current financial disaster.  Talk about blaming the victim! Workers making decent wages and benefits are to blame for Detroit’s decades of mismanagement and white flight?  It makes no sense but it’s a potent sound bite.

Suppliers threatened to boycott TN if VW unionized. Is giving workers a voice really so scary? Yes, to Southern politicians and business. But Steve Pearlstein in the Washington Post points out that:

[I]n the faster-growing and more prosperous regional economies of the North and West, companies are trying to boost performance by increasing employee engagement and empowerment, not suppressing it. Their business strategies are based not on assuring a steady supply of cheap labor but on increasing the number of highly paid and highly skilled workers. Rather than trying to nullify federal labor law and crush what remains of the much-diminished union movement, these companies, like VW, are looking at new models of workplace cooperation and collaboration.

That’s more likely the wave of the future. And the South, and Senator Corker, the Koch’s, and their ilk – will be left behind If they continue this all out attack against empowering workers and giving them a voice.