Saturday, February 28, 2009


Is the failing economy ready for a pro-union bill? In what could boost collective bargaining in the United States – a bill called the Employee Free Choice Act could be introduced in the Congress in near future. This will give authority to federal arbitrators to intervene in contract disputes and impose settlements. The bill pushes for enforcement of labor laws, majority sign-up and lays out how first contract negotiations can be improved. It will allow unionists to bypass the secret ballot system and instead push for signed petition cards from the workers. Employers typically favor the secret ballot system.

Labour unions who backed President Obama in his campaign, want him to push for it.
The crux of the issue is the secret ballot. Will the new bill eliminate this system? It is important since the ballot is associated with political offices. Will workers be coerced by unions and thus sometimes go against their interest? These are some of the questions being raised. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union membership rose to 12.4% of employed wage and salary workers in 2008 from 12.1% in 2007, but much lower than 20.1% in 1983. According to one estimate less than 8% of private sector workers are union members. Pro-union workers have more often than not, been discriminated against.

Like many other agencies that lost their autonomy during the Bush administration, agencies like the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) allegedly became pro-employers and did not work in the interest of employees.

And guess who else is backing the bill? Economists of course!

A statement by these economists said, "A rising tide lifts all boats only when labor and management bargain on relatively equal terms. In recent decades, most bargaining power has resided with management. The current recession will further weaken the ability of workers to bargain individually. More than ever, workers will need to act together." The statement by the leading economists was published in the Washington Post, Feb. 25. Some of who include : Henry J. Aaron, Brookings Institution, Katharine Abraham, University of Maryland, Philippe Aghion, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Kenneth Arrow, Stanford University, Dean Baker, Center for Economic and Policy Research, Jagdish Bhagwati, Columbia University, Alan S. Blinder, Princeton University, Robert H. Frank, Cornell University, Lawrence Katz, Harvard University, Jeffrey D. Sachs, Columbia University, Joseph E. Stiglitz, Columbia University and Edward Wolff, New York University among others.

Meanwhile, the New York Times says : “A group of liberal bloggers said it is teaming up with organized labor and MoveOn to form a political action committee that will seek to push the Democratic Party farther to the left. The formation of the group marks another step in the evolution of the blogosphere, which has proven effective at motivating party activists to give money and time to political campaigns, especially in local races. But it also illuminates a deepening wrinkle for President Obama, whose attempt to build a broad governing coalition — often by tempering some of his more liberal previous positions — has already angered some of his supporters on the left.” The group is called Accountability Now.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Color of a farmer?

White farmers of Zimbabwe yet again faced a fresh wave of invasions allegedly motivated by President Robert Mugabe in response to the new coalition government which is led by Morgan Tsvangirai.

At a time when the economy of Zimbabwe is mired in crisis, where reportedly 7 million people are short of food, more than 150 farmers are facing eviction. This is could result in jeopardizing $150 million in crops. The Zimbabwean economy has shrunk by more than half in the last decade.

From nearly 4000 farmers in 2000, the numbers have dwindled to less than 400 when Mugabe began expropriating white-owned land through violent land-redistribution campaigns regardless of the impact on agricultural output.

Labeled as the votes-for-land campaign, it promised to redistribute property to the landless black. The evictions took the form of ethnic cleansing. (Whites were reckoned colonialists and became a minority after Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980. They continued to control a large part of the economy. Mugabe’s ZANU PF - Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front, lost control of the Parliament for the first time in 2008 since independence.)

Mugabe fast tracked seizure of white farm lands under land ‘reform’ laws. Evicted farmers have won suits in South African Tribunals, but Zimbabwe ignored the judgments despite being a part of the treaty that founded such courts.

Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is in favor for the respect for the rule of law and farmers producing food. Earlier this month, Roy Bennett, a veteran white farmer who was nominated as the new government’s deputy minister of agriculture, was detained on immigration charges and treason (the administration was undecided about the kind of charges!) Prime Minister Tsvangirai has not been able to negotiate for the release of 30 MDC activists and human-rights workers who have been imprisoned, although this was conditional for his participation in the government.

The new coalition government that took office on Feb.11 is also persuading donors to lend billions of dollars revive the economy. Big donors are reluctant to lend given Mugabe’s rule. More than 150,000 citizens who are teachers, soldiers, nurses, police officers and other public-sector workers are scheduled to be paid in foreign currency to the tune of $60mn-$100mn a month. The Zimbabwean currency has been rendered worthless by hyperinflation (world’s highest inflation). The transactions are expected to be completed in the US dollar, South African rand and Botswanan pula. Harare already owes $3.5 billion in debt and is the midst of battling a cholera epidemic.

p.s. Meanwhile members of Zanu PF, have raised $250,000 for a birthday bash of 85 year old President Mugabe.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Immigrant Labor in The Big Apple

Twenty first century labor activism – Biju Mathew.

He calls himself a reluctant technologist and is the passionate about immigrant labor in a global city. Meet Biju Mathew, an Associate Professor of information systems at Rider University, who makes for an unusual crusader for immigrant taxi drivers in New York City. Unlike a regular academic holed up in research, for Biju, the labor movement in America is his lab. He is a founding member of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA). His book Taxi! Cabs and Capitalism in New York City – is as much a critique about Post-Fordism as it is about immigrant cultures in urban spaces. He hopes that in future the labor movement will fight not just for wages but for 'worker autonomy'.

1. When did your engagement with labor politics begin?

When I was in India, I had become involved in social justice work back in Hyderabad. I studied in XLRI Jamshedpur and worked for HCL Techonologies in New Delhi before I came to the US in 1989. When I came for my doctoral degree at University of Pittsburgh, I chose to live in the working class neighborhood in the dying steel city that Pittsburgh had become. It gave me a glimpse of the working class America. I forged lasting relationships in Pittsburgh attuning myself into labor politics in the country. During this time, immigrants were one of the fastest growing set of workers in the US and were faced with an administration that was decidedly anti-immigrant. Eventually it became more centrist during the late 1990s.

2. How does the academic in you contend with the rough-tumble world of organizing strikes?

My effort has been to retrieve the political from the academic. Intellectuals should function in the domain of political work and not remain isolated in academics. I consciously avoided going into the big schools to teach, because I know that the space to do something different is shrinking. At Rider I have the freedom to pursue my own agenda. That is precisely why I do not apply for corporate research grants either. I can afford to fund my own research and see no reason for accessing grants that could influence my work.

3. What were some of the critical turning points for the Taxi Workers Union?

We have organized two successful strikes in 1998 and 2007. The first of victory for the Alliance came in 2001. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, most drivers lost up to 80% of their income. Yet Mayor Giuliani's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had denied disaster assistance claims though basic necessities were suddenly out of reach for these daily wagers. The alliance fought for such claims and won.

In 2004, after prolonged negotiations with the Mayor's office, the drivers forced a fare hike winning 68% of the increase and the remaining 32% went to the owners. Prior to that, in 1996, the owners got away with 86% of the fare hike, leaving only 14% to the drivers. A hike in the fare translates into a hike in the lease for the driver, which does improve his take home pay. To wrest that benefit out of the drivers, the owners came up with ways to offset that increase, one such way is the introduction of GPS and the usage of credit card payments. The GPS challenges the autonomy of the driver.

Take the credit card system. Lease drivers that constitute nearly 80% of the workforce, depend on the garage or broker to collect their credit card incomes, as a result a driver loses 5% of its income on all credit card transactions due to a surcharge. So the owners take a long time to repay the drivers, sometimes delaying payment for more than a week during which time the driver is piling up bills and unable to pay for basic amenities. Typically, it is the owner's or the GPS vendor's bank that processes the transaction and not the driver's bank. Besides, every middleman in the process gets a commission. In this system, the driver loses complete control over the process. And this is just to pacify the 'white customer'.

The alliance has been instrumental in pushing for a legislation called Intro 705 that will ensure that all taxi drivers will become merchant account holders of their own credit card fares and will eliminate the 5% wage cut. The bill introduced in February 2008, by New York City Council Member David Weprin, is now on the floor of the House.

5. How does the Alliance support itself?

Membership is approximately 11,600. However, membership means those who have voluntarily filled out and signed a membership form to join. It does not automatically translate into dues, payment. Our biggest problem is that we do not have the resources to effectively collect dues. Without automatic deduction, dues collection in most unions is a huge operation requiring two or three staff working just on that. If I look at our membership database then I think some 4 or 5 thousand of these 11000 would have paid dues at one point or another, but many would also have fallen through because there isn't enough resources to follow up when dues expire etc. NYTWA's way of looking at it is that we have to keep increasing our percentage of dues payers each year. The first objective is paying all our fixed expenses - salaries, rent, utilities through membership dues, what we are pretty much doing this at this point. If we steadily increase percentage dues payers then when we get to a point wherein we are "recognized" as a union we will then invent some version of a automated system for dues collection.

6. Why do you oppose Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposal to introduce hybrid taxis?

In October last year, a federal judge issued an injunction stopping the mandate for hybrid taxis. The amount of emissions that taxis contribute to the pollution in NYC is about 2%. With plummeting energy costs and high maintenance costs, hybrid taxis do not immediately make sense. Many see it as the Mayor's ploy to position himself politically as a green activist. Hybrid medallions were sold in 2007 - they were sold at a third what an medallion is sold. But that did not translate into a cheaper lease for the drivers.

7. What was the most significant achievement for the Alliance?

You will agree that it was unprecedented for any workers' group when the NYTWA in 2007 became the first independent labor union to become a full member of the New York State Central Labor Council. The Council is tremendously progressive.

6. During a recession like the current one when people are being laid off, there is greater pressure on the taxi industry. How will the alliance deal with this?

Anyone who drives a taxi even for one day, is welcome to the Alliance. It is an organization for the veteran driver as it is for someone who is a day old in the industry. With business cycles shortening rapidly, the working class is beginning to ask the question – do we need to deal with the booms and busts of a business cycle?

Trouble at the Coffee Maker?

A familiar problem may be brewing at Starbucks yet again - its employees are coalescing to fight illegal firings. Last week, workers at Starbucks’s Union Square outlet in New York City protested against reduction in benefits amid layoffs announced by the company. It seems the company has yet again fired employees illegally for organizing a union – in some cases with little notice and severance pay. While the Seattle headquartered company claims that the union is not legitimate, employees say there are legal proceedings which would put those fired back in their former jobs. Starbucks claims that the union is not legitimate, and the sentiment of those few employees does not mirror the way the vast majority of their employees feel about their jobs.

The company sells this ‘direct employment relationship’ which they currently have with their employees to help ensure a great work environment. The company that calls its employees partners and boasts that stock options are given to many of them.

It appears that although the company has said it would cut 600 jobs, only about 220 non-retail jobs were cut and remaining positions will not be filled. Most of the job cuts will not be at your coffee counter but in “offices”.

Recessions are bad times for companies looking for easy-to-fire ways to harass employees. Just look at the numbers: Store operating expenses as a percentage of related company-operated retail revenues rose to 43% in the first quarter of fiscal 2009, from 39.4% in the prior year period. The increase was primarily due to higher payroll expenditures as a percentage of revenues in the U.S. and International segments and costs for the company’s North America leadership conference held in New Orleans in October 2008. General and administrative expenses as a percentage of total net revenues improved to 4% for the first quarter of fiscal 2009, from 4.5% for the corresponding period of fiscal 2008. The improvement was primarily due to lower payroll-related expenses, due in part to the reduction in headcount as a result of the decision in July 2008 to eliminate approximately 1,000 open and filled positions.

The much-loved overpriced coffee chain had faced strong action from workers two years ago in response to the management’s decision to quell “unionizing”. The National Labor Relations Board had earlier accused Starbucks of breaking the law for fighting union activity at its outlets at outlets in Manhattan. After the Industrial Workers of the World filed a complaint that Starbucks managers had sought to suppress efforts for collective bargaining.

The management had then said that "It is unfortunate that a small group of people with an outside agenda aimed at promoting itself and its interests, rather than improving Starbucks partner experiences, continues to misrepresent itself as speaking on behalf of more than 170,000 partners worldwide when it does not."

It is often not the number of people affected that matters, the fact that anybody is shortchanged at all, is reason enough for dissent.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Using democracy for dictatorship

The Chavistas in Venezuela hailed their President who won a referendum to overturn the term limits set by the constitution. The amendment allows “Hurricane Hugo” to seek re-election as many times as he wants. The next presidential election is slated for 2012. Chavez has already finished a decade in power. So is this good for the people? Using a democratic apparatus to meet undemocratic ends? (Two million government employees skews the electorate)

Venezuela boasts of near 30% inflation – highest in Latin America. With 90% of its exports from oil, half its income is from this commodity alone. But there is another major export – The Bolivarian Revolution to fellow leftists in Latin America.
Its economy is in shambles – citizens have access to restricted currency transactions since the past five years. They resort to a parallel unregulated market instead. Plummeting crude prices has pushed the Bolivar down.

It is steeped in debt of more than $45 billion. Chavez raised government spending to 36% of its GDP by 2007. A lot of the spending for social sectors is marked as an off-balance sheet item – which is not the best way to deal with ‘social expenditure.’

Whats more, unsympathetic unions, human rights activists, have been at the receiving end of the Chavez administration that has clamped down on free speech. Reacting to a Human Rights Watch report last year, Chavez sent armed security agents to abduct two representatives from their hotel and put them on a plane to Brazil.

A Decade Under Chávez - Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities for Advancing Human Rights in Venezuela : “Discrimination on political grounds has been a defining feature of the Chávez presidency. At times, the president himself has openly endorsed acts of discrimination.”

The report says that an independent judiciary is indispensable for the protection of fundamental rights, but since 2004, the Supreme Court has been controlled by the President.

In a bid to democratize the labour movement, Chavez has : undermined workers' right to elect their representatives by requiring state oversight and certification of union elections; denied the right to bargain collectively to unions which do not receive state approval of election results; undermined workers' right to freely join the labor organization of their choosing by engaging in favoritism toward pro-government unions; and undermined workers' right to strike by banning legitimate strike activity and engaging in mass reprisals against striking oil workers, as per the report.

God speed to Venezuelans who are under the spell of Chavismo.

Update: A note on Western media's biased attention to Chavez.
A Forbes article dissecting Chavez' dependence on the Big Bad Oil firms from the US

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

In defense of wealth and power

Picture from:

Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova, a human rights lawyer and a journalist respectively were murdered in Russia last month. And there was not even a murmur from Kremlin. Russia is in the throes of chaos – a government busy defending its human rights record, oligarchs who are 'hurting', a downward revision in its debt rating, a plummeting currency and commodity prices in addition to fast depleting forex reserves.

While cold-blooded murder sponsored by the powerful may not be a rare occurrence in a state like Russia, what is astonishing is the social amnesia in the communist state.

The journalist covered Neo-Nazi activities and worked for Novaya Gazeta – a newspaper backed by Nobel Peace Prize winner and former Soviet President Mikhael Gorbachev who ushered in Glasnost – to ensure transparency of government institutions.

It is a bizarre time on the streets of Russia. Even as students are threatened against attending anti-government demonstrations, the economy is headed nowhere. Read here about how policymakers have fueled the speculation on the Ruble (banks have used money from loan auctions to bet against the currency!)

The point is can a government stem this unrest, just by shooting its conscientious citizens, in a country where there is little distinction between private businesses and the state?

Saturday, February 7, 2009

GDP growth and human rights violations

Page ones of several newspapers carried pictures of millions of Chinese rural workers heading back home from its urban centers. China is under pressure to keep growing at more than 10% and generate more than 10 million jobs to avoid social unrest. However, with GDP growth plummeting to 6.8% in Q4 2008, 20 million migrant labour is out of jobs. If relentless growth can inflict human rights violations on its people, what will a slowdown or a recession do?

Approaching the 20th anniversary of the pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square, the government is already edgy. There a UN review of the human rights violations by China. (The website of the Human Rights Watch is mysteriously not responding – is it more of the Google-in-China-syndrome?

The country has as many as 56 officially recognised ethnic minorities. Violations both inside and outside (Tibet and Darfur) will cost the government more in future than it has in the past.

In the context of human rights, Iran should also be discussed. As an aside, read the Journal's story on how European companies are funding the bomb in Iran. And further, The Huffington Post criticizing how western newspapers painted the story of Iran's satellite launch and ignoring Iran's human rights violations.

Update on the strike:
Last week, British wildcat strikers went back to work after six days of strike on the promise that Total will open up jobs to Britons and Prime Minister Brown offering concessions soon after attacking protectionism in Davos. Here is an interesting analysis of the strike, by comparing the episode to the book Germinal by Emile Zola. This article critiques the effects of pitting workers against workers.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

British Jobs for Britons

We begin taking note of dissent in a rather unusual place / predictably protectionist (not Latin America, India or Thailand) – North Lincolnshire in Britain. Oil workers are protesting against the decision by oil giant Total to award Italian company IREM a contract to build a new hydro desulphurization facility at its Lindsey Oil Refinery. The refinery is owned by the French oil company Total. It employs the giant American engineering company Jacobs which then subcontracts to an Italian firm, IREM.

It is a classic case of ‘British jobs for the British’. The protest is about the wholesale import of cheap labour. An edit in the Telegraph, raises the question if the framers of the EU have undermined two centuries old political struggle of ordinary citizens. But isn’t this xenophobia? Jon Cruddas is Labour MP for Dagenham does not think so. In the guardian he argues that crucial economic sectors are foreign owned in Britain.

It is indeed a tricky time for politicians. Are municipalities and state governments wrong in vying for foreign investments, even as immigrants are offered jobs?

The impact of such wildcat strikes on London Olympics 2012, will be interesting to watch. The City is already facing problems of private funding, sponsorships apart from declining tax revenues.

World Forums: Social Vs Economic

The World Social Forum (WSF) concludes in Brazil today. Depending on which side you are on, you could easily point fingers at the other side and believe that it was an exercise in futility – as much as the World Economic Forum in Davos.

The WSF has been a melting pot for thousands of social movements working in areas as diverse as labor, the environment, human rights, indigenous rights, education, among others. This meeting was particularly important given the global economic crisis.

But just as Davos was a lack-lustre event with fears over rising protectionism and yielding no solution to the global financial meltdown, so was Belem - the venue for the social forum in Brazil. Of course, no one really believed that either of these platforms could actually come up with a solution to the current crisis.

Both these groups took note of impending social unrest as a result of the global crisis. Rising unemployment and tough economic conditions have resulted in riots in Greece, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Madagascar. Demonstrations and protests have also led to the collapse of the government in Iceland. Both France and Russia witnessed people taking to the streets last week. A wave of protectionism is sweeping short-sighted politicians across developed countries, prompting developing ones to renege on their ‘commitment to free trade’.

There are two structural changes the members of the WSF should contend with. One is capital flows to emerging economies are declining and so is global lending. This will definitely impact social movements like microfinance. After all, if the lending pipeline dries up, banks and NGOs will find it difficult to make credit available to the poorest people on the planet.

Second, what will be the impact of trade wars? Is it really an occasion to celebrate – the end of capitalism and free trade? Colorful protestors at the WSF must understand the consequences of a closed world – a long cherished demand.