February 20th, 2021

Feminism in the Union

An interview with Begoña San José

Begoña San José is a feminist activist and trade union leader.

Maya Adereth: Tell us about your introduction to political activism and feminism.

Begoña San José : I had a religious upbringing and went to school at a convent when I was very young. The first movement I participated in was around the Second Vatican Council, which was about renewing the commitment to working people and the poor. When I left my parents’ house at the age of eighteen, I started working as a house cleaner, and in 1970 I was hired by OSRAM, a multinational company producing light bulbs and lamps. Even before I started working, I wanted to join the CCOO. I knew priests who were involved with it, and I knew about meetings held in Orcasitas, a working-class neighborhood in Madrid. But union operations were clandestine, and I had to join the ORT, a Maoist organization, in order to join the union.

I finally joined the CCOO in 1971, when a collective agreement was being negotiated at my factory. In 1973 I got arrested during a CCOO meeting and imprisoned without a trial. Shortly before entering prison I joined the PCE, and after I was released I continued working for the same firm. In 1974 I was arrested again and this time I was fired from the factory. In prison, I met members of a feminist organization called the Democratic Movement of Women. They worked closely with the PCE to organize solidarity efforts for political prisoners; they brought us books, clothes, and food. In 1975, Franco died and the feminist movement erupted. A common platform was developed, demanding equal access to employment, universal access to early childhood education, the legalization of contraceptives, and the elimination of sex-differentiated criminal sentences. I was active in this through the CCOO. We would meet exactly at the location where the Atocha massacre occurred in 1977, and after one of these meetings I was invited to a DMW meeting. My boss, a man, said I shouldn’t go, and that is what drove me to attend.

That was the first feminist meeting I attended in my life. I vividly remember watching the wives of trade union leaders and politicians criticize their husbands for defending democracy in the street and ignoring it in their homes. This feminist call for equality and democracy in the home hugely impacted me. One or two years later, the CCOO created a Department of Women, and I became an active member in 1976. I’ve been active in the Spanish feminist movement ever since.

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February 4th, 2021

Creative Destruction

An interview with Claudio Petruccioli

Claudio Petruccioli is an Italian politician who was president of the Italian national broadcast network RAI from 2005–2009.

I joined the Communist Party when I enrolled in university, in 1959. I didn’t belong to a leftist family, but it was a working class family. My grandfather was a worker, my father was a technician. The first in my family to attend university, I was born in a tradition of work but was drawn towards intellectual labor. If I think of the day in which I decided to be a communist, it was probably when I was fifteen and I went to the library in Umbria. I found a small book titled “Wage Labor and Capital” sitting on the table. They were lectures Marx had given to a worker’s club in London. I read the book in one sitting, and when I finished I felt like I had just understood precisely how the world works.

I was born in 1941, the immediate postwar years. They were difficult years, but my family never went hungry. So my shift to the left was not born of my immediate conditions. Why did I join the communists and not the socialists? It was because the socialists were forming a government with the Christian Democrats. It wasn’t because I was hostile to religion; the Christian Democrats repulsed me because they were the ruling party, and they imposed strict cultural limits (Machiavelli's Mandragola was considered a theatrical text that could not be publicly performed). So the only leftist opposition for me was the Communist Party.

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October 17th, 2020

Change Point

HEALTHCARE & UNIONS

Explanations for the absence of a universal healthcare program in the United States tend to focus on the obstructive role of the American Medical Association, which, via an extensive lobbying campaign, prevented the passage of a national health insurance plan in 1945. Much less attention has been paid to the diverging and often contradictory interests of organized labor during this period.

In her 2006 book, JILL QUADAGNO considers the relationship between industrial policy and healthcare reform, analyzing how the labor movement came to unify behind private insurance providers by the late 1940s.

From the text:

"Although Taft-Hartley outlawed independent, union-run welfare funds through a provision that employers had to share equally in the administration of any pension or health plan, it had left unresolved the issue of whether employers had to bargain over fringe benefits. In 1948 the National Labor Relations Board ruled that fringe benefits were subject to collective bargaining, a decision that was upheld by the Supreme Court. Then in 1949 the Wage Stabilization Board, whose job was to keep inflation from wage increases under control, determined that fringe benefits were not inflationary. With many options for increasing membership closed off, union leaders made bargaining for fringe benefits a top priority. Fringe benefits became organized labor’s key strategy for recruiting and retaining members. Over half of strikes in 1949 and 70 percent in 1950 were over this issue.

Between 1946 and 1957 the number of workers covered by negotiated health insurance plans rose from 1 million to 12 million, plus an additional 20 million dependents. Close to 95 percent of industrial workers represented by the CIO were covered, compared to only 20 percent of skilled craft workers affiliated with the AFL. As for national health insurance, most industrial unionists now 'gave [it] only lip service.' Private health insurance 'had taken the heat off.' The expansion of private health benefits divided the working class into those who had health insurance and those who did not, and it transformed the way organized labor mobilized politically. Instead of requiring leaders who could inspire the troops to stand by the barricades, the labor movement needed leaders who could master complex financial instruments. The next battle would be won by policy experts with calculators, not charismatic militants who could issue a call to arms."

Link to the book.

  • "Labor unions, senior citizens, socialists, and other groups have certainly participated in campaigns to redesign the health care system, but the campaigns themselves have most often been initiated and run by elite organizations and individuals with little connection to a popular base of support." Beatrix Hoffman on "Health Care Reform and Social Movements in the United States." Link.
  • Maryaline Catillon, David M. Cutler, and Thomas E. Getzen analyze US healthcare provision since 1800. [Link'(https://voxeu.org/article/two-hundred-years-health-and-medical-care).
  • "By the early 20th century, Britain had a strong civil service and competing, programmatically oriented political parties. However, the contemporary United States lacked an established civil bureaucracy and was embroiled in the efforts of Progressive reformers to create regulatory agencies and policies free of the 'political corruption' of 19th century patronage democracy." Ann Shola Orloff and Theda Skocpol compare healthcare provision in the US and UK. Link. And a 2011 article by Howard Glennerster and Robert C. Lieberman argues that "there are more parallels and points of tangency between the two systems than are readily apparent." Link.
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June 8th, 2020

The Burning

POLICE UNIONS

As commentators and policymakers have scrambled to find explanations for and responses to the unprecedented uprisings against police brutality across the United States, interest in the role of police unions in local politics has soared. Recent research into the question joins a decades-long debate in the labor movement over the distinctive character of police associations—not only as regards their power relative to the public, but also their political strength relative to the rest of the public sector.

A 2017 research paper by CATHERINE FISK and L. SONG RICHARDSON examines the evolution of US police unions, analyzes their impact on policymaking, and evaluates the efforts of cities to reform police departments over the past fifty years.

From the piece:

"Police officers formed local unions in various cities in the 1940s, and some police unions affiliated with national labor federations. However, well into the 1960s, police departments routinely fired officers who attempted to unionize, and courts upheld the power of cities to ban officers from joining unions. In the absence of legal rights to unionize or bargain collectively, government employee unions became adept at securing their members’ interests through political activity and negotiating informal agreements with public officials. Unions succeeded in gaining a lasting foothold in American police departments in the late 1960s. Not surprisingly, they negotiated for contractual protections against discipline and lobbied legislators to incorporate these protections in legislation. They opposed constitutional criminal procedure restrictions on police conduct and sought to block civilian oversight of police discipline. The legacy of the 1960s is collective bargaining agreements which make it difficult to investigate and punish officers to this day."

Link to the report.

  • "Cities which have low levels of police protections are also less likely to experience police abuse. Local-level politics does not have a salient effect on the level of police protections, but state labour laws have a significant impact on the level of protections which officers receive." Findings from a novel police protection index drawing on data from the US's 100 largest cities. Link. And a 2008 paper by Samuel Walker looks at, among other things, the relationship between the civil rights movement and the growth of police unions. Link.
  • Analyzing the consequences of a 2003 Florida Supreme Court decision which increased unionization among sheriffs' deputies, Dhammika Dharmapala, Richard McAdams, and John Rappaport find that "collective bargaining rights led to a substantial increase in violent incidents." Link.
  • A recent paper by Michael Zoorob looks at the electoral impact of the Fraternal Order of Police. Link.
  • "Until 1919, the AFL refused to charter police unions. The 1897 AFL convention rejected an application from a police group in Cleveland, explaining that 'it is not within the province of the trade union movement to organize policemen, no more than to organize militiamen, as both are often controlled by forces inimical to the labor movement.'" Joseph Slater's 2004 book recounts the tensions between police and the early American labor movement. Link.
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November 28th, 2019

Phenomenal Works: Alexander Hertel-Fernandez

On unions, advocacy, and influence

Alexander Hertel-Fernandez is a political scientist who studies the mechanisms of influence. Focusing on the strategies of organized interests, including both business and labor, Hertel-Fernandez's helps illuminate crucial and poorly understood levers of American political economy. His 2019 book State Capture details the growing predominance of conservative lobbying groups at the state level across the country. His first book, Politics at Work, revealed the ways that employers actively shape the voting behaviors of their workers, shedding new light on the instruments of corporate power in American society. And his forthcoming book, Millionaires and Billionaires United, co-authored with Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, documents the growth of wealthy donor networks across the political spectrum.

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August 19th, 2019

Tennis Court

DETERMINED MOVEMENT

Energy production and political institutions

The role of labor (with some notable exceptions) has been relatively marginal in debates over how to decarbonize the economy. But given the growing number of clean energy jobs (and some recent labor news), it is reasonable to predict that any large-scale shifts in the nature of energy production will be accompanied by large-scale shifts in the nature of energy work and the labor relations that define it.

In his 2011 book Carbon Democracy, Columbia University professor TIMOTHY MITCHELL explores the political history of energy production. The wide-ranging study spans history from the industrial revolution to the Arab Spring, and charts the relationship between carbon-based energy production and various forms of governance. Among the arguments at the core of the book is Mitchell's identification of the emergence of democratic labor institutions within the structure and position of coal mines during industrialization—a position that was weakened in the transition to oil.

From the book:

"Between 1881 and 1905, coal miners in the United States went on strike at a rate of about three times the average for workers in all major industries, and at double the rate of the next-highest industry. The rise of mass democracy is often attributed to the emergence of new forms of political consciousness, and the autonomy enjoyed by coal miners lends itself to this kind of explanation. There is no need, however, to detour into questions of a shared culture or collective consciousness to understand the new forms of agency that miners helped assemble. Strikes became effective, not because of mining's isolation, but because of the flows of carbon that connected chambers beneath the ground to every factory, office, home, or means of transportation that depended on steam or electric power.

Changes in the way forms of fossil energy were extracted, transported and used made energy networks less vulnerable to the political claims of those whose labor kept them running. Unlike the movement of coal, the flow of oil could not readily enable large numbers of people to exercise novel forms of political power."

Link to the book preview, link to a 2009 article that preceded its publication.

  • For more on labor dynamics in industrial Britain, see Robert Steinfeld's 2010 book Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor in the Nineteenth Century, and Suresh Naidu and Noah Yuchtman's 2012 paper on coercive contract enforcement in coal and other industries. Link to the first, link to the second.
  • A 2012 review of Mitchell's book by Matt Stoller: "Globally, the switch from coal to oil was a fight about labor. You can’t understand modern democratic or third world political structures without understanding energy, and particularly, coal and oil." Link.
  • A book on the role of Mexico's oil fields in labor disputes during the Mexican revolution, by Myrna I. Santiago. Link.
  • A Next System report by Johanna Bozuwa imagines a network of democratically-run energy projects as the core of a "just transition." Link.
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