Richard Kirsch

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow

Recent Posts by Richard Kirsch

  • Post Office Piles on Shift to Low Wage Economy with Staples Deal

    Apr 29, 2014Richard Kirsch

    The U.S. Postal Service is making changes that will add low wage jobs to our economy, rather than the middle-class jobs it's known for that we really need.

    The U.S. Postal Service is making changes that will add low wage jobs to our economy, rather than the middle-class jobs it's known for that we really need.

    The National Employment Law Project (NELP) has just come out with its latest report on the wage-levels of jobs added as the nation has emerged from the Great Recession. As with NELP’s previous reports, which continue to garner national attention, the news was pretty simple: we’re only adding low wage jobs. Some 1.85 million more low-wage workers – defined by under $13.33 an hour – are employed by low-wage industries now then in 2008.  About the same number, 1.93 million workers – fewer workers are now employed in mid-wage and higher-wage industries. 

    The U.S. Postal Service has historically been one of those higher-wage industries, with average pay just under $25 an hour. For generations, postal jobs have been a ticket to the middle-class, including as one of the few employers who hired African-Americans at good wages earlier in the 20th Century.  But the post office is accelerating a new strategy to increase sales and shed labor costs by opening up mini-post offices at Staples stores.

    Staples is one of those low-wage employers, with Staples workers reporting that retail clerks average around $8.50 an hour. After piloting the mini-post offices in 82 Staples stores, the post office announced it would expand the program, prompting the American Postal Workers Union to organize more than 50 protest rallies outside Staples stores around the country.

    Of course, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said that no postal jobs would be lost because of the Staples program and that the motivation was “growing our business.” But the same Wall Street Journal article with Donohoe’s statement revealed the real motivation. It quoted an internal postal service memo, which said that the Staples pilot program was to determine “if lower costs can be realized with retail partner labor instead of the labor traditionally associated with retail window at Post Offices.” Oops!

    The Staples arrangement is a huge expansion of the arrangement with retailers like WalMart and CVS around the country to sell stamps and other limited services. If the Staples pilot takes hold, it could pave the way for a huge collapse in the number of post offices outside rural areas. 

    It’s good to see that the American Postal Workers Union is loudly protesting the Staples deal. Workers in 27 states carried signs saying “Stop Staples: The U.S. Mail is Not for Sale” at the protests held on Thursday. The postal union is looking for allies. The California Federation of Teachers, which has 120,000 members, is considering a resolution to boycott buying school supplies at Staples.

    What’s at stake is not just the jobs of postal workers; it’s the American economy. We built the economy with middle-class jobs and the more we destroy them, the bleaker the prospects of economic prosperity for all but the richest of us.

    I’ll be looking for a new source of office supplies too.

    Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

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  • Labor Law for All Workers: Empowering Workers to Challenge Corporate Decision Making

    Apr 4, 2014Richard Kirsch

    This is the sixth and last in a series of posts summarizing a new Roosevelt Institute report by Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch, entitled "The Future of Work in America: Policies to Empower American Workers to Ensure Prosperity for All." The report provides a short history of how the rise and decline of unions and then explores reforms in labor policy to empower American workers to organize unions and rebuild the middle class.  Today’s post outlines possible policy solut

    This is the sixth and last in a series of posts summarizing a new Roosevelt Institute report by Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch, entitled "The Future of Work in America: Policies to Empower American Workers to Ensure Prosperity for All." The report provides a short history of how the rise and decline of unions and then explores reforms in labor policy to empower American workers to organize unions and rebuild the middle class.  Today’s post outlines possible policy solutions to several major challenges to organizing workers in today’s economy. Over the next year, the Future of Work project will be exploring many of these ideas in depth. Their inclusion here is to begin surfacing ideas, rather than as final recommendations for reform.

    If we are to give American workers the ability to bargain for a fair share of the wealth they create, we need strengthen labor law – as discussed in my last post – and bring in 34 millions workers (one-in-four) who are now excluded from the National Labor Relations Act.  These include domestic workers, farmworkers, front-line workers with minimum supervisory responsibilities, and public employees. The law should also be extended to include many workers now considered “independent contractors, ” even though an employer effectively determines their pay and working conditions. Examples range from truck drivers and cab drivers to adjunct faculty.

    Some of the most innovative and effective organizing of low-wage workers is being done by new types of worker organizations. Worker centers and other groups can and often do perform public services, such as job training, occupational safety and health training, monitoring compliance with labor laws and enrolling workers in a variety of public programs. Government funding should be awarded to the worker groups for these services. Public entities could also bargain directly with worker groups, such as those representing home health care workers. And when government directly or indirectly pays for workers – for example home health care workers are funded by Medicare and Medicaid, – it should require that workers have decent wages and benefits, and provide sufficient funding.

    We should also imagine broadening the scope of traditional labor law in the United States, to challenge traditional corporate prerogatives in the economy. When corporate growth comes at the expense of workers, it slows down the economy, because workers have less to spend. Corporations hurt communities when they relocate to seek lower paid workforces and lower taxes, or lobby against worker protections. When corporations lobby for lower taxes, they shirk their responsibility to pay for public services – from the roads on which they transport their goods, to the schools that educate their workers – resulting in deteriorating services and higher taxes on individuals and other businesses that do not get tax breaks.

    Organized workers can serve as a powerful antidote to the concentration of corporate power. The law should block corporations from transferring jobs from unionized to non-unionized facilities and from making long-term investment decisions that modernize non-union facilities at the expense of union facilities. Under current law, these practices are banned only when the NLRB can prove that the employer was motivated by anti-union bias, a high bar that is difficult to reach.

    The law should require unionized employers to recognize the union as the representative of new workers at any new facilities that the employer establishes or acquires. Unionized employers should not be allowed to close their business or specific facilities without first offering them for sale on the market. Bankruptcy courts should not be able to change union contracts without permission from the union.

    The scope of subjects over which employers are currently required to bargain with their employees could be expanded to a number of other subjects that impact workers and communities, including the introduction of new products, decisions to invest in new facilities, pricing, and marketing. In that way, the welfare of workers - not just the interests of shareholders and executives – would be considered in business decisions. Strikes could also be allowed over a broader range of corporate policies, including decisions that impact communities and consumers.

    Workers could also be given more of a role in corporate decision-making by requiring employers to allow the formation of “works councils,” an organizational form common in European countries. Works councils are established jointly by employers and worker organizations to represent workers in decisions in the workplace, ranging from personnel and management decisions to policies governing working conditions and major investments and locations. The current provisions in the NLRA, which are designed to block the formation of employer-controlled unions, may need to be amended to clarify that works councils may be set up when the workers approve of the councils and are not objectively dominated by the employer. Another measure would require that corporate boards of directors include representatives of unions, who would have full access to all corporate data.

    Local, state, and federal governments could leverage public contracts and subsidies to require employers to comply with workers’ rights to organize. For example, they could prohibit employers from running anti-union campaigns and they could require the recognition of card check elections or other forms of establishing majority support. Government could also require that firms that receive public contracts and subsidies meet standards for pay and benefits, as President Obama has done with his recent executive order establishing a $10.10 minimum wage for workers of federal government contractors.

    I’ll conclude with an observation about the politics of the variety of purposely-ambitious policy ideas I’ve outlined in the last two posts in this series. Good ideas can play a key role in organizing workers and in the other ways of making change. It is much easier to get where you want to go if you know where you want to go. Good ideas give people hope that there can be a better world and help them see the way forward.

    But the power to win these policies will come through organizing people at work and in their communities, through changing culture and the public’s understanding of the importance of organized workers in moving the economy forward. The most important of these will be organizing workers to demand that they receive a fair share of the wealth they help create.

    We hope that the ideas and discussion generated by the Future of Work in America will inspire Americans to ensure that every job respects the dignity and value of every worker, as we build an America of broadly shared prosperity.

    Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

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  • In the Wake of McCutcheon, Can Democracy Tame Capital?

    Apr 4, 2014Richard Kirsch

    With wealth concentrating in the hands of the few, and the Supreme Court handing even greater political power to those with big money, what can be done to protect democracy?

    The Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision, making it even easier for the rich to buy political power, highlights the big question raised by Thomas Piketty’s new instant economic classic, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. What chance is there for our democracy to stop the relentless accumulation of wealth by the richest few?

    With wealth concentrating in the hands of the few, and the Supreme Court handing even greater political power to those with big money, what can be done to protect democracy?

    The Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision, making it even easier for the rich to buy political power, highlights the big question raised by Thomas Piketty’s new instant economic classic, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. What chance is there for our democracy to stop the relentless accumulation of wealth by the richest few?

    The core lesson of Piketty’s book, based on extensive analysis of data, is that, as Eduard Porter summarized in the Times, “the economic forces concentrating more and more wealth in the hands of the fortunate few are almost sure to prevail for a very long time.” Piketty says that as the return to capital exceeds economic growth, an ever larger share of national income goes to the owners of capital, the managers of capital and to their heirs.

    Economics can’t reverse this, Piketty warns. Only “political action can make this go in the other direction,” he told Porter. The political action he recommends is global taxation of wealth and highly progressive income taxes. As James Galbraith points out in a review of Piketty’s book in Dissent, labor policies like raising the minimum wage and empowering labor unions would also work to share increases in national income more fairly and reduce income inequality, as would robust inheritance taxes.

    Policy solutions are easy to come up with. The enormous challenge is that the more wealth is concentrated, the harder it becomes to enact those policies.

    That’s not how it is supposed to work in a democracy. In theory, if the great majority of people are doing worse, while a few are doing much better, the majority should be able to change the policy at the voting booth. As just about anyone in America will tell you – from the Tea Partiers who decry crony capitalism to the Occupiers who rail against the 1% (I’m with them) – that’s not happening.

    In the last few years, several academic studies by Larry Bartels and others have documented that what the rich believe prevails in politics and what the rest of us think has relatively little impact. The most recent study, released last month, was summarized in Forbes this way:

    Those who have assets worth $40 million or more, hold undue sway over the positions politicians take on issues ranging from health care to global warming to defense spending. The wealthiest Americans, contends the paper, are more conservative than the public as a whole on many issues, and U.S. public policy reflects that.

    That academics are finding what everyone outside of the five-member conservative majority in the Supreme Court believes – money buys influence, not just access – is gratifying, but hardly surprising. Of course, the political clout of the wealthy is based on more than just campaign cash. It’s control of major media and of much of academia. It’s control of people’s lives, so that corporations can threaten to cut jobs due to pro-labor policies and those threats are too scary for many people to risk challenging. It’s the prevalence and convergence of the conservative narrative, creating the “false consciousness” that leads so many people to vote against their own economic self-interest.

    If we look to American history for guidance on whether democracy can rally, the lessons are not clear. For the first three centuries of European settlement of the United States, the opportunities offered by the expanding frontier relieved the pressure for economic justice. But as the frontier closed, the political pressure for policies to rein in corporate concentration and provide basic labor rights intensified. The result was the landmark legislation enacted in the Progressive era, from income and inheritance taxes to child labor laws to trust-busting. But that didn’t stop the huge rise in income inequality that led up to the stock market crash of 1929.

    The New Deal provides more positive evidence that if it gets bad enough for enough people, the political system will respond dramatically: regulating finance, establishing labor standards and the right to organize, providing for social insurance, government job creation. Still, it took a world war for the political system to make the all-out investment in jobs and conditions for growth that built the great post World War II middle-class.

    So where does that leave us in 2014, after 40 years of slowly stagnating wages and gradual but relentless shrinking of middle-class reality and hopes? My first boss, Ralph Nader, wrote that “pessimism has no survival value” and 39 years after he hired me I continue to follow that advice. I can see many positive signs that we can successfully organize the political will for progressive policies to create an America that works for all of us, not just the wealthy few.

    Most encouraging are new movements, by low-wage workers and by people demanding we stop killing the planet. I’m encouraged by the Millennial generation’s belief in community and embracing of diversity. And by the rising American electorate of women and communities of color who share with Millennials a belief in collective action to care for our loved ones and our communities. I’m lifted by the election of a growing number of economic progressives to local and state leadership and most recently to Congress. All of these groups share a deep concern about the state of our democracy, reminding us as well that with a switch of just one vote, the Supreme Court can reverse the disastrous Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions, as well as the damage done by striking down key parts of the Voting Rights Act.

    Can the powerful forces Piketty describes by turned back by a resurgent democracy? Two thousand years ago, Plutarch observed, “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.” The stakes in the 21st Century are still that great. Don’t mourn: organize.

    Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

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  • Labor Law That Would Support Organizing in Today’s Economy

    Apr 3, 2014Richard Kirsch

    This is the fifth in a series of posts summarizing a new Roosevelt Institute paper report by Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch, entitled the "The Future of Work in America: Policies to Empower American Workers for and Ensure Prosperity for All." The paper report provides a short history of how the rise and decline of unions and then explores reforms in labor policy to empower American workers to organize unions and rebuild the middle class.

    This is the fifth in a series of posts summarizing a new Roosevelt Institute paper report by Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch, entitled the "The Future of Work in America: Policies to Empower American Workers for and Ensure Prosperity for All." The paper report provides a short history of how the rise and decline of unions and then explores reforms in labor policy to empower American workers to organize unions and rebuild the middle class. Today’s post outlines possible policy solutions to several major challenges to organizing workers in today’s economy. Over the next year, the Future of Work project will be exploring many of these ideas in depth. Their inclusion here is to begin surfacing ideas, rather than as final recommendations for reform.

    For decades, organized labor has supported federal legislation that aims to correct the imbalances in the NLRANational Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which favor employers and block unionization. The most recent push was for the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which President Obama supported when he ran in 2008. However, in the face of threatened filibuster in the Senate by Republicans and a handful of Democrats, the President never made the issue a priority.

    The list of potential reforms to the NLRA is as long as the law’s weaknesses. The top priority inof the EFCA was requiring employers to recognize a union once a majority of workers in the workplace had signed a card supporting the union. Card check elections could be expanded to include mail ballots and confidential on-line ballots as methods for demonstrating support from a majority of workers.

    Other potential policies focus on leveling the playing field in union elections. Employers could be required to allow union representatives to have access to workers on the employer’s premises and be given equal time to speak to employees, when equal to the time employers spend campaigning against unionization.

    Other reforms would create meaningful disincentives for employers, such as substantial penalties for retaliating against workers, rather than the current virtually meaningless penalty of requiring employers to provide back pay. Employers could also be prohibited from hiring replacement workers during a strike or lockout. Indeed, lockouts could be outlawed altogether.

    While the reforms above are aimed at correcting long-established imbalances in labor law, other polices would tackle a big challenge in today’s economy. The nation’s biggest employers, fast-food chains and big box stores, have thousands of locations, each with a relatively small number of workers. Organizing these huge employers could be facilitated by allowing bargaining at multiple worksites. This would give unions the right to define the boundaries of bargaining units, either combining the units that exist within a single corporation or bringing together workers who labor for multiple employers within the same industry.

    Another approach would require the creation of multi-employer consortia for the purposes of bargaining, allowing for workers to organize for better wages and working conditions in an entire industry.

    Another policy would expand the use of hiring halls to a number of industries, potentially modeled after the construction industry. In construction, union members typically work on short-term jobs for multiple employers. These construction workers are hired through union hiring halls, and they receive health and retirement benefits from a multi-employer insurance fund administered jointly with the union.

    To build on this model, employers in other industries could be required to hire workers through hiring halls, run by worker organizations. Employers would be required to pay into a fund run by the worker organizations, which would administer portable benefits - – including health coverage, retirement accounts, and earned sick days, family leave, and vacation - – earned by individual workers through their work with multiple employers,

    Another transformational policy would be to end the requirement that a union win majority recognition in a given bargaining, with the responsibility to represent all the workers in that unit. Instead, unions would could be allowed to represent only those workers who choose to join the union. Members-only unions could operate across numerous employers within an industry, within a region or across a supply chain. Repealing exclusive representation would allow members-only unions to collectively bargain for their members and to represent only their members in grievances with their employers. A hybrid system would allow members-only unions to function until such time that a majority of workers vote to establish a union with the responsibility of exclusive representation.

    In today’s economy, many workers are employed by companies that are largely or wholly dependent on huge companies that drive national and global supply chains. Labor policies must enable workers to seek decent wages and working conditions from those big companies, even if they do not work for them directly.

    Companies like Walmart often contract with warehouse companies that almost exclusively handle Walmart-bound products. Policy changes to hold a dominant employer accountable for the companies that it effectively controls, would make a company like Walmart accountable for the conditions in those warehouses and require them to bargain with the warehouse workers. Similarly, it is common in the garment industry for a major retailer to require garment factories to produce items to the retailer’s specifications. The major company would be held accountable to the workers in those subcontracted garment factories. The dominant employer would be responsible if the controlled company violates labor laws, including labor standards, worker organizing and occupational safety and health protections.

    Another approach would be to address the now-common practice of employers misclassifying workers as “independent contractors” in order to reduce compensation costs to employees and to exclude those workers from federal labor law protections. If workers are misclassified, all of the employers up the supply chain could be held legally responsible. Anti-trust and labor law should be changed to remove any barriers to worker organizations reaching agreements with a dominant employer that would apply to other firms in the supply chain.

    Restoring the right to organize boycotts or strikes of companies in the supply chain, would be another tool for unions to pressure companies upstream or downstream from the company being organized.

    Taken together, these measures would level the playing field for workers who now face a huge economic and legal imbalance as they seek a fair share of the enormous wealth being produced by huge, global employers.

    Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

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  • The Challenges to Organizing Workers in Today's Economy

    Apr 2, 2014Richard Kirsch

    This is the fourth in a series of posts summarizing a new Roosevelt Institute paper report by Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch, entitled "The Future of Work in America: Policies to Empower American Workers and Ensure Prosperity for All." The report provides a short history of how the rise and decline of unions and then explores reforms in labor policy to empower American workers to organize unions and rebuild the middle class.

    This is the fourth in a series of posts summarizing a new Roosevelt Institute paper report by Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch, entitled "The Future of Work in America: Policies to Empower American Workers and Ensure Prosperity for All." The report provides a short history of how the rise and decline of unions and then explores reforms in labor policy to empower American workers to organize unions and rebuild the middle class. Today’s post identified the major challenges posed by the changes in how employment is structured, which new policies must address.

    When you consider what it would take, under American labor law, to organize the nation’s biggest employers, you understand the huge challenge unions face to organize workers and win a fair share of the nation's economic progress.

    Today, the largest employers in the country (Walmart, McDonalds and Yum Brands – owner of major fast-food chains like KFC and Pizza Hut) – employ a small number of workers, primarily low-wage, at each of their thousands of locations. Walmart - which employs approximately 300 workers at each location - is the largest of these. Unions would need to collect the signatures of half of the workers at each of thousands of locations, so organizing a major share of the company’s employees is daunting.

    After a union did get the support of a majority of workers at any location, the company could warn its employees against voting for the union while they were on the clock, but the union would need to find and talk to each employee outside of work. The only penalty the company would face for firing union activists or supporters would be to pay back-pay, a nominal amount when wages are so low, and only after a protracted regulatory and judicial process.

    Of course, since many of the workers are part-time, job turnover is very high. As a result, the longer the store succeeds in delaying an election, the more workers will turn over, requiring the union to continually organize new crops of workers to win a simple majority. If the workers won the election and the store refused to negotiate in good faith, it could prolong the talks until only a few of the original workers remained. If workers did strike, the store could hire replacement workers and wait longer. Or they could decide to close the store – as Walmart did in Canada – because the loss to the company of one outlet among thousands has virtually no impact on its bottom line. And if by some miracle a union organizing effort was successful, the union would represent only the one store that employed only a fraction of the corporation’s workforce, making it difficult to influence broader industry standards.

    When we look at the job categories that are adding the most workers today we see the same story. The organizing challenges of two groups of workers - retail sales and fast food - are captured in the discussion above. We also find other obstacles. Only one of the six job categories with the most job growth – registered nurses – has historically been represented by unions. A substantial share of workers in two other growing categories – home health aides and personal care aides – are not covered by the NLRA, whether because they work for the person they are assisting or because they are categorized as independent contractors.

    We can group the major challenges facing labor organizing and policy into five categories:

    Current labor law is tilted against unions. There are virtually no strong incentives for employers to recognize unions or to reach bargaining agreements. Government is ineffective in enforcing the laws on the books and powerful tools that unions might use to gain more power in the economy are prohibited.

    Only a relatively small number of workers are employed at one site. As we described above, organizing workers at many of the nation’s large corporations now requires successful campaigns at thousands of worksites.

    Industries are typified by diverse, global supply chains, in which a major corporation that sells goods to the public does not directly employ many of the workers who produce its products. As a result, the employer that is driving the price for the good or service being delivered is shielded from legal responsibility for the conditions of work, the compensation paid to many of the people who make the good or deliver the service, and responsibility for responding to unionization efforts.

    Labor law does not cover many workers. Approximately one-in-four workers are not covered by the NLRA or other labor laws. These include domestic workers, farmworkers, supervisors and independent contractors.

    Corporations have become much more powerful than unions and often more powerful than governments, making decisions that determine people’s well being and shape the national and global economy. Corporations use their power to cut wages and benefits, including by subverting labor laws.

    A major goal of the Future of Work Initiative is to envision policies to address these challenges, in order to create a society of broadly shared prosperity. We seek policies to both reform and transform American labor law and policy. In the final two posts in this series, we will describe a wide variety of policy ideas to address the five major challenges listed above.

    Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

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