Saturday, September 01, 2007

Labor Day and Cesar Chavez

Cesar Chavez died on April 23, 1993. I had forgotten to put his icon up on that day, but it turns out that Labor Day is also very appropriate for this tireless advocate of labor rights. Robert Lentz, who drew this icon, describes him perfectly.

Cesar Chavez, champion of the poor, saw his family’s home and small farm seized by creditors when he was only 10. He spent his youth as a migrant worker, traveling with his family wherever there were crops to harvest. They shared what little they had with those who had less.

Work in the fields meant long hours of backbreaking tasks and exposure to dangerous pesticides, for half the wages other workers in the United States could expect. Workers had no rights and lived at the mercy of employers. This experience of helplessness and poverty engendered in Cesar a profound thirst for justice. From 1952 until his death, he worked ceaselessly to improve the lot of his people.

After ten years of working in voter registration drives and in challenging police and immigration abuse, he turned his attention to the struggle for justice for migrant workers. Using non-violent tactics and sustained by the deep spirituality of his Catholic Mexican roots, he led the United Farm Workers through seemingly impossible situations. Agribusiness sometimes responded with violence. Several union members were killed. Even the Teamsters tried to sabotage what gains his union made. In spite of all odds, he made the plight of migrants known to the rest of the nation, giving a voice to those who had been forgotten.

Always a poor man, Cesar sometimes had to ask for food for his wife and children from the very workers he was trying to organize. He died on April 23, away from home on union business, after an eight-day water-only fast. An estimated 35 thousand people formed his three-mile-long funeral procession. He was buried as a poor man in a simple pine box. He remains in our midst, however, as a patron of all the poor, but especially of immigrant minorities who suffer solely because they will not watch their families starve. In this icon he carries the Constitution of the United States, for whose guarantees he fought, on behalf of all the oppressed.

The Cesar Chavez Foundation describes one of his struggles.

Since 1975, the UFW won most of the union elections in which it participated. Despite the farm labor board's bureaucratic delays, farm workers made progress. By the early 1980's farm workers numbered in the tens of thousands were working under UFW contracts enjoying higher pay, family health coverage, pension benefits and other contract protections.

Then, in 1982, with more than $1 million in grower campaign donations, Republican George Deukmejian was elected Governor of California. Most objective observers agree that under Deukmejian, the farm labor board ceased to enforce the law. In 1984, Cesar called for another grape boycott. In July and August 1988, he conducted a 36 day "Fast for Life" to protest the pesticide poisoning of grape workers and their children. Cesar lived with his family since 1970 at La Paz, in Keene, California, the union's headquarters in Kern County's Tehachapi Mountains, east of Bakersfield,. Like other UFW officers and staff, he received subsistence pay that didn't top $5,000 a year.

Gross labor violations continue today in blue collar occupations, even in the US. Labor and human rights violations occur abroad, where we outsource our production. Even in white collar occupations, questionable labor practices continue. For example, despite the fact that previous Popes have endorsed unions, and the fact that Chavez (and a number of other famous labor rights activists, like Dorothy Day and Mother Jones) was Catholic, the Church has done such things as refuse teachers the right to organize. In addition, a lot of Catholic hospitals take measures to prevent unionization.

Is there a better way?

Cingular, now AT&T, declared neutrality on unions, and did not interfere in union activities.

"Management didn’t pressure us or try to interfere. Our union campaign was positive and without conflict. We didn’t attack the company and they didn’t attack us. We were focused on improving our jobs and making Cingular a better place to work."
Larry Barrett, wireless tech

Although Harley Davidson recently had a strike, its good union relations have saved the company in the past:

Continuous improvement demands involvement from employees. Management's dilemma was how to align employee motivation with company goals. In Harley-Davidson's case, all employees take part in a gain-sharing program and are paid cash incentives for attaining and maintaining quality, profitability, and product delivery goals. In 1995, more than 2,000 of Harley's 4,694 employees took training and education programs from the Harley-Davidson Learning Center. These courses helped the company to be more competitive and to foster employees' personal growth and development. Extensive team-building has taken place at all levels of the company, including team-building for union leaders, negotiation committees, and stewards. Open communication, at all levels, is used as a major key to achieving teamwork and employee participation. For example, engineers are located right in the plant, within walking distance of machine operators. The practice of open communication is also represented in the relationship between top management and the union.

Harley Davidson has an untypical relationship with the union. Continuous improvement techniques could have been stopped if the company did not have a good relationship with the union. The union viewed management as a partner instead of an adversary. Management's good-faith dealing's with the union was a factor in this special relationship. Harley-Davidson has a history of in-sourcing; it tries to bring as much work as possible into the plant to forestall any layoffs. The union has considerable control over what kind of work is outsourced to other companies. So the union is able to create a "job security" by choosing the work that is done in-house. Bob Klebar, the president of the union stated, "When times are good, we´d outsource it. But if things get tougher, we´d look at those projects and maybe bring them in-house to keep the employment" (Filipczak 41). He also mentioned that "instead of focusing on what we think we have a right to, his people work closely with the production department, and everyone concentrates on the final customer. It really binds us together and makes us go in the right direction" (Filipczak 41). Teerlink, Harley-Davidson´s CEO, said that total employee involvement (EI) cannot exist until management and labor can agree that they have a mutual goal: the long-term success of the company (Reid 173). In this joint process, joint union-management study groups identify issues or problems and then research all possible solutions.

United Parcel Service has high levels of unionization, and high employee stock ownership. Employees own a class of stock that gives them ten times the voting power of the regular shares, so they have great say in how the company is run, and also strong incentive to run it well. I should also note that while the CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey, is rabidly anti-union, its employees also have high levels of stock ownership, which contributes to an empowered, productive culture.

No comments: