August 1999, Vol. 122, No. 8
of organized labor
Workers compensation laws
Book reviews from past issues
Future of organized labor
A New Labor Movement for the New Century. Edited by Gregory Mantsios. New York, Monthly Review Press. 1998, 353 pp. $24.
In one of his many speeches, John L. Lewis, President of the United Mine Workers of America and leading force behind the creation of the CIO in the 1930s, preached in his stentorian voice, "Let the workers organize. Let the toilers assemble. Let their crystallized voice proclaim their injustices and demand their privileges. Let all thoughtful citizens sustain them, for the future of Labor is the future of America." After reading A New Labor Movement for the New Century, one might hypothesize that the late Mr. Lewis somehow received a 60-year advance copy of the book and delivered this statement as commentary. The contributors to the book all note that the labor movement must discover drastic, new methods of organizing and operating if it wants to regain the right to represent the American workforce.
Yet, as the Lewis quote indicates, are the policies, programs, and strategies identified by the various authors of the book really that new, or simply a cyclical return to basics? The focus of each author’s theories for a new direction for the labor movement is to organize the unorganized. To accomplish this, the American labor movement must jettison its conservative "top down" administrative structure prevalent in the 1950–80 period, and develop grass roots strategies where workers develop some form of working-class consciousness. This new philosophy must cross racial, ethnic, religious, socio-economic and, to some extent, political boundaries. Almost every chapter acknowledges that the "New Voice" leadership of the AFL-CIO leadership, led by John Sweeney who assumed the reigns of the labor federation in 1995, has begun to reverse the stagnation from previous administrations but still has a long way to go.
The book is the compilation of several papers delivered at a 1995 conference organized by the Queens College Labor Resource Center. The authors all have dissented against the policies of the Kirkland/Donahue administration of the AFL-CIO, and clearly admit so from the beginning. Their theories to reform organized labor are provocative, intriguing, and compared to the administration and operation of labor unions over the past 30 years or so, fairly radical. But one draws the line at describing their theories as new. In fact, "grass roots" organizing, utilizing the core community and its social web, was the new paradigm in the 1960s when scholars such as Herbert Gutman, Work Life, Culture and Industrializing Society, Philip Foner, History of the American Labor Movement, and Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital popularized the concept. It is hard to distinguish that this concept is far different from the "one big union" campaign espoused by the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies) at the turn of the century.
This, however, is a new century and the struggles and strategies of earlier eras have been forgotten by many. The suggestions for reforming the labor movement are new to this generation of workers. The new unionism of the 21st century, as defined by this book, will consist of five distinct segments of this work’s thesis: internal union democracy versus autocratism; organizing the unorganized; diversity of membership and leadership; participation in the political process; and globalization. Transition from one section to another is excellent, demonstrating editorial expertise and subject knowledge. Readers unfamiliar with the struggles of a developing labor movement will, if nothing else, find this easy to digest and understand.
The first few chapters clearly define what has happened to the movement and who is responsible. Naturally, corporate greed, political chicanery, and erosion of the social contract created by the Wagner Act in 1935 are clearly isolated. The stagnation of union leadership and its parochial policies, however, receives particular disdain. The George Meany/Lane Kirkland era witnessed the federation’s role as benefiting the AFL-CIO but not necessarily workers. John Sweeney is quoted stating, "The AFL-CIO—too often seemed content to generate position papers—with little effect on workers beyond the Washington beltway." The authors of section one do acknowledge that Sweeney’s Service Employees Union, with its Justice for Janitors campaign, and the United Farm Workers Union, led for many years by former migrant worker Cesar Chavez, were two exceptions to this trend and the models for future union administration.
Possibly the central theme of the entire work and conference that preceded it is Part 2: organize the unorganized. The new AFL-CIO leadership has made a good start, but more intense progress is urgent. The labor federation’s new organizing institute, several authors argue, must integrate young, paid, college educated organizers with internal community-based and workplace-based activists. Examples of the Communications Workers and organization of Hispanic truck drivers and the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees organizing through the influences of "women of color" in New York are examined in detail. The exclusionary membership policies of the past received special focus. The key to reaching the unorganized, several authors claim, is to abandon the embarrassing record of the past where diversity was a foul word.
In order to organize the unorganized, this work claims there must be one vision of workers and class, and that a unified approach to economics and politics will replenish union ranks. Once again the emphasis is away from members and toward those without union cards. "America Needs a Raise," was not only a book written by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, but also a campaign to upgrade the living and working standards of all working-class individuals. And, while the "New Voice" effort by the labor federation is a good start, a movement away from traditional two-party politics in favor of a bona fide labor party is their vision for the future. The labor movement was unable to stop NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) or obtain legislation restricting the use of permanent strike replacements. To revive the labor movement, its leaders must aim beyond the workplace and strive for improvements in the welfare system, taxation policies, and government operations.
Finally, there exists the haunting specter of globalization. The collective authorship in this work realize that the "social contract" between workers and employers, as institutionally created by the 1935 Labor Management Relations Act has eroded substantially. One prime reason is the employers ability and willingness to transfer work outside the U.S. borders. The answer, they state, is not protectionism, but a global movement promoting pro-worker rights and trade standards. As one of the authors succinctly wrote, "What is good for GM may be good for GM, but what is good for American auto workers is a strong international labor movement." To complement that statement, AFL-CIO Vice President Richard Trumka noted that America’s chief export must be "international solidarity."
The combination of all these factors has resulted in an intriguing, interesting, and easy to read publication. Students of the labor movement, however, will immediately recognize that the central thesis was extremely predictable. There is really nothing new here that has not been advocated by what can be labeled the more activist fringe of the labor movement. Some questions also rise in the analysis of this book. What countermeasures will organized capital take to combat labor’s drive? Will we see sit-down strikes by Nike workers in Indonesia, where labor rights are regularly violated and government troops have attacked pro-labor demonstrations? Will we see workers in developing nations with cultural baggage alien to trade unionism adapt to organizing efforts? The authors briefly explore the possible relationship between American trade unions and the European Community, with its work councils and labor representation on business boards of directors, but this issue needs extrapolation. Perhaps these questions await further study and will be answered in future publications.
Nonetheless, this is a worthwhile publication that should be read by anyone interested in the future of labor relations. It may be the direction of the union movement in the 21st century, or it may be a utopian look at labor activism’s wish list. The collective authorship is composed of some of the "movers and shakers" of trade unionism and academia, including Ron Blackwell of the new AFL-CIO organizing institute, Jeremy Beecher who wrote the classic radical book , Strike, George Kourpias former president of the IAM, Ruth Needleman who has written extensively on women of color in the union movement, and other noted activists too numerous to mention in a short review. There is no argument that the collective authorship hold key positions in the "new labor movement," but is this a realistic direction for the American labor movement which has not succeeded in raising a U.S. working-class consciousness? Time, as the adage proclaims, will tell.
The pontifications of John L. Lewis to organize the unorganized are fully dissected in this publication. The authors don’t dwell on past failures too much except to illustrate the need for new directions in the post-industrial age of global economics. In fact, they encourage a new and aggressive campaign to not only restore trade unionism to its former position of power, but surpass previous levels. This is necessary to counterbalance the forces of large capital and create the "level playing field" in the labor-management process. It evokes memories of another labor activist, the martyred Joe Hill, who’s final words allegedly were, "Don’t mourn for me—Organize." This book preached the gospel of Joe Hill.Henry P. Guzda
Work, Health, and Environment: Old Problems, New Solutions. Edited by Charles Levenstein and John Wooding. New York, The Guilford Press, 1997, 536 pp.
Gathered from the journal, New Solutions, this collection of articles focuses on the relationship between occupational and environmental health. Each chapter brings critical issues to the reader’s attention. This collection educates everyone—be they college students, community residents, industry representatives, government officials or scientific experts—bringing a new focus on the work environment to a wide audience.
The book is divided into four major sections: the political economy of the work environment; regulation and public policy; social conflict and the politics of health and safety; and future directions in work environment, health, and democracy. The organization of the book provides the general background and comments necessary to bring those unfamiliar with the issues up to par. Specific issues and case studies help illustrate the arguments and points made.
The first section of the book sets the stage for the remaining chapters. Levenstein and Tuminaro adeptly argue that occupational illness and disease is a reflection of economic, political, and social factors. The combination of these factors, and their subsequent relationship to each other, are crucial in understanding (and analyzing) environmental and occupational health concerns and problems. Kuhn and Wooding analyze how the structure of work has changed over time, linking environmental and occupational health concerns to the decline of labor unions, job security, medical benefits, and increased stress.
The book’s second part focuses on the use of government regulations to ensure workers’ health. The efficiency of these regulations, however, is dependent on the same economic, political, and social factors described in section one. Noble’s essay on the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) 20 years later provides an interesting look at the Federal Government’s attempt to regulate the work environment. Several case studies are portrayed in this section, including mining, workers’ compensation insurance, occupational lead standard, multiple chemical sensitivity, cancer theories and prevention, occupational stress, and sexual harassment. Each illustrates the political economy of the work environment and the interconnectedness of the economic, political, and social factors with the science-based policies that influence policy. The remaining chapters in this section identify the problems with assessing the risks that influence policy. The essays included in this portion are critical of risk assessment, raising questions concerning the political and (at times) unethical nature. While several of the authors find fault with the technique, Wartenberg and Chess argue that the process of risk assessment serves as an empowering tool for communities. The use of industrial hygiene practices in the work place is also discussed.
The third section of the book focuses on the relationship between the role of the "experts" (scientists and professionals) and the supposed neutrality of science. Here too, the interplay of economic, political, and social factors can be found. The work of the scientist or professional is rarely neutral. It is always influenced by their skills and training, their social standing, and their ambitions and beliefs. This outside influence plays havoc on the neutral role of science, leading to social conflicts. Included in this section are discussions of community involvement, environmental racism, occupational health clinics, and programs for change.
The final portion of the book is dedicated to finding solutions to the issues and concerns raised in the earlier sections of the book. The authors agree that workplace reform is needed—how that reform occurs, and what form it takes are arguable. Everything from a corporate charter (defining the relationship between a company and a community), to removing the inequalities (income, opportunities for employment, and adequate housing), to centering life around one’s family and friends, recreation and personal development instead of one’s occupation are addressed.
The editors of this collection have done an outstanding job organizing the articles and illustrating the relationship between the economic, political, and social factors that comprise the work environment. The reader comes away with a greater appreciation of the complexities of the issues involved.
Division of Economic Development
Idaho Department of Commerce
Workers compensation laws
Workers’ Compensation: A Reference and Guide. By Peter M. Lencsis. Westport, Conn. Quorum Books, 1998, 173 pp. $59.95.
Workers’ compensation in the United States is a combined government and private insurance program that today provides benefits to most workers who suffer work-related disabilities. It is a no-fault social insurance concept similar to no-fault automobile insurance and it mandates the payment of statutorily defined medical, disability, and other benefits to injured employees without regard to fault as a cause of the accident.
A part of the system is the requirement that employees buy and maintain insurance to cover all of their workers’ compensation liability exposure (something like compulsory automobile insurance) unless they can qualify as self-insurers on the basis of their extraordinary financial ability. Premium rates for different categories of employment are determined by the collection and analysis of detailed statistics with reference to the expected losses or claims for each category.
Peter Lencsis’ book, with its discussion of workers’ compensation laws in terms of their history, and at various governmental levels (Federal and State), benefits and claims, insurance coverage and premiums, as well as current trends and issues in workers’ compensation, comes at a time when the media has reported that workers’ compensation costs —at one time one of the fastest rising business expenses—has been falling since the mid-1990s. But explanations as to "why?" differ.
Businesses say: Double-digit inflation in workers’ compensation has forced companies to create safer workplaces, and to minimize health care costs by shifting workers to managed care. Companies also say that they are bringing injured workers back to the job sooner, even if it means giving them part-time work or less taxing duties.
But labor leaders and lawyers say most of the savings are the result of new State laws, passed because of intense corporate lobbying. These new laws make it more difficult for workers to qualify for workers’ compensation, and provide lower benefits for those who do.
Present workers’ compensation laws in the United States have evolved over time, the author points out. According to the American Insurance Association, 136 countries around the world had a workers’ compensation system of one kind or another as of 1989. This benefit appears to be viewed as a necessary basic social welfare arrangement even in many countries that have no other benefits. Profiled are the plans of Canada, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, and New Zealand. Workers’ compensation as it ultimately materialized in the United States had origins in the laws of Germany and of England. The English legal background was the traditional body of negligence law as applied to the master-servant relationship. In Germany was the distinctive idea that accidents connected with employment should be compensated, regardless of the presence or absence of negligence or other fault.
Prior to 1910, Maryland, Montana, and Massachusetts had enacted workers’ compensation laws that were limited to certain industries, or that applied only if agreed to by the employer and employee, but these laws were of little importance. Also, at President Theodore Roosevelt’s request, in 1908, Congress enacted a workers’ compensation law for a limited class of Federal employees. That law was later expanded to cover all Federal civilian employees and is now known as the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act. Congress also enacted the Federal Employers’ Liability Act, a comparative-negligence law applicable to railroad employees engaged in interstate commerce in 1908.
In 1910, following a study by the legislatively-mandated Wainwright Commission, New York became the first U.S. jurisdiction to enact a widely applicable, mandatory workers’ compensation law (which was nevertheless limited to enumerated "hazardous" employments).
A number of Federal workers’ compensation and related laws are briefly reviewed in Lencsis’ book, including the Federal Employers’ Liability Act, the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, Death on the High Seas Act, and General Maritime Law, the United States Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, Extensions of the United States Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, the Federal Employees Compensation Act, the District of Columbia Workers’ Compensation Law, the Federal Black Lung Program, and Social Security and medicare.
Regrettably, the author has not included the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act passed by Congress in 1990 after 20 years of persistent efforts by uranium miners and mill workers working largely in the Four Corners area of the Colorado Plateau. This act was passed to provide financial help to sick miners and millers or the bereaved families of the dead. However, the requirements for documentation designed for the white man’s world are said often to be difficult to meet for the Native American workers affected. These represent about a quarter of the workforce that comes under the act.
In the case of this act, as well as others, those who work in the field of workers’ compensation often attempt administratively to make the legislation more flexible—and sometimes succeed. However, Lencsis’ account is legalistic, not journalistic, and he does not venture into the area of variations in results or methods used to achieve them that come about as cases make their way through the administrative processes.
Although one of the original purposes of workers’ compensation laws was to reduce the expense and delays associated with attorneys and trials, attorneys have always been involved in workers’ compensation to some extent. A claimant is usually entitled to be represented by an attorney in dealings with the employer or carrier and in proceedings before the compensation board or commission. Likewise, the employer or carrier is normally entitled to legal representation with regard to claims of injured employees.
But most workers’ compensation laws with respect to attorneys require that attorneys’ fees be approved in advance of payment by the compensation judge or administrative agency in accordance with regulatory guidelines.
The author takes up the coverage of State and Federal workers’ compensation laws with a list of workers’ compensation administrative agencies. In most instances, cases cannot be settled for less than the full amount of compensation prescribed by statute, but a minority of jurisdictions do allow compromises and settlements. In almost all instances, settlements of any variety are subject to the approval of the workers’ compensation administrative agency.
Also touched upon by the author are some of the workers’ compensation issues that result from newer conditions of employment. Contingent workers, whereby workers paid as employees of one business are furnished to another—on a temporary or permanent and full-or part-time basis—generally come under special rules. Telecommuting raises certain workers’ compensation problems that remain to be resolved.Mary Ellen Ayres
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