Senseless bureaucracy is killing organized labor

Labor journalist Mike Elk on the fast-food worker strikes -- and how we should best commemorate Labor Day

Published September 2, 2013 1:30PM (EDT)

This piece originally appeared on

At a time when union membership is in decline and labor is being attacked on many fronts, Mike Elk, the labor reporter for the progressive magazine In These Times, is one of the few full-time labor journalists working today. He brings the skills and tenacity of an investigative reporter to his coverage of organized labor and management in America and pulls no punches, no matter who he’s writing about.

Moyers & Company’s Michael Winship, who’s also president of the Writers Guild of America, East, an AFL-CIO affiliated union, gave Elk a call to check in as he crossed the country with the Summer of Solidarity Tour. It’s a road trip leading up to Labor Day organized by what Elk calls “rank-and-file union activists” and aimed at bringing public attention to economic justice issues as well as strengthening ties between community activists and grassroots labor organizers. The two discuss the tour, interesting trends in organized labor and the decline of labor reporting. Elk also gives his thoughts on how we might celebrate Labor Day to best honor those who originally fought for the right to organize and better working conditions.


Michael Winship: So where are you right now?

Mike Elk: I’m in Madison, Wisc.

Winship: And what’s going on there?

Elk: I’m on this Summer of Solidarity Tour. It’s a group of grassroots rank and file union activists that are going cross country organizing events focused at bringing rank and file members closer together from different places and interacting and getting a sense of what are the struggles in other places and how folks can connect them.

Winship: How did this come about?

Elk: It came about from some Honeywell workers who two years ago were locked out of their plant, and they started going on road trips to visit other locals, and they realized a lot of knowledge that was gained by visiting people from other areas. Because I think what so often happens, not just in labor struggles, but for workers in general, is that folks feel isolated, and they feel like they’re the only people out there fighting, and I think when folks get on the road and visit other people fighting they get a sense that it’s a much larger plight and I think it gives them a sense that they should stick in and fight it out. You know, I think so many workers in the workplace don’t resist much because they feel like they’re all alone, like they’re all isolated, and don’t realize that there other ways of doing things. I think that’s what the tour’s really about is about bringing people together in that sense.

Winship: I think a lot of our readers may not be familiar with the Honeywell situation. Can you give some background? I know you’ve been working on a book about it.

Elk: Basically, in 2010, a lot of uranium workers at Honeywell’s Metropolis, Illinois, facility were locked out from their job for 14 months. It was a lockout that really drew some questions to the White House about which side they’re on. David Cote, CEO of Honeywell, is considered Obama’s closest ally in the business community. When Obama introduced the stimulus in January 2009, Cote gave a speech. Obama appointed Cote to the deficit commission, where he’s called for things like cutting social security and implementing chained CPI. During the lockout, Obama flew on Air Force One with Cote to India as part of an official state visit. Last year, I obtained internal confidential Honeywell documents stating that Honeywell’s relationship with the Obama Administration was crucial to breaking up union cohesion across the country. And what we’ve seen across the country are a number of lockouts and labor struggles at Honeywell plants across the country, at defense contractors and other federally regulated facilities, where the federal government could step in to stop the lockouts but don’t. Indeed, by not stepping in, they’re giving aid to them.

So it’s really a larger metaphor, the Honeywell struggle, for what’s happened with this administration not sort of showing what side they’re on when it comes to workplace struggles.

The lockout at Honeywell ended in 2011, but after it ended there were a number of firings of top union leaders in the plant. They shut down the plant to fix some safety problems, and now the plant is restarting, but they don’t want to hire back the union president, as well as a number of other folks. So the plant is understaffed and they’re demanding people work overtime. And currently, the union is refusing to work overtime, so in response, Honeywell has cancelled summer vacations for all of its 400 or so employees in its Metropolis uranium plant in order to punish the workers for refusing to work overtime.

Winship: So where have you been on this tour so far?

Elk: I’ve been in Pittsburgh, visited a number of local activists. I’ve been in Detroit, where they rallied with public workers fighting the Detroit bankruptcy and the threat that might cause to public pensions in Detroit. I was in Chicago, where they rallied with striking Rotek workers. I was here in Madison, Wisc., yesterday, where the workers rallied with people singing in the state capital, in order to fight the ban that Governor Walker has put on groups of more than 20 singing in the state capital.

Winship: And where else are you going?

Elk: We’re going to Fargo, North Dakota, and then over to Missoula, Montana, then to Portland, Oregon, and then down to San Francisco. And I’m getting off there. The tour’s continuing on to Los Angeles.

Winship: So what are the things that have impressed you most on the tour?

Elk: I think what really impressed me most was seeing the city of Detroit. I grew up in Pittsburgh, where there were a lot of mills that were closed, and I was used to seeing a lot of mills and sort of rundown neighborhoods, but nothing on the scale of Detroit, the level of bombed-out neighborhoods that just look simply abandoned. And the incredible thing about Detroit is, while it’s bombed out, when you drive around you get the sense that this was once an incredible city. I mean it was once the fourth largest city in America. And it just really blew my mind seeing Detroit like that.

And it’s also fun any time you get out of D.C. I mean the thing about D.C. you notice when you go to other places in the U.S. is that people in D.C. are very insecure. There’s a constant sense of people trying to move up the political food chain ladder, young staffers trying to move up the political food chain ladder. And when you get out of D.C., as you start interacting with real folks, you get the sense that there’s a lot more to this country than the sort of insecurity that plagues so many people that work in our nation’s capital.

Winship: So how important do you think these grassroots efforts and other community efforts are to revitalizing organized labor?

Elk: I see in a lot of labor organizations a lot of bureaucracy, and all you see is staff representatives interacting with workers from one location, and you don’t see rank and file workers getting together from across locations and sharing ideas. And that’s really what we’re going to need because, as anybody who’s spent a lot of time around union bureaucracies knows, they can very quickly become intellectually stagnant, they can very quickly become places where people are just going through the motions, whereas rank-and-file workers have much more at stake since it’s literally their jobs. I mean if workers get their pay cut, that doesn’t mean that union staffers’ salaries go down. So I think rank-and-file workers really need to be back in the driver’s seat, and I think maybe this tour could be part of that sort of process of many workers who wish they were more back in the driver’s seat.

Winship: AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has been talking about bringing non-union groups like the Sierra Club into the AFL. What do you think about that?

Elk: Well, I think it’s a rather complicated situation. To begin with, you’re going to have groups affiliated in some manner with the AFL-CIO, so what kind of decision-making power does that mean? Does that mean they get invited to some meetings and they get a say? Does that mean they get voting power? I don’t think it means they get voting power within the AFL-CIO, because of the constitution of the AFL-CIO. I do, however, think that there might be some sort of political organization that everybody contributes money to that they do get some kind of power, and I think it means closer coordination.

I also think what’s also troubling about these groups affiliating with the AFL-CIO is that it sort of signals the shift that the AFL-CIO’s becoming a full-time campaign political organization and getting away from really organizing and worker education, and focusing more on how do we generate noise within the Beltway. Because look at these organizations like National Council of La Raza and Sierra Club. They have no real members. They have people that give them money, but they don’t have members in the sense that the labor movement has members that vote on who are union leaders and who are union presidents.

I think it’s a valiant effort in the sense that, you know, Trumka is obviously trying to find more community allies, trying to reach out, get labor more in the game on some areas. But I don’t really know what it means, if it means anything at all. It might just be posturing. Who knows?

Winship: What’s happened to labor reporting in America, Mike?

Elk: I think we’ve definitely seen labor reporting disappear from the mainstream media. There’s few left anymore. I know most of them personally. There’s probably only a dozen of us. And we’ve seen recently, my generation, particularly after Wisconsin, pick up a lot of the slack in labor reporting, but it’s been done on the left. And while they’re getting a lot of worker’s stories out there there hasn’t been a lot of investigative journalism going on, on the labor beat on the left. I think the left tends to skew away from investigative journalism because it’s expensive, it’s time consuming, and you can’t use freelancers really to do investigative work because once you do an investigative project you don’t know what you’re going to come up with.

So I think, you know, following Wisconsin, we have seen a lot more worker’s voices out there but we aren’t seeing the kind of quality investigative reporting we used to get on the labor beat.

Winship: You come from a union family, right?

Elk: Yes. My father is a union organizer with United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers. He’s the top union negotiator with General Electric there. My great uncle and great aunt were both organizers with UE. My parents actually met in a bar on the side of a UE hall in the late ’70s; my grandfather was involved in the Bricklayers Union [and] my great grandfather was involved in the Ladies Garment Workers Union. So it’s been something I’ve grown up around all my life.

Winship: And that’s what led you to become a labor reporter?

Elk: Well, yeah, I tried to be an organizer for a couple of months after college, and I just really didn’t want to do it, and I kept looking at all the reporting that was going out there on the labor beat — this was around the time of the plight of the Employee Free Choice Act in 2009 — and I decided that I could do a better job than anybody else covering the beat, and I tried to challenge myself to keep doing that.

Winship: What are some of the other stories you’re working on right now?

Elk: I’ve been focusing heavily on the Patriot Coal bankruptcy, which is an interesting case of a company, Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, spinning off all their retiree obligations into a subsidiary, and this subsidiary had three times as many retirees as current workers, so it was a spinoff company designed to fail. And five years after spinning it off the company did fail and as a result Peabody and Arch are now getting out from nearly a billion dollars in liabilities to these workers. So I’ve been covering that a lot.

I’m also working on a big series on asbestos workers. You know, we know that asbestos is dangerous and will kill people, and we saw a wave of people get sick in the early ’80s and the ’90s from asbestos poisoning, people that mined it and transported it. Now we’re seeing people get sick again in the effort to remove asbestos from houses and buildings throughout this country, and the reason we’re seeing this is that the people being hired to do this are being hired by low-wage contractors that are using particularly undocumented immigrants to do this kind of work.

There’s this new interesting trend, which I think is really fascinating, which is that, typically when we think about workers that are able to go out on strike, we would think that you had to be part of a union to go out on a strike. But there’s been an interesting interpretation of labor law as part of the McDonald’s and the fast-food workers strike, where now we’re saying any group of workers, non-union or union, has the right to go out on strike. Obviously, union workers can only do it when their contract expires or if they have certain grievance procedures, but non-union workers, since they have no contract, can strike whenever they want.

Winship: I was going to ask you about the fast-food workers. You’ve been covering that?

Elk: I’ve been covering it a little bit. It’s an interesting case. Where is it going to go is the big question everybody’s asking. Are these people going to form unions, are they going to be able to win anything, are they going to stay as un-unionized workers? It’s an interesting question. And I don’t know really where it’s going to go, and I don’t think anybody really knows at this point.

But I do think it’s done two things. One, it’s helped focus the conversation on the problems of the low minimum wage in this country and the conditions for low-wage workers. And two, this idea of non-union workers going out on strike in order to demand fair organizing conditions, organizing without fear of retaliation, I do think could spread to other industries and help unions in tough situations.

Winship: Given all that we’ve just been talking about the last while, are you optimistic about the future of labor?

Elk: I don’t know.

Winship: That’s a fair answer.

Elk: You know, I don’t know where labor’s going. I don’t think anybody does. Obviously, labor’s fighting back in more militant ways than they have in the past, but they’re also under greater attack. It’s unclear where things are headed, but it’s definitely at a tipping point in some ways. Whether or not labor stands up and fights and is able to resist these changes or whether they don’t. It’s going to be uneven in different places. So I don’t know. All I know is that employers are more emboldened to go on the attack than they’ve ever been in the past, and that’s a difficult situation for any worker to deal with. And it’s an opportunity. Maybe it forces workers to rise to more militant sort of status, maybe it radicalizes people. It’s unclear.

Winship: People who are listening to or reading this who want to be able to do something to help, what would you urge them to do?

Elk: I’m not an activist, but I think people who are activists would say, stay informed of what’s happening with workers. Link up with groups organizing and try to help them. I think that’s what folks would say.

Winship: And Labor Day, you’ll be in San Francisco?

Elk: I will be in San Francisco. It should be fun, and I plan not to work in celebration of Labor Day.

Winship: It’s sort of like Memorial Day or some of the other American holidays that become all about picnics and barbeques. If people were really going to celebrate Labor Day in America, what would you have them think about or do?

Elk: Well, I’d have them go to a barbeque. I think that’s what the people who fought for Labor Day would want them to do. But also think about what the holiday’s really about, which is sort of the struggles that folks have gone through in this country. I think it’s too easy to forget where we would be in this country without the American labor movement.

Winship: Mike, thank you.

Elk: Thanks Michael.

By Michael Winship

Michael Winship is senior writing fellow at Demos and a senior writer of the new series, Moyers & Company, airing on public television.

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