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Bargaining with the Top One-Tenth of the One Percent

This article is a shortened adaptation of an on-going discussion within the 99% Power/99% Spring group, known for mobilizing the largest number of shareholder actions in recent history in the spring of 2012.

Organizing around the transformation of the economy means organizing around the transformation of work. And that necessarily means organizing workers into new forms of collective bargaining. Worker organizing updated to the 21st century means winning rights, respect, and a contract from the 1%.

Corporations, the vehicles of wealth generation in this country, are just that: vehicles. It’s the people who run them we need to contend with to shift power in this country. Fewer people than ever before are controlling the lives of more workers than ever before. Our slogan should be “we are the 99.9%”—it’s the 0.1% that control workers’ lives and the economy.

On a gut level most people understand that the growing concentration of economic and political power in the hands of billionaires and too-big-to-fail corporations is bad for our economy, our country and our democracy. The challenge has been figuring out how to effectively take on their power as a first step in fixing the problem.

When workers attempt to bargain, they come up against two things.  Some work for corporations that just won’t bargain.  Others don’t know their boss – they work down the chain and don’t know who, at the top, is benefitting from their labor.

Corporations are more powerful than ever before. Many “captains of industry” have migrated out of industry altogether, to the stratosphere of speculative finance. They’re further removed than ever before. On their way up, the 1% have pushed workers deeper down subcontracting chains—and they’ve changed the workplace and the meaning of employment altogether. The Walmart worker can’t bargain because Walmart won’t come to the table. In the case of the Hershey worker, Hershey claims they’re not the employer at all: the employer is a subcontractor four steps removed.

Workers need to bargain with the 0.1%.

A key element of this strategy is the individualization of key individuals—the cream of the 1%—who connect a number of corporations, and are influential enough to be taken as decision-makers on a number of corporate boards. The top one-tenth of the one percent must be forced to bargain directly with the people impacted by their decisions and policies.

We’ve seen two things happen in our era, and they go hand in hand: the aggregation of control over workers’ lives, and the disaggregation of production.

First, the aggregation of control. A smaller and smaller number of people at the top—the 0.1%—are controlling the terms of work in this economy. Walmart is the best-known illustration: the company employs 2.1 million workers globally.  Another example: private equity firms, through their portfolio companies, make up six of the then largest employers in the United States. For example, the private equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts (KKR) co-owns HCA, the world’s largest hospital operator, the Del Monte Food Company, Colonial Pipeline Company—and the list goes on.  

Second, the disaggregation of production. The fragmentation, hollowing out, and subcontracting of the workplace, and the rise of temporary and contract labor, all mean than fewer workers than ever before have raw collective power at the point of production.

Most workers know who they’re employed by but they don’t know who their real boss is. The real boss is the one who is ultimately responsible for their working conditions. Even if they work directly for a company, they may not know that that company is owned by a bigger corporation or that the key shareholders in the company are investors for hedge funds or private equity firms. Global corporate structures are built on creating layers of entities between workers and the real bosses through the use of subcontractors, captive companies, “independent contractors” or a myriad of other creations, but ultimately it is a giant corporation and billionaire owner who is responsible for their working conditions.

So, what if workers could bargain directly with the 1%? The proposal is this: Let’s identify then individual [or some number of] billionaires who control a certain number of companies, and cross over on a number of corporate boards.

Enter the Waltopus.

The Walton family that controls 48% of Walmart is worth more than $100 billion, greater than the combined wealth of the bottom 30% of the US population. Walmart directly employs 2.2 million workers but it also has its tentacles stretched throughout our economy. Greg Penner, Walmart Board Chairman Rob Walton’s son-in-law, has his own investment firm, sits on the boards of Walmart and Hyatt Hotels, and funds anti-public school initiatives.

If we try to chart out all the workers he touches, whether or not they are directly employed by one of these companies, that list is massive. It would include the janitors in the Silicon Valley building of his investment firm. It would also include Walmart “associates” as well as the Louisiana and Maryland seafood workers whose employers supply exclusively to Walmart. Whether or not they are directly employed by Walmart, these are all “Walmart workers.” The list would also include subcontracted workers at the Hyatt in Los Angeles, the guestworkers on visas at the Hyatt in Colorado, and the temporary construction workers building the new Hyatt in New Orleans. Whether or not they are employed by Hyatt, they are all “Hyatt workers.” Together, all of these are “Greg Penner’s workers.”

We need to organize these workers to bargain with Greg Penner and the Waltopus. The “Walmart workers” and “Hyatt workers” can all come together to bring demands to the Waltopus. They need to unite with the other national and international stakeholders whose lives are touched by the actions of these companies. This group would be more than just a list of Walmart workers and their allies. It would be a strategic grouping of all the workers and communities impacted by the Waltopus, including, Walmart associates, Walmart warehouse workers, Walmart suppliers within the US (e.g., seafood guestworkers in Louisiana), Walmart suppliers overseas (e.g., Bangladeshi textile workers), Farmers and farmworkers that supply to Walmart, Community groups trying to regulate Walmart’s growth in their communities, Hyatt workers, Hyatt subcontracted workers, public school teachers, parents of public school students, janitors and security guards that work in any of the buildings housing any of these companies, and many,  many more.

Then, we organize these workers—to bargain with the Waltons. We make the Waltons responsible for the grievances of the millions of workers and communities they impact.

bargaining-one-percent-chart

It’s worth noting that Apple recently made our argument better than we ever could. Apple charted out their workforce in exactly the way this proposal asks for, claiming responsibility for 534,000 workers in U.S.—direct employees, joint employees, subcontracted employees, and “derived” employees.

Under heavy criticism for outsourcing its iPhone manufacturing base to China, Apple recently released a study claiming it “created or supported” 534,000 jobs in the U.S. In its report the company charts out all of the workers that Apple touches, taking responsibility across the supply chain and itself defining them as Apple workers.

Forbes Magazine summarizes Apple’s claims:

How did Apple get to more than half a million workers? Its numbers include 304,000 current U.S. jobs — 47,000 Apple employees in the U.S. […] and 257,000 jobs at “other companies” that touch and support its products. Apple defines those as workers who help develop and manufacture components, materials and equipment  […] ; professional, scientific and technical services; consumer sales; business sales; transportation and healthcare.  So that “other,” or indirect number, includes folks who not only deliver Apple products but those who build the planes and trucks used in the delivery services.

Apparently, corporate leaders can take responsibility for their entire worker supply chain—not just their direct employees—when they want to.

Bargaining with the top one-tenth of the one percent that dominates the country is based on a simple idea: if we identify some of the key people and corporations that have power and then map how that power impacts all of our lives—in our neighborhoods, schools and at work—we can develop a multi-level national campaign that offers a vehicle for people and organizations to simultaneously work together on the issues they care most about. We would challenge and expose every level of the corporate hierarchy, from the billionaires at the top, to the corporations they dominate, the supply chain of jobs they control and the communities they impact. We can involve, organize and mobilize people and organizations that haven’t always worked together on a scale needed to win.

More often than not, we fight our battles alone because we think we have a unique issue that isn’t related to the issues of anyone else. But as we have shown, if we take our fights to the top, we have common enemies, and by uniting the battles we will be able to bring the pressure we need to force the billionaires to bargain with us.

The overarching narrative of the campaign and the vehicle to engage new groups and people will be to select a series of billionaires who individually and collectively illustrate the wealth, power and greed of the top one-tenth of the one percent. Such campaigns must both focus on them individually, highlighting their bad actions, and the corporations they are involved with and their role in corrupting the economy and the politics of our country.

We cannot expect to win real social, political, or economic change in this country unless we bring the crisis facing the 99% to their doorsteps. We need to maintain a continual drumbeat and build escalating pressure to create sufficient financial uncertainty and personal discomfort for them to force them to deal with us and bargain with us over the future of our country.

Labor Editors

Stephanie Luce is Associate Professor of Labor Studies and has gained national and international recognition for her research on living-wage campaigns and on the impact of globalization on jobs and workers.  She serves on the editorial board of New Labor Forum and is a moderator for Portside Labor.

Erica Smileyis a Senior Field Organizer for Jobs with Justice, with a focus on the southern region.  As a part of this position, she relates to southern JwJ coalitions and engages in strategic campaigns.  She is originally from Greensboro, North Carolina.

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The Leftist at Work column is a space for leftists to talk about the ways in which they organize in their workplace – whether it is how they talk with coworkers about political issues, how they are trying to build or revitalize a union, or how they orient their political perspectives to sync with their daily jobs. Some leftists find themselves confronting issues they didn’t expect would come up in their work. Other people find that they work for a non-profit or union that constrains their range of political activities. We’ll hear from organizers that struggle to balance their radical politics with the realities of working for an organization with more of a reform orientation. We’ll also hear from people who may work in an unionized workplace but try to bring their broader politics into the workplace – such as anti-racism, anti-war, or pro-immigrant rights.

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