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Bread and Roses Heritage Festival, Lawrence MA

In a sense the heroes of Labor Day 2014 are the employees of the Demoulas Market Basket supermarket chain, from part-time baggers all the way up to CEO  P8280015 Arthur T. Demoulas, whose dismissal six weeks ago prompted a mass walk-out and consumer boycott that brought him back to the company’s helm.  It was an unusual example of labor solidarity, to say the least.

To re-cap, when Arthur T. was ousted as CEO by stockholders led by his cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas, middle managers walked out, truck drivers stopped making deliveries, baggers and clerks made protest signs during their shifts, and customers heeded the call of workers for a boycott.  Five weeks later, August 27, Arthur T’s bid to buy out his rivals was accepted and workers and shoppers returned to the stores scattered across Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine.P8280001

[See earlier post, “Bring Back the Boss.”]

I talked to two of the workers, Dave and Jordan, at the doorway of the Fort Eddy Road Market Basket in Concord, New Hampshire last Thursday, the morning after the deal was announced.  They run the produce department, but with no produce on the shelves they were spending their shift welcoming customers back to the store after a five-week boycott and strike.

Dave said he had been “ready to battle to the end,” and that in the end “we hit them in the pocket.”

“We won,” said one smiling shopper.  “Congratulations,” said another.  “Those asses don’t know their asses from their elbows,” commented a third.  “Thank you for your resolve,” added a fourth. Speaking of the customers who did their shopping elsewhere during the job action, Dave said, “We did it together.” 

“There’s a power there,” commented Robert Forrant, a professor of history at P9010074 UMASS Lowell, speaking four days later in the labor history tent at the 30th annual Bread and Roses Heritage Festival in Lawrence, MA.  The Demoulas story is “evidence of collective action, workers and consumers working together.”

If there are no workers, there is no production,” Forrant said.  While that may be as basic a statement about the power of labor as one could make, it’s not one that has produced many compelling and successful examples in Massachusetts and New Hampshire in the 21st century.  So far. 

“If I was a fast food worker, this would inspire me to think solidarity was possible,” said Forrant, who received this year’s Labor Day Heritage Festival Hall of Fame Award.

The festival also featured the first annual wreath-laying ceremony at the monument to the 1912 strike commemorated by the Bread and Roses Festival.  There, too, Demoulas workers were front and center.  “This monument speaks to me,” saidP9010115 Steve Paulenka, one of several company executives fired for instigating protests.  “Remember what they did and why they did it.”

We should also remember the summer of 2014, “when a whole lot of ordinary folks got together and made extraordinary things happen,”  Paulenka continued.

Professor Forrant says it’s too early to know whether the Demoulas struggle is one for the history books.  But in 1912, he said, no one knew the Bread and Roses strike would inspire workers decades later.   

Flowers laid at memorial to the 1912 Bread and Roses strike

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I can’t say I ever dreamed about Joe Hill, the legendary songwriter and Industrial Workers of the World member. But on the hundredth anniversary of the verdict in a Salt Lake City court that would put him before a firing squad sixteen months later, he is once again in my waking thoughts.

It was probably Joan Baez singing about Joe Hill that first drew my attention to him. (No, I wasn’t at Woodstock, but I saw the film and listened to the record album.)

“The copper bosses killed you, Joe,

They shot you Joe,” says I.

“Takes more than guns to kill a man,” said Joe,

“I didn’t die.”

My sister brought home a 1968 Phil Ochs album, “Tape from California,” with his ballad about Joe Hill’s life. Like Joe Hill did so many times, Ochs put new words to a familiar tune, in this case the English folk song, “John Hardy,” which had also been used by Woody Guthrie for his “Ballad of Tom Joad.”

Ochs described Joe’s arrival in New York as an immigrant from Sweden, how he took up with the IWW “cause the union was the only friend he had,” and how he began writing songs to raise the spirits of union members.

Now, the strikes were bloody and the strikes

Were black as hard as they were long

In the dark of night Joe would stay awake and write

In the morning he would raise them with a song

The IWW – known as “The Wobblies” for reasons that remain a bit obscure – had a revolutionary vision of a single union that would unite workers across lines of race and national origin, across lines of gender, across industries, and even across borders to take away power from the capitalist class and put it in the hands of workers. As the final phrase of “Solidarity Forever,” a labor anthem written by an IWW member puts it, “We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old when the union makes us strong.”

The Wobblies believed in direct action, especially strikes, as the primary means for achieving power in the workplace and in the larger society. Their “anarcho-syndicalist” approach contrasted with the socialists who put up candidates for election.   But the radical movements of the early twentieth century found much in common. Eugene Victor Debs, for instance, was present at the IWW’s founding convention in 1905.

Joe played the fiddle and other instruments, but is not remembered as a musician. He was, however, a decent cartoonist and a brilliant lyricist, who took popular tunes and substituted new words.

Phil Ochs sang:

He wrote his words to the tunes of the day

To be passed along the union vine

And the strikes were led and the songs were spread

And Joe Hill was always on the line

The late folksinger and song-writer Utah Phillips used to say the IWW songwriters  used hymns because they had pretty tunes and wrote new words “so they’d make sense.” In that vein “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” becomes “Dump the Bosses Off your Backs.” The Doxology becomes,

Praise boss when morning work bells chime,

Praise him for bits of overtime,

Praise him whose wars we love to fight,

Praise him fat leech and parasite.

Joe Hill’s most famous song, “The Preacher and the Slave,” is a send-up of a hymn often sung by Salvation Army bands on street corners. During the free speech fights, when IWW members who were barred from using the same street corners to proselytize for the “One Big Union” took to the streets in acts of mass civil disobedience, Joe converted “In the Sweet By and By,” to “You’ll get pie in the sky when you die (that’s a lie).”

It was Joe Hill, who “more than any other one writer, had made the IWW a singing movement,” according to Joyce Kornbluh, editor of Rebel Voices: an IWW Anthology. His songs, and others, were printed in The Little Red Songbook, new editions of which the IWW would put out from time to time. The publication’s was designed so workers could easily fit it in their pockets and take it out on picket lines or in jail cells. (I’m proud to say I have a song in the 38th edition, on sale from the IWW.)

“A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over,” Joe wrote in a letter from his prison cell. “I maintain that if a person can put a few cold, common sense facts into a song, and dress them … up in a cloak of humor to take the dryness off them he will succeed in reaching a great number of workers who are too unintelligent or too indifferent to read a pamphlet or an editorial in economic science.”

In addition to “The Preacher and the Slave,” Joe Hill is remembered for “There is Power in a Union,” “Casey Jones: Union Scab,” and “The Rebel Girl,” a song inspired by Concord native Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

Joe Hill on Trial for Murder

When John Morrison, a Salt Lake City shopkeeper, and his son Arling were killed at their store on January 10, 1914, Joe Hill was living and working nearby. A victim of a never-explained gunshot wound received the same night, Hill was arrested and charged with the crime.

“In reality, there was virtually no evidence to suggest that the police had the right man,” writes William Adler, in an excellent biography, The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon. “The state’s case was entirely circumstantial and leaned heavily on the theory that the younger

Morrison, in the moment before he had died, had fired the shot that had torn Hill’s chest. But the prosecutor could not prove that Morrison’ gun had been fired, let alone that Hill had been at the store. Nor could the state show a motive, or produce the murder weapons, or elicit testimony that positively identified the defendant. In short, the state failed to meet Utah’s statutory standard for a cased based on circumstantial evidence; that the chain of proof ‘be complete and unbroken and established beyond a reasonable doubt.’”

Hill insisted he had been with a woman that night and would not divulge her identity out of a sense of honor. Whether he had a naïve faith that the American system of justice really did put the burden of proof on the prosecution, or whether in some sense he desired martyrdom, he failed to mount an effective defense. “Like many Wobblies,” Adler writes, “Joe Hill was principled to the point of recklessness.”

Adler holds that Joe Hill chose “apparently came to believe, consciously or unconsciously, that he could better serve the union by dying. And later, once it was clear that he would not be getting a new trial, he perhaps came to see his death as necessary, or at the very least as valuable propaganda for advancing the cause of industrial unionism. The cause needed a martyr, someone to incite his fellow workers, to inspire them not to mourn but to organize, and he cast himself in that swaggering role.”

Adler says “The irony of Hill having taken on the role of good soldier in the class war was as inescapable as the penitentiary. For he was on trial for his life for a crime that had nothing to do with politics. Yet his prosecution, baseless as it was, in the end was about nothing but politics: about a partial judge … abetting an ambitious prosecutor to make the case that State of Utah v. Joseph Hillstrom was as much a class action against the IWW as it was a murder trial.”

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, “Utah was the first state to resume executions after capital punishment was reinstated in the United States in 1976, when Gary Gilmore was executed by a firing squad on January 17, 1977.” It is also the only state that has used a firing squad in recent times.

Many more rebels have been jailed on trumped up charges since Joe Hill’s day. And as has become terribly clear, plenty of people have been sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit. Since 1973, 140 people have been exonerated and freed from death row. How many innocent people are still under sentence of death is impossible to know, but a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimates it could be more than 4% of the death row population.

As for Joe Hill, “Death imbued his life with meaning,” Adler concluded. “What, after all, attests more powerfully to a righteous cause than the willingness to die for it?”

On June 27, 1914 Joe Hill was found guilty of the murder of John Morrison. He was killed by a firing squad on November 15, 1915.

Phil Ochs:

Yes, they lined Joe Hill up against the wall
Blindfold over his eyes
It’s the life of a rebel that he chose to live
It’s the death of a rebel that he died.

Ochs may have gotten a few facts wrong, but hey, it’s a folksong, and it worked for me.

The song Joan Baez sang at Woodstock is from a poem written by Alfred Hayes in 1934.  The labor icon appears in a dream.

“Joe Hill ain’t dead,” he says to me

“Joe Hill ain’t never died,

Where workingmen are out on strike,

Joe Hill is at their side.”

Yours for the O.B.U.

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Albert Parsons and August Spies were hung in 1887. Joe Hill was shot by a firing squad in 1915. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were electrocuted in 1927. Their methods of execution were different, but their “crimes” were common: they were put to death because of their staunch advocacy for the rights of working people to decent wages and working conditions.

The application of the death penalty has always been political – from the Salem Witch trials to New Hampshire’s Attorney General using a death penalty prosecution in her election campaign to yesterday’s verdict by an Egyptian judge that condemned 683 people to death.  (See statement from Amnesty International.)

With International Workers Day, a day that began in honor of Albert Parsons and August Spies, four days away, this is as good a time as any to recall why the cause of labor should be tied to the movement for an end to the death penalty.

Parsons and Spies were leaders of the International WorkingHaymarketRiot-Harpers.jpg People’s Association in Chicago, which was fighting for the eight-hour day. They had already been singled out for condemnation by city leaders, Parsons even threatened with lynching by Chicago businessmen, when they led the planning of a peaceful rally at Haymarket Square on May 1, 1886.

Three days later Parson, Spies, and Sam Fielden, also a member of the Working People’s Association, spoke at another rally, peaceful as well until it was rushed by club-wielding police and then shattered by an explosion.

Eleven people, including seven police officers, died. No one knew who had brought or thrown the bomb, but Spies and Parsons – who was with his wife and two children at a nearby saloon when the bomb went off – were immediately blamed.

In the words of Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais, authors of Labor’s Untold Story, “the nation’s press was a unit in declaring that it made no difference whether Parson, Spies, or Fielden had or had not thrown the bomb. They should be hanged for their political views, for their words and general activities and if more trouble makers were given to the hangman so much the better.” The Chicago Tribune, for example, said the labor leaders should be “held, tried and hanged for murder.”

And that’s exactly what happened, despite the lack of any evidence tying them to the bombing or the deaths of the police officers. “The trial was conducted with all the sensation histrionics, all the stage properties which so often transform American legal proceedings into lurid public spectacles,” according to Boyer and Morais, who added, “the verdict was almost a formality.”

This May Day, let’s remember Albert Parsons and August Spies and pledge to end the government’s option to execute those it decides are its enemies.

[Thanks to Wikipedia.org for graphics.]

The last words of Albert Spies

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Judy and I wrote this one together.  It was published yesterday in the Concord Monitor.  We both testified at the public hearing, along with other advocates for low-wage workers.  The full force of the business lobby and the House Republicans were arrayed on the other side.  This is a good time to contact members of the House Labor Committee to support raising the minimum wage.

When the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve, the minimum wage went up in 10 states. But not New Hampshire, where the minimum wage is stuck at the federal level and the state’s minimum wage was abolished by the Legislature two years ago. Without change at the state level, thousands of New Hampshire workers will have to wait for the gridlocked Congress to raise the federal minimum wage above the current rate, $7.25 an hour.

What does it mean to live on $7.25 an hour? If you work 40 hours a week every week of the year, your annual income will be $15,080. Enough to live on? Not by a long shot. You’ll earn $4,000 less than the poverty-level income for a family of three. And even the poverty income is less than you need to keep a roof over your head. At the minimum wage, you’d have to work 106 hours a week to afford a typical two-bedroom New Hampshire apartment, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Help could be on the way.

Two bills coming before the House Labor Committee today would re-establish the state’s authority to set a minimum wage and raise it above the federal level. Rep. Tim Robertson of Keene is sponsoring House Bill 241 to establish a New Hampshire minimum wage of $9.25. HB127, co-sponsored by Reps. Peter Sullivan of Manchester and Timothy Horrigan of Durham, would set the minimum wage at $8 per hour.

In 1949 New Hampshire established a state minimum wage, though it seldom rose above the federal rate. But the state law was repealed in 2011. “There is no reason for New Hampshire to set ourselves higher than the national average and make ourselves less competitive for these workers who need to gain experience,” then-House Speaker Bill O’Brien said at the time.

No detectable employment losses

But would employers really hire fewer workers if the wage went up? Research suggests otherwise. Recent research by a team of economists from the Universities of California, Massachusetts and North Carolina “suggest no detectable employment losses from the kind of minimum wage increases we have seen in the United States.”

Why? Wouldn’t higher wages make it harder for businesses employing low-wage workers to earn a profit? Not necessarily. Raising wage rates tends to reduce employee turnover, reduce the costs of recruiting and training, and raise productivity. As Henry Ford discovered a century ago, increasing wages can be profitable.

Some opponents say it is mainly teens who earn minimum wage. Not true. Many of New Hampshire’s lowest-wage workers have families to support. Although we lack state-level statistics, we know that teens comprise only a quarter of minimum wage workers nationally.

Who will benefit from an increase? While most New Hampshire workers earn more than $8 an hour, plenty of workers would see their incomes rise. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 14,000 New Hampshire workers earn $7.25 per hour or less.

Raising the wage also will help thousands of workers now earning above $7.25 per hour. For example, a worker who currently earns $7.75 per hour will get a raise if the minimum wage goes up to $8.

Even people with somewhat higher wages will benefit. This is because many employers intentionally keep their pay a certain margin above the minimum in order to compete for employees.

HB 127 has an important additional feature, a process to raise the minimum wage as the cost of living increases. This is critical. The federal minimum wage would be $10.58 per hour now if it had kept up with inflation over the past 40 years.

Two more minimum wage bills – one in the House and one in the Senate – will come up soon.

Raising the minimum wage will not eliminate poverty in New Hampshire. But it will make a concrete difference in the lives of thousands of people struggling to earn a living. Every New England state except New Hampshire has a minimum wage above the federal level. Our workers deserve better pay for their hard work.

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Bread and Roses

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Memorial Unveiled at Bread and Roses Festival

Labor history is about struggle, not just victories, says historian and labor activist Dexter Arnold.  But the victory of workers 100 years ago in Lawrence MA is still worth remembering and celebrating.

“In January, 1912, 20,000 workers, mainly Southern and Eastern European immigrants, nearly half of them women, walked out of the mills and walked intolabor day 2012 09 03 008 history in a strike that captured national attention, won important economic gains, and created a new pattern of labor activism in Lawrence,” Brother Arnold said this afternoon at the unveiling of a monument dedicated to what has become known as the “Bread and Roses Strike.”  Uniting across lines of language, gender, and ethnicity, workers won improved wages after going on strike when textile mill bosses cut their pay.

Memory of the 1912 strike animates the annual Bread and Roses Festival that draws thousands to a Lawrence park, just a few blocks from the mill buildings where workers wove wool fabric.  This year’s festival, in the centennial year of the historic strike, had special significance for the activists, historians, civic leaders, and artists who have kept the festival going.  And where else would you hear a high school girls choral group sing “God Bless America” and “The Internationale” in the same set? labor day 2012 09 03 028

“Outsiders marveled at what was happening on the streets of Lawrence,” Arnold said of the nine week strike that rocked Lawrence a hundred years ago. “They marveled at the cooperation among members of different ethnic groups, at the workers’ enthusiastic militancy and effective organization, at their determination and courage in the face of brutal repression.”

The walkout was not spontaneous, according to Arnold, but followed agitation by militant members of the Industrial Workers of the World.  In fact, one thousand Italian workers attended an IWW-organized meeting the night before the strike began and voted to strike if pay was cut.  The IWW sent in experienced organizers later, and the strikers received tremendous support from workers in other communities. 

“Solidarity was crucial but the strike was won on the streets and in the neighborhoods of Lawrence” Arnold said.

An injury to one is still an injury to all

The importance of community mobilization is just one of the lessons we can learn labor day 2012 09 03 049 from Lawrence.  Steve Thornton, a Connecticut labor activist who has been researching IWW history in that state, highlighted another: the importance of organizing immigrants and low-skilled workers.   The American Federation of Labor, the dominant labor organization of the early 20th century, focused on native born, skilled workers, ignoring most of the women and immigrants in the workforce.  Lacking the vote, they found their voices in the workplace through direct action, which Thornton called “an under-utilized tool in our toolbox.”

“People’s victories come first and foremost from people’s movements,” Thornton said, not from elections or legislation. 

Of course, if all you knew of the labor movement came from this morning’s Labor Day Breakfast in Manchester you might draw the opposite impression.  This is an election year, and nasty, anti-union politics have nearly prevailed in New Hampshire over the past two years.  And while Brother Thornton might be right that victories come from movements and direct action, big defeats can come at the ballot box.  Election of anti-labor candidates in November will pave the way for backwards motion that would need years of organizing to reverse.  So perhaps it was fitting that the breakfast felt a bit more like a political than a labor rally.  The stakes are high indeed.

 

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A crowd of about a hundred people combined pro-immigrant and pro-worker messages at a May Day rally outside the Dover, New Hampshire City Hall today.  Despite an on-again off-again drizzle, spirits stayed strong during speeches by immigrant and religious leaders, songs led by Rev. Mary Westfall, and music 5-1-12 008 performed by the Leftist Marching Band.

The rally was organized by the NH Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees, and emceed by its organizer, Eva Castillo.  Support also came from the American Friends Service Committee and Occupy Dover.

Speakers included Dr. Sara Alier, President 5-1-12 050of the South Sudanese Association; Suraj Budathoki, a member of the Bhutanese Community of NH; the Rev. Sandra Pontoh of the  Maranatha Indonesian UCC Church in Madbury; Attorney Larry Vogelman; Maggie Fogarty of the AFSC; State Rep. David Watters of Dover; and the Rev. Kendra Ford of the Exeter UU Church.

The connections between workers and immigrants were evident, for example in 5-1-12 078remarks of several speakers concerning a February incident in which reports of wage theft at a nearby construction site prompted community protests which helped the workers collect pay they were owed.  Lindsey Wettleland of Occupy Dover also noted that Dover was the site of the first industrial strike by women in the USA.  Judy Elliott, an ESOL teach and NH COSH safety trainer spoke about the common on-the-job injuries experienced by immigrant workers and the rights that all workers have to a safe workplace. 

Danny Provencal Fogarty, a Dover 8th grader, was probably the most effective speaker with his reading of the Emma Lazarus poem from the Statue 5-1-12 052of Liberty and impromptu remarks – in Spanish and English – about his own experience living in a Bolivian village and the importance of having a welcoming attitude to immigrants.  Danny has a future as a public speaker!

A small counter-protest by the Granite State Patriots, a tea party group led by a one-time head of the State Republican Party, drew only 5 people.  They complied with requests to be a non-disruptive presence and left halfway through the rally.

The rally featured spirited renditions of “This Land is Your Land,” “We Shall Not  Be Moved,” and “We Shall Overcome.”  “Solidarity Forever” was sung with choruses in Spanish and Indonesian as well as English. 

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Here’s my new verse for “This Land is Your Land”

“We are dissenters from the one per centers,

For human rights, we are defenders,

For social justice, we are extenders,

This land was made for you and me.”5-1-12 080

May 1 rallies for immigrants’ rights in recent years had been held in Manchester and Nashua.   The decision to hold this year’s rally in Dover followed a February incident in which Dover police called federal immigration authorities when a small group of immigrants showed up at the police station to report an incident of wage theft and request assistance.

Earlier in the day immigrants rights activists attended a State House hearing on a resolution of  support for Arizona’s repressive immigration law, known as SB 1070.  Not a single supporter, no5-1-12 001t even the resolution’s sponsor, showed up to speak for the non-binding expression of intolerance.  But opponents included Eva Castillo, Judy Elliott from NH AIR, Clair Ebel of the NH Civil Liberties Union, Cathy Chesley from Catholic Charities, Attorney Enrique Mesa, Louise Hannan of NH COSH, and me.  Following the hearing, the Senate Internal Affairs Committee voted 2-1 to recommend killing the resolution, which had already passed the NH House.  

Here’s more photos:

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“Work Without Rights” Loses a Battle

New Hampshire’s Speaker of the House, William O’Brien, adjourned today’s session without a vote on the controversial Right-to-Work-for-Less bill because he lacked the two-thirds majority needed to over-ride Governor Lynch’s veto. NH House 5-25-11 017

Today’s victory is testimony to the hard work done by unions and pro-labor groups to communicate with Representatives, including Republicans who have voted against the bill. 

The Speaker had spent recent weeks using his special powers of persuasion to cajole recalcitrant Republicans to vote with him or “take a walk” and abstain from voting.  He will no doubt keep trying, but in the process he may try the patience of even his supporters, many of whom would like to move on to other issues and are tired of getting phone calls about right-to-NH House 5-25-11 024work. 

Mark MacKenzie, president of the NH AFL-CIO, spoke before a crowd of sign-waving activists outside the Speaker’s office after O’Brien held another private news conference.

By the way, this blogger was kept out of the news conference by a member of O’Brien’s staff.  One irony is that his rhetoric has often lifted up New Hampshire’s sovereignty and the primacy of the State’s Constitution.  In that document, Article 22 says:

Free speech and liberty of the press are essential to the security of freedom in a state: They ought, therefore, to be inviolably preserved.

Prior the the legislative session, a couple dozen RTW supporters waved signs on the State House Plaza.  They were greatly outnumbered by pro-labor activists from numerous unions supplemented by Protect NH Families, NH Citizens Alliance, Working Families Win, and several faith-based groups.  Lunch was served from a giant Teamsters truck, parked outside the State House. 

NH House 5-25-11 005  NH House 5-25-11 006

Last week the Speaker suffered a political defeat when Democrat Jennifer DaleNH House 5-25-11 001r won a special election for a House seat in his own district.  The outcome coincides with yesterday’s victory by Kathy Hochul in a NY State Congressional election.  Is it possible that the wave of reactionary Tea Party politics has crested?

Regardless, New Hampshire labor activists can’t afford to rest.  Right-to-Work (which could be re-titled “Work Without Rights”) is not yet dead.  The Speaker controls the House agenda, and can put off an over-ride vote until the end of the year if he chooses.

Senators have removed proposals to strip public sector workers of collective bargaining rights from the fine print of budget and pension bills.  But House and Senate negotiators have agreed to set up a “study committee” on public employee collective bargaining.  Members of the study committee will be appointed by legislative leaders, whose views of workers’ human rights range from moderately hostile to extremely hostile. 

So it may be a long summer.   And a long time to the next election. 

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