• print
  • decrease text sizeincrease text size
    text

The ACLU of Illinois Seeks a Playbook for Acceptable Progressive Union Busting

Share this post

The staff union and management are locked in a battle over who can be included in the union.

Aunion fight that is playing out in Illinois highlights how progressive organizations can use technical objections to the scope of a proposed union to effectively pursue union-busting while maintaining plausible deniability that they are doing so. This effort to have it both ways makes sense when you consider where this labor battle is happening: at the ACLU. 

The past two years has been a landmark one for unionization at the ACLU, part of the broader, ongoing wave of nonprofit organizing. As the pandemic raged in 2020, workers at several ACLU state branches unionized–including in Kansas, where the staff faced a corporate-style anti-union campaign. In January of 2021 about 300 staffers nationwide formed the civil liberties group’s largest staff union, called ACLU Staff United. In subsequent months, more state ACLU staffs across the country have successfully unionized, and ACLU staff union drives are underway in other states, like Virginia and Illinois*. Workers have vowed to continue until they have successfully unionized every state office. 

Though common sense might tell you that an organization that proudly declares that it “has championed the right of workers to organize unions since its inception more than 90 years ago” would be an easy place to unionize, that has not been completely true. While most of the union drives at the ACLU have secured voluntary recognition from management—a necessary baseline for any employer to be considered pro-union—that has not been the case in Illinois. In late June, workers there asked management to recognize their staff union, part of the National Organization of Legal Services Workers. More than five months later, they are still waiting. 

An ACLU of Illinois employee who is a member of the proposed staff union, and who asked for anonymity in fear of workplace retaliation, said that organizing there started in late 2020, after internal efforts to improve the workplace fell short. Employees were particularly upset after an internal staff committee aimed at improving diversity, equity and inclusion was disbanded, even as the organization lost staff members of color year after year. In June, 20 staffers signed an open letter to management requesting recognition for a union covering 27 people. 

“We expected the ACLU to live up to their values” and voluntarily recognize the union, as other state ACLUs had done, the employee said. “But instead we had a strange reaction.” Middle managers were told to keep quiet about the union, and workers were told that they could not use a Zoom background that advertised their union, according to the employee. 

For months now, management and the union have been locked in a stalemate over the issue of how many workers will be allowed to be members of the unit. Restricting the size of a proposed unit is a common tactic by employers, who often seek to assert that as many employees as possible are managers or supervisors, and are therefore not eligible to be union members. These sorts of negotiations, though cloaked in legalistic language, are usually more about power than about law—how fiercely management chooses to argue over vague job descriptions comes down to whether they are comfortable working with a staff union, or whether they see it as a priority to make the union as small and weak as possible from the very beginning. 

Fed up with the delays, the ACLU of IL Staff United finally filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board in early October, seeking a resolution. The union had a two-day hearing at the NLRB that concluded on November 1. Though the timeline is not certain, the union expects to get a ruling on the size of its unit soon, and then it can proceed to a formal vote for certification.

“We were fed up, and decided if they weren’t going to be good faith partners,” going to the labor board was the only option, the employee says. “We’re deeply disappointed that the ACLU forced us to spend time and resources going before the NLRB. It’s not a good use of anyone’s time. We’d rather be doing the civil rights work everyone is here to do.”

The ACLU of Illinois said that executive director Colleen Connell was unavailable for an interview. Instead, the organization sent a statement attributed to Connell, which said that she has always been willing to extend voluntary recognition to “an appropriately defined bargaining unit of ACLU employees.” 

“To date, we have not been able to extend voluntary recognition because the Union’s proposed definition of the bargaining unit includes a number of positions that are supervisory, managerial, or confidential in nature and cannot, therefore, be lawfully included. We discussed these issues at length with the Union’s organizer prior to the Union filing its representation petition,” the statement says. It goes on to portray the dispute as one in which management is actually trying to protect employees, saying “our objections are not driven by a desire to defeat the Union’s representational objective. Just the opposite. NLRB law and policy makes clear that unionizing employees’ rights are frustrated by the inclusion in a bargaining unit of supervisors, managerial employees, and confidential employees.” 

That assertion of concern for “employees’ rights” is sharply at odds with what employees themselves say they want. Eleven positions in the proposed bargaining unit are in dispute, representing 40% of the total proposed union. The staff union filed a 50-page brief with the NLRB arguing that management has “taken dramatically expansive definitions” of who should be excluded from the unit, and that these “overbroad” arguments are inconsistent with labor law. 

The workers in Illinois are receiving vocal support from their colleagues across the country. “We’re disappointed that ACLU of Illinois leadership continues to drag out the union recognition process by failing to agree to a fair and inclusive unit,” said ACLU Staff United, the organization’s national union, in a statement. “It seems so easy for management to forget that the ACLU was founded over 100 years ago with a commitment to protecting workers’ rights. Staff at ACLU affiliates across the country and at the national organization have unionized to create a better ACLU and address pay inequities, lack of workplace diversity, remote work policies, and organizational transparency.”

There is no question that the ACLU of Illinois will eventually have some sort of staff union, covering at least some of its employees. But the outcome of its dispute will be significant. If successful in drastically restricting the size of the unit, management will have demonstrated a successful playbook for kneecapping a union’s power while insisting that you are pro-union, in line with your organization’s stated values. 

For workers at the ACLU of Illinois, the process has been eye opening—and has left them “surprised, disappointed, and disheartened.” 

“We came to work at the ACLU because we believe in civil rights,” the employee says. “And that includes labor rights.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on November 15, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.


Share this post

Biden’s vaccine-or-test mandate to go before Cincinnati-based federal court

Share this post

The mandate will be tested before a court with a majority of Republican appointees.

The legal fight over the Biden administration’s vaccine-or-test mandate will be heard before the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, after a lottery conducted Tuesday by an obscure federal judicial panel.

Nearly three dozen lawsuits have been filed in multiple federal appeals courts against the requirement, triggering the lottery to consolidate the cases before one court.

The rule, released by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Nov. 5, requires private businesses with more than 100 employees to ensure that their workers are vaccinated or tested weekly for Covid-19, starting Jan. 4.

The lawsuits — brought by several Republican-controlled states, private businesses and religious groups — argue that the rule exceeds the Labor Department’s authority and Congress’ ability to delegate to federal agencies, as well as the First Amendment, the Constitution’s Commerce clause, and laws protecting religious freedom, among other legal arguments.

The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation selected the 6th circuit as part of a random selection where each court’s name was entered into a drum.

The New Orleans-based 5th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay against the requirement earlier this month, and further instructed the Biden administration to “take no steps to implement or enforce” it, finding that the states and businesses challenging the rule “show a great likelihood of success on the merits.”

The Biden administration will now issue its response to that order in the 6th Circuit. The Cincinnati-based court has 16 judges: 11 appointed by Republican presidents and five by Democratic presidents. Six of the judges were appointed by former President Donald Trump.

However, the three-judge circuit panel that will hear the arguments is unlikely to be the final arbiter, since the losing side can request a rehearing before all the judges in that circuit and request Supreme Court review.

While it’s unclear what specific judges on the panel will hear the consolidated challenge, notably, three judges on the 6th circuit struck down a court order late last year that would have allowed Kentucky religious and private schools to reopen for in-person education amid a surge in coronavirus cases.

The First Liberty Institute, a Texas-based group that takes up court battles on behalf of Christian issues, represented one of the parties in that Kentucky school case and also filed one of the challenges against the OSHA vaccine-or-test rule in the 5th Circuit.

Josh Gerstein contributed to this report.

This blgo originally appeared at Politico on November 16, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.


Share this post

For 2nd straight month, Americans quit jobs at a record pace

Share this post

The figures point to a historic level of turmoil in the job market as newly-empowered workers quit jobs to take higher pay that is being dangled by businesses in need of help

Americans quit their jobs at a record pace for the second straight month in September, in many cases for more money elsewhere as companies bump up pay to fill job openings that are close to an all-time high.

The Labor Department said Friday that 4.4 million people quit their jobs in September, or about 3% of the nation’s workforce. That’s up from 4.3 million in August and far above the pre-pandemic level of 3.6 million. There were 10.4 million job openings, down from 10.6 million in August, which was revised higher.

The figures point to a historic level of turmoil in the job market as newly-empowered workers quit jobs to take higher pay that is being dangled by businesses in need of help. Incomes are rising, Americans are spending more and the economy is growing, and employers have ramped up hiring to keep pace. Rising inflation, however, is offsetting much of the pay gains for workers.

Friday’s report follows last week’s jobs report, which showed that employers stepped up their hiring in October, adding 531,000 jobs, while the unemployment rate fell to 4.6%, from 4.8%. Hiring rebounded as the Delta wave, which had restrained job gains in August and September, faded.

It is typically perceived as a signal of worker confidence when people leave the jobs they hold. The vast majority of people quit for a new position.

The number of available jobs has topped 10 million for four consecutive months. The record before the pandemic was 7.5 million. There were more job openings in September than the 7.7 million unemployed, illustrating the difficulties so many companies have had finding workers.

In addition to the number of unemployed, there are about 5 million fewer people looking for jobs compared with pre-pandemic trends, making it much harder for employers to hire. Economists cite many reasons for that decline: Some are mothers unable to find or afford child care, while others are avoiding taking jobs out of fear of contracting COVID-19. Stimulus checks this year and in 2020, as well as extra unemployment aid that has since expired, has given some families more savings and enabled them to hold off from looking for work.

Goldman Sachs, in a research note Thursday, estimates that most of the 5 million are older Americans who have decided to retire. Only about 1.7 million are aged 25 through 54, which economists consider prime working years.

Goldman estimates that most of those people in their prime working years will return to work in the coming months, but that would still leave a much smaller workforce than before the pandemic. That could leave employers facing labor shortages for months or even years.

Businesses in other countries are facing similar challenges, leading to pay gains and higher inflation in countries like Canada and the United Kingdom.

Competition for U.S. workers is intense for retailers and delivery companies, particularly as they staff up for what is expected to be a healthy winter holiday shopping season.

Online giant Amazon is hiring 125,000 permanent drivers and warehouse workers and offer pay between $18 and $22 an hour. It’s also paying sign-on bonuses of up to $3,000.

Seasonal hiring is also ramping up. Package delivery company UPS is seeking to add 100,000 workers to help with the crush of holiday orders, and plans to make job offers to some applicants within 30 minutes.

About the Author: The Associated Press is an independent global news organization dedicated to factual reporting. Founded in 1846, AP today remains the most trusted source of fast, accurate, unbiased news in all formats and the essential provider of the technology and services vital to the news business.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on November 12, 2021. Reprinted with permission.


Share this post

Mental Health at Work and Appropriate Adjustments Managers Should Make

Share this post

Mental health in the workplace has, in recent years, become a priority for employers. Many organizations are fighting the stigmas of mental health through training programs and reasonable adjustments in the workplace, ensuring those struggling with their mental health receive the required support. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 5 adults in the United States struggle with their mental health. Symptoms of mental health and the numerous struggles people face as a result don’t just affect the lives of individuals; they can also impact the businesses they work for. 

Your Responsibility as an Employer 

As an employer, you cannot ignore the seriousness of mental health and the impact this can have in the workplace. It is a fact that there are people in your workforce struggling with mental health conditions. In fact, it is estimated that around half of the US workforce suffer from mental health issues. 

Just as you would make adjustments for an employee with a physical illness or disability, employers should make reasonable adjustments within the workplace for those with mental health struggles. Below are some of the adjustments you can make. 

Flexible Working Hours 

For someone struggling with mental health, sometimes the smallest changes can make all the difference for them in managing their symptoms. One of the best reasonable adjustments you can make as an employer is to provide opportunities for flexible working. Whether you allow for later start times, remote working, or part-time options, flexible work opportunities can relieve some of the pressure on struggling employees. 

So, whether they need to attend counseling sessions, take time off for medical appointments, book a holiday, or just need to feel more in control of their schedule, allowing for flexible working hours is a reasonable option for employers keen to support their workers. 

Create Support Systems 

Mental health can be extremely isolating. Most sufferers feel embarrassed to speak up about their struggles out of fear that others might judge them. As Adam Nesenoff, an expert working in mental health recovery at Tikvah Lake Recovery states, “one of the worst effects of suffering from any mental health problem is that it often leaves people feeling alone. This is frequently made worse because there is a tendency to start isolating.” Isolation often causes symptoms to worsen. 

Support systems (otherwise known as buddy systems) help employees create connections with their colleagues, find people they can talk to, and feel more comfortable in the workplace. These support systems can be created formally or informally but they are an excellent way to support someone dealing with mental health issues. 

Introduce a Phased Return to Work 

Sometimes, employees need to request an extended period of time off work so they can receive professional support. As an employer, you should support this as much as possible. Seeking support is a huge step out of a comfort zone for many people and it is something that should be commended. 

However, after an extended period of time away from work, many returning employees can feel anxious (whether they struggle with mental health problems or not). So, it can be helpful to introduce a phased return to work. This will help employees to return to their previous duties at a pace that works for them. 

You might consider asking them to come in for a few hours or days each week at first and then building up from there. If you are unsure what is best, just speak to the individual and ask them what they would like to do. 

Address Discrimination and Fight Stigmas 

Unfortunately, there are numerous stigmas surrounding mental health. Sufferers are often faced with questions like, “isn’t it all in your head?” or “things can’t be that bad?” These kinds of responses are unhelpful and, ultimately, damaging to individuals, regularly causing mental health symptoms to worsen.  

One of the critical challenges of tackling mental health in the workplace involves confronting the stigmas and the best way to do this is through addressing the discriminations and educating your workforce. 

Despite the fact you may feel powerless to support every employee in the way they need, one of the best steps you can take is fighting stigmas. Provide mental health training for your employees, address stigmas head-on and let perpetrators know that such behavior will not be tolerated. Creating an understanding and inclusive work culture can transform the health and happiness of your employees. 

As an employer, it is your responsibility to ensure all your employees are cared for and supported in the workplace.

This blog is printed with permission.

About the author: Gemma Hart is an independent HR professional working remotely from as many coffee shops as she can find. Gemma has gained experience in a number of HR roles but now turns her focus towards growing her brand and building relationships with leading experts.


Share this post

Biden vaccine mandates will hit after holiday season, offering relief to businesses

Share this post

The announcement follows weeks of pressure from business leaders who complained the rules would wreak havoc on the supply chain and possibly aggravate worker shortages.

The Biden administration’s forthcoming vaccine mandates for millions of private employers, certain health care workers and federal contractors will not be enforced until after the holiday season, following weeks of pressure from business leaders who complained the rules would wreak havoc on the supply chain and aggravate worker shortages.

The administration released two new rules on Thursday that will be enforced starting Jan. 4 — one setting up new vaccination-or-test requirements for businesses with more than 100 workers and another implementing a vaccine mandate for health care workers at facilities participating in Medicare and Medicaid. Together, the rules are expected to affect over 1 million workers.

“COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on workers, and we continue to see dangerous levels of cases,” Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said. “Many businesses understand the benefits of having their workers vaccinated against COVID-19, and we expect many will be pleased to see this OSHA rule go into effect.”

Officials also said the administration is pushing back the Dec. 8 deadline for federal contractors to ensure their workers are fully vaccinated, so that all three mandates will go into force on Jan. 4.

While employers were given a brief reprieve from immediately implementing the test piece of the rule, the administration clarified that businesses must be in compliance on Dec. 5 with all other requirements, such as providing paid time off for employees to get vaccinated and requiring unvaccinated workers to wear a mask in the workplace.

Under the rules, workers at private businesses with more than 100 employees will have the option to wear a mask at work and submit to weekly Covid-19 testing in lieu of getting vaccinated. Health care workers and government contractors do not have the testing option.

Unvaccinated workers who claim they have a legally protected exception to getting the vaccine could be fired if their employer says it would be an “undue hardship” to offer remote work or some other accommodation.

Companies that fail to follow the vaccine-or-test rules can be fined up to $14,000 per infraction.

The temporary rules for private employers go into effect immediately and stay in place for six months, but can be directly challenged in the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Private employers will not be required to pay for weekly Covid-19 tests for employees who refuse to get vaccinated, according to the new emergency temporary standard released by the Labor Department on Thursday. Whether insurers will cover the cost of testing for unvaccinated workers is up to individual insurance plans, according to Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Jim Frederick.

Private employers subject to the emergency standard must also provide paid time off for workers to receive and recover from the Covid-19 vaccine, according to the rule.

Senior administration officials told reporters Wednesday that the vaccine-or-test requirement for private businesses alone “will protect more than 84 million workers from the spread of the Coronavirus” on the job and estimate that it will prevent over 250,000 hospitalizations.

The requirements, which President Joe Biden announced in September as part of his latest campaign to combat Covid-19, have already ignited a legal battle with conservative states and businesses over the government’s authority to impose such directives.

Shortly after the emergency rule for private businesses was announced, the Job Creators Network, a small business advocacy group, filed a lawsuit on behalf of several businesses in federal appeals court seeking to block the requirements from going into effect, arguing that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration doesn’t have the authority to issue the rule.

“The Biden Administration’s vaccine mandate is clearly illegal and will have a devastating impact on our small business community and our entire economy,” said Alfredo Ortiz, president and CEO of the group, in a statement on the lawsuit.

“The Administration’s mandate will exacerbate the worst labor shortage in recorded history by requiring small business owners to terminate some employees who wish not to get vaccinated while also shrinking the pool of job applicants available for hiring,” he said.

Nineteen states, including Florida and Texas, sued the Biden administration last month over the vaccine mandate for federal contractors, arguing the requirement was an unlawful overreach. And 24 state attorneys general and various business groups have warned the administration that it would face legal challenges if it moved forward with the vaccine-or-test rules for private employers.

Some Republican governors, including Florida’s Ron DeSantis and Alabama’s Kay Ivey, have tried to preemptively block private businesses from imposing mandates of any kind via executive order, although legal experts and the administration say those state rules are preempted by the new federal requirements.

“I expect to see battle royale in Texas, in Florida or anywhere else that wants to try to stop these” rules, David Miller of Bryant Miller Olive P.A., said. States are likely to argue the federal mandate violates the First Amendment, as applied to states through the 14th Amendment, Miller said.

“I really think that’s where it’s finally going to come to the nub in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. That’s the only way this is getting settled,” he added.

The administration’s move to delay the federal contractor mandate comes after trade groups, businesses and Republicans complained that the requirements will force employers to fire workers who refuse to get the vaccine or lead to mass resignations among workers who don’t want to comply, leading to more disruption in the labor market and the supply chain ahead of the crucial holiday season.

“In response to similar state and federal mandates, many private companies have begun firing workers who refuse the Covid-19 vaccine,” said Rep. Russ Fulcher (R-Idaho), during a labor subcommittee hearing on the mandate for private employers last month. “This federal vaccine mandate will worsen the supply chain crisis, almost guaranteeing Americans will go without this Christmas.”

But Biden brushed off those concerns Thursday, arguing that vaccination requirements are popular and also good for the economy.

“As we’ve seen with businesses – large and small – across all sectors of our economy, the overwhelming majority of Americans choose to get vaccinated,” Biden said in a statement on the new rules. “There have been no ‘mass firings’ and worker shortages because of vaccination requirements. Despite what some predicted and falsely assert, vaccination requirements have broad public support.”

Unions, labor advocates, health officials and even some businesses have lauded the effort from the administration, calling the vaccine-or-test rules for private companies long overdue and finally unifying a state-by-state patchwork of requirements.

“One of the biggest struggles of the last two years is that we are dealing with an ever-changing patchwork of health and safety regulations that, in many cases, have differed not just state to state, but county by county,” Richelle Luther, chief human resources officer at Columbia Sportswear Company, told lawmakers during a hearing in October.

“A federal mandate is needed,” she added. “We do not believe it is more regulation for business, but rather, less. A quilt of local laws and approaches created vastly more regulation of business, more uncertainty, risk and inefficiency.”

Some economists predict the federal vaccine mandates could have a positive effect on the labor force. Goldman Sachs analysts wrote in September that “an increase in vaccination and almost full vaccination at workplaces should encourage many of the 5 [million] workers that have left the labor force since the start of the pandemic to return.”

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is the federal agency that polices employment discrimination, has given employers the greenlight to mandate Covid-19 vaccination in their workplace, so long as they provide accommodations for workers who say they can’t get the shot because of their religious beliefs or a disability.

Last month, the EEOC clarified that “social, political, or personal preferences” are not considered protected religious beliefs under federal anti-discrimination law.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency tasked with policing worker safety, has the authority to issue emergency temporary safety rules that go into effect immediately if it determines that workers are “in grave danger” due to exposure to something “determined to be toxic or physically harmful or to new hazards.”

Emergency temporary standards are rarely issued by OSHA. Before an emergency Covid-19 workplace safety rule went into place for health care workers earlier this year, the agency hadn’t released an emergency standard since the 1980s.

OSHA has issued 10 emergency temporary standards in its five-decade history. Of those, at least five were stayed or blocked by the courts, according to the Congressional Research Service.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on November 4, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.


Share this post

How Workers at Beverage Giant Refresco Defeated a “Notorious” Union Buster

Share this post

Refresco has waged a prolonged and costly fight to stop the workers from unionizing.

As the spread of Covid-19 forced millions of workplaces to close in March 2020, Cesar Moreira continued to report to a bottling plant in Wharton, N.J., where he works as a batching technician. During 12-hour shifts, Moreira mixes vats of powdered concentrate and sugar to churn out brand-name beverages like Gatorade and Arizona Iced Tea.

Management for Resfresco Beverages Inc., the owner of the plant and one of the largest bottling companies, told workers these operations fell under the umbrella of “essential services.” Moreira was incredulous.

That the company would risk the health of its employees to maintain the supply of sugary drinks angered him. In mid-March, as workers at the plant began to call in sick with coronavirus symptoms, Moreira says plant management ignored their concerns and refused to temporarily halt production. 

On March 21, 2020, Moreira and his coworkers walked off the job to demand adequate protections and contact tracing, part of a wave of safety-related stoppages in the first months of the pandemic. Workers at a Perdue chicken plant in Georgia and a meatpacking facility in Nebraska soon followed suit, the food production sector being a particular hotspot for Covid-19 cases and emergency organizing by a heavily immigrant workforce. 

But workers at the Wharton plant didn’t stop there. Their spontaneous protest quickly blossomed into a full-fledged union drive. In June, 15 months after the walkout, Refresco workers voted 114–101 to join the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). Their 250-person bargaining unit is one of the biggest victories of blue-collar organizing during the pandemic.


To win the election, Moreira and his co-workers also had to overcome an aggressive anti-union campaign targeting their predominantly Spanish-speaking workforce. The company pulled out all the stops, posting anti-union flyers and a fake UE contract—and hiring Lupe Cruz, a union avoidance expert who specializes in “bilingual consulting.” In These Times obtained more than eight hours of recordings from six weeks of mandatory anti-union meetings led by Cruz at the Refresco plant this spring. The recordings provide a window into an especially insidious union-busting strategy: exploiting ethnic and linguistic differences to sow doubt and confusion among immigrant workers.

The tactic is old, but it speaks to the increasing specialization of a multi-million-dollar union-busting industry. Labor activists say Cruz, himself a former union organizer, is infamous for his attempts to thwart organizing in industries with large numbers of immigrant workers.

Alejandro Coriat, who encountered Cruz in 2017 while organizing a union at his job at a Hilton Hotel in Stamford, Conn., even coined a term to describe this approach: “intersectional union-busting.” In a workplace dominated by Latino and Haitian immigrants, Cruz and his team “divided us according to two language groups, and with each group, they tried a different tack,” Coriat says. The workers ultimately won their union by a near-unanimous vote.

Cruz’s strategy also failed at Refresco, but the workers’ fight isn’t over. After the union won the election, Refresco moved rapidly to scrap the results on a technicality. While a representative for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recommended certification of the union in September, Refresco has signaled that it intends to appeal.

That leaves the Refresco workers in limbo, unable to start contract negotiations. At a time when essential workers are reporting more willingness to take collective action, the Refresco drive shows just how many hurdles they still face.

Licinia Ochoa has worked as a machine operator at the Wharton bottling plant for 22 years. It was her first job after she moved from Colombia to New Jersey in 1999. UE estimates that, of the 250-some workers who mix, bottle and pack beverages at the Refresco plant, more than 85 percent are Latin American immigrants.

Work at the plant, which opened in 1980, was never easy, Ochoa says. But until recently, it was dignified. Her schedule was regular, the hours weren’t too bad and she knew she would be covered if she got injured or sick.

Then, in 2016, the plant’s original owner sold it to Refresco.

The beverage giant has grown rapidly by gobbling up smaller companies in North America and Europe; its gross profit in 2020 was 1.9 billion euros, according to an annual report. Refresco operates more than 60 plants worldwide, including about 30 in the United States. The majority of workers in the U.S. facilities are not unionized.

“Many things changed since Refresco came,” Ochoa says.

Soon after acquiring the Wharton plant, Refresco switched the company’s healthcare plan to one with high deductibles and skimpier coverage. Later, the company replaced many 8-hour shifts with 12-hour shifts. For many workers, wages stagnated below $20 per hour.

Cesar Moreira immigrated to the United States from Ecuador and has worked at the plant for seven years. He suffers from sleep apnea. “I’m paying $750 [for treatment], plus $1,500 to the company that makes the mask that sends oxygen to my brain,” he says. “That’s $2,200.

“We are talking about a multinational corporation. So why couldn’t they keep our health insurance [from before]?”

Ochoa, 62, was among those assigned to 12-hour shifts. Ochoa makes $17 an hour and says her healthcare copays are so high she avoids seeing a doctor. But she had no choice after becoming seriously ill in March 2020, eventually requiring hospitalization for Covid-19. The virus put her out of work for two months.

Ochoa and several coworkers had reached out to UE in 2019, beginning talks over healthcare and scheduling concerns. But the drive didn’t kick into high gear until spring 2020.

Anthony Sanchez, an employee of 15 years, says when he tested positive for Covid-19 in March 2020, he tried to alert the company. “They didn’t talk to the coworkers I interact with all the time,” he says. “They didn’t give tests. They didn’t put anybody in quarantine.”

For months, workers kept their intentions to unionize quiet, while distributing and amassing signed union cards to demonstrate majority support.

“They never would have thought we would do this under their noses,” Ochoa says. “It was brutal when they found out.”

When workers attempt to organize a union, it’s almost a given they’ll face resistance. A 2019 report by the Economic Policy Institute reveals employers spend about $340 million on anti-union services annually. Hiring professional “union avoidance” consultants to interrogate workers and carry out so-called captive audience meetings is an especially common tactic.

As the union avoidance industry has grown, it’s also become increasingly sophisticated. Richard Rehberg, a researcher for the International Union of Operating Engineers, says he first encountered Cruz and his special brand of culturally competent union-busting while working for Food and Allied Service Trades, an AFL-CIO affiliate, in the early 2000s.

“It was a new thing,” Rehberg says. “Basically, the union-busters were pandering. You know, ‘OK, how are we going to deal with these Latino workers and Spanish speakers?’”

Now, says Rehberg, this kind of specialization is common. Employers can hire union-busters to appeal—sometimes crudely—to almost any demographic. On campaigns to organize construction and building trades, for example, Rehberg says he has repeatedly encountered one man with a “pseudo-biker look” apparently intended to help a well-paid consultant relate to blue-collar workers.

In 2020, employers gained another anti-union strategy: They could simply lay off workers attempting to organize and blame it on Covid-19. That appears to have successfully stalled active union drives among nurses in North Carolina, truck drivers in New Jersey and a host of others, according to an April 2020 New York Times investigation.

“This is a continuation of behavior that has become all too common, of employers being willing to use increasingly aggressive tactics to stop unionizing,” Sharon Block, a former NLRB board member, told the Times. “The pandemic has given them another tool.”

The situation creates a kind of paradox: While unions report workers increasingly want to organize (spurred by the pandemic), the number of actual union drives has declined.

The number of union representation elections fell by 30% from 2019 to 2020—partly due to a total stoppage of NLRB elections in March 2020 and the new challenges that in-person organizing faced. The Refresco workers’ campaign was a bright spot amid the lull.

Soon after Refresco workers submitted their union cards in May, management ushered them into the first of six weeks of mandatory meetings. In a recording of one of the first meetings, obtained by In These Times, Lupe Cruz introduces himself.

“Where are you from, sir?” Cruz asks employees in the audience in Spanish. One is from Ecuador. Another is from Peru. Venezuela, Colombia, El Salvador and Mexico are also represented.

“All different countries—six for six!” Cruz says. The workers’ immigration backgrounds will become an ongoing theme.

“One of the first things we’re going to teach you is, What is the process and the system here in the United States,’” Cruz says. “Because the way this works in Mexico, in Colombia, in Venezuela—it’s very different.”

Throughout the meetings, Cruz and the other consultants refer to the sessions as “classes,” saying they intend to provide the workers an education about U.S. labor law.

In one session, a worker chimes in with a story about how Refresco changed the plant. Cruz interrupts him: “I’m giving you a legal opinion, not an emotional one. There’s a difference. This is objective.” 

“They wanted to trick people with an image that they were neutral,” says Anthony Sanchez, who sat through multiple anti-union meetings.

In another session, Cruz presents a truncated history of UE, implying that thousands of workers jumped ship from the union after learning about U.S. labor.

“You know what the highest number of members this union has had?” Cruz says. “Six hundred thousand. What happened with those members? They left. Those who understood the system left.”

In fact, UE’s steep decline in membership, beginning in the 1950s, followed a wave of plant closures and vicious anti-Communist attacks, including by Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s notorious House Un-American Activities Committee.

In the same session, Cruz suggests UE is incapable of defending workers: “If this union isn’t one of the big ones, and Refresco is the biggest in the world, what kind of funds does this union have to help you in a fight?”

In an apparent attempt to cast doubt on the union, a document with the header “legal and binding contract between UE and the employees of Refresco” was posted at the plant. It contained a list of benefits and raises, as well as a blank signature line for the union—as if to say the union couldn’t actually guarantee improvements.

After casting the union as underfunded and impotent, Cruz describes a hypothetical scenario in which Refresco loses its big clients, like Pepsi, and workers are laid off.

“Who’s the real boss?” Cruz asks. “The real boss is Pepsi. If you’re Pepsi, you’re in the best position to negotiate [with bottling companies] because they all want your business. So if Pepsi looks into contracts with other businesses, what if they like them? They steal Refresco’s business. And then what happens to your jobs?” According to UE, the possibility of layoffs came up frequently in anti-union meetings.

The National Labor Relations Act prohibits employers from threatening workers with layoffs or reduced benefits if they join a union. Because of this, “employers are more likely to make implied rather than direct threats of job loss,” explains Kate Bronfenbrenner, labor scholar and director of labor education research at Cornell University. “They are much harder to prove [as legal violations], because so much is dependent on the culture and history of a particular workplace.”

In a statement emailed to In These Times, a spokesperson for Refresco says the company’s actions are entirely legal. “As it has done throughout this election process, Refresco has and will continue to follow all the legal rules governing its behavior in connection with and arising out of the union’s efforts to organize employees at its Wharton, New Jersey facility,” writes Antonella Sacconi, Refresco’s communications manager. “This includes, but is not limited to, neither retaliating against nor rewarding employees based on their union sympathies or support.”

Neither UE nor pro-union Refresco workers allege the company’s anti-union campaign broke any laws, just that Refresco and its hired consultants sought to confuse and manipulate workers—the legality of which, they say, serves as evidence of the weak labor protections for U.S. workers.

Cruz did not respond to multiple requests for commentBut to union organizers and labor activists, he is a familiar figure. Bronfenbrenner calls him “notorious.”

Cruz once worked as an organizer for the hospitality union Unite Here but has been battling the campaigns of his former union for more than a decade. In 2006, the owners of a Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles paid Cruz $480,000 during a particularly bruising anti-union fight, according to reporting by the Los Angeles TimesHilton fired an employee active in the union drive who had allegedly been caught stealing by a “mystery shopper” posing as a guest. When workers gathered in the cafeteria to protest the firing, management suspended more than 70 of them for a week.

Cruz has since gone on to consult for such employers as Trump Hotels, the auto club AAA and others. His involvement helped quash high-profile union campaigns at American Apparel in 2015 and a New Seasons Market grocery store in Oregon in 2019.

Cruz is associated with at least two firms that have filed disclosures with the Office of Labor Management Standards (OLMS), which requires third-party labor consultants to report income from employers. The firm Cruz & Associates reported more than $3.5 million in income in 2018 but has not filed additional reports since 2019. Quest Consulting, established in 2019 with Cruz as its president, reported $1.4 million in revenue for 2020, according to OLMS records.

Workers who have encountered Cruz on other union campaigns report seeing similar tactics to those at Refresco.

During a union drive at Tartine Bakery in 2020, workers say monolingual Spanish speakers were siloed for separate captive audience meetings. OLMS data shows Quest collected $243,363 from Tartine in 2020.

Refresco has since hired Seyfarth & Shaw, a prominent employer-side law firm, to appeal the union election results to the NLRB, which Bronfenbrenner says is an “extremely common” tactic. “It gives the employer more chances to raise questions about what the union really wants. And [make] the workers who voted for the union feel less secure,” she says.

For their part, workers on the organizing committee are preparing for steward elections and the eventuality of contract negotiations.

“I’m OK, but I’m uneasy,” Moreira says. “The only way to make a change is to pressure these people into understanding that we aren’t … animals to control at their will.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 19, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alice Herman is a 2020–2021 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting Fellow with In These Times.


Share this post

How Businesses Can Better Care For Their Female Employees

Share this post

There’s no question that inequality has ruled the workplace for years. Even today, the gender pay gap is holding strong. In 2020, women in the U.S. earned just 84% of what their male counterparts made. However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. 

While things may not be “fixed” at the moment, they are finally being exposed with increased public scrutiny of employers who don’t uplift female workers as high as they do their male employees. 

At this point, we need more than equal pay. Employers need to offer increased care and benefits to female employees who have been underrepresented in the past.

Equality in Traditionally Biased Industries

There has been an increased presence of female representation in typically male-dominated industries over the last few years, including the construction industry. In 2018, over 1 million women were working in the industry, and while those statistics are encouraging, it’s important to point out potential areas of inequality. 

Safety measures, training and education all need to be offered to women in male-dominated industries. This includes training women in all technological advances that could improve their careers while keeping them safe on the job. 

Unfortunately, some people believe male-dominated industries should stay that way and may go so far as to sabotage a woman’s success through: 

The trucking industry, another traditionally male-dominated field, is another area where these issues can become problematic. If you’re involved in the transportation field, you can protect your female workers and encourage more gender diversity by offering stable schedules, encouraging a strong work-life balance and having a strong policy against discrimination and harassment. 

Informing Female Employees of Their Rights

Women deserve equal pay and benefits, but they also deserve to know their rights when working for you. 

One of the obstacles many women have to overcome in the workplace is finding ways to make sure their child is cared for at home. For all employees, this is ultimately why a work-life balance is so important and has become a priority among different workplaces. For women, a fair work-life balance goes beyond simply spending more time at home. It’s also about making sure they can provide for their families financially. 

Along with providing adequate pay, business owners should also inform their employees who are parents of tax breaks that can benefit them. You may not be able to offer any of your own, but the federal government provides tax credits to mothers with children at home. 

For 2021, the numbers associated with those benefits have shifted slightly, and they’re likely to change again during the next fiscal year. As an employer, staying on top of those changes and bringing those breaks up to your female employees can put extra money in their pockets as they file their taxes. 

There are countless ways businesses can better care for their female employees, and equality and fairness should be at the very core. Women deserve to feel safe, cared for and represented no matter what industry they’re in. If you’re looking for ways to bolster the women in your workplace, keep these ideas in mind, and create in-house policies designed to ensure equality among your workers.

This blog is printed with permission.

About the author: Dan Matthews is a writer, content consultant, and conservationist. While Dan writes on a variety of topics, he loves to focus on the topics that look inward on mankind that help to make the surrounding world a better place to reside. When Dan isn’t working on new content, you can find him with a coffee cup in one hand and searching for new music in the other.


Share this post

No, Striketober Is Not About Vaccine Mandates

Share this post

The recent wave of militant labor action has been over workers demanding better pay and working conditions—not opposing Covid vaccine requirements.

This month, the United States has seen a noticeable uptick in the number of strikes by fed-up workers at companies like Kellogg’s and John Deere—a phenomenon many are calling “Striketober.” As a result, the U.S. labor movement is getting an unusual amount of attention. 

But because of the corporate media’s often spotty or ideologically slanted coverage of workers’ struggles, combined with the fact that only a small minority of Americans have any personal experience with unions, there appears to be some confusion among the general public over what Striketober is really about. 

A troubling number of Americans seem to have the false impression that tens of thousands of underpaid and overworked employees are going on strike in order to resist Covid-19 vaccine mandates—when they are actually walking off the job to win decent raises, equitable pay structures and relief from mandatory overtime.

Some of this confusion was on display last week as HuffPost labor reporter Dave Jamieson appeared on C-SPAN to discuss the current wave of strikes. When host John McArdle opened the phone lines for viewers to call up, the vaccine-specific questions started to roll in.

“I wanted to know how much the vaccine mandates are playing in these strikes? What is the role of the vaccine mandate?” asked the first caller, a woman from South Carolina. 

About fifteen minutes later, another caller from Kentucky asked, “Do you think this vaccine is causing most of the strikes?” 

In response, Jamieson patiently explained that, “the vaccine is essentially a non-issue in these strikes we are seeing.”

“As someone who’s been following these strikes closely, I was a little surprised by the assumption that vaccines might be at the center of this,” Jamieson told In These Times. “But I probably shouldn’t have been. There’s been outsized media coverage of workers defying vaccine requirements, even though they seem to be quite a small share of the workforce.”

Indeed, since this summer there have been numerous news reports about unions “opposing” vaccine mandates, and many similar stories about individual workers who would rather get fired than be vaccinated. But in reality, employers across the country are reporting that 90 to 100 percent of their workforces are complying with vaccine mandates. 

And then there’s media coverage that collapses the distinction between workers walking off the job to demand better working conditions and resistance to vaccine mandates, such as this CNN story titled, “Here comes the anti-vaccine requirement solidarity movement,” which spends dozens of paragraphs recounting opposition to mandates before stating that the recent strikes have actually not been over such objections. At the end of September, Fox News published a story falsely claiming that healthcare workers at Valley Health in Winchester, Va., went on strike over their employer’s vaccine mandate, when in fact only a small number of workers protested the requirement, rather than taking part in an official or large-scale walk out. 

Much of the media hype about supposed union opposition to the mandates stems from general misunderstandings about the nature of collective bargaining. Unions that have asserted their right to bargain with employers over the implementation of vaccine mandates have inaccurately been accused of opposing the mandates altogether.

Reacting to news that public sector unions in Portland, Oregon were demanding to negotiate implementation of the vaccine mandate, journalist James Surowiecki tweeted: “Organized labor has been on the wrong side of the vaccine issue almost across the board.”

“Maybe some unions have been captured by the cranks in their ranks,” Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell opined in response to unions wanting to negotiate vaccine mandates. “If ‘Big Labor’ obstructs this effort, it will fail not only its own members, but also the many admirers and political allies it worked so hard to win over,” she warned.

But as the Economic Policy Institute’s Dave Kamper explained, “Demanding to negotiate the impact of something isn’t the same as refusing to do it, or even being opposed to it.”

Unions seeking to bargain over vaccine mandates want to determine specific policies like whether workers can use paid sick time to get vaccinated, what they will be expected to show as proof of vaccination and whether those working remotely will also need to be vaccinated.

“Even when an employer offers something unmistakably good to employees…unions still can, will, and SHOULD demand to negotiate it, get it down in writing, formally agree to it,” Kamper wrote. “At its very heart, collective bargaining isn’t about money. It’s about power. It’s about WHO DECIDES. The principle of collective bargaining is the boss is not and should not be the unilateral decision maker. That’s what a demand to negotiate means.”

Indeed, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and Tyson Foods recently hammered out an agreement on implementation of the mandate, and now report that 96 percent of the company’s workers have been vaccinated, exemplifying that negotiating over vaccine mandates does not mean opposition to them.

“Working together, the UFCW and Tyson set a new standard with this vaccine mandate and have proved what’s possible when we listen to workers and negotiate the implementation of vaccination mandates fairly and responsibly,” said UFCW International President Marc Perrone.

Meanwhile, it is true that some unions have been extremely vocal and adamant in their total opposition to vaccine mandates—but these are almost entirely right-wing police unions like Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, which are already pariahs to many in the labor movement. Importantly, while these police unions may be holding protests and making noise, they are not on strike and are therefore completely unconnected to the current wave of work stoppages.

“I think people are conflating the labor strife they see with these highly politicized mandates,” Jamieson said. “Unfortunately, that can overshadow the important labor story that’s unfolding: workers finding their leverage and demanding a better deal.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 28, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke has been a Working In These Times contributor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke


Share this post

Mississippi Believes It Can Be Organized. Does Anyone Else?

Share this post

Under-resourced and overlooked, the South is tired of waiting for organized labor.

Two blocks from the Mississippi State Capitol in downtown Jackson, Robert Shaffer, head of the state AFL-CIO, sits on a couch in his office trying to explain how unions could become more powerful in Mississippi. “It’s just,” he says, then pauses for an uncomfortably long time. “It’s difficult.” It’s not that Shaffer doesn’t know how to do it. His problem is getting anyone to believe him.

In 1946, full of vigor from the postwar boom of organized labor, the Congress of Industrial Organizations launched Operation Dixie, the most ambitious project to unionize the South ever undertaken. Hundreds of CIO organizers fanned out across the region. The challenges of Southern racism and the frenzied anti-Communism of the McCarthy era ultimately caused Operation Dixie to fail in its goal of ending the South’s status as a haven for cheap, nonunion labor, but the unions did notch some successes along the way. One of the places they were able to interest workers in organizing was in West Point, a small town in northeast Mississippi. There, employees at a Babcock & Wilcox boiler factory began holding union elections in 1952. They lost, but they continued calling elections almost yearly until 1967, when they were victorious by a single vote, joining the Boilermakers.

By the mid-1980s, the plant had 100 percent union membership—no easy task in a right-to-work state where anyone can opt out of paying union dues.

In 2016, the plant shut down. The last of its jobs were shipped to Mexico.

“NAFTA took care of Operation Dixie,” sighs Shaffer, who has a bristly white mustache and the philosophical air of a man who has seen a once-great thing taken away from him. He began working at that Babcock & Wilcox plant in 1969 and became head of the union local in 1984. Today, Shaffer is organized labor’s chief lobbyist in a state where barely 7 percent of working people are union members.

The ultra-Republican Mississippi legislature has made the laws so politically hostile to unions that it’s difficult to think of how it could get any worse. “It’s more defensive than anything else,” Shaffer grumbles about his dealings with state politicians. “Hell, I think they got everything. How do you get any lower than the bottom of the damn ocean?”

Every state in the South today has so-called right-to-work laws on the books—anti-union legislation that makes it harder to build and maintain strong unions. They serve to drive down already paltry union density and exacerbate the region’s high poverty rates.

Periodically (and with great regularity), the labor movement holds a fevered conversation with itself about “how to organize the South.” Implicit in these conversations is the greater question lurking just below the surface: Can the South even be organized?

Like all questions about the South, there is nowhere better to find the answer than Mississippi. Mississippi is the place most defined by the twin struggles of racial justice and labor rights that date back to slavery. Mississippi is also the most impoverished state in America. Nearly a fifth of all Mississippians live in poverty, including more than 30 percent of the state’s Black residents. Working in Mississippi is what inspired the invention of the blues. And the state still seems to live by the words of Delta musician Skip James: “Hard times is here, and everywhere you go, times are harder than ever been before.”

The most recent spasm of interest in the possibility of an organized South arose earlier this year, when the nation’s attention was momentarily drawn to the unsuccessful effort from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) to organize an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. Another recent major union vote in the South was August 2017, when the United Auto Workers (UAW) failed in their attempt to unionize thousands of Nissan workers at a plant in Canton, Miss. Both attempts included enormous campaigns targeting more than 5,000 workers in a single location.

The UAW spent more than a decade on the Nissan campaign, only to lose the vote by nearly 2–1. Those devastating figures in such a high-profile campaign (coming on the heels of a similar UAW loss at a factory in Tennessee in 2014) fed a grim narrative of skepticism about whether the South was simply a dark and impenetrable place that would never yield to organized labor. Many in the union world think the South’s difficult political atmosphere and its long history of union-busting make it too risky to spend large sums of money on big organizing drives.

Successful organizing in right-to-work states simply takes more ongoing work—and with limited resources, it is easy for unions to want to focus elsewhere.

The actual lessons of that Nissan campaign are far more nuanced, however, and somewhat hopeful. The UAW’s lead Nissan organizer was Sanchioni Butler, a long-time autoworker herself who went to Canton in 2003 to lay the groundwork for unionization. She is candid about the obstacles the union faced from the very beginning, ones that plague the South broadly: a workforce divided between full-time employees and a throng of temps doing the same job for lower pay; thinly veiled threats by management and state politicians to close the plant; and widespread lack of knowledge about unions among workers themselves. One of the reasons the Nissan campaign went on so long is that the union, recognizing what it was up against, was trying to organize not just a single workplace, but the surrounding community.

“It was a community campaign before it was an actual worker campaign,” says Butler, who is now a political campaign organizer for the Mississippi AFL-CIO. “Labor has had a bad rap of, ‘They come in, organize and leave the town in shambles.’ So that was something the UAW was trying hard not to [do].”

In Canton, that meant nurturing an entire parallel campaign to bring along clergy and community leaders to support the union drive—an attempt to build some friendly allies in a conservative, venomously anti-union state. One of the leaders of that effort was Frank Figgers, a bearded, owlish descendant of Mississippi sharecroppers. Figgers, a well-known civil rights activist in Jackson, was a co-chair of the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan, which pulled in clergy members and groups like the NAACP to try to make the soil more fertile for the union drive. 

First, the group educated church leaders about the benefits of collective bargaining. Then, workers from the plant spoke up in church to let the congregations know the troubles they had on the job. 

For Figgers, there is a straight line from the legacy of slavery to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s to the labor movement today.

“Black workers were the free workforce in this country,” Figgers says. “It took abolishing slavery for Black workers to get anything for their labor. When a union comes in, when collective bargaining comes in, that brings about equity in the workplace. That’s probably why Mississippi as a state has fought against unions for so long.”

Mississippi’s 1890 state constitution definitively snuffed out most Reconstruction-era gains for Black people, ushering in a regime of legalized white supremacy. With it came separate, unequal, racialized pay scales, the effects of which have never been mitigated. 

Though the civil rights movement is often misremembered as solely about voting rights, Figgers says, it was also about rights at work—in particular, winning pay equity in the racist South. There is only the barest sliver of daylight between what civil rights heroes Fannie Lou Hamer and Medgar Evers were fighting for in Mississippi a half century ago and the task of empowering Mississippi’s vast, low-paid, largely Black workforce today. After years fighting for voting rights, Hamer started a farmers’ co-op in Sunflower County in a bid for economic empowerment. Martin Luther King Jr. spent his later years focused on economic justice and was in Memphis supporting a sanitation workers’ strike when he was assassinated. 

While the civil rights movement has now been fully adopted as part of America’s mainstream mythology, the labor movement in Mississippi remains threadbare. Butler says the fear Nissan workers felt when signing union cards is the same fear their parents and grandparents felt registering to vote.

On the other hand, Butler also knows unions are one of the most effective ways to unite Black and white workers in Mississippi—not in a magical sense of making centuries of racism disappear, but in a practical sense of being virtually the only institution in the South capable of making white and Black people work for a shared purpose despite antiBlack racism. Butler says she saw suspicion and resentment between Nissan workers of different races melt away as she talked with them about their shared suffering due to high healthcare costs and job injuries. “At the end of the day, everybody was being mistreated,” Butler says. “They have their own ‘aha’ moment: ‘I didn’t know you went through that. I went through the exact same thing.’”

Despite the union’s loss, the decade-plus of community education work instilled a hunger for labor rights in thousands of people, priming the region for future campaigns. The union is still present in Canton, but has not filed for another union election. (The UAW did not respond to inquiries for this story.)

Mississippi is a state with an infinite capacity for not learning from its own history. Today, when you visit the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in downtown Jackson to learn about the bloody struggles for freedom, you can get a refreshment at the Nissan Cafe—courtesy of a $500,000 donation Nissan made while fighting the unionization campaign.

It is not impossible to build strong unions in Mississippi. Robert Shaffer will tell you it can be done the same way they did it at Babcock & Wilcox: Create a strong culture around being in the union. Stay in constant contact with members. Don’t take any shit from the boss. Be ready to strike.

And never, ever stop fighting.

What Shaffer cannot do is make unions flower across Mississippi; he does not have the resources. The AFL-CIO has no statewide army of staffers to put any organizing plans into action. Sometimes, even the AFL-CIO itself can’t get the attention of unions. Shaffer says that a few years ago, AFL-CIO independently organized a group of hotel workers in Jackson, only for the effort to die out because they couldn’t find a union to take the workers on as members. (The AFL-CIO is a federation of unions and typically does not do direct organizing; the workers needed a union to represent them in order to move ahead and get a contract.)

Offshoring pressures after NAFTA closed many of the state’s big factories, and today Mississippi is made up of relatively small workplaces. Shaffer says most unions don’t find it economically feasible to organize groups of less than 200 workers. The result is very few unionized workplaces for the hundreds of thousands of retail, healthcare, restaurant, warehouse and manufacturing workers in the state, despite the fact that everyone I spoke with firmly believes unionizing could be done if only they had the resources.

Shaffer dreams of another Operation Dixie to produce a new generation of believers. “You can take a group of 25 to start with, and you start building that, and you make them proud of their union,” he says. “It expands. Especially somewhere like Jackson, Mississippi, man. Damn!

“I just get so frustrated, because I don’t got the power to do that shit,” he says. “It’s a business decision now. A hundred years ago, it was a decision for the people.”

Even in Mississippi, there are some islands of union power. One is in Carthage, where the RWDSU represents a large Tyson poultry factory. Since the plant unionized in 1993, more than 1,100 of its current 1,800 workers have become union members. Latunya Love, a friendly, resolute woman from the nearby crossroads town of Sallis, has worked at the plant for 16 years. She spent 15 of them as a union rep.

A union is still not a panacea for a Mississippi poultry worker. Love, who works on the line, knife in hand, checking breast meat for bones, makes $15.05 an hour—if she hits her incentive pay. The biggest complaint among workers at the plant, she says, is the pay. The plant has stayed open through the entire pandemic, despite Covid-19 outbreaks and deaths. When the company hung up a wreath, Love knew another worker died.

Still, the union helps make the job of standing shoulder to shoulder all day slicing and dicing poultry more tolerable. Workers at the Carthage plant get more vacation days and better benefits than their nonunion counterparts, and Love’s position as a union rep gives her a direct line to management she didn’t have at other jobs at McDonald’s and AutoZone. Every week, Love talks to the plant’s orientation class, urging dozens of new workers to sign up and join the union. She has even traveled to Alabama to help RWDSU organize workers at a car rental chain.

Though Love is part of one of the state’s few large union companies, she knows working people in the South are a long way from the promised land. “It’s like they’re scared of the union in Mississippi,” Love says. “The South is very scared. They’re scared of change.

“If where I work at took that union away, everything that we have negotiated in this contract is gone. They can put you back to whatever they want to give you for money. They can take away your vacation. And you won’t have nothing.”

In the summer of 1965, farmworkers in the Mississippi Delta went on strike. With the help of civil rights organizers, more than 1,000 people formed the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union and launched a momentary wave of labor activism that saw poor agricultural workers walking off the job and building Strike City, an encampment where dozens lived in tents for months to protest low wages. Today, near a curve in the Bogue Phalia, a tributary of the Big Sunflower River outside of Leland, Miss., you can find the neatly mowed vacant field where those workers made their stand. The tiny street it sits on is called Strike City Road. Aside from that, all that is left is the memory of an extraordinary, quixotic stand for justice. In the end, the only thing they won was a footnote in history.

For poor Black farmworkers in the Mississippi Delta, some things have not changed in the past half century. Agricultural workers were excluded from the protections of the National Labor Relations Act when it was passed in 1935, and they still are. Traditional labor unions for Delta farmworkers are virtually nonexistent. As those who stubbornly held out at Strike City realized, the path to building power here must be conceived of very broadly (or not exist at all).

Mississippi’s agricultural economy remains one of large white (now corporate) landowners and poor Black workers. But there is a movement to turn that dynamic around. Down a long dirt driveway off a country road outside of Clarksdale is the lovely farm of Ernestine and Dorfus Young Sr. Along with vegetables, they grow their own grapes, sell their own wine and have an idyllic, enclosed space to host local events. There, I met a group of women who are part of Mississippi’s only Black women’s farming cooperative, a project of the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative (SRBWI) that aims to help the small farmers scattered across the Delta region turn their farms into viable businesses.

The women in the co-op each have their own reasons for becoming farmers. Ernestine Young left Mississippi as a child in 1965, part of the migration of Black people to the North in search of better opportunities. After 20 years in Minnesota, she was drawn home and bought a piece of land to grow almost everything you can think of.

Likewise, Nadean Randle grew up on a farm, left to have a career, then came home to take care of her sick mother and returned to farming, lured by love of the land. After 25 years of working for the Department of Veterans Affairs, “I bought a tractor, a pickup truck and a shotgun, and called myself a farmer,” Randle laughs.

Cora Burnside, mayor of itty-bitty Arcola, Miss., began growing veggies because her town is a food desert; she wanted fresh produce to hand out to local elderly people who have a hard time buying healthy groceries.

Patricia Porter and Lillie Melton, who each raise poultry on small farms near Lexington, share a lifelong love of chickens that is as strong as any career passion in the world. “I didn’t realize I cared so much about chickens until my father passed away,” says Melton, who grew up watching him tend to the birds when she was young. “I realized I enjoyed dealing with poultry!”

The SRBWI began nearly 20 years ago, funded by foundation grants and at times, the federal government, as a broad project to help Black women in the South improve their lives. The farmers’ co-op grew out of conversations with women about what they needed and has helped farms get state certifications, offered tech support and helped combine products for market. The group has a commercial kitchen in Clarksdale to help women turn their home cooking into food businesses. The co-op also has a goal of building enough capacity to sell produce to major grocery chains.

The SRBWI sewing collective, like the farming co-op, is another effort to turn the skills of women in the region into sustainable income. “Both of these organizations have been moving forward for laying the groundwork for potential ways for African American women in these communities, where so much has been [extracted], to make a living,” says Carol Blackmon, a consultant who helps run the SRBWI. “To make a way out of no way for themselves.”

Co-ops are one way Mississippi’s historically poor working people can build collective power in a land where unions are few and far between. Another is through a worker center, the catchall term for labor rights groups that aim to serve people unions don’t reach.

In 1995, Jaribu Hill, an attorney from New York, went to Mississippi on what she thought would be a two-year fellowship. She’s still there. Hill was so struck by the suffering of working people in the Delta that, in 1996, she founded the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights (MWCHR), an organization she still leads. It does organizing, advocacy and training work on human rights issues ranging from housing to healthcare to workplace safety to support for big union campaigns—whatever is most pressing for poor Black workers in what Hill calls “a really hellish region and a horrifically backwards state.”

Decades spent running the MWCHR have given Hill ample firsthand knowledge about why the labor movement in Mississippi can feel so anemic. The nonprofits and funders who pay attention to the deep South, she says, tend to focus on issues of race and economic development—important, but often lacking in a working-class and labor focus. Mississippi’s poverty and racism can, in a bit of bitter irony, suck up all of the attention and effort necessary to build the kind of worker power that could be the most effective tool for addressing Mississippi’s myriad inequalities.

Hill is passionate on the subject of organizing the South— its possibility and its absolute necessity. She wants Mississippi’s workers to be in unions. Until they are, she insists, the entire labor movement must devote itself to the task of changing the South in a way that it never has since Operation Dixie died an untimely death.

“If the South is not being organized, there is no real labor movement,” Hill says. “You cannot say with a straight face that you’re organizing workers, and you’re not organizing the South.

“You can’t call yourself a true revolutionary if you say the struggle is too hard. … If you think it’s hard for you, think about those who have to suffer through it!”

There is a widespread sentiment within organized labor—often spoken only in private—that investing a large amount of money in the South is irrational because there is more bang for the buck in less hostile regions. Proof of the ubiquity of this belief is in the fact that big union campaigns in the South are so rare that each one becomes major national news.

But not a single person I met in Mississippi thought workers there could not be organized. Again and again, those on the front lines said with absolute certainty that labor organizing in their state—where working people are intimately familiar with racism, poverty and political hostility—is an opportunity just waiting to happen. The project of organizing the South is not waiting for the South itself to change; it is waiting for the resources to make the change happen.

The labor movement in Mississippi does not need sympathy. It needs money. It needs organizers. And it needs a long-term commitment to stay until the work is done.

“There has to be some real investment here regarding bodies from unions,” says Sanchioni Butler, who dedicated so many years to the Nissan campaign.

“The bottom line is, somebody’s gotta believe in doing it from the ground up,” says Robert Shaffer, who leads the state AFL-CIO but lacks the resources to create the kind of strong working shop in which he spent most of his working life. “Until then, it ain’t gonna happen.”

“The minute you say, ‘I wanna build this for the union,’ the South is not gonna let you do it,” says Latunya Love, whose 15 years as a union rep have been a labor of love while working the poultry line. “They need some more resources.”

Mississippi is what 200 years without public investment looks like. It is a state in which the power relationship between enslaved people and slaveholders is replicated generation after generation by the descendants of each. It is a state of small towns that comes by its patina of decay honestly, where centuries’ worth of racist atrocities lie barely concealed beneath the rich black soil. The working people who remain in Mississippi, who have hung on after all of that, should rightly be seen as gold for the labor movement. If organizing the South is difficult, there is nobody more ready to do the difficult work than they are.

“Every day while our people were enslaved in this country, from 1619 to 1865, every day people resisted enslavement,” says Frank Figgers, for whom civil rights and labor rights are the same thing. “Every day, people woke up in the morning hoping that today would be the day when slavery would be abolished. Every day, people woke up and did what they could, with what they had, where they were.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 18, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.



Share this post

Covid means remote workers can live anywhere. So where’s ‘anywhere’?

Share this post

SEATTLE — In spring 2020, just as the first Covid-19 surge was peaking and businesses, schools, and whole countries were shutting down, a young couple named Elizabeth and Anton made a bold move. Little did they know it would put them in the vanguard of a pandemic-enabled geographic dispersion that demographers, economists, employers, developers and local governments are still figuring out.

Elizabeth grew up in a Seattle suburb and, after college and a spell working in Hawaii, returned to settle where she always wanted to live, in Seattle itself. She and Anton seemed to be living the Cascadia dream. Their apartment, in a walkable neighborhood packed with hip restaurants and bars, was small, but it had an iconic view of Mt. Rainier and the downtown skyline. She biked around the city’s scenic Lake Union to her job in the city’s shiny new tech district, helping oversee clinical trials at a biopharma company, and grew vegetables in a nearby community garden. On weekends they escaped to the woods and mountains.

But with each return to the city, her spirits fell. The dark, damp winter days depressed her: “When it rained, I smelled concrete rather than earth. It stressed me out to eat from my plot — two or three times I found needles there. I have a really bad image of leaving work in South Lake Union and seeing a man shooting up in his mouth. People like me were just walking by. It filled me with despair.”

Then the pandemic hit, and everyone who could was told to work at home. Elizabeth and Anton faced the prospect of living and working together, 24 hours a day, in just 550 square feet, or looking elsewhere for more space and the life they really wanted. Suddenly all options were open. They took an exploratory road trip around the Mountain West. “The call to Colorado kept getting stronger,” she recalls.

The tech giant Anton works for reluctantly agreed to let him stay remote indefinitely. Elizabeth asked the same but got shot down. She quit and landed at a smaller biopharma that was glad to let her work from home. They looked at a remote mountain village, but the broadband there was too slow to support online work — a critical factor in remote workers’ relocation choices. So they settled for a ranch house on the edge of Boulder with space for gardening and mountains nearby. Her urban blues evaporated. “Now the stressor of the day is building a barricade to keep the bobcat out of the chicken coop,” she says, laughing.

Just one hitch: Elizabeth and Anton, already priced out of Seattle’s real estate market, hoped to buy in Colorado. But prices have surged in Boulder, as they have in most of the country. They’re now looking south to New Mexico.

Meanwhile, another young tech-industry couple, Andrew and Amy, reached the same decision Elizabeth and Anton did, but it took them in the opposite direction. They’d had enough of life in San Jose, where they lived and worked for a streaming service: the sprawl and freeways, the wildfire smoke and surly neighbors, the general anomie of Silicon Valley. And with a 2-year-old daughter, they dreaded school prospects in California.

So they persuaded their employer to let them go remote permanently and chased their dream up the West Coast. They wanted to stay in a diverse, liberal coastal city; for many on the right and left, ideological compatibility is an important consideration in moving. But they also wanted a safe, cozy neighborhood and beautiful wild places to go camping.

They found it all in a quiet, leafy district of century-old bungalows with a prized public elementary school, a Carnegie library and a plethora of shops in easy walking distance, with water and mountains to east and west. With no income tax, their tax burden fell. Their immaculate three-story neo-Craftsman home cost $2 million, but they say it’s twice the house they could have gotten in a comparable Bay Area neighborhood. They still marvel at how friendly their new neighbors are. “Walking around, we get into conversations with strangers all the time,” says Andrew. “Everyone we pass says, ‘How you doing?’” All in all, the move “was a pipe dream come true.”

And not just for them. “When we sold some stuff we didn’t need on Craigslist, everyone who responded had just come here from California,” says Andrew. “Even Waffles, the neighborhood cat,” adds Amy. “His tag says 408” — San Jose’s area code.

Their dream came true in much-maligned Seattle, just two miles northwest of Amazon’s headquarters and a mile south of the apartment Elizabeth and Anton fled, on a hilltop haven overlooking the same urban landscape that oppressed her. One couple’s ordeal is another’s idyll.

Millions of Americans moved during the last 18 months, many of them spurred or influenced by the pandemic. But these two reciprocal moves to and from Seattle point up just how personal such choices are, and how they’re steered by individual circumstances. Amy and Andrew wanted a more urban setting; by selling the ranch house they’d fixed up in San Jose, they could afford a Seattle that was out of reach for Elizabeth and Anton, who longed for the country anyway.

As these divergent moves also suggest, it’s perilous to seek simple patterns and easy takeaways in complex demographic processes such as Americans’ response to Covid-19. But the pandemic has reset the residential choices and aspirations of millions of Americans, in ways that will last long after the Covid-19 emergency recedes. Those millions of individual choices together add up to forces that can sustain, reshape — and sometimes unmake — cities and communities around the country.


In March 2020, as the novel coronavirus spread from its initial beachheads in the Seattle, San Francisco and New York areas, a dire meme also spread: Americans were fleeing en masse from crowded cities to the supposedly safer suburbs and countryside. Island communities from Maine to Florida closed bridges and raised road blocks to keep outsiders out.

It’s tempting to draw early conclusions from incomplete data when something as dramatic as a pandemic intrudes. LinkedIn News’ editor was one of many to call it an “urban exodus.” The Washington Post announced the “Great American Migration of 2020” and predicted that it “might contain the seeds of a wholesale shift in where and how Americans live.” Even then-President Donald Trump weighed in from the debate podium. “New York is a ghost town. … It’s dying, everyone is leaving.”

Such sweeping statements were bound to elicit a counter-narrative. “There is not a widespread movement of people prospecting to move out of urban areas,” Bloomberg’s CityLab declared in September 2020. In April 2021 it stated the case more boldly: “There is no urban exodus; perhaps it’s more of an urban shuffle” — movement within and between metropolitan areas, rather than away from them.

But this conclusion also rested on some shaky foundations. Its first iteration relied on data from Apartment List; the renters it tracks may be more dependent on transit, more rooted to the sorts of fixed, lower-paying jobs deemed “essential” and less able to take advantage of remote working opportunities than homeowners. The second version cited census and postal data showing 84 percent of those moving from cities stayed in the same states, 7.5 percent of them in the same metropolitan areas, while 6 percent moved to other large metros and less than 1 percent left metro and micro urban areas altogether. But that tally left roughly 10 percent unaccounted for. And staying in the same state, even the same metro area, generally means radiating out to suburbs, exurbs, smaller towns and rural areas within metro counties.

It also turned out that some of the headline-grabbing early outflow was temporary — students at closed colleges and laid-off young workers returning home, affluent urbanites sheltering in beach cottages and second homes. And as Brookings Institution demographer William Frey noted this past May, plummeting immigration levels under the Trump administration had already depressed population growth in the large cities where immigrants tend to land. Then, in the words of Matt Mowell, a senior economist at the national real estate firm CBRE, “immigration ground to a halt in 2020” under pandemic restrictions, contributing to steep population dips in New York and other immigration hubs.

That’s just one of the ways the pandemic has mostly reinforced and accelerated trends that were already underway, rather than creating new winners and losers in a grand reshuffle between metropolitan areas. As Frey’s tallies show, Sunbelt and Western cities that were already growing robustly — Tampa, Sarasota, Atlanta, Nashville, Denver, Phoenix, Boise, Sacramento, Riverside — kept growing (with an extra boost from coastal California for the last four). Rust Belt and other post-industrial cities that had lost inhabitants for decades — Baltimore, St. Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee — kept losing, though the outflow slowed in some. Mowell notes that “people just stayed put” in many shrinking or slow-growth cities, such as Dayton, Ohio. “The chaos of the pandemic and labor market uncertainty likely encouraged many households to delay moving plans,” he said. As a result, despite the much-publicized disruptions in some cities, about the same number of people — 35 million — filed address changes with the Postal Service in 2020 as in 2019 and 2018.

San Francisco, San Jose, New York — in particular Manhattan — and Boston were another story. Their populations, boosted by the tech and financial booms, had held strong until the pandemic, but then suffered the highest out-migration rates among major metro areas.

Boston’s loss has begun reversing as colleges reopen, and New York is showing signs of recovery. “More people are choosing to go there now,” says LinkedIn’s chief economist, Karin Kimbrough, who tracks workplace shifts through its millions of job and résumé listings. The University of Toronto’s Richard Florida, who prophesied the rise of the “creative class” in cities like New York, is confident the Big Apple will get its mojo back: “NYC is special,” he told me via email. “It is the world’s most dominant global center. It has a diverse economy spanning real estate, finance, media and entertainment, tech and more. It is the magnet for the young and ambitious.” And it has ample experience recovering from crises.

But San Francisco, which lost residents faster than any other major city after the pandemic hit, hasn’t gotten them back, and San Jose’s recovery also lags. Tech jobs have continued to proliferate there as in other hubs, but those jobs (unlike New York’s finance and arts) are especially suited to remote work. Florida likens the West Coast’s tech meccas to the once-dominant single-industry towns of yore — more versatile and adaptable, certainly, than Pittsburgh and Detroit were, “but still not New York.”


One of the most timely indicators of how the work-from-home revolution is affecting America’s cities is key card swipes. Kastle Systems, a national office security firm, uses them to track workplace occupancy in its largest markets.

In March 2020, office attendance plummeted from nearly 100 percent to a little over 20 percent in Houston, Dallas and Austin, 10 to 15 percent in Los Angeles, San Jose, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, lower still in New York — and just 4 percent in San Francisco. Those numbers have slowly risen since (aside from sharp drops in Texas during its February cold snap). Kastle clients’ office attendance is now about 50 percent in the Texan cities. It tops 30 percent in most of the others — except San Jose, with nearly 27 percent, and San Francisco, at just 24 percent.

San Francisco’s empty offices reflect other factors as well: its scarce housing, high land-use hurdles, nosebleed rents and home prices, and strict Covid rules (which gave it the lowest infection and death rates among big cities). But even there, the net flight seems to be abating, though not reversing. Apartment asking rents, which plunged 27 percent last year, “are almost halfway back up,” says Ted Egan, the City of San Francisco’s chief economist. “The flow now is both ways.” According to USPS change-of-address records, 12,058 individuals, households and businesses left San Francisco in January 2021, 4,442 more than arrived. By August that gap had shrunk to 1,752.

But none of the experts contacted expect San Francisco to fill up again soon. And none expect America’s suburbs to lose their growth edge over San Francisco and other cities. In 2020, according to census data crunched by the Brookings Institution’s Frey, suburbs grew 43 percent faster than central cities in the 55 largest metropolitan areas. The online real estate listing and data firm Zillow recently reported that “the ZIP codes with the highest page views per online listing … became increasingly suburban over the past 18 months.”

Frey’s lone outlier was Seattle, which experienced more growth in its center than its suburbs in 2020. Since then, however, even this exception has fallen into line. The Seattle area has charted record home-price growth even in 2021 — but prices rose more than twice as fast in the suburbs to the north as in Seattle itself, reflecting higher demand for suburban housing. In January 2021, the Postal Service received nearly 2,000 more address changes from those leaving the center city than those entering; by August that gap had grown by a fifth. Incoming and outgoing address changes were roughly balanced in Seattle’s inner suburbs, but arrivals outpaced departures in the outer burbs.

Nationwide, all this accelerated a trend that began in 2015. For nearly a decade before that, central cities had grown faster than suburbs, a trend Frey credits in part to the Great Recession of 2007-2009. He believes it left many new graduates and other young adults “stranded” in the cities scraping together what work they could, putting off forming families, and living “la vie bohème.” Also, the outsize millennial generation, a.k.a. the baby boomlet, was at just the right age to relish trendy cities’ restaurants, nightlife, and meeting and mating opportunities — and to put up with cramped apartments and shared housing. Then, as the economy recovered and the tech boom spread beyond Silicon Valley and Redmond, they were perfectly placed to take advantage. Yesteryear’s barista became today’s six-figure programmer.

But now the suburbs are hot again. As Frey told me, this seeming change actually marks a “return to normal” — to the pattern of suburban growth and urban contraction that began in the postwar years. The late ’00s and early tens, when young people and empty nesters flocked to revitalized urban centers, was actually an anomaly. Now those millennials are mostly in their 30s, ready to seek family-sized houses and yards and fret over schools.

“We know millennials move when they set up households, looking for more space,” says Kimbrough.

Remote working has added a new imperative (and another advantage to the suburbs): home office space. And it’s given those in tech and some other white-collar fields undreamed-of choice in where they look. “Everybody’s kind of dreaming right now,” says Andrew in Seattle, “because you have this opening.”

Employers have pushed back, fearing they’ll lose control and their companies will lose their edge without the secret sauces of spontaneous collision and workplace culture. “We’re hearing CEOs say that creativity and innovation wane as a result of not working in groups, especially for millennials and GenZ-ers, who like socialization and miss the ‘creative collision,’” consultant Jay Garner told ChiefExecutive.Net.


Tell that to the millennials and GenZ-ers. Survey after survey finds that majorities of workers — 68 percent in one study — would choose remote over in-office work. The same survey finds that 70 percent of those who are already working remotely would forfeit benefits to continue, and 67 percent would take salary cuts.

It’s become a point of pride: “The people who want to go back are the ones who don’t do that much work,” one tech worker told me. “Who spend their days in meetings.”

As a result, going remote can give employers a recruiting advantage. In July, only 11 percent of the jobs posted on LinkedIn were remote, but they got 21percent of views. They included about 26 percent of software and IT services jobs and 23 percent in media and communications and wellness (all those Zoom Zumba classes).

A study by researchers at Stanford, the University of Chicago, and the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México concludes that “the mass social experiment in which nearly half of all paid hours were provided from home between May and December 2020” proves that remote working works. They predict that 22 percent of workdays will remain remote after the danger passes, up from 5 percent pre-pandemic and 1 percent in 2010.

“I think companies are losing qualified applicants, so they’re conceding to that as an option,” says Anton in Boulder; he sees a “much, much higher number of permanently remote jobs advertised in the environmental field” for which he studied than he did in spring 2020. “And they’re saving on office space.” Or seeing the light: 52 percent of bosses surveyed by the consultancy PwC in December said productivity improved during the enforced work-at-home period.

“Remote work is the biggest shift in the nature of work in decades,” says the University of Toronto’s Florida. “It gives some workers more flexibility. And in these cases it shifts the balance of power from companies to workers.” And, to various degrees, from New York to upper New England and the Hudson Valley, from the Bay Area to Boise and Billings. In this way, the world is becoming flatter; remote work is leveling the field of opportunity.

Many more workers in manufacturing, service, retail, and some white-collar fields can’t join this shift. But what Susan Wachter, co-director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Institute for Urban Research, calls “the new urban dispersion” will affect more than just the fifth or so of workers who will join it.

Kimbrough believes it will “be really healthy, a spreading-out of skills across the country” from places like New York. Will cities now compete less for job makers and more for jobholders — lavishing money on schools, parks and arts rather than tax subsidies for new factories and warehouses?

“Towns near amenities are the new hot spots now and for some time to come,” Wachter said by email. “I think cultural capital will be a continuing pull,” says San Francisco’s Egan. “I’ve told people you need to think about office workers as the new tourists. Instead of traveling they commute.” Or don’t.

Egan’s watchword may be prophetic in an unintended way. Well-paid remote workers, like affluent tourists, retirees and other transplants, can drive up property prices, pricing out those dependent on local labor markets. This introduces new class divisions, within rather than between regions. “There’s a widening affordability gap throughout the Mountain West,” says CBRE economist Mowell. “A city like Phoenix never had an affordability problem. Now it does.”

Dispersion may bring other changes, for better and worse. As Florida notes, “remote workers do not just work from home. They work in coffee shops, cafes, restaurants, co-working spaces, libraries, each others’ homes. Communities need to focus on building more effective remote-work ecosystems.”

It takes more than such “ecosystems” to adapt to the influx. The Boise area, with by some measures the nation’s fastest rising rents last year and biggest home price surge in the first half of 2021,is still reckoning with its own success. “This is no longer an affordable city,” says Jeffrey Lyons, a political science professor at Boise State University, who leads the annual Idaho Public Policy Survey. “We’ve asked since 2016, do you think pace of growth is about right or too fast? Responses were evenly split in 2016. Now 75 percent say ‘too fast.’” Longtime residents grumble endlessly about rude, impatient newcomers overrunning the town and spoiling its traditional conviviality, but as Lyons notes, “the same stories about Californians ran here in the ’70s and ’80s.”

“People always think immigrants from places like California will help turn red states blue,” says Erik Berg, the Democratic Party chair in Idaho’s Ada County, which includes Boise. “But those coming here are predominantly conservative.”

Lyons’ research confirms that. “What we see in our survey data is that people who are moving here from California, Washington and Oregon tend to be Republican” — 55 to 60 percent, with 10 to 15 percent independent and 25 to 30 percent Democratic. Idaho and other mountain states beckon to those fed up with what they see as runaway regulation, taxation and disorder in a California where even Republican bastions like Orange County and San Diego have turned blue.

By contrast, argues Mowell, for liberal émigrés like Amy and Andrew, Seattle and Portland are “very easy places to adapt to. It’s the same social and economic ecosystem.” Covid-19, he adds, “has mapped onto these existing political divisions. People who were dissatisfied with government in California tend to be dissatisfied with the way California has dealt with the pandemic.” And attracted by the more permissive, mandate-free approach in Idaho, which has one of the lowest vaccination and highest infection rates in the country.

Such tendencies don’t bode well for any hopes that dispersion will soften the hardening ideological divides between regions. Rather the opposite: “We’ll see more people living in communities of choice as we disconnect from the workplace,” predicts UPenn’s Wachter.

That would reinforce prevailing political cultures, promoting local homogeneity rather than diversity. Work and the downtown areas that once depended on office workers will serve less as social mixing bowls.

So, for all the churn the pandemic has caused, the Great Dispersion may leave us even more economically and politically stratified than before, compounding, rather than easing, Americans’ isolation from people who aren’t just like them.

About the Author: Eric Scigliano is a freelance writer based in Seattle.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on October 21, 2021. Reprinted with permission.


Share this post

Subscribe For Updates

Sign Up:

* indicates required

Recent Posts

Forbes Best of the Web, Summer 2004
A Forbes "Best of the Web" Blog

Archives

  • Tracking image for JustAnswer widget
  • Find an Employment Lawyer

  • Support Workplace Fairness

 
 

Find an Employment Attorney

The Workplace Fairness Attorney Directory features lawyers from across the United States who primarily represent workers in employment cases. Please note that Workplace Fairness does not operate a lawyer referral service and does not provide legal advice, and that Workplace Fairness is not responsible for any advice that you receive from anyone, attorney or non-attorney, you may contact from this site.