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Amazon delivery drivers report wage theft and other abuses

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Amazon’s labor practices, from its warehouses to its corporate offices, are terrible—and of course its delivery workers don’t have it any better. Many of Amazon’s packages are delivered by third-party courier companies and drivers face a range of abuses, from wage theft to being pressured into risky behaviors to deliver packages on time, Business Insider reports based on interviews with 31 current or former drivers at 14 of the companies:

Four drivers across three companies said their employers misrepresented the job by promising health benefits without following through. One worker said that when he started his job, his employer promised that he would get health benefits within 90 days of employment. He said he was fired within days of qualifying.

Eight workers across four companies said drivers were denied overtime pay, despite working well over 40 hours a week. Thirteen workers across five companies complained about wages missing from paychecks.

Workers reported being pressured to be on the job on their days off, to work through injury, to ignore stop signs if they were running late, and being fired for challenging illegal practices.

Amazon, of course, says these are contractors and Amazon is trying to work with them to do the right thing, and so on and so forth. But plausible deniability is a key reason companies like Amazon do so much outsourcing of work, and the deniability is that much less plausible coming from a company with Amazon’s labor record in other areas of its business.

Generally speaking, if a giant corporation really really cares about something, its contractors get the message … and if it doesn’t care so much, well, this is what you get. There is one way Amazon can push back against coverage like this: by improving its practices and those of its contractors.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos Labor on September 15, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos. 


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Kavanaugh Still Doesn’t Get It

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Good news!

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh does not think it is unreasonable for workers to expect to come home safely at the end of the day, even if they work in the entertainment industry.

So he claims in his response to a written question from the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Unfortunately, “expecting” isn’t doing. And Kavanaugh, in his dissent from the SeaWorld case, in his testimony before Congress, and now in his written responses, seeks to take away the the ability of workers to make that expectation a reality.

Now, I’m not an attorney, but I do get to play one in this blog — and, at least when it comes to occupational safety law — I seem to have a better understanding of occupational safety and health law than a certain person who may take a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court of the United States before the autumn leaves start falling. And that’s disconcerting.

Background

For those just tuning in, in 2010 SeaWorld killer whale trainer Dawn Brancheau was dismembered and killed by a killer whale during a live show in front of hundreds of horrified spectators, including small children.

OSHA, which had proven that SeaWorld was aware that the whale that killed Brancheau, had been involved in previous trainer fatalities, and that killer whales in general were hazardous to trainers, cited SeaWorld and ordered them to use physical barriers or minimum distances to separate trainers from whales. SeaWorld appealed, and both the OSHA Review Commission and the federal Appeals Court found in OSHA’s favor.

Kavanaugh dissented from the majority opinion, arguing in his 2014 written opinion that OSHA had paternalistically interfered in a worker’s right to risk his or her life in a hazardous workplace, that OSHA had violated its long-standing precedent not to get involved in sports or entertainment, that the agency had no authority to regulate in the sports or entertainment industries and that Congress — and only Congress — could give OSHA that authority.

And during last week’s Senate confirmation hearing, Kavanaugh doubled down on some of the arguments in his dissent while lying about other parts.

The tort system is not an alternative to OSHA protections

Kavanaugh focuses his responses to the Committee’s questions on two shaky assertions that I addressed in my previous post on his responses to Senator Diane Feinstein’s (D-CA) questions at last week’s confirmation hearing: use of the tort system and asserting that close contact in whale training is just as “intrinsic” to whale shows as tackling is to football or fast driving is to auto races.

Kavanaugh continues to insist that even if OSHA can’t act, workers can still use the tort system and file lawsuits to ensure safe workplaces. In fact, his reliance on tort law as a remedy for worker safety problems has become his preferred method of avoiding answering questions about some of the more outrageous statements he made in his SeaWorld dissent:

QUESTION: You also wrote [in your dissent]: “To be fearless, courageous, tough—to perform a sport or activity at the highest levels of human capacity, even in the face of known physical risk— is among the greatest forms of personal achievement for many who take part in these activities.”

Do you believe that fearless, courageous, and tough people do not expect their employer to “furnish to each of [its] employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to [its] employees.”? If not, please explain.

RESPONSE: State tort law helps ensure that workplaces are reasonably safe. Congress may also regulate workplace safety, as it has done. And federal agencies may also do so within the limits of the statutes and precedents.

When asked how state tort law and our civil justice system help promote workplace safety, Kavanaugh responded:

In general, state tort law and our civil justice system can provide an opportunity for people who are harmed by the actions or negligence of others to recover damages. The tort system thereby helps deter negligent actions and encourages or requires reasonable safety measures. Of course, state tort law is often augmented by state or federal regulation. It was the scope of federal regulation that was at issue in the SeaWorld case.

Well, actually, no.  Kavanaugh has it exactly backwards. Tort law — the ability to file a lawsuit — is not a replacement for the Occupation Safety and Health Act.  One fact that Kavanaugh continues to ignore is that workers cannot sue their employers if they are hurt on the job.

A little history.  Prior to workers compensation, workers could sue employers after they got hurt on the job. Employers obviously had the upper hand with far more resources than individual workers. And their arguments — that workers got hurt because they were careless, or that workers had assumed the risk (and liability) when they took the dangerous work — often prevailed with juries.

On the other hand, employer sometimes lost — and lost big. Juries were unpredictable.

State workers’ compensation systems were created in the early 20th century to establish a “no fault” system where employer-provided insurance would reimburse workers for lost wages while providing first-dollar medical coverage and rehabilitation for work-related injuries. In return, workers gave up the right to sue their employer for any injuries (or — theoretically — illnesses) occurring on the job.

The workers compensation premiums paid by employers were supposed to be connected to the rate of injuries in a company (or in an industry sector) and were therefore supposed to provide a incentive for employers to keep the workplace safe. For a variety of reasons, that incentive was never sufficient to protect employees — a problem that led to passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHAct) in 1970 which requires employers to provide a safe workplace — to prevent workers from getting hurt or killed on the job.

So what the hell is he talking about?

We’ve all heard of workers winning lawsuits that are large enough to change or destroy an industry. The most famous is probably the lawsuits against the asbestos industry following the deaths of hundreds of thousands of workers from asbestos-related disease over the past century.  Another example is diacetyl, a popcorn flavoring that destroyed workers’ lungs. Most use of diacetyl were discontinued after disabled workers or their families won massive lawsuits.

But it’s important to remember that those workers did not sue their employers, because suing your employer is prohibited by comp laws.  They sued a “third party,” the manufacturers of the asbestos or diacetyl — companies like Johns Manville.

You can certainly make the argument that lawsuits against companies that made asbestos or diacetyl ultimately contributed to making the workplace safer for employees who came after those killed or disabled.  But Kavanaugh is trying to make this extremely small tail wag a very large dog.

How is that?

First, legal victories in these lawsuits came long after workers suffered and died horrible and preventable deaths. And tens of thousands continue to die each year from asbestos-related disease, despite the successful lawsuits.

Second, the number of successful lawsuits brought by workers against the manufacturers of hazardous chemicals is tiny compared with the thousands of hazardous chemicals in use today.

Finally,  third party lawsuits are pretty much impossible to use in workplace safety incidents — like SeaWorld. What third party does a worker sue when the employer refuses to provide fall protection equipment, or when an employer forces a worker to go down into a deep, unprotected trench?

Clearly there was no third party for Dawn Brancheau’s survivors to sue after a killer whale dismembered and drowned her. (And third-party lawsuits against God — the whale’s creator — are rarely successful.)

Why doesn’t Brett Kavanaugh — or the staff that actually wrote these answers, or the clerks that work for him  — know all of these things?

No clue. Either they’re uninformed, or they hope the Senators (and the American public) are uninformed. Either way, it’s inexcusable.

Getting eaten by a whale is not the same as racing a car

The second thing Kavanaugh insisted on over and over again in his written responses was the erroneous argument that close contact between trainers and whale was “intrinsic” or essential to whale shows.

When asked to explain how close contact between whale and trainer was intrinsic to the killer whale shows at SeaWorld  — especially when SeaWorld had itself imposed the safety measures that OSHA was requiring — Kavanaugh simply repeated what he argued in his dissent, namely that “[t]he Department [of Labor] cannot reasonably distinguish close contact with whales at SeaWorld from tackling in the NFL or speeding in NASCAR.” 

Well, no. Wrong.

First, as I already explained earlier this week, killer whale shows are not sports.

Whale trainers are not athletes; they’re workers in the entertainment industry. There is no fight between whale and human (or there shouldn’t be). No one is trying to win. No one keeps score. No one is supposed to get hurt. No one is supposed to die.

And second, close contact between whales and trainers is not ‘intrinsic” to whale shows and are not comparable to car racing or football. Obviously you can’t have a car race if cars can’t speed.  Football would arguably not be the same if you couldn’t tackle. But, as SeaWorld continues to prove every day, you can have successful, entertaining killer whale shows even without close contact between whale and trainer.

Finally, just because a hazard may be inherent to a job, doesn’t mean that OSHA can’t require feasible safety measures to prevent workers from getting hurt.  You can’t work on top of a tall building without the danger of working at a dangerous height, but you can protect those workers from falling without killing the construction industry. You can’t process chickens without cutting and hanging, but there are ways to prevent poultry processing workers from getting disabling musculoskeletal disorders while still allowing people to enjoy their wings and nuggets. You can’t have killer whale shows that don’t star a 12,000 pound wild animal with large teeth, but you can protect trainers from the hazard while spectators still enjoy the show. That’s why the OSHAct was passed in 1970.

A Comic Interlude

Now never fear, there is one bright spot to this whole sordid tale. If you think that spending your life incorrectly analyzing the law and taking away workers’ rights must be a dreary job, I learned that you can at least entertain yourself and others by occasionally saying phrases like “ipse dixit”  —  a Latin legal term meaning “an assertion made but not proved.”

Kavanaugh argues in his written comments that despite OSHA’s insistence that it would never ban tackling in football, 

that ipse dixit just brings us back to square one: Why isn’t close contact between trainers and whales as intrinsic to SeaWorld’s aquatic entertainment enterprise as tackling is to football or speeding is to auto racing?

Admit it. It’s not possible to say “ipse dixit” without smiling, just a little.

Conclusion: Kavanaugh is a human time machine

Kavanaugh’s responses to his written questions, ipse dixit, just bring us back to our original question: Why is someone who doesn’t understand occupational safety and health law, and who is hostile to worker safety being considered for the Supreme Court?

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on September 14, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).


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Chicago hotel strike enters sixth day, as workers demand year-round health insurance

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Thousands of Chicago hotel workers continued their strike for the sixth day Wednesday, primarily to demand a year-round health insurance guarantee. The union said workers also want higher wages, more sick days, and more manageable workloads, the Associated Press reported. Their contracts, which covered 6,000 employees, expired on August 30.

The number of hotel workers involved in the strike has only increased since then. On Monday, workers at Cambria Chicago Magnificent Mile joined the strike, which brought the count of hotels affected by the strike to 26. Before the strike, more than 3,000 UNITE HERE Local 1’s members voted on the issue and 97 percent voted to authorize it.

The union told the Chicago Tribune that it is the most widespread and coordinated hotel worker strike ever held in Chicago. It’s the first strike in the city to include all hotel workers, whether they’re dishwashers or housekeepers, according to Crain’s Chicago Business.

As the Tribune reported, there are only four hotels that have expired contracts where hotel workers are not on strike: Hotel Raffaelo, Tremont Chicago at Magnificent Mile, Park Hyatt Chicago, and Fairmont Chicago.

Some fine dining restaurants, including the Ritz-Carlton Chicago’s fine-dining restaurant and Torali Italian-Steak, are closed or offering limited menus. Inside the Palmer House Hilton, long lines await check-in, dirty towels have been piling up, and beds have been left unmade, according to ABC7. One guest, Matt Lissack, told ABC7 that the line for check-in was “literally around the building.”

In the central business, there are 174 hotels, which means travelers could stay somewhere that is not dealing with contract negotiations, but the hotels in the midst of a strike are some of the biggest ones in Chicago, according to Crain’s Chicago Business.

Q. Rivers, who works at Palmer House Hilton, said in a statement on the union website, “Hotels may slow down in the wintertime, but I still need my diabetes medication when I’m laid off. Nobody should lose their health benefits just because it’s cold out. Full-time jobs should have year-round benefits.”

Each hotel or hotel brand does its own negotiation with the union, so management at some hotels and brands could make agreements with the union before others. Hotel groups say it’s too early in the negotiation process for workers to go on strike, and say they have not yet reached an impasse with the union.

Thousands of workers have disagreed. A spokesperson for Hyatt sent a statement to ABC7 saying, “In fact, Hyatt has not received the union’s complete proposals. Colleague benefits and wages remain unchanged as we negotiate a new agreement … Many colleagues are working …”

A Hilton spokesperson told the outlet “More and more of our union Team Members are choosing to return to work and we welcome them to do so,” adding that “It is still early in the negotiations process and Hilton is committed to negotiating in good faith with UNITE HERE Local 1.”

UNITE HERE Local 1 recently helped workers by advocating for a Chicago ordinance that made the city the second in the country to require that hotels have panic buttons. These panic buttons allow hotel workers to request help if a guest is harassing or sexually assaulting them. In 2016, the union put out a survey that showed 58 percent of those surveyed were sexually harassed by guests.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on September 12, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress covering economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits


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Ohio Democratic campaign staffers fight the state party for a fair contract

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Democratic field organizers in Ohio working roughly 60-84 hours hours a week are fighting their own state party as they attempt to negotiate a fair union contract.

More than a month ago, the Ohio Democratic Party, with 90 percent support, recognized a union of coordinated campaign staff that collectively bargained with the help of the Campaign Workers Guild. Now, however, staffers say the party isn’t holding up its end of the bargain.

“After several day-long bargaining sessions, the ODP has made it clear to us that they are not serious about negotiating a fair contract that lives up to our Democratic values,” union leaders wrote last week in a letter to Ohio county party chairs across the state.

“We were so excited to see our party stand for working people by ultimately recognizing our union,” they continued. “Unfortunately, this excitement has not held at the bargaining table, where we’ve been continually disappointed and angered as the ODP has refused to present proposals that ensure us the union protections and provide us the working conditions we need and deserve.”

While the negotiations are still ongoing and a bit rough at the moment, it is still extremely early in the negotiation process. The party only recognized the union five weeks ago and most contract negotiations take months.

In a statement emailed to ThinkProgress, Ohio Democratic Party leaders are generally optimistic that the state will become the first to unionize a political party.

“Consistent with our long record of fighting for workers’ rights, the Ohio Democratic Party is proud to be the first state party in the nation to recognize the Campaign Workers Guild representing our campaign field organizers.

We believe their representation is an important step nationally. Because this is the first contract of its type in the nation, there are many details to work through. But in only four weeks, negotiations over the contract itself have led to agreement on half the points of negotiation, and we’ve made progress on many others.

The good news is that while negotiations are ongoing, we and our growing team of organizers are out knocking on the doors and making the phone calls that will elect our strong ticket of candidates up and down the ballot.”

Members of the union, however, claim that instead of meeting with the union face-to-face, as is customary in any contract negotiation, party officials hired lawyers from a law firm that specializes in “union-avoidance” to represent management in the negotiation process. The lawyers work at Taft Stettinius & Hollister, a firm named in part by the Taft-Hartley Act, a federal law that significantly diminished the power of unions.

According to ODP party officials, however, the Ohio Democratic Party Operations Director has been in attendance and at every negotiation session, and ODP Executive Director Greg Beswick attended the full first session of negotiations.

Among the union’s requests are basic items, such as guaranteed water and stationary supplies in the office. They’ve also requested bigger-picture things, like a living wage.

According to the party, they have agreed to half of the union’s demands, including smaller requests like water, rest and meal periods, paid leave, and even health insurance for field organizers, the ODP has refused to meet the union’s expectations when it comes to issues like compensation and mileage reimbursement.

That last point is critical for McClelland, who over the course of the campaign has put in some 10,000 miles on his car, driving around the state for work. Currently, organizers get a $150 gas card to help offset the cost, but McClelland says that is nowhere near enough.

“Over the course of the campaign…I’ve used about $500 dollars worth of gas cards. If I got a true reimbursement, that number would be more like $5,000, which would help immensely with things like the three oil changes I had to pay for or new tires and brake lines,” he said.

When the union raised this issue to management in a survey, the ODP dismissed it, according to organizers.

“We showed them the survey about cars and everything and their response was ‘yes we got your survey and we weren’t moved by it,’” they said.

ODP instead countered with a $125 car stipend, which is lower than what staffers currently receive with the gas card.

As far as compensation goes, the union requested a salary floor of $4,000/month for field organizers and $4,500/month for regional field directors, which is what the union claims staffers at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) are paid. Ohio DCCC field organizers, however, only make roughly $2,700/month, according to party leaders.

Instead, according to the union, the state party has offered a salary schedule of $12.25 per hour, less than the $15 minimum wage on which most Democrats, including Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, have campaigned for.

The Ohio Democratic Party currently provides their workers with a salary floor of $3,000 including benefits, which is what the Campaign Workers Guild has negotiated at other campaigns.

“Right now, half of our money money goes towards bills and the other half goes to gas or eating fast food because we cant afford anything else,” McClelland said. “We’re not asking for the world here. We’re asking to be treated fairly as workers and to not have to pay to work.”

Some staffers are concerned that some of Ohio’s most ardent pro-labor Democrats including Brown and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Richard Cordray, haven’t involved themselves personally in the issue.

“The candidates are nonexistent,” McClelland told ThinkProgress. “We as workers feel they are complicit in this […]. Our candidates are supposed to be labor-friendly.”

When reached for comment, Sen. Brown voiced his support for the campaign workers and their efforts to unionize, urging the party to resolve negotiations soon.

“All workers have the right to organize and bargain for their wages and benefits. I admire these young staffers for unionizing and speaking up, and I hope the negotiations are resolved soon,” Brown told ThinkProgress.

Several Democratic campaigns across the nation have decided to unionize since December 2017, when the workers for Randy Bryce, the Democrat vying for House Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) open seat, became the first bargaining unit to join the Campaign Workers Guild. Since then, workers from 22 campaigns have unionized.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on September 11, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rebekah Entralgo is a reporter at ThinkProgress. Previously she was a news assistant on the NPR Business Desk. She has also worked for NPR member stations WFSU in Tallahassee and WLRN in Miami.


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The Union Difference Is Even More Pronounced for Families of Color

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A new report from the Center for American Progress shows that union membership helps increase wealth and prosperity for families of color. The research comes on top of recent polls showing that more and more people are embracing the powerful benefits of collective bargaining.

Here are some of the key findings of the report:

When working people collectively bargain for wages, benefits and employment procedures, as union members they have higher wages, more benefits and more stable employment as a result of the bargaining agreement.

Household wealth is dependent on several factors, including income, savings, people having benefits like health insurance and life insurance.

Higher wages lead to higher savings, particularly when combined with job-related benefits, such as health and life insurance, since those benefits require union members to spend less out-of-pocket to protect their families.

Union members have higher job stability and protections, which lead to longer tenures at a workplace. This can lead to more savings as longer-tenured employees are more likely to be eligible for key benefits that accrue over time.

Nonwhite families with a union member in the household have a median wealth that is 485% as large as the median wealth of nonunion families of color.

Union members’ annual earnings are between 20 and 50% higher than those for nonunion members.

The benefits of union membership for nonwhite families is more significant than it is for white families because nonwhite workers tend to work at jobs with lower pay, fewer benefits and less stability. Union membership lowers the gap for everyone, but the gains are larger when you are starting from a lower level of income and benefits.

Union members also are less likely to experience a negative shock (a large change in income) and more likely to experience a positive shock.

Read the full report.

This blog was originally published by the AFL-CIO on September 11, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.


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News from the Courts: Executive Orders Partially Struck Down

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News from the Courts: On August 25, 2018, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued a 122-page memorandum opinion in American Federation of Government Employees et al. v. Trump, No. 1:18-cv-1261. The Court struck down significant portions of the three May 25, 2018 executive orders concerning federal employees.

As previously analyzed in this blog, Executive Orders 13,837-13,839 announced a number of new policies relating to federal employees, both as to the rights of individual employees and the rights of federal sector unions who represent federal employees. After the executive orders were issued, a number of federal sector unions all sued to block implementation; their various lawsuits were then consolidated into the single lawsuit in front of Judge Jackson, which then proceeded to expedited cross-motions for summary judgment. The unions focused their attack on provisions chiefly dealing with the union issues; certain other provisions whose effect was not limited to unions were not included in the lawsuit.

Judge Jackson ultimately found that a number of provisions in the three executive orders violated federal statutes governing collective bargaining, chiefly by pre-deciding major issues which Congress had intended to be decided between unions and agencies through bargaining. Included in the list of provisions which the court struck down were restrictions on the amount of official time and the availability of below-market office space to unions. Concerning individual employees, the court also struck down Section 4c of Executive Order 13,839, which limited Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) periods to 30 days unless the agency in its sole discretion opted for a longer period.

However, several other provisions which impact federal employees remain in effect. Section 5 of Executive Order 13,839, which limits the ability to modify disciplinary or performance records in settlement, was not challenged in the lawsuit and fell outside the scope of Judge Jackson’s Memorandum Order. Sections 2f-2g of Executive Order 13,839, which set time limits for processing of disciplinary actions, also fell outside the scope of the lawsuit. These provisions potentially remain on the books, although outstanding issues remain open (for example, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has not yet completed its review of the need for possible implementing regulations).

This blog was originally published by Passman & Kaplan, P.C., Attorneys at Law on September 4, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Founded in 1990 by Edward H. Passman and Joseph V. Kaplan, Passman & Kaplan, P.C., Attorneys at Law, is focused on protecting the rights of federal employees and promoting workplace fairness. The attorneys of Passman & Kaplan (Edward H. Passman, Joseph V. Kaplan, Adria S. Zeldin, Andrew J. Perlmutter, Johnathan P. Lloyd and Erik D. Snyder) represent federal employees before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and other federal administrative agencies, and also represent employees in U.S. District and Appeals Courts.


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The Fight Against Racism Starts in the Union

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“In your union or workplace, what’s a situation where you’ve observed or experienced racism?” That’s the first question we ask people to discuss, in groups of three, as part of a Race and Labor training that our state labor council has offered for 29 local unions and labor councils so far in Washington state.

Some stories are dramatic, like the member of color who was threatened with physical violence after winning union office. Other are more subtle, the kind of incidents that can weigh on you when they’re repeated over and over. A Black union staffer often interacts with members by phone or email; when she later meets them in person, she is told, “Oh, you’re not how I pictured you.”

After one or two people share powerful stories, other hands start shooting into the air.

This workshop isn’t simply a diversity training. It’s designed to look at the history of racism in our country and in our labor movement. We talk about how racism shows up in our workplaces, our family and community life, and even our unions; how racial categories historically have served the interests of employers; and how divide-and-conquer hampers organizing today.

Once we’ve accepted those truths, the next question is, what can leaders do to change them? The workshop is very practical. We want folks to leave with real ideas for what they can do.

Participants brainstorm solutions in four areas: bargaining, organizing, union culture, and community connections. We also discuss how to answer union sisters and brothers who aren’t convinced racial justice has anything to do with union politics. One small-group activity is to write a persuasive speech you might give to your executive board.

People leave feeling hopeful. One older gentleman told me he’d been through a number of diversity and racial equity workshops, but this was the only one that made him feel he could do something about it. Another person said she’d been afraid even to talk about racism, for fear of saying the wrong thing. Now she knew how to start.

How we started

Our state isn’t very diverse—and its labor leaders are even less so. Out of 15 central labor councils in Washington, only one has a principal officer who is a person of color. Only a handful of the 600 affiliate union locals do, either.

The project started with a resolution that passed our convention in 2015. It called on the state labor council president to take up AFL-CIO President Trumka’s call to have “a serious and open-ended conversation about what we can do, about what we should do” about race and the labor movement.

The resolution made clear that we should discuss how racism affects not just our individual beliefs, but also the policies and practices that shape our unions. For instance, who gets into the union—is it tough unless your father or uncle was a member? Who is considered for leadership roles?

A special committee convened in 2016. With the help of longtime labor activist Bill Fletcher and our state’s Labor Education Research Center, the committee developed a seven-hour Race and Labor workshop.

Get leaders on board

Some of our largest affiliates have sent leaders and staff through the training, including Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 21, the state AFSCME federation, and the state Teachers (AFT).

It’s not easy to sell a seven-hour workshop to union officers. But we ask them to resist the urge to modify the workshop to fit a 90-minute conference schedule. Real conversations take time.

Some leaders have a natural inclination to stick to lunchbox issues: wages, benefits, and working conditions. But here’s one argument why this topic matters to a union’s self-interest: Before the Janus decision, a large public sector union did a national member survey. It found that union favorability was the highest among African American workers—but also that, given the opportunity, they were the most likely to leave the union.

To me that suggests that many African-American workers recognize the value of the labor movement, but don’t see a place for themselves in our institutions. I suspect other people of color may feel the same way.

It’s personal for me. As I often tell people, it was my mom’s union job that got us off welfare and gave her the dignity that comes from being able to pay bills and provide for your family. So I believe in the labor movement. I know what a difference it can make. If we continue not addressing racism, we create a weakness in our movement. I don’t want to let that happen.

Goal: 100 percent

In 2017 we offered our first two-day train-the-trainer workshops with 100 union leaders and staff. We did it twice more this spring.

The first day, participants go through the Race and Labor workshop. We ask union principal officers to attend this first day, so that they “buy in” to the process. The second day, principal officers may leave, while the facilitators assigned from their locals (usually union staffers) stick around to learn the curriculum, including the goals of each section, and to discuss how adults learn.

Labor council delegates passed our Race and Labor 2.0 resolution in 2017, moving into wider implementation. They set ambitious goals—by the end of 2018, half our union affiliates’ executive board and staff members should have attended the workshop; by 2019, threequarters; and by 2020, all of them.

They also resolved that we should train 30 “certified trainers” ready to take the workshop around the state. We’re developing that training now.

The next step is a Race and Labor summit in September. We’ll be bringing together 100 young workers of color plus allies to develop a toolkit that might include contract language, sample policies, and plans for additional training. We’ll ask, “If we didn’t have to deal with institutional racism in our movement, what would that look like—and how do we get there?”

This article was originally published at In These Times on September 5, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: April Sims is the political and strategic campaigns director of the Washington State Labor Council. She presented a version of the Race and Labor workshop at the 2018 Labor Notes Conference.


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