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New England UAW Workers Join Parade of Local Unions Endorsing Bernie Sanders

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A New England United Automobile Workers (UAW) local this week voted to endorse Sen. Bernie Sanders for president, the latest in a stream of union locals across America backing Sanders even when their national parent unions have not issued endorsements.

The executive board of UAW Local 2322, representing about 5,000 workers in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont, voted to endorse the Sanders campaign, reported here for the first time. Anais Surkin, the local’s president, said that the board chose to endorse based on widespread support of Sanders by the members, and as a result of frustration with the UAW international’s lack of a process for backing candidates in the Democratic primary.

“What are they gonna do to us as a local if we endorse?” Surkin said. “We can and should express the will of the membership… the [Sanders] campaign isn’t focused just on the national leadership of unions. It’s focused on member-to-member communications.”

Local 2322 is an amalgamation of 27 different shops, including graduate student workers, child care workers, health care workers and teachers. There was not a vote of the full membership regarding the endorsement, but the board plans to bring its endorsement to a meeting of the joint council of all the bargaining units later this week and expects to gain their formal support.

The UAW, like many national unions, has not endorsed a candidate in the Democratic primary. Despite the decision of some national unions to bide their time until the general election, the Sanders campaign has been picking up endorsements from local unions across the country all year. In January, Sanders won the endorsement of a 10,000-member SEIU branch in New Hampshire. In February, 7,000 members of the American Federation of Musicians in Los Angeles backed him. Last week, he picked up the endorsement of UFCW 21, a 46,000-member local in Washington state; this week, he was endorsed by AFGE Local 704, a notable high-profile endorsement from federal workers at the Environmental Protection Agency. His campaign has also been endorsed by tens of thousands of people collectively represented by locals of AFSCME, CWA, UNITE HERE and other unions that chose not to issue primary endorsements on the national level.

National unions that have chosen to endorse candidates in the primary other than Sanders have risked an internal backlash. Last week, Sanders supporters within the IBEW released a letter signed by 1,300 members calling on their parent union to retract its endorsement of Joe Biden. The Amalgamated Transit Union, which endorsed Biden this month after backing Bernie in 2016, is also the subject of an internal effort by Sanders supporters to get that endorsement retracted. And the leadership of the Culinary Union, the powerful UNITE HERE local in Las Vegas, found itself at the center of a week-long hostile news cycle after it tried to dissuade members from voting for Sanders because of his support for Medicare For All, only to see him win the Nevada caucus with strong support from those very Culinary Union members.

The vocal backing of Bernie Sanders within organized labor is propelled in part by Labor For Bernie, a volunteer group rich with labor organizers who work to build and coordinate his support in the union world. Indeed, Anais Surkin says that many of the members of UAW 2322 have been organizing for Bernie on the side, helping to enhance his support within the union. The bulk of the local’s members are in Massachusetts, which votes on Super Tuesday (March 3). Even though the state is the home of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Labor For Bernie volunteers are optimistic that Sanders may have a chance to win there now, building on his momentum from Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.

“It’s a campaign that stands for the things we stand for,” Surkin said. “This is a way to take them beyond the confines of our collective bargaining agreements.”

Read the full endorsement here.

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 25, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporting fellow at 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 [email protected].


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The Culinary Workers Run Vegas. The Politicians Are Just Visiting.

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It was the politicians that turned the picket line chaotic. Not the workers. The workers knew just what they were doing. Hundreds and hundreds of them, in their red Culinary Union T-shirts, stretched out down West Flamingo Road in front of the Palms Casino, just off the Vegas Strip last Wednesday. They marched a few hundred yards and back in an orderly if boisterous circle, guided by a battalion of bullhorn-wielding chant leaders. They’d done this before.

Then the presidential candidates showed up.

One by one, each taking their turn in the spotlight, and each accompanied by a seething scrum of press, they plowed their way down the the picket line like speedboats slicing through a river. Cameramen walking backwards tripped over curbs; microphone-waving reporters bumped into strikers; union staffers had to join arms and form human shields around the more popular candidates, just to keep the march moving. Some of the candidates, like Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, looked natural, familiar with the rhythm of pickets. Others, like Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden, looked awkward and nervous, pale, spectral wonks in white Oxford shirts dropped into a seething horde of humanity and forced to carry “No Justice, No Peace” signs, unable to quite pull off the angry working-class look. And some, like Tom Steyer, accompanied by a single staffer and ignored by most of the press, just looked happy to be invited. (Bernie Sanders was conspicuously absent.)

But all of them, one after the other, messed up the flow of the picket line. Their presence was something to be tolerated. This was all part of a system that has been perfected over decades. The reporters come to trail the politicians. The politicians come to pay homage to the Culinary Union. The Culinary Union puts them all to use by marching them up and down a picket line for a fight against Station Casinos, a grinding fight that has been dragging on for years and years.

For a few days, the national spotlight is here in Las Vegas, for the Nevada Caucus. But after the spotlight moves on, the Culinary Union and its 60,000 workers will still be here, trying to win contracts in the face of criminal intransigence, trying to pull thousands of working people into the middle class through sheer force of solidarity and stubbornness. It is this dynamic that always gets twisted in the whirlwind of the national media around a presidential election. The union does not exist to serve the politicians. The politicians exist to serve the union. The union has built a wondrous machine to ensure that it stays that way.

That machine is a simple virtuous circle. It begins and ends with organizing, which never stops. Organizing is propelled by the fact that the union demonstrably improves the lives of its members. Building that array of member benefits, from health care to pay to job protections to a training academy to discounts on rental cars, never stops either. These things provide a large number of extremely engaged people. The union can offer the support of this motivated and well-organized force to politicians who back the union’s goals. These union members can do everything from phone bank to flier to knock on doors to produce screaming rallies on short notice. Their support is highly prized, and their opposition is feared. The political allies they earn help to clear the omnipresent political obstacles to more organizing, and the cycle continues.

The Culinary Union has spent more than 80 years becoming what it is today, which is one of America’s most effective social and economic justice organizations. Its members are mostly women and mostly Latino. They work in casinos, making the food, cleaning the rooms, serving the drinks, doing the laundry, carrying the bags. They are the work force that makes Las Vegas run, and the members of that work force have middle class wages and health insurance and job protections and the backing of local and state and national elected officials as a direct result of the work of the union. The Culinary Union operates in the heart of the most gilded industry in an unnatural city built of money, and it is the one and only reason why the people who do the work of that industry are not exploited to the hilt.

They have pulled off this feat with their cycle of organizing, improving people’s lives and exercising political power. Never is this method more evident than during Nevada caucus week, when it is put on display for the entire world. This year, it came with more than a little extra drama.

The union’s headquarters is a squat, sprawling two-story white concrete building just north of the Vegas Strip, in the shadow of the Stratosphere spire, with “In Solidarity We Will Win!” emblazoned in red on its wall. The visitors who pass through the lobby on an average weekday morning provide a sampling of the union’s sprawling operations. A young woman dragging two wayward toddlers is checking on a grievance. Workers are here to sign up for job training. A team of Steyer staffers wants to know if Tom can come in and talk. Someone from the Mexican embassy would like to set up a meeting.

In back, a warren of cubicles had been cleared out for volunteer get-out-the-vote phone banking, which continued for a solid week before the February 21 caucuses. It was the least combative phone banking I’ve ever witnessed—not a grumble from anyone who picked up the phone, after they heard it was the union calling.

Marc Morgan, a middle-aged bellman at the D Hotel and six-year member of the union, sat patiently dialing from a list, telling callees the time of the caucus (Saturday at 10 a.m.) and the exact location of their caucus site at their workplace. He reminded them to get permission from their supervisors and to alert a shop steward if the supervisors illegally refused. Within an hour, at least a half dozen people who were not planning to caucus—including one who said, “Caucus? What does that mean?”—promised to turn out. Multiply that by many people calling for many hours for many days, and you start to get a sense of why the Culinary Union is a sought-after political ally for Democrats. Thousands more members voted early as well, another process the union encourages and supervises.

Morgan, a shop steward, is, like many union members, a practical man more than a fire-breathing ideologue. His attachment to the union was motivation enough for him to volunteer to spend hours calling fellow members, just out of a sense of duty. That attachment was rooted in personal experience. “I can see the necessity—the managers, oh my god,” he said. He had been through a bitter contract fight at his own casino in 2018, and had seen the petty retaliations that workers suffered. “Employers want to test the boundaries. They’ll continue to test those boundaries until you pull them back in. It’s like parents and children.”

Despite being coveted madly by everyone running for president, the Culinary Union did not issue an endorsement this year. The union endorsed Obama in 2008, but he lost to Hillary Clinton in Nevada anyhow. It didn’t endorse in the 2016 primaries. Much has been made in recent weeks of its spat with Bernie Sanders, which became a huge political news item after the union issued a purportedly educational flier to members warning them that Sanders, if elected, would “end Culinary healthcare”—a rather misleading characterization widely interpreted as a declaration of opposition to Medicare For All.

This mushroomed into an entire news cycle pitting the union against Sanders, and even drove a round of questioning in last week’s presidential debate. Moderate Democrats seized on the opportunity to frame their opposition to Medicare For All as a pro-union position, a development that certainly pleased the health insurance industry and drove progressives in the labor movement mad.

There was much speculation that the union decided not to endorse anyone because they were pretty sure Bernie was going to win, and they couldn’t endorse him because of the conflict they’d started, but didn’t want to endorse someone who would lose, and so decided to sit on their hands. But officially, they simply chose to endorse their own “goals.”

The conflict over this issue—within individual unions, and within organized labor as a whole—is very real. The Culinary Union runs its own healthcare center for members, and uses its healthcare benefits as a key recruiting tool in a “right to work” state. Major unions that are, in effect, in the health care business themselves have a natural level of conservatism towards change in the system. But there is also an influential portion of the labor movement that is strongly in favor of Medicare For All, not least because it would free up unions to spend their political capital on things other than health care, like better wages.

Larry Cohen, the former president of the Communications Workers of America who now leads the Sanders-affiliated group Our Revolution, says that Medicare For All would amount to a spectacular gain for unions in the long run. By bringing down administrative and pharmaceutical costs, he says, national health care would actually save employers money—money that would be funneled to workers in the form of better pay and other benefits. On top of that, there is the simple fact that freeing people from employer-based health care would allow them to be less enslaved to bad jobs.

“If you go do something else, you’re not covered!” Cohen exclaims. “Why would we possibly want to have a system where the job is what gives you the health care?”

Culinary Union members and staffers will remind you that their current health care system, which is free for members and provides care for more than 100,000 people, has been won at the cost of many years of great struggle and quite a few strikes, some of which dragged on for years. They consider it a crown jewel, and view it with pride. Yet the decision of union leadership to wade publicly and aggressively into the Medicare For All debate has put them in the position of becoming a useful talking point for for-profit health care interests. (It is much more politically palatable for conservatives to say “unions are against public health care” than “insurance companies want to maintain profits.”)

One union staffer told me, “The best way for any worker to be protected is a union contract.” That may be true, but all three million citizens of Nevada are unlikely to be in the union any time soon, and they still get sick. As Culinary Union member Marcie Wells wrote last December in a widely shared essay calling for Medicare For All, “We have to acknowledge the reality that for-profit insurance asserts that if you don’t work you deserve what you get: up to and including death. Also, sick people don’t deserve jobs.”

The other thing that should be said, however, is this: For the political left, or supporters of Bernie Sanders, to view the Culinary Union as some sort of enemy is utterly insane. The union has actually accomplished the things that the left says it wants to accomplish. There is no popular political movement that could not learn from its success. Ultimately it is incumbent on the left to bring along the Culinary and other unions on the path to Medicare For All, not vice versa. They are natural allies. Some people in the union world say privately that Bernie Sanders is on their side ideologically, but that he often fumbles or ignores the standard political business of pulling in stakeholders and listening to them before he plunges ahead on big issues that affect them. The differences between the two sides, in other words, are fixable. Fighting over such things is a waste of time, when there is still a working class that needs help.

***************

The general public typically hears about the Culinary Union in relation to electoral politics. But from the perspective of the union, electoral politics is just a means to an end. All of the famous politicians stumbling down the picket line think they are there for the sake of their own campaigns, but in fact they are there to help draw attention to a nearly decade-long union organizing campaign at Station Casinos, the company that owns the Palms and seven other casinos where workers have voted to unionize in recent years.

The company relentlessly fought the organizing campaigns. Once workers at individual Station Casinos began voting to unionize in 2016, they refused to recognize the unions, stalled on contract bargaining, and have dragged the entire mess into the bureaucratic mire of the National Labor Relations Board. Thousands of workers who should already have union contracts have been forced to continue their fight against the company for several years.

To heighten the contradictions to cartoonish levels, Station is owned by the billionaire Fertitta brothers, who got filthy rich when they sold the Ultimate Fighting Championship for $4 billion in 2016. The Fertittas have donated millions of dollars to the Trump campaign. In 2018, Frank Fertitta spent $25 million on his daughter’s wedding, complete with an appearance by Bruno Mars. Yet there seems to be no length to which they will not go to prevent their housekeepers from joining a union.

They are unsympathetic figures. A picket line feels almost polite, in relation to their conduct. At the rally at the Palms on Wednesday, flight attendant union leader Sara Nelson, who had come in support, called them “the frittata brothers.” D. Taylor, the hardboiled head of Unite Here—who, in shades, a ballcap and a faded t-shirt, resembled nothing so much as a high school baseball coach about to yell at everyone to run laps—was even more direct. “These guys are scumbag liars!” he shouted. “The only way we’re going to win is to kick the everloving crap out of them and beat the shit out of them.”

That is a colorful way of saying: “We recognize the value of continued organizing.” On Friday, the day before the caucuses, as the national press corps was still replaying two-day-old debate zingers, a group of 17 Culinary Union organizers involved in the Station Casinos campaign met at 9 a.m. in a second-floor conference room at the headquarters building. They were men and women, young and old, Latino and black and white, and almost all of them had been as casino workers and union members before they were organizers.

For an hour, they reviewed the past week’s work. Most important was the tally of how many union cards each person had gotten signed, with each card earning a round of applause inside the room. (One organizer who had pulled in five signed cards earned herself a day off, and the jealousy of everyone else.) Afterward, the organizers headed out for home visits. This is the true, sweaty, grinding substance of union organizing: a never-ending process of talking to people who are always busy doing other things. A never-ending process of refining and updating a master list of names. Without this work, unions don’t exist.

I set out with Oscar Diaz, a 35 year-old with a shaved head, glasses, and a goatee who had been with the Culinary Union for ten years. His father had been a Culinary Union shop steward at the Westgate, where he worked for more than 30 years. Diaz’s organizing work focuses on Boulder Station and Palace Station, two Station Casinos properties that, after years of organizing, held successful union elections in 2016.

The fact that he is still deeply engaged in organizing them four years later will give you an idea how hard the fight has been. Part of the slog is directly attributable to national politics. When the company breaks the law, the union files charges against them with the NLRB. But staffing numbers at the NLRB’s Las Vegas office, Diaz says, have been reduced under President Trump, meaning that cases take longer to work their way through the bureaucracy. The delays mean the union cards signed a year or two ago have expired; organizers must get workers to sign again.

Good organizers combine the talents of a salesperson, a private detective, a motivational speaker and a long-haul driver. With a printed list of workers’ names, Diaz drove around North Las Vegas, seeking out addresses in the expanse of identical sand-colored housing developments. The workers do not know that organizers are coming, meaning that they may be gone, or asleep, or suspicious about opening the door. But Diaz is used to navigating logistical hurdles. We reached one apartment complex only to find that we didn’t have an access code to open the front gate. Diaz hopped out of the car, peered on top of the keypad box, and found the code. “The FedEx guys will scratch it on top of the box sometimes,” he said, shrugging.

An organizer may knock on dozens of doors in a day and have only a few truly productive conversations. The ability to navigate unknown neighborhoods with little information and track down security codes and slip seamlessly between Spanish and English and read each person for signs of bias or dishonesty or confusion are all just inherent in the job. And things used to be even harder. At the beginning of the campaign, Diaz recalls, organizers got referrals with no names or addresses, just vague descriptions: “Go up Tropicana, you’ll see a house that has a statue of the Virgin Mary, knock on the back door.”

For the worker who signed a union card, Diaz will come back again another day with one of her coworkers, to recruit her to get more involved. For the workers who didn’t answer their doors, he will mark them down, and come back again, however many times are necessary to pull cohesion out of this huge group of tired, busy, far-flung people. He and his fellow organizers will do this tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day. They did this for years already to get an election, and years more to try to get that election affirmed, and may do it for years more to win a contract. This is what it takes.

“Busting unions is not hard,” Diaz says. “It’s playing with people’s fears.” During the long Station Casinos campaign, he has seen how much effort it takes to counteract intransigent bosses that possess enormous advantages in time and money. The people that they are up against have billions of dollars. The Culinary Union has Oscar Diaz, and all of the other organizers, who will find out where you live and convince you to stand up for yourself. With those tools, the Culinary Union has organized Las Vegas. Organizing beats money, even if it takes a very, very long time.

Saturday was caucus day. The caucus for workers at the Bellagio, one of the more opulent properties on the strip, was held in a ballroom, where 100 chairs were set out on garish paisley carpet under crystal chandeliers. Around 11 a.m., small groups of housekeepers wearing their dark blue uniforms began trickling in, taking seats and trying to ignore the mass of cameras at the back of the room, where every network and news outlet had gathered to witness this immodest open demonstration of democracy.

Most of the caucus-goers were women of color. A few shared their thoughts as they waited for the proceedings to begin. Laura Flores, a housekeeper and 20-year member of the Culinary Union, said she was supporting Bernie Sanders, because of his position on health insurance.

Morena Del Cid, another Culinary Union member, who worked in the poker room and had been with the company for 30 years, was participating in her first caucus. She was supporting Bernie Sanders. “People have to make a change,” she said. Asked about his stance on Medicare For All, she replied, “I love that.”

Of 123 eligible people in the room to caucus, 75 went for Bernie Sanders in the first round, and 39 went for Joe Biden. Warren got six and Steyer got three, meaning they were not viable. One supporter of each viable candidate then had a minute to make their case to the handful of voters whose candidates didn’t make the cut. A Bellagio worker wearing a red Culinary union t-shirt spoke for Bernie Sanders, declaring, “My children and future generations should all have health care!” Medicare For All was her pitch.

The final tally was 76 votes for Bernie, 45 for Biden, and two uncommitted. Bernie ran away with the Bellagio and almost all of the other casinos on the Vegas Strip, the very heart of the Culinary Union’s territory. This set up an easy narrative about a political victory over an entrenched union leadership.

But that narrative is misleading. A union is the people in the union. The members, collectively, are its heart, its mind and its voice. In a good union, its leaders and organizers and staffers do what they do in order to give power to its members. The Culinary Union is a good union. Its members won, so it won.

After the votes had all been counted, those who had caucused filed out of the room quickly, returning to work and trying to avoid the gauntlet of media that lined the exits, bombarding them for quotes. I didn’t have the heart to press them any more. They had already spoken.

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 24, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporting fellow at 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 [email protected].


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5 Steps For Creating A Safer Work Environment

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Labor unions, employee rights, fair wages, and America’s workforce are all hot topics this election season. While these issues are always important, an election year really works to bring these issues to the forefront of the minds of companies and politicians.

Regardless of which side of the political fence you sit on, we can all agree that employees deserve and need a safe work environment. It’s the company’s moral obligation and legal responsibility to provide a safe environment for all of its employees. But what’s the best way to do that?

Government data shows that in 2018, 2.8 million workers suffered from an injury at work, and a total of 5,250 workers actually died while on the job. That number means that an average of one hundred U.S. employees died each week while trying to earn an income. It’s unacceptable.

Despite OSHA’s (The Occupational Safety and Health Administration) efforts, accidents are clearly still a regular occurrence in the workplace. It’s the employees’ right and the company’s responsibility to ensure a safe environment.

Here are five steps for creating a safer work environment.

Step One: Prioritize Safety Training

Most companies offer safety training right after hiring an employee. However, one-time training isn’t going to cut it. Regular safety training needs to be par for the course. Beyond that, consider periodic safety evaluations for both the individual employees and the company as a whole.

Moreover, safety is an ongoing attitude more than it is a one-time conversation. Companies must make safety a part of the daily discussion and habits.

Step Two: Don’t Overlook Spills and Tripping Hazards

More than twenty-five percent of all workplace injuries are a result of a trip, slip, or fall. So, it’s no shocker that one of the first things to improve when it comes to safety is tripping and slipping hazards.

Work to eliminate clutter and keep walk spaces free and open. If standing water is an issue inside or out, look into a floor drain or a traffic rated trench drain. Fix uneven flooring and repair steep or wobbly stairs. If there’s an area that employees complain about, work to get it fixed.

Step Three: Consider Employee Comfort A Top Priority

Improving employee comfort is an essential step to creating a safer work environment. Depending on the industry, uncomfortable environments might not be totally avoidable, but maximizing employee comfort when possible can increase safety dramatically.

Overworked employees are one of the chief complaints against comfort. Overworked employees mean a more tired, burnt out, and anxious workforce. Tired workers are 70% more likely to be part of a workplace accident.

To increase comfort, be sure to avoid overworking employees with reasonable hours and allow plenty of breaks. Don’t expect unrealistic deliverables. Beyond that, try to regulate temperature and decrease the amount of time employees spend in enclosed spaces.

Step Four: Use Proper Equipment

While this one might seem obvious, it’s not uncommon for companies to cut costs by using cheaper machinery, outdated equipment, or asking employees to use inadequate or improper tools to complete their jobs. Unsurprisingly, this leads to more injuries, more exhausted employees, and ultimately lower productivity.

This step is pretty straight forward. Use the proper equipment for the right jobs. For example, if you work in a warehouse with lots of dust and chemicals, be sure to use an explosion-proof vacuum. If toxic chemicals are a part of the job, make sure safety equipment is worn and provided. If scaling to the tops of high shelves is a normal part of the job, opt for lifts instead of rickety ladders. Each industry has its own type of equipment, but regardless, there is always updated and safer equipment available for every industry.

Step Five: Focus on Psychosocial Issues

Thanks mostly to employee complaints and activism from non-profits, psychosocial issues in the workplace have made their way to the forefront of workplace safety concerns. Employees who have dealt with psychosocial issues in the workplace are more likely to struggle with increased stress, anxiety, depression, and in severe cases, drug use, and suicide.

Workplace stress accounts for $190 billion in yearly healthcare costs and 120,000 deaths each year. Aside from employee comfort, issues like sexual harassment, bullying, workplace violence, and more, are all examples of common psychosocial workplace issues.

To combat these problems, it’s essential to create an environment that encourages and promotes reporting any sort of issues that disrupt an employee’s mental wellbeing. They shouldn’t fear retaliation, and they should know that action will be taken. Consider security cameras that run 24/7 to keep your employees feeling safe. Design a layout that’s open, but then use something like modular office walls, to promote privacy when it’s needed.

Workers Demand a Safer Environment

More and more workers are demanding a safer work environment. These five steps are a surefire way to start creating a safer environment in your workplace.

Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Matt Lee is the owner of the Innovative Building Materials blog and a content writer for the home building materials industry. He is focused on helping fellow homeowners, contractors, and architects discover materials and methods of construction that save money, improve energy efficiency, and increase property value.

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Kickstarter employees vote to unionize, this week in the war on workers

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The meteoric growth of the tech industry has, with few exceptions, created a new no-unions zone in the U.S. economy. Those exceptions, such as a group of Google contractors or Facebook’s bus drivers, have largely been contract workers rather than direct employees of tech companies. So the successful unionization vote at Kickstarter is something of a first.

During the organizing drive, Kickstarter fired two union supporters and hired an anti-union law firm. The workers and their union, the Office and Professional Employees International Union, have alleged retaliation and filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board. The vote was close—46 to 37—and Kickstarter is a comparatively small company. There remain big questions about whether tech can be unionized to any significant degree. But progress is progress, and wins are to be celebrated.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on February 22, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

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The Next Big Grocery Strike Is Knocking on Safeway and Giant’s Door

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Last April, more than 30,000 Stop & Shop grocery workers across the Northeast won a raucous 11-day strike against the company, beating back health care and pension cuts. Now, another major grocery strike has become a serious possibility, this time in and around the nation’s capital.

On Wednesday, UFCW Local 400 announced that it will be holding a strike vote early next month for more than 25,000 workers at hundreds of Giant Foods and Safeway stores across DC, Maryland, and Virginia. The union has separate contracts with Giant and Safeway, but both of those contracts have been expired since last October. Negotiations in the ensuing months proved fruitless, and now the union is preparing for what could become the first large strike of 2020.

Giant is owned by Ahold Delhaize, the same European conglomerate that owns Stop & Shop. Safeway is owned by Albertsons, the national grocery holding company controlled by the private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management. As is common in private equity deals, Cerberus is reportedly eyeing an IPO for Albertsons—placing great pressure on the company to spiff up its balance sheet, including labor and pension costs. Not coincidentally, those issues are now fueling the contract dispute that has brought these UFCW members to the point of a strike vote. In addition to pension cuts, the union says that the companies are pursuing cuts to health care funding, tight restrictions on benefit access for part time employees, and a plan to keep many new hires locked in a minimum wage salary for years.

Both Giant and Safeway workers are part of the same multi-employer pension, funded by the respective companies, meaning that they all have a direct financial interest in strong contracts at both stores. Albertsons and the UFCW are locked in a dispute over the size of the company’s pension obligations. Media representatives from the companies did not respond to requests for comment.

Michelle Lee, a cashier at Safeway in Alexandria, Virginia, has worked for the company for three decades, and now earns $21 an hour—which, she says, is “nowhere near where it needs to be, since I been there 32 years.” Despite her own seniority, Lee says that it’s important to her that the union contract look out for all employees, no matter how long they’ve been there. “Not just the old people, but we want to make sure new hires get the benefits and the hours they need to pay their bills and buy groceries,” she says. “A lot of workers are concerned… they’re not sure if they’re gonna get a pension. they’re scared their health care is gonna get cut.”

The same fears are present at Giant as well. Jeff Reid, a 12-year veteran in the Giant meat department in Silver Spring, Maryland who makes $16.75 an hour, says that pension security is the most important issue for him. “People work 20, 30 years for the company, you want to have something when you retire,” he says. “You don’t want to be choosing between prescriptions and food.” Lee says that his coworkers are aware of the Shop & Stop strike–and the success it had–but that he is “absolutely, unequivocally” ready for a strike himself.

Still, any strike would be a hardship on workers earning grocery store wages. The UFCW has spent recent weeks urging Giant and Safeway workers to prepare for the possibility by getting in as many work hours as they can and taking care of medical and dental needs now. Should next month’s strike vote succeed and a strike actually happen, it would become an attractive magnet for political support from prominent Democrats. Steven Feinberg, the billionaire cofounder of Cerberus, is close to the Trump White House, and was tapped by the president to lead his intelligence advisory board. Such a grand imperial position would provide a convenient contrast between the company’s owner and the thousands of workers on the picket line, many of whom would be fighting for the right merely to earn more than minimum wage.

“Most of the people I talk to are angry with the company. They make the company billions of dollars,” says Safeway’s Michelle Lee. “We gotta do what we gotta do. If we have to go on strike to have a better life in the long run, then that’s what we need to do.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 19, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporting fellow at 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 [email protected].


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Labor’s civil war over ‘Medicare for All’ threatens its 2020 clout

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Ian Kullgren March 9, 2018. (M. Scott Mahaskey/Politico)Alice Ollstein“Medicare for All” is roiling labor unions across the country, threatening to divide a critical part of the Democratic base ahead of several major presidential primaries.

In union-heavy primary states like California, New York, and Michigan, the fight over single-payer health care is fracturing organized labor, sometimes pitting unions against Democratic candidates that vie for their support.

“It’s a discussion at every single bargaining table, in every single union shop, every single time it’s open enrollment and people see their costs going up,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, a vocal single-payer advocate and one of a number of union officials who spoke to the divide.

The rift surfaced last week, when the 60,000-member Culinary Workers Union declined to endorse any Democrat in this week’s Nevada caucuses after slamming Bernie Sanders’ health plan as a threat to the hard-won private health plans that they negotiated at the bargaining table. But the conflict extends well beyond Nevada.

On one side of the divide are more liberal unions like the American Federation of Teachers and the Service Employees International Union, which argue that leaving health benefits to the government could free unions to refocus collective bargaining on wages and working conditions. On the other side are more conservative unions like the International Association of Fire Fighters and New York’s Building & Construction Trades Council, which don’t trust the government to create a health plan as good as what their members enjoy now.

“It’s an extremely divisive issue within the labor movement,” said Steve Rosenthal, a former political director for the AFL-CIO. “Nobody’s opinions will be changed during the presidential nominating fight, and unions may well be divided over Democratic candidates until the end.”

In New York, the New York State Nurses Association and Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union pressed hard in 2018 for a state single-payer system. But other unions, including the New York State Building & Construction Trades Council, joined forces with private health insurers to kill the bill, funding polling to show opposition to the tax increases needed to implement it and writing op-eds calling the plan a “folly” that would “send jobs and people fleeing” the state.

Now some of those same New York labor leaders are saying much the same about Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sanders’ Medicare for All plans. Gregory Floyd, president of the Teamsters Local 237, called the policy a “disaster” and predicted that few of his 24,000 members will vote for a candidate who supports it. Floyd declined POLITICO’s request for an interview, but said his opposition to Medicare for All is “based on what is best for our members.”

In California, the aggressively pro-Sanders California Nurses Association has long pressed for state-level single-payer, to the point of circulating in 2017 an image of the state mascot, the California grizzly bear, with a knife in its back after the state Assembly leader shelved a single-payer proposal.

The union’s parent organization, National Nurses United, is deeply involved in the 2020 race — endorsing Sanders, criticizing any candidate who doesn’t embrace Medicare for All, and sending armies of members and supporters to phone banks and doorsteps in all 50 states to press for a House vote on single-payer. Earlier this month, National Nurses United announced a new campaign to pressure presidential and congressional candidates to refuse donations from a health industry lobby group that’s spending heavily to kill any possibility of single-payer — a pledge most moderate candidates are likely unwilling to take in an election marked by record fundraising and spending.

Medicare for All is notably unpopular with swing voters in the battleground states of Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, according to a December poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Cook Political Report.

In Michigan, where 28 percent of the electorate belongs to a union, and where Sanders stunned Hillary Clinton with an upset in 2016, unions have stayed largely silent on the issue. “There is very clearly a split between union leadership and the union rank and file,” said Eli Rubin, president of Michigan for Single Payer Healthcare.

According to a poll released in July by the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, a 58 percent majority of “strong Democrats” favored Medicare for All but only a 48 percent plurality of Democratic-leaning voters. Among all voters, 52 percent opposed Medicare for All. Elderly voters (who turn up at the polls disproportionate to their numbers) were especially resistant, with 59 percent opposing single-payer plans.

Reflecting the divide is Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a centrist Democrat who opposed single-payer during her 2018 campaign but has since vaguely said she supports the idea “in concept.”

Compounding this ambivalence inside the state is labor’s ties to health care. Leaders of the AFL-CIO, the Michigan Education Association, the United Auto Workers, and Teamsters serve on the board of Blue Cross Blue Shield, the state’s largest insurance company. Whitmer’s own father, Richard Whitmer, was the longtime president of Blue Cross Blue Shield, and the company was among the top donors to her gubernatorial campaign.

Meanwhile, in Nevada, the war over Medicare for All is in full swing in Nevada ahead of the Feb. 22 caucuses. Sensing an opening after Culinary 226’s public rebuke of Sanders, many of his Democratic primary rivals swiftly and loudly sided with the union, with some (Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg) emphasizing that they would give labor a choice of whether to keep the health plan they bargained for or switch over to a government-run public option, and with Warren promising that unions will be at the table when the details of overhauling the U.S. health system are hammered out.

But supporters of Medicare for All have successfully persuaded some unions to back the policy, or at least remain neutral. When Sanders and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) rolled out revamped versions of their single-payer bills in 2018, they did so with the official backing of the Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of Teachers, National Nurses United, the American Federation of Government Employees and others.

In an interview, Jayapal said her main argument to unions is this: Even if they fear the unknown, the current system is unsustainable.

“Look, I respect where they’re coming from,” Jayapal, the lead author of the House Medicare for All bill and the health policy chair of Sanders’ campaign. “They bargained hard and gave up wages for these health care benefits and they’re worried. But health care costs continuing to rise is a certainty. And when that happens, wages are going to decline.”

Local unions, which tend to be more outspoken than their national counterparts, are playing an outsize role in the 2020 race. That’s because so many national unions have thus far held back or pledged to remain neutral in the primary. It’s a backlash from 2016, when several big unions endorsed Hillary Clinton early on, only to witness a revolt from their rank-and-file members who supported Sanders.

With locals’ growing influence is a tendency for organized labor to balkanize its support. For example, the independent group Labor for Bernie said Tuesday that more than 1,200 members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers have signed a petition calling on the national union to retract its endorsement for Biden.

“I don’t know where these people are coming from,” said Rand Wilson, a co-founder of the independent group Labor for Bernie and an organizer for SEIU Local 888 in Massachusetts. “Do they go to the negotiating table? Because they’re on a different planet than me.”

But Nelson, who represents more than 50,000 flight attendants across the country, says Medicare for All supporters are only hurting their own cause when they criticize labor groups that aren’t yet on board.

“If you are not approaching this as an organizer and building a supermajority for this change, it’s not going to happen,” she said. “You have to open your arms wide and give space for everyone to share their concerns and ask questions, and you provide information and find common ground. You don’t shut down conversations.”

Jeremy B. White contributed to this report.

This article was originally published by Politico on February 18, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Ian Kullgren is a reporter on POLITICO’s employment and immigration team. Before joining POLITICO, he was a reporter for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore. and was part of a team that covered a 41-day standoff with armed militants at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Their efforts earned the Associated Press Media Editors grand prize for news reporting in 2017. His real beat was politics, though, and he spent most his time at the state capitol covering the governor and state legislature.

About the Author: Alice Ollstein is a health care reporter for POLITICO Pro, covering the Capitol Hill beat. Prior to joining POLITICO, she covered federal policy and politics for Talking Points Memo.

Alice graduated from Oberlin College in 2010 and has been reporting in D.C. ever since, covering the Supreme Court, Congress and national elections for TV, radio, print, and online outlets. Her work has aired on Free Speech Radio News, All Things Considered, Channel News Asia, and Telesur, and her writing has been published by The Atlantic, La Opinión, and The Hill Rag. She was elected in 2016 as an at-large board member of the DC Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2017, she was named one of the New Media Alliance’s “Rising Stars” under 30.

Alice grew up in sunny Santa Monica, California and began freelancing for local newspapers in her early teens. When not working on a story, she can be found riding her bicycle around the region, attempting to grow vegetables in her backyard, and playing with her nephews.


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Facing Retirement With Fear

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Glen Heck spent 28 years sweating in a Campti, La., paper mill that he likes to say was “hotter than nine kinds of hell.”

But now, Heck’s sacrifice may have been for nothing because his multiemployer pension plan is one of about 150 nationwide set to go broke. If that happens, the 78-year-old Heck will have to find a cheaper, lower-quality health plan and keep the beef herd he’s itching to sell.

The Democratic-controlled House passed—with bipartisan support—a commonsense plan to save Heck’s pension and those of another 1.3 million workers, retirees and widows. But Republican leaders in the Senate refuse to consider it.

In the meantime, the futures of workers and retirees like Heck hang in the balance. Many face retirement with fear instead of anticipation.

Multiemployer pension plans like Heck’s include workers from two or more companies in industries such as transportation, entertainment, construction and paper. Employers make contributions for workers as part of their compensation. Heck and others often give up wage increases or other benefits to fund those plans.

Many of the 1,400 plans nationwide are still healthy. But through no fault of workers or retirees, about 150 are struggling.

Recessions in 2001 and 2008 cut the plans’ investment earnings, and some corporations used bankruptcies to evade pension obligations. Deregulation forced less-competitive companies out of business, straining the plans’ resources.

Now, they owe more money to beneficiaries than they have coming in, and they’re at risk of collapsing. The PACE Industry Union-Management Pension Fund (PIUMPF)—Heck’s plan—is one of them. According to recent projections, the fund will be insolvent in as few as 10 years.

Under the bill passed by the House, the Butch Lewis Act, the Treasury Department would loan money to troubled plans. The plans would use the money to meet their obligations to retirees, and they would repay the loans over 30 years.

The federal government already has an agency, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. (PBGC), to pay benefits to retirees when multiemployer plans crumble. But it’s no substitute for the Butch Lewis Act.

PBGC provides only a fraction of the benefits beneficiaries earned. Also, so many plans are imperiled that the PBGC’s insurance program itself is at risk of collapse.

If plans fail, workers and retirees will lose as much as 98 percent of their benefits. The Butch Lewis Act would ensure that they receive the money they earned, not pennies on the dollar.

Heck, a former officer with United Steelworkers (USW) Local 13-1331 in Campti, knows widows of paper workers—one with a small child—who’d be financially devastated without their late husbands’ pensions. He knows a retiree with major health problems who’d have no way of paying medical bills without his pension checks.

“He’s just worried to death about it,” said Heck, who worked at the paper mill under a handful of operators, including current owner International Paper.

Cedric McClinton, president of Local 13-1331 and a technician at the paper mill, said pensions are the main source of retirement income for many workers and retirees. If those benefits get cut, there’s no easy way to make up the difference.

“You’re either looking at working longer—and who wants to work until you’ve got one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel—or you’re looking at making concessions after you’ve worked all that time,” McClinton said.

Workers worry about downsizing their homes, giving up travel plans and going on government assistance programs.

“We talk about these things all the time,” McClinton said. “It’s real.”

Instead of passing the Butch Lewis Act to fix the pension crisis, Senate Republicans introduced legislation that would make the problem worse.

Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee want to increase the premiums that retirement plans pay PBGC—something that would push currently healthy plans into financial ruin and put more workers’ retirements in jeopardy. The added costs also would propel some employers into bankruptcy, costing workers their jobs.

Grassley and Alexander also want to increase taxes on pensions, taking a bigger slice of the benefits workers earned and imposing a greater burden on retirees unable to afford it.

Workers and retirees didn’t create the pension crisis. But Grassley and Alexander want them to pay for it.

“That’s mind-boggling,” fumed Travis Birchfield, who’s lobbied for the Butch Lewis Act on behalf of Evergreen Packaging workers represented by USW Local 507 in Canton, N.C. “We’ve done bailouts and tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires, and then working people can’t get a damn loan?”

Uncertainty gnaws at Birchfield’s co-workers. Some in their 60s are thinking about retirement, but hesitate because of the pension crisis.

“They’ll ask us, ‘what do you think is going to happen?’ We can’t answer those questions,” Birchfield said.

McClinton and Birchfield pounded the halls of the Capitol to share members’ stories and concerns. But Senate Republicans fail to get the message.

Pensions aren’t perks or “extras.” Workers earned these benefits, and they rely on that money being there during their golden years, just as members of Congress count on receiving taxpayer-subsidized pensions when they leave office.

Failing to pass the Butch Lewis Act means consigning 1.3 million Americans to meager retirements. Some will fall into poverty after supporting themselves all of their lives. Many already see their dreams slipping away.

These hard-working men and women deserve immediate Senate passage of a responsible bill that safeguards their futures.

“Nobody’s trying to get rich here,” Birchfield stressed. “We’re just trying to get our retirements.”

This blog was originally published by AFL-CIO on February 14, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Tom Conway is international president of the United Steelworkers (USW).


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2018 and 2019 hit a 35-year high for major strikes, this week in the war on workers

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Large work stoppages, aka large strikes, had been on the decline for years. That turned around in 2018—going from 25,300 workers involved in major strikes in 2017 to 485,200 in 2018—and stayed relatively high in 2019, the Economic Policy Institute reports.

“Through 2017, the general trend was downward, but there was a substantial upsurge in workers involved in major work stoppages in 2018,” Heidi Shierholz and Margaret Poydock write. “On average, in 2018 and 2019, 455,400 workers annually were involved in major work stoppages—the largest two-year pooled annual average in 35 yearssince 1983 and 1984.” A significant number of them—10 in 2019—were really large strikes, involving at least 20,000 workers.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on February 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

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The Oreo Workers Trump Betrayed

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Some labor struggles can feel like long, dramatic sagas: unexpected twists, broken hopes, valiant attempts to overcome unyielding giants. Michael Smith knows this tale well as a member of the small, beleaguered Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, BCTGM.

Smith lost his delivery job of 15 years in the massive 2008 DHL Express layoff, then fell into debt, lost his house, and skimped by on unemployment checks and any work he could find. He finally landed a $25-an-hour job on Chicago’s South Side in 2010, with pension and healthcare benefits, on a factory line at snack-foods company Mondel?z International (known at the time as Kraft Foods). The job was a union one, with BCTGM.

But Smith again found himself in the crosshairs of a massive layoff six years later, as Mondel?z announced it was shifting 600 jobs to a new factory, with far lower wages, in Mexico. At 58, Smith had four children, bills for prostate cancer treatments, and slim prospects for finding another decent factory job in Chicago. So when BCTGM launched a public campaign to pressure Mondel?z into bringing the jobs back, Smith agreed to become a spokesperson, and the union offered him a modest stipend. Smith could have signed up for federally funded job training instead, but he wanted to fight the union fight.

Smith and BCTGM have now been battling the $26 billion global behemoth for nearly four years. Back in 2016, presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton both briefly took up the cause. Meanwhile, Mondel?z has sent hundreds of union bakery jobs to Mexico and dealt a blow to the union’s remaining 2,000 members by ending their guaranteed pension plan.

As a union, BCTGM has suffered. Automation, non-union shops, plant closures and offshoring in the bakery and confectionery industries have shrunk the union’s ranks from 115,000 members in 2002 to 66,000 in 2018.

Mondel?z, for its part, has been doing just fine. Most consumers know the company for its Nabisco products: Oreos, Ritz, Triscuits and more. After the snack giant spun off from Kraft Foods in 2012, it turned steady profits, returning $2.9 billion to its shareholders in 2014 as then-CEO Irene Rosenfeld took a 50% pay increase, to $21 million. To meet shareholder demand for continuing profits, Rosenfeld then embarked on an “aggressive cost-cutting plan.” Since 2015, the company has been shuttering plants and trimming labor costs.

In May 2015, BCTGM received a jolting offer from the company: Mondel?z would consider $130 million in equipment upgrades at the 62-year-old Chicago plant if the union accepted $46 million in annual wage and benefit cuts—a 60% cut in pay and benefits, the union calculated. If the union refused, the investment and jobs would go to a new multi-million-dollar plant in Mexico.

The union refused, hoping to deal with the issue when company-wide contract talks began in February 2016. Then, Mondel?z “stonewalled” on providing “cost comparisons” and information about the Mexico plant, says BCTGM International Strategic Campaign Coordinator Ron Baker. “There was no negotiation,” Baker recalls. (Mondel?z spokesperson Laurie Guzzinati says that all “valid requests for information” received a response “within a reasonable timeframe.”)

Mondel?z began layoffs in March 2016, saying the union hadn’t offered a proposal.

A veteran of United Mine Workers of America’s long battles with coal behemoths, Baker doubted that negotiations could convince Mondel?z to stay in Chicago—but he believed public pressure could draw sympathy over the loss suffered by workers at a plant that makes the Oreo, a truly iconic American snack.

Indeed, Trump had repeatedly brought up the Oreo saga as part of his campaign rhetoric about offshoring jobs. “I’m not eating Oreos anymore,” Trump said in New Hampshire in September 2015. “Nabisco is closing their plant, a big plant in Chicago, and they’re moving it to Mexico.” The plant remains open (it had never planned to close), but about half of its jobs were moved.

When Mondel?z began its first round of 277 layoffs in March 2016, BCTGM stepped up its boycott campaign against Mexican-made Mondel?z products, begun months earlier, and opened a makeshift office across from the factory. The union was counting on publicity from the 2016 presidential campaigns.

Clinton visited the union’s campaign office that March, meeting with Michael Smith and other workers, then with Rosenfeld, reportedly to urge a halt to the move. Nothing changed.

The union sent Smith and others across the United States to meetings, public rallies and media interviews to talk about the harm done by prosperous companies seeking cheaper labor overseas. At a June 2016 Democratic Party platform committee meeting in Washington, D.C., Smith appealed: “I am not a number, nor [is] my family, nor my neighbors, nor my coworkers … We are, however, victims of [the] global snatch-and-grab that has gutted our community.”

In visits to 25 college campuses, BCTGM reps urged students to boycott Mexican-made Mondel?z products and have their schools do the same (though the union is not sure whether any schools did). More than 280 U.S. religious leaders signed a letter asking Mondel?z to stop shipping jobs outside the United States. The boycott made headlines and the rounds on social media, though some critics pointed to the limited success of such efforts and the xenophobic potential of “buy American” rhetoric.

After Trump became president, the union was optimistic he would take up the fight from the White House. In 2017, BCTGM reached out to Trump directly but received no reply, not even a tweet. Ron Baker says Trump has done nothing to help the union since 2016.

The 2016 job loss landed like a hammer. By summer, 600 Mondel?z workers had been laid off—half the plant—though the company did begin callbacks to fill openings created by retirements, per the union contract, and kept the process in place after the contract expired, according to a company spokesperson.

According to the union, the majority of workers at the plant were over 40, and many came from families that had worked for generations at the massive Southwest Side Chicago factory, which was built in the 1950s and employed up to 4,000 workers in its heyday. In job-hungry Chicago neighborhoods, the union plant, with an average $27 wage, had been an oasis. Manufacturing, once a driver of Chicago’s economy, accounted for about 18% of the city’s jobs in 1994 and only 10% in 2017. Chicago’s Black communities were hit especially hard: The percentage of workers in factory jobs dropped from almost 30% in 1960 to 6.5% in 2017, while unemployment more than doubled, to 20%. Two-thirds of the laid-off Mondel?z workers were people of color.

Lisa Peatry landed a job at Mondel?z in 2013, after four different layoffs and closings, including the Kool-Aid plant that sent some work to Mexico in 2002. She was 50, living on her own after raising three children. She liked her job on the production lines because they were fast and she appreciated her coworkers. “There was a diversity of races and everyone got along,” she says. Peatry was laid off in March 2016. Unable to keep up with rent, she lost her home and has been staying with a relative.

Eventually, Peatry found a factory job at $14 an hour—a job that often left her crying nightly from its difficulty and the treatment she received from bosses—and then a better job at $18. She still wanted to return to her $25.43-an-hour job at Mondel?z, but the company stopped its recalls, stranding Peatry and about 100 others on the recall list.

After being laid off, former Mondel?z worker Salvador Ortiz, 49, signed up for English classes and hoped to do better than friends, who were finding $11-an-hour jobs. Talking about his future one day in May 2016, in the living room of a comfortable bungalow not far from the plant, his wife cried, saying their middle-class dream was over. Ortiz feared losing his house and car. More than a year later, Ortiz was recalled back to the plant, but had suffered financially, getting by on unemployment checks and $14-an-hour jobs.

When Michael Smith was called back to Mondel?z in March 2018, he found the working conditions had changed for the worse. Smith was on mandatory overtime almost daily, sometimes working a double shift, getting only four or five hours of sleep and never knowing when he could make a doctor’s appointment. Smith felt the company was in disarray. He was now running an oven, a new job for him that was uncomfortable because of the high temperatures. “It’s 120 degrees and it’s like I’m sitting in the oven,” he tells In These Times. (Guzzinati says mandatory overtime may be required more than once weekly, to accommodate workload.)

In May 2018, just over two years after the union contract expired, Mondel?z imposed part of its benefits cuts, switching Smith and his coworkers’ retirement benefits from a guaranteed pension to a 401(k) account. Mondel?z honored existing pensions but pulled its 2,000 remaining union bakery workers out of BCTGM’s multiemployer pension fund, committing to instead pay an early withdrawal fee of $560 million over 20 years. Mondel?z told workers it was thinking about their future: The multiemployer plan could collapse by 2030, the company warned.

But the union sees it as just another blow to one of the most troubled multiemployer pension plans, which has suffered since the 2008 recession. When Hostess Brands, once the fund’s largest contributor, closed and filed bankruptcy in 2012, the company left a $2 billion pension liability. By 2018, the fund had $7.9 billion in liabilities and only $4.1 billion in assets.

In 2018, Mondel?z CEO Dirk Van de Put earned $15 million. The median Mondel?z worker worldwide, meanwhile, is a part-time hourly employee earning $30,639, an income ratio of 489 to 1.

Preventing U.S. firms from outsourcing jobs was a drumbeat for the 2016 Trump campaign. “These companies aren’t going to be leaving anymore,” Trump declared in December 2016 in Indianapolis. “They’re not going to be taking people’s hearts out. They’re not going to be announcing, like they did at Carrier, that they’re closing up and they’re moving to Mexico.”

But Rosemary Coates, head of the Reshoring Institute, a California-based nonprofit, says that, rather than bringing jobs back to the United States, companies are increasingly looking for new places to send production. The latest reshoring survey by consulting company A.T. Kearney shows that imports of manufactured items to the United States from 14 low-cost countries have steadily grown for the past five years, indicating that offshoring continues.

The Trump administration has lauded tariffs and trade wars as a way to pressure companies into keeping jobs in the United States. Yet, as Tobita Chow, director of the Justice Is Global project at the People’s Action Institute (and member of In These Times’ board of directors), explains, this strategy has backfired. “Trump’s trade wars have raised costs, reduced demand, killed jobs in the United States and worsened working conditions across much of the Global South,” Chow says.

In Mexico, factory workers earn 40% less than those in China. Mondel?z’s new plant opened in Salinas Victoria, Mexico, in late 2014 and now has 1,800 workers, according to the company. But workers in Mexico have been pinned under a mountain of problems.

Most Mexican unions serve companies under “protection contracts,” in which the company actually picks the union and dictates contract terms, defanging worker movements before they begin. Protection contracts are often signed by unions when a factory has very few workers to actually negotiate. In October 2014, with just 20 workers at the new plant, Mondel?z signed a union contract that capped the top day rate at 200 pesos, about $14.90 per day. BCTGM eventually obtained a copy of the contract, which it called proof that the Mexican workers were victims of a protection contract.

According to an August 2017 ruling from the National Labor Relations Board, a Mondel?z official told an administrative law judge that its Mexican workers earned $7 an hour in wages and benefits. As for the union there, a Mondel?z official told In These Times that the 2014 contract was no longer in effect and disputed the “protection union” moniker.

Meanwhile, BCTGM continued pressuring Mondel?z to reshore its jobs. In May 2017, 17 Democrats in the U.S. Senate called on Mondel?z to hire back workers let go at its plants in Chicago and at its operations in Fairlawn, N.J., Richmond, Va., Portland, Ore., and Atlanta—but nothing happened.

In November 2017, BCTGM partnered with religious and union leaders to arrange a visit with Mexican union activists from different groups in Monterrey, Mexico. The union has since reached out to the independent Mexican Los Mineros union, which separates itself from Mexico’s more corrupt or compromised unions. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has pushed through stronger worker protections, but implementing them will be a challenge as longstanding protection unions fear losing control.

Importantly, the new trade agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada—passed in December 2019 with support from U.S. labor unions—is a blow to the protection contracts signed by corrupt unions, calling for union monitoring and access to bi-national panels for inspections triggered by worker complaints.

Mondelez and BCTGM remain in a stalemate over lost jobs and a lost pension plan. They have not talked in a year, each claiming the other has quit negotiations. Mondel?z’s stock is up more than 30% since May 2015.

BCTGM Strategic Campaign Coordinator Nate Zeff, who picked up the torch when Baker retired in 2018, says a new campaign will launch early this year and will involve mobilizing Mondel?z workers in Mexico.

“We are almost four years into this fight,” Zeff says. “Eventually, we are going to win.”

“The real solution to offshoring is not trade wars—it’s to raise standards for workers across borders,” says Justice Is Global’s Chow. “We can get there through international worker solidarity, not by pitting workers against each other across borders as Trump has done.”

Michael Smith, who now works at the Chicago plant, has his own strategy. Ever an optimist, he is writing to Trump to ask for his help saving pension plans like his.

“It’s an opportunity for him to own up to saying he would never eat Oreos again,” Smith says. “It’s only a hope. He is still my president.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on  February 18, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Stephen Franklin, former labor and workplace reporter for the Chicago Tribune, was until recently the ethnic media project director with Public Narrative in Chicago. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans (2002), and has reported throughout the United States and the Middle East.

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More Than 1,200 IBEW Members Call on Union Leadership to Retract Biden Endorsement

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On February 5, the 775,000-member International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers announced that it was endorsing Joe Biden for president. It was Biden’s biggest union endorsement campaign so far in his presidential campaign. This week, nearly 1,300 IBEW members who support Bernie Sanders sent a letter to union membership asking them to retract that decision.

The letter, from “IBEW Members For Bernie,” blasts the union’s leadership for endorsing Biden without a vote of members. “The leadership of the union had previously provided reassurance to the membership that they would trust the judgement of rank-and-file leaders and members to  represent their own interest in the 2020 presidential primary, and we are disappointed that the International has instead thrown their weight behind the Biden campaign without member consultation,” it reads. The letter says that those who sign it support Sanders’ “transformative vision for expanding the labor movement, as well as the democracy and the solidarity that his campaign embodies.” It concludes, “We are calling on the International Officers to immediately retract their endorsement and call for the rank-and-file to participate in a democratic endorsement process by participating in an in person vote at their March local union meeting.”

It is signed by more than 1,200 IBEW members from across the country, including dozens who identify themselves as officers or members of the executive boards of their locals. Signatures were still being added as of Monday night.

The existence of the letter is a result of the work of Sanders supporters within the IBEW, who began circulating it online and within local chapters shortly after the endorsement was announced. Mark Gardner, an engineer in Manchester, Connecticut and member of IBEW Local 457 who helped to organize the letter, said that it came in response to not just a disagreement over candidates, but also over the union’s undemocratic process. “I have been frustrated with the trend of union leadership’s endorsing the establishment candidates while rank and file votes generally go for Senator Sanders,” Gardner said. “We do not want IBEW leadership to switch their endorsement to Bernie, but to open the choice up to the rank-and-file and hold a vote during the local unions’ March meeting.”

Another Sanders supporter, Joe Ellerbroek, a member of IBEW Local 347 in Des Moines, Iowa, echoed those sentiments. “I was outraged when I learned what the international had done. I felt there was too much at stake to just ignore it and hope for the best, especially when we have this rare opportunity to transform the whole dynamic of the labor struggle. Turns out I wasn’t the only one,” he said.

For Biden, whose campaign is flagging after disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, union endorsements are a key firewall against charges that the platform of “Middle Class Joe” is not the most attractive for the working class. Biden has been endorsed by the firefighters union, the Iron Workers, and the Amalgamated Transit Union, but the 775,00-member IBEW is his biggest prize. The union did not endorse a candidate this early in the past two Democratic primaries. “It’s not typical for the IBEW to endorse this early in the primary process,” the union said in its endorsement, “but this year there’s an urgency we haven’t seen in a very long time. Energy policies made today will reverberate for decades, and it’s paramount that we have a candidate for president who supports IBEW jobs and IBEW values.” The IBEW has been publicly skeptical of the Green New Deal, the ambitious climate change plan that Sanders, but not Biden, has backed.

Neither the IBEW nor the Biden campaign responded to a request for comment on the letter.

In organized labor, as in society at large, the 2020 Democratic primary is exposing the deep, latent divide between the left and the establishment. The IBEW is not even the first union in the past week to experience an intra-union uproar pitting progressives against moderates—members of Unite Here who back Bernie Sanders circulated a similar internal letter for signatures last week after the Culinary Workers union in Las Vegas warned its members in ominous terms that Bernie Sanders wanted to “end” their health care plan. Already, both national and local unions are choosing sides in what amounts to a proxy war for the soul of the Democratic party. The ability of factions like the IBEW Members for Bernie to successfully exercise power against much more conservative union leadership will determine the posture of the entire labor movement long after the 2020 election is over.

Read the full letter here.

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 18, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporting fellow at 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 [email protected].


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