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“I Would Love Medicare for All”: A Nevada Culinary Union Member on Why She Supports Bernie Sanders

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Bernie Sanders is leading in the Nevada polls, but he faces a major obstacle: One of the most powerful actors in state politics has come out swinging against his signature proposal—Medicare for All.

The 60,000-member Culinary Workers Union announced last Thursday that it will remain neutral in the Democratic primary this year. But in the past week, the union has sent out a series of communications to members warning, both directly and indirectly, that Sanders’ plan threatens its hard-won healthcare benefits.

One flyer circulated by the union read, “Some politicians promise … ‘You will get more money for wages from the company if you give up Culinary Health Insurance.’ These politicians have never sat at our bargaining table … We will not hand over our healthcare for promises.”

Sanders’ opponents have seized on the opening to double down on arguments for preserving private health insurance—a position the union shares.

“There are 14 million union workers in America who have fought hard for strong, employer-provided health benefits,” tweeted former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. “Medicare for All Who Want It protects their plans and union members’ freedom to choose the coverage that’s best for them.”

Billionaire Tom Steyer, meanwhile, has started airing an ad in Nevada telling voters that “unions don’t like” Sanders’ healthcare plan.

Known nationally as a standard-bearer for militant workplace organizing, the Culinary Union hasn’t just won healthcare benefits—it runs its own 24-hour healthcare center and pharmacy, exclusively for members.

But some members are disillusioned that the union is flexing its muscle against a healthcare policy they believe could deliver a windfall to unions by freeing them to focus on other issues at the bargaining table.

In These Times spoke to Marcie Wells, a shop steward with Culinary Workers 226 who has worked at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville inside the Flamingo Hotel and Casino for 16 years. Wells discussed Medicare for All, the union’s endorsement decision and her support for Bernie Sanders.

There was a lot of speculation as to whether the union might still endorse Joe Biden. What was your reaction to the decision not to endorse anyone in the primary? 

[Union leaders] said early on that they were not sure if they were going to endorse. When they called this press conference, everyone expected that they were going to go ahead and endorse Biden, because they already said they weren’t endorsing. So why would you put together all that just to repeat yourself?

The literature they put out the night before was not so subtle. It had the words “one, two, three,” and three candidates in order [Editor’s note: Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar are listed first on the flyer]. Everyone knows in the caucus, you rank your top three choices. But they’re not officially endorsing.

I think it sends mixed signals, and it’s disappointing that they’re not being straightforward.

Did the union poll members about the endorsement?

No, they didn’t. Typically, I get called for those types of things, because I’m a shop steward.

Talking one-on-one, a lot of members want Bernie. But when we’re in the setting of citywide meetings or things that are exclusive to shop stewards, there’s a clear message that, “the person who wants Medicare for All wants to take away our hard work.”

It’s disappointing as a progressive.

At a town hall the union held with Sanders in December, some members heckled over the issue of healthcare. Can you describe what you saw happen?

At this type of event, all the questions are planned. When Bernie started talking about healthcare, almost on cue, a group started chanting, “Union healthcare! Union healthcare!”

When a speaker said, “I don’t want to give up my insurance,” I yelled back, “I do!”

But aside from what felt like a staged protest, Bernie got a great reception, people were cheering. I mean, he’s the frickin’ union guy.

The culinary union has the reputation of having some of the best healthcare in Las Vegas. How well does it work for you?

Relatively speaking, it is some of the best. But it doesn’t work well for me, because I have chronic illness. I have ankylosing spondylitis and bilateral uveitis that’s recurring. I’ve had this condition since high school, and I’ve been misdiagnosed, delayed diagnosed, not believed as a Black woman, told that I was exaggerating my symptoms.

Most recently, my eyes were so inflamed that my eye doctor called a rheumatologist in the Culinary network, and she wasn’t going to be able to see me for 7 months. I had to do a GoFundMe to pay for a doctor outside of my network so I could not go blind.

I don’t think the private insurance market is good for people with chronic illnesses, and I think it’s pretty ableist to pretend that it is. If I’m waiting 8 months to see a specialist but I’m having symptoms throughout that time, nine times out of 10 I’m going to get fired for missing work. And to even start getting that insurance in the first place, you have to work 360 hours within a certain time frame.

There’s also a copay every time I go to a specialist. More likely than not, I’ll skip something most months. I would love Medicare for All right about now.

Why do you think the union has come out so strongly against Medicare for All?

I think there’s a conflict of interest there. We have a labor union, and a political lobby with a PAC, and a healthcare business, all wrapped up in one.

They built the Culinary Health Center, so that’s theirs. Word on the street is they’ve already paid for the parcel of land to build the next one. So they’re in the business now—they’re the establishment to an extent. So I think capitalism is the reason that they’re coming out against Medicare for All, and it’s just really troubling.

Nevada’s uninsured rate is 14%, and there are big racial disparities in who doesn’t have insurance—in Nevada it’s indigenous people, Black people, Latino people. Medicare for All is a racial justice issue. For the union to have an 80% demographic of [people of color] and be pulling this, it’s just unbelievable. I’m disgusted.

Do you think the messaging against Medicare for All will impact how members vote in the primary?

That’s what’s shitty about this whole thing. Some of these people are going to vote against their best interest because they trusted the Culinary Union.

But a lot of members do want Bernie. The younger members, the members whose young kids are getting them involved. I think I flipped a dishwasher the other day. So we’re all doing our best, but it’s just disheartening that we’re fighting against both the GOP and the union.

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 18, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rebecca Burns is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has appeared in The Baffler, the Chicago Reader, The Intercept and other outlets. She is a contributing editor at In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.


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The Longest Strike in America Needs a Political Savior

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Image result for Hamilton NolanThe longest ongoing strike in America today is happening in the media capital of the world. It involves the people who install and repair the cables that bring the news to many of the most influential people in America. But after three long years, the Spectrum workers of New York City are beginning to feel as though everyone has forgotten about them. For those who soldier on, the fight has become much bigger than a contract dispute. It is a fight that can only be won with a wholesale reimagining of public control over corporate power.

From the very beginning, the strike has been a battle of attrition far more than it has been a negotiation. By the time Charter acquired Time Warner Cable in 2016 and rebranded it as Spectrum, the company’s 1,800 unionized cable technicians, members of IBEW Local 3, could sense trouble. “Leading up to that time, we saw changes happening in the company, where they went away from customer service,” says Troy Walcott, a 20-year Spectrum veteran and a union shop steward. “They were doing things for increasing stock prices, as opposed to customer service.”

The new owners struck a hostile pose towards the union. They showed little interest in meaningful contract negotiations. Workers say that Charter also began imposing stricter disciplinary rules, and making changes in the metrics used to evaluate employees and in internal training programs, making it harder to advance within the company. They also seemed to show less interest in long-established union-negotiated procedures. “Their attitude was: Do what I say, and you can grieve it later,” says Chris Fasulo, a Spectrum technician since 2010. “If we said, ‘I can’t drive this truck, it has a broken windshield,’ they’d say, ‘Do it, and you can file a grievance.’”

In March of 2017, at odds over retirement and health benefits, the union went on strike. The company proceeded to hire outside contractors to do the work of the technicians, and the two sides remained doggedly opposed. After a year, the company launched a bid to decertify the union, using a former supervisor who the union says dropped into the role of a technician in order to file a challenge, trying to convince workers to give up on union representation entirely. That decertification attempt, marked by claims of coercion and unfair labor practices, remains mired in the bureaucratic morass of the National Labor Relations Board. Meanwhile, the strike drags on.

It is hard to be on strike for a week. It is hard to be on strike for a month. To be on strike for three years is superhuman. As the calendar has turned, Spectrum workers have exhausted strike funds, exhausted their savings, and become desperate. Some have crossed the picket lines and returned to their old jobs. Estimates among workers vary, but they say that close to half of the original strikers are still out. Those who hold the line do whatever they can to survive. Troy Walcott, who does not have any kids to support, drives Uber. But as a shop steward, he hears all of the stories of suffering. “You see people losing their homes, losing their cars, losing their jobs, losing their relationships with their wives, breaking down constantly… the longer it stretches out, the harder it gets for people,” he says. “When I get those calls, it affects me like it was me.”

This is the reality for workers striking against a company that wants to break the union. The choices are grim: Cross the picket line, pursue part time hustles in hopes of a resolution, or get a new full time job—starting over from square one, even if you’ve had decades of experience as a Spectrum employee. Every option is painful. Chris Fasulo loved his job. “When you go out and get some old lady’s phone working, it puts a smile on your face,” he says. This month, for the first time, he came close to being unable to pay his mortgage. The memory of the good times helps him carry on. “Sometimes you feel  a little lonely, but you’ve got to have faith. I put everything into this strike.”

It is clear that the Spectrum strike will not be won with a little more time, or a few more picket signs. Shaking the company’s intransigence will require political power. The workers are putting their hopes in two plans: First, they hope to torpedo the franchise agreement that New York City grants Spectrum to operate in the city, which is up for renewal this summer. While there is ample political reason to kick Spectrum out of a city that famously bills itself as “a union town,” such a move would certainly spark a legal fight, since franchise agreements are supposed to be renewed on the basis of the company’s ability to provide adequate service, rather than serving as political referendums on cable companies, all of which are more or less despised by the public. Laura Feyer, a deputy press secretary in the New York Mayor’s office, says that “this Administration strongly supports the striking workers,” but adds, “Like all cable franchise agreements, Spectrum’s is governed by federal law, which has strict guidelines regarding when a franchise can and cannot be renewed.” (A Spectrum spokesman noted that “hundreds of former strikers” have returned to work, and said “we are in compliance with our New York City franchise.”)

It is not like the company has a sterling record and high popularity among its cable customers. In fact, the New York attorney general’s office in 2018 reached a $174 million settlement with Charter for misleading customers about internet speeds. Those charges, though, could not be used as a basis for not renewing Spectrum’s cable franchise. It will be difficult to convince the City of New York to kick out Spectrum when there are few other attractive options for providing cable service to the city’s millions of customers.

And that is where the union’s other idea comes in. The striking Spectrum workers are proposing a “public option” for cable service—a publicly owned internet service provider in New York City, run by the Spectrum workers but owned by a million New Yorkers, who would collectively provide the capital for the new venture. The Spectrum workers envision rebuilding the city’s infrastructure and running the company as a co-op, under the auspices of Bill de Blasio’s much-touted “Internet Master Plan,” which aims to make broadband service universal. It is an idea with undeniable appeal, considering how universally despised cable companies are by consumers. But the same could be said about socialized medicine. It’s making it a reality that’s the hard part. The mayor’s office calls it, rather noncommittally, “an interesting idea that the Administration will look into.” Until there is a realistic line on billions of dollars of investment capital, it is hard to see the public option as a near-term solution to the daily pain of the Spectrum strike.

A group of several hundred cable workers, gutted by three long years of financial and personal sacrifice, cannot have a fair fight with a roughly $111 billion telecom company. The Spectrum strikers are a case study in how stark the differences are between traditional local union power and the power of a modern mega-corporation. In December, they held a rally on the steps of New York City Hall, marking 1,000 days on strike. They were joined by a host of local and state politicians vowing to support them. But talk is cheap. Unless the Charter/Spectrum franchise in New York is actually rejected, or a serious financing campaign is mounted for the costly “public option,” the outlook for those who have stuck with the strike is bleak. It is a gut check for the power of the modern labor movement. How much political and economic pressure can working people really bring to bear?

“What do you do when the corporation says F you?” asks Troy Walcott. “They’re tearing us down little by little. If we don’t start to revamp and change the way we’re fighting back against them, we’re gonna lose.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 13, 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 Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.


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Labor Unions Were Crucial in Bernie Sanders’ New Hampshire Victory

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Sen. Bernie Sanders has emerged victorious following the nation’s first Democratic primary in New Hampshire on Tuesday. The win further solidifies Sanders’ position as the frontrunner in the race to take on President Trump in November’s general election.

Sanders was propelled to victory in the Granite State with help from a broad coalition of grassroots activist networks and community organizations, including Rights & Democracy New Hampshire, the New Hampshire Youth Movement and the Sunrise Movement. Campaign volunteers knocked on 150,000 doors across the state this past Saturday alone.

Another crucial player in Sanders’ New Hampshire coalition: organized labor. One of the state’s largest unions—the over 10,000-member State Employees’ Association of New Hampshire/SEIU Local 1984—endorsed the Vermont senator last month. Since then, the union’s members have been door-knocking and phone-banking for Sanders, and the local’s union hall in Concord has been used as a staging area for canvassers.

“Senator Sanders not only talks the talk about building a fair economy but has been walking the walk his whole career,” SEA/SEIU Local 1984 president Rich Gulla tells In These Times. “He’s somebody you can trust. He hasn’t just said, ‘ok, I’m running for president and this is what I think people want to hear.’ He believes in what he’s doing.”

Gulla explains that last September, Sanders joined a rally of nursing home workers in Brentwood, New Hampshire who were trying to unionize with SEA/SEIU Local 1984.

“What impressed me about him, he didn’t once talk about his run for president,” Gulla says. “He engaged the employees there and got them talking about why they wanted to unionize. Before he left, he pulled folks aside and kind of gave them a pep talk. He was speaking from the heart.”

A few days later, the nursing home workers successfully voted to join the union.

Another major New Hampshire union endorsement for Sanders came in December from the statewide organization of the American Postal Workers Union (APWU), as well as APWU Local 230 in Manchester.

“What I appreciate about Bernie more than anything is that he gets the interconnectivity between problems,” says Janice Kelble, legislative director of New Hampshire APWU. “He’s been a huge advocate of postal banking, which is a win-win. It helps people in communities that don’t have banking available and helps strengthen the Postal Service. It solves a number of problems at once and he seems really good at doing that with a lot of issues.”

Kelble says APWU members were canvassing and phone-banking across the state, as well as attending campaign rallies, debates and town halls to show their support for Sanders.

Nationally, Sanders has been endorsed by the United Electrical Workers, National Nurses United, the National Union of Healthcare Workers and the national APWU. He also has the backing of the Clark County Education Association—the largest teachers’ union in Nevada—along with United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), which went on strike last January with Sanders’s support.

Over the past year, Sanders has repeatedly used his platform to draw attention to union battles large and small across the country. Using its expansive contact lists, his campaign has called on supporters to join workers on picket lines and at rallies. Through his Workplace Democracy Plan, which would remove the many legal barriers to unionization, Sanders aims to double union membership if elected president.

Meanwhile, ahead of the February 22 Nevada caucus, the leadership of the influential Culinary Workers Union of Las Vegas Local 226, has begun flooding its membership with a flyer attacking Sanders’ Medicare for All plan. The union, which runs its own health insurance program, is warning members that Medicare for All would “end” their healthcare—parroting talking points that moderates such as Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg have employed in the Democratic race.

Labor leaders like Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, have come to the defense of Medicare for All, noting that by guaranteeing healthcare to everyone and removing it as a subject of contract negotiations, unions would be in a more advantageous position when bargaining over other issues like wages, paid leave and workplace safety.

“Bernie’s behind the labor movement. Not just when it’s popular. He’s marched on our picket lines, he’s helped us organize, he’s championed our legislation in Congress. He’s got a 30- or 40-year track record,” Rand Wilson, an organizer with SEIU Local 888, tells In These Times. “To ignore that and support other candidates that just mouth the words is almost disrespectful to a person who’s been that much of a friend to labor and who’s got that much to offer.”

Wilson is an activist with Labor for Bernie, a network of Sanders supporters in the labor movement. Started in 2015 during the senator’s last run for the presidency, Labor for Bernie’s mission is to educate workers about why Sanders is the best candidate—and to help rank-and-file union members encourage their unions to endorse him.

“He’s best positioned to energize a movement, particularly of millennials and the youth who are going to be key for the ground game, key for the door-knocking and phone-banking and texting and rallies that will shape this election,” Wilson explains, adding that Sanders is also “the only candidate to actually take votes away from Trump’s base.”

Kelble says she thinks a lot of people voted for Trump in 2016 “because they were looking for somebody who wasn’t going to do business as usual” and “decided to take a chance with somebody who was talking about how much he cared about their issues.”

“Well, they were dead wrong about Trump and we’ve suffered a lot of disasters because of it,” she continues. “Hopefully this time voters will have the opportunity to select somebody who’s really going to be there for us. I can’t remember ever having the opportunity to elect an advocate for working people like we do today.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 12, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke is a Working In These Times contributor based in Chicago. He has a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in labor history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was a summer 2013 editorial intern at In These Times. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke.


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The Trump Budget: The Other Shoe Drops

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When Congress passed a nearly $2 trillion tax cut for corporations and the wealthy in 2017, we warned that the obscene cost of this tax cut bill would be used as a pretext to cut programs that benefit working people.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka (UMWA) said at the time that the 2017 tax bill was:

Nothing but a con game, and working people are the ones they’re trying to con. Here we go again. First comes the promise that tax giveaways for the wealthy and big corporations will trickle down to the rest of us. Then comes the promise that tax cuts will pay for themselves. Then comes the promise that they want to stop offshoring. And finally, we find out that none of these things is true, and the people responsible for wasting trillions of dollars on tax giveaways to the rich tell us we have no choice but to cut Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, education and infrastructure. There always seems to be plenty of money for millionaires and big corporations but never enough money to do anything for working people.

Now those predictions are coming true, as President Trump has released his new budget plan for the coming year.

The president proposes to cut $2 trillion from safety net programs, which is about the same amount as the cost of the 2017 tax bill. His budget plan would cut $1 trillion from Medicaid and subsidies for the Affordable Care Act. The Labor Department gets whacked by $1.3 billion. Adjustment assistance for people who lose their jobs to imports is slashed by nearly $400 million, and a program to help U.S. manufacturing companies create jobs is eliminated. The budget plan also eliminates subsidized student loans and the public service student loan forgiveness program.

While supporters of the 2017 tax bill promised it would benefit working people, almost all of its benefits have gone to corporations and the wealthy, and very little has trickled down to working people. Paychecks are still flat, and too many working people still have to work more than one job just to make ends meet. Wages grew by only 0% in September, -0.1% in October, -0.1% in November and -0.1% in December, when adjusted for inflation.

To make things worse, the president’s budget proposes another tax cut that goes disproportionately to the wealthy?—extending the tax cuts from the 2017 tax bill for another 10 years at a cost of $1.4 trillion over the next decade. Two-thirds of these tax cuts would go to the richest 20% of all taxpayers. Here we go again.

They keep running the same play because it keeps working. Since 2001, the wealthiest 1% of all taxpayers have gotten $2 trillion in tax cuts, and federal tax revenues have been reduced by $5.1 trillion. This is money that should have been used to make life better for working people?—for example, by rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, funding quality public education for every child and guaranteeing retirement security for our seniors?—rather than building up the fortunes of the 1%.

This article was originally published at AFL-CIO on February 11, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

 


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The Time is NOW For The PRO Act To Protect Workers

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Jim Staus had one goal: To  make the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) a better place to work. Jim worked hard, he got stellar reviews and he was proud of his job as a supply technician. But his pay was so low that one winter, he and his wife had to melt snow to flush their toilets after their water was shut off. When Jim started talking to his coworkers about forming a union with SEIU, UPMC fired him illegally.  Losing his job and his paycheck upended his life. And despite winning at the National Labor Relations Board twice, Jim is still waiting for justice. Years later, his case is still under appeal, with UPMC’s corporate lawyers spending whatever it takes to bury him in paper.

Jim is not alone. Our labor laws do an abysmal job of protecting working men and women across the nation when they come together to stand up for themselves and their families. In more than 40 percent of union elections, employers are charged with breaking the law.  And union-busters face few repercussions. Now, we have a chance to change that when the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, H.R. 2474, comes to a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives on February 6.

As members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have made clear, if Congress is serious about supporting working families, labor law reform should be at the top of the agenda.  This matters a whole lot to unions, but it also matters to progressive organizations. That’s because unions build power for the rest of us.

Unions give us a say in our workplaces and in our democracy. From teachers demanding fair wages and better conditions for their students to McDonalds’ workers fighting for an end to sexual harassment to tech workers protesting their companies’ role in helping the Trump administration carry out its cruel family separation policy, unions are at the heart of the progressive movement.

Union membership is tied to higher wages, safer workplaces, better healthcare, lower pay gaps for women and people of color and more. Children who grow up in areas with high rates of union membership have better education and life outcomes, even if their families weren’t in a union.  That’s because unions fight for things that benefit everyone, like better schools and better healthcare.

Unions have been under an all-out attack from union-busting employers, aided and abetted by legislatures and the courts for decades. Chipping away at collective bargaining rights has real consequences.  As the number of people in unions has declined from nearly one in three workers in 1979 to just 10.5% of workers in 2019, more people struggle to make ends meet, while wealth is concentrated among a small group of millionaires and billionaires.  Real wages have fallen even as people work more than ever before.  Union members have higher wages, along with job benefits that allow them and their loved ones to go to the doctor when they are sick, to save for retirement and have paid leave.  Those benefits have historically grown a strong middle class that is now under attack as unions are gutted. All the while, reactionary, right-wing billionaires amass more wealth and power over our lives.

As leaders of some of the largest progressive organizations in the country, we demand that Congress take action to protect workers’ rights and fix our nation’s broken labor laws.

There are bills before Congress right now that would give working people the protection they deserve. The PRO Act, H.R. 2474, would make sure that when working people stand up for themselves, the law is on their side.

The PRO Act makes sure that employers who break the law actually pay the price.  Just like Jim’s story, there are countless examples of employers who brazenly ignore labor protections because they know they can get away with it.  The PRO Act provides meaningful penalties when employers engage in union-busting. It provides a path to reinstatement for fired employees while their cases are waiting to be heard, so they are not out of work for years. And it allows workers to pursue their claims in court, rather than only before the National Labor Relations Board.

H.R. 3463, the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act and H.R. 1154, the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act, protect the rights of public sector workers like teachers and firefighters to join unions and bargain collectively. In 25 states, there are no laws explicitly protecting the rights of all public employees sector workers to organize. North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia bar teachers, police, and firefighters from collective bargaining. Thirteen states leave the question of whether teachers can collectively bargain up to local school boards. In some of these states, a patchwork of laws permit only select groups of workers, such as police officers, have the right to bargain collectively or restrict the subjects of bargaining.

Passing this legislation will restore working people’s voice on the job and fulfill the promise of our democracy to benefit all of us, regardless of income, race or gender.  And it’s what the people want. More than half of non-union workers would vote to join a union if they could.

Despite shrinking protections, more and more workers are bravely standing up for their rights by joining strikes and work stoppages across the country. In 2018 alone, more than 485,000 took to the streets, the largest number of workers participating in labor actions since the mid-1980s. Thousands of United Auto Workers (UAW) members held the longest General Motors strike in decades to fight for healthcare, fair wages and a fair deal for contract workers even after General Motors threw strikers off their healthcare plans. Despite intense anti-union efforts, workers at conglomerates such as Amazon and Walmart have continued organizing.  The progressive movement stands shoulder to shoulder with these brave men and women.

In 2018, Democrats promised working people that they would take action to strengthen our democracy and boost our paychecks. Passing labor law reform is the surest way to deliver on that promise.  Working people have never stopped fighting for their rights. Now it’s time for Congress to join their fight.

This article was originally published at Our Future on February 11, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jennifer Epps-Addison is Co-Executive Director and Network President of the Center for Popular Democracy

About the Author: Rahna Epting is the Executive Director of MoveOn

About the Author: George Goehl is the Executive Director of People’s Action

About the Author: Leah Greenberg is the Co-Executive Director of Indivisible

About the Author: Yvette Simpson is the Chief Executive Officer of Democracy for America

About the Author: Dorian Warren is the Vice President of Community Change Action

About the Author: Liz Watson is the Executive Director of the Progressive Caucus Action Fund (PCAF)


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House Democrats pass pro-worker, pro-organizing labor bill, this week in the war on workers

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The House voted Thursday to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, a bill to protect workers trying to unionize, increase penalties on employers who break labor laws to prevent workers from unionizing, and weaken some state-level anti-union laws.

“Good labor laws do more than just right the wrongs waged against unions and their members. Good labor laws help ensure people are safe at work and have a shot at decent wages, health care, and a secure retirement,” wrote Sara Nelson and Randi Weingarten, presidents of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA and the American Federation of Teachers. “Good labor laws lift up every working person, even those not in a union, because when workers in unionized companies win better wages and working conditions than their peers in non-union companies, those peers may seek to unionize, too—and pressure employers to better their lot. Good labor laws set a standard for how working people should be treated in an economy where there are countless laws already on the books to protect the rich and powerful.” And, they say, the PRO Act is a good start at better labor law—even though it wouldn’t most directly affect their unions’ members.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on February 8, 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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House Passes Bill to Dramatically Strengthen the Power of Unions

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House Democrats just passed an important blueprint for strengthening unions and building worker power. If signed into law, the labor law reforms within the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act would amount to the biggest change to the rules governing employers and workers in generations. Among other major features, it would bolster workers’ ability to unionize, expand organizing rights to more workers and strengthen the right to strike.

Although flawed­, the legislation would go a long way toward reversing decades of GOP-backed efforts to grind unions into dust.

“This is about stemming the assault that the Republicans are making on the rights of working men and women in our country,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said during a press conference on Wednesday.

Bobby Scott (D-Va.), who sponsored the PRO Act along with 218 other House members, including three Republicans, called the legislation the “most significant update in U.S. labor laws in 80 years” and “a major step towards creating an economy where everyone can succeed.”

But the PRO Act, which the House approved Thursday evening with a 224-194 vote (mostly along party lines), has essentially no chance of becoming law anytime soon.  Although 40 Democratic senators do support the Senate version of the bill, it is unlikely to be passed by the Republican-controlled Senate and will not be taken up for consideration during the current legislative session by the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, The Washington Post reported Thursday.

So why did Speaker Pelosi bother bringing the bill to a floor vote this week? It’s an election year. The PRO Act strengthens Democrats’ claim to be the only party really fighting for the middle and working classes. And it hands organized labor a victory to point to, giving unions a rallying cry that could serve to solidify their members’ active support for whomever becomes the Democratic nominee later this year.

“Stand with us today and we’ll stand with you tomorrow,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said at the press conference alongside Democrats.

None of this is to argue the PRO Act’s passage is solely a ploy by Democrats to shore up labor’s support as the campaign season lifts off. It signals the Democratic Party’s leftward movement since the 2016 election cycle. We’ve seen a wave of labor actions among teachers, journalists and nonprofits; it is no coincidence that the party has embraced an ambitious labor law reform bill amid this new organizing momentum. Democrats are shifting left along with the party’s base.

While it’s true that voting for a bill you know will not become law anytime soon isn’t exactly an act of political courage, members of Congress deserve applause for passing a measure that would clearly add muscle to a flailing union movement.

What the PRO Act would change

For about the last 40 years, employers have whittled away at labor power and unions through a host of unionbusting tactics. Meanwhile, GOP-controlled state legislatures have passed so-called “right to work” laws that have kneecapped unions by allowing employees to opt out of paying dues even though unions that still must represent them.

To counter all of this, the PRO Act, would among other things:

  • Penalize employers who fire or retaliate against workers trying to form a union.
  • Streamline the union certification process.
  • Prohibit employers from forcing employees to attend anti-union meetings, often deployed during organizing drives.
  • Eliminate right-to-work laws, which exist in 27 states.
  • Ban the permanent replacement of striking workers
  • Legalize secondary boycotts and picketing.
  • Make it harder to classify workers as independent contractors (similar to California’s AB5 bill, which Uber and Lyft are fighting).

It all adds up to a potential power rebalance that could help to counter rampant inequality and generally stagnant wages across vast swaths of the U.S. economy. Various groups aligned with business—from The National Retail Federation to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—are, of course, apoplectic over the proposed legislation.

Major omission

The PRO Act does indeed include a “grab bag” of measures for which unions have long been pushed. But there’s one big thing missing in the bill when it’s placed in the context of the last few decades of labor law reform campaigns: a provision allowing any group of employees to organize through a majority sign-up process (“card check”), rather than through a voting process monitored by the National Labor Relations Board.

Remember the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), the reform law pushed by the labor movement during the 2008 election cycle that died in the U.S. Senate after passing through the House? Its centerpiece was card check, without conditions, making organizing much easier by circumventing the commonly drawn-out election process. The PRO Act only requires card check if an employer is found to have violated labor law during a failed union election.

It matters because card check alone could be as powerful as all of the PRO Act’s provisions for boosting union density and labor power. Strangely, the PRO Act, the biggest piece of labor law reform legislation in years, contains a watered-down version of EFCA’s centerpiece. Whether or not this signifies a strategic retreat on the part of Democratic leaders, who surely remember the battle over EFCA, is unclear. But it is puzzling, given that the PRO Act is—at least until the White House and the Senate flip to Democrats—mainly an aspirational statement of values and solidarity. Why not include card check as well, so there’s no daylight between the party and unions as the election approaches?

Card check is still an avowed goal of some legislators, namely, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who both laid out their plans for empowering workers and labor unions last year. (Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden and Andrew Yang also support card check.) The Sanders and Warren plans make the PRO Act seem relatively small bore, more tactical than structural in its approach to rewriting the rules workers must live by.

That does not mean the PRO Act is just window dressing; it would mark significant change if enacted. The House vote is notable, albeit essentially symbolic. A real victory must wait until Democrats win a Senate majority and the White House—and still prioritize rebuilding the labor movement as much as they did yesterday.

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on February 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeremy Gantz is a contributing editor at the magazine. He is the editor of The Age of Inequality: Corporate America’s War on Working People (2017, Verso), and was the Web/Associate Editor of In These Times from 2008 to 2012.

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“Let’s Get This Bread”: Bay Area Tartine Bakery Workers Move to Unionize

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Image result for alex press“What if a bakery kept its heart and soul, but always remained open to new ideas?” asks the website for Tartine, the world-renowned Bay Area bakery. Elsewhere on the site, the bakery boasts of “Production at a human scale.” Today, the humans who produce Tartine’s award-winning bread and pastries have a new idea of their own: a union.

The workers at four Bay Area locations—three in San Francisco, one in Berkeley—have chosen to become members in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). In doing so, they join their counterparts at another iconic Bay Area institution, Anchor Brewing, one year after Anchor workers went public with their union.

“We’re proud to work at Tartine and want Tartine to be the best it possibly can be,” opens a letter delivered to management Thursday morning by members of the union’s organizing committee. Of the estimated 215 workers at the four locations, 146 signed their name to the letter, a public declaration of their support for the union. The letter requests Tartine voluntarily recognize the union, but notes that should the company refuse, the union will file for a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election. Agustin Ramirez, lead ILWU organizer for Northern California, says the union will file for the election on Friday morning, 24 hours after the letter’s delivery, should the company decline voluntary recognition.

Chad Robertson and Elisabeth Prueitt opened Tartine’s first location in 2002, and have expanded their operations in recent years. The company has opened two new locations in the Bay Area since 2016, and stores continue opening—and closing—in Los Angeles and Seoul, South Korea. Workers say this rapid growth is a key reason to unionize.

“As the company expanded, we were seeing a certain amount of neglect toward the workers—and not only the people, but operations too: money to pay invoices, for example, wasn’t there,” says Pat Thomas, 30, a server at the Tartine Manufactory. “We weren’t getting the attention we felt like we deserved because they were opening all these new locations, and it started feeling more corporate.” Thomas hopes unionization can rescue what was once a positive company environment, “before it’s too late.”

Tartine was “expanding like crazy, opening multiple restaurants in a short period of time, and then telling us that they don’t have the money to give us a $1 an hour raise,” says Emily Haddad, 31, a barista at the Manufactory. “It wasn’t really matching up,” she adds.

Indeed, workers feel management is “making it up as they go” when it comes to pay, says Mason Lopez, 36, a barista at the Berkeley location. Many spoke of their wages as nowhere near livable, with employees frequently having to take second and third jobs. Plus, back-of-the-house staff is largely excluded from the tip pool, say workers, an arrangement to which some object.

Tartine “can pay workers, the people who are making them the money—the cooks and the prep and the dishwashers and so on—a living wage,” says Hannah Gerard, 27, a server at the Manufactory.

In These Times was not able to reach any back-of-the-house employees for comment. Workers admit to the difficulties of coordinating the front of the house and the back of the house in the campaign, but describe support for the union as “widespread” across all positions and locations, with a worker at one location characterizing support as strongest among dishwashers and prep cooks.

“The dishwashers and prep cooks have been insanely proactive and have gotten a lot of people on board,” says Gerard.

“These are world-class bakers,” adds Lopez, listing off awards the bread has won over the years. “These bakers should be making at least $25 an hour, something that mirrors their experience and level of skill, and then you find out they’re making minimum wage and barely in the tip pool. Why?”

Throughout history, bakers have a storied record of organizing. One of the first acts proposed by the Executive Committee of the Paris Commune in 1871 was a ban on night-work, a response to bakery workers’ longstanding demands. In the United States, too, bakers’ unions have a long history. The Journeymen Bakers’ Union, founded in 1880, merged into what is now the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union (BCTGM), which still represents some 140,000 members, mostly in the food processing industry.

In addition to higher wages, Tartine workers speak of a desire for paid-time off, as well as a say in decisions relating to employee health insurance. While Tartine offers health insurance to anyone who works 25 or more hours per week, the company recently switched workers’ health insurance provider, causing several to lose their doctors. Additionally, several workers say they hope unionizing will bring greater transparency across the company, particularly when it comes to where Tartine’s money is going.

“If the company’s telling us that they’re broke because their projects are going out of business, we have the right to see for ourselves instead of taking their word for it,” says Thomas. “We’re just asking for a say.”

“Money has been funneling into San Francisco by the bucketload over the last five years, but there’s not a lot of follow-through when it comes to restaurant workers, or anyone in cafes, and those are the people that keep these cities running,” says Lopez. “Money changes hands, but we’re only getting the minimum that an employer is supposed to pay a person to avoid getting into legal trouble. Put that way, it’s hurtful.”

By announcing their union campaign, Tartine workers follow the lead of those at Anchor Brewing, a craft brewery that unionized last year, also with ILWU.

“When Anchor Steam went public with their unionization, that’s what motivated me to say, ‘Let’s actually do this instead of just talking about it,’” says Thomas. Following the launch of Anchor’s campaign, he met with people who had helped Anchor Steam workers organize. From there, he says, the process began in earnest.

“We had read that Anchor Steam became public with their union and we thought that was awesome,” says Matthew Torres, 23, a barista at Tartine’s Berkeley location. “We’d talked about it playfully, like ‘Oh, that’d be so cool.’”

Soon enough, a small group began meeting with Anchor Steam workers, an ILWU representative—and, as was true in the Anchor Steam campaign, collaborating with the San Francisco chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), who provided meeting space along with organizing support.

“The process of organizing can be very daunting, very scary, and kind of emotional at times,” says Torres, adding that having DSA present to facilitate space for Tartine workers to connect with other workers was “really, really helpful.” SF DSA plans to hold a rally with Tartine workers at 6pm at 24th Street Plaza Thursday. As with the Anchor campaign, workers hope to immediately build community support for their union.

Several workers stressed interest in working with the ILWU because of its radical history, and in particular, what Lopez describes as its “antiracist advocacy,” referring to ILWU’s willingness to shut down the Port of Oakland in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as its history of political boycotts on cargo.

Tartine workers will join the same ILWU local as Anchor Steam workers, Local 6, expanding the less-traditional shops represented in the local. San Francisco veterinary hospital workers have also organized as Local 6 members, a process that Anchor workers—and DSA San Francisco—have supported.

Local 6 has “pharmaceutical workers, workers at landfills, workers at recycling facilities, workers at chocolate manufactories, radiologist technicians at hospitals, warehouses, and now, workers in the beer industry,” says Ramirez, the ILWU organizer, adding “We believe that the workers have the right to choose their union. The ILWU will be with them until we reach the other side.”

As to how they expect management to respond to the union drive, workers are uncertain (In These Times reached out to Tartine’s Chief Operating Officer, Chris Jordan, for comment, and has yet to receive a response). “Tartine likes to be known as an inclusive and welcoming place,” says Gerard. “Hopefully they will take that reputation and do the right thing: Let us bargain a contract.”

Should unionization lead to an NLRB election, it’s possible the company will push for each Tartine location to hold a separate election, a possibility for which ILWU’s Ramirez says the union is prepared.

Tartine workers emphasize that just because the vast majority of food service work in the United States isn’t currently unionized, that doesn’t mean the industry can’t change its ways.

“I hope people can take inspiration from us, like we did from Anchor Steam,” says Torres. Food service workers “move through jobs every few months or year because these workplaces are bad or unaccountable and I really want to see other people be inspired by what we’re doing and do it themselves, and aid them in doing that.”

“A lot of people think restaurant work is not a skill, or not a career,” agrees Lopez, “but you can have a service job be your career. There are plenty of really talented, amazing people working in the service industry; the problem is they aren’t taken care of.” Lopez spoke of how “exhausting” it is “to go from restaurant to restaurant, from bar to bar, and it’s always the same song.”

“Why not make a difference,” asks Lopez. “Why not set an example for other restaurant workers, and maybe inspire them to do the same?”

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on February 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alex Press is an assistant editor at Jacobin. You can follow her on Twitter @alexnpress.

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Religious Discrimination in Employment Case Settlement: Employer Compels Employee To Engage in Scientology Practices as a Condition of Employment

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Principles

Workplace law is clear: An employer may not unlawfully discriminate against an employee by compelling her to participate in a religious practice selected by the employer as a condition of employment.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,[1] prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on religion. Many states provide similar protections against religious discrimination in employment.

A Title VII claim exists to challenge an employer who subjects an employee to discrimination by imposing religious practices and beliefs on the employee. Title VII protects employees from discrimination because they do not share their employer’s religious beliefs.[2]

Title VII protects those who refuse to hold, as well as those who hold, specific religious beliefs.”[3]

A religious discrimination claim premised on an employer’s preference for a religious group is often referred to as a “reverse religious discrimination.”[4] In this claim, it is the religious beliefs of the employer, or the religious beliefs/practices  that the employer compels the employee to engage in and which the employee does not share, that constitutes the basis of the claim.[5]

In the context of religious discrimination because of an employer’s coercion, my also implicate Title VII claims for: (1) retaliation against an employee who objects to the employer’s required religious practices, and/or (2) a hostile work environment created by the employer based on religious.

Scientology in the Workplace

In January 2020, a Wyoming-based employer settled an employment discrimination lawsuit in federal court alleging forced Scientology practices and teachings on an employee and a subsequent discharge from employment when she objected.

In Julie L. Rohrbacher v. Teton Therapy, P.C.[6],  Ms. Rohrbacher worked as a receptionist in Teton Therapy’s office in Lander, Wyoming.  Teton Therapy is Wyoming-based physical and occupational therapy practice.

Specifically, the pleadings asserted that Teton Therapy:

  • Despite Ms. Rohrbach’s objections, repeatedly required and pressured her to take and complete “Breaking the Code: The Mysteries of Modern Management Unlocked”, a course adapted from the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology.
  • Denied Ms. Rohrbacher a pay raise until she completed the Code Course.
  • Directed Ms. Rohrbacher to participate in two communication training exercises.
  • Required Ms. Rohrbacher, in one exercise, to sit a few feet apart from her manager, and stare into her manager’s face without looking away.
  • In the second exercise, required Ms. Rohrbacher to participate in “bull-baiting,” which required the participants to yell derogatory remarks at each other.
  • Offered Ms. Rohrbacher a promotion to a management position and then denied her the promotion after she objected to Teton Therapy’s directive to attend a week-long training course in Clearwater, Florida, which she reasonably believed was Scientology based training.
  • Terminated her employment.

On December 5-6, 2019, the court denied Teton Therapy’s motion for summary judgment on Ms. Rohrbacher’s claim for religious discrimination and granted the motion on the hostile work environment claim. The amount of any settlement payment is confidential under the settlement agreement. On January 2, 2020, the lawsuit was dismissed by the court, pursuant to the parties’ joint motion.

Related Scientology in Employment Lawsuit Information

The employer in EEOC v. Dynamic Medical Services, Inc. [7] a federal enforcement action,  is similar in type and conduct to the employer in Rohrbacher. Dynamic provided medical and chiropractic services.

The EEOC’s allegations included the employer requiring one or more employees to  attend courses that involved Scientology religious practices and participate in Scientology practices, such as screaming at  ashtrays or staring at someone for eight hours without moving.

The EEOC alleged Dynamic discharged from employment after they refused to participate in Scientology religious practices and/or did not conform to Scientology religious beliefs.

The Dynamic Medical case was settled for $170,000.00.[8]

Moreover, the issue of employer directives to employees, concerning Scientology practices, is addressed in the federal lawsuit, Grecia Echevarria-Hernandez, v. Affinitylifestyles.com, Inc., et. seq.[9]

Furthermore, in 2012, the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries ordered a dentist in to pay nearly $348,000 to settle allegations that he threatened to fire a dental assistant unless she attended a Scientology-related training session.[10]

Discussion  

Further discussion of the Rohrbacher v, Teton Therapy case is set forth in https://tonyortega.org/2020/01/08/wyoming-employer-settles-to-prevent-trial-on-forcing-worker-into-scientology/.

[1] 42 U.S.C. § 2000e–2(a)(1).

[2] Mandell v. Cty. of Suffolk, 316 F.3d 368, 378 (2d Cir. 2003).

[3] Shapolia v. Los Alamos Nat. Lab., 992 F.2d 1033, 1036 (10th Cir. 1993).

[4] EEOC v. United Health Programs of Am., 213 F. Supp. 3d 377, 392 (E.D.N.Y. 2016).

[5] Shapolia, supra, 992 F.2d 1033, 1038.

[6] U.S. District Court – District of Wyoming [Case No. 1:18-cv-00214-SWS]

[7] U.S. District Court – Southern District of Florida [Case No. 1:13-cv-21666)].

[8]  https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/12-23-13a.cfm

[9]  U.S. District Court – District of Nevada [Case No. 2:16-cv-00943]

[10] https://www.oregonlive.com/money/2012/10/bend_dentist_fined_nearly_3480.html

Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Steven Murray has practiced employment law for over 30 years. He holds a Master of Laws degree in Labor and Employment Law from Georgetown University Law School He is admitted to practice law in the District of Columbia and Colorado. He previously served as a Senior Trial Attorney for the EEOC in the Birmingham District and Denver Field offices.

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Trump attacks public education and pushes school privatization in State of the Union

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Donald Trump continued the campaign against public education as a public good in his State of the Union address, with a reference to “failing government schools” and a push for a federal education privatization plan in the form of “Education Freedom Scholarships.” That’s a giant voucher program that would give tax credits to people who give money for scholarships at private and religious schools—schools that may discriminate against LGBTQ kids or exclude kids with disabilities and special needs, for starters.

“Tonight, Donald Trump once again put the agenda of Betsy DeVos, the least qualified Secretary of Education in U.S. history, front and center in his State of the Union by renewing his push to divert scarce funding from the public schools that 90 percent of students attend into private school voucher programs,” National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García said in a statement.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on February 5, 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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