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“THIS IS NOT GOOD NEGOTIATING. THIS IS A COLLAPSE”–BERNIE SANDERS

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Late last night, Congress passed a $908 billion COVID relief bill that will extend unemployment benefits through the early spring, provide support for small businesses, schools, health care, nutrition, rental assistance, childcare, broadband, and the Postal Service, as well as funding to help distribute vaccines.

This legislation also includes, importantly, a $600 direct payment for every working class American earning less than $75,000 a year or $150,000 for a couple — plus $600 for each child. Let me be clear: this provision was not in the bill just two weeks ago. And, given the enormous economic desperation that so many working families are now experiencing, it is nowhere near enough as to what is needed. But, given the strong opposition of the Republican leadership in Congress and a number of Democrats, it’s no stretch to say that it would not have happened at all without our efforts, the hard work of progressive members in the U.S. House and grassroots progressives throughout the country. Republican Senator Josh Hawley also played an important role.

But let me state the obvious. The total funding in this bill was not even close to good enough, and my fear is that by reaching this agreement we are setting a bad precedent and setting the stage for a return to austerity politics now that Joe Biden is set to take office.

Remember, way back in May, the House passed a $3.4 trillion HEROES Act, which was a very serious effort to address the enormous health and economic crises facing our country. Two months later, the House passed another version of that bill for $2.2 trillion.

That same month, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell proposed a $1.1 trillion piece of legislation that included a $1,200 direct payment for every working class American.

Months later, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, negotiating on behalf of President Donald Trump, proposed a COVID relief plan with Speaker Pelosi for $1.8 trillion that also included a $1,200 direct payment.

And yet, after months of bi-partisan negotiations by the so-called Gang of 8, we ended up with a bill of just $908 billion that includes $560 billion in unused money from the previously passed CARES Act — a worse deal than was previously proposed by Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump.

So we went from $3.4 trillion, to $2.2 trillion, to $1.8 trillion from Trump and $1.1 trillion from Mitch McConnell to just $348 billion in new money — roughly 10 percent of what Democrats thought was originally needed and half of what Trump and McConnell offered in direct payments.

This is not good negotiating. This is a collapse. [my emphasis] It is also no coincidence that as it became clear Joe Biden would become the next president of the United States, we started to hear a lot of talk from my Senate colleagues in the Republican Party about their old friend the deficit.

We couldn’t afford $1,200 for every working class American and $500 for their children because of the deficit.

We couldn’t afford to support state and local governments struggling during the middle of this health and economic crisis because of the deficit.

We couldn’t afford more meaningful and robust unemployment benefits for those who lost their jobs during the middle of this pandemic because of the deficit.

Yet, this is the same Republican Party so concerned about the deficit that they passed a $1.9 trillion tax bill benefiting some of the richest people and largest corporations in this country.

This is the same Republican Party so concerned about the deficit that they, just last week, pushed through the largest defense spending bill in the history of this country, a total of $740 billion. This is more money than the next 10 nations combined spend in their defense budgets.

This is the same Republican Party so concerned about the deficit that they spent trillions of dollars on war over the past two decades.

This is the same Republican Party so concerned about the deficit that it gives hundreds of billions of dollars in giveaways to oil, gas and coal companies that exacerbate the climate crisis.

This is the same Republican Party so concerned about the deficit that it provides huge amounts of corporate welfare to companies like Walmart that pay their workers starvation wages and provide them meager benefits that must be supplemented by taxpayer-supported programs.

And during any of these debates, do you recall any of my Republican colleagues asking how these proposals were going to be paid for? I don’t. So forgive me for thinking their sudden display of concern for the deficit seems a bit insincere. More to the point: it’s total hypocrisy!

And our concern at this moment is that no matter what happens in Georgia next month, and which party controls the Senate, we cannot allow this type of inadequate negotiation again on major legislation. Yes. The deficit is important, but it is not the most important thing. At this unprecedented moment in American history, with a growing gap between the very rich and everyone else, and when many millions of Americans are suffering, Democrats in Congress must stand up for the working families of our country. No more caving in.

Today, half of our people are living paycheck to paycheck, one out of four workers are either unemployed or making less than $20,000 a year, more than 90 million Americans are uninsured or under-insured, tens of millions of people face eviction, and hunger in America is exploding. Tragically, there is more economic desperation in our country today than at any point since the Great Depression.

We have a responsibility to the struggling families of our country.

And let’s be honest: if we allow Republicans to set the parameters of the debate going forward, like they did in this current COVID relief bill, the next two to four years are going to be a disaster.

Want to expand health care? Where’s the money going to come from?

Want to rebuild our infrastructure? Where’s the money going to come from?

Want a Green New Deal, or even support for Joe Biden’s more modest climate proposal? Where’s the money going to come from?

So the fundamental political question of our time is: are we going to allow Mitch McConnell, the Republican Party and corporate America to return us to austerity politics, or are we going to build a dynamic economy that works for everyone?

My fear is that this COVID relief bill sets a very dangerous precedent for when Joe Biden takes office next month. And we cannot allow that to happen.

Going forward, Democrats must have an aggressive agenda that speaks to the needs of the working class in this country, income and wealth inequality, health care, climate change, education, racial justice, immigration reform and so many other vitally important issues. And in that struggle, we all have a role to play. So please, make your voice heard in the weeks and months ahead. Call your members of Congress, post your thoughts on social media, encourage progressives in your community to run for office, and volunteer and contribute to those who will fight for a government that will work for all of us, and not just the 1 percent and wealthy campaign contributors in this country.

This blog originally appeared at Working Life on December 22, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is a political / organizing / economic strategist. President of the Economic Future Group, a consultancy that has worked in a couple of dozen countries on five continents over the past 20 years.


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Jobless claims down 19,000, still 4 times pre-pandemic level

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The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell by 19,000 last week to still historically high 787,000 as a resurgent coronavirus grips the U.S. economy.

While at the lowest level in four weeks, the new figures released Thursday by the Labor Department are nearly four times higher than last year at this point before the coronavirus struck. Employers continue to cut jobs as rising coronavirus infections keep many people at home and state and local governments re-impose restrictions.

Jobless claims were running around 225,000 a week before the pandemic struck with force last March, causing weekly jobless claims to surge to a high of 6.9 million in late March as efforts to contain the virus sent the economy into a deep recession.

The government said that the total number of people receiving traditional unemployment benefits fell by 103,000 to 5.2 million for the week ending Dec. 19, compared with the previous week.

The four-week average for claims which smooths out weekly variations rose last week to 836,750, an increase of 17,750 from the previous week.

Economists believe that the holidays, in addition to broad confusion over the status of a Covid-19 relief package, suppressed applications for benefits last week.

Congress finally passed a $900 billion relief bill that would boost benefit payments and extend two unemployment assistance programs tied to job losses from the pandemic. However, President Donald Trump called the measure a “disgrace” because in his view it did not provide enough in direct payments to individuals.

Trump eventually signed the measure on Sunday but sought to pressure Congress to boost the stimulus payments to individuals from the $600 in the bill to $2,000. The Democratic-controlled House quickly passed legislation to meet Trump’s demand, but the Republican-led Senate checked that momentum.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday that the proposal to boost payments to $2,000 has “no realistic path to quickly pass the Senate.”

Meanwhile, the government has begun sending out the smaller payments to millions of Americans. The $600 payment is going to individuals with incomes up to $75,000.

Analysts believe the $900 billion package as it now stands will give the economy a boost, but only as long there are no major problems with the rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations.

Earlier this month, Trump administration officials said they planned to have 20 million doses of the vaccine distributed by the end of the year. But according to data provided by the Centers for Disease Control, just over 11.4 million doses have been distributed and only 2.1 million people have received their first dose.

President Donald Trump deflected criticism about the pace of the vaccine program, saying that it’s “up to the States to distribute the vaccines.”

Most economists believe the U.S. economy will rebound at some point next year.

“While prospects for the economy later in 2021 are upbeat, the economy and labor market will have to navigate some difficult terrain between now and then and we expect (jobless) claims to remain elevated,” said Nancy Vanden Houten, lead U.S. economist at Oxford Economics.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on December 31, 2020. Reprinted with permission.


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Top 10 AFL-CIO Blog Posts of 2020

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By any measure, 2020 has been one of the most historic years in recent memory. Working people across the country stepped up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, continued to organize their workplaces and came together to help elect a labor-friendly president and vice president in Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. We covered these stories and many others throughout the year and here are the top 10 most-read stories by you, our readers.

1. In Memoriam: Union Members Lost in COVID-19 Pandemic: “As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the United States, our sisters, brothers and friends in the labor movement are among the first casualties. It is important for us to work together during this crisis to prevent further deaths. It is important to thank those who are doing the work to keep us safe and fed. It is important to remember those who we lost because of the coronavirus.”

2. Working People Respond to the Killing of George Floyd with Nationwide Protests: “Racism plays an insidious role in the daily lives of all working people of color. This is a labor issue because it is a workplace issue. It is a community issue, and unions are the community. We must and will continue to fight for reforms in policing and to address issues of racial and economic inequality.”

3. Biden Taps Working People Champions to Transition Teams: “President-elect Joe Biden made sure that the voices of working people will be heard in the transition to his administration. He appointed more than two dozen leaders from the labor movement to the various agency review teams that will help make sure the Biden administration is ready to go on day one.”

4. Shame on Corporations Using COVID-19 Pandemic to Attack Workers: “Some greedy corporations are using this time to attack these working people, attempting to use a crisis to roll back the rights of the very people who are dying while keeping America running.”

5. Government Must Act to Stop Spread of Economic and Financial Consequences of Coronavirus: “We need government to act to stop financial and economic contagion until the worst of the coronavirus passes and, most importantly, until everyone has a better sense of the exact nature of the threat—that is, until the uncertainty diminishes. Working people must demand that government act, or we and our families will pay the price for others’ lack of action, as we so often have in the past.”

6. The Trump Budget: The Other Shoe Drops: “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%.”

7. 50 Reasons the Trump Administration Is Bad for Workers: “The Trump administration’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic marks the administration’s most glaring failure of leadership. However, the administration’s response to the pandemic is in no way distinct from its approach to governing since President Trump’s first day on the job. The administration has systematically promoted the interests of corporate executives and shareholders over those of working people and failed to protect workers’ safety, wages and rights.”

8. The Response to COVID-19: What Working People Are Doing This Week: “‘When things like these episodes break out, we’re on the front lines.’ – Leo Laffitte, a custodian for 18 years at the Hartford Public Library, a member of AFSCME Local 1716…”

9. The New Front-Line Workers: The Working People Weekly List: “Much of the American workplace has shut down, sending millions of employees home to wait out the coronavirus pandemic. Among those still on the job are grocery-store clerks, prison guards and delivery drivers. ‘Who would have ever thought that we would be on the front lines?’ said Joyce Babineau, a 67-year-old supermarket supervisor in Dartmouth, Mass., a coastal village 60 miles south of Boston.”

10. Breakthrough for Organized Labor and Clean Energy: “Her goal was to go beyond good intentions and rhetoric. So Liz Shuler, as secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, the second-highest position in the labor movement and, as it happens, highest-ranking woman in the federation’s history, went to Scandinavia in 2019. She leveraged AFL-CIO’s relationships with their sister union federations to talk directly with top management at some of the largest renewable energy companies in the world.”

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on December 18, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell  is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.


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Why Workers Fought and Died for Union Hiring Halls

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This is Part II of our spe­cial two-part episode with Taco­ma long­shore work­ers Zack Pat­tin and Bri­an ?“Skiff” Skiff­in­g­ton. Zack and Skiff are both mem­bers of the Inter­na­tion­al Long­shore and Ware­house Union (ILWU) Local 23 and orga­niz­ing lead­ers with the ILWU Young Work­ers Com­mit­tee. In Part I of our con­ver­sa­tion with Zack and Skiff, we talked about their wind­ing paths to work­ing on the water­front and about the beau­ty and mad­ness of long­shore work. In Part II, we take a deep­er dive into the pol­i­tics and his­to­ry of the ILWU. We talk about what being part of the union has meant to Zack and Skiff, their fam­i­lies, and their cowork­ers?—?and why fix­tures like union hir­ing halls are so impor­tant that work­ers fought and died for them.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Maximillian Alvarez is a writer and editor based in Baltimore and the host of Working People, “a podcast by, for, and about the working class today.” His work has been featured in venues like In These Times, The Nation, The Baffler, Current Affairs, and The New Republic.


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2020 in Review: Workers Struggle Under the Weight of the Pandemic

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Workers will feel the ramifications of this unprecedented year long into the future.

The coronavirus pandemic has claimed 300,000 lives, destroyed millions of jobs, busted gaping holes in public budgets, and magnified the myriad inequalities that have come to define life in the United States.

Notwithstanding a few bright spots, the labor movement struggled to find its footing in the biggest workplace health and safety crisis of our lifetimes.

The year started with 3.5 percent unemployment—the lowest in a half-century—and hopes that workers might be able to use the tight labor market to recover some of what had been lost over decades of concessions.

All that came to a crashing halt in March, though the U.S. was slow to impose dramatic shutdowns. Eventually it took a seesaw approach, alternating between periods of lockdown and opening in an attempt to keep the economy going while waiting for a vaccine.

That came at an enormous human cost. Health care workers sustained grueling shifts for months on end, witnessing the havoc this new virus wreaks on its victims while working desperately to connect patients with loved ones to say their final distanced goodbyes. Meanwhile they often had to fight for adequate protective gear.

“Most of us are going to get it and some of us are going to die,” said Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, president of the New York State Nurses, as the pandemic reached its early heights in New York City. Overall around 550,000 health care workers have contracted the virus, including 300,000 workers in nursing home, whose residents account for 40 percent of all Covid deaths. Sixteen hundred health care workers have died.

MOST UNEQUAL RECESSION

Unemployment peaked near 15 percent in April. By September a quarter of Americans would say that someone in their household had lost a job this year.

Even as unemployment dipped to 6.7 percent in November, there were still 9 million fewer workers on payrolls than a year ago, with 3.7 million having dropped out of the labor force. The real unemployment rate, which includes these workers as well as involuntary part-timers, stands at 12 percent. Among the unemployed, 3.9 million have been without a job for more than 27 weeks.

But even those figures understate the pandemic’s impact on workers. According to the Washington Post, this is “the most unequal recession in modern U.S. history, delivering a mild setback for those at or near the top and a depression-like blow for those at the bottom.”

Unemployment rates for Blacks and Latinos are 10.3 percent and 8.4 percent, respectively, compared to 5.9 percent for white workers. Retail has lost 550,000 jobs since February and leisure and hospitality 3.4 million.

While Americans got used to seeing cars lined up for miles at food banks—26 million adults reported not having enough food to eat in mid-November—those at the very top saw their fortunes grow astronomically. Since the start of lockdowns in March, 650 U.S. billionaires have tacked on an additional $1 trillion in wealth, led by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, now worth $70 billion more, and the Walton family, up a combined $48 billion.

AN UPSURGE?

Suddenly, just the act of going to work every day became a potential life-or-death question.

That spurred some workers to action. Detroit bus drivers were the first to strike, to force the city to sanitize buses and stop fare collection. Apple packers—working shoulder to shoulder in the county with the highest rate of Covid on the West Coast—walked out to demand safety and hazard pay. Workers in Amazon warehouses, grocery stores, and fast food fought for paid time off.

These were among the hundreds of actions that workers took to defend themselves, their co-workers, and their communities. But it was far from the mass strike wave that some anticipated, a reflection both of the disorienting impact of the pandemic and of how little real organization had been built up heading into it.

Meatpacking and poultry plants stayed open throughout the year, even as the workers, largely immigrants, contracted the coronavirus at alarming rates. A Tyson plant manager in Iowa set up a pool for supervisors to bet on how many workers in the plant would get the virus, according to a lawsuit; over a third caught it, and five died. Tyson’s billionaire owner, meanwhile, saw his fortune balloon by $600 million. OSHA was almost entirely AWOL as 225 meatpacking workers died of Covid. Poultry plants were even granted federal waivers to increase line speed.

None of this is to dismiss the valiant organizing in some workplaces.

In just the week before we went to print, 30 workers walked out at a George’s poultry plant in Springdale, Arkansas, to protest the end of staggered shifts (which mean fewer workers have to cram into crowded hallways) and push for wage increases. Teachers organized a sickout in Chandler, Arizona, over their district’s refusal to consider hybrid or remote schooling as cases surge. And dozens of fast food workers in Durham, North Carolina, struck after a worker at a McDonald’s tested positive and management withheld the news; they demanded better virus protections and $15 an hour.

SOCIALLY DISTANCED TACTICS

Many unions and worker centers did their best to adapt by organizing socially distanced rallies and car caravans, including some that jammed up fast food drive-thrus to back workers’ demands. A digital picket line by the New Yorker’s new union won just cause after a two-year push.

Some unions canceled meetings entirely. Others switched to Zoom and reported record attendance. Many negotiated one-year contract extensions, hoping for a better bargaining environment next year. At some big union employers, like Verizon and AT&T, strong unions won model leave policies. Others, like UPS, refused calls for hazard pay—and national union leaders did little to rock the boat.

Some workers frustrated with their union officials’ inaction voted in new ones. Complaining that the six-term incumbent hadn’t “shown his face” and was “totally absent,” members of AFSCME District Council 33 in Philadelphia backed a challenger slate—which included sanitation workers pushing for hazard pay and personal protective equipment—two to one.

No big wave of workers joined unions, though a handful did. National Nurses United had a breakthrough in North Carolina, the biggest hospital union victory in the South in 45 years. A promising collaboration between the United Electrical Workers and the Democratic Socialists of America trained hundreds of volunteers to advise workers looking for fight-back help, but has notched just a few small wins thus far.

Educators were forced to navigate constantly shifting conditions. They worried that open schools could spread the virus, and raged at a politics that placed the economy above their safety.

Some locals, like United Teachers Los Angeles, used the power they had built through years of organizing to quickly win remote schooling. But in many other districts, educators are back in buildings, or shifting back and forth between in-person and remote.

GOOD RIDDANCE

Averting a second term for Donald Trump was a major goal for many in labor.

An election that Joe Biden won by 7 million votes still managed to be a nail-biter, thanks to the archaic and undemocratic Electoral College. While the Biden campaign itself downplayed the importance of face-to-face organizing, a few unions thankfully ignored this advice. UNITE HERE sent 1,700 mostly Black and Latino canvassers—many of them laid-off hotel workers—whose work provided the critical margins in Arizona and Pennsylvania.

But the larger “blue wave” heralded by pre-election polling failed to materialize, dashing hopes for a good terrain on which to fight for labor law reform, a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, or a massive federal stimulus and jobs program. Absent changes that will actually improve voters’ lives over the next four years, the prospect looms of a swing back to a demagogic right-winger in 2024.

In an ominous development in California, Uber and other gig economy giants spent a record-breaking $200 million to buy a win on Proposition 22 so they could go on treating workers as disposable “independent contractors.”

LABOR FOR BLACK LIVES

The other major story of 2020 was the upsurge for racial justice that began with George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police. Millions took to the streets, including in small towns where demonstrations are a rarity. Many demanded to cut police funding and redirect it to social needs.

Labor played its part. Many Twin Cities unions supported the demonstrations. Bus drivers in Minneapolis and New York refused to transport arrested protesters. West Coast dockers shut down their ports twice.

Teachers in Minneapolis, Denver, Portland, Oregon, Rochester, New York, and Seattle forced their districts to cut contracts with the police. The King County labor council expelled the Seattle police union, and other labor bodies debated whether police unions belong within them.

Union leaders—often hesitant to weigh in on such issues—issued statements backing the protests. A Strike for Black Lives endorsed by eight national unions in July saw actions in 150 cities; many participants stopped work for eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence to honor Floyd.

As Tim Schermerhorn and Lee Sustar wrote in these pages, “The challenge now is to bring the militancy and energy of this year’s revived Black struggle into the workplace.”

WHERE NOW?

Where does all this leave us heading into 2021? We don’t know how many jobs the vaccine will bring back. In the public sector—a major employer of Black workers—decimated state and city budgets will fuel battles over employee pensions, health care, layoffs, and collective bargaining rights.

Over the past year, tens of millions of workers have been heralded as essential and praised as heroes. But they’ve also seen that they’re expendable—that their lives do not matter as much as ensuring the smooth flow of goods and production.

“We’re up here risking our life for chicken,” said Kendaliyn Granville, a Georgia poultry worker who walked out early in the pandemic.

“All they care about is picking up the garbage. They don’t even care about our health,” said Pittsburgh sanitation worker Fitzroy Moss at a rally demanding protective gear and hazard pay.

Many of these same workers hit the streets in the dramatic protests for racial justice this summer. How will these experiences translate to a post-pandemic world, where workers may have more breathing space to organize?

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on December 21, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Dan DiMaggio is an Assistant Editor of Labor Notes.

About the Author: Saurav Sarkar is an Assistant Editor of Labor Notes. Saurav covers worker centers, immigrant workers, LGBTQ workers, the Steelworkers, the Electrical Workers (UE), and the global labor movement.


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The Union Members Who Voted for Trump Have to Be Organized—Not Ignored

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Although Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump will be leav­ing the White House, pro­gres­sives must reck­on with the fact that 74 mil­lion peo­ple?—?almost a third of whom came from house­holds mak­ing under $50,000—vot­ed for him. It is alarm­ing that so many work­ing-class peo­ple would vote against their class inter­ests, but per­haps most alarm­ing of all are the union mem­bers who were drawn in by Trump­ism. Before the 2016 elec­tion, Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates had long won union house­holds by com­fort­able dou­ble-dig­it mar­gins; but in 2016 and 2020, Trump erod­ed those mar­gins. If the Left is to win pro­gres­sive poli­cies (and the next pres­i­den­tial elec­tion), it needs a mil­i­tant labor move­ment. Unions, after all, are one of the only effec­tive work­ing-class insti­tu­tions in this coun­try that can engage work­ers to build pow­er on the job and in soci­ety at large. We must under­stand who these union Trump vot­ers are, why they vot­ed for Trump, and what can be done to win them back. 

Many on the Left have writ­ten off Trump sup­port­ers as a lost cause or unwor­thy of effort. This response is under­stand­able, par­tic­u­lar­ly for peo­ple of col­or and oth­ers direct­ly harmed by Trump poli­cies. And we should by no means court the vocal sub­set of Trump­ists who are vir­u­lent white supremacists. 

But most Amer­i­cans hold a con­fus­ing mix of polit­i­cal beliefs that will nev­er fit square­ly with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic and Repub­li­can par­ties. When the group Work­ing Amer­i­ca held in-depth con­ver­sa­tions with more than 2,300work­ing-class vot­ers in so-called bat­tle­ground states in 2016 and 2017, it found that beliefs didn’t map to par­ty lines: Vot­ers believed in both expand­ing the coal indus­try and pro­tect­ing the envi­ron­ment; in both uni­ver­sal health­care and keep­ing out ?“free­load­ing” refugees; in both ban­ning abor­tion and low­er­ing health­care costs. A 2019 poll from the Kaiser Fam­i­ly Foun­da­tion and Cook Polit­i­cal Report found that, in bat­tle­ground states, 70% of respon­dents sup­port­ed a path­way to cit­i­zen­ship for undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants and yet 71% felt it was a bad idea not to detain peo­ple who crossed the bor­der with­out doc­u­men­ta­tion. Not every issue dri­ves vot­ing behav­ior: 70% of Amer­i­cans sup­port Medicare for All, and yet the pres­i­den­tial can­di­date cham­pi­oning the pol­i­cy (Sen. Bernie Sanders) came up short. 

If the goal of reach­ing out to Trump vot­ers is to acti­vate their pro­gres­sive beliefs strong­ly enough to influ­ence their vot­ing behav­ior, then union Trump vot­ers should be a promis­ing place to start. A good union nat­u­ral­ly ties the fate of the work­er to oth­ers, a pow­er­ful counter-nar­ra­tive to the rugged indi­vid­u­al­ism our soci­ety (and Trump) pro­motes. Union mem­bers are also (the­o­ret­i­cal­ly) trained and expe­ri­enced in fight­ing their boss­es. Being part of a strug­gle against a boss means reliance on fel­low work­ers, regard­less of race and gen­der and oth­er social divi­sions. Unions them­selves, of course, need to embark on a far-reach­ing pro­gram for mem­ber­ship to put these strug­gles in con­text?—?one that doesn’t shy away from tough ques­tions in fear of upset­ting a (ten­u­ous) sense of unity. 

Dis­cus­sions around immi­gra­tion and racism, for exam­ple, are chal­leng­ing in their own right but have become espe­cial­ly charged since Trump took office. Avoid­ing these top­ics may pre­serve a sense of uni­ty in the short term but dam­ages the long-term abil­i­ty of work­ers to forge sol­id bonds of sol­i­dar­i­ty and orga­nize to fight against racism and social pro­grams like Medicare for All. 

To under­stand how unions might reach the union Trump vot­er, we can look at how sim­i­lar efforts have suc­ceed­ed and failed?—?and get to know union Trump vot­ers themselves. 

The Trump Unionist

Tony Rei­tano, 49, works in main­te­nance at a Bridge­stone plant in Iowa. He is a mem­ber of the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers and vot­ed for Trump in 2016 and 2020. Rei­tano tells In These Times, ?“I liked what [Trump] said about trade deals in 2016; that was a big thing for me … bring­ing jobs back to Amer­i­ca.” He adds, ?“And this time around, [Trump] did, or tried to accom­plish, all of the things he said he was going to do … like back­ing away from the [Trans-Pacif­ic Part­ner­ship].” (The Unit­ed Steel­work­ers, which endorsed Biden in 2020 and Clin­ton in 2016, oppos­es the trade deal, on the grounds that jobs would be lost.)

Trump vot­ers often cite their con­cern with jobs and wages as the rea­son they vot­ed for him. While most vot­ers rank the econ­o­my as one of their most impor­tant issues, 84% of Trump vot­ers rat­ed the econ­o­my as ?“very impor­tant” in 2020, com­pared to Biden sup­port­ers’ 66%.

Lynne (who didn’t want her last name used for fear of social retal­i­a­tion), 62, is a retired teacher and union mem­ber in the sub­urbs of Philadel­phia. A reg­is­tered Inde­pen­dent, Lynne vot­ed for Oba­ma in 2008, moved by his mes­sage of hope and change. Like Rei­tano, she was drawn to Trump in 2016by his eco­nom­ic promis­es?—?and vot­ed Trump again in 2020. ?“You can’t care about oth­er poli­cies if you’re wor­ried about los­ing your house or if your chil­dren don’t have food or if your heat may get turned off,” Lynne tells In These Times. ?“Hav­ing shel­ter and food is everyone’s num­ber one con­cern. And with Trump, we had the low­est unem­ploy­ment rate in this coun­try … for every­one, includ­ing Lati­nos and Blacks.”

Trump clear­ly under­stood that a strong eco­nom­ic mes­sage would be the key to vic­to­ry, boast­ing about the unem­ploy­ment rate on the 2020 cam­paign trail. But the Trump unem­ploy­ment rate only decreased slight­ly before the pan­dem­ic, and like­ly because of Oba­ma-era poli­cies. Mean­while, wage growth has stag­nat­ed or declined for the bot­tom 70% of work­ers since the 1970s and the Job Qual­i­ty Index (a proxy for the over­all health of the U.S. jobs mar­ket) fell sig­nif­i­cant­ly after 2006 and nev­er recovered.

Amid this uncer­tain­ty, Trump par­layed eco­nom­ic con­cerns into his brand of racism to dri­ve white vot­ers. Of course, many Trump vot­ers do not con­sid­er Trump an ardent racist. For exam­ple, Ernie Jus­tice, 76, a retired coal min­er in Ken­tucky, tells In These Times that ?“there’s not a racist drop of blood in Don­ald Trump.” Like Lynne, Jus­tice also vot­ed for Oba­ma and lat­er Trump. Lynne, too, says she ?“doesn’t real­ly see the racism.” Demonstrators at a #StopTheSteal rally line the streets in support of President Donald Trump on November 7, 2020, in Carson City, Nev. Despite no evidence of voter fraud, Trump has insisted since the election that victory was stolen from him by various outside forces. Trump made gains against Democrats by winning a higher proportion of union votes—a former Democratic bastion—than any previous Republican candidate since Reagan. 

But Trump cer­tain­ly asso­ci­at­ed the decline in qual­i­ty of life expe­ri­enced by white work­ers with not only the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, but immi­grants and oth­er peo­ple of col­or. George Goehl, direc­tor of the nation­al grass­roots orga­niz­ing net­work People’s Action, says ?“Democ­rats’ lack of will­ing­ness to name the ene­my?—?run­away cor­po­rate pow­er?—?just left a huge vac­u­um for the Right to use race and immigration.”

While Repub­li­cans authored the so-called right-to-work leg­is­la­tion that has under­mined union orga­niz­ing, Democ­rats are the pro­po­nents of the free trade agree­ments that have decreased wages and off-shored jobs. Decades of eco­nom­ic dev­as­ta­tion?—?includ­ing loss of good union jobs in the Rust Belt, fac­to­ries mov­ing abroad and stag­nant wages— opened a door for Trump to step through. Goehl says peo­ple have ?“clear­ly been punched in the gut tons of times by neolib­er­al­ism”?—?and Trump’s cam­paign cap­i­tal­ized on that by promis­ing to bring back man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs.

This land­scape is dif­fi­cult for both unions and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. While union lead­er­ship has thrown its weight behind Democ­rats in hopes of bet­ter orga­niz­ing ter­rain, estab­lish­ment Democ­rats are caught between unions and their party’s alle­giance to big busi­ness. And the Democ­rats have a his­to­ry of mak­ing labor promis­es they don’t keep. In 2008, Oba­ma ran on pass­ing the Employ­ee Free Choice Act, which would have made the process of union­iza­tion faster and eas­i­er?—?but didn’t cham­pi­on the bill once elect­ed. And unions, which are no match for lob­by­ing efforts by giant cor­po­ra­tions like Wal­mart or Home Depot, couldn’t win the law alone. Repeat­ed dis­ap­point­ments have led union mem­bers to lose faith in insti­tu­tions they once held dear.

That loss of faith played out in the 2016 and 2020 elec­tions. After unions spent record amounts on cam­paigns to defeat Trump, Hillary Clin­ton won union house­holds by only 8% in 2016 (to Obama’s 18% in 2012), a small enough mar­gin to cost her Penn­syl­va­nia, Michi­gan and Wis­con­sin (and the elec­tion). And after unions broke that 2016 record in 2020, Biden won union house­holds by 16% (and won those three states back), but Trump won union house­holds in Ohio by 12% (which Oba­ma had won by 23%). Unions can spend huge amounts of mon­ey and mobi­lize the votes of a (declin­ing) por­tion of their mem­bers, but to keep those mem­bers from slip­ping away, they’ll need to do much more.

A Bat­tle of Ideas

Each of the three Trump vot­ers who spoke with In These Times for this sto­ry men­tioned jobs and the econ­o­my as big issues, but all inde­pen­dent­ly shared con­cerns about open bor­ders, lat­er abor­tions, and the creep of social­ism and com­mu­nism. These issues are dis­cussed near­ly con­stant­ly on Fox News and by con­ser­v­a­tive radio per­son­al­i­ties like Rush Lim­baugh and Sean Han­ni­ty. And as trust of the media is at an almost all-time low, many Trump sup­port­ers only tune into media that reflects what they already believe?—?just as cen­trist and lib­er­al Democ­rats watch CNN or MSNBC. Nev­er mind that the U.S.-Mexico bor­der wall was start­ed under Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton, lat­er abor­tions are exceed­ing­ly rare and most social­ist orga­niz­ing is about basic rights, like health­care and a liv­ing wage.

The con­stant onslaught of hate­ful mes­sages from rightwing media and the war waged against the work­ing class by the rich has led U.S. work­ers into a fog of con­fu­sion with­out an ide­o­log­i­cal bea­con to help clar­i­fy and fight back. The unions that have sur­vived have become more insu­lar, increas­ing­ly focused on the imme­di­ate issues of their own mem­bers, tak­ing a con­ces­sion­ary approach that treats boss­es like coali­tion part­ners. If the Left and unions hope to make appeals to union Trump vot­ers (and oth­er sec­tions of the work­ing class), this strat­e­gy must change.

Unions need to cut through the right-wing fog of dis­in­for­ma­tion by offer­ing edu­ca­tion­al pro­grams of their own to explain the sys­temic prob­lems caus­ing the decline in work­ers’ con­di­tions. One mod­el, offered by People’s Action, has shown that talk­ing with Trump sup­port­ers about sys­temic issues can effec­tive­ly shift atti­tudes. Begin­ning in 2017, George Goehl and People’s Action embarked on a rur­al and small-town orga­niz­ing project, focused on ?“deep can­vass­ing,” to show white peo­ple how sys­temic racism is real and active­ly harm­ing them and their com­mu­ni­ties. (Some of these peo­ple are union mem­bers, though many are not.) While many (espe­cial­ly non­white) peo­ple on the Left find it dif­fi­cult to have con­ver­sa­tions with Trump sup­port­ers (fear­ing abuse or just afraid of wast­ed ener­gy), Goehl sees the talks as cru­cial. ?“While you are much more like­ly to live in pover­ty if you are Black or Lati­no, the largest group of peo­ple liv­ing in pover­ty are white peo­ple,” Goehl says. ?“And a Left say­ing, ?‘We are not going to be in rela­tion­ship with the largest group of peo­ple liv­ing in pover­ty’ … seems nuts.” 

People’s Action has had near­ly 10,000 con­ver­sa­tions in rur­al areas since the 2016 elec­tion, most­ly with Oba­ma vot­ers who flipped to Trump. While immi­gra­tion is a con­tro­ver­sial issue all over the coun­try (includ­ing inside the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty), objec­tion to a wider immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy is high­er in rur­al areas, pre­sum­ably because of the ease of blam­ing immi­grants for a lack of jobs. Dur­ing their deep can­vass­es, People’s Action orga­niz­ers found that the mos­tused word was ?“lack,” and that eco­nom­ic inse­cu­ri­ty rever­ber­at­ed through all respons­es. ?“When we asked peo­ple who they saw as respon­si­ble for the declin­ing con­di­tions,” Goehl says, ?“peo­ple were able to pick mul­ti­ple answers, and 41% of peo­ple said undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants, but 81% [said] a gov­ern­ment encap­tured by corporations.”

Onah Ossai, an orga­niz­er with Penn­syl­va­nia Stands Up, which is affil­i­at­ed with People’s Action, tells In These Times, ?“Peo­ple at the top [are] using race and class to divide us so that they can turn around and pick our pock­ets. … Every­one [whose door we knock on] agrees with that.”

Melis­sa Crop­per, pres­i­dent of the Ohio Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers and sec­re­tary trea­sur­er of the Ohio AFL-CIO, echoes Goehl, telling In These Times, ?“It’s hard to get out and have these grass­roots-lev­el con­ver­sa­tions, but we need to invest in grass­roots orga­niz­ers from the com­mu­ni­ties who can have these con­ver­sa­tions and can work [on solu­tions] with the community.”

Unions can fol­low People’s Action by hold­ing more polit­i­cal dis­cus­sions with their mem­bers about how the labor move­ment (and the Left) fights for work­ing peo­ple. But they must also show the path for­ward?—?how work­ers them­selves can join the fight to rein in cor­po­rate power.

Rebuild­ing unions?—?orga­niz­ing more work­ers?—?is the first step toward a broad­er work­er coali­tion. But People’s Action and pro­gres­sive union­ists also believe race and class issues are keys to a coher­ent Left?—?because if we ignore them, the Right will use them to dri­ve a white, reac­tionary, pop­ulist movement.

Tamika Woods and Amir Langhorne, pictured here in Graham, N.C. in 2017, are canvassers with Down Home North Carolina. The group is affiliated with the national organizing network People’s Action and relies heavily on “deep canvassing”—in-depth conversations with voters to shift perspectives on key political issues. PHOTO COURTESY OF PEOPLE’S ACTION

“[Labor lead­ers] have to … explain the con­struc­tion of race and cap­i­tal­ism,” says Bill Fletch­er Jr., exec­u­tive edi­tor of The Glob­al African Work­er and for­mer AFL-CIO staffer. ?“The absence of that, and the reliance on so-called diver­si­ty pro­grams, at best teach­es tol­er­ance but does not get at the par­tic­u­lar role that race plays as a divi­sion of the work­ing class. They need to embark on mas­sive inter­nal edu­ca­tion­al efforts.”

Unions should place a high­er pre­mi­um on build­ing sol­i­dar­i­ty among the work­ing class as a whole, in all of its diver­si­ty. One exam­ple is the 2020part­ner­ship between the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal Work­ers (UE) and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA). The groups formed the Emer­gency Work­place Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee to help work­ers orga­nize on the job in the midst of Covid-19. It’s exact­ly the kind of alliance the Left and the labor move­ment should forge, ampli­fy­ing both groups’ impacts by orga­niz­ing new work­ers and engag­ing exist­ing membership.

These types of alliances demon­strate an atti­tude of ?“not me, us” (to quote Sanders’ pres­i­den­tial cam­paign slo­gan)— the key to build­ing work­er trust and tak­ing on the pow­er­ful forces ulti­mate­ly respon­si­ble for the eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty so many expe­ri­ence. Rei­tano believes strong­ly in his union, but he wor­ries that new hires, who are immi­grants, won’t join the union or won’t fight for high­er wages, because they are used to low­er wage stan­dards. ?“If the union can edu­cate these peo­ple so they under­stand that we have to stand togeth­er, I think it’ll be okay,” he says. In a sit­u­a­tion like this, a union polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion pro­gram could not only engage new mem­bers, as Rei­tano sug­gests, but also forge sol­i­dar­i­ty and trust across the old guard/?new guard divide.

Cur­rent­ly, how­ev­er, many unions focus pri­mar­i­ly on mobi­liz­ing their mem­bers to vote, rather than on a more robust polit­i­cal pro­gram. In many cas­es, mem­bers don’t have a mech­a­nism to even offer input on the polit­i­cal endorse­ments of their locals and inter­na­tion­als. Instead, every union shop should have stew­ards who con­stant­ly engage work­ers in edu­ca­tion­al pro­grams and strug­gles on the shop floor. Unions launched cam­paigns like this in antic­i­pa­tion of the 2018 Janus Supreme Court deci­sion, which allowed pub­lic-sec­tor employ­ees in union shops to get the ben­e­fits of the union with­out pay­ing for them. Many unions around the coun­try began proac­tive cam­paigns to talk one-on-one with their mem­bers about the impor­tance of their union. In the con­ver­sa­tions, they stressed the pow­er of col­lec­tive action and exposed the right-wing forces try­ing to under­mine unions through Janus and oth­er mea­sures. They encour­aged mem­bers to recom­mit to being dues-pay­ing mem­bers even though they would soon have the abil­i­ty to become ?“free riders.”

None of this work will be easy, but unless unions com­mit to this edu­ca­tion­al work, Trump­ism will con­tin­ue to grow and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of achiev­ing pol­i­cy that can actu­al­ly help work­ing peo­ple will dimin­ish. (Left unchecked, Trump­ism also could dri­ve an increas­ing­ly vio­lent alt-Right.) The Left must sup­port unions in this work by engag­ing in part­ner­ships (like the DSA/UE part­ner­ship) and encour­ag­ing work­ers to orga­nize and union­ize. 

The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, for its part, must prove itself wor­thy of the union vote. Right now, tens of mil­lions of work­ers (both union and nonunion) are suf­fer­ing through unem­ploy­ment, hous­ing inse­cu­ri­ty, hunger and a lack of health­care in a dev­as­tat­ing pan­dem­ic. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty lead­er­ship has bare­ly lift­ed a fin­ger to put up a real fight to win relief that is des­per­ate­ly need­ed by so many. They could take exam­ple from Sen. Sanders, who has voiced his oppo­si­tion to the most recent pro­posed ?“com­pro­mise” stim­u­lus bill. While mil­lions suf­fer through the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic with woe­ful­ly inad­e­quate fed­er­al sup­port, Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty lead­er­ship has refused to go big, choos­ing to ignore the pro­gres­sive Dems’ ear­ly push for month­ly cash pay­ments and expand­ed Medicare. With­out these steps, the Democ­rats should not expect work­ing peo­ple to vote for them with­out question.

With­out coun­ter­mea­sures from unions and Democ­rats alike, Repub­li­cans will con­tin­ue to turn the union vote. A 2020 Delaware Sen­ate race between Repub­li­can chal­lenger Lau­ren Witzke and Demo­c­ra­t­ic incum­bent Sen. Christo­pher Coons offers a glimpse of what’s to come. Though she lost (with 38% of the vote), Witzke ran on an ?“Amer­i­ca First” plat­form includ­ing sup­port for unions and col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing, oppo­si­tion to immi­gra­tion (on the basis that migrant work­ers wors­en con­di­tions of all work­ers), and an anti-abor­tion stance.

While Trump’s racism like­ly pro­voked many white pro­fes­sion­als to vote against him in 2020, it did not deter a grow­ing group of peo­ple of col­or?—?and what’s even more alarm­ing than a whites-only right-wing move­ment is a mul­tira­cial one. To counter the appeal of Trump­ism, we need to build a mul­tira­cial, work­ing-class labor move­ment that can arm work­ers with sol­i­dar­i­ty and a renewed com­mit­ment to strug­gle for the world we deserve.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 28, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor move­ment and lives in Philadelphia.


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An Equitable Recovery Must Include Workers With Records

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The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare a simple truth: We can be well as a society only if all working people are well.

Our health, both physical and economic, is interconnected. Throughout the past nine months, policies that reflect this interdependency and inherent human dignity have kept many individuals afloat. Going forward, policymakers must further embrace those values and work to ensure an equitable recovery that prioritizes the Black, Indigenous, and Latinx (across race) people who have already overcome so much.

People in the U.S. have lost over 300,000 loved ones to COVID-19 this year, and at least 26 million workers continue to face job or wage loss because of the pandemic-related economic downturn. Decades of systemic racism in health, labor, and economic policies ensured that the COVID-19 crisis has harmed disproportionately the health and economic security of BlackIndigenous, and Latinx people.

Incarcerated people, who are disproportionately Black, Indigenous, and Latinx, have been left to die behind bars at alarming rates. Roughly one in five individuals in prison has contracted the virus—more than four times the rate outside. And the communities located near prisons quickly saw spikes in COVID-19 cases as well. Policymakers largely ignored the people in our jails and prisons during this pandemic, and that immoral choice has been to our collective detriment.

Nothing can bring back the lives lost during this pandemic, but working people can demand that their elected officials focus on enhancing equity as the economy begins to recover. To that end, policymakers must prioritize working people of color, including the 70 million people with arrest or conviction records, who are also disproportionately Black, Indigenous, and Latinx. People with records are organizing across the country to transform institutions and rules. They call for policies that recognize their inherent dignity and ensure access by their families and communities to housing, food, and safe, living-wage jobs.

Racism in both the criminal legal system and hiring means people of color frequently face barriers to supporting their families and communities through work. Following decades of mass incarceration, nearly one in three U.S. adults now has a record that can show up on an employment-related background check. And because racism permeates every stage of the criminal legal system—from policing and sentencing to parole and supervision—Black and Latinx people are disproportionately criminalized and more likely to have a record and be treated unfairly across society because of it. Even before the pandemic, formerly incarcerated people faced higher levels of unemployment than during the Great Depression. Compounding that problem, racist hiring decisions by employers mean that the stigma of any record is more likely to inhibit the job prospects of Black and Latinx workers, particularly Black women.

But workers with records are calling on employers and policymakers to remove job barriers. Recognizing that laws often block workers with records from entire professions, some grassroots campaigns have focused on unfair occupational licensing background checks. Nationwide, more than one in four jobs require an occupational license or certification, which are often denied to people with an arrest or conviction record. The relevant laws and regulations vary by state, occupation, and job setting, weaving a maze of restrictions that can be difficult to navigate. That tangle of often-draconian occupational constraints is in desperate need of reform.

But where can reformers begin? One strategic approach is to focus on reducing barriers to jobs in high-demand industries. Many growing sectors—such as healthcare, childcare, and education—are also highly regulated. While restrictions to ensure health and safety are necessary, many record-related exclusions are not tailored to those goals and serve only punitive ends. In addition to preventing formerly incarcerated individuals from moving forward, such policies unnecessarily shrink the workforce and punish the families and communities of color that have been most impacted by mass incarceration.

NELP analyzed jobs data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to identify growing occupations and examined the laws regulating those professions in eight states: Colorado, Delaware, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, and Tennessee. For each state, NELP developed a short fact sheet identifying the growing occupations and highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of the laws governing access to those careers by people with arrest and conviction records. While the laws and economic trends vary by state, some common themes emerged. In most states, jobs in healthcare (e.g., nurses, nursing assistants, home health aides), education, childcare, and private security have grown in recent years. The state-level restrictions for those occupations vary, but every state can better curb the unchecked discretion of agencies to deny a license or certification based on conviction records by adopting reforms that accomplish the following:

  1. Limit the scope of the record inquiry because unlimited and unguided discretion leads to inconsistent and discriminatory decisions, often based on race and national origin.
  2. Require boards and agencies to justify denials after considering common-sense factors related to relevancy.
  3. Mandate consideration by boards and agencies of evidence of rehabilitation and mitigating circumstances.

These changes would improve access by people with a record to careers in growing fields. For more information about these policy recommendations, please visit NELP’s “fair chance licensing” webpage.

In recent months, the workers most impacted by the pandemic and economic crisis have repeatedly signaled that society must not merely “go back to normal” and restore the status quo. Instead, they demand a broader vision for racial and economic justice—a future in which everyone can thrive and Black women are centered, not excluded. Policymakers must prioritize those demands from workers of color, including demands for fair access to work by people with records. As individuals with records seek to enter growing, licensed occupations across the nation, policymakers must respond to demands for fairness and ensure that the laws regulating those occupations are reformed to ensure equitable access to quality careers.

Contact your state representatives and let them know now is the time for transformative fair chance licensing reforms.

Read and download NELP’s new state fact sheets now.

This blog originally appeared at NELP on December 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Beth Avery, senior staff attorney, joined NELP in 2015 and has supported NELP’s efforts to create more diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplaces by providing legal and technical assistance on removing unfair barriers to employment. 


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BAmazon Union: Anticipating the Battle in Bessemer, Alabama

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Last Friday, representatives from the Retail Workers (RWDSU) went before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), Region 10, seeking a quick union certification election.

The election is to determine whether a majority of the employees at the newly opened Amazon Fulfillment Center (BHM1) in Bessemer—a small of suburb of Birmingham, Alabama—want union representation.

Amazon was represented at the hearing by the law firm Morgan Lewis—a firm that specializes in “union avoidance” strategies. In dispute was the size of the bargaining unit.

The union had petitioned the Labor Board on November 20 with the support of at least 30 percent of a workforce that it calculated at 1,500. Obviously seeking to invalidate the union’s petition, the company countered that the appropriate bargaining unit was more than 5,700! The hearing took evidence from both parties and the hearing officer will decide who is right.

If the hearing officer rules in favor of the union, a quick certification election could be forthcoming. It is far more likely, however, that Amazon will spend its millions on legal actions to thwart a quick election. The company will argue that it is protecting the franchise of thousands of workers from a predatory outside organization.

UPRISINGS AT AMAZON

RWDSU’s filing for an election at Amazon caught the business press and many labor activists by complete surprise. But as Alex Press pointed out in Jacobin, “With pandemic-fueled growth has come an uptick in organizing at Amazon warehouses. The global health crisis and increased demand for Amazon’s services have led to widespread worker complaints about unsafe working conditions, including quotas that preclude safety measures they see as necessary to protect themselves from the virus.”

The Bessemer facility opened in March, at the onset of the pandemic. It is an 885,000-square-foot, four-story facility in one of Alabama’s poorest communities. The Bessemer City Council welcomed the opening with great fanfare, seeing these $15-per-hour jobs as particularly attractive in a state with only a $7.25 minimum wage.

Nevertheless the conditions at Amazon that have provoked nationwide actions against inhumane speed-up, pandemic-related and other health and safety issues, and callous disrespect have provoked a reaction here too.

Union drives in the South have often suffered from a perception that the union is a bunch of outside carpetbaggers from the North. However, this drive could have real local legs. RWDSU represents poultry processing facilities throughout the Southeast and has 7,500 poultry members in Alabama. Workers at nearby Koch Foods held a public protest on June 3 to force their employer to provide protective gear and safer conditions during the pandemic.

That kind of visible public fight no doubt was an appeal to friends and family working at Amazon who are suffering from some of the same conditions, without an organization to fight back.

RWDSU previously announced a union drive at Amazon’s Staten Island, New York, fulfillment center in late 2018, during the battle over the company’s plans to open a new headquarters in New York City, though the union never filed for an NLRB election. In March, a small walkout at the same facility over the lack of protective gear resulted in a flurry of publicity, but management fired a key leader, Chris Smalls.

AMAZON WORKERS ORGANIZE

For two years now, a network organizing under the banner Amazonians United has waged high-profile battles with Amazon at delivery stations in Sacramento, Chicago, and Queens. Instead of filing petitions for union elections, these workers have focused on building workplace organizations to wage fights around the immediate needs and interests of employees.

For example, in 2019, Sandra, an employee at a Sacramento delivery station, was fired for exceeding her unpaid time off by one hour. For weeks the Human Resources department ignored her and strung her along without a paycheck. But Amazonians United Sacramentoswung into action—and within 24 hours of their submitting a petition, H.R. announced that Sandra would be rehired with back pay.

Victories like this are the reason that Amazonians United’s efforts have been celebrated worldwide. The group has also made links internationally with other rank-and-file Amazon workers, particularly in Europe.

Workers at an Amazon facility in Shakopee, Minnesota, have also won local demands. After public protests backed by the local labor movement, workers won Muslim prayer hours for a large group of Somali employees. In particular, their efforts have received crucial support from SEIU Local 26, which represents many Somali janitors in the Twin Cities area.

There is no better base for organizing than the commitment and grassroots support of existing unionized workers who have friends and family in non-union workplaces. Hopefully, the organizing taking place in Bessemer, Alabama, is similarly “organic.”

OBSTACLES AHEAD

No matter how deep or wide the organizing is, the workers’ road to victory is mined with heavy obstacles. 

First, they face obstruction and delay. The company originally sought to delay the NLRB hearing until January, arguing that its supervisors were too busy with “peak” season to supply the information on employment necessary to determine the size of the unit. The NLRB agreed to delay the hearing only from December 11 to the 18th. 

But without a doubt, Morgan Lewis’s attorneys will take advantage of every legal loophole to obfuscate and delay. That’s a big part of what the current round of hearings on the size of the unit is about—delaying an election as long as possible to weaken any momentum the union has built up.

Next, they can expect aggressive management interference. If and when the NLRB finally sets an election date, the company’s anti-union “persuasion” campaign will swing into high gear, utilizing a combination of promises and threats, carrots and sticks.

Amazon undoubtedly will try to enlist some city councilors or other elected officials who raved about landing the warehouse in Bessemer to assist its campaign to throttle the union. Remember how Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, the ex-mayor of Chattanooga, lambasted the UAW’s attempt in 2014 to organize the Volkswagen plant there. Corker threatened that the state would pull back on its tax breaks for VW if workers won their union. When the union tried again in 2019, VW brought the governor of Tennessee into the plant to lead mandatory all-employee anti-union meetings.

Under these conditions an election victory would be a moving and inspiring moment, a true David and Goliath story. But wait, there is more: If the company chooses not to make fraudulent claims to undermine election results, next the RWDSU must bargain with the company for a first contract. Amazon can be expected to thwart labor law by not bargaining in good faith. Here again Amazon will stall and try to demoralize the workers. 

SUPPORT FOR BAMAZON UNION

These are some of the grim caveats that confront this valiant and apparently community-rooted effort. However, as we recently wrote in The Cost of Free Shipping: Amazon in the Global Economy, workers in facilities like Bessemer are in a position to wield significant power. “Amazon’s vulnerability is its supply chain management… based on the sophisticated coordination of product inventory and transportation logistics. That makes it highly susceptible to strategic action by workers—whether in its vast warehouse and sortation centers, shipping its products, or on the technology side.”

The whole Amazon world, and especially its workforce, will be watching and rooting for success. A victory in Bessemer would be a victory for all Amazon workers and a credit to the RWDSU and its members. 

Bearing in mind the national and international reach of Amazon, its sophisticated logistics capacity, and its vast resources to oppose worker organization, building workers’ power and sustaining organization must ultimately be national and international in scope.

The flexibility built into the Amazon business model which enables same-day delivery and the efficiency of the last mile is also flexibility that can be used to thwart worker organization if it remains isolated at single facilities.

That is why ultimately the effort will require the dovetailing of internal worker organization at multiple facilities—like what Amazonians United is doing—with the power and resources of one or several national unions, like RWDSU or the Teamsters, for instance. There is no single model for success at Amazon. RWDSU has launched an important initiative in Bessemer.

Amazon’s business model fundamentally undermines wages and working conditions for the whole labor movement, including the more than 200,000 Teamsters employed at UPS and hundreds of thousands of grocery store members of the United Food and Commercial Workers. We all have a stake in supporting a victory for the workers in Bessemer and their new “BAmazon” union! Stay tuned to Labor Notes for updates on the NLRB election and further developments in organizing at Amazon.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on December 21, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director at the ILWU, currently working with a national network of Amazon employees and organizers. 

About the Author: Rand Wilson is chief of staff at SEIU Local 888. He was communications coordinator for the Teamsters’ 1997 UPS strike.


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The Year That Labor Hung On By Its Fingertips

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A lot of things hap­pened for work­ing peo­ple this year, and most of them were bad. But even in a year as deranged as 2020, the broad­er themes that afflict and ener­gize the labor move­ment have car­ried on. If you are read­ing this, con­grat­u­la­tions: There is still time for you to do some­thing about all of these things. Here is a brief look at the Year in Labor, and may we nev­er have to live through some­thing like it again.

The pan­dem­ic

Broad­ly speak­ing, there have been two very large labor sto­ries this year. The first is, ?“I have been forced into unem­ploy­ment due to the pan­dem­ic, and I am scared.” And the sec­ond is, ?“I have been forced to con­tin­ue work­ing dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, and I am scared.” America’s labor reporters spent most of our year writ­ing vari­a­tions of these sto­ries, in each com­pa­ny and in each indus­try and in each city. Those sto­ries con­tin­ue to this day. 

The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment left work­ing peo­ple utter­ly for­sak­en. They did not cre­ate a nation­al wage replace­ment sys­tem to pay peo­ple to stay home, as many Euro­pean nations did. OSHA was asleep on the job, unin­ter­est­ed in work­place safe­ty relat­ed to coro­n­avirus. Repub­li­cans in Con­gress were more intent on get­ting lia­bil­i­ty pro­tec­tions for employ­ers than on doing any­thing, any­thing at all, that might help des­per­ate reg­u­lar peo­ple. And, of course, Trump and his allies unnec­es­sar­i­ly politi­cized pub­lic health, lead­ing direct­ly to hun­dreds of thou­sands of unnec­es­sary deaths and the eco­nom­ic destruc­tion that goes with that. It was a bad year. The larg­er polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions cre­at­ed to pro­tect work­ers did not do their jobs. The labor move­ment was left very much on its own. And its own track record was mixed. 

Front-line work­ers

The year of the hero! We love our heroes! Our front-line work­ers, our deliv­ery peo­ple and san­i­ta­tion work­ers and bus dri­vers, our para­medics and nurs­es, our cooks and clean­ers and gro­cery work­ers: We love you all! Sure, we will bang pots and pans to cel­e­brate reg­u­lar work­ers who had to push through dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, and we will write you nice notes and have school chil­dren draw signs cel­e­brat­ing you. But will you get paid for this?

How well have unions rep­re­sent­ing these front line work­ers done this year? In many cas­es, not well. I think first of the gro­cery work­ers, rep­re­sent­ed by UFCW, who were gen­er­al­ly award­ed with tem­po­rary ?“haz­ard pay” bonus­es rather than actu­al rais­es. Or of the UFCW’s meat­pack­ing work­ers, whose plants were encour­aged to stay open by an exec­u­tive order, and who suf­feredter­ri­bly from the coro­n­avirus and from management’s utter dis­dain for their wel­fare. These are work­ers who, par­tic­u­lar­ly dur­ing the ear­ly phase of the pan­dem­ic, had a ton of lever­age. Had they struck, or walked out, ask­ing for basic safe­ty and fair pay for risk­ing their lives, the pub­lic would have neared pan­ic, and their demands prob­a­bly would have been met. Their employ­ers would have had no choice. Instead, there was a great deal of out­cry from their unions, but no real labor actions at scale. Thus, the meat­pack­ing work­ers con­tin­ued to suf­fer, and the gro­cery work­ers saw their ?“haz­ard pay” bonus­es dis­ap­pear, and here we are. 

The point of this is not to be harsh. Faced with an unex­pect­ed dis­as­ter, most unions have spent this year scram­bling des­per­ate­ly to keep them­selves and their work­ers afloat, and have been flood­ed with the task of deal­ing with the cat­a­stro­phe that has cost mil­lions their jobs. But when this is all over, there should be a seri­ous post­mortem about what could and should have been done bet­ter. And that will include, right up top, the fail­ure of front line work­ers to turn their new­found hero sta­tus?—?and the tem­po­rary, absolute neces­si­ty that they con­tin­ue work­ing through life-threat­en­ing con­di­tions?—?into any last­ing gains. It is easy to sur­ren­der to the feel­ing of just being thank­ful to be employed while oth­ers sink into pover­ty. But we need to be ready with a bet­ter plan for next time. Bil­lions of dol­lars and a good deal of poten­tial pow­er that work­ing peo­ple could have had has evap­o­rat­ed because unions were not pre­pared to act to take it. 

Pub­lic workers

Teach­ers unions con­clu­sive­ly demon­strat­ed their val­ue this year. In gen­er­al, in cities with strong teach­ers unions, pub­lic schools did not reopen unless the teach­ers were sat­is­fied that ade­quate work­place safe­ty pro­ce­dures were in place. (In prac­tice this meant that many school dis­tricts sim­ply kept instruc­tion online.) While this earned the ire of some par­ents, they should think it through: Work­place safe­ty in Amer­i­ca only exist­ed where unions were strong enough to see to it that it hap­pened. Schools were the most promi­nent exam­ple of that. 

Else­where, the news for fed­er­al gov­ern­ment employ­ees was gloomy. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion waged a years-long war against the labor rights of fed­er­al work­ers, and it is fair to say that the unions lost that war. Fed­er­al employ­ee unions in par­tic­u­lar, and state employ­ee unions in Repub­li­can states, have become pathet­i­cal­ly weak. Much of their bar­gain­ing pow­er has been out­lawed by Repub­li­can politi­cians. The unions have been reduced to writ­ing polite­ly angry let­ters as their work­ers are abused while wait­ing for a new Demo­c­ra­t­ic admin­is­tra­tion that they can beg to restore their rights. It is not a work­able mod­el for a union. These unions must decide at some point that they are will­ing to break the law in order to assert the fun­da­men­tal rights of their mem­bers, or they will grow increas­ing­ly less able to demon­strate to mem­bers why they have any value. 

That may not be fair, but it’s the truth. 

Orga­niz­ing

The biggest issue for unions in Amer­i­ca?—?big­ger than any pan­dem­ic or pres­i­den­tial elec­tion cycle?—?is that there are sim­ply not enough union mem­bers. Only one in 10 work­ers is a union mem­ber. In the pri­vate sec­tor, that fig­ure is just over 6%. The decades-long decline of union den­si­ty is the under­ly­ing thing rob­bing the once-mighty labor move­ment (and by exten­sion, the work­ing class itself) of pow­er. If unions in Amer­i­ca are not grow­ing every year, they are dying. 

Dis­as­trous years like 2020 tend to put struc­tur­al issues on the back burn­er, but they can also serve as inspi­ra­tions for peo­ple to join unions to pro­tect them. The annu­al fig­ures for the year are not out yet, but anec­do­tal­ly, union lead­ers and orga­niz­ers are opti­mistic that the pandemic’s hav­oc will serve as fuel for future orga­niz­ing. Most unions man­aged to at least con­tin­ue major orga­niz­ing efforts that were already under­way this year, like SEIU’s suc­cess­ful con­clu­sion of a 17-year bat­tle to union­ize 45,000 child care providers in Cal­i­for­nia. Indus­tries that were already hotbeds of orga­niz­ing tend­ed to remain so. The safe­ty net of a union con­tract clear­ly demon­strat­ed its val­ue far and wide this year, at least in the abil­i­ty of union mem­bers to nego­ti­ate terms for fur­loughs and sev­er­ance and recall rights and all the oth­er things that mat­ter dur­ing dis­as­ters, as non-union work­ers were sim­ply cast out on their own. 

Still, it is up to unions them­selves to have a con­cert­ed plan to take advan­tage of the wide­spread nation­al suf­fer­ing and chan­nel it into new orga­niz­ing. Since unions have spent the year trans­fixed by the elec­tion and by try­ing to respond to the eco­nom­ic col­lapse, it is safe to say that such a con­cert­ed plan does not real­ly exist yet. That needs to be done, soon, or this moment will have been wasted. 

Strikes

Dur­ing the ear­ly months of the pan­dem­ic, a frag­ile sort of labor peace reigned. The grip of the cri­sis was such that most work­ers were sim­ply try­ing to hang on. As time went by, and the fail­ures of employ­ers became more clear, that peace began to evap­o­rate. Teach­ers unions around the coun­try used cred­i­ble strike threats to head off unsafe school open­ing plans. And in the health­care indus­try, unions have had mul­ti­ple strikes, as nurs­es and hos­pi­tal work­ers have passed their break­ing points.

Lever­age for work­ers varies wide­ly by indus­try right now, as cer­tain indus­tries are besieged with unem­ployed work­ers look­ing for any job they can get (restau­rants), and oth­ers are des­per­ate for skilled work­ers, who are extreme­ly vital (nurs­es). At min­i­mum, every union should look at its lever­age in the spe­cif­ic con­text of the pan­dem­ic and ask if they should act now, lest an oppor­tu­ni­ty be lost forever.

Gig work­ers

You can think of many enor­mous com­pa­nies as huge algo­rithms that are mak­ing their way through the Amer­i­can labor force, turn­ing employ­ees into inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors or free­lancers or part-timers. There is mon­ey to be made in free­ing busi­ness­es from the respon­si­bil­i­ty and cost of pro­vid­ing for employ­ees (a sta­tus that comes with ben­e­fits and a host of work­place rights, includ­ing the right to union­ize). The ?“gig econ­o­my” is not just Uber and Lyft and Instacart and oth­er com­pa­nies that exclu­sive­ly work in that space?—?it is an eco­nom­ic force of nature push­ing every com­pa­ny, includ­ing yours, to get your job off its books, and to turn you into some­thing less than a full employee. 

Coun­ter­ing this force is prob­a­bly the sin­gle most impor­tant legal and leg­isla­tive issue for labor as a whole, because this process inher­ent­ly acts to dis­solve labor pow­er. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the most impor­tant thing that hap­pened on the issue this year was the pas­sage of Prop 22 in Cal­i­for­nia, leg­is­la­tion specif­i­cal­ly designed to empow­er the gig econ­o­my com­pa­nies to the detri­ment of work­ers. Scari­er yet is the fact that the suc­cess­ful leg­is­la­tion in Cal­i­for­nia will now be used as a blue­print for state leg­is­la­tion around the coun­try. Com­pa­nies are pre­pared to spend hun­dreds of mil­lions or bil­lions of dol­lars on this issue, because they save far more mon­ey on the back end and pre­serve their busi­ness mod­el, which depends in large part in extract­ing wealth that once went to work­ers and redi­rect­ing it towards investors. Either Amer­i­ca will have a nation­al reck­on­ing with what the gig econ­o­my is doing to us, or we will con­tin­ue bar­rel­ing towards a dystopi­an future of the Uber-iza­tion of every last indus­try. Includ­ing yours. If ever there were a good time to launch a work­er coop, it is now. 

The elec­tion and Washington

After an ear­ly peri­od of hope for a Bernie-led insur­gency of the left, unions coa­lesced around Biden. They spent a ton of mon­ey on him, and indeed, his rhetoric and his plat­form are both more defin­i­tive­ly pro-union than any pres­i­dent in decades. Unions expect a lot of things from Biden, and expe­ri­ence tells us that they will not get many of them. 

What they will prob­a­bly get: a much bet­ter NLRB, a func­tion­ing OSHA, a pro-labor Labor Depart­ment rather than the oppo­site, and, par­tic­u­lar­ly for unions with long­stand­ing ties to Biden, rel­a­tive­ly good access to the White House. What they prob­a­bly won’t get: pas­sage of the PRO Act, a very good bill that would fix many of the worst prob­lems with U.S. labor law, but which has no hope in a divid­ed Con­gress. (And, I sus­pect, even with full Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­trol of Con­gress, many of the more cen­trist Democ­rats would sud­den­ly find a rea­son to oppose the act if the Cham­ber of Com­merce ever thought it might actu­al­ly pass). It is true that the cen­ter of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty is slow­ly mov­ing left, but Biden is a man who nat­u­ral­ly stays in the mid­dle of every­one, and he will be con­ser­v­a­tive in his will­ing­ness to burn polit­i­cal cap­i­tal by push­ing pro-labor poli­cies that don’t enjoy some amount of pub­lic bipar­ti­san sup­port. The polit­i­cal cli­mate for unions will be sim­i­lar to what it was under Oba­ma. The words will be nicer, but any action will have to be pro­pelled by peo­ple in the streets. 

The nine-month odyssey between the pas­sage of the CARES Act and the next relief bill that Con­gress actu­al­ly passed is a use­ful demon­stra­tion of the lim­its of labor’s lob­by­ing pow­er. While par­tic­u­lar unions, espe­cial­ly those in trans­porta­tion and the USPS, showed skill at get­ting con­crete mate­r­i­al gains for their mem­bers into bills, the inabil­i­ty to force any sort of time­ly action from Con­gress in the face of mas­sive human suf­fer­ing shows that labor as a spe­cial inter­est will nev­er have the polit­i­cal pow­er it craves. Until many, many more Amer­i­cans are union mem­bers, it will be impos­si­ble to break out of this trap.

The labor move­ment at its high­est lev­el must break itself of the addic­tion to the false belief that sal­va­tion will be found if only our Demo­c­rat can win the next elec­tion. It won’t. Orga­nize mil­lions of new work­ers and teach them to always be ready to strike. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty must be dragged towards progress by an army, and our army is weak. The AFL-CIO got burned in the protests this year. It remains to be seen if it learned any­thing from that. 

End­ing on a pos­i­tive note

It may be the per­pet­u­al nature of unions that the lead­er­ship is often dis­ap­point­ing, but the grass­roots are always inspir­ing. The big pic­ture for orga­nized labor in 2020 has been… close to okay, in some aspects, but cer­tain­ly not great. But when you pull out a mag­ni­fy­ing glass and look at what indi­vid­ual work­ers and work­places and units are doing, you will find thou­sands and thou­sands of inspir­ing things. And not even a pan­dem­ic has changed the basic fact that orga­niz­ing is the most pow­er­ful tool that reg­u­lar peo­ple have at their dis­pos­al in a sys­tem that val­ues cap­i­tal over humanity.

If you are an employ­ee, you can union­ize your work­place. If you are a gig or tem­po­rary work­er, you can orga­nize with your cowork­ers. If you are unem­ployed, you can march in the streets now, and union­ize your next job. All the labor move­ment is is all of us.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. 


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The Stunning Workers’ Victory in New Mexico That You Haven’t Heard About

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On March 5, New Mex­i­co Gov­er­nor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed H.B. 364, a major over­haul of New Mexico’s sys­tem of pub­lic sec­tor labor rela­tions. Hailed by the Team­sters as a nec­es­sary mod­ern­iza­tion and the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers (AFT) as a ?“big step” in the fight for pub­lic employ­ees, many of the bill’s mar­quee reforms pro­vide pro­ce­dur­al over­hauls for New Mexico’s sys­tem of over 50 local labor boards, includ­ing a poten­tial greater cen­tral­iza­tion of labor rela­tions into the New Mex­i­co Pub­lic Employ­ee Labor Rela­tions Board. 

One stun­ning aspect of H.B. 364 went most­ly unmen­tioned in the pub­lic debate over its pas­sage: Sec­tion 7c of the bill made New Mex­i­co one of the few states to pro­vide pub­lic employ­ees the right to form a union through card check. That pro­vi­sion has already paid off: Orga­niz­ers with Uni­ver­si­ty of New Mex­i­co grad­u­ate assis­tants say they filed for union recog­ni­tion under the new law on Decem­ber 9.

Card check, some­times called major­i­ty sign-up, requires that employ­ees sub­mit cards signed by a major­i­ty of the pro­posed bar­gain­ing unit; after it’s con­firmed they have a major­i­ty, they have a rec­og­nized union. Nine states?—?Cal­i­for­nia, New York, New Jer­sey, Illi­nois, Mass­a­chu­setts, Ore­gon, Wash­ing­ton, Maine and New Mex­i­co?—?have strong mech­a­nisms for manda­to­ry recog­ni­tion using card check. A num­ber of addi­tion­al states?—?such as Kansas, North Dako­ta and Mary­land?—?have card check pro­vi­sions that apply to small­er groups of pub­lic employ­ees, and which may have weak­er pro­vi­sions. Two oth­ers, Okla­homa and New Hamp­shire, passed card check laws in 2004 and 2007, only to repeal them in 2011.

Card check was the major reform pro­posed by the failed Employ­ee Free Choice Act, which died in the Sen­ate dur­ing Barack Obama’s first term. Work­er advo­cates argue it makes it eas­i­er to form a union by elim­i­nat­ing the peri­od between work­ers show­ing inter­est in a union, and the actu­al elec­tion. Dur­ing that wait­ing peri­od, employ­ers often wage high­ly effec­tive and expen­sive cam­paigns to dis­suade work­ers from union­iz­ing using out­side pro­fes­sion­al ?“union avoid­ance” con­sul­tants?—?some­thing recent­ly cit­ed by the Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Institute as a major fac­tor in the decline of unions.

Although card check isn’t part of the Pro­tect­ing the Right to Orga­nize Act, the pack­age of union-backed labor reforms passed by the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Feb­ru­ary, it’s still a part of the labor reform dis­cus­sion. Evi­dence is mixed. Sta­tis­tics on pub­lic sec­tor union den­si­ty shows that states that passed it didn’t see major expan­sions of pub­lic sec­tor unions. That may be due, in part, to the fact that almost all of them had high pub­lic sec­tor union den­si­ty when card check laws were passed (with the excep­tion of New York, which includ­ed card check in the Tay­lor Law passed in 1967). 

But New Mex­i­co is dif­fer­ent: In 2019, only 22.8% of its pub­lic sec­tor work­erswere cov­ered by a union con­tract, plac­ing New Mex­i­co 36th in the nation. This puts New Mex­i­co well behind most oth­er states with wide-rang­ing card check laws, which tend to have high­er union den­si­ty. This means there’s unprece­dent­ed room for growth?—?room that will pro­vide insight into whether or not card check expands union pow­er like work­er advo­cates claim.

There are already signs that it does. The grad­u­ate assis­tants recent­ly filed for recog­ni­tion announced their orga­niz­ing dri­ve in Octo­ber, choos­ing to affil­i­ate with the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca. The cam­paign gained new urgency because of the pas­sage of card check and the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic. Accord­ing to Saman­tha Cooney, a grad­u­ate assis­tant in the Depart­ment of Polit­i­cal Sci­ence and a mem­ber of the Unit­ed Grad­u­ate Work­ers of Uni­ver­si­ty of New Mex­i­co orga­niz­ing com­mit­tee, grad­u­ates decid­ed they need­ed to ?“get down to it and get a super­ma­jor­i­ty by Decem­ber, and we end­ed up doing that.” Grad­u­ates had already begun orga­niz­ing pri­or to the law’s pas­sage, and they were ?“extreme­ly hap­py when [the bill was signed] because it made our jour­ney toward union­iza­tion that much eas­i­er,” says Cooney. 

With major employ­ee groups at the state’s largest employ­er orga­nized and the path cleared for union expan­sion, New Mex­i­co will be a test of whether labor law reform can help orga­nized labor claw back decades of lost ground. The signs look pos­i­tive?—?with grad­u­ate assis­tants lead­ing the way?—?that New Mex­i­co may expe­ri­ence a strong expan­sion of pub­lic sec­tor unions. If it does, it shows a road for­ward for labor else­where: Vir­ginia, Neva­da, Col­orado, Delaware, Con­necti­cut and Rhode Island all have Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty tri­fec­tas, with no card check process for pub­lic sec­tor workers. 

Orga­niz­ing may have helped deliv­er reforms, too. H.B. 364 was intro­duced four months after the con­clu­sion of major orga­niz­ing dri­ves for tenure-track and adjunct fac­ul­ty in the Uni­ver­si­ty of New Mex­i­co sys­tem, and new fac­ul­ty union lead­ers lob­bied along­side oth­er pub­lic sec­tor unions for the leg­is­la­tion. Their win was trail­blaz­ing in both the changes to New Mex­i­co law that fol­lowed, and in that they proved orga­niz­ing at Uni­ver­si­ty of New Mex­i­co could suc­ceed. Accord­ing to Cooney, the suc­cess of the fac­ul­ty dri­ve encour­aged grad­u­ate assis­tants to move for­ward, and the fac­ul­ty union and indi­vid­ual fac­ul­ty offered sup­port for grad­u­ate work­ers seek­ing to form their union.

The suc­cess of card check in New Mex­i­co may prove impor­tant for work­ers else­where. But for grad­u­ate assis­tants at Uni­ver­si­ty of New Mex­i­co, the changed process and what it helped deliv­er?—?a union?—?means some­thing more imme­di­ate and per­son­al: pow­er. That’s impor­tant for Cooney. ?“We feel strength­ened by the num­bers around us,” she says, adding, ?“for myself, this process has not only made me opti­mistic about what my raise will be.” She con­tin­ues, ?“But I know I have oth­er grad­u­ate assis­tants that under­stand my cir­cum­stances, and have my back.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 22, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: C.M. Lewis is an edi­tor of Strike­wave and a union activist in Penn­syl­va­nia. 


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