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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people.
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 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:
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.
Require boards and agencies to justify denials after considering common-sense factors related to relevancy.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Workplace Fairness Attorney Directory features lawyers from across the United States who primarily represent workers in employment cases. Please note that Workplace Fairness does not operate a lawyer referral service and does not provide legal advice, and that Workplace Fairness is not responsible for any advice that you receive from anyone, attorney or non-attorney, you may contact from this site.
Workplace Fairness is a non-profit organization working to preserve and promote employee rights. This site provides comprehensive information about job rights and employment issues nationally and in all 50 states. It is for workers, employers, advocates, policymakers, journalists, and anyone else who wants to understand, protect, and strengthen workers’ rights. More about Workplace Fairness