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RWDSU-UFCW Leads Organizing Drive at Amazon Fulfillment Center in Alabama

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The strongest effort to create a union at Amazon in many years is underway in Bessemer, Alabama. Organizers with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union-UFCW (RWDSU-UFCW) have been working with employees at the Amazon fulfillment center. By December, more than 2,000 workers had signed union cards, leading to an election set to begin in February. The company is engaging in union-busting activities in response, but the workers are not backing down. Many of the organizers and the employees at the fulfillment center are Black, and the organizers have focused on issues of racial equality and empowerment as a part of the drive.

Read more about the drive in The New York Times or on Twitter @BAmazonUnion and #BAmazonUnion.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on January 26, 2021. 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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Union Density Went Up Last Year! Don’t Get Too Excited.

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Last week, labor unions got some uncommonly good news: The government’s annual survey showed that union density in America actually rose by a full half point in 2020, a rare reversal of a long-term trend of decline. Should unions be celebrating their work? Actually, no! 

Union density?—?the percentage of working people who are union members?—?has been broadly declining for decades. At its high point in the 1950s, about a third of American workers were union members. By the 1980s, it had fallen to about a fifth. And now, it is down to barely more than a tenth. This long-term trend is the single biggest problem facing unions in America. If they do not turn it around, they will die out, or shrink down into single-digit numbers that will render unions (more) unable to exert meaningful strength on behalf of the working class. Raising union density, in other words, is an absolutely vital task that unions fail at year after year. 

So you can imagine that seeing the Bureau of Labor Statistics say in its yearly report last week that ?“the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of unions?—?the union membership rate?—?was 10.8 percent, up by 0.5 percentage point from 2019” was big news for unions. Indeed, the AFL-CIO declared that ?“We believe this increase is part of a national groundswell.” In the midst of a terrible pandemic, with widespread unemployment, union density actually rose. Victory! Success! Vindication at last! 

But hold on there. Here was another fact in the BLS’s annual numbers: ?“The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions, at 14.3 million in 2020, was down by 321,000, or 2.2 percent, from 2019.” So while union density went up, the total numberof union members went down. Put a hold on all the party favors, please. What’s going on here? 

As Heidi Shierholz, a labor economist and the director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute explained to me, two factors at work in 2020 created this weird disparity. One is what she calls the ?“pandemic composition effect,” which means that the industries that lost the most jobs last year thanks to the pandemic were industries that tended to have low unionization rates?—?bars, restaurants, hospitality, etcetera. The second factor was that unionized workers were less likely to lose their jobs than non-union workers in the same industry. Each of those two factors was responsible for about half of the increase in union density. So even as hundreds of thousands of union jobs were lost, union members were less impacted than the economy as a whole, which produced the mathematical trick of an appearance of progress. (It is worth noting, too, that assuming that jobs come back to the same hard-hit industries when the pandemic is over, that will serve to dilute and reduce last year’s union density gains.) 

“I don’t want to act like this was a good year for unions. This was a really bad year in the labor market across the board. Everyone got hit hard,” Shierholz said. ?“But the main message was that non-union members got hit harder than union members.”

The honest takeaways for unions in 2020 are these: 

1. Unions demonstrated their value, by helping to protect their existing members from job losses. 

2. Whatever new organizing unions did in 2020 was not even close to the amount necessary to balance out the number of union members that were lost. 

3. Nothing that happened in 2020 indicates that unions have a functional ability to turn around their long-term decline. 

Every year, when the BLS union numbers come out, the union establishment rushes to issue press releases putting some positive spin on them, no matter how depressing they might be. This actually hurts the cause. We need brutal honesty. That is the only way to instill the appropriate amount of urgency in the wounded labor movement. It would be nice, for once, to hear the AFL-CIO say something like, ?“Unions proved their value in 2020. But our membership numbers are still heading in the wrong direction. It is absolutely vital we turn those numbers around. Here is our plan for doing so.” 

The closest that Richard Trumka came to doing that this year was to call for passing the PRO Act, which would wonderfully reform labor law. Yeah, that would be great. But guess what? This Congress is not going to pass the PRO Act. So please?—?let’s make a better plan before next year’s numbers come out. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 28, 2021. 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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Chicago Teachers Are Showing the Country How to Fight an Unsafe Reopening

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As Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot presses ahead with a controversialplan to reopen elementary schools next Monday, the 25,000-member Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) may be headed into its third strike since 2012.

Closed since March because of the coronavirus crisis, K?8 schools are set to resume in-person classes on February 1, with parents having the option of sending their children back or continuing remote learning. The decision was made unilaterally by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) despite ongoing negotiations with the union over how to reopen safely.

Elementary teachers and staff were ordered to return to school buildings this week to prepare for the reopening. But citing safety concerns, 71% of CTU members voted over the weekend to defy that order and continue teaching remotely until an agreement is reached. 

Lightfoot has warned that educators who don’t report in-person by Monday may be locked out of online learning systems and docked pay. If that happens, the union is promising to go on strike.

“We are willing to keep teaching, but CPS has said they will lock us out,” said CTU President Jesse Sharkey. ?“Is the mayor creating a crisis just to get her way on a reopening date that ignores the risks in our schools and our neighborhoods?”

Coming 15 months after the CTU went on strike to demand Lightfoot keep her campaign promise of putting a nurse and social worker in every school, the confrontation is demonstrating the power of unions to fight for workers’ health and safety amid a pandemic that has killed over 425,000 people in the United States. As the incoming Biden administration attempts to get a handle on the pandemic, the CTU’s struggle is shaping the national discourse around what constitutes a safe way to reopen schools.

Reopening

The union is asking for weekly testing for teachers and students inside school buildings, a public health metric for determining when schools reopen or close, and the flexibility to allow teachers to return to schools after they’ve been vaccinated

“I think our members have been beyond reasonable,” said CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates. ?“They are asking for a safe reopening. It’s not if we reopen, it’s how we reopen.”

Teachers just became eligible to receive Covid vaccinations this week. While educators in suburban Evanston and Skokie are already getting vaccinated, CTU members say CPS has not put forward a comprehensive plan to help them know when and where to receive vaccinations.

“This is the third largest school district in the United States, you would think they would have a real vaccination plan,” said Linda Perales, a special education teacher at Corkery Elementary in Little Village.

In contrast to CPS leaders, the head of the Los Angeles Unified School District?—?the nation’s second largest public school system?—?is insisting that in-person learning not resume until after teachers have been vaccinated.

When asked on Tuesday why she is refusing to wait until teachers can get vaccinated before reopening schools, Lightfoot appeared to pit teachers against frontline essential workers. ?“We also have others who have been out there every single day, working, putting themselves at risk,” she said. ?“How do we say to those folks, ?‘You have to go to the back of the line?’”

“We have been teaching effectively since March, almost one year, from the safety of our homes. We know that essential workers, mostly Black and Brown folks, have not had that privilege. They should be the ones that are prioritized for this vaccine,” said Perales. ?“But CPS: If you’re trying to force us back into the building, give us a real vaccination plan.”

The union is also demanding telework accommodations for teachers who live with medically vulnerable family members, but says CPS is nitpicking over what counts as a sufficiently serious underlying health condition.

“We’re literally going back and forth on if cancer is more serious than hypertension or diabetes in terms of granting accommodations,” Davis Gates said. ?“This shouldn’t be a fight.”

At Joliet Public Schools District 86, the school board recently voted unanimously to continue remote learning until the end of the school year. Notably, the members of the Joliet school board are elected to their positions, unlike the members of the Chicago Board of Education, who are handpicked by the mayor.

Equity

Lightfoot claims her reopening plan is a matter of equity for students of color, who she says are falling behind under remote learning. But only 31% of Latino families and 33.9% of Black families feel comfortable sending their children back to school. These are the same communities that have been hardest hitby Covid-19.

The mayor also says her rush to reopen is in response to the demands of parents, who have struggled to find childcare options during remote learning. Yet out of 191,000 K?8 students at CPS, the parents of only 71,000 plan to send their kids back to school next week.

Meanwhile, optional in-person learning already resumed for pre?K and special education students on January 11, but less than 19% of those students have returned, with the rest choosing to continue online instruction. 

“It’s obvious to everyone but CPS and the mayor that parents aren’t sending their children back because they do not believe schools are safe or that Covid is under control,” Davis Gates explained. ?“This is especially true for Black and Brown families.”

Pre?K and special education teachers and staff were ordered to reenter school buildings on January 4, but 40% refused to do so. Instead, many protested by setting up tables and laptops right outside their schools and holding remote learning sessions in frigid temperatures. CPS has moved to discipline over 100 of these teachers and staff, locking them out of their digital classrooms and docking their pay. 

“I have been ripped away from my students for practicing my right to work in a safe working environment,” said Perales, who is among those locked out. ?“My students have not had me there in front of them to teach them. That is infuriating and that is not equity.”

Safety

The controversy in Chicago was thrust into the national spotlight earlier this week when President Joe Biden?—?who wants to reopen most of the nation’s schools within his first 100 days in office?—?was asked his opinion about it.

“We should make school classrooms safe and secure for the students, for the teachers and for the help that’s in those schools maintaining the facilities,” Biden said. ?“The teachers, I know they want to work. They just want to work in a safe environment.”

The mayor argues her reopening plan meets suitable health and safety criteria, but the CTU notes that in the three weeks since some teachers and staff were ordered back into buildings, new Covid cases have already been reported at 64 CPS schools. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a study on Tuesday reporting that the risk of Covid transmission in schools appears to be low, but the study only looked at schools in rural areas, not in a major city like Chicago. 

Three CDC researchers also published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Tuesday with similar conclusions, but they warned that the reopening of schools must be paired with restrictions on indoor dining at restaurants and bars to prevent wider community spread. Lightfoot lifted a suspension on indoor dining in Chicago earlier this week.

Over 160 CPS nurses have signed a letter saying Lightfoot’s plan is unsafe. ?“Nurses who work in schools have not been asked to formulate CPS’s plan,” the letter states, ?“but we are expected to carry it out?—?despite our objections.” Although the union won a contract guarantee of eventually putting a nurse in every school following its strike in October 2019, the letter acknowledges that ?“CPS is still far away from having a nurse in every building every day.”

Meanwhile, 36 out of 50 elected alderpeople on the Chicago City Council have signed a letter of their own expressing concerns about the school reopening plan. Similarly, multiple local school councils?—?elected bodies of parents, students and teachers?—?have issued resolutions objecting to the plan.

“We want to return to safe, welcoming and thriving schools,” Davis Gates said. ?“That can’t happen until we put the health and safety precautions of our educators, our students and the larger community ahead of the unreasonable demand to return to school buildings that lack the necessary protocols to keep us safe.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 27, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke has been a Working In These Times contributor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst. 


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How the Deep Roots of Farm Labor Solidarity Helped Wisconsin Survive the Pandemic

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When Covid-19 forced Wisconsin to shut down in late March last year, supply shocks to the agricultural industry delivered a staggering blow to family farmers, many of whom have long teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. Decades of consolidation and monopolization have made the industry inflexible to changes in demand brought about by school, restaurant and commercial closures. Processing plants soon bottlenecked with sudden oversupply, forcing farmers around the state to dump millions of gallons of raw milk, destroy crops and euthanize livestock en masse. All the while, over 500,000Wisconsinites faced record-level food insecurity. 

At the same time, on the factory floor waning OSHA regulations and delayed responses by meatpacking companies to adopt Covid-19 guidance (if done at all) left thousands of workers completely unprotected, allowing outbreaks of the virus to tear through processing plants and surrounding rural communities.

For decades, Big Ag has starved out small farms, hastening the decline of rural communities, and worsened working conditions for its labor. This fraught food system, exacerbated by the pandemic, has ignited a new statewide movement of solidarity from farm to factory. Led by family farm unions operating in small towns like Chippewa Falls, labor unions and immigrant rights groups organizing in population centers like Milwaukee, their work builds upon a history of progressive populist organizing in Wisconsin.

At its most basic level, ?“farm-labor solidarity is recognition that workers at all stages of the food chain should be compensated fairly for the work that they’re doing,” says Melanie Bartholf, Political Director for United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Union Local 1473, ?“and that the economy does better when farmers and workers are compensated fairly.” 

For groups like the Wisconsin Farmers Union, a small and mid-sized farm collective with over 2,000 members in rural communities around the state, this unity is essential to goals of carving out an alternative, sustainable model for a cooperative food system. ?“We’re based on the idea that it’s better for 10families to be milking 100 cows than 1 farm milking 1,000 cows. Having small scale agriculture and a healthy agricultural economy that’s built on cooperatives and is democratic, that’s the food system that we’re fighting for out here” says Charlie Mitchell, a journalist and WFU farm-labor solidarity organizer.

“You see farmer power when billions [in federal farm relief] get activated without thinking of farm support,” Mitchell adds. “ But then our brothers and sisters in the slaughterhouse and grocery don’t get a penny of hazard pay to account for the fact that they’re risking their lives to bring us food.” 

In October, condemning the loss of Hero Pay for essential food workers as Covid-19 cases surged across the state, WFU and UFCW joined forces to form a farmer-labor alliance. This alliance, the first and largest of its kind in years, is working to pressure county officials to intervene at meatpacking plants to increase worker testing and PPE access, as well as strengthen workers’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. 

The alliance also marks the first time in its history that UFCW, the largest labor union in the state with over 12,000 members, has come out in full support of farmers’ demands for parity, stronger antitrust enforcement and dairy supply management. 

In Wisconsin, the spirit of this agrarian organizing can be traced back nearly a century. At the height of the Great Depression, when milk prices plummeted to unsustainable lows, thousands of farmers and laid off factory workers enacted a series of milk strikes in pursuit of parity. Led by the Farmers’ Holiday Association and the Wisconsin Cooperative Milk Pool, farmers and their urban allies staged hundreds of pickets along major highways and railroads, assembling crude blockades to intercept milk shipments bound for factories. Months of violent protest, milk-dumping and the bombing of a cheese factory in 1933 succeeded in drawing federal attention to the plight of dairy farmers. Raised prices and a short-lived period of parity followed.

“Organized farmers and organized workers have the same general aim,” reads a 1939 pledge of solidarity penned by the Wisconsin Farmers Union and Wisconsin State Federation of Labor. ?“They both desire to maintain and raise the American Standard of Living. Cooperation between these two most vital forces in American society is essential if we are to realize that goal.”

Mexican-American and Mexican migrant farmworkers, without whom there would be no agricultural industry, have also played a crucial role in the advancement of labor. Organizing against hostile working conditions, housing ?“unfit for human occupancy,” unlivable wages and lack of access to education or medical care, thousands of farmworkers joined together to form Obreros Unidos in 1967, the first sustained attempt at a farmworkers union in the Midwest, and one of the few outside of United Farmworkers in California. With considerable support from local labor groups, churches and community members, as well as the backing of the AFL-CIO, Obreros Unidos succeeded in raising the minimum wage for farmworkers, improved housing conditions and established the Governor’s Council on Migrant Labor. Jesus Salas, the union’s co-founder, would also go on to lead United Migrant Opportunity Services, an organization serving nearly 300,000 migrants in the state.

The 1980’s farm crisis, followed by decades of disastrous trade deals and agricultural policies laid the groundwork for the industrial agricultural takeover that continues to this day. While most dairy farms in the state are still small, family operations, they’re shuttering at rapid rates. Since 2015, over 2,500 have gone out of business, nearly a quarter of the state’s total swallowed by CAFOs. Yet, in the midst of this crisis, when public sector unions infamously came under attack in 2011, farmers once again rallied in support. In a massive display of opposition against Act 10, hundreds of farmers from around the state drove their tractors and combines to Madison for a solidarity tractorcade around Capitol Square, garnering crowds of nearly 85,000, the state’s largest protest to date.

“We pulled together that tractorcade because we were trying to show that the Scott Walker austerity program wasn’t just attacking labor unions, it was attacking all sorts of things in our society, including collective bargaining rights by co-ops,” says John Peck, Executive Director of Family Farm Defenders and an organizer of the tractorcade along with WFU. ?“We were trying to show that farmers and workers actually have this common heritage, organizing together to create unions and co-ops comes out of the same populist tradition.”

Despite the eventual passage of Act 10, and subsequent right-to-work legislation, the fight for labor continues. In February 2016, when an anti-sanctuary city bill in the state legislature posed an attack on immigrant labor, the statewide strike ?“A Day Without Latinx and Immigrants” once again rallied tens of thousands to the Capitol. Organized by Voces de la Frontera, the state’s leading immigrant and migrant workers’ rights group, the strike successfully defeated the bill, in large part due to inroads made with rural communities, and went on to inspire strikes nationwide.

Christine Neumann-Ortiz, founder of Voces, writes of this watershed moment, ?“Two days before the strike, Voces de la Frontera held an emergency meeting with farmers to draft an open letter calling on farmworkers and farmers to support each other by forming skeleton crews to care for the cows while the rest of the workers struck.” In turn, Neumann-Ortiz writes, ?“farmers used their voices to lobby Republican state leaders to defeat the bill.” For Voces, building relationships with groups like the Farmers Union has been essential for expanding their reach into rural districts, tapping into an important constituency capable of influencing their Republican representatives. ?“Farmers understand that immigration is critical to the survival of rural communities and are becoming a key partner in our efforts to advance policies that make our communities more welcoming to immigrants,” writes Neumann-Ortiz.

Through nonpartisan rhetoric appealing instead to shared values, Voces and the Wisconsin Farmers Union are working to draw solidarity between small farm owners and immigrant farmworkers, who make up over half of the dairy industry’s workforce and account for 79 percent of the nation’s milk supply. According to Jacquelyn Kovarik, Voces Communications Director, this approach has seen considerable success. ?“Small farm owners and undocumented laborers have a lot of shared values because both are being taken advantage of by big dairy.”

“Corporate agriculture is in the business of extraction… The things that farmers and laborers do, that’s where the wealth comes from, and that’s forgotten,” echoes Hans Breitenmoser, a second generation dairy farmer from Merrill, Wisconsin. ?“Financially, we as farmers just have a hell of a lot more in common with laborers than we do with the CEO of a multinational conglomerate.”

Last year alone, over $46 billion in federal aid was paid out to farmers (including the annual $10 billion federal farm subsidy), accounting for nearly 40% of their income. Food workers, who account for some of the lowest wages across industries, continue to be among the hardest hit by Covid-19, with over 81,000 positive cases as of January. Routinely failed by the government and exploited by employers, many farmers and food service workers believe farmer-labor solidarity is key to achieving a safer, sustainable and cooperative food system; a system built on fair wages for farmers and workers, and one which supports workers’ rights to organize. 

“This has been a really hard time for progressive politics in Wisconsin. … and a fair amount of divisiveness had been developing in farmers for sure,” says Thomas Quinn, retired director of the Wisconsin Farmers Union. ?“When I first started organizing and farming in the 1980’s, there was a lot more openness to the idea that farmers needed to build solidarity with labor and that the unions were on our side, rather than our opponents.” For Quinn, despite the increasing political division he sees in rural communities, remembering the achievements of solidarity-movements past gives reason to be hopeful. ?“It’s so important to hang onto that history and carry it forward, otherwise it gets lost, and people think it can never happen. But it can, and it has.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 27, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hannah Faris is a multimedia journalist based in Chicago and an In These Times editorial intern. She has worked with South Side Weekly, Kindling Group and Kartemquin Films.


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In a Six-Day Strike, Bronx Produce Workers Doubled Their Raise and Inspired New York

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Drivers and warehouse workers who feed New York City have won their strike. After six days off the job, the strikers at Hunts Point Produce Market in the Bronx ratified a contract that doubled management’s wage offer and defeated a health care cost increase.

The 1,400 workers at the world’s largest wholesale produce market, members of Teamsters Local 202, are responsible for packing and delivering 60 percent of the fruits and vegetables that go to restaurants and grocery stores in New York City.

The unit is comprised of 14 different companies that bargain a contract together. Before the strike, the employers were offering a raise of just 32 cents an hour, and wanted to pass on to workers an increase in health care costs.

The strikers demanded a $1-an-hour raise and no increased cost for health care. They pointed out that they have been working throughout the pandemic, putting their lives at risk. Ten workers have died of Covid since the pandemic began.

“The companies stopped providing PPE [personal protective equipment] months ago, back in September,” said Frankie, a Local 202 member I met on the picket line, who has been with his company for 28 years.

“They don’t even require workers to wear masks at work,” he said. “They also took the handwashing stations out back in September. It’s like they decided that Covid was over.

“Meanwhile the companies received $15 million in PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] loans each! I’m striking to show my daughters that just because we are poor does not mean we don’t stand up for what we deserve.”

ARRESTED ON MLK DAY

The workers called the strike on a Sunday night, January 17, after negotiations broke down. They started to picket both entrances to the Hunts Point Market.

The next evening, police showed up in riot gear and announced that any workers continuing to picket in the entrances would be arrested. The workers kept their picket lines moving until a group of around 50 police officers rushed them and arrested five people.

“It is outrageous that after being called essential heroes for months, several of our members were arrested while peacefully protesting for a raise today,” said Local 202 President Danny Kane in a statement. “These are the essential workers who went to work every day through the worst of the pandemic to feed New York. All they are asking for is a dollar-an-hour raise so they can feed their families too. The fact that they were arrested on Martin Luther King Day reminds us what side of history we are on.”

Videos of the police attacking the striking workers soon went viral, and the community responded with an outpouring of solidarity. Major support came from the NYC Democratic Socialists of America, which set up a table to keep the strikers fed and warm, and collected donations totaling more than $31,000 that went to things like firewood, hand warmers, and hot food.

The workers continued to picket behind the barricades that the police had set up on both sides of the entrance. They resorted to shouting down scabs and co-workers who were crossing the picket line. The police attempted to stop the strikers from trying to talk people out of crossing the line, in some cases physically escorting them back to the barricades.

The police continued to be a presence and were accused of targeting the night shift, where most workers were Black and Brown and the white leadership was visibly absent. Some workers were eager to continue to picket in the entrance, while some of the union leadership urged them to be patient and let leaders handle the situation.

The workers received a number of visits from local politicians, including Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who does not represent the district but lives nearby. Teamster leaders and rank and file were overwhelmed by the support; many visited the table to thank the supporters, and said things like, “We wouldn’t be able to still be out here if it wasn’t for you guys.”

The picket line ran 24/7; people took the same shifts they normally would work. Many of the workers mentioned that this was their first time striking—but that they felt it had been a long time coming.

“Every contract we talk about striking, but we never do,” said Jason, a packer who has been with his company for seven years. “This time was different. In 2021, in the middle of a pandemic and they’re saying we are essential and all of that, so why not pay us the dollar?”

‘WE KNOW THEY NEED US’

By Wednesday, union leaders announced that they were back at the negotiating table, and workers were anticipating a deal soon. “Yesterday, a whole train full of produce from Ohio turned around and refused to cross the line,” a driver named Jose told me that day. He has been with his company for 35 years.

“The guys that they are trying to bring in to do our jobs don’t know kale from spinach,” he said. “The food will go bad waiting for someone to unpack, and they can’t take those losses for too long. They think anyone can do this job, but we know that they need us.”

Spirits were high on the picket line, and on Friday, after another visit from Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, leaders announced they had a tentative agreement. Terms were to be announced the next morning on the picket line; supporters were invited to a victory brunch.

On Saturday morning, crowds gathered at the picket line; leaders led groups of workers a few at a time into the market to discuss the terms and vote on the contract. Supporters stood by waiting anxiously.

Soon the news was shared and celebrated by all: the deal had been ratified by 97 percent of the members voting.

HOPING TO INSPIRE

The new contract includes an immediate raise of 70 cents an hour, followed by a 50-cent raise in 2022. Warehouse workers who currently make $18.57 an hour, as well as all drivers, will see a 65-cents-an-hour raise in 2023. Warehouse workers currently earning $20.70 will receive a $1,300 bonus in 2023 instead of the 65 cents. The strike also stopped the company from increasing what workers pay for family health care benefits.

“It’s not the dollar we wanted, but it’s a win,” Jose said, “and next time we will fight even harder. I’m glad we did this, because before we felt like nobody cared about us, nobody knew us.

“Now we know that New York City supports Black and immigrant workers, some of us formerly incarcerated, many of us just trying to feed our kids and make a better life for them.

“Hopefully other workers will get inspired to fight for what they deserve, by seeing us do it.”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on January 26, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bianca Cunningham is a staff writer and organizer at Labor Notes.


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The Two Things Unions Traded Away That Handed Workers to Trump

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This is a response to the cover story of In These Times’ January issue, ?“Are Trump Voters a Lost Cause?

Thank you for printing ?“Are Trump Voters a Lost Cause?” and thanks to Mindy Isser for writing it. I offer a different perspective. It is intended to continue a discussion, not to end one. 

Youngstown, Ohio used to be one of the major steelmaking communities in the United States. When Alice and I moved to the area in 1976, many here remembered the bloody confrontations of the 1937 Little Steel Strike. Yet in 2016 Clinton narrowly carried Mahoning County (where Youngstown is located) and in the 2020 presidential election, for the first time in decades, it went red.

Why have so many unionized workers supported Trump? An answer to this question requires looking all the way back to the early steel contracts made standard by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Two concessions made then render today’s unions powerless to stop factory closures.

The first is the no-strike clause. Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act states that (private-sector) workers have a protected right to engage in concerted activity for mutual aid and protection. It is union contracts, negotiated by unions and employers, that forbid strikes and other direct action during the life of the contract. This language, which goes to back to the standard contracts of CIO unions, deprives workers of what Isser calls their ?“power on the job.” As the late Marty Glaberman used to say, the union then becomes a cop for the boss, standing at the factory door and telling wildcat strikers to go back to work.

The second is the management prerogative clause. The first contract between the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (a branch of the CIO) and U.S. Steel in early 1937 gave the company the exclusive authority to determine where, when and how production should occur. In 1980?—?as lead lawyer for a coalition of six local unions, a number of religious bodies, the Republican congressman, and several dozen individual steelworkers, I tried to use the law to stop U.S. Steel’s abandonment of its Youngstown facilities, I introduced as an exhibit a glossy booklet produced by U.S. Steel’s own manager for the Youngstown area. The booklet advocated tearing down the open-hearth furnaces being used to make steel in Youngstown and building electric furnaces up river. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals characterized our lawsuit sympathetically as a ?“cry for help from the Mahoning Valley” but could find no legal authority to support our plea. Ironically, just when racial minorities and women were entering the skilled trades in steel, mills were closed. 

Education by organizers, while it may result in greater awareness, is not a solution to the problem of factory flight. There was and is an alternative. It might be termed ?“collective direct action at the local level.”

John Sargent, first president of the 18,000-member SWOC local at Inland Steel in East Chicago, Ind., believed that the Little Steel strike of 1937, which most labor historians consider a crushing defeat, was a ?“victory of great proportions.” The union did not win a contract at Inland Steel. What workers won was an agreement through the Indiana governor’s office that the company would recognize and bargain with ?“the Steelworkers Union, and the company union and any other organization that wanted to represent the people in the steel industry.” As John said in 1980, looking back,

Without a contract, without any agreement with the company, without any regulations concerning hours of work, conditions of work, or wages, a tremendous surge took place. We talk of a rank-and-file movement: ?“the beginning of union organization was the best kind of rank-and-file movement you could think of. John L. Lewis sent in a few organizers, but there were no organizers at Inland Steel. … The union organizers were essentially workers in the mill who were so disgusted with their conditions and so ready for a change that they took the union into their own hands. 

John continued,

We secured for ourselves agreements on working conditions and wages that we do not have today [1980]. For example, as a result of the enthusiasm of the people in the mill you had a series of strikes, wildcats, shut-downs, slow-downs, anything working people could think of to secure for themselves what they decided they had to have. If their wages were low there was no contract to prohibit them from striking, and they struck for better wages. If their conditions were bad, if they didn’t like what was going on, if they were being abused, the people in the mill themselves?—?without a contract or any agreement with the company involved?—?would shut down a department or even a group of departments to secure for themselves the things they found necessary. 

Only at Inland Steel, where the strike did not achieve its objective of a signed contract, did the workers return to a reopened steel mill ?“amid cries of victory from thousands of jubilant workers.” 

The one thing that is crystal clear is that the ?“organizer” who seeks to nurture a movement capable of challenging company investment plans, must be prepared to stay in one place for a long time. As former Local 1462 President Ed Mann said, 

You got to put down roots if you want to change anything. You can’t be like a damn butterfly, flitting around all over. … Who knows what is going to make the workers say, ?“This is enough!” But the point is, somebody has to be there when they say, ?“This is enough!”

So why Trump? A final thought. The task of trade unions is to defend the wages and working conditions of their members, and, if possible, to improve them. People on the Left may wish that trade unions also advocated socialism. But that is not why trade unions were created. Another Local 1462union activist, John Barbero, insisted, ?“Youngstown sure died hard.” But our improvised resistance was unsuccessful, as was similar resistance to U.S. Steel at its Homestead Works, near Pittsburgh.

The form of organization better suited to advocate and work toward social change in the larger society is not a union in a particular kind of work or a coalition of national unions, but a coalition of local labor bodies, which is what Russians originally meant by the word ?“soviet.”

“The Russian Revolution,” Rosa Luxemburg wrote, was ?“the first historical experiment on the model of the class strike.” She stresses the spontaneity of the horizontal spread of the 1905 general strike and the way in which the issue bringing people together to take common action might be one thing, such as the length of the workday, in one place, and something quite different, such as the rate of pay, in another. She also emphasizes the importance of direct action in these mini-revolts, so that workers concerned to shorten their hours of work might simply walk off the job together when they had worked the number of hours they were demanding. (The IWW timber workers in the Northwest did precisely the same thing at approximately the same time.) Thus Luxemburg differed from those who, ?“in the manner of a board of directors,” attempted to schedule a general strike for a specific day on the calendar.

In 1982, when workers were on strike at Trumbull Memorial Hospital in nearby Warren, Ohio, we participated in a huge march supported by many local unionists in the Mahoning Valley, including a large number of United Autoworkers members from GM Lordstown. As we marched, we chanted: ?“Warren is a union town. We won’t let you tear it down.” The promise implicit in this action can only come to fruition when no-strike and management-prerogative language is removed from union contracts.

Until unions in the United States take these clauses out of their contracts, their hands are tied. Workers may feel they have no other option than to believe the untruthful and self-interested leadership of a Donald Trump.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 25, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Staughton Lynd is a lawyer, writer, historian and social justice activist who lives in Youngstown, Ohio.


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Biden continues using executive power to help working people

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President Joe Biden will sign an executive order strengthening Buy American policies on Monday. While such provisions, which encourage federal agencies to buy U.S.-made products, already exist, they’re filled with loopholes and haven’t always been followed. 

“Existing Buy American rules establish a domestic content threshold—the amount of a product that must be made in the U.S. for a purchase to qualify under Buy American law,” a White House fact sheet explains. “This Executive Order directs an increase in both the threshold and the price preferences for domestic goods—the difference in price over which government can by a product from a non-US supplier. It also updates how government decides if a product was sufficiently made in America, building a stronger foundation for the enforcement of Buy American laws.”

Enforcement is always an issue, which is why it’s important that Biden’s executive order also sets up a new director of Made in America position at the Office of Management and Budget to ensure there’s follow-through on the good intentions behind the order. Also included are a review process for when agencies seek waivers on Buy American requirements, and biannual reports on agency implementation of the requirements. In other words: No, really, we mean it this time.

While Donald Trump made a big deal of signing Buy American orders, his administration didn’t finalize it until he was almost out of office. Biden is setting a 180-day deadline for changes to take effect.

Labor leaders hailed the move.

“The Trump administration used the right words but never put in place policies to affect meaningful change. This executive order will close loopholes that allow agencies to sidestep Buy American requirements and increase the thresholds for domestic content,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement. “We know that when America’s workers are given a level playing field, we can compete with anyone. This order is a good first step in revitalizing U.S. manufacturing, which Trump’s policies failed to do over the past four years.”

According to United Steelworkers President Tom Conway, ”Today’s order strengthening domestic content requirements, closing loopholes in how domestic content is measured and calling for stricter enforcement of existing legislation like the Jones Act is an important step toward revitalizing our manufacturing base, as well as protecting and creating thousands of good, family-sustaining jobs.”

Biden continues using executive orders to do what he can, but on so many important things, Congress will need to act.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on January 25, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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With Minimum Wage Victory in Reach, The Fight for $15 Vows Bigger Things to Come

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After nearly a decade of activism, the Fight for $15 stands closer than ever to achieving its most visible goal: a $15 federal minimum wage. Leaders of the campaign, however, say that their work is only beginning. 

“The next two years is the biggest window [of opportunity] we’ve had in my 40 years in the labor movement,” says Mary Kay Henry, the president of SEIU, the two-million-member union that has funded the Fight for $15. Her union committed to spending $150 million to get Biden elected, and the time has now come to reap the rewards. The $15 federal minimum wage is included in the latest Covid relief bill Democrats are pushing in Congress, although Republicans are strenuously opposed, and many believe it may get dropped before the final bill is passed. Separately, a group of congressional Democrats today are reintroducing the Raise the Wage Act, which would gradually move the federal minimum wage up to $15 over a period of five years. Though success is not certain, it appears for the first time ever that both the White House and the majority leadership in Congress is committed to a goal that was derided as unrealistic and pie-in-the-sky when the campaign began in late 2012. 

“I view it as elected officials answering demands of the workers who had the guts to persist in making the demand since the early years, when they were ridiculed,” Henry says. Though the Fight for $15 has won an impressive string of victories on the local and state level?—?most recently a successful ballot measure to raise the wage in Florida to $15 by 2026?—?the federal minimum wage has stayed stubbornly locked at $7.25 an hour for more than a decade. With Democrats in control of the federal government, and years of good PR under their belts, that may soon change. 

The SEIU’s enormous funding commitment to the Fight for $15, which has been well over $20 million annually in some years, has been controversial in the labor world. Critics have often pointed out that despite the movement’s political and economic gains, it has not actually unionized the fast food sector, meaning that the campaign is being effectively subsidized by SEIU members without creating any new stream of dues revenue back to the organization. But Henry sees it as the sort of long-term structural fight that is necessary given the nature of today’s economy. Ten years ago, ?“we recognized that the right wing attack on working people and their unions was at a 40-year high,” she says. ?“We really thought what was required was for the labor movement to back a bold demand that was led by workers in a sector of the economy… that really needed the power of a workers movement.” 

From the beginning, the Fight for $15’s call has been “$15 and a union.” As the “$15” part of that nears success, the ?“union” part remains a dream. The biggest legal barrier to collective bargaining in the fast food industry has long been the ?“joint employer” rule, which dictates whether or not it is possible to hold a company like McDonald’s directly responsible for the labor conditions in its many franchises. Under Obama’s National Labor Relations Board, the rule was changed to be friendlier to labor; under Trump, it was rolled back. Under Biden, it is widely expected to be flipped back once again. And Mary Kay Henry says that the Fight for $15 now plans to press hard for what would be an even more meaningful win than a $15 minimum wage: a national collective bargaining agreement for fast food workers. 

“We’ve never given up that dream, as much as Fight for $15 has been characterized as a minimum wage movement,” says Henry. ?“We’ve always believed that what we have to do is create the way for workers to have the power to make those jobs good jobs, which is way beyond just raising the wage.” To that end, she says that SEIU is not planning on any reductions in the Fight for $15’s budget, even as victory on its economic plank is tantalizingly close. 

The movement’s successes should not obscure the fact that even now, fast food jobs do not always offer enough for workers to get by. Nobody knows that better than Terrence Wise, a McDonald’s worker in Kansas City who has become the nation’s most visible Fight for $15 activist over the past seven years. He was even invited to star at an event with Barack Obama at the White House in 2015. Wise’s optimism is tempered with weariness, and full of the realization that it took work to get here, and that only more work lies ahead. 

“Now we know the vast majority of Americans support $15 an hour. That didn’t just happen. Politicians didn’t just wake up and think that $15 an hour was cool,” he says. ?“We’ve only got to this point because of what workers have been doing: organizing. The [Biden] campaign didn’t decide, ?‘It’s our idea to pass a $15 wage federally.’ You know we had to push.” 

Henry says unequivocally that ?“we’re not stopping until all the fast food workers have a union.” For Wise, the goal has always been much more than a wage increase. ?“It’s always been a civil rights movement. A human rights movement,” he says. ?“Take the number out?—?it’s always been about a fight.”

Though Wise has become well known, his life has not become easy. When the pandemic struck, he and his family were living with his brother-in-law’s family, 10 people in a single house. He faced the threat of eviction as recently as a few weeks ago. When he joined the Fight for $15 in 2014, he was making $7.47 an hour at McDonald’s. Today, he is making $14 an hour there. If the Democrats do manage to raise the minimum wage, Terrence Wise?—?a grown man with a family, a job, and years of activism that have taken him all over America?—?would get a raise. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 26, 2021. 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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Biden signs executive orders aimed at combating hunger, protecting workers

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President Joe Biden signed two executive orders on Friday aimed at fighting hunger, protecting American workers and providing economic relief to families whose jobs and livelihoods have been destroyed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The measures ask agencies across the government to expand, extend and at times re-examine guidelines to find ways to provide further aid for Americans while working within existing authority, including by strengthening worker protections and increasing food benefits.

While they are not meant as a stand-in for the nearly $2 trillion economic relief package Biden proposed last week, the orders reflect the White House’s efforts to shore up the economy while lawmakers debate whether to enact a new, massive aid package — a process that could take months.


“These actions are concrete and will provide immediate support to hard-hit families,” Brian Deese, the head of the White House’s National Economic Council, told reporters on a call Thursday evening. But, he added, “They are not enough. And much, much more is needed.”

Through one executive order, Biden asks the Department of Agriculture to consider increasing food assistance benefits and money to help families with schoolchildren buy groceries. He also asks the Treasury Department to consider taking action to ensure that more Americans who are eligible to receive economic relief checks are able to get them.

And he is calling on the Labor Department to clarify guidelines that until now had forced American workers who refused an offer to return to work to lose their unemployment benefits, even if heading back to the workplace would have put them or their families at heightened risk.

“This is the United States of America, and they are waiting to feed their kids,” Biden said. “These are not the values of our nation. We cannot, will not let people go hungry.”

The second order is focused on protecting federal workers and contractors, in part by restoring collective bargaining power and worker protections by revoking measures that President Donald Trump had signed. It also eliminates Schedule F, a class of worker that Trump had established that stripped many federal civil service employees of job protections.

It asks agencies to take a look at which federal employees are earning less than $15 per hour and come up with recommendations to get them above that wage.

The orders are the latest in a blitz of executive actions that Biden has taken since he took office on Wednesday. The more than two dozen measures he has signed have been aimed in part at turning around the pandemic, tackling climate change and reversing some of Trump’s policies, including the so-called Muslim ban on travelers from certain countries.


Deese called on Congress to pass the American Rescue Plan that Biden laid out last week, which proposed $1.9 trillion in additional federal funding to tackle the pandemic, provide another round of direct payments to working families and extend unemployment benefits, among other priorities. But Republicans have panned that proposal, saying it is too expensive and comes too soon after the $900 billion aid package that Congress passed last month.

During the signing ceremony for the executive orders Friday, Biden pushed back on those concerns: “While the Covid-19 package that passed in December was the first step, as I said at the time, it’s just a down payment. We need more action, and we need to move fast.”

“We’re in a national emergency,” he added. “We’ve got to act like we’re in a national emergency.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on January 22, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Megan Cassella is a trade reporter for POLITICO Pro.

About the Author: Matthew Choi is a breaking news reporter.


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Essential food workers strike over $1 in New York City, this week in the war on workers

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Remember back in April when everyone suddenly realized that food chain workers are essential workers? A group of workers in the Bronx is trying to make good on that realization as they negotiate their next contract—and it’s led to a strike, as the bosses at the Hunts Point Produce Market refuse the workers’ call for a $1 an hour raise and added help with healthcare costs. Union representatives say that hundreds of workers have gotten COVID-19 and six have died, but New York City has gotten the food it needs—the 1,400 Teamsters workers at the market handle around 60% of the city’s produce.

“We’re working in a pandemic, now risking our life, every day, and you want to give us less than what you gave us the last time in a normal situation?” union trustee Charles Machadio told Gothamist. Pointing out that management rhetoric about the “continued uncertainty surrounding the pandemic” is in sharp contrast with the fact that the produce market has remained open throughout, Machadio thinks this is more than just a normal wage dispute: “I think they’re using the pandemic to try and get out of the contract.”  

The market is offering 32 cents in added pay and 60 additional cents toward healthcare coverage.

Rallying with the workers on Wednesday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said “Our entire city needs to stand by our essential workers. And it’s not enough for us to just say it and it’s not enough for, you know, we have to say thank you to all of our essential workers from our nurses to our food workers to the folks loading the trucks. But it’s not just enough to say thank you. We have to support them in their demands for a better life.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on January 23, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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