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Chicago Teachers Are Voting on Whether to Defy Monday’s Reopening Order

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Delegates of the Chicago Teachers Union have just sent a referendum to members: shall we all work remotely starting Monday, January 25?

That’s the date when many were assigned to return to schools. If the district retaliates, delegates will reconvene to take a strike vote.

The plan was voted up by a large majority in an emergency meeting. It’s CTU’s boldest official move yet against reopening; the union has had to walk a difficult legal line.

But militancy has bubbled up from the rank and file. The members who were assigned to return in earlier waves of the mayor’s divisive reopening plan have been organizing their own resistance actions, school by school.

With the pandemic death toll in the U.S. now more than 400,000, Covid positivity rates in Chicago have climbed above 10 percent—double the target rate the city has set for itself—and in some neighborhoods, 15 percent. Yet the city is trying to force its educators back into classrooms.

RESISTING DIVISION

Clerks were ordered back into the school buildings last fall, followed January 4 by pre-K and special needs educators, followed January 11 by their students, to be followed by an ongoing rollout of returns by grade level.

Educators applying for accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act due to their own vulnerabilities or those of household members have been rejected at alarming rates.

The entire system is designed to push individuals to make choices for themselves—do I try to get an ADA exemption, or brave the reopening, or quit?—rather than as a collective. But educators are working through these challenges.

Ana Bolotin, a special education teacher, said she was one of many teachers “who felt alone and did not know how to proceed as we were facing bullying from CPS.” She connected via Facebook with others from across the district who were ready to refuse to go into buildings. “Because of the pandemic, we didn’t know each other in real life. All of the relationships were forged virtually,” said Bolotin.

The group called a Zoom meeting, attended by 30 people, and talked about how they could organize to refuse to enter. Their next meeting had 100. These meetings were designed to support people to go back out and organize actions at their own schools.

LOCKED OUT

Staff members at Brentano Math and Science Academy decided that, beginning on January 4—the date they were ordered back—they would bring their laptops and teach from outside the school building.

And that’s what they did, despite below-freezing temperatures. “We are all scared,” said Pre-K teacher Kirsten Roberts. “All of our families have been directly impacted by Covid—by loss and illness.”

So far only pre-K and special needs educators had been called back, but other Brentano teachers turned up throughout the day to support them.

The next day when Roberts attempted to log on to Google Classroom, she was denied access—to her students, her email, and her pay. Management had blocked her.

At Suder Montessori, educators bought their own protective gear and used a CTU-provided checklist to do safety inspections. Educators at other schools donned masks during remote learning so that parents would have a better idea of what students would be experiencing in the classroom.

Some planned to get appointments to test before returning to school, which would require them to stay out of buildings until the results came back negative.

News reports suggest up to 60 percent of the educators who were told to return did not enter their buildings on the first day back.

That’s when Chicago Public Schools (CPS) announced it would be cutting off access to remote teaching for any educators like Roberts who were, by district rules, supposed to be inside. As of this writing, some are still locked out; an end to the lockout has been added to the union’s demands.

Still the organizing continued. The key, said Bolotin, “was brainstorming ways to increase solidarity and help people see that individual educators needed to support each other.”

STILL NOT SAFE

Mayors, governors, and other policymakers across the country continue to insist that schools are not sites of Covid infection, even as growing evidence suggests they are wrong. A study in the medical journal The Lancet noted that previous studies showing low or no school transmission had missed asymptomatic students and included schools with low attendance.

Recent reports from around the world suggest that open schools strongly correlate with hospitalizations and community spread. England, Germany, and South Korea initially reopened schools, but have since closed them again in the face of rising positivity rates.

But here in the U.S., where the government has been slow to provide relief for workers, policymakers continue to beat the school-reopening drum. That means educators’ lives are being put at risk—along with the lives of students and their families.

Many of the arguments made for reopening school buildings speak only to the health of students. And some of the most-cited reports of successful reopenings in the U.S. ignore the measures taken—smaller class sizes, robust testing and contact tracing—that are absent in most U.S. schools.

NO GOOD OPTIONS

Organizing against the reopenings has been tough for unions. Educators want to do what’s best for students, and everyone can see how inadequate remote teaching is—especially when many families have limited WiFi access and parents are juggling work and childcare. The stream of mixed messages about school transmission hasn’t helped.

CTU has been demanding testing, contact tracing, vaccinations for educators and other school staff, and the enforcement of safety protocols such as adequate protective gear, air-quality systems, and cleaning schedules before educators go back into the buildings.

The union has been holding virtual town halls with educators and providing checklists for building safety. It has garnered the support of 33 aldermen to say it’s not safe to reopen the buildings. Meanwhile, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has refused to negotiate with CTU about the reopening plan.

The Illinois legislature recently passed a law which would make many of the issues involved in reopening mandatory subjects of bargaining. The measure would repeal a section of the Illinois Educational Relations Act passed in 1995 that has allowed the district to refuse to bargain with the union over issues including class sizes, layoffs, subcontracting, and charter schools. That law is now sitting on the governor’s desk, waiting to be signed.

COMPETING FEARS

For Dennis Kosuth, a school nurse and Roberts’ partner, solidarity has meant working with members who were both afraid of getting sick and afraid of the district, in varying degrees. “We don’t trust CPS,” he said. So organizing required “finding the place where the person’s fear about the virus and readiness to risk their job met.”

To start, Kosuth struck out alone. He started doing his work outside the school building—checking on students, completing paperwork—and livestreamed it. Over the course of a week, more and more educators stopped by to show support. For him, the present challenge for organizers is, “How do we lead without getting out ahead?” 

Kosuth was one of 150 Chicago school nurses who signed a letter to the district saying that schools are unsafe. National Nurses United and the Illinois Nurses Association have backed up their concerns.

While the district is trying to pit parents and teachers against each other, Roberts said the message from the union to students’ families is: “We are exactly like you as workers. We want for you what we want for ourselves.”

‘OUR ONLY POWER’

At the end of the second week of forced return, some CTU members took personal days off and led a car caravan though the streets of Chicago to City Hall and the homes of members of the Board of Education while a board meeting was in session.

“Lori Lightfoot and the Board of Education seem to want there to be a corrosive atmosphere,” said Roberts. “In any rational world we would have collaboration. But they are creating a situation where our only power is to show them they cannot run the schools without us.”

Now the proposed January 25 stay-at-home is up to a member vote. A strike threat forced the city’s handback in August and kept schools remote.

Under Illinois law, public sector unions are banned from striking while under a collective bargaining agreement. CTU’s contract expires in 2024. The law also bans the city from locking workers out.

If CTU were to strike, it would be a safety strike. That, notes Roberts, would be uncharted territory.

But so are 4,000 deaths a day.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on January 21, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Barbara Madeloni is Education Coordinator at Labor Notes and a former president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.


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The “Essential Worker” Swindle

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Politicians, pundits, CEOs and think tank staffers have spent the past 10months effusively praising the heroism and sacrifice of essential workers. ?“I’m not alone in being grateful for the work you are doing,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos declared in a March 2020 open letter to the company’s workers who have labored throughout the pandemic, risking their lives to deliver hand sanitizer, face masks and baby formula (and increased Bezos’ personal fortune by 65%). Walmart has taken out television ads praising and thanking essential workers (even as it has imperiled and underpaid those under its employ). House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D?Calif.) tweeted in July 2020, ?“Frontline and essential workers across the country have performed heroically since the start of the COVID-19pandemic.” Former President Trump, who oversaw 400,000 Covid deaths in the U.S. alone, ran a taped segment during the Republican National Convention in which he said to essential workers, ?“Thank you all very much. Great job.”

But beneath this praise is a troubling truth: Whatever mitigation of suffering and hardship has been achieved during the pandemic, it’s been built on the backs of an ?“essential” workforce that is hyper-exploited, under-paid, placed in extreme danger, and nowhere close to fairly compensated. The endless praise of these essential workers, from the very architects of their exploitation, only serves to justify and normalize a social order in which people who are disproportionately Black, Brown and low-wage are sacrificed. Instead of talking about how workers are being economically coerced into laboring under deadly conditions, we’re talking about heroism. Instead of criticizing policies and political decisions that send workers to their deaths, we are fawning at workers’ voluntary self-sacrifice. The ?“essential worker” discourse has the effect of enforcing discipline on a labor force that CEOs and politicians have decided is dispensable. This is not the language of gratitude?—?it’s the language of throwing people away.

A recent report on Chicago-area workers in the food industry shines new light on the conditions these ?“essential workers” face. In December, the workers’ rights organizations Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ) and Chicago Workers’ Collaborative (CWC) interviewed 90 Chicago-area workers in food production, distribution and logistics (10% of those interviewed are white, 42% are Black and 48% are Latino). Eighty-five percent of the workers interviewed said that when employees raised Covid-19 safety concerns, bosses either failed to respond to complaints, retaliated against people who spoke out, or took actions that were not helpful. Sixty-one percent said they had to go without pay when they were ill or forced to undergo quarantine. Eighty-three percent of the workers who were infected with Covid-19report that ?“they did not receive paid sick leave from their employer or government assistance.” And a stunning 96% of workers interviewed said they were not receiving hazard pay. 

These workers are being asked to risk their lives every time they clock in to the job, but in return they are receiving no social support or meaningful compensation. One anonymous worker told the researchers, ?“I had the virus in April and had to quarantine for a month. Without insurance or quarantine pay, I had no choice but to stay home and suffer through it.” Another anonymous worker told researchers of a coworker who ?“got sick with Covid and passed away.” The person who died had been working while ill and, according to the interviewee, ?“The company never addressed the death or told us a coworker had died.”

The ?“essential workers” who are dying or going without pay so they can quarantine were already severely underpaid when the pandemic began, particularly those in the food industry. In 2019, the median wage for food and agricultural workers, for example, was just $13.12, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Meanwhile, just 8% of workers in this sector were represented by unions. Once the pandemic broke out, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out health and safety ?“guidance” for essential workers. However, according to a research brief from The Shift Project, which collects and analyzes survey data, ?“The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency ordinarily tasked with enforcing regulations to protect workers, has largely left safety standards and protocols up to individual employers.” (On Thursday, President Biden instructed OSHA to issue new guidelines to protect workers from Covid-19.)

Essential workers themselves have been some of the loudest critics of the effusive praise with which their exploitation has been met. ?“We are tired of taking the risk,” said San Jose, California McDonald’s worker Maria Ruiz, while on strike in April 2020for hazard pay of an additional $3 per hour. ?“I’m kind of afraid” to go on strike, she added in an interview with In These Times, ?“but I’m more afraid to lose my life.” A cashier at a New Seasons Market in Portland, Oregon told In These Times in March 2020, ?“I don’t really know if any amount of money would make working in this environment and being exposed to this level of risk feel worth it. Personally, I live with my grandmother and mother so it’s just really hard to know if continuing to come to work is the right choice.”

Meanwhile, Koch-funded think tank staffers, Wall Street bankers and even Reagan-era economist Art Laffer have emerged as some of the biggest cheerleaders of sending workers into deadly conditions. ?“We need to get production back?—?period,” Laffer proclaimed just weeks into the U.S. pandemic (Trump gave Laffer the presidential medal of freedom in 2019).

Of course, there is a conversation to be had about the need to keep people fed and cared for during the pandemic, a feat that almost certainly requires some degree of sacrifice and hard work in the service of the common good. Food must still get to people’s homes, health workers must still care for the sick and dying, farms must keep growing produce so that people can live. And indeed, many workers are acting heroically, as illustrated when they’ve stood up again and again to defend their lives, and the lives of their coworkers, under harrowing conditions.

But 10 months into this crisis, U.S. society has not had a meaningful collective conversation about what a just, shared sacrifice could look like. We have not talked about how to evenly distribute the burden of danger, how to make sure that each human life is valued as we tackle the mammoth challenges before us. With no real public debate, we are operating under the assumption that if sacrifices must be made, it is the most exploited sectors of the working class that should make them?—?an attitude that prevails during ?“normal” times, but now with brutal efficiency. As Hamilton Nolan pointed out in March, we’re not asking Art Laffer to wait tables. We’re not asking politicians to send their children to work the checkout lines in grocery stores. The idea that those options would even be on the table is laughable. 

If we continue on the current trajectory, when this is all over, the pandemic is going to be the story of how, in the face of social crisis, an entire class of people was abused, discarded and left to die. All the while, we were told that the only way through the crisis was for the workers who have always been sacrificed for the profits of the few to make greater sacrifices than ever before. And as Black, Brown and poor people disproportionately perished from Covid-19, as Chicago-area food workers languished without sick pay, we were reassured not to be outraged. Because this is noble sacrifice, and essential workers are ?“heroes.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 22, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The InterceptThe Nation, and Tom Dispatch.


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Biden has promised to be a champion for workers. Some early signs suggest he means to deliver

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President Joe Biden has long branded himself as a union guy, Joe from Scranton who represented the worker. The reality of his policies—especially as a senator from credit card company mecca Delaware—and his personnel decisions has been more mixed. But the early signs from his presidential administration have many labor advocates and progressive economists excited.

First off, Biden didn’t wait on a key union priority: getting rid of National Labor Relations Board general counsel Peter Robb. On Inauguration Day, Biden requested Robb’s resignation, and when Robb refused, Biden fired him. Robb had 10 months left in his term, but worker advocates felt—and Biden apparently agreed—that the extreme anti-worker agenda he was bringing to the role was such that 10 months was way too long.

Robb is a longtime union-busting lawyer who, as NLRB counsel, let McDonald’s off the hookfor any responsibility for labor conditions at franchisee-owned stores. “Since then, Robb has gone after so-called ‘neutrality’ agreements between unions and employers that make it easier for workers to organize,” Dave Jamieson reported. “And he has recently taken on Scabby the Rat, the labor-dispute protest icon beloved by unions and progressives. Robb apparently hates the rat and wants to ban its use as ‘unlawfully coercive.’” 

Robb had also sought to restructure the NLRB to remove power from civil servants and put them in the hands of political appointees like himself.

“There’s one measure that will signal that Biden is serious” about his claims to support unions, C.M. Lewis wrote at Strikewave the week before inauguration. “On day one, he needs to fire National Labor Relations Board General Counsel Peter Robb.” Well, Biden has signaled that he’s serious.

But that’s not the only labor-related move that drew excitement from progressives on the evening of Biden’s inauguration. The announcement of Janelle Jones as chief economist, Angela Hanks as counselor to the secretary, and Raj Nayak as senior advisor drew a lot of excitement on Wednesday night. Jones and Hanks have both been affiliated with the Groundwork Collaborative, which “is dedicated to unifying progressives and activists in communities across the country to refine and advance a progressive economic worldview.” Hanks has also spent time at the Center for American Progress, the National Skills Coalition, and as a staffer for the late Rep. Elijah Cummings. Jones has worked at the Economic Policy Institute and the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and news of her hiring moved Rep. Ayanna Pressley to tweet “Personnel is policy. Janelle Jones = policy that meets the moment & the crises we face.” Nayak is an alumnus of the Obama Labor Department and has worked at the National Employment Law Project.

There was a LOT of excitement about these hires.

So the early signs on Biden and labor are looking decidedly better than expected. But that doesn’t mean the pressure can let up. American workers need the Biden administration to deliver big things. 

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on January 21, 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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The Labor Movement Has a Game Plan for the Biden Era

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As the Democrats take control of the White House and both houses of Congress amid overlapping national crises, labor leaders say it is now more critical than ever that Washington deliver significant material gains for the working class.

Democrats partly owe their recent electoral victories in places like Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Georgia to the extensive get-out-the-vote efforts of unions like UNITE HERE and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which reached millions of Black and Latino voters. 

After defeating Donald Trump and the Republicans at the polls, the labor movement does not intend to rest on its laurels.

“We’re not going to stop the campaign just because the election is done,” D. Taylor, international president of UNITE HERE, told In These Times. ?“We have to hold Democrats accountable. We will go to the same voters they made promises to and point out whether they have lived up to those promises or not. They can no longer blame the Republicans. It’s right on their shoulders.”

President Joe Biden, who calls himself a ?“union guy,” has signaled his intention to work with organized labor by tapping Boston mayor Marty Walsh to be his Labor Secretary. A former official in the Laborers’ Union Local 223, Walsh was the AFL-CIO’s preferred choice for the Cabinet position, though many progressive unionists and Transport Workers Union president John Samuelson wanted Sen. Bernie Sanders in the role. 

Further, in his proposed $1.9 trillion Covid relief package, Biden has included a provision to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour?—?something service sector workers led by SEIU and other unions have famously been fighting for since 2012. 

Besides delivering immediate economic relief and getting the pandemic under control, labor leaders want the Biden administration to quickly reverse the various anti-worker measures that Trump and his Department of Labor enacted, like reducing the number of workers eligible for overtime pay and restricting the collective bargaining rights of federal employees. 

They are also counting on the new president to appoint union-friendly members to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). There is one vacancy on the Board right now, and another is set to open in August when the term of one of the current Republican members is set to expire. That means, assuming Biden makes nominations that swiftly get confirmed by the Senate, Democrats should hold a majority on the Board by late summer.

In the meantime, unions like SEIU are pressuring Biden to immediately fire NLRB general counsel Peter Robb?—?a notorious union buster appointed by Trump. 

In his powerful position at the Board, Robb has worked to make sure McDonald’s can’t be held legally responsible for labor violations carried out by its franchises, attacked neutrality agreements that restrict employer interference in unionization drives, and even tried to outlaw Scabby the Rat.

“Swift action is required. Robb must go,” SEIU president Mary Kay Henry tweeted last week.

In addition to making demands on Biden, labor leaders are also seeking bold moves from lawmakers on Capitol Hill. 

“While there are immediate actions that Joe Biden and his Department of Labor can take to support worker organizing and to protect collective action, the transformative change we need requires action by Congress,” said Sara Steffens, secretary-treasurer of the Communications Workers of America (CWA).

The CWA is part of a growing coalition of unions, state labor federations, worker centers, and progressive groups led by the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) that is mobilizing to ensure Congress passes the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act.

The PRO Act would dramatically reform private sector labor law by removing the many corporate-friendly legal obstacles to unionizing and striking. Publicly supported by Biden and Walsh, the legislation was passed last year by the Democratic-led House of Representatives, only to go nowhere in the Republican-dominated Senate. 

In the aftermath of the November election and Georgia runoff, the IUPAT-led coalition has launched a campaign pushing for passage of the bill.

In 2009, the last time Democrats simultaneously controlled both houses of Congress and the White House, they failed to accomplish a similar attempt at labor law reform?—?the Employee Free Choice Act?—?despite campaigning on a promise to pass it. Union leaders are aiming to avoid a repeat of that disappointment.

“The labor movement should be doing something we didn’t do the last time around, and that’s push like hell and not expect people who say the right thing to do the right thing,” Taylor said.

“The trap we fell into with the Employee Free Choice Act was taking their support for granted and just waiting to see how the process unfolded,” explained Ryan Kekeris, IUPAT’s communications director. ?“We’re doing the opposite here. We’re calling the question and making this a priority from day one. We’re building a grassroots, decentralized movement that can mobilize people and pressure politicians.”

“We know that if a fight stays in the halls of Washington, D.C., those fights end up losing a lot of the time,” said IUPAT general vice president Jim Williams. ?“We have to take the fight outside of Washington, D.C. and into our congressional districts, into the states, into our communities.”

At a townhall hosted by the IUPAT last Thursday, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said the PRO Act must be brought to Joe Biden’s desk this year ?“come hell or high water.”

“This time has to be different,” Trumka said. ?“We can’t be at the back of the train; we have to be at the front of this train.”

Unionists agree that to have any hope of securing sweeping legislation, partnerships must be forged with other progressive movements, including those organizing around racial justice, immigrant rights, and climate action.

“We need to unite with others who are in motion,” explained Carl Rosen, general president of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE). ?“A big advantage relative to 2009 when Obama came in is there wasn’t nearly the level of mobilized action going on in the country then as there is now.”

A key partner in the IUPAT’s campaign to pass the PRO Act is the youth-led Sunrise Movement, which is at the forefront of the fight for a Green New Deal. 

“We’re definitely serious about the ?‘Green’ part of that, and we’re equally serious the ?‘New Deal’ part,” Lauren Maunus, the Sunrise Movement’s legislative manager and a member of CWA Local 1180, said at last Thursday’s townhall. ?“America needs labor law reform on a scale unseen since the original New Deal.”

Labor leaders stress that it will also be necessary to organize outside of progressive and liberal circles, especially since some 40% of union households voted for Trump.

“We have to get to that section of the working class that we’ve stopped talking to, and that have instead been wooed away by the Right because they haven’t seen any solutions being offered to them,” said Rosen.

“I’m not talking about trying to bring dyed-in-the-wool, super right-wing racist white nationalists over and make them our allies. Far from it,” he added. ?“But they have influence over an awful lot of people because we’ve failed as labor and progressive movements to get an alternative out there for folks to be part of and to feel like it can make a difference for them.”

“Many union members are rightfully skeptical of electoral politics. Many turned to Trump for that very reason?—?he promised a break from politics as usual,” Williams of IUPAT recently wrote for In These Times. ?“For decades, our members have been sold false promises… Our standards of living have fallen and despite promises from Washington, nothing has changed.”

Through organizing conversations with its membership, the IUPAT found that the PRO Act is popular with rank-and-file members across the political spectrum, including those who voted for Trump. ?“This is an issue that unites working people regardless of political party affiliation,” Kekeris said.

Rosen contends that another issue with the potential to win over workers who typically vote Republican is Medicare for All. 

“People like Medicare, including rural and working-class folks who might otherwise be convinced by right-wing propaganda to be anti-government. We need to build on that,” Rosen explained. 

Taylor, whose union’s diverse membership includes people from all over the world, said that comprehensive immigration reform must be ?“front and center.” Biden reportedly plans to send a bill to Congress soon that would offer a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants.

For its part, the Teamsters union is launching a campaign to push for implementation of multiple federal policy priorities, including strengthening pensions and ending the misclassification of workers as ?“independent contractors.”

Beyond mobilizing working-class voters to hold elected officials accountable, unions expect to continue waging workplace struggles to protect workers’ health and safety in the pandemic and to safeguard wages and benefits amid the recession.

As Rand Wilson and Peter Olney recently wrote in Labor Notes, this year alone, 450 collective bargaining agreements covering over 1.5 million union workers will expire, opening the door to contract campaigns and potential strikes that offer ?“an ideal opportunity for the labor movement to showcase our power and the advantages of collective bargaining.”

“It would be very, very good for unions to engage in as many militant workplace-based fights as possible,” Rosen said. ?“In the end, to win serious change in this country, we’re going to have to convince the folks in the capitalist structure that they’re better off giving some concessions to us rather than ignore our protests or attempt to repress them, that they’ve got too much to lose if they don’t give in to some substantial degree.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 20, 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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Pandemic reveals tale of 2 Californias like never before

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As Bay Area tech workers set up home offices to avoid coronavirus exposure, grocers, farm workers and warehouse employees in the Central Valley never stopped reporting to job sites. Renters pleaded for eviction relief while urban professionals fled for suburbs and resort towns, taking advantage of record-low interest rates to buy bigger, better homes. Most of the state’s 6 million public school children are learning remotely, while affluent families opted for private classrooms that are up and running.

California has long been a picture of inequality, but the pandemic has widened the gap in ways few could have imagined. While other states face large budget deficits, California has a $15 billion surplus, thanks to record 2020 gains from Silicon Valley and white-collar workers who pay the bulk of California’s taxes.


Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled the state’s record-high $227 billion budget last week despite a year in which unemployment soared beyond 10 percent and the homelessness crisis reached devastating levels in Los Angeles and beyond.

He has proposed directing much of California’s bounty toward struggling residents and low-income families, and it remains to be seen whether the state will continue to reap similar tax rewards in future years. If this is a onetime windfall, Newsom and lawmakers will have to find other resources to sustain additional aid — and face pressure to raise tax rates even more on the wealthy.

“There’s a way in which the pandemic has amplified all of these systemic and societal issues we were always aware of,” said Brandon Greene, director of the racial and economic justice program at the ACLU of Northern California. “These gaps persist and are widening. And if it can happen here, in a blue state where you have the political capital, it can happen anywhere.”

California’s low-income workers and people of color have borne the brunt of both the economic fallout of the recession and the physical toll of the virus itself. The Latino Covid-19 death rate is 22 percent higher than the statewide average, and the Black death rate is 16 percent higher, according to California’s health equity tracker.

Even before the pandemic, ZIP codes home to just 2 percent of California’s population held 20 percent of the state’s net worth, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office. In 2020, more than 40 percent of households making less than $40,000 annually saw reduced work hours or pay, and an equal share had to cut back on food, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

“Decades-long inequalities, those preexisting conditions around race, around ethnicity, the preexisting conditions around wealth disparities and income disparities, obviously have come to the fore and must be addressed,” Newsom said while outlining his budget proposal last week.

Moments later, he made a stark proclamation about how the other side is doing: “The folks at the top are doing pretty damn well.”

Newsom, 53, is a multimillionaire businessman in addition to being governor, and his own personal life has punctuated the extreme differences in California. His dinner at the French Laundry in November not only enraged the public for his flouting of his own advice against gathering; it served as an optics problem with menu prices that many Californians cannot afford even in normal times. Newsom sent his own children back to private classrooms in late October while most families were stuck in remote learning. When he had to quarantine in November, he said he was “blessed because we have many rooms” in his Sacramento County home.

However, the Democratic governor has prided himself on bridging the equity gap and has branded his efforts as “California for All” since taking office two years ago. He appointed the state’s first surgeon general, Nadine Burke Harris, who has focused her career on addressing childhood trauma in disadvantaged communities and led vaccine discussions mindful of equal distribution. Newsom has pushed hard to reopen public schools this spring because he says students in low-income neighborhoods are struggling the most with distance learning.

Newsom has proposed $600 state stimulus checks to nearly 4 million low-income workers as part of his budget plan. He launched an effort to shelter tens of thousands of homeless Californians in hotel rooms when the outbreak began and then transitioned toward a program that would convert that into permanent housing. He helped enact renter protections from eviction and wants to extend those protections.

Californians saw an array of relief in 2020, as all levels of government tried to lessen the burden. Children who live in communities that have long gone without broadband and quality internet access received hotspots and other Wi-Fi access. Cities stopped using parking tickets and towing as a way to bring in revenue. More lower-level offenders were freed from prisons and jails after virus outbreaks.

Advocates say the jarring juxtaposition in the pandemic, as the state’s richest got richer and its poor got poorer, prove it’s not enough. They are lobbying Newsom and the Legislature to use California’s unexpected windfall to help the state’s neediest by expanding the social safety net and to turn temporary relief granted during the pandemic into permanent solutions. They worry that momentum is already losing steam, and that things will revert to normal when the vaccine reaches the masses and Covid-19 is in the past.

“These things that were implemented as a kind of lifeline are now expiring and folks still need it,” said Jhumpa Bhattacharya, a vice president at the Insight Center for Community Economic Development based in Oakland. “We live in a society where we don’t believe in government intervention, and there’s this narrative that you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps. When the pandemic hit, we saw that’s not true, and my hope is that we will be able to develop a new understanding of how our society works.”

California Democrats have proposed bigger taxes on the ultra-rich as a solution, with groups like the California Teachers Association pushing last year for legislation to hike taxes for residents with more than $30 million in assets. That bill failed, but Assemblymember Luz Rivas (D-Arleta) just proposed raising taxes on corporations by $2 billion to fund housing for people experiencing homelessness.

Newsom made clear last week that he will not entertain major tax proposals, declaring “they’re not part of the conversation.” The pandemic’s remote work culture has shown information-based companies that office location may not matter as much as once thought, while California’s high housing costs, regulations and taxes are a deterrent.

Further taxing the rich is proving to be a political risk and a threat to the very system that makes it possible for California to thrive even in dark times. Just last month, Oracle and Hewlett Packard Enterprise announced they were moving their headquarters to rival state Texas. Elon Musk, now the richest person on the planet, also said he was moving to the Lone Star State, though his company Tesla will remain in California.

“There’s about 1 percent of taxpayers that pay half the income tax in the state, and the reason why state revenues have been so strong is that those taxpayers had a very good year. As long as those people are willing to stay in California and be taxed, the money will come in,” said David Shulman, senior economist emeritus for the UCLA Anderson Forecast. “But there is a point where they will say it doesn’t work anymore. The question is, are we at a tipping point? There’s certainly more evidence that we are getting close to it.”


The last major tax hike in California was a 2012 voter-approved tax on residents making more than $250,000 championed by Gov. Jerry Brown, which voters later extended through 2030. Voters in November, however, rejected a ballot initiative to tax commercial properties at their current value, which would have generated up to $12 billion more annually.

Advocates say another tax hike is overdue, but even without one, the state could change its priorities to make better use of its billions.

“It’s all very frustrating, since with the fifth largest economy in the world, these things are fixable. The money is there,” said Courtney McKinney, spokesperson for the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “It is a question of priorities — whether or not millions of people being plunged into poverty is seen as enough of a destabilizer to encourage the wealthy, business and political class in California to put money into addressing poverty and the trappings of poor environment in smart, sensible ways. Easier said than done.”

Assemblymember Alex Lee (D-San Jose), a coauthor of legislation to extend the eviction moratorium for another year, said resistance to more permanent solutions to help low-income residents is a reminder that California is not as progressive as it claims to be.

In the November election, California proved it’s not the liberal bastion people think it is. Besides rejecting the business property tax increase, they opposed affirmative action and rent control while they sided with gig employers and dialysis companies instead of labor unions.

“Whether or not people should be evicted during a pandemic in a recession … even just having to fight about that says we aren’t where we should be yet,” Lee said. “I think a lot of people are realizing this stuff, and that even though we have Democratic super, ultra majorities, we aren’t living up to the progressive potential we have. I would never characterize us as progressive state.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on January 17, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mackenzie Mays covers education in California. Prior to joining POLITICO in 2019, she was the investigative reporter at the Fresno Bee, where her political watchdog reporting received a National Press Club press freedom award.


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Opening the Door to a More Democratic UAW

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In December the leadership of the United Auto Workers reached a settlement with the Justice Department that opens the door to election of top union officers by referendum vote of the membership. That might well end more than 70 years of one-party control and help democratize a union once known for animated internal debate and competitive leadership contests.

The settlement provides for six years of oversight by a court-appointed monitor with extensive powers, including the authority to veto new UAW staff hires and block candidates for office who do not meet an anti-corruption standard.

More important, the agreement calls for a vote of all 400,000 members to decide whether they want direct election of top leaders, or to continue with the current system whereby delegates choose the national leadership at each constitutional convention, held every four years.

According to the timetable in the court order, the referendum, overseen by the monitor, should take place by September 2021. If members vote for direct election of officers, another union-wide vote to select them would take place in 2022.

LACK OF DEMOCRACY AT THE CORE

The deal ends a sweeping federal investigation that uncovered embezzlement, bribery, and cover-ups by 11 high-ranking union officials, including two former presidents, Dennis Williams and Gary Jones. Together, these officials embezzled more than $1.5 million in dues money and took $3.5 million in illegal payments from executives of Fiat Chrysler, who sought to corruptly influence contract talks.

U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider, who led the investigation, argued that lack of democracy has been at the core of the UAW’s problems. His anti-fraud complaint demonstrated that insularity and self-dealing on the union executive board created an environment where corruption could flourish. Thus, a small group on that board chose Jones to succeed Williams, even as both were complicit in the growing corruption scandal.

Although Schneider was a Trump appointee, his commitment to a referendum vote in the UAW was influenced by a new reform network of UAW members, Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), which had already been working to build support for one-member-one-vote. In early 2020 their effort to call a special convention to do just that fell short, with 26 locals representing 60,000 UAW members in support, below the 80,000 needed.

ONE-PARTY REGIME

The UAW has been a one-party regime for many decades because the union convention, which elects all the top national officers, has been tightly controlled by an “Administration Caucus,” which routinely wins an overwhelming proportion of the delegate vote.

Actual decisions as to who will be nominated to lead the union are made by the 13-member international executive board—all of them members of the caucus. Sharp conflicts do take place on that body. In 1970 Leonard Woodcock defeated Douglas Fraser by just one vote, and in 1982 Owen Bieber secured the top slot after nearly a year of internal conflict.

But once the executive board chooses a slate, top union officials close ranks. “Teamwork in the leadership, solidarity in the ranks” was a slogan the UAW deployed to confront the auto corporations during union’s post-World War II heyday. But today that idea has come to stand for near autocratic control.

The Administration Caucus wields a variety of levers that create loyalty among the thousand-plus convention delegates: the promise of a staff job, support in a local election, or conversely, criticism and marginalization from above. The eight UAW regional directors, also chosen at convention, are the key disciplinarians. They keep close tabs on signs of discontent among the locals and can recommend appointment to or dismissal from staff jobs.

The UAW under this regime has been plagued not only with corruption but also, perhaps more profoundly, with a culture of collaboration with employers. Wages and benefits declined as the union accepted concessions and a multi-tier workforce, allowed locals to be pitted against one another, and largely failed to organize the growing nonunion share of U.S. auto production.

UNION-WIDE BALLOT

A union-wide ballot would enable all UAW members to vote directly for the president and other top officers, which is also the way officials in the Teamsters, Machinists, Laborers, Postal Workers (APWU), and Steelworkers are chosen.

The Teamsters adopted that system in a 1989 legal settlement designed to root out wrongdoing and racketeering; the one-member-one-vote system was championed then by the reform caucus Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), along with oversight by a government-appointed election supervisor.

Before then, Teamster conventions had been little more than coronation ceremonies for a close-knit group of increasingly corrupt officials. Union-wide elections created a much more participatory organization.

In the 1990s a Teamster reform slate led by Ron Carey held office for five years. Thereafter an old guard headed by James P. Hoffa has led the union, but it has been continuously challenged by TDU and other reform forces. As a consequence, says TDU organizer Ken Paff, Hoffa and his allies have had to “police themselves,” helping keep out at least some of the most corrupt and self-serving officials.

Union-wide elections serve to energize the rank and file. In 2016 the TDU-backed Teamsters United slate won 49 percent of the vote, electing six vice presidents to the executive board and winning top leadership posts in two big regions covering Southern and Midwestern states.

In the NewsGuild, part of the Communications Workers, Jon Schleuss, a 32-year old reporter at the Los Angeles Times, used a 2019 national ballot of Guild members to oust Bernie Lunzer, a three-term incumbent twice his age.

A notable feature of the contest was an actual debate—unusual in the union movement—moderated by retired CWA President Larry Cohen. It took place in the form of a conference call, with members submitting text and email questions before and during.

DIRECT ELECTIONS NO PANACEA

Referendum election of top officers is not a panacea, however. Democracy in union affairs requires organizing a group or caucus with a clear program, broad appeal, and articulate leaders.

During the first dozen years of its existence, the UAW was one of the nation’s most democratic and progressive unions. Two factions, one a Communist-backed coalition, the other led by Walter Reuther, vied for leadership, not just on the executive board but also in almost all locals and regions. Debate took place on every conceivable topic: bargaining strategy, strike tactics, race relations, foreign policy, and political action, inside the Democratic Party or to its left.

The union’s annual convention proved an exciting venue for argument, coalition-building, and education of the membership. Reuther, who would become the union’s legendary president in the postwar years, would park himself at the entrance to the convention bookstall to talk and debate delegates for hours at a time.

When the entire convention heard leaders of each caucus argue key issues and then vote on rival resolutions, the national press corps put the results on the front pages of leading newspapers the very next day.

All this ended when the Reuther caucus won all the top leadership posts in 1947. Thereafter, opponents were kept off the executive board or coopted onto the staff. A “flower fund,” to which all staff and officers had to contribute, helped sustain Reuther caucus control. (It still exists, providing an illegal slush fund for some of the UAW officials enmeshed in the recent corruption scandal). Conventions became less frequent and internal debate declined.

AN INSTRUCTIVE CONTRAST

The history of the United Steelworkers (USW) offers an instructive contrast. When John L. Lewis and Philip Murray created the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in the mid-1930s, it was a tightly-controlled institution in which all officers and organizers were appointed from the top. Murray transformed it into the USW in 1942 and instituted union-wide elections.

This was not designed to democratize the organization, however, but rather to ensure that UAW-style factionalism would not break out at either the union convention or in the districts and locals. Since the leadership monopolized communications with the rank and file and chose most of the staff, their power seemed secure.

But from the late 1950s through the mid-1970s a series of union-wide election contests erupted in the USW, with challengers winning upwards of 40 percent of all votes, and perhaps a majority in basic steel locals.

The most progressive was that of Ed Sadlowski in 1977, which sought to turn the USW toward a more militant posture in bargaining and political action. But because his defeat coincided with the onset of widespread mill closings and layoffs, the Sadlowski campaign also marked the end of union-wide challenges to USW leadership.

Thereafter collective bargaining in steel was far more decentralized and the union became more heterogeneous, so the basis for a union-wide opposition diminished. And USW leaders generally avoided the kind of money scandals that plagued the UAW, the Teamsters, and the Laborers.

WORK CUT OUT FOR THEM

Reformers in the UAW have their work cut out for them. They must organize for two elections: the referendum to determine whether the union will move to a union-wide vote, and then the election of top officers themselves. Meanwhile, UAW President Rory Gamble has promised to “educate” the membership on the “issues” with a union-wide vote, and the Administration Caucus will likely put its formidable political machinery into action to lobby hard against direct elections.

Those obstacles can be overcome, however, if UAW members and local leaders come to understand that democratic control of their organization is essential to building a larger and more potent union. To this end the UAWD aspires to transform the UAW “back into the militant union that launched the Flint sit-down, championed civil rights, and took on the most powerful companies in the world.”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on January 19, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Nelson Lichtenstein is the author of State of the Union: A Century of American Labor, as well as a biography of Walter Reuther.


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Trump plan to politicize key civil service jobs has run out of time

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It looks like one of Team Trump’s last-minute efforts to destroy the civil service has fizzled. With less than a day to go, the plan to strip protections from tens of thousands of career federal employees hasn’t been put into effect at any federal agency. 

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Office of Personnel Management had rushed to list many of their jobs in the new Schedule F, a new classification for jobs involving policymaking. That means that career civil servants who have served under both presidents from both parties would be more like political appointees, vulnerable to being fired for insufficient loyalty. It’s a plan that would gut expertise in the federal government and remake it into Donald Trump’s loyalty-obsessed image.

But it’s a plan that, fingers crossed, isn’t going into effect anywhere. The Office of Personnel Management’s list of positions to move into Schedule F didn’t move forward, The Washington Post reports, and Budget Director Russell Vought reportedly told staff that there wasn’t time to put the changes into place at the OMB.

“It logistically was never going to be possible for this to be put into effect,” a senior administration official told the Post. The prospect was scary enough, though, that a lawyer for a federal workers union said, “I’m holding my breath until we’re out of the woods”—as in, when Trump is officially and finally out of office.

lf workers aren’t shifted into Schedule F before noon on Wednesday, then President-elect Joe Biden inherits an executive order calling for those changes, but nothing concrete to undo or be stuck with. It’s just a really good thing that Team Trump hasn’t been as competent as they have been evil—they’ve done enough damage as it is.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on January 19, 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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How Chicago Teachers Are Resisting the City’s Dangerous School Reopenings

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This week, the first wave of children, teachers and clinicians in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system were required to appear at their schools for the first time in nearly a year. While Covid-19 cases and deaths have only increased (and increased dramatically) across the country since last spring, CPS officials and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot insist on reopening schools. What’s worse, teachers who fear for their safety and the safety of their students and coworkers are being locked out of their employee accounts and having their pay docked if they refuse to return from teaching remotely. In this urgent mini-cast, we talk to Paula Ladin and Mariana Ruiz, two CPS special-ed educators, about the city’s dangerous, reckless and unnecessary reopening plan and the impact it is already having on students, teachers, their families and their communities.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 15, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Service + Solidarity Spotlight: Sacramento Central Labor Council Brings Holiday Joy to Children with Disabilities

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Working people across the United States have stepped up to help out our friends, neighbors and communities during these trying times. In our regular Service + Solidarity Spotlight series, we’ll showcase one of these stories every day. Here’s today’s story.

The Sacramento Central Labor Council delivered groceries to more than 200 union families in need during the holidays, and 450 kids also received a present from Santa. Santa visited the Ralph Richardson Center to deliver teddy bears and take pictures (all socially distanced) with students. Also, in a continuation of a six-year tradition, the council passed out teddy bears from a fire truck (with union member Santa) to children with special needs at Starr-King K–8 School in Sacramento.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on January 11, 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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Swarming Solidarity: How Contract Negotiations in 2021 Could Be Flashpoints in the U.S. Class Struggle

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The labor movement’s pundits and prognosticators ring in the New Year like commentators anywhere. They make pronouncements about what “will” happen and what “should” happen to revitalize the shrinking U.S. trade union movement.

At 6.2 percent density in the private sector, U.S. unions aren’t even treading water; we are drowning. That makes it more imperative than ever to engage members to strengthen connections between our union struggles and build broader public support.

The best opportunity to involve union members in 2021 will be through the large-scale collective bargaining agreements that are due to expire this year. Economic struggles remain the center of gravity for the U.S. working class and its organized members in particular. An analysis of the collective bargaining calendar points us in the direction of where those struggles are most likely to occur.

This year, 450 collective bargaining agreements covering more than 200 union members apiece will expire, according to Bloomberg, which maintains the most comprehensive database of expiring agreements outside of the AFL-CIO. Of these, 160 agreements cover more than 1,000 workers.

These 450 contracts, involving more than a million and a half workers, are an ideal opportunity for the labor movement to showcase our power and the advantages of collective bargaining. 

HOT SPOTS

Agreements covering 200,000 health care workers will expire. In the public sector 161,000 municipal workers, 112,000 state workers, and 100,000 school employees have contracts expiring. 

Most of these workers have been on the front lines providing essential services during the pandemic. But with the economy sinking, employers will be preaching austerity and looking for concessions. There are likely to be many contentious negotiations, some leading to vigorous contract campaigns or strikes. 

Union leaders and rank-and-file members need to brace themselves for the coming battles. These contract campaigns—and some inevitable strikes—will offer the best opportunity for the labor movement to build class consciousness and recast our unions as vehicles to advance wages and working conditions—or at a minimum, maintain them. 

The single largest contract is the Postal Workers (APWU) agreement with the U.S. Postal Service that expires in September, covering 200,000 workers. Another USPS agreement with the Rural Letter Carriers, covering 131,000 workers, expires in May. 

The 50-state scope of these agreements, and postal workers’ newly evident status as providers of a service essential to our democracy, make their contract fights a natural for nationwide solidarity. While it’s unlikely (though not impossible) that there will be a strike, given the legal straitjacket imposed on postal unions and their scant recent history of shop floor militancy, the reform leadership at the helm of the APWU is committed to workplace contract campaigns and outreach to the public. Postal workers have plenty to be mad about—months of forced overtime, intense understaffing, jammed mail plants, attacks from a hostile new Postmaster General, and a two-tiered workforce—and they’re very visible in every community of this country.

There will also be state and regional opportunities to build solidarity among workers in different unions who may be facing common problems or making similar demands. With 52 expiring agreements covering more than 200 members, California is the state with the most opportunity for geographic solidarity, closely followed by Washington (36), Pennsylvania (35), and New York (32). 

An even better possibility for synergies is at the metropolitan level. Cities with the most expiring agreements over 200 members are New York (16 contracts), Minneapolis-St. Paul (12), Seattle (11), and Portland (8). Of course, there are many smaller expiring agreements in these cities that could also be included in any metro solidarity initiative. 

There are a few other large multistate agreements that might lend themselves to a national focus: 

  • Kaiser Permanente’s agreement with a coalition of unions representing 45,000 workers expires in September.
  • United Airlines’ agreement with the Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA), covering 25,000 workers, expires in July.
  • The school bus company First Student’s agreement with the Teamsters, covering 20,000 workers, expires in March.
  • Throughout 2021, the TV networks (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) have big agreements that expire with SAG/AFTRA, CWA-NABET, and the Electrical Workers (IBEW).

INSPIRE THE UNORGANIZED

The struggles for new agreements will also be labor’s best opportunity to showcase the advantages of collective bargaining to not-yet-union workers. As millions of union workers get into motion to resist austerity and win Covid-19 protections, the unorganized will be watching—and evaluating the efficacy of uniting with their co-workers.

In our experience, unorganized workers are generally attracted to unions that engage in contract campaigns and strikes. For example, after the 1997 Teamsters UPS strike, workers at FedEx, Overnite, and many other freight and delivery companies were inspired to try to form unions with the Teamsters. 

BUILD ON PUBLIC SUPPORT

To the extent that unions make our struggles in the public interest and for “the common good,” contract expirations offer an opportunity to build alliances with patients, parents and students, subway and bus riders, and people who depend on state and municipal services.

Who can dismiss the importance and bravery of bus drivers and train operators during the pandemic? There’s never been more public support for the 67,000 transportation workers who are going to the table nationwide in 2021.

Thousands of other workers who were deemed essential during Covid-19 will soon square off against their employers too: 37,000 airline workers in seven agreements (plus 2,500 pilots who fly for UPS and 4,000 who fly for FedEx), 27,600 construction workers in 16 agreements, and 48,500 grocery workers in 17 agreements.

The biggest grocery agreement, with Kroger, covers 20,000 Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) members in the Greater Cincinnati area. These negotiations come after a year when consumers have gained a new appreciation for frontline supermarket workers for their pandemic shopping needs and deliveries. 

In recent years, union bargaining teams have brought their “constituents” (customers, patients, students) directly to the table to raise their shared concerns for the staffing and skills needed to maintain or improve services. What better way to educate our allies about collective bargaining and show management a broader united front than to bring them into bargaining with us? 

CROSS-POLLINATE IN KEY SECTORS

With more than 300 of the agreements expiring on or after June 1, union leaders and activists have ample to time to prepare. The biggest expiration months are June (140), August (43), and December (38).

In recent years, teachers have been the most militant sector of the labor movement. The National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) respectively have 71 and 39 school agreements up in 2021 that cover more than 200 members each, collectively involving 77,500 K-12 educators and support personnel.

Imagine the movement that might emerge from holding joint meetings of leaders and activists from these 100-plus unions to share strategies and coordinate bargaining demands. Not to mention representatives from unions covered under the many smaller expiring agreements, who could also be invited to participate.

The 224,400 health care workers and 40,600 nurses with expiring contracts—who are unfortunately spread out among nine different national or international unions (AFSCME, AFT, National Nurses United, Communications Workers, National Union of Healthcare Workers, Operating Engineers, Service Employees, Teamsters, and UFCW)—have a similar opportunity. The need for improved coordination and information sharing in the health care industry has never been greater. 

GET POLITICIANS INVOLVED

We’ve just been through an election cycle where many Democratic politicians pledged to support unions and collective bargaining. Some even showed up to picket lines and union rallies. They must have remembered the powerful boost that Bernie Sanders got from assisting the Verizon strike during his 2016 run for the Democratic nomination. 

Our contract negotiations can assume a political character with the support of politicians. But beyond perfunctory appearances, it’s time for supposedly pro-union elected officials to weigh in by regulating the ability of corporate owners to repress labor action. Should public pension funds finance strikebreakers? Should police herd scabs? The power of the state at the local, state, and federal level can help swing the outcome of many labor disputes.

The historic Senate election of Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in Georgia has put the Democratic Party in control of Congress and the White House. Many union members will be hoping for passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. Against the backdrop of this push for labor law reform, these 450 expiring contracts could take on an even greater political character. 

Putting aside whether labor law reform can pass in a very divided Congress, many in labor hope “Scranton Joe” Biden will be a powerful cheerleader for unions and use his executive power to aid his allies. Top priority on our list would be a $15 minimum wage and union neutrality for employees of federal contractors. 

As an example, the president could use his bully pulpit to voice forceful support for the tens of thousands of essential workers with expiring contracts who have been recognized as heroes of the pandemic. And with more federal-level support, local elected officials could be urged to use state and municipal regulations to help workers gain additional bargaining leverage.

In each sector of the economy, unions can strengthen their arguments by pointing to the public largesse their employers received during the pandemic, or the essential services their members provide. As is both usual and necessary, members themselves will be the very best ambassadors to make the case to the public.

HOW TO DO IT: SWARMING SOLIDARITY

The best way to convey the economic significance and high drama of these collective bargaining struggles onto the political landscape is “swarming solidarity.”

That means getting union activists and other friends of labor to rally in support of each other’s struggles by marching on picket lines, testifying at city council and state hearings, writing letters, and showing support on social media. It was the core tenet of Jobs with Justice’s “I’ll Be There” pledge and the AFL-CIO’s “Street Heat” in the ’80s and ’90s. 

For example, successful supermarket strikes have always involved other unions adopting stores and picketing to keep their members and their families from crossing the lines as hungry consumers. 

Imagine if all the pro-union members of the California legislature showed up at airports to support striking airline workers? Or if those legislators confronted store managers while 5,000 UFCW members picketed after their contracts expire in July at Rite-Aid stores? These kinds of creative solidarity can propel labor struggles into the public consciousness and force a “which side are you on?” moment for the American public and elected officials. 

Labor Notes’ subscribers and its conference participants are a great network of activists well positioned to assist unions in a broad mobilization. Other networks that could be enlisted include Jobs with Justice coalitions, central labor councils, occupational safety and health (COSH) networks, branches of the Democratic Socialists of America, Labor for Bernie supporters, and the relatively new Labor Action to Defend Democracy.

Labor leaders and activists everywhere need to study the national, regional, and local bargaining schedules—and get everyone to mark their calendars with expiration dates. It’s time to reach out to local union leaders and begin making plans to expand their collective bargaining campaigns. There is ample time now, months in advance, to make plans for “swarming solidarity” and begin aggressive support for the key upcoming contract battles. Labor should not squander these important opportunities in 2021 and beyond.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on January 14, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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

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


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