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Service + Solidarity Spotlight: Across America, Workers Hold Day of Action to Save Union Jobs

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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.

Braving bitter cold temperatures across much of the country, hundreds of union members, environmental activists and community groups turned out in force for a national day of action on Saturday to raise awareness of the IUE-CWA’s campaign to save union jobs at the GE-Savant lighting plant in Bucyrus, Ohio, and help the environment. According to IUE-CWA, GE-Savant intends to transfer its LED lightbulb product line to China, permanently laying off more than 80 workers, and possibly closing the plant. “People are saying that if these jobs go, then it’s only a matter of time before the plant closes,” IUE-CWA Local 81201 President Adam Kaszynski told The Daily Item. “The hypocrisy of the situation is glaring because they’re going to have to send these back from China to sell them in the United States, increasing the carbon footprint. Walmart certainly has the power to demand that these lightbulbs are manufactured in Bucyrus.” Kaszynski (not pictured) led rallies with the North Shore Labor Council at Walmart stores in Lynn and Salem, Massachusetts.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIOon February 24, 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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A Minimum Wage? A Fake Debate

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Capitalism’s “conservative” defenders yet again oppose raising the minimum wage. They fought raising it in the past much as they tried to prevent the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938) that first mandated a U.S. minimum wage. The major argument opponents have used is this: setting or raising a minimum wage threatens small employers. They may collapse or else fire employees; either way, jobs are lost. What is conveniently assumed here is a necessary contradiction between minimum wages and small business jobs. That assumption enables opponents to claim that not setting a legal minimum wage, like not raising it, saves jobs. The system thus presents very poorly paid workers with this choice: low wages or no wages.

“Liberals” in the United States have mostly accepted the assumption of that contradiction, the necessity of that final choice. However, they try to demonstrate that the social gains from a higher minimum wage would exceed the social losses from the reduced employment they admit. Their idea, in effect, is that a higher minimum wage would increase demand for goods and services. Any workers fired because of the minimum wage would be rehired elsewhere to meet the rising demand. Countless empirical studies by conservatives and liberals yield, as usual, correspondingly conflicting conclusions.

In the actual history of U.S. capitalism, the minimum wage has been undercut from the outset. In real terms (what the minimum wage can actually buy), its long-term decline began from a peak in 1968. It was last raised in 2009 (to $7.25 per hour) despite a rising consumer price index every year since then. U.S. business interests plus the “conservative” politicians, media, and academics they support have inundated the public with the idea that raising the minimum wage will hurt poorly paid workers (by losing mostly small business jobs) more than help them. This debate over the minimum wage, intensified whenever proposals to raise it gain public attention, has been “won” chiefly by the conservative/business side.

Despite its political effectiveness for conservatives and big business till now, their argument—like the entire debate—is flawed logically. Its underlying, shared assumption is unnecessary and inaccurate. It serves chiefly to undercut the level, purpose, and social effects of the minimum wage in the United States.

Paying a decent living wage to workers by raising the minimum wage need not threaten the viability of small businesses. The latter need not collapse nor fire workers when minimum wages are raised. Indeed, raising the minimum wage can and should be one basis for a mutually beneficial alliance between wage workers and small businesses.

Few dare quarrel with the notion that in the U.S. today, paying the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour is an outrage against decency. It is among the very lowest minimum wages of industrialized economies: quite the achievement for one of the “richest countries in the world.” So the defense of such an outrage has always begun by focusing attention elsewhere. We are asked to sympathize with the small businesses whose profits and thus viability will be undone if they are required to pay a raised minimum wage. We are asked likewise to sympathize with the plight of minimum wage workers who will become jobless when their employer cannot pay a raised minimum wage. Thus the conclusion beloved by opponents of raising the minimum wage: it lies in the interest of low-paid workers and small businesses to join the opposition to raising the minimum wage.

So many flaws attend such logic that it is not easy to decide where to begin its demolition. We might note that it clearly implies that were we to drop the minimum wage even further, below $7.25 per hour, we might achieve lower unemployment rates. But that is so gross an idea that right-wingers rarely go there. They don’t dare.

There is a parallel example we can draw from the history of wage workers when they included children as young as five years old. The parallel logic then held that allowing child labor (with the oppression and abuses it entailed) was doing poor families a favor. Were child labor to be outlawed, capitalism’s defenders then insisted, two tragedies would necessarily follow. First, poor families would suffer an income loss because they could no longer sell their children’s labor power to capitalist employers for a wage. Second, businesses whose profits depended at least partly on low-wage child labor would collapse and render adults jobless too.

It is important to note that after sustained political agitation, child labor was in fact outlawed. The logic of its defenders was rejected and rarely resurfaced afterward even in right-wing and “conservative” literature. Former capitalist employers of children found other means (paying adults more, improving productivity, economizing on other inputs, and so on) to profit and grow. As we know, U.S. capitalism over the last century prospered without child labor. And where U.S. capitalists relocated abroad to employ children, opposition there has replicated what happened in the United States, albeit slowly. What happened to child labor can and likely will happen as well to abysmally low minimum wages.

How then might a civilized society raise its minimum wage to provide a decent livelihood to workers and protect its small businesses? The solution is straightforward. Offset the extra labor costs for small businesses from a higher minimum wage by providing them with some combination of the following: a new and significant share of government orders, tax breaks, and government subsidies. Such supports now overwhelmingly favor big business and thereby facilitate its many efforts to destroy and replace small businesses. Those supports should be reapportioned with special consideration/targeting for small businesses. To be eligible, small businesses would need to show how raising the minimum wage increased their total wage bill. In this way, society can concretely support small business and a decent minimum wage as twin, shared social values.

In effect, this proposal changes the terrain of the minimum wage debate. It brings into stark relief that raising the minimum wage leaves open the question of which part of the employer class will bear the burden of compensating for that in the short run. An effective political coalition of low-wage workers and small businesses could require big business to pay by losing some of its government business, paying higher taxes, or obtaining lower subsidies—all to compensate small businesses for a raised minimum wage. For decades, an alternative political coalition—of big and small business—blocked or delayed minimum wage increases. Nothing requires this latter coalition to always or, indeed, ever prevail over a competing coalition of labor and small business that seeks a higher minimum wage for one plus greater state supports for the other. Likewise, nothing warrants continuing the current debate over raising the minimum wage as if only small business would always have to absorb its possible costs.

The debate over the minimum wage has been lopsided for a very long time. Uncritical media coverage of the debate has allowed big business to evade its proper share of paying to sustain a viable small business sector. Meanwhile, workers and small businesses pay taxes that favor big business. Most Americans want a thriving small business sector. Most also increasingly criticize big business: “antitrust” remains part of government regulation as well as a part of popular ideologies. We can and should correct the old debate now to enable a different political coalition to shape minimum wages in a different way from the past.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

About the Author: Richard D. Wolff is professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a visiting professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University, in New York. Wolff’s weekly show, “Economic Update,” is syndicated by more than 100 radio stations and goes to 55 million TV receivers via Free Speech TV. His three recent books with Democracy at Work are The Sickness Is the System: When Capitalism Fails to Save Us From Pandemics or ItselfUnderstanding Marxism, and Understanding Socialism.


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Manchin and Sinema are poised to tank $15 minimum wage, so here come the insulting ‘compromises’

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A minimum wage increase goes before the Senate parliamentarian on Wednesday to find out if it passes muster for inclusion in the COVID-19 relief package being passed under budget reconciliation. Democrats feel good that a recent Congressional Budget Office analysis shows the measure has enough budget impact for reconciliation, allowing it to be passed by a simple majority vote. But even if the parliamentarian agrees, the plan for a $15 minimum wage in 2025 is in deep peril thanks to Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. So now the rush is on for senators to float proposals trying to make themselves look like heroes of the low-wage worker without, you know, supporting anything like an actual living wage.

Sens. Tom Cotton and Mitt Romney came out with a plan for a $10 minimum wage by 2025. This is pitifully low—in fact, Cotton’s own state of Arkansas has an $11 minimum wage right now, following a 2018 ballot measure that got the support of 68% of Arkansas voters. When opponents of a $15 minimum wage (who themselves make much, much more) start talking about how it’s just too much for some regions of the country, consider that Arkansas vote.

Cotton and Romney also want to tie their insultingly inadequate pay raise to an anti-immigrant measure, requiring all employers to use E-Verify to ensure they don’t hire undocumented immigrants. In other words, Republicans are advancing an unacceptable bill in hopes of claiming that Democrats were the ones to block a minimum wage increase.

Again, 68% of Arkansas voters passed an $11 minimum wage measure in 2018. In 2020, just over 60% of Florida voters passed a $15 minimum wage measure, which will raise the state’s minimum wage to $10 on Sept. 30, 2021 and get to $15 in September 2026.

Manchin, too, has his own insulting minimum wage proposal. He’s pushing for $11, claiming it’s more appropriate for states like his own West Virginia. Except $11 is not a living wage in West Virginia. Not only that, but back in 2014, Manchin backed a $10.10 minimum wage. Seven years later, he’s only gone up to $11? Sinema similarly backed the $10.10 minimum wage in 2014, by the way.

Cotton and Romney’s proposal is a nonstarter. Manchin at least offers Democrats something to work with since he doesn’t seem intent on attaching a poison pill to an inadequate raise. He and Sinema should come under intense pressure to do the right thing. While they should—if they have any allegiance either to low-wage workers or to economic realities—pass the Raise the Wage Act, getting the federal minimum wage to $15 in 2025, there may not be enough pressure in the world for these two drunk on their own power as swing votes and in love with their conservative Democrat self-image.

Here’s where we are now as Manchin and Sinema hold up a series of gradual increases to $15. The $7.25 federal minimum wage hasn’t gone up since 2009, and given inflation since that time, it would need to be $8.81 an hour to have the same buying power it did in 2009. Full-time work at $7.25 an hour puts the single parent of one child below the federal poverty threshold, or puts a single worker with no dependents only slightly out of poverty. 

The highest the minimum wage has ever been, as far as inflation and buying power, was in 1968, when it was the equivalent of $12.27 in today’s dollars. At the moment, 29 states and the District of Columbia have higher minimum wages than $7.25 an hour, including Manchin’s West Virginia ($8.75) and Sinema’s Arizona ($11). Full-time, year-round work at $15 an hour yields an annual income of just over $31,000. Does that sound outrageously high? In fact, right now, never mind in 2025, even $15 an hour isn’t truly a living wage.

This is what Manchin and Sinema—to say nothing of every single Republican—are moaning and groaning about.

But if there is no amount of pressure enough to make them do the right thing, then a compromise could, under some circumstances, be better than nothing. The Raise the Wage Act reaches $11 in 2022, $12.50 in 2023, $14 in 2024, and $15 in 2025; after that, the minimum wage becomes indexed to the median wage. If Manchin and Sinema could sign on to hitting one of those intermediate steps—say, $12.50—and indexing it to the median wage while also raising the tipped worker subminimum wage that has been stuck at $2.13 an hour since 1991, well … it wouldn’t be enough, but it would help millions of workers, and indexing the minimum wage would ensure that those workers never again go more than decade without a raise.

A $15 minimum wage should be the starting point in a discussion. Unfortunately, the United States’ broken politics and the minority rule of the Senate may put it out of reach, consigning millions of U.S. workers to poverty for years to come. That’s something to mourn, and to organize to change. In the short term, Democrats need to do the best they can do by working people.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on February 24, 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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Joe Biden Has a Golden Opportunity to Strengthen Public Education

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In picking Connecticut Commissioner of Education Miguel Cardona to be his nominee for U.S. secretary of education, President-elect Joe Biden appears to have made a Goldilocks choice that pleases just about everyone. People who rarely agree on education policy have praised the decision, including Jeanne Allen, CEO of the Center for Education Reform, a nonprofit group that advocates for charter schools and school choice, who called Cardona “good news,” and education historian Diane Ravitch, who also called the pick “good news” because he does not seem to be aligned with advocates for charter schools and vouchers. Sara Sneed, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation, a public charity founded by educators, called Cardona an “ideal candidate,” in an email, and hailed him for “his emphasis on the need to end structural racism in education and for his push for greater educational equity and opportunity through public schools.”

But as Biden and Cardona—should he be approved, as most expect—begin to address the array of critical issues that confront the nation’s schools, there’s bound to be more of a pushback. Or maybe not?

After decades of federal legislation that emphasized mandating standardized testing and tying school and teacher evaluations to the scores; imposing financial austerity on public institutions; incentivizing various forms of privatization; and undermining teachers’ professionalism and labor rights, there is a keen appetite for a new direction for school policy.

Due to the disruption forced by the pandemic, much is being written and said about the need to “restart and reinvent” education and a newfound appreciation for schools as essential infrastructure for families and children. With an incoming Biden administration, Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress, and the influence of incoming first lady Jill Biden, a career educator, we may be on the cusp of a historic moment when the stars align to revitalize public schools in a way that hasn’t happened in a generation.

Among the promising ideas that appear to have growing momentum behind them are proposals to fund schools more equitably, to expand community schools that take a more holistic approach to educating students, to create curriculum and pedagogy that are relevant to the science of how children learn and the engagement of their families, and to reverse the direction of accountability measures from top-down mandates to bottom-up community-based endeavors.

In her email, Sneed praised Biden’s commitment to expand the community schools model to an additional 300,000 students. She said, “My hope is that his effort will bring community schools to every part of the country, including the American South which is so often under resourced.”

Where’s the opposition to these ideas?

In her farewell address to the Education Department, before she tendered her resignation with a mere 13 days left, outgoing secretary Betsy DeVos told career staff members to “be the resistance” to an incoming Biden administration, Politico reported. In her farewell letter to Congress, she urged lawmakers to “reject Biden’s education agenda,” according to the Washington Post.

Does anyone really think there are any federal officials who will heed this advice?

During her tenure, DeVos cut more than 500 positions from her department, 13 percent of its staff, and proposed enormous funding cuts to programs. Employees accused her of “gutting” their labor agreement, reported the Washington Post, and replacing it with new rules that stripped out worker protections and disability rights, among other provisions. Employee morale “plummeted” under her management, Education Week reported, and she threatened to suspend an employee who leaked her plan to slash the department’s resources.

In Congress, DeVos was constantly besieged—from her approval, which required a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence, a historic first, to her contentious final in-person hearing. Her proposals to dramatically shrink federal spending on education went nowhere, and her many proposals for a federal school voucher program were never taken up by Congress.

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten captured most people’s sentiments when DeVos resigned, saying just two words: “Good riddance.”

Instead of taking up DeVos’s calls for “resistance,” Capitol Hill seems much more likely to welcome Biden-Cardona with open arms.

An “early test” for Cardona, as Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post reports, will be deciding whether or not to let states opt out of administering federally mandated standardized tests to every student. In 2020, DeVos had let states waive the mandate, but she announced she would enforce the requirement in 2021 should she remain in office.

As Strauss reported, should Cardona decide to waive the order, he would please a broad consensus, including state and local superintendents, teachers’ unions, state and local boards of education, and federal and state lawmakers “from both sides of the political aisle.” At least one national survey has found that a sizable majority of parents want the tests canceled.

Another potentially contentious issue will be Biden’s “pledge to reopen most schools” for in-person learning within the first 100 days of his administration. Attempts to reopen schools during a pandemic have caused teachers in many school districts to rebel by writing their obituaries, staging mock funeralsresigningcalling in sick, and organizing strikes and other labor actions.

However, the operative word in Biden’s pledge to reopen is “safely.” His proposal rests on key conditions, including getting the virus under control in surrounding communities, setting health and safety guidelines recommended by experts, and providing sufficient funding to protect returning students, teachers, and support staff.

This is the complete opposite of Trump and DeVos, who simply demanded schools reopen and then did nothing to support the reopening process.

When a reporter from the Associated Press asked Weingarten to comment on Biden’s proposal to reopen schools, she replied, “Hallelujah.”

In his leadership of Connecticut schools, Cardona has taken a similarly non-ideological stance on keeping schools open in the pandemic, as Education Week’s Evie Blad explains in a video (beginning at 5:57), by “[encouraging] schools to keep their doors open” and “providing resources” and “support.” But he “never mandated” schools to deliver in-person instruction.

Congress, where Democrats have a small majority in the House and a razor-thin margin in the Senate, may be resistant to provide the necessary funding Biden wants. But as Education Week’s Andrew Ujifusa explains, Democrats are mostly united in getting a “big new relief package” passed and have a way to overcome Republican opposition using budget reconciliation.

On the issue of charter schools, vouchers, and other forms of “school choice,” which was DeVos’s signature issue, Biden has stated he does “not support federal money for for-profit charter schools,” and said they often “[siphon] off money from our public schools, which are already in enough trouble.”

Based on this measured stance, some, including Trump, have warned Biden would “abolish” charter schools and school choice, which is simply not true.

Cardona has taken a similarly evenhanded view of charters, the Connecticut Mirror reports. Under his leadership in Connecticut, existing charters were renewed while no new ones were approved. “Asked about charter schools during his confirmation hearing [for Connecticut commissioner of education],” the article notes, “Cardona said he’d rather focus his energy making sure neighborhood public schools are viable options.”

This is a refreshing change, not only from DeVos’s rhetoric for privatization, but also from previous presidential administrations, including Obama’s, that openly advocated for charter schools. It foretells that perhaps what Biden-Cardona might bring to the policy discussion over charter schools and other forms of school choice is some genuinely honest conversation rather than sloganeering about charters.

Where Biden and Cardona are most likely to encounter headwinds to their education policies are from Republicans stuck in the ongoing culture wars.

Eight days before a mob of Trump supporters, driven by the president’s tirades against losing reelection, broke into the nation’s Capitol, sent lawmakers into seclusion, and desecrated the building, Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the House, reminded us that public education has long been a public institution in the crosshairs of right-wing ideologues. Asked by Guardian reporter David Smith, “where does the Republican party go from here?” Gingrich replied, “What you have, I think, is a Democratic party driven by a cultural belief system that they’re now trying to drive through the school system so they can brainwash the entire next generation if they can get away with it.”

Evidence of that “brainwashing” in public schools, supposedly, is the emphasis on the fully supportive inclusion of all students and protection of their civil rights that was behind many of the policy guidelines laid down by the Obama administration. DeVos rescinded many of those guidelines, but Biden has vowed to restore them.

Another source of potential discontent with the new energy that Biden and Cardona will likely bring to education policy are the holdovers of the “education reform” movement, who want to bring back in full force the top-down mandates from the Bush and Obama administrations, including charter school expansions, tying teacher evaluations to student test scores, and closing public schools based on their test scores.

For this crew, the central problem in education will always be “bad teachers,” and nothing but the most punitive accountability measures will do.

A case in point is a recent piece in New York Magazine extolling charter schools in which columnist Jonathan Chait writes that “the core dispute” in education politics is “a tiny number of bad teachers, protectively surrounded by a much larger circle of union members, surrounded in turn by an even larger number of Democrats who have only a vague understanding of the issue.”

In other words, if you don’t think cracking down on teachers and their unions is critical to improving schools, then you’re just not informed.

For decades, education policy has largely been a compromise between these two dominant factions of right-wing Republican ideologues and Democratic neoliberals, according to David Menefee-Libey, a professor of politics at Pomona College in Claremont, California. In a podcast hosted by journalist Jennifer Berkshire and education historian Jack Schneider, Menefee-Libey explains that charter schools and many other prominent features of federal education policy are the results of a “treaty” among these Republican and Democratic factions.

But as Menefee-Libey, Berkshire, and Schneider explain, in so many ways, the treaty has been broken, and after decades of attacks on public schools, we’re seeing the necessity of investing in public institutions, especially now, given the strains put on parents and communities by COVID-19.

“We are now at a point,” Menefee-Libey states, “where all of those large-scale, long-term public institutions are clearly at risk during the pandemic and the economic crash. [And] there are a lot of people [who] are discovering that maybe these institutions won’t automatically survive.”

Therein lies the golden opportunity for Biden on public education. Should he decide to go bold—not just by reopening schools with additional funding but also by proposing an ambitious investment in school infrastructure and community schools; not just by lifting burdensome accountabilities but also by actually listening to what teachers, parents, and students say they need for their schools to work; and not by trying to appease the tired, old arguments carried on by right-wing factions and reform fans in the Democratic Party—there is some likelihood he may get exactly what he wants. And that’s what our schools really need.

Source: Our Schools

This article was produced by Our Schools

About the Author: Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.


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Service + Solidarity Spotlight: North Carolina State AFL-CIO Issues Workers First Agenda for State

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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.

North Carolina State AFL-CIO President MaryBe McMillan (IUOE) reported the state federation and its affiliated unions have announced a Workers First Agenda for the 2021–22 legislative session. The priorities include requiring the state’s Department of Labor (NCDOL) to respond to COVID-19 related complaints about unsafe working conditions, ensuring safe and adequate housing for migrant farmworkers, maintaining a stable workers’ compensation program, and more. In the agenda, the North Carolina State AFL-CIO explained:

“Our priority is ensuring that working people receive adequate resources to survive the pandemic. Ultimately, however, we want working families to do more than just survive. Beyond the pandemic, we want working people to be able to thrive, to build better lives for themselves and their children, to enjoy the fruits of their labor, and to live with dignity. It is time for policymakers to recognize the significant contributions and sacrifices made by working people. It is time to put workers first, just as they have done for all of us during this unprecedented crisis.”

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on February 23, 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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Pathway to Progress: The Charleston Hospital Strike

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History has long been portrayed as a series of “great men” taking great action to shape the world we live in. In recent decades, however, social historians have focused more on looking at history “from the bottom up,” studying the vital role that working people played in our heritage. Working people built, and continue to build, the United States. In our new series, Pathway to Progress, we’ll take a look at various people, places and events where working people played a key role in the progress our country has made, including those who are making history right now. Today’s topic is the Charleston hospital strike.

In the late 1960s, Charleston, South Carolina, was NOT primed to be the next city to be a touchstone in either the civil rights movement or the labor movement. Much of the progress and activism seen elsewhere had passed Charleston by. And the White power structure was as equally entrenched against labor unionism as it was against the expansion of Black people’s rights. But the hospital strike of 1969 became as important to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) Poor People’s Campaign and the labor movement as the Montgomery bus boycott would be to the civil rights movement.

After dock workers were rejected in their bid for a union contract, everyone assumed Black hospital workers had absolutely no chance or successfully organizing. Workers at two hospitals, though, had other plans. One of the hospitals was run by the state and the other by the county. Management had reportedly engaged in racially biased behavior, notably preventing Black doctors from working at the hospital for many years.

Local 1199, then associated with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, had experience with organizing in hostile territory. After it organized 34,000 new members in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, it formed a national organizing committee for hospital workers. The local also reached out to the SCLC, one of the most important civil rights organizations, to coordinate on organizing efforts. Nearly 3 million hospital and nursing home employees throughout the country were without union representation, most were Black or Latinx and most were desperately poor. The SCLC launched the Poor People’s Campaign specifically to help out in such situations and so it joined with Local 1199 in forming the National Organizing Committee of Hospital and Nursing Home Employees. Coretta Scott King was named honorary chair and Ralph Abernathy and other SCLC leaders were members of the committee.

The SCLC and Local 1199 trained staff in union organizing methods that were successful in places like Memphis, Tennessee, Atlanta and St. Petersburg. The hospital workers in Charleston weren’t idle, either, as they began organizing meetings with help from the local Black community. Management was led by Dr. William McCord, president of the medical college, which ran the state hospital. After delaying meeting with organizers, McCord fired 12 of them. The reaction was immediate, when 400 workers, including nurses, nurse’s aides, kitchen helpers, laundry workers and orderlies, walked off the job. A week later, workers at the county-run hospital walked out in sympathy. The workers’ demands were clear, rehire the 12 fired workers, recognize the union, increase wages and institute grievance procedures.

McCord was contemptuous. He offered to give Black workers an additional holiday for the birthday of Robert E. Lee. McCord secured an injunction from a segregationist judge that effectively eliminated legal protests. The Black workers rejected the injunction’s validity and began picketing the hospital. Arrests immediately followed. Even worse, vigilantes began assaulting strikers, who had to establish security guards at the picket and around their union hall.

By now, SCLC and Local 1199 staff were on the ground to provide leadership and assistance. Abernathy and other prominent leaders like Andrew Young set up camp in Charleston and sought to bring national attention to the plight of the Black hospital workers. They quickly tied the hospital strike to the larger civil rights movement and connected the strike directly to Martin Luther King Jr., who had been slain in Memphis the previous year while supporting striking sanitation workers. Coretta Scott King said: “If my husband were alive today, he would be in Charleston, South Carolina.”

Charleston faced mass meetings, daily marches, evening rallies and boycotts of stores and schools that didn’t support the strike. The response included daily confrontations with police and local White citizens, and arrests were daily. The governor came out against the strike and sent state troopers and National Guardsman. Arrests were stepped up.

But the strikers didn’t back down and they weren’t intimidated. They showed up, day-after-day, regardless of what was thrown at them, which, by that point, included bayonets, tanks and National Guardsmen patrolling the city’s streets. Coretta Scott King spoke at two local churches and nearly 30% of the city’s Black population showed up. She not only championed the cause of the hospital workers, she appealed for financial assistance, as the union and SCLC were running out of money to sustain the strike. 

King’s request went national. The leaders of civil rights organizations and Black elected officials came together for the first time since Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. The appeal worked. With the help of national ads and television coverage, money began flowing in. Walter Reuther personally joined the demonstrations and donated $10,000. George Meaney and the national AFL-CIO gave another $25,000. Other unions, including White unions, joined the hospital workers on the picket lines. Abernathy was jailed, as were leaders of 1199B, the new designation for the local started by the Charleston hospital workers. 

The opposition to the strike started to fracture. Boycotts brought business activity to a standstill in the city. The business community began to fear a economic disaster and they called for a settlement. Others feared that a victory for Black hospital workers would lead to further organizing by civil rights organizations and labor unions in the city. In particular, they were afraid that union organizing would move into the textile industry, which was strong in the state. Further complicating the situation were federal contracts, with $12 million worth on the verge of being canceled if the hospital continued to discriminate against Black workers.

In this environment, the hospital administration agreed to rehire the strikers, including the original 12 fired workers. State government agreed to raise the minimum wage as well, potentially giving strikers several of their demands. With the agreement set to be finalized, Sen. Strom Thurmond stepped in and said that the federal aid would be delivered, regardless of the hospital’s actions. The hospital withdrew from the settlement and Local 1199 and the SCLC accused President Richard Nixon of “giving Senator Thurmond his political payoff for services rendered in the last election. A payoff whose real price is the suffering of Black hospital workers.”

Demonstrations started up again and they expanded to the textile companies and government buildings in the state and in Washington, D.C. More unions joined the protests and mass arrests continued. Attempts to solve the problem from the nation’s capitol were stalled by the Nixon administration until Secretary of Labor George Schultz took action. He sent a mediator to South Carolina and demanded that the strike be settled.

After 100 days, the strike was settled in favor of the Black hospital workers. They won wage increases of 30-70 cents an hour, the establishment of a credit union, a grievance procedure that allowed the union to represent employees and all fired and striking workers were reinstated. They didn’t win union recognition, but the wins they achieved addressed most of the problems the union would’ve taken on anyway.

At a victory rally at Zion Olivet Church, the Rev. Andrew Young summarized why the strike was successful: “We won this strike because of a wonderful marriage—the marriage of the SCLC and Local 1199. The first of many beautiful children of this marriage is Local 1199B here in Charleston, and there are going to be as many more children like 1199B as there are letters in the alphabet.”

The combined efforts didn’t stop in Charleston. The tactics used in South Carolina were quickly exported elsewhere. Within months, they had also secured collective bargaining rights for 1,500 mostly Black workers at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Within a year, the Baltimore local had added 6,000 more hospital and nursing home workers. In December, the National Union of Hospital and Nursing Home Employees was established with Coretta Scott King as honorary chairperson. While reflecting upon the success in Charleston, King said that right before his death, her husband had concluded that “the key to battling poverty is winning jobs for workers with decent pay through unionism.” Charleston was one of the first moments that proved King right.

Source: “Organized Labor and the Black Worker, 1619-1981” by Philip S. Foner, 1974.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on February 19, 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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Grocery workers, heroes of the pandemic, left out on vaccinations, this week in the war on workers

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“Grocery workers say they can’t get coronavirus vaccines, even as they help distribute them,” the Washington Post headline reads. But as the story makes clear, grocery workers don’t “say” they can’t get vaccines. They can’t. Unless they are elderly or have comorbidities in addition to being grocery workers—i.e., unless they are eligible for vaccination for reasons other than being among the front-line workers who have kept us all going this last nearly a year—grocery workers don’t get vaccination priority except in 13 states. Meanwhile, pharmacies in some grocery stores are administering the vaccinations the workers can’t get.

“Of course health-care workers should get the vaccine first, that’s not a question,” one California worker said. “But how many people am I exposed to in a day? Hundreds. Sick or well? I don’t know. Customers come in with masks under their nose, sipping their coffee as they walk around.”

In 11 states there’s no plan to give grocery workers any priority for vaccination, while in Tennessee they’re at the same priority level as overnight camp counselors.

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This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on February 20, 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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A Letter to a Young Organizer

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There’s no getting around it. Organizing is hard. But the context you are organizing in right now? It’s a whole different thing.

When I was coming up, the expectations felt big. People in the neighborhood were being screwed seven ways to Sunday. So, each night we’d knock 50 doors, have a dozen conversations, and go deep with three or four folks – sign them up as members committed to hosting a house meeting. We were expected to build a neighborhood base, organize actions, put 200 people in a room every couple months, and win.

None of this was easy. And, it’s different from what’s required today.

You are organizing in an era of constant crises. You feel the weight of a country coming apart at the seams. You have to build a base, develop community leaders, engage in local fights AND you feel called to spring into action as soon as another Black person is killed by police, even if a thousand miles away, when children are separated from their parents at the border, a Supreme Court seat opens, a pandemic strikes.

After you’ve put it all on the line to defeat Donald Trump, you pivot to Georgia. The most important election of a lifetime is followed by the two most important runoffs of a lifetime.

The results from Georgia come in. You’ve pulled off what they say could not be done. You feel proud. Hopeful, even. Finally – after four years of Trump – maybe you can be more at ease, if just for a bit. 

Apparently in today’s America, “a bit” lasts around six hours. Because before you catch your breath, when you should be celebrating, armed white supremacists storm the U.S. Capitol.

The celebration and rest will have to wait. Another of the most important moments in American history is unfolding on your watch.

All of this because you are no spectator. You hold the beauty and the responsibility of being an organizer. You know good and well you can make a difference.

And still, you gotta hit 50 doors a night, have those 12 conversations, sign up a few new members, move people into action or whatever the expectations are in your organization (and in the context of a pandemic). And most importantly, you need to teach others to do all of these things too.

If all the pivoting of this era means you can’t be doing these things, you wonder. Am I making the right choices? What are the costs of constantly reacting? What is my compass in this chaotic period?

Twenty-five years into organizing, I ask the same questions. When unsure, I go back to the fundamentals, as I understand them. I’ve had periods where I’ve been grounded in these, and times I’ve lost my way. The most fulfilling have been marked by a deep commitment to these fundamentals.

1. Start Where People Are At 

The best organizing starts not with mobilizing, but listening. Always be listening, seeking to understand people’s most pressing struggles, greatest hopes, and what is front of mind for them.

The first public meeting I organized in Chicago was an accountability session with the city’s Deputy Director of Rodent Control (yeah, I too didn’t know there was such a thing).  Taking it to the rats is not why most people get into organizing, but that’s what people wanted. And if we aren’t organizing around what people want?—?and they wanted the rats gone – ?are we really organizing? Or are we doing something else?

2. It’s Not Where People Start, but Where They Could End Up 

Organizing is the process of creating a path for the still waking. We are not here to organize the converted.

In her new book, The Purpose of Power, Alicia Garza spells this out plain as day: “We can’t be afraid to establish a base that is larger than the people we feel comfortable with. We have to reach beyond the choir and take seriously the task of organizing the unorganized?—?the people who don’t already speak the same language.”

Our primary challenge is not that the choir is unorganized, but that the choir is too damn small.

3. Master the One-on-One 

A good one-on-one meeting helps you understand someone’s path, their motivations, and what is keeping them from realizing their fullest potential. Done right, they can literally be life-changing. A conversation that starts with someone wondering why they even said “yes” to the meeting, turns into a gift?—?revealing things about themselves and society they had never seen so clearly until you, the organizer, came into their life. What an amazing thing to be able to offer to another person.

The dizzying pace of today’s organizing can tempt us to skip this practice, because we “have to get down to business.” But this is the business. Something profound about organizing will be lost if we don’t continue to invest in the art and craft of a good one on one.  

4. Create the Arena for People to Become Leaders Together

As organizers we create the arena for people to become leaders. From the house meeting to the biggest direct action you ever organize, you are building opportunities for people to step into leadership.

Little builds the connective tissue of it all like going into the battle together. Whether a protest outside the Mayor’s office, a direct action at the bank’s shareholder meeting, or helping lead a meeting with elected officials, these big moments advance our campaigns, but also transform us as individuals, and can transform entire organizations. 

There’s an intensity to going into battle together. Going public is a risk. Taking that risk together builds bonds between each other and the organization. This allows us to take even greater risks, and hold together when the chips are down.

5. Don’t Do for Others What They Can (and Would Gladly) Do for Themselves 

Our job is to create opportunities for others to develop. This is how we develop skills in the community and build broader ownership of it all. It’s also how we get bigger?—?we can only grow so much if we are holding all the work. Each time we fail to share responsibility is a lost opportunity for others to develop.

I’ll never forget my first public meeting. My mentor at the time, Mike Evans, noticed I was doing most of the work to set up the meeting. He pointed out that the people who showed up early could remain spectators, or they could be a part of making the meeting a success. 

Picking up on the point, I invited folks to help set up tables and put up signs. They were happy to help, and they instantly became more invested in the meeting. Lots of small acts like this add up.

6. Life Is Hard, Winning Is Important

Securing victories?—?big and small?—?builds faith in the work. Wins provide evidence for members that the process of organizing?—?with all of the other demands on their time?—?does create real impact in their community. We have to be winning.

Nearly as important is celebrating the wins. A while back, one of the founders of National People’s Action, Anne-Marie Douglas, stopped by to share some stories. When asked what was something the organization did really well in her time, she paused, then said, “we always celebrated the victories. Always.” 

It’s true. I remember as a young NPA organizer, when we’d win, the leadership would shut down the office and we’d head out to a bar or to the Italian joint around the corner. Hell, sometimes we celebrated the anniversaries of our victories. 

Sometimes the wins are few and far between. When they come, enjoy them, and do it together.

These are some of the fundamentals that I try to return to. If you crave more grounding in these fundamentals, seek out that support. Find the great practitioner of the one-on-one meeting, the time-tested creator of the arena, the folks who know how to craft the campaign to win tangible and structural change. You’ll be surprised how thrilled they will be to hear from you.

We are in a critical period in the project of truly becoming an America that has reckoned and reconciled with all the contradictions between our founding words and so many horrific acts, and the structures that allow them to continue. 

Many days, the work of becoming a new America is a beautiful thing. Other days, that progress is met with the hateful backlash that you would expect. 

Because of this, organizing is as relevant as it has ever been, and as needed. And you are the young organizers doing it in this most critical period in our history.

You are an organizer. You bring not bread, but yeast. You are here to agitate and inspire more people to ask hard questions, to uncover hidden truths, to realize their power, and to do all of this with lots of other people. 

What an amazing thing. 

This blog originally appeared at Our Future on February 12, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: George Goehl is the director of People’s Action, a national grassroots organization fighting for economic, racial, gender, and environmental justice.


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Working Life Episode 214: Your Future Talking Points for $15-an-hour Minimum Wage; Alabama is Amazon Unionizing Ground Zero

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Right before our eyes, in these very days and at this time of crisis, you can see so clearly this bankrupt system, defended and promoted by greedy CEOs and spineless politicians, but a system people are trying to rebel against and take down. And that’s the picture of two really important fights—the fight to get millions of workers a $15-an-hour minimum wage and the organizing campaign at Amazon.

It’s infuriating to keep reading about these so-called Democrats, and, of course, every single Republican, who oppose raising the federal minimum wage to $15-an-hour? How deeply out of touch are these people who oppose giving people a semi-livable wage to try to survive on? So, in service to my listeners, I’ve given you four—just four!—easy talking points to argue for hiking the immorally low minimum wage.

Then, I return to the organizing campaign underway at Amazon’s huge warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. There is never enough conversation about organizing Amazon because of its power and how a victory in this campaign will inspire workers at other Amazon warehouses, not to mention labor as a whole. I am joined by Joshua Brewer, a main organizer of the campaign for the Retail Wholesale & Department Store Workers, for the latest on-the-ground intel.

This blog originally appeared at Working Life on February 17, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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The Hidden Labor of Sex Work

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We’re back with Part II of our special mini-series on work and politics in the sex industry, guest-hosted by friend of the show Jessie Sage. Jessie is a writer, podcaster, phone sex operator, clip artist, and co-owner of Peepshow Media. In this rich and expansive two-part series, Jessie interviews sex worker, activist, writer, undocumented migrant, and DACA recipient from Honduras, Maya Morena. In Part II of their conversation, Maya and Jessie pick up where they left off last week and discuss the day-to-day labor that goes into being a sex worker, the images that sex workers have to maintain, and much more. To listen to part I, click here.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on February 17, 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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