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How AI Impacts Workers’ Rights

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Artificial intelligence has largely celebrated across industries. Businesses recognize the benefits of AI in all kinds of automation and performance-boosting processes. However, the impact of AI on workers and their rights is less discussed.

As much as AI stands to benefit businesses, the trade-offs can mean lost work and working hours for millions of workers. Facing displacement, we explore how AI is really affecting workers as well as the rights that workers have when AI comes for them.

How AI is Affecting Workers

Right now, tech is driving business in all kinds of industries. Manufacturing, education, health care, and even government have had their processes revolutionized by the implementation of smart systems and automated functions. In fact, revenues accrued from AI software are expected to reach $118.6 billion by 2025.

But the implications of AI in business bring with them some human concerns.

Chief among these concerns is that of worker displacement. Right now, sectors of the economy like manufacturing face the biggest risk from automated processes. Already, every robot added in manufacturing replaces 3.3 human workers and decreases average wages. 

At the same time, however, AI implementation has changed the nature of work and created additional jobs. AI is expected to create more jobs than it displaces. The problem is the nature of these roles and their corresponding qualifications can be much different than the positions they replace.

For example, right now the trucking industry faces a labor shortage amidst poor conditions and fears of the industry going automated. However, even if the trucks themselves become self-driving, operators will still be needed to ensure that the machines run as needed. Not even machines are perfect. Breakdowns and maintenance still occur. The shift to automation means that many jobs are moving to accommodate the needs of these useful machines.

Artificial intelligence, then, can bring worker benefits, too. In trucking, this means safer conditions and even reduced environmental impact through more efficient vehicles. However, it would be naive to suggest that all displaced workers will be able to conveniently transfer their skill-set over to changing roles. Because of the threat of displacement, workers need to understand their rights when it comes to imminent AI implementation.

Your Rights When it Comes to AI Adoption

As we have seen in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more businesses appear to be replacing people with technology. This threatens the economic rebound and has the potential to lock certain demographics out of the job marketplace. For workers afraid that such a circumstance will come for you, we’ve laid out two essential rights that you have and how AI can impact those rights.

  • Freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining

Workers have the right to assemble and collectively bargain for better wages and conditions. This is the freedom that has allowed the creation of labor unions. The continuation of this freedom will depend on what happens with workers in organizations with the widespread adoption of AI tools. 

Amazon is one such organization. Right now, Amazon workers at the Bessemer, Alabama, facility are engaged in a campaign to unionize. If successful, they will be the first unionized Amazon workforce, giving them greater power in how the ecommerce giant manages its workforce and automation practices. 

Unionization and collective bargaining are some of the best and most powerful tools you can employ in the fight against job displacement. However, using this freedom will be more difficult in states with right-to-work laws that diminish the power of unions.  

  • Freedom from forced or compulsory labor

Automation definitely won’t mean workers will now be forced into any kind of compulsory labor, but it can mean positions with fewer benefits and protections. For example, the gig economy has experienced a significant boost, especially in the wake of COVID-19. However, gig workers as independent contractors aren’t guaranteed minimum wage, unemployment insurance premiums, or even healthcare. 

Uber has spent millions lobbying the federal government to keep its drivers classified as independent contractors rather than employees. Uber is also at the forefront of autonomous vehicle innovation. With more work becoming automated, gig workers are on the rise — but even these gigs are under threat of automation.

In short, workers’ rights are put at great risk from the impact of AI. The rise of autonomous systems and vehicles means the nature of work is changing without a safety net of workers’ rights protecting against displacement and loss of job-associated benefits like health insurance.

Workers and displaced workers, then, must come together to advocate for federal protections and solutions for a redefined economy. Your right to bargaining remains. With a representative government, we can demand better protections with a strong enough grassroots movement.

This blog is printed with permission.

About the Author: Luke Smith is a writer and researcher turned blogger. Since finishing college he is trying his hand at being a freelance writer. He enjoys writing on a variety of topics but business and technology topics are his favorite. When he isn’t writing you can find him traveling, hiking, or gaming.


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Migrant Women Are Holding Society Together During This Pandemic

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The past year has seen several lockdowns as a result of the pandemic, which have had a deep impact on education, employment and the way we work globally. These factors have had an especially stark effect on women.

For more than 168 million children worldwide, schools have been closed for almost a year, forcing them to resort to online learning from home, according to UNICEF. In most households, it is women who have borne the majority of the burden of home schooling during the lockdowns.

Meanwhile, even as working from home has become the “new normal,” the pandemic has resulted in the loss of 24.7 million jobs, according to an estimate by the International Labor Organization. Economic inequality is likely to worsen, the ILO warns, as the jobs crisis disproportionately affects women and migrants.

In Latin America, the frequent lockdowns have come to define life during the pandemic, the social impact of which has unequally been borne by women. This has led to many women having to leave the workforce due to the mounting pressure of looking after their families, especially since the gender pay gap means they might not be the primary earning members of the household.

In cases where women try to retain their jobs while taking on the major burden of the housework as compared to men, sometimes, the only option available—if they can afford it—is to hire a domestic worker to do the various forms of care work like cooking, cleaning, child-rearing and eldercare that cannot be done easily by a working woman. According to data provided by UN Women in 2016, one in six domestic workers is an international migrant; of these workers, 73.4 percent are women. So, the domestic worker is typically a migrant woman.

Due to the precarious nature of domestic work and the insufficient political power among women domestic workers, their working conditions are appalling. According to data provided by Alliance for Solidarity, 57 percent of domestic workers have no fixed working hours. That means that these domestic workers do not control how long they work for in a day and when they can leave their workspaces, nor do they control their breaks and their meals.

Women Workers and the Pandemic

During the pandemic, the situation for domestic workers has worsened. They are presented with tough choices: either they stay in their employer’s house for the duration of the lockdown and therefore neglect their own families, or they choose to commute and risk losing their jobs because their employers fear that they could bring the virus into their households. Domestic workers’ unions have protested against this terrible choice. But their voices are not presented in the media, largely because these women are marginalized and treated as invisible parts of society.

Women domestic workers are part of a large community of informal workers, many of whom have held society together during this pandemic. It is these informal workers who have been attending to food distribution, cleaning public spaces, and working in small grocery stores and other shops. They bear the high risk of being infected not only due to the nature of their work but also because of their long commutes using public transport. In South America, such jobs are held largely by migrant women, many of whom have insecure residency status.

‘We Don’t Have Labor Rights in a Pandemic—Only Working Conditions’

Angélica Venega left Peru for Chile to earn more money so she could support her daughter’s education. A relative put her in contact with Sinducap, a trade union for workers in private households and those who work in related activities. Sinducap is part of the Latin American and Caribbean Confederation of Domestic Workers, founded in 1988. Sinducap, Venega told me, allowed her to bargain for clearly defined working conditions in the home where she is employed. These terms of employment include working hours, provision of meals and money for transportation, payment of social security, a uniform requirement or lack thereof, and limits to what is expected during working hours.

Emilia Solís Vivano, president of Sinducap, told me that there are more than 300 people in the union. The union members are not only domestic workers but also include cleaners, caterers, gardeners and window cleaners. These workers help to sustain a better way of life for their employers. Unfortunately, the same is not possible for them.

Already precarious before the pandemic, the situation for the workers has become worse in the past few months. “Because of the stigmatization of domestic workers as possible [carriers] of the virus,” Venega told me, “many employers ask us to live in the house to avoid using public transportation. This is not exactly an offer. If you don’t accept this offer, you are fired. You are dismissed, but because they make you an offer which you refuse, they call it a resignation. If you resign, there are [no] legal benefits. In a pandemic, we have no labor rights. We only have conditions.”

The demand that domestic workers live in their place of employment, Venega said, is not just about the pandemic, fear of disease, and the protocols of health. The pandemic, she said, is being used by employers to extend the working day for less pay. When you live in the same house where you work, working hours can end up being dictated by the convenience and working conditions of the employers, who may demand more attention once they come home from work, during weekends when receiving visitors, and according to the schedule of their children.

These are conditions, Venega told me, that the employers of domestic workers would not tolerate in their own workplaces, where they are employed, but they are not afraid to impose such terrible conditions on the domestic workers. Employers often reduce the wages of the domestic workers, saying that their own salaries have been reduced due to the pandemic.

If a worker is infected by the COVID-19 virus, then they are summarily fired. Workers are responsible for paying for their treatment and where they spend a quarantine period in these cases. This is even more terrible for a migrant, who might not have a house to go to or a family to shelter with. Being fired could mean deportation.

The “new normal,” Venega told me, is not so “new.” It is part and parcel of how things were even before the pandemic. “What is being made normal,” she said, “is greed.”

This article was produced by Globetrotter. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Taroa Zúñiga Silva is the co-editor with Giordana García Sojo of Venezuela, Vórtice de la Guerra del Siglo XXI (2020). She is a member of the Secretaría de Mujeres Inmigrantes en Chile. She also is a member of the Mecha Cooperativa, a project of the Ejército Comunicacional de Liberación.


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Service + Solidarity Spotlight: Nebraska AFL-CIO Rallies with Meatpacking Workers in Lincoln

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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.

On April 8, Nebraska State AFL-CIO President/Secretary-Treasurer Martin spoke at a rally in Lincoln, Nebraska, with members of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 293 who are in the middle of contract negotiations with Smithfield Foods. Smithfield has refused to negotiate for COVID-19 protections and is opposing any state legislation. Martin talked about how passing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act is vitally important in guaranteeing workers the right to negotiate for better working conditions without fear or intimidation by our employers. Some 50 people showed up in the rain to show their support for the workers.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIOon April 15, 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 Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978

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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 Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) of 1978.

In the late 1970s, conditions in the United States were ripe for positive change for working families. Jimmy Carter and a pro-union majority in Congress were pushed by active and organized civil rights and women’s movements. Labor unions were ready to push for change.

In 1976, the Supreme Court ruled in General Electric v. Gilbert that employers could refuse benefits to pregnant women. The case was brought by the International Union of Electrical Radio and Machine Workers and after the court ruled against them, unions were inspired to fight harder. At the 1977 convention of the UAW a resolution declaring that “women’s issues are also UAW issues” and pushing for stronger benefits related to affirmative action, child care and maternity. A special emphasis was placed on protecting the rights of pregnant workers. The UAW, AFL-CIO, Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the Women’s Law Project joined with other unions, civil rights organizations and women’s right’s groups in order to secure passage of Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which passed in 1978. 

After passage, it was important to get employers to actually respect the law’s provisions. Unions had the built-in infrastructure to reach the on-the-ground worksites across the country. The first step was for unions to begin including the protections of the PDA into collective bargaining agreements. This included member and employer education, the remedying violations through grievance procedures and other measures. UAW negotiated with the Big Three automakers in order to secure these benefits and others. Once the Big Three were on board, the changes began to spread to other companies in the industry and beyond.

When the PDA passed, it essentially gave pregnant workers the same rights and benefits as workers with disabilities. Unions made sure that collective bargaining agreements reflected this. That meant that workers got access to paid sick leave and insurance and the option to lighter-duty work. These benefits were scarce at nonunion worksites, except that, no matter where one works, they could no longer be fired for pregnancy. Workers and nonunion workplaces attempted to get the measures of the PDA implemented, but often faced resistance from local management, who clung to stereotypes about women workers and pregnant women.

The UAW and other unions used internal communications, workshops and labor education programs to teach union leaders and shop stewards about the law and its ability to protect working women. Across the country, people were trained to take on the cause of their pregnant colleagues, stand up to management and pursue grievances or strikes to establish the rights included in the law.

The Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), which formed in 1974, had included the PDA as one of its goals from inception. CLUW members came together to figure out how to convince male union leaders to support the law. This effort was instrumental in pushing back against challenges against the law both from within the labor movement and without.

In her summary of union efforts in support of the passage and implementation of the PDA, author Judith A. Scott said that the story of the passage of the PDA “is the story of how the empowerment of working women and collective action were crucial to improving workplace culture and practices for pregnant workers…and why those same factors are necessary today if we are to dramatically better the lives of working women. Through their unions, women workers can assert collective strength to win workplace improvements at the bargaining table and in the legislative arena through effective political campaigning.”

Source: “Why a Union Voice Makes a Real Difference for Women Workers: Then and Now,” by Judith A. Scott.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIOon April 15, 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 Debate Over Carbon Capture in the Infrastructure Bill Could Test the Labor-Climate Alliance

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In late March, President Joe Biden unveiled a $2.3 trillion infrastructure package, the American Jobs Plan, that his administration hopes to move forward this year. The plan would make major investments in improving physical infrastructure such as roads, schools and bridges while also creating good-paying jobs, expanding collective bargaining rights and funding long-term care services under Medicaid. 

The president’s plan also endorsed another proposal that a group of bipartisan lawmakers hope makes it into a final bill: expanding carbon-capture utilization and storage (CCUS) in the United States. The SCALE Act, introduced in mid-March by eleven senators and six House representatives, represents the country’s first comprehensive CO2 infrastructure and jobs bill. In describing the president’s infrastructure plan, the White House said it ?“will support large-scale sequestration efforts” that are ?“in line with the bipartisan SCALE Act.” 

The legislation, which would authorize $4.9 billion in spending over five years, would create programs to transport and store carbon underground. Its provisions include establishing low-interest loan programs modeled off of federal highway development programs, increasing EPA funding for permitting carbon storage wells, and providing grants to states to create their own permitting programs. Advocates point to countries such as Canada, Norway and Australia where elected officials have made similar investments in carbon storage infrastructure. 

The SCALE Act is notable both for the support it has, and hasn’t, received. Its early endorsers include a half-dozen industrial labor unions, centrist climate groups like the National Wildlife Federation, and energy companies like GE Gas Power and Calpine. Fossil fuel industry support for carbon-capture has historically been a top reason why progressive climate groups, meanwhile, remain skeptical of the idea, wary of subsidizing anything that amounts to corporate giveaways to some of the world’s worst polluters. While carbon-capture has long been a flashpoint in Democratic climate politics, most critics of the policy have stayed quiet on the SCALE Act for now.

Modeling released in December by the Princeton Net-Zero America Project found that construction of nearly 12,000 miles of pipelines capable of storing 65 million tons of COper year would be needed by 2030 for the United States to reach net-zero emissions by 2050?—?a stated goal of the Biden administration. The Clean Air Task Force, a climate advocacy group, says the SCALE Act programs are ?“consistent” with the quantity and timeline of infrastructure deployment needed to meet those goals.

To date, nearly all U.S. carbon-capture projects are situated near existing CO2pipelines and Lee Beck, the CCUS policy innovation director at the Clean Air Task Force, says the SCALE Act’s goal would be to capture emissions from multiple sources and then transport the COfor storage elsewhere, as is currently being carried out through Canada’s Alberta Carbon Trunk Line System and Norway’s Northern Lights Project.

Supporters point to a number of recent scientific analyses that make the case for greater investment in carbon-capture. In February, the National Academies of Sciences released a report on decarbonizing the U.S. energy system which recommends that, over next decade, officials should focus on increasing deployment of carbon-capture technologies by a factor of ten while investing in permanent CO2 storage infrastructure. In 2020, the International Energy Agency warned that it would be ?“virtually impossible” to reach net-zero emissions without carbon capture technology, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said carbon capture is likely necessary to meet global climate targets. Supporters note that renewable energy sources like wind and solar are not viable alternatives for reducing carbon emissions in the industrial sector, which account for 32 percent of the United States’ energy use and nearly a quarter of its direct greenhouse gas emissions. 

President Biden’s campaign climate plan called for accelerating development of carbon-capture and he included Brad Markell, the executive director of the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Council, on his Department of Energy transition team. Markell endorsed the SCALE Act in March and said it ?“will be crucial to meeting President Biden’s goals of reaching net-zero emissions in the power sector by 2035 and economywide by 2050.”

In addition to Biden’s support, the Congressional politics bode well for SCALE Act advocates. Introduced by Sens. Chris Coons (D?Del.) and Bill Cassidy (R?LA) in the Senate, the bill would first go through the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, where Joe Manchin (D?W.V.), a co-sponsor of the bill, serves as chair. The House version of the bill was introduced by Reps. Marc Veasey (D?TX) and David McKinley (R?W.V.) and the chamber passed several carbon-capture bills last year. In March, Democratic governors of Pennsylvania and Louisiana (Tom Wolf and John Bel Edwards) joined the Republican governors of Oklahoma and Wyoming (Kevin Stitt and Mark Gordon), in writing a letter to Congress urging the passage of the SCALE Act in any future infrastructure package.

In an email, Sen. Coons told In These Times that he ?“appreciates [Energy] Secretary Granholm’s public statements in support of CCUS, including CCUS transport infrastructure, and am encouraged by my conversations with the Biden administration over the last several months.” 

Perhaps the biggest asset working in the SCALE Act’s favor is the support of organized labor. Biden has faced heat in the media in recent weeks over whether he can truly deliver an ambitious climate agenda while supporting unions. The SCALE Act has endorsements from labor groups including the Utility Workers Union of America, IBEW and North America’s Building Trades Unions. And the BlueGreen Alliance?—?a coalition of labor and environmental groups?—?supports CCUS, though has not yet taken a position on the bill. One analysis commissioned through the Decarb America Research Initiative estimated that the SCALE Act would generate roughly 13,000 jobsannually over the 5?year period, though many unions are excited by the prospect of simply maintaining existing jobs.

“We see carbon-capture technology as a way to retain jobs in industries that are core sectors of our union,” said Anna Fendley, the director of Regulatory and State Policy for the United Steelworkers. ?“It feels like the conversation around reducing emissions in the U.S. has been so focused on the power sector for so long and now a lot of groups and advocates are learning more about the industrial sector.” 

A false solution?

Carbon-capture opponents have described the policy as one of several ?“false solutions” to the climate crisis. Though many of these activists typically say that we can’t afford not to invest in fighting climate change, on matters of CCUS, they argue the technologies are too expensive, too under-developed, and will detract from other important investments that government needs to make in order to transform the economy. At worst, critics fear investments in carbon-capture could prolong overall dependence on fossil fuels. 

Last September, the House of Representatives passed a clean energy package, but after a coalition of progressive climate groups?—?including Sunrise Movement, Friends of the Earth, and the Climate Justice Alliance—protestedthe bill’s inclusion of pro-carbon capture provisions, 18 Democrats, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D?N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (D?Mich.), Ilhan Omar (D?Minn.), and Ayanna Pressley (D?Mass.), voted against it. In These Times reached out to a number of climate groups that have opposed carbon-capture infrastructure in the past, including Sunrise Movement, Friends of the Earth, and the Labor Network for Sustainability. Most have not spoken publicly on the SCALE Act to date and declined to comment for this story. 

Limited organizational capacity for rapid legislative analysis is one possible factor for the silence. Joe Uehlein, president of the Labor Network for Sustainability, said their group had not heard about the SCALE Act prior to In These Times’ inquiry. While noting they are ?“not in the CCUS camp,” Uehlein said the group hasn’t yet decided how it plans to respond to the bill. The Sierra Club declined the Charleston Gazette-Mail?’s request for comment on the SCALE Act. 

Some left-wing organizations, like Sunrise Movement and Evergreen Action, have previously acknowledged that industrial carbon capture could be acceptable, and others have expressed more interest in direct air capture, a method that sucks COout of the atmosphere. 

Basav Sen, the Climate Justice Project Director at the Institute for Policy Studies and the co-chair of the Energy Democracy Working Group at the Climate Justice Alliance, told In These Times that rather than protesting individual pieces of carbon-capture legislation?—??“which would make it a game of whack-a-mole”?—?environmental justice groups in his coalition are focused on educating members of Congress and their staff on why they should avoid such ?“false solutions” altogether. He added that putting new demands on the electrical grid through CCUS, direct air capture, and even industrial production of steel and cement at current levels was misguided at this stage of the transition away from fossil fuel energy.

Sen also criticized carbon-capture advocates for citing the 2018 IPCC report as evidence that CCUS is needed, as opposed to reforestation which the IPCC also explored. Reforestation, or replanting an area with tress, is another way to remove COfrom the air. Research suggests this solution can also offer significant short-term emissions reductions, but a 2019 IPCC report also warned that planting large-scale forests for carbon-removal efforts could lead to increased food insecurity and other environmental issues.

Beck, of the Clean Air Task Force, argued that it would be irresponsible to take any decarbonization options off the table in 2021, and emphasized that building out COinfrastructure would not help keep aging or non-economical facilities online. Shannon Heyck-Williams of the National Wildlife Federation agreed that ?“when it comes to coal power generation, there really is no future for coal power in America and carbon-capture doesn’t change that.”

But Beck and Heyck-Williams also maintained that, since there are so many existing natural gas facilities in the United States, it does makes sense to try and capture the carbon coming out of those plants?—?at least for now. ?“It would be faster to retrofit some of these facilities than expect they will be all phased out in the next decade in the current climate policy environment,” argued Beck.

SCALE Act supporters know they’ll have to tread carefully with language around COpipelines, given the years of dedicated activism in the climate movement against new oil and gas pipelines. Advocates of CCUS prefer to focus on phrases like ?“COinfrastructure” and ?“carbon management,” which they hope will steer the conversation away from flashpoints like Keystone XL. Beck notes that carbon infrastructure includes not just pipelines but also shipping, rail and barge. ?“COpipelines are very different in terms of size and safety,” added Jessie Stolark, the public policy and members relations manager for the Carbon Capture Coalition. ?“But to be completely honest, I do think we have an uphill battle in terms of reassuring people and conveying that kind of information.”

Whether progressive climate groups will choose to rally opposition to a congressional infrastructure bill that includes the SCALE Act?—?like they did for the clean energy package in 2020?—?remains unclear. It will undoubtedly be tougher to pressure lawmakers to vote against a package that includes so many other key priorities. For now, rather than take aim at Biden’s new infrastructure plan for its support for carbon-capture, progressive climate groups have stuck to criticizing the package for committing too little spending on climate change mitigation efforts overall, with some advocates calling for a minimum of $10 trillion in spending over the next decade.

“It’s up to us to ensure that this proposal is strengthened, becomes law and that it is the first of many pieces of legislation that will address the many crises facing our generation,” said Deirdre Shelly of the Sunrise Movement. 

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

About the Author: Rachel M. Cohen is a journalist based in Washington D.C. 


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Pennsylvania Nurses Near Their Breaking Point

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On top of the typical stresses, intense work, and long hours common to the profession, nurses working at smaller hospitals in more remote parts of the country face many unique challenges. With fewer staff and 24?–?7 services, facilities like the two Lehigh Valley Health Network hospitals in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, rely on nurses, nursing assistants, and other staff to perform many jobs simultaneously with little rest. But when nurses begin to leave for better working conditions and the hospital does not replace them, those who remain are put under even more strain, which endangers them and their patients. 

For workers with Schuylkill Hospital Nurses United, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In this episode, we talk with two Schuylkill County nurses, Brandee Brown and Chrissy Newton, and Seth Goldstein from the Office and Professional Employees International Union, about the day-to-day grind of working at small-town hospitals while also combatting union-busting and bad-faith bargaining from management at Lehigh Valley Health Network.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on April 14, 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: Northern Valley Labor Council Distributes Food to Families in North Dakota and Minnesota

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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 Northern Valley Labor Council in North Dakota, led by President Mark Froemke (BCTGM), plans to distribute more than 1,300 boxes of food and gallons of milk later this month for community members in need. The North Dakota AFL-CIO, the St. Paul (Minnesota) Regional Labor Federation and the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box program are also sponsoring the events. Distribution will take place in Grand Forks, East Grand Forks and Belcourt, North Dakota, as well as in Mahnomen, Minnesota. The union is working with Native American tribes to make sure the distribution announcement reaches those communities as well.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIOon April 14, 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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The Long Struggle Against Giving Up

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Watching on Zoom late last week as an NLRB official spent hour after hour pulling paper ballots out of a cardboard box and hollering ?“NO” at high volume was excruciating. But it was not the most excruciating part of losing a big campaign like the Amazon union drive in Bessemer, Alabama. That would be right now, when the pundits descend to offer instant critiques of everything that went wrong, like fashion critics insulting what people are wearing to a funeral. Even as a pundit myself, the process is hard to watch. 

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), the union organizing the Amazon warehouse, lost the vote by more than a 2?–?1 margin. After the extreme publicity of the campaign over the past couple of months, such a definitive loss was crushing. More importantly, the workers in Bessemer still do not have a union, and Amazon and the rest of the anti-union world gains the talking point that those workers do not want or need a union. The reality on the ground after the loss is bad, and the narrative it produces going forward is also bad. When any union undertakes an organizing drive, it is good to win, and bad not to. Of these things there can be no doubt. 

But the Amazon campaign was extraordinary in so many ways that it needs to be seen in context, to avoid drawing all the wrong conclusions. The RWDSU’s attempt to organize more than 5,000 warehouse workers in the South?—?going up against the most deep-pocketed company imaginable?—?gained attention in the first place because it seemed so crazy. Everyone in the union world knew that every aspect of the situation?—?the size of the unit, the high turnover of the work, the fact that the job was considered a good one by local standards, the fact that it took place in a ?“right to work” state, the resources that Amazon could deploy against it, the fact that it was an attempt to crack an extremely tough union-free company?—?made success harder. From the beginning, every union veteran I spoke to about the campaign was hopeful, but skeptical it could succeed. 

That conventional wisdom turned out to be true. Reality bites. Looking back on the organizing drive and saying the union should have used different tactics obscures the fact that this campaign, with a unit of that size, in Alabama, under the awful labor law régime that we have in America, probably was not winnable, at least not in the short time frame in which it happened. But that, in turn, obscures a more important fact: It’s good that this campaign happened. 

Why would the RWDSU take up such a difficult effort in the first place? Because workers at the Amazon warehouse asked them to. There are many unions in this country that would have politely told those workers to fuck off. The RWDSU, though, tried. They spent many months and many millions of dollars and got the world to turn its attention to Bessemer. If they learned lessons about organizing tactics that could have been done differently, those lessons should be applied to the next campaign. Their effort should still be applauded. There are plenty of lazy people in the union establishment who would prefer to say that they should not be expected to do hard, audacious organizing, because it is a waste of time. They are wrong. 

Some have said that this campaign, which received more press than any other union drive in many decades, was too media-focused. Though I fully endorse the idea that the media is annoying, this critique fails to understand the press did not cover this campaign because the union asked it to?—?we covered it because it had all of the ingredients of a great story. Readers, I can tell you from experience, want to read about labor battles at identifiable companies like Amazon much more than they want to read about labor battles anywhere else. An enormous union drive in an unlikely place full of scrappy, charismatic characters fighting the richest man in the country was going to get news coverage whether the union wanted it or not. It is more accurate to think of the press as an uncontrollable outside force to be managed rather than as an element of an organizing drive that a union can summon or shut down at will. The truth is that in almost every other case, the problem is that tough union drives get too little, not too much, coverage. 

Amazon warehouse workers are the single most important segment of the American work force for unions to organize, because they are what the future of work looks like. The effort to unionize Amazon will take decades. We are at the beginning. The attention created by the drive in Bessemer caused hundreds of other Amazon workers across the country to reach out to the union. With luck, it will spawn ten or fifty or a hundred more organizing committees inside other Amazon warehouses. Some of those will die out, and some will build towards a real union campaign. That’s how the work goes. One of the warehouses that continues to organize should be the warehouse in Bessemer. They are probably closer to winning than any other warehouse in America. The loss that just happened was the first round of what will be a long fight. 

Leaders of the civil rights movement would often show up in a Southern town, and spend months organizing. The press would show up too. The activists and the people would march, and get beaten up, and get arrested, and the local political establishment would denounce them, and after all that, no laws would change. Did that indicate that their movement had failed? No. They were engaged in individual battles in a war for justice that lasted many years. They, the activists of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, succeeded in their part of that war. Today we have our part. The labor movement, ground down for decades, must be at the center of this part of the war, which is a class war taking place after 40 years of widening inequality. The struggle of the labor movement today is not just against the bosses on the other side?—?it is also against the deadening forces of inertia inside unions, which makes many prefer to not even try. 

I’m sorry that the Amazon workers did not win their union. I’m glad they tried. I’m glad for every single news story that came out of it. I’m glad for every single working person at every other shitty job who saw it and wondered if they might do something similar at their own workplace. I’m glad that millions of people watched all this happen. The only thing left to do now is to keep on going. 

This blog originally appeared atIn These Times on April 12, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Unions eye Brookings, Urban Institute as push to organize think tanks grows

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Workers at two of the largest, most influential think tanks in Washington, D.C. are forming a union, adding to a growing trend in white-collar collective bargaining. 

Staff at the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute on Tuesday asked their employers to grant them voluntary recognition — which doesn’t require a secret ballot election — of their unions, which are affiliated with the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, IFPTE Local 70.

The labor movement’s efforts to organize think tanks — major players in influencing and informing the policy debate on Capitol Hill — is the latest white-collar sector to see a burst in collective bargaining. Labor efforts have poured into Silicon Valley and have expanded to groups of workers not typically protected under federal labor law, like independent contractors. 

“We believe Urban needs a nurturing workplace for all employees in order to bring rigorous research to advance equitable policy solutions,” the Organizing Committee of Urban Institute Employees Union said in a statement. “We believe that nobody can represent workers’ interests better than workers themselves and that our perspectives are vital to Urban’s longevity and its institutional ethics.”

The Brookings United Organizing Committee said in a statement that “Brookings is an intellectual home for policy ideas that empower working people. And Brookings United is excited for this new partnership so that together, we can create a more inclusive and sustainable environment in the post-COVID-19 world.” 

Brookings management said that it “will carefully review” and follow up on the staffers’ request that it remain neutral in the union drive

“We respect our employees’ right to organize, and we are committed to making certain Brookings continues to be a great place to work,” the organization said in a statement to POLITICO. 

A spokesperson for the Urban Institute was not immediately available for comment. 

The NPEU has successfully organized several other prominent think tanks in the D.C. area, including The Center for American Progress, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Economic Policy Institute, National Immigration Law Center, and the National Women’s Law Center, among others. 

While many of those institutions are considered left-leaning or progressive, Brookings tends to fall more politically in the center, and the union says it’s prepared to file for a ballot election with the National Labor Relations Board if not granted voluntary recognition. 

“It can sometimes really surprise us which organizations crack down most aggressively on their staff,” said Daniel Essrow, an organizer with the NPEU. “Ideology definitely comes into play, but organizational culture is often a bigger factor.” 

“In the case of Brookings and Urban, they are certainly slightly more centrist than some of the nonprofits where we have received voluntary recognition,” he added. “But the breadth of research they have produced on the benefits of collective bargaining is unmatched — we are hopeful they will follow their own research and recognize their staffs’ unions.”

The nearly 200 employees forming a union at Brookings say they want to improve diversity, retention, and paid family and parental leave, among other issues, NPEU says. 

Similarly, The Urban Institute Employees’ Union, which would represent nearly 250 workers, says it’s looking to ensure that the think tank supports its diverse staff through “equitable pay, treatment, promotion processes, access to leadership positions, and mental health resources.” 

Rachel Greszler, a research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative thinktank, said that the growth in nonprofit unions “will be an interesting story to follow,” given the nature of the work and nonprofit employees’ relationship to their organization’s message. 

“Traditional unions are not well-suited for industries like non-profits and think tanks where job duties often vary significantly within the same job title, and where organizations’ missions rely on both flexibility and accountability,” she wrote via email. “Most people who work at non-profits and think tanks do it because they are passionate about their organization’s mission and they want to help build their organization up.”

Greszler argues that unions “typically rely on strong-armed tactics and adversarial relationships.” She says that often leaves “workers feeling like their employer is their adversary instead of their ally.” 

The growth in organizing inside some of the most influential institutions in Washington follows efforts by the labor movement to organize in new sectors beyond the traditional trades.

The Communications Workers of America launched an initiative early last yearto support union organizing efforts in the tech and video game industries.

In January, more than 400 Google employees formed the Alphabet Workers Union, a non-traditional union in the sense that the group didn’t seek certification with the federal labor board, meaning that the company won’t be required by law to bargain “in good faith” with the group.

However, efforts made by the union, which is affiliated with the CWA, to advance working conditions at the company will still be protected under the National Labor Relations Act.

Drivers for app-based taxi services like Uber and Lyft have also formed worker organizations, despite being classified by their companies as “independent contractors.” Such workers are not protected under the National Labor Relations Act, and thus don’t have collective bargaining rights that can be policed by the federal labor board. 

Despite the labor movement’s efforts to expand into new sectors like nonprofits, at least one labor expert is skeptical those unions will have staying power. 

“I will be curious to see how many high-powered professional workers, who are researchers at think tanks are going to want a union to represent them,” said Douglas McCabe, a professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. 

McCabe, who said he is pro-union, added, “Whether they’re at Brookings Institution on Mass Ave., or the Cato Institute, I’d be very hesitant to see whether they’re going to be willing to join a union.” 

But workers who are part of the union drive say that they hope their efforts will galvanize more think tanks to organize. 

“When we’re working towards this union effort I think a lot of us are thinking about solidarity,” said Kate Hannick, a member of the Brookings Union Organizing Committee, “and knowing that a place as influential and prestigious as Brookings forming a union, it could really become industry standard in the think tank world and beyond.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on April 13, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.


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The Message from the Amazon Union Defeat in Alabama Is Clear: Keep Organizing

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On April 9, the National Labor Relations Board announced the results of a mail ballot certification election that concluded on March 29 for workers at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama. With 3,215 votes cast, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) was defeated with at least 1,608 votes against the union, enough to crush the drive. The result was not shocking given the millions of dollars that Amazon spent and its power inside the facility to pressure workers to vote against forming a union. 

No matter how you spin it, the defeat is a significant blow to the multitude of organizing efforts occurring at Amazon. The election showed the clear limitations of pursuing union certification through a broken NLRB election process. However, due to the national attention and support that the campaign received, now more Amazon workers than ever are thinking about the possibility and potential of organizing. Hopefully, the campaign in Bessemer will encourage unions and workers throughout the company to consider alternative organizing strategies. 

Despite the valiant efforts of the workers, Amazon?—?which has more resources than nearly any company in the world?—?was able to blunt their momentum through its anti-union campaign. As expected, management engaged in the usual one-on-one and captive audience meetings to persuade workers to vote ?“no.” But management went further, using a barrage of email, texting and social media posts and even luring unhappy workers to quit with cash buyouts, messages posted in bathroom stalls, and changing the timing of traffic signals to gain advantage. The loss confirms what many of us in the labor movement already know?—?the balance of power is completely out of whack in this country, with big corporations twisting the rules to stay in charge and keep workers’ voices silent.

But this is hardly the last word on organizing Amazon. Management’s aggressive campaign illustrated to the whole country the need to fundamentally change the rules of the game so that workers everywhere can more easily form unions. The pressure on elected officials to enact long overdue labor law reform should increase.

The ?“BAmazon union” drive received more press and attention from the public than any other union election in recent memory. The focus on the campaign helped bring increased scrutiny to the reality of working conditions at Amazon?—?in Bessemer, across the country and around the world. Critical, in-depth reporting on the inner workings of Amazon increased as the drive gained national interest. For example, in February, The New York Times Magazine covered the community and labor organizing taking place in the Inland Empire region of Southern California, an important area to Amazon because of its proximity to the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The Washington Post (owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos), has run several excellent exposes of Amazon’s anti-union conduct, including a March 9 storythat reported: ?“Many of the 5,805 employees in Bessemer …receive four or five emails a day from the company to discourage unionization. …The company has pressed its anti-union case with banners at the warehouse and even fliers posted inside bathroom stalls.” Labor Notes has already published more than 20 articles about working conditions and labor organizing at Amazon, and there were dozens of reports in all major news outlets leading up to the vote count.

Public support from other labor unions, community groups and elected officials has also been impressive. On February 20, and again on March 20, dozens of actions took place nationwide in support of the Bessemer workers. The call for those actions went out from the Southern Workers Assembly, an organization founded in 2012 by veteran labor and Black Workers for Justice organizers. On March 2, the organization issued a statement summarizing its view of the importance of the organizing in Bessemer:

“The Bessemer workers launched their campaign at a time of increasing repressive government and the rise of a racist and divisive social movement that threatened to turn back the clock on basic democratic rights. Like the 1955, Montgomery, Alabama Bus Boycott during a similar repressive and divisive period, the Bessemer Amazon workers led by the 80-percent Black and women majority and the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), stepped forward.”

Why is it so hard to form a union? 

The attention to Bessemer, and the extent that Amazon has interfered in the workers’ decision, has illustrated our broken labor relations system. Free choice by workers to form a union has turned into a corporate obstacle course where workers are subjected to both one-on-one and captive audience meetings, along with constant pressure via email, texts, social media, and physical postings?—?even in company bathrooms. 

A far simpler way for workers to gain union certification and their collective bargaining rights is through a procedure called ?“card check.” If a simple majority of workers sign cards authorizing a union to be their representative, then their employer would be compelled to recognize and negotiate with the union that workers chose. This provision was part of the 2009 Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) that, despite Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, died during President Obama’s first term. Unfortunately, card check isn’t part of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act) now pending in Congress. Although the PRO Act passed the House with bipartisan support, unless the Senate changes the rules around the filibuster, the bill faces an uphill battle.

On February 28, President Biden gave a powerful endorsement of the union effort in Bessemer. While not mentioning Amazon by name, his support for the union drive couldn’t have been clearer. This was an unprecedented move. Labor activists have long dreamed of a contemporary president mimicking what President Franklin D. Roosevelt was reputed to have said in the 1930s: ?“The President wants you to join a union.” But it turns out that this history is actually a myth. Roosevelt never said such words in a fireside chat or in writing. John L. Lewis, the Mineworker leader and other CIO organizers just repeated it over and over until it became part of labor folklore. Biden’s speech was a reflection of the debt he owes to the labor movement for his narrow win in November 2020, and of the growing favorability towards unions?—?48% of workers now say they would join a union if given the opportunity. 

RWDSU’s effort at Bessemer was unexpected. It appears that not even its parent union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, was aware of the drive until the NLRB made the election filing public on November 20, 2020. However, successfully organizing workers at a company like Amazon with 1.3million employees and hundreds of fulfillment centers, sortation centers and delivery stations in the United States will require the massive resources of far more than one union. It also will necessitate the internal organizing efforts of tens of thousands of workers in networks like Amazonians United, which describes itself as: ?“A movement of workers fighting to end management’s domination in our workplaces. We organize with our coworkers to fight together for the dignified lives we all deserve.”

Internal organizing alone will still be insufficient. Community support is essential to create a supportive context for workers to take on their employer. Amazon workers received strong support from worker and community coalitions like the Southern Workers Assembly, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and the political support of elected officials like Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Ayanna Pressley and many more. While the national support from celebrities and political leaders is welcome, it’s even more important to have the community’s civic and religious leaders and local elected officials in your corner.

Amazon’s business model is particularly challenging for organizers. With its inventory system and use of state of the art robots, a job that took 60 to 75 minutes can now be done in 15 minutes, and its warehouses can now hold 40 percent more inventory. The ?“random chaos” that Amazon uses to fulfill consumer orders creates built-in redundancy in its distribution network. Worker organization and actions at one isolated facility can be countered by shifting logistics to run work around that facility or simply closing it altogether. There’s nothing new about companies avoiding a problem union or an upstart workforce?—?UPS and other shippers have been doing it for decades. It will take many more drives like that in Bessemer?—?at points all along the Amazon delivery chain?—?to give workers the confidence and means to fight for their rights and win good wages and working conditions. 

None of these caveats should detract from the significance of this drive. Bessemer takes its name from the steel production process pioneered in Birmingham, England?—?the home of the modern steel industry and the name of the Alabama city next door which has historically been a mining and steel production center with considerable union density. While RWDSU was guarded about the degree of internal organization, there is a considerable organic connection between its sizable poultry processing membership in Alabama (about 6,000 members) and the largely African-American Amazon Bessemer workforce. To RWDSU’s credit, the organizing drive ranks among the largest single organizing efforts in the history of the American South.

Going forward, we are likely to see more unions joining in the effort to organize Amazon. The Teamsters have already begun building rank and file awareness with its UPS membership about the threat that Amazon poses to its contract standards with the hope that members will assist a broad campaign. It’s already resulted in local unions hearing from Amazon workers interested in joining. For many years now, the Service Employee International Union has supported the Awood Center which assists immigrants organizing at Amazon in the Twin Cities region. Now, RWDSU has entered the field in Alabama and gained many organizing leads at other facilities to follow up on. Aside from unions, Athena?—?a network of over 50 non-profits, worker centers and labor unions?—?is playing a high-profile role in the policy and legislative arenas advocating for Amazon workers and the communities impacted by its business. And Amazonians United has emerged as a burgeoning network of in-plant organizers dedicated to building strong workplace committees. A confluence of all of these forces, and much more, will be required to seriously take on Amazon.

The workplace focus is key. And the newfound focus on organizing in the South will remain crucial. Saladin Muhammad, a retired UE organizer and leader of the Southern Workers Assembly, commented on this dynamic on March 11: 

“There is a recognition that the South needs to be organized as a part of building a stronger labor movement throughout the US. For a long time, the confidence of the working class in the South and the effort to organize has been very weak. Attempts to unionize the Volkswagen and Nissan plants in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Canton, Mississippi, are indications of organized labor’s recognition of the importance of organizing core industries in the South. This is a recognition that has not really existed probably since Operation Dixie in the late 1940s. …I think it is drawing even more attention than the Volkswagen and the Nissan campaigns. It has the opportunity to deepen the struggle around race as a part of the working-class struggle. I think there are some real possibilities with this campaign.” 

Despite losing the election, there needs to be continued focus on building solidarity with the workers in Bessemer. Management should be held accountable to the promises it made to deter support for collective bargaining and the key union leaders need to be protected from any retaliation for their efforts to support the union. RWDSU will hopefully stick with the workers in Bessemer and create a durable organization inside the facility. Then, building on its first effort, it could seek a second certification election which history shows have a much better success rate. 

Solidarity on a national level was impressive. Organizations like the Working Families Party and Our Revolution that stepped up during the campaign will be needed to help connect the Amazon workers’ struggles to other movements for justice. 

And groups like DSA will be crucial to supporting young cadres who take jobs at Amazon and want to help organize from within, either through Amazonians United or a specific union. The setback in Bessemer shows that without deep internal organizing and base-building, no amount of external agitation and support can overcome the power of a corporate behemoth like Amazon. Workers need to be steeled in the experience of confronting their supervisors on the warehouse floor, marching on the boss in the front office?—?and walking out when necessary?—?in order to prepare themselves to win a battle for union recognition. It is poetic that on the day before votes began to be counted in Bessemer, workers at an Amazon Chicago-area delivery station, ?“DIL 3” in Gage Park, staged a one day walk-out against the new ?“megacycle” schedules being imposed on delivery station employees.

If we are serious about organizing at Amazon, we have to redefine what ?“winning” means. If it’s about one election or even one contract, we are in for some serious disappointment. Instead, it must be about the uprising of tens of thousands of workers supported by unions and community groups and backed up by elected officials willing to use the levers of government to the workers’ advantage. 

One concrete step towards building that movement would be better coordination and unity among the logistics and transportation unions, especially the Teamsters, the longshore unions, and the railroad craft unions. Better results can also be achieved by strengthening the cooperation between in-plant worker organizing by groups like Amazonians United, formations like the Southern Workers Assembly, and the multiple labor unions that are prepared to assist. As the political and regulatory context for Amazon evolves, the workers’ movement should also anticipate?—?and where possible lead?—?major structural reforms to Amazon’s business model. 

The lopsided defeat of the Bessemer workers’ organizing effort is not the first setback for labor at Amazon, and it won’t be the last. The lessons from Amazon organizing initiatives?—?including the Bessemer drive and workplace actions?—?should be carefully analyzed and catalogued in a searchable format for future reference. As Amazon workers’ level of militancy and organization grows, our challenge is to make sure that each action strengthens the movement and builds workers’ confidence in the power of collective action. That’s what inspires workers to ?“ditch the fear” and expand their on-the-job support for unions.

Despite the outcome at Bessemer, the organizing campaign has already made a major contribution to public perceptions about Amazon and the urgent need for labor law reform. Amazon workers’ struggle for dignity and justice is only getting started. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on April 9, 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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