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Dueling accounts of a hotel job fair offer a choice: Blame lazy workers, or lousy jobs

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Interview with Laura Clawson, Daily Kos Contributing Editor | Smart  Bitches, Trashy Books

As [more] states cut off added federal unemployment aid to millions of workers, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are on the spot with dueling takes on the effects of the cut-offs. The picture you get of the situation in Missouri—one of the earliest states to end the benefits, on June 12—is very different depending which newspaper you’re reading. But when you dig into the details, it gets interesting.

The Times opens at a job fair with few job applicants, and notes, “Work-force development officials said they had seen virtually no uptick in applicants since the governor’s announcement, which ended a $300 weekly supplement to other benefits. And the online job site Indeed found that in states that have abandoned the federal benefits, clicks on job postings were below the national average.”

The WSJ opens “The number of unemployment-benefit recipients is falling at a faster rate in Missouri and 21 other states canceling enhanced and extended payments this month, suggesting that ending the aid could push more people to take jobs.”

Hmm, okay … What does that “push” look like? 

One woman interviewed by the WSJ has just had her federal unemployment benefits cut off and is scrambling to find food for herself and her two children. But taking a low-wage job would cause her to lose the health insurance still being covered by the corporate-travel agent job that furloughed her during the pandemic. She’s hoping to be recalled to that job, but in the mean time, the unemployment aid cut-off means she’s turning to food pantries.

Is this supposed to be the face of those lazy people taking unemployment benefits because they don’t want to work? Someone whose previous job valued them enough to pay for health coverage through a long furlough, who doesn’t want to lose that benefit in exchange for minimum wage and no benefits?

The greatest moment, though, comes when you realize that the two newspapers reported on the recent hiring success of the very same hotel. According to the WSJ, hotel company Midas Hospitality had a recent uptick of applications in Missouri, in particular at the Element Hotel in St. Louis, at the time of the unemployment aid cut-off. 

Here’s the Times on the very same Element Hotel: “The hotel, which is on a major bus line, raised its starting wage to $13.50 an hour, the second increase in two months. It also offers benefits and a $50-a-month transportation allowance. The number of applicants shot up—to 40 from a handful the previous month—after the second wage increase.”

What. Do. You. Know. They raised pay and applications increased. The state’s minimum wage is $10.30 an hour, so $13.50, while still not a living wage for a single person in St. Louis, is a substantial boost over the minimum.

A woman interviewed by the Times, who was offered a job on the spot at the Element Hotel job fair and took it, already had a job as a housekeeper at a hotel near the airport, forcing her into a two-bus commute that took up to four hours on weekends. But if you read the WSJ, all you hear is that “several” of the people who were offered jobs at that job fair had been unemployed for at least six months. There’s no word on what those people’s stories were or how they would explain their choice to take that $13.50 an hour, benefits, on a major bus line job offer at this moment in time.

The U.S. economy is in recovery from a precedent-shattering, historic pandemic. No one really knows what path economic recovery will take, and many stories can be told about what is happening at any given moment. It’s clear that lots of workers are looking for a better deal than they’ve gotten in recent years—and, in some cases, finding it as employers scramble to staff back up quickly. It’s a certainty that some workers will be pushed into taking lousy jobs by the unemployment aid cut-off—but how much suffering will result?

This blog originally appeared at DailyKos on June 28, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Shrugging Off Anti-Union Campaign, New York Times Tech Workers See a Chance to Make History

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Hamilton Nolan - In These Times

Times workers plan to ride the media union wave right onto a bigger wave of tech organizing.

In April, more than 650 tech workers at the New York Times announced that they were unionizing with the NewsGuild, forming what would instantly become one of the biggest unions of tech workers in America. Times management refused to voluntarily recognize the union, a break that could be a harbinger of more hostile labor relations throughout the media industry. But the tech workers remain supremely confident that they will prevail?—?and they are already contemplating the start of a much bigger union wave in the broader tech industry. 

For the past six years, newsrooms have been unionizing at a rapid clip, making the media one of the labor movement’s bright spots. Most of those unions, though, consist solely of journalists and other workers on the editorial side of publications. It has not gone unnoticed that everywhere that has a media union also has a large group of tech workers who could potentially be organized as well. For unions, tech-side employees of media companies represent both an obvious way into the mostly non-union tech industry, and a chance to further consolidate power for workers inside of companies that are already partly unionized. In this context, the NYT Tech Guild marks an important strategic step for the labor movement in two powerful industries.

Organizing among Times tech workers began about two years ago, according to Goran Svorcan, a senior software engineer who was involved from its early stages. The pandemic delayed the effort, but the work continued with help from organizers at the NewsGuild, which has long represented the Times newsroom. Svorcan had never been in a union before, but says that it seemed like the ?“logical next step” in addressing employee concerns. Contrary to common stereotypes about why tech workers and engineers have not widely organized (because they are too libertarian-minded, or because they are an individualistic culture), Svorcan believes that unions are in line with the public-minded ideals of early internet pioneers?—?ideals that faded as the industry became rich and powerful. ?“It’s kind of a proto-organizing model in a way,” he says of the collaborative nature of much of software engineering. ?“Seeing other people as allies, not [being on] a remote island is something I think is core to the early tech visions.” 

Kathy Zhang, a senior manager of audience analytics at the Times who was also involved from the very beginning of the organizing campaign, says that she and her colleagues have always been conscious of playing a part in spreading unionization in tech, even listening to the oral history of the Kickstarer union drive for inspiration. ?“One amazing result of our union going public has been seeing other underground tech unions inviting us to their organizing meetings. Tech is an industry ripe for unionization,” Zhang says. ?“We’re excited to be the largest majority tech union in the country, but we’ll be even more ecstatic to pass that torch onto the next tech workers to unionize!” 

Indeed, the tantalizing possibility of organizing the tech workers at all of the media companies that were being swept up in their own modern union wave occurred to Nozlee Samadzadeh years ago, when she helped her then-colleagues at Vox Media unionize?—?an editorial union that she, as a tech worker, was not eligible for. When she joined the Times as a senior software engineer in 2020, she got her chance. ?“It was something I felt so strongly about. I wanted to believe that tech workers could unionize,” she says. ?“It was inspiring to people when they realized we could do something about our health insurance, or about diversity, that wasn’t just asking management for something, or being part of a management-sponsored committee.” 

As is often the case, tech workers at the Times found when they started speaking to coworkers that there were a remarkably common set of issues that people wanted to address: pay equity, improving diversity, better health insurance, improved career development, and the end of at-will employment. The company’s refusal to voluntarily recognize the union, and instead to demand a formal NLRB election?—?despite voluntarily recognizing a similar union at the company’s Wirecutter division in 2019, and despite the paper having editorialized in favor of voluntary recognition?—?caused surprise and disappointment among the workers themselves, who say that they expected better from the purportedly liberal institution. Instead of open arms, however, they have received an overt anti-union campaign from management, complete with mandatory ?“captive audience” meetings and insinuations that a union could cost employees the benefits they already have. 

New York Times Co. spokesperson Daniell Rhoades Ha says that contrary to the ?“overwhelming support” for a union at the Wirecutter, ?“In this case, we heard, and continue to hear, a significant amount of reservations and uncertainty among our technology and digital teams about what a union would mean for them. It is clear to us that our colleagues want more information in order to determine the best path for their future and want the opportunity to have a vote on the matter, rather than the company making the decision to recognize the proposed new unit.”

It is a familiar justification for an anti-union campaign, and one that Samadzadeh characterizes as ?“concern trolling… well-meaning, paternalistic, pretending that they have a care for our welfare.” She rejects the company’s overt nod to the idea that tech workers are somehow different from other employees who have unionized in the past. ?“We’re workers,” she says. ?“The problems we have are very similar to the ones in the newsroom.” 

As it stands, members of the NYT Tech Guild say they are continuing to organize and collect union cards as the polite-but-insistent anti-union campaign from management grinds on. (They will not disclose the number of union cards they have collected so far.) There is no date for the formal NLRB election yet, but if history is any guide, the company’s insistence on drawing out the process will not succeed?—?virtually all of the media union drives in recent years that have faced anti-union campaigns have succeeded anyhow. And the tech workers at the Times are propelled by an extra sense of historical importance. 

“Institutions like The Times are still figuring out how to support career pathways that don’t rely on elite universities. Our union can speed up that progress, benefitting my coworkers and the next generation of Times tech workers,” says Bön Champion, a senior product designer who is on the Tech Guild’s organizing committee. ?“If we make this the decade where laborers in this country organize and realize their collective power, I think there’s a lot to be hopeful about. In tech specifically, our pay and benefits are largely a reflection of a competitive workplace with Big Tech at the forefront. Which means the conditions of our work are largely trickling down from Silicon Valley. If tech organizing spreads, instead those conditions will be set by the workers themselves, in their own offices and communities.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 29, 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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Engines Out and Pickets Up to Stop Health Plan Downgrade by Cummins

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East Bay Health Care Workers Strike Forces County to Disband the Boss |  Today's Workplace

Thirty-three heavy-duty engine mechanics have been on an open-ended strike since June 8 at the Cummins service shop in San Leandro, California.

These technicians service the engines and generators that power Silicon Valley tech giants and buses for the Bay Area’s local public transit agencies. They worked through the pandemic, without adequate personal protective equipment, sanitizing procedures, or hazard pay. The shop was busier than ever.

But as their reward for their hard work, dedication, and personal risk to keep the Bay Area running, Cummins kicked them off the health care plans they sorely need.

For 18 months after the Machinists (IAM) Local 1546 contract expired in 2020, management had refused to budge on its demand to strip workers of their union-negotiated Kaiser HMO plan.

This month, declaring an impasse, the company unilaterally forced workers off their plan and onto the kind of costly health savings account plan it had already pushed on the rest of its workers nationwide. Deductibles shot up to $8,000 for individuals and $11,000 for families.

The mechanics had had enough. With nearly every worker in the shop taking part, they walked off the job and went on strike for the first time in 20 years.

LAST ONE STANDING

Cummins is a multinational Fortune 500 company that manufactures, installs, and services engines in buses and other large vehicles and ships. The company’s mobile teams install and service generators at hospitals, stadiums, and data centers around the U.S.

The strike at the San Leandro shop is the final stand against a corporate behemoth that has won health care concessions at every other shop in the country. Cummins has forced not only its nonunion shops, mostly in the South and Midwest, but also its thousands of union workers in California and the Northeast onto expensive, low-quality plans.

Louis Huaman, a mechanic at the San Leandro shop for 40 years, said that he and his co-workers saw this fight coming. “We didn’t think we’d be the last one standing, but we’re drawing the line.”

Another longtime employee, who asked to remain anonymous, explained how management’s plan would leave him high and dry: “I’m a dialysis patient. Right now I have a $15 co-pay. On management’s plan, I’d pay $600 a visit. I’d probably spend the $8,000 deductible by May—and have to do it all over the next year.”

The surging health expenses would make it impossible for him to afford to continue to live in the costly Bay Area, he said. “I’ve got an elderly dad with health issues, and he lives here. The reason I stay at this job is so I can be close to him.”

Others emphasized the importance of having good health insurance in a physically taxing job. “This job will wear you down,” said Mike Nelson, shop steward and a technician in the shop for three decades. “Batteries go up in flames. Engines can drop on you if you’re not careful. You need good health care.”

PROFITS ARE SOARING

During its push to slash workers’ health care, the company has been extremely profitable lately.

Cummins has been picking up new business, according to Nelson, since the pandemic shut down in-house service crews at many transit agencies and other clients.

“The company made $6 billion [in revenue] in the first quarter this year, which is a billion over that quarter last year,” he said. Cummins bragged that it made $600 million in profit during the quarter.

Management has pushed through mergers and corporate takeovers of independent local distributors in the last few years. The 2013 corporate takeover of the San Leandro shop, formerly a distributor with a local owner, now looks to workers like a first step in management’s strategy to break a strong union shop and its hard-earned health care.

Aware of the company’s flush profits and high demand, these machinists have been emboldened to fight back. “When we’re out here, we’re costing them at least $100,000 a day,” Nelson estimated from the picket line, pointing to lost business due to the strike.

Google cancelled its Cummins service contract this week and switched to a competitor, which workers believe is also union. Machinists have parted the picket line almost daily for local transit agencies and a manufacturer to tow their unrepaired buses out of the service yard.

MAKING IT HARD FOR SCABS

Besides maintaining a picket line at the main gate of the Cummins yard, the Machinists are placing striking workers at sites where they perform generator work across the Bay Area. They’ve cultivated relationships with the workers in other union locals who staff these sites.

With this strategy, the mechanics and their allies have been slowing down work for the scabs that Cummins has sent in from its nonunion Arizona and Colorado shops.

On their last day working before the strike, some mechanics carefully took the engines out of vehicles, and removed oil pans or other parts that would make it very difficult for scabs to take over the work.

As the work piles up into a deep backlog, the workers hope that Cummins will have no other choice but to finally concede and restore the health care plan.

“We’ll be here as long as it takes,” said Huaman. “We know they can’t run these engines without us.”

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

About the Author: Keith Brower Brown is a member of the East Bay Democratic Socialists of America and a steward in Auto Workers Local 2865.


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Striking Alabama Miners Call Out NYC Hedge Funds for Bringing in Scabs

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Interview by Adam Johnson | Authors | The Indypendent

You take a six-dollar pay cut and what do you get? Five years older and no respect for the sacrifices you made to get your employer out of bankruptcy, say the striking Alabama coal miners who protested outside the Manhattan offices of three hedge funds on June 22.

“They told us, since we bailed them out, they would take care of us,” says Brian Kelly, president of United Mine Workers of America Local 2245, one of more than 1,000 miners who’ve been on strike at two mines in Brookwood, Alabama, since April 1. But instead, he says, “they’re bringing in scabs to work and trying to get rid of the older workforce.”

Warrior Met Coal, which operates the two mines, about 15 miles east of Tuscaloosa, was bought out by a consortium of 20 to 30 hedge funds in 2016 after its previous owner, Jim Walter Resources, filed for bankruptcy, says UMWA spokesperson Phil Smith.

Local 2245 then agreed to major concessions to help the company regain solvency: Along with the $6-per-hour pay cut, their health care costs were increased from a $12 co-pay to a $1,500 deductible; the union had to negotiate a $25 million Voluntary Employees’ Beneficiary Association plan to continue retirees’ health care; and extra overtime pay for Sundays and holidays was eliminated.

“They’re making us work seven days a week, up to 16 hours,” says Kelly, who has worked in the Brookwood mine for 25 years, following his father, uncles, and grandfather. “Now we’re forced to work every holiday except Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas.”

The company’s current contract offer, instead of restoring the $6 pay cut, is a five-year deal with a $1-an-hour increase, with another 50 cents coming in its fourth year, says Kelly.

“This company has prospered,” says Dedrick Gardner, who’s worked in the mine for 13 years. “We worked a whole year during the pandemic. The mine didn’t shut.”

ONE-SIDED SACRIFICE

That brought the miners to the offices of three of the hedge funds that own Warrior Met: In the morning, they protested outside BlackRock Fund Advisors, the largest stockholder, holding 13 percent of the company, according to Smith. In the afternoon, they split into two groups, one at State Street Global Advisors, which owns 11 percent, and the other at Renaissance Technologies, which owns 4 percent.

Outside State Street’s Sixth Avenue offices, about 25 miners and supporters from other unions—the International Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union Local 338—marched in an oval, chanting “No Contract, No Coal” and “Warrior Met Has No Soul.” Rain cut it short an hour early.

“These hedge funds are among several entities that invested in Warrior Met five years ago when the company emerged from bankruptcy,” UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said in a statement. “But they insisted on dramatic sacrifices from the workers, to the tune of $1.1 billion. The company has enjoyed revenues amounting to another $3.4 billion since then, much of which flowed into these funds’ accounts. It’s time to share that wealth with the people who created it—the workers.”

Company executives got bonuses of up to $35,000 early this year, according to the UMWA. The Brookwood miners now average about $22 an hour, the union says. Kelly says he makes about $60,000 a year.

Contract talks have made little progress since early April, when the miners rejected a proposed agreement drawn up a few days into the strike, 1,006 to 45. Smith says he doesn’t expect them to resume until after July 4.

“They really haven’t moved very far from the contract that got voted down,” says Smith. “I don’t think they got the message.”

EXPLOSIVE DANGER

Aside from pay, union officials say, a main dispute is that management is demanding the power to fire strikers and to give strikebreakers and new hires seniority. Earlier this month, there were at least two incidents where drivers entering the mine site in pickup trucks hit picketers. Warrior Met management responded that it has an injunction that “specifically prohibits picketers from interfering, hindering or obstructing ingress and egress.”

“They want to put the new hires and scab miners to the front of the seniority line,” says Kelly. “I’ve been there 25 years. That’s not going to happen.”

Safety has become a major concern. The foremen the new management brought in, Kelly says, came from West Virginia and Kentucky, and don’t understand the kind of mining they do at Brookwood.

The Alabama mine, which extracts a specialized variety of coal used in making steel, is much deeper than a typical Appalachian “drift mine,” he explains. Its shaft goes down 2,000 feet, and the miners have to travel as much as 10 miles to reach the coal face.

“You can’t walk out if something happens,” he says.

Mining coal at those depths also releases a lot of methane gas, which is toxic, inflammable, and explosive. In the last two years, Kelly says, there have been more “ignitions”—small fires starting from pockets of methane igniting—than he’s seen in his previous 20 years on the job.

“They are building a big potential to have something blow up,” he says.

It’s a peril he knows too well. On September 23, 2001, 13 miners at Brookwood were killed in a methane explosion.

“If you don’t run safe, you won’t run more coal,” Kelly says. “You’ve got to have air to push the dangerous gases out.”

This article first appeared at LaborPress. Steven Wishnia is a LaborPress reporter.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on June 24, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Steve Wishnia is a New York-based journalist, now a reporter for LaborPress and editor of Tenant/Inquilino


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NEW REPORT PROPOSES CRITICAL UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE POLICY REFORMS

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National Employment Law Project - Home | Facebook

NATIONAL DAY OF ACTION BEING HELD IN WASHINGTON D.C. AND SIX OTHER CITIES

As 25 states cut pandemic unemployment benefits prematurely, a new report from a coalition of advocacy groups and think tanks, in partnership with workers who have experienced unemployment during COVID-19, proposes a stronger federal role in the unemployment insurance (UI) system and a slate of permanent reforms to unemployment benefits that will sustain families and the economy.

The report is a joint project of Center for American Progress, Center for Popular Democracy, Economic Policy Institute, Groundwork Collaborative, National Employment Law Project, National Women’s Law Center, and Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

“A successful unemployment system can be the centerpiece of economic recovery, particularly for those communities, such as workers of color, who bear the brunt of downturns and are left behind in the wake of recessions,” said Heidi Shierholz, Director of Policy and Senior Economist at the Economic Policy Institute, and contributor to the report. “In addition to sustaining working families through jobless spells, swift and adequate unemployment benefits are good for the broader economy because they allow workers to search for a job that is a good match to their needs, instead of being so desperate that they have to take the first job that comes along no matter how bad it is for them.”

The report includes key insights from workers who experienced unemployment during the pandemic, including Sharon Shelton Corpening, a media gig worker in Georgia who has supported herself and her mother on Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

“COVID unemployed workers like me are fighting to build a UI system that supports us until we can find good jobs that allow us to live in dignity and security. Next week, my financial lifeline will be yanked from under me because states like Georgia have too much power to reduce, restrict, or flat out deny benefits that are literally keeping us alive,” said Corpening, an Unemployed Action leader. “Unemployed people—especially Black people in the South who face systemic racism even as jobs return—want and need to work. But this current unstable unemployment insurance system hasn’t helped us get on our feet if we can’t even count on UI benefits. We need federal protections and we need them now.”

The report’s proposed structural changes include:

  • Guaranteeing universal minimum standards for benefits eligibility, duration, and levels, with states free to enact more expansive benefits;
  • Reforming financing of UI to eliminate incentives for states and employers to exclude workers and reduce benefits;
  • Updating UI eligibility to match the modern workforce and guarantee benefits to everyone looking for work but still jobless through no fault of their own;
  • Expanding UI benefit duration to provide longer protection during normal times and use effective measures of economic conditions to automatically extend and sustain benefits during downturns; and
  • Increasing UI benefits to levels working families can survive on.

“This report lays out the first steps toward transforming our unemployment insurance system, with racial equity concerns front and center. Black, Brown, and Indigenous workers in particular have borne the brunt of the pandemic and its unemployment crisis. They continue to grapple every day with workplace health and safety concerns, underpaid work, eroded transportation infrastructure, and lack of affordable child care options. The urgently needed unemployment reforms detailed in our report will be a win for everyone in our nation,” said Rebecca Dixon, Executive Director at the National Employment Law Project.

The report release coincides with a national day of action from the Center for Popular Democracy calling on Congress to act quickly and boldly to enact transformative changes for an equitable economy, including overhauling the UI system. Unemployed Action leaders from around the country will join excluded immigrant workers and others in Washington D.C. for a 5,000-person march to the U.S. Capitol. Workers will also rally in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Atlanta, New Orleans, Austin, and Pittsfield MA.

As the report explains, when state UI structures became overwhelmed during the onset of the COVID-19 recession, federal policymakers realized that benefit levels were too low and not available to enough workers. In part to offer stimulus to a sharply contracting economy, the federal government provided unemployed workers claiming standard UI benefits with a supplemental $600 per week in additional benefits, as well as extended the duration of benefits and provided benefits to some groups of workers left out of the regular UI system, such as the self-employed and temporary workers.

But even those emergency programs have proven inadequate, with already overstretched state systems failing to get out emergency benefits in a timely manner. Half of the states are now choosing to cut off their residents’ access to these programs early, causing extraordinary harm to vulnerable families and impeding the economic recovery. These attacks on critical emergency benefits are the most vivid and recent manifestation of recurring dysfunction in the UI system: The federal government has ceded so much control to states that it has failed to equitably protect working people.

“Unemployment benefits are critical to keep us going as we continue to look for work, but our broken system keeps throwing obstacles in our paths,” said Nate Claus, an Unemployed Action leader and theater worker in New York. “Federal protections are desperately needed to strengthen unemployment insurance.”

This blog originally appeared at NELP on June 24, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: NELP fights for policies to create good jobs, expand access to work, and strengthen protections and support for low-wage workers and the unemployed. 


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OVER 218,000 GEORGIANS TO LOSE ALL UNEMPLOYMENT ASSISTANCE WITHIN DAYS

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National Employment Law Project - Home | Facebook

NEW ESTIMATE OF GEORGIA PEUC RECIPIENTS SHOWS OVER 114,000 LONG-TERM JOBLESS FACING COMPLETE AID CUTOFF JUNE 26

An estimated 218,434 Georgians will abruptly lose all unemployment assistance at the end of this week, according to a new analysis released today by the National Employment Law Project (NELP). That figure comprises 114,820 long-term unemployed workers currently receiving extended weeks of Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), plus another 103,614 Georgians currently receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) benefits.

All together, more than 347,000 people are receiving some form of jobless aid in Georgia, and nearly two in three will lose all aid when the state shuts off all federal pandemic unemployment payments on June 26th at the direction of Labor Commissioner Mark Butler and Governor Brian Kemp.

NELP’s analysis of the impact of states’ unilateral cutoffs of federally funded pandemic unemployment benefits includes a first-ever estimate of Georgia PEUC recipients facing the cutoff of those benefits.[1] Georgia is one of only two states that do not report this data to the U.S. Labor Department.

Additional data on the impact of Georgia’s unemployment aid cutoffs include the following:

  • Of the 347,422 people receiving unemployment payments in Georgia, 114,820 PEUC and 103,614 PUA recipients will be cut off completely, leaving them with no jobless aid at all.
  • Nearly two-thirds (62.9%) of unemployment recipients in Georgia will be cut off completely.
  • Of the 22 states ending all CARES Act pandemic unemployment programs early, Georgia (347,422) ranks second only to Texas (1,149,892) in the number of people affected.
  • Black, Latinx, and other people of color will be disproportionately affected by the cutoffs: a majority (51.8%) of state unemployment insurance recipients in Georgia are workers of color.

Nationally, more than 4.7 million people will be affected by the cutoffs of federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), the weekly $300 supplement to all benefits; Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), the expanded program for self-employed, gig workers, and others excluded from regular state unemployment eligibility; and PEUC, the extended weeks for people whose regular state benefits run out.

  • Nationally, in the week ending May 29th, 76% of all unemployment recipients were PEUC or PUA benefit recipients.
  • In the 22 states ending all pandemic jobless aid early, 74.7% are PEUC or PUA recipients who will be cut off completely.

“The CARES Act’s pandemic unemployment programs continue to be a critical lifeline for millions of people looking for work in a changed economy still jolted by the pandemic,” said Rebecca Dixon, executive director of NELP. “The decision by Governor Kemp and Labor Commissioner Butler to abruptly end these family-sustaining payments is callous and downright cruel. These programs fill huge gaps in unemployment eligibility, benefit adequacy, and duration. They are helping families and communities—particularly Black workers and other people of color—weather an economic crisis that the U.S. is only beginning to emerge from. The success of these programs is clear proof that our unemployment insurance system is in dire need of comprehensive reform. Congress should make UI reform an urgent priority this year, and extend the pandemic aid programs for as long as people need them.”

This blog originally appeared at NELP on June 23, 2021. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: NELP fights for policies to create good jobs, expand access to work, and strengthen protections and support for low-wage workers and the unemployed. 


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‘We Took Care of Each Other’: A Maritime Union’s Hidden History of Gay-Straight and Interracial Solidarity

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Jonathan Kissam – LAWCHA

Decades before the modern LGBTQ+ movement, a small but militant union of maritime workers on the West Coast with openly gay members and leaders coined a slogan linking discrimination against gay men, racial discrimination, and red-baiting. For the better part of two decades, the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union fought discrimination on the ships where its members worked and in society, until it was crushed by the same corporate and government forces that tried to destroy the United Electrical Workers (UE) during the Cold War.

The Marine Cooks and Stewards Union (MCS) was formed in 1901 by the workers who waited on passengers, carried bags, cleaned rooms, cooked meals, and served drinks on the passenger and cruise ships that provided both travel and leisure for the middle and upper classes. They fed crews and washed the dishes and pots and pans on ships of all types. They faced grueling conditions, often being forced to work 16 hours a day, seven days a week, with no overtime pay, and sleeping in substandard quarters they called “floating tenements.”

Many of the cooks and stewards were Black and Asian, but MCS, like too many unions at the time, restricted membership to white workers. And although a high percentage of the cooks and stewards were “queens,” as gay men preferred to call themselves at the time, the union rarely if ever stood up for them when they were taunted—or “queen-baited”—by straight workers.

This all changed during the great waterfront strikes of the 1930s, when both MCS and the longshore union, prodded by rank-and-file activists, realized the need to unite all workers in order to win against the powerful ship owners. Black and Asian workers joined the unions and the strikes, which were ultimately successful in establishing coast-wide contracts for MCS and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union—both of which joined the newly-formed Congress of Industrial Organizations.

Victory did not come without a cost. On July 5, 1934, known as “Bloody Thursday,” police killed two workers—a longshoreman and a cook—as the ship owners tried to reopen the port of San Francisco by force. The flowers at their graves were tended by an MCS member known as the “Honolulu Queen.”

‘IT’S ANTI-UNION TO RED-BAIT, RACE-BAIT, OR QUEEN-BAIT’

As MCS established its presence on the ships—and used its hiring hall to integrate formerly all-white crews—its members continued to face taunts and harassment for their sexual orientation, their race, and their politics from bosses, passengers, and members of the conservative Sailors Union of the Pacific.

Revels Cayton, a Black, straight steward who became an MCS official, told historian Allan Bérubé how the union worked to address this situation. “In 1936 we developed this slogan: It’s anti-union to red-bait, race-bait, or queen-bait. We also put it another way: If you let them red-bait, they’ll race-bait, and if you let them race-bait, they’ll queen-bait. That’s why we all have to stick together.”

Sticking together worked. Bérubé relates, “The insults keep coming, but the gay stewards are getting bolder because they know their union is watching their backs.” Stephen “Mickey” Blair, a white, gay MCS member told Bérubé, “Marine Cooks and Stewards took the dignity that was in each of us and built it up, so you could get up in the morning and say to yourself ‘I can make it through this day.’ Equality was in the air we breathed.”

A WALKOUT TO HIRE LUELLA LAWHORN

During World War II, the ships that MCS members worked on were converted to serve the war effort, carrying troops and munitions. MCS membership tripled. Many of the new members were gay men who want to serve their country in the fight against fascism but had been kicked out of the military for their sexual orientation. Bérubé writes, “Merchant seaman pay a high price during the war… Although they are civilians, they are killed at a higher rate than are servicemen in any branch of the armed services other than the Marine Corps.”

After the war, MCS continued its traditions of aggressive struggle and uniting all workers. Messmen’s wages tripled between 1945 and 1949. When MCS dispatched a Black woman, Luella Lawhorn, to work on the fancy passenger liner Lurline and the company refused to accept her, the entire stewards department walked off the ship. The company backed down, and Lawhorn became the first Black stewardess on a U.S. passenger ship in the Pacific. In 1949, recognizing that its white leadership didn’t reflect its multiracial membership (by 1949 more than half of the members were Black, and a significant number Asian), the union diversified its leadership within a year.

However, MCS soon fell prey to the same wave of Cold War repression that attempted to destroy UE, the ILWU, and other “Them and Us” unions. Along with UE, ILWU, and eight other unions, MCS was brought up on charges of “communist domination” and expelled from the CIO. The Coast Guard declared MCS activists as “security risks” and prevented them from taking jobs on ships. Other unions used homophobia and racism, as well as red-baiting, to try to destroy the MCS. Ultimately the union was absorbed into the conservative Seafarers International Union.

‘OUR HISTORY HAS BEEN ERASED’

Bérubé, who was working on a book about the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union at the time of his death in 2007, wrote that “Their history is unknown today because, through fear and intimidation, it was first rewritten as an un-American activity, then dismissed as an insignificant failure, and, finally, erased from our nation’s memory, as if what they had achieved had never even happened.”

“We were 50 years ahead of our time. We were so democratic this country couldn’t stand it,” Peter Brownlee, a white, straight MCS member told Bérubé. “The most important thing was not that we had gays. It was that an injury to one was an injury to all—and we practiced it. We took care of each other.”

Stephen Blair told Bérubé, “What many of you younger people are trying to do today as queers—what you call inclusion and diversity—we already did it 50 years ago in the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union. We did it in the labor movement as working-class queens with left-wing politics, and that’s why the government crushed us, and that’s why you don’t know anything about us today—our history has been totally erased.”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on June 23, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jonathan Kissam is the communications director for the United Electrical Workers (UE).


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For Farmworkers, the Fight for the 8-Hour Day Isn’t Over

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Federal labor laws exclude farmworkers from overtime pay and other protections. After years of advocacy by farm labor groups, lawmakers in Oregon, Washington and Colorado are working to change that.

Oregon state Rep. Ricki Ruiz grew up the son of two farmworkers, and he remembers his family’s struggles vividly.

“We almost faced eviction five times because we didn’t have enough money for rent,” said Ruiz, a first-term Democrat. “We didn’t go to the grocery store; we went to the food bank. We didn’t have extra clothes.”

Ruiz hopes to change that situation for farmworkers in Oregon. He sponsored a bill that will mandate that farmworkers be paid overtime for any work beyond 40 hours a week.

“If this legislation was passed when I was a kid, we would have had less stress in our family and my parents wouldn’t have had to work 80 hours a week,” he said. “This will be life-changing for farmworkers. They will be able to make a living wage and support their families.”

The effort in Oregon follows bills passed earlier this year in Washington and Colorado to grant overtime pay to farmworkers. Lawmakers in Maine are considering a similar measure.

Currently, federal and most state laws exempt farmworkers from the overtime protections guaranteed to most other workers. Labor advocates say that precedent was set by the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, which was written to exclude Black field workers in order to win the support of Southern Democrats. Today, 83% of the nation’s farmworkers are Hispanic, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey.

“The exclusion of farmworkers was rooted in racism and made possible by the feeling that it wasn’t necessary to protect African Americans,” said Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy and support group. “It’s hard to believe that the exclusions of farmworkers from overtime pay and labor rights would continue if the majority of farmworkers were Caucasian.”

Nearly half of all U.S. farmworkers lack legal status, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Just more than a quarter of farmworkers are U.S.-born, according to the agency’s numbers. The Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning research think tank based in Washington, D.C., estimates about 10% are foreign workers in the United States on H2A temporary visas. The average farm wage was $13.99 an hour as of 2019, roughly 60% of the average non-farm wage. “The bias in agriculture is that labor needs to be as close to slavery as you can get it.”

Some lawmakers interviewed by Stateline said the overtime bills they sponsored would apply to workers on H2A visas, while others said theirs would not. The disparate rules in federal and state laws show the need for federal action, farmworker activists say. Some lawmakers also have proposed whistleblower protections because undocumented workers are unlikely to report wage theft if they fear retaliation.

Edgar Franks, a labor leader who picks raspberries and blueberries in Washington state, said overtime protections would not only boost wages, but also would keep families together.

“A lot of us grew up with our parents at work all day and our older family members taking care of us,” said Franks, political director for Familias Unidas por la Justicia, a farmworker union.

Last year brought renewed attention to racial justice and the frontline workers who face health risks in order to provide essential services. In several states, that spotlight led to the recognition of the plight of farmworkers, who advocates say are among the most vulnerable groups in the country. Lawmakers’ push to end inequities in overtime law has drawn support from President Joe Biden. But they’re up against the politically powerful agriculture industry, which asserts that new wage requirements would devastate farmers.

“Incremental change for farmworkers, who are the most devalued human lives in our country, has always been an uphill battle,” said Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns with United Farm Workers, the labor union founded by Cesar Chavez and other organizers. “But no industry should feel entitled to use up a human body at a rate it’s not meant to endure.”

Agriculture industry groups say that farmers operate on thin margins, and they compete against other states and countries that grow the same products with less labor costs. They also note that farm work is seasonal and requires immense amounts of work during harvest and planting times, which they believe is grounds for the longstanding farm work overtime exemption.

“Overtime requirements, especially a blanket, standardized mandate when there is nothing standard about farm work, would make it increasingly difficult for farmers to remain competitive, leading to small farms going out of business,” wrote Allison Crittenden, congressional relations director at the American Farm Bureau Federation, in a statement provided after a Stateline request for an interview.

Washington’s Law

Earlier this year, Washington state lawmakers passed a bill that will grant farmworkers time-and-a-half overtime pay, phasing in a 40-hour threshold by 2024. The new law was a response to a state Supreme Court ruling in 2020 that required dairy workers to be paid overtime. 

“The deep-seated bias in agriculture is that labor needs to be as close to slavery as you can get it,” said Rosalinda Guillen, an activist with Community to Community Development, a Washington-based organization that focuses on food sovereignty and immigrant rights issues. “The court recognized the racist structure of the agriculture industry.”

Agribusiness groups expected the court to rule similarly for other farmworkers, and they feared farmers would be required to pay workers retroactively for overtime worked in years past. The result was a bill that established overtime pay while protecting farmers from retroactive claims. It was a long-awaited win for farmworkers and progressive activists, supported—albeit begrudgingly—by the agriculture industry and its Republican allies. “No Industry Should Feel Entitled to Use Up a Human Body.”

“Knowing that the court was very likely to impose this on us, we were open to a discussion on this being legislatively applied, as long as it was not done overnight,” said Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association.

Washington state Sen. Curtis King, the Republican who sponsored the overtime bill, said he did so to protect farm owners from retroactive payments, though he disagreed that the previous state law, passed in 1959, was evidence of systemic racism.

Despite sponsoring the bill, King still fears the overtime requirement could make it difficult for Washington farmers to compete with producers from other states or overseas.

“We can sit here all day long and say the going wage ought to be such and such for farmworkers,” he said. “You go try and pay it and stay in business and see what happens.”

Movement Elsewhere

At present, only six states—California, Hawaii, Maryland, New York, Minnesota and now Washington—offer any overtime coverage for farmworkers. Some of those states offer overtime only after 60 hours; California will phase in a 40-hour threshold by 2022.

Even though Washington’s law was forced by a court decision, farmworker advocates say it has renewed momentum for efforts in other states. Earlier this week, Colorado lawmakers passed the Farmworker Bill of Rights, which will give minimum wage and overtime rights to the state’s farmworkers. The measure also will allow workers to join labor unions, mandate rest and eating breaks, and offer whistleblower protections to workers who report unsafe conditions. 

“The rights this bill will restore to these workers are rights that are enjoyed by almost every other worker in the state,” said Colorado state Sen. Jessie Danielson, the Democrat who sponsored the bill.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, has indicated he will sign the bill.

In Oregon, Ruiz’s bill is still in committee, but he’s hopeful it will advance this session, aligning the state’s policy with neighboring West Coast states.

“There’s a majority of people of color working in the fields, and they’re the ones being excluded from these resources,” Ruiz said. “I believe folks are going to appreciate that this region is honoring farmworkers. It will attract more workers and keep current workers.”

Ag industry groups disagree. They say agribusinesses won’t be able to afford the extra wages, and the law will cause them to limit hours, split shifts and increase mechanization—forcing farmworkers to take on multiple jobs just to make the same money as before.

“We heard from hundreds of farmers saying they would not be able to afford the bill as it was proposed, and ultimately it would result in a tremendous amount of job loss and wage reduction,” said Samantha Bayer, policy counsel with the Oregon Farm Bureau, which opposes the bill. “It’s a false promise that this would result in more wages.”

Farm groups across the country have made similar predictions about overtime proposals in different states. Labor advocates view them as a threat to punish farmworkers.

“‘The food system will be destroyed, the agriculture industry will be destroyed’—they say that about every single benefit that is given to farmworkers,” said Guillen, the Washington activist. “They have essentially said that if they have to pay farmworkers overtime, they’ll cut their hours and pay them less. That is insidious racially biased behavior.”

Maine state Rep. Thom Harnett, a Democrat who has sponsored his own farmworker overtime bill, acknowledged that farming is a challenging industry.

“There’s a great deal of empathy for that industry, and I share that,” he said. “I just don’t share putting it on the backs of the workers to be the ones who suffer the most. Because of these exceptions, we have farmworkers who have been stuck in poverty for generation after generation.”

Farming groups say that overtime doesn’t make sense in an industry that requires immense amounts of work during seasonal periods such as planting and harvest time. To account for this, Hawaii’s law, for example, has a seasonality clause, which raises overtime thresholds during certain periods of the year. Farmers in Washington sought unsuccessfully to include a similar provision in their state’s bill.

“In agriculture, there are seasonal activities where you can safely work more for short bursts of activity,” said DeVaney, the fruit tree farming advocate. “There are periods of the year where we have longer hours worked, and the work is by nature physically demanding.”

Harnett noted that many itinerant farmworkers don’t get a reprieve from those cycles. Some laborers travel among states to find work in different regional growing seasons, often living in employer-provided housing.

“We hear that farming is a unique business, because there’s this intense period of planting and harvest,” he said. “For the farmworker, their life is that intense period over and over again.”

Harnett’s bill has passed through a House committee but has not yet received a vote before the full House.

National Efforts

Activists were encouraged last month when Biden issued a statement praising Washington’s farmworker overtime bill.

“For too long—and owing in large part to unconscionable race-based exclusions put in place generations ago—farmworkers have been denied some of the most fundamental rights that workers in almost every other sector have long enjoyed,” Biden said.

U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who has been a leading voice on the issue, reintroduced the Fairness for Farm Workers Act last month, which would end federal overtime and minimum wage exemptions for farmworkers, although it would not apply to those on H2A visas. The bill is included in the Biden administration’s immigration plan.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 26, 2021. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Alex Brown covers environmental issues for Stateline. Prior to joining Pew, Brown wrote for The Chronicle in Lewis County, Washington state. He’s won awards for investigative reporting and feature writing from the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association.


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One Way to Boost Workers and the Labor Movement? Give Unions Power Over Unemployment Insurance.

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A reform from Belgium in the early 1900s would both increase unemployment insurance benefits and decrease the cost of labor organizing. It’s time for the U.S. to embrace it.

Despite keeping tens of millions of Americans afloat during the pandemic, expanded unemployment insurance (UI) only reached 41% of unemployed workers according to Professor Eliza Forsythe of the University of Illinois’ School of Labor and Employment Relations, and even among those who did receive it, many saw frequent delays and dangerous pauses in benefits. These issues underline the importance of addressing the program’s systemic flaws. 

“It took five weeks to get the next round of extended benefits. I was so behind on rent and basic bills, I had to pay late fees that accrued because it took so long. Now I can barely buy food,” said Sharon Corpening, an unemployed worker in Georgia and member of Unemployed Action, a grassroots campaign run through The Center for Popular Democracy (where I work). 

As pressure builds to reform the program for the first time in decades, one policy change could both dramatically improve benefit access for workers like Corpening and give a much-needed boost to the labor movement: Let unions help run the UI system. 

Unemployment insurance, if administered, managed or distributed by unions, could unleash a wave of union growth and dramatically improve access to benefits for millions of workers. Commonly called the ?“Ghent” system, after the city in Belgium where it was first developed as a form of union-led mutual aid in the early 1900s, these policies increase the expected benefits of unemployment insurance for workers and decrease the cost of organizing. The pandemic exposed the cracks in the U.S. unemployment system?—?and how desperately we need bold, new ideas like this. 

At least two legislative proposals to expand access to UI?—?one state-level effort in Maine and one coming out of the House of Representatives’ Ways and Means Committee?—?would, if enacted, begin to bring organized labor into the system and plant the seeds of an American Ghent system. 

UI currently leaves many workers uncovered, such as undocumented immigrants, unpaid caretakers and graduating students (re)entering the workforce. Most states’ weekly benefits are too low and the benefit periods too short to protect workers from crisis, whether it’s a financial downturn or a pandemic. The average benefit amount replaces about 40% of pre-layoff wages and some states like Florida provide just 12 weeks. Plus, benefits currently depend on ?“experience rating”: a funding mechanism that rewards employers who challenge employee unemployment claims with lower taxes. 

Meanwhile, the state-federal structure helps perpetuate racial disparities. States with higher relative Black populations have less generous benefits and more barriers to access those benefits, even though Black workers suffer twice the unemployment rate of their white counterparts. 

Those barriers, like limited benefits for low-wage workers and racist fraud detection systems, contribute to costly delays for countless workers of color, often leading to food insecurity and housing instability. 

The CARES Act and subsequent relief packages patched up some of the biggest holes in UI, supplementing and extending inadequate state benefit amounts, and covering independent contractors. Still, these patches did not address access limitations or the fundamental flaws of UI’s design. 

To increase access to unemployment benefits and build worker power, future reforms should include a benefits navigator program and government subsidized, union-led wage replacement funds. The federal government could implement these programs or states could lead on their own. Together, these programs would help establish an American Ghent system. 

The impacts of these programs?—?both the benefits navigators and the union-led funds?—?could transform labor relations in America. Union density in countries with Ghent programs, such as Finland and Belgium, hovers 20 percentage points higher on average above those without them. As Dylan Matthews writes at Vox, the Ghent system ?“is a key part of how Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Belgium have achieved the highest union membership rates in the developed world.”

Here’s what it would look like to receive unemployment benefits under a navigator system: If you were a non-union worker, you could head to an office led by a coalition of unions and community organizations where you would talk to a navigator about your case. They would help you file the paperwork, ensure you quickly received your benefits and help advocate on your behalf. They might connect you to job opportunities and provide support for you as you reentered employment. 

This may sound familiar. The Affordable Care Act set up a benefits navigator program that successfully increased health insurance enrollment. In 2015, the navigators helped increase enrollment from 84.9% to 93.1% among low-income Americans, with larger gains among low-income Blacks and Latinos.

In a UI benefits navigator program, federal or state governments would provide grants to unions and community organizations to hire navigators in order to help unemployed workers receive benefits. As a result, unions would meet and interact with workers right before they enter a new workplace, while helping secure them the benefits they deserve. In the process, it would help tie organized labor to non-unionized unemployed workers. 

Navigators can boost workers’ benefits by expanding access to UI. Union workers are more than twice as likely to apply and receive benefits than non-union workers. Moreover, gaps in unemployment benefit access across racial groups drop from 32 percent to 9 percent while disparities across education levels largely disappear among union workers. Navigator programs would help expand these advantages to nonunion workers as well. 

More expansive positive effects would come from instituting government-backed, union-led wage replacement funds in addition to a navigator program. 

Under a full Ghent system, here’s how it would work: If you’re a non-union worker, you would be provided the basics of the navigator system described above, but would also get an entirely new set of benefits. For example, the union could provide a benefit to supplement your regular government UI benefit so that your total benefits could equal 90%, for instance, of your pre-layoff earnings. Plus, the union office could connect you to job retraining programs to help keep your skills sharp or even shift your career. If you were a union member, you could pay to keep your membership and you might receive extra benefits or services. For example, your wage replacement benefit might be slightly higher if you were a union member. 

In the United States, some workplaces organized by the United Auto Workers have generous supplemental unemployment benefits that members pay into and use when they become unemployed so that their total UI benefits better match their pre-layoff wages. A Ghent system would make similar programs universal, and provide greater governmental support. In Denmark, for example, participating in union-run UI remains technically optional, but about 85% of unemployed workers receive benefits, which is among the highest in industrialized countries.

The wage replacement funds would be owned and administered by unions but heavily subsidized by the government, and would either supplement or replace the existing UI system to better match pre-existing wages. The funds wouldn’t discriminate, would be voluntary, and would likely lead to high rates of participation in the program. 

By providing wage replacement funds, unions could give non-union workers easier access to much-needed benefits in times of crisis. Additionally, they would provide a clear incentive for these workers to join a union. State governments could set up the funds through new taxes like small employee-side payroll tax. (Currently, almost all unemployment insurance benefits are financed by employer payroll taxes.) They could also allow labor organizations to use these funds to provide additional benefits like job training. 

Such programs would almost assuredly be very popular. One recent survey from the Washington Center for Equitable Growth showed that union-led benefit funds and job training opportunities were some of the most popular labor law reform proposals. The workers surveyed also indicated they would be more likely to join a union if the union provided those benefits. Another survey from Data for Progress showed overwhelming support for benefits navigators.

These policies are not a panacea. Wage replacement funds would pose an administrative challenge in states with low-union density. Moreover, they cannot replace the militant organizing needed to revive the labor movement in the United States. Labor membership matters, but so does using labor power effectively through tactics like striking. Ghent-style policies do not aim to replace organizing but rather facilitate it by decreasing some of the costs and increasing the immediate benefits of doing so. They increase the access and contacts workers have to labor organizations, and vice-versa. 

While unions, grassroots groups and advocacy organizations fight for continued unemployment relief, many of them are pushing for an overhaul of UI. In mid-April, Sens. Ron Wyden (D?Ore.) and Michael Bennet (D?Colo.) released a discussion draft of a bill that would begin to address many of the flaws in the current UI system through federal standards to expand coverage, minimum benefit standards, and automatic stabilizers. At the end of May, the Biden administration included similar reforms in its 2022 budget draft.

Although these proposals don’t include any Ghent-inspired policies, other officials have put forward plans that would expand UI program access and facilitate labor organizing. 

In late April, Rep. Richard Neal (D?Mass.), Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, unveiled legislation called the Worker Information Network that includes a benefits navigator program for UI as well as paid leave and childcare. However, the plan allows for a variety of non-profit organizations to receive funding, not just labor organizations. Due to their budgetary nature, federal UI reforms, including Ghent policies, could likely pass through the Senate’s reconciliation process which would require just 50 votes in the Democratic-controlled chamber. On the state level, a coalition of labor and community organizations, including the Maine AFL-CIO, is championing UI reform that includes UI benefit navigators that could be deployed by either community or labor organizations. 

The Center for Popular Democracy’s Unemployed Action project members and many of its local partners developed a federal #FixUI platform that includes not just navigators, but greater union and community organization involvement in training and boosting benefits. The Center for American Progress’ David Madland has proposed both UI navigators and a Ghent system. While no international or national labor union is currently campaigning for a full Ghent system, some labor leaders, like David Rolf, president of SEIU 775 in Seattle, have expressed support for Ghent-style policies. 

Sharon Corpening, the worker in Georgia, said, ?“This pandemic widened the fissures that were already there. To patch them, we’re missing the voice of workers who have to receive the benefits, who are really not making it, even in the best of economic circumstances. Unemployment is broken beyond repair without a serious overhaul.”

The UI system’s weaknesses are now more apparent than at any point since the Great Recession. The best chance to reform unemployment insurance in decades is here. And with it, we have the chance to implement policies that could help give both the labor movement and workers?—?organized and not yet organized?—?the boost they badly need. 

The ideas put forward in this article represent the views of the author alone and not their employer.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 23, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Francisco Diez is an organizer from Philadelphia and the Worker Justice Policy Advocate at The Center for Popular Democracy.


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Chicago Nurses Are Going on Strike—And Management Is Bringing in Scabs Through a Text Blast

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Jeff Schuhrke (@JeffSchuhrke) | Twitter

Nurses and support staff in the Chicago area are joining other militant healthcare workers across the country by walking off the job, despite attempts by their bosses to hire strikebreakers.

On Thursday, over 2,700 Chicago-area nurses and support staff at Cook County Health (CCH) are planning to go on strike, the latest example of rising worker militancy in the healthcare sector. 

The National Nurses Organizing Committee (NNOC) and SEIU Local 73?—?which respectively represent 1,250 nurses and 1,500 medical aides, therapists, technicians, clerks, housekeepers, food service workers and patient transporters at CCH?—?have each been in contract negotiations with the county since last fall. 

Citing dramatic staffing shortages, the two unions are teaming up to demand CCH invest in employee recruitment and retention by improving pay and benefits.

Rather than investing in long-term employees, the unions say CCH has been increasingly relying on temp workers hired through staffing agencies like SnapNurse. With the threat of a walkout looming, management is aggressively trying to bring in even more temps to serve as strikebreakers.

In These Times obtained a text blast sent out by SnapNurse last week seeking prospective scabs. Referencing ?“a pending strike notice in Chicago,” the text message explains that strikebreakers will be paid between $4,620 and $6,468 per week?—?more than regular CCH nurses make. ?“Respond with STRIKE to deploy,” the message says.

CCH and SnapNurse did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but in an email to employees last week, CCH’s recently hired CEO Israel Rocha, Jr. said management was ?“taking all steps necessary to ensure the delivery of safe patient care in the event of a strike.”

“Nurses are at the breaking point throughout the Cook County Health system,” said Consuelo Vargas, an emergency room nurse at Stroger Hospital and a chief representative of NNOC. ?“We need more nurses on staff, and we needed them yesterday.”

Consisting of Chicago’s Stroger and Provident Hospitals, as well as over a dozen clinics in the city and suburbs, CCH is one of the nation’s largest public health systems. Its predominantly Black and Brown patients are often uninsured or under-insured, meaning they delay seeking care and therefore face critical health needs. Stroger Hospital, which has the busiest emergency room in Illinois, treats the highest number of Chicago’s gunshot victims (and was the setting of the hit television show ER in the 1990s).

The nurses and support staff say that instead of valuing their labor and listening to their concerns, the county has been dragging out negotiations, offering paltry raises that wouldn’t keep up with the cost of living and seeking to double the amount employees pay for health insurance.

“We are striking because we are tired of being mistreated, undervalued, underserved, disrespected and cast aside,” said Eugenia Harris, a ward clerk at Stroger Hospital and SEIU Local 73 member. 

The nurses plan to be on strike for 24 hours, but may call more strikes in the near future. The SEIU Local 73 members?—?who already held a one-day work stoppage at CCH in December—intend to hold an open-ended strike.

“Our members are willing to strike for as long as it takes to achieve a fair contract,” SEIU Local 73 President Dian Palmer said. ?“It is time for Cook County to take these negotiations seriously.”

Over the past 15 months, healthcare workers have been on the front lines of the Covid pandemic, organizing and striking in states like IllinoisWashington and New York to secure adequate personal protective equipment and safer staffing levels. In Massachusetts, union nurses at St. Vincent Hospital have been on strike for more than 100 days?—?the longest nurse’s strike in the United States in over a decade. Meanwhile, thousands of previously unorganized nurses in North Carolina and Maine successfully voted to unionize in recent months.

The pandemic has fueled the uptick in healthcare worker militancy because it ?“revealed to a lot of us how little our employers care about our lives, and frankly how little they care about our patients’ lives,” Elizabeth Lalasz, a clinical nurse at Stroger Hospital and NNOC steward, told In These Times.

Throughout the pandemic, Vargas said, ?“hospital management has abused, disrespected and abandoned us. Because management treats nurses as expendable, we were not given adequate personal protective equipment, and over 150 of us tested positive for Covid-19.”

NNOC and SEIU Local 73 are calling on management to tap into some of the $998 million in federal funds Cook County is receiving from the American Rescue Plan to invest in the healthcare workforce. 

“Every day we learn of another experienced nurse who resigned for a better job because Cook County has failed to provide them with the resources they need to provide the best care to their patients,” Vargas explained. ?“With each loss of an experienced nurse, we see years of skills and expertise vanish. In one six-week period, I saw a hundred years of experience walk out of my department.”

CCH CEO Rocha’s salary is $650,000 a year. His predecessor, who was dismissed by the Cook County Board of Commissioners in late 2019, received $542,000 in severance pay.

“It doesn’t make any sense for upper management to be making that kind of money when we desperately need people to be recruited and retained,” Lalasz said. ?“We need money for staff and support on the front lines, not for money to be given upwards, or pocketed.” 

This would be the third time in the past two years that SEIU Local 73 went on strike in conjunction with a fellow union. In 2019, Local 73 workers at Chicago Public Schools hit the picket lines alongside their colleagues in the Chicago Teachers Union. And last year, 4,000 Local 73 workers at the University of Illinois at Chicago went on strike at the same time as hundreds of UIC nurses with the Illinois Nurses Association.

Besides its members at CCH, nearly 1,000 SEIU Local 73 members at Cook County Jail and other county offices are also set to strike on Thursday. 

Both Local 73 and NNOC have expressed disappointment in Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who is the ultimate decision-maker on management’s side. Preckwinkle, who doubles as the chair of the Cook County Democratic Party, unsuccessfully ran for Chicago mayor in 2019 on a pro-union platform with the backing of Chicago’s progressive unions.

“For years I’ve worked in politics, particularly with Toni Preckwinkle, who said she would work with the unions to ensure they had contracts with fair wages. She’s turned her back on us,” said veteran civil rights activist James Phipps, a Local 73 member who works at the county clerk’s office. 

Preckwinkle did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but she issued a statement last week calling the staffing shortage at CCH ?“a mutually shared concern.” Regarding management’s demand to raise health insurance costs for workers, she said it has been six years since the last hike and that a new increase ?“is needed in this round of bargaining.”

“It doesn’t matter, you have a billion dollars in Covid relief money and yet you’re asking us to double our healthcare and only take a minimal increase in pay,” Lalasz said in response to Preckwinkle’s statement. ?“We shouldn’t be the people who are suffering…Without us doing the work we do, this hospital system will not function.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 23, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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