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“It tears you apart mentally and physically”: The Health Crisis Afflicting Black Farmers

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Safiya Charles (@imsafiyacharles) / Twitter

At 43 and 45 years old, husband and wife farmers Angie and Wenceslaus Provost, Jr., hope they live to see age 70. 

They don’t fear terminal illness or a farm accident that could consign them to an early grave. 

Instead, they fear stress could do them in. Years of trying to protect family land from encroaching banks and government agencies have worn on them, despite their love of farming. 

After years of mounting debt with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and a bank, the New Iberia, La. sugar cane farmers filed a September 2018 lawsuit against a USDA-approved lender. The suit alleges that Wenceslaus, known as “June,” was all but run out of the profession in 2015 after the bank reduced his crop loans over successive years, effectively underfunding his farm operation. June also claims that the lender regularly dispersed his funds well past planting season, which hampered his ability to compete against other, mostly white, cane farmers in the region. Angie has had a separate and ongoing civil rights claim open against USDA since 2017.

Both Angie and June have been hospitalized with symptoms of a nervous breakdown. They endure fatigue, racing hearts, insomnia brought on by nagging fear they could lose everything: their homes, their cane fields, their tractors, even their lives. They have sometimes feared the stress might literally kill them. In 2008, June, a fourth-generation sugar cane farmer, was in his second season of farming alone when his father died of a heart attack after helping him chop soil to plant fresh cane. June’s father had fallen behind because his crop loans were delayed by his banking institution; both June and Angie feel the situation had become bad enough to put his health at risk.

“We’re very aware of the fact that the early death of our family members like June’s father and some of our other community members is due to that stress of being bankrupt and foreclosed on after going through such litigation like Pigford,” Angie said, referring to the class action lawsuits filed by Black Farmers against USDA for discrimination and failure to investigate civil rights complaints. “Those are issues of trauma. It’s a difficult thing, an almost impossible thing to live through, unless you have a support system.”

Owing the USDA more than $1 million, June at one point questioned his desire to live. “At my worst, I contemplated suicide,” he said. “I felt there was no one I could turn to.” The future seemed to be certain death by a thousand bureaucratic hurdles, racism, stress, and overwork. 

In some ways, the Provosts’ story is familiar to anyone working in agriculture. All farmers and ranchers know the standard hardships of their profession—from the high costs of doing business to being at the mercy of uncontrollable forces. The financial risks are high, and crop prices are always in flux. A devastatingly adept predator might make off with some prized livestock. Pests may gorge their way through rows of promising crops. The physical work is hard on the body; the pesticides are too. And while weather is always unpredictable, climate change’s unseasonable droughts, flooding, storms, and freezes add to the strain. Those problems make farming one of the most stressful occupations in the country.

But Black farmers have to contend with an additional menace: the systemic racism that has long marred U.S. agriculture. These producers face down all the typical hardships while also navigating other hazards, including legal battles with the government, discriminatory lenders, opportunistic land grabbers. These painful interactions tend to underscore the racist—and tragically long-standing—myth that Black people don’t belong in farming, and don’t deserve the tools required to succeed. 

“So many Black farmers—June’s father, his uncles, my aunts and uncles, our community members, our kin—have the same story: sitting there in a USDA office waiting to be serviced, and never being serviced properly; being told by local agents that you will not succeed,” said Angie. “‘You will fail.’ ‘You are not a farmer.’ Those types of things are told to you directly.”

These grinding forms of discrimination take a deeply personal toll, contributing to a mental health crisis among Black farmers that’s at once acute and yet hard to see. Help is not exactly on the way. While programs do exist to help farmers handle the stress of the profession, many existing lifelines are geared toward the approximately 95% of U.S. farmers who are white, downplaying or outright ignoring the specific forms of distress that stem from race-based prejudice. Though a small but vital body of research points to the need for a more inclusive approach, and at least one advocacy group is working to better understand the scope of the problem, few efforts are being made to address the problem on the ground. For now, too many farmers still have nowhere to turn, their suffering largely rendered invisible within the support systems that exist. 

“It’s that psychological impact that I’ve seen happen to many Black farmers,” Angie said. “You have to understand it’s a repeated pattern. It tears you apart mentally and physically.”

The research gap 

In 2021, the USDA announced $25 million to state Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Networks (FRSAN) to build crisis hotlines, establish anti-suicide trainings, and offer free or low-cost counseling, among other services. It was an important step toward recognizing the emotionally grueling, often isolating nature of farm work. But it did little to respond to the needs of Black farmers, who tend to operate smaller farms, face increased economic pressure, and are routinely exposed to racism in agriculture and beyond. Of the 50 FRSAN projects USDA funded in 2021, only seven programs—in MaineMassachusettsMinnesotaNew HampshireNew MexicoNorth Carolina, and Rhode Island—pledge to make efforts to accommodate the specific needs of communities of color. 

It’s yet another indication that the bulk of U.S. research on farming and mental or behavioral health and stress focuses on white farmers. And while that may partly be a function of demographics—Black farmers make up 1% of growers nationwide, a stat that itself testifies to the exclusionary force of systemic racism in agriculture—important research or diagnostic tools fail to be race-sensitive. Without these mechanisms, it’s difficult to provide informed treatment that responds to the specific needs of Black farmers and could improve their physical and mental well-being. 

The Farm/Ranch Stress Inventory, created in 2002 by Charles K. Welke, then a psychology doctoral student, is a tool that assesses stress, satisfaction and perceived social support among farmers and ranchers. It asks dozens of questions to assess a farmer’s anxiety level and is sometimes adapted for studies of farmer well-being. But its questions focus mostly on financial and family matters; while it inquires about conflict with relatives or community, no question mentions race or racism specifically. In another example, a 2021 Farm Bureau-commissioned study of 2,000 rural Americans found that farmers and farm workers were significantly more likely to have said their stress increased in the last year than their non-farming neighbors. But the insurance and lobbying giant told The Counter that it did not analyze its data by race. 

Laketa Smith manages the Farmers of Color Network of the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI-USA). In collaboration with North Carolina State University, she and North Carolina-based RAFI are conducting a study of farmer mental health and financial stress. Unlike many other studies, that research is intentionally oversampling farmers of color. Though the study won’t conclude until later this year, it will interview 15 Black and Indigenous farmers, respectively, in addition to the same number of white growers (a future iteration will include Latinx subjects). 

While final results aren’t in, Smith said that there’s no indication that suicide is higher among either group. Still, preliminary results suggest that chronic stress is a feature of life for many Black farmers, and that stress can manifest in a variety of ways, from family conflict or separation to substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and ill physical health. 

“Pride is the flip side of shame, and [when money problems happen and land loss is possible], there’s a lot of shame over being in that position,” Smith said. “Farming is often not [simply] what they do. It’s who they are. They’re fourth or fifth generation. And sometimes they think ‘This land’s been in the family for years, and I got us in trouble.’” 

Racism as risk factor 

It’s a realm of lived experience that’s also established science: Being subjected to racism is unhealthy. Even encountering the more subtle, daily varieties can be stressful—and, over time, that stress can impact mental and physical health outcomes in concrete ways. A 2013 article in The Atlantic summarized the current state of the medical literature, which draws links between discrimination and increased rates of hypertension, the common coldcardiovascular diseasebreast cancer, and even general mortality. One study of 30,000 participants found that racism-induced stress is directly related to poorer physical and mental health. It’s a phenomenon that social psychologist Nancy Krieger calls “embodied inequality”—and these damaging linkages have only become better established in recent years.

“The perception of racism, that feeling can have an impact on psychological well-being,” said Telisa Spikes, a cardiovascular researcher at Emory University who has conducted studies on the impacts of financial and racial stressors on African American health. “Your body responds by going into fight or flight mode—blood pressure goes up, heart rate goes up. When you’re constantly in this hypervigilant state it can have a negative impact on health.”

Spikes describes hypervigilance as a heightened response to prior racial trauma that leads African Americans to anticipate negative or discriminatory experiences when they are in predominantly white spaces. 

“You have this stigmatized status as a Black person where you feel you always have to be constantly on watch,” she said. 

Epidemiologist Camara Jones has long made the case that racism is a public health crisis. Notably, she has called on fellow researchers to prioritize data collection by race, urging them to focus their attention on the root causes of racial differences in health outcomes. 

“When we collect data by race, our findings most often reveal significant race-associated differences in health outcomes,” Jones wrote in a 2001 article published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.“The differences are so ubiquitous across organ systems, over the life span, and over time that they do not surprise us or seem to require explanation. Indeed, only when there is a white excess in disease burden, as with suicide, is our professional interest piqued.”

More recently, researchers have continued to probe the role that racism plays in lowering Black Americans’ life expectancy. A 2020 Auburn University study concluded that stress caused by experiencing racism accelerates aging at the cellular level; while a study published by Georgia State University in 2019 found that experienced over time, racism and long term anxiety could “wear and tear down body systems,” weighting the body’s allostatic load—the lifelong build up of stress—and putting African Americans at greater risk for chronic illness. 

“Health cannot be separated from the social environment. Many of the disparities that we see are a result of the social environment. And going back to clinical research, you cannot address problems without highlighting the racial demographic and the role that social determinants play in contributing to these disparities,” Spikes said. “Racism is now listed as a fundamental cause of disparities. It may not be experienced in the form of interpersonal racism—I’m going to charge you a higher price because of the color of your skin—but it’s more of the institutional and systemic racism. The trickle-down policies that derive from that is what has negative implications for health: not being able to afford housing in a good school district if you have children; not being able to get a loan for a mortgage,” said Spikes. 

Those risk factors are only magnified and exacerbated within the context of farming, where discriminatory individuals, processes and systems can continually threaten one’s livelihood and land. Combine U.S. agriculture’s institutionalized racism with the profession’s inherent volatility, and there’s an argument that Black farmers are at heightened risk for all manner of stress-related ailments. 

It happened to Lucious Abrams. The 68-year-old Georgia farmer was denied compensation as a claimant to 1997’s Pigford v. Glickman racial discrimination class action lawsuit against the U.S. government. He has filed numerous legal measures since then to delay foreclosure, and rents his farmland to neighbors to keep the taxes paid. After three decades wrangling with USDA, his body became a vessel of agony and apprehension. 

“I had kidney failure. I had a blood vessel burst up in my colon. My wife had a nervous breakdown. There’s no way to tell you the trauma that we have been through over the years. Through God’s grace and his mercy … that’s the only way I know how [we’ve survived],” said Abrams. “It’s been an absolute nightmare.”

Kentucky State University economist and rural sociologist Marcus Bernard worked with farmers in Alabama’s Black Belt region as the former director of a rural training and research center for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a nonprofit association of about 20,000 mostly Black farmers and landowners. While completing his PhD at the University of Kentucky, Bernard examined how racism, institutional racism, and class conflict affected Black male farmers. His research identified high levels of acute stress in both African American men and women farmers, typically wives of the male subjects he interviewed. 

The long and well-documented history of Black mistreatment at the hands of the USDA, its partners, and agricultural colleagues also produces well-founded anxieties that bias will put more roadblocks in Black farmers’ way. 

“When you think about a picture of whites farming [and] then think about a picture of Blacks in agriculture, those are two very different experiences,” said Bernard. “The picture with Blacks in agriculture is marred by stigma and labels: a feeling like ‘Someone is always out to get me.’ Like ‘I’m not going to get a fair shake.’ Either ‘I’m going to get shorted on my price,’ ‘Somebody is after my land,’ or ‘I may not get the financing that I need.’”

For decades, USDA and associated lenders withheld critical loans from Black farmers on the basis of race—only one factor among many that gave white farmers an unfair advantage, and a shorter path to profit. Today, countless hurdles remain, from fierce, hyperlocal cronyism that excludes these farmers, to price manipulation that drives down their profits and earnings, and excessive collateral required to secure loans that put them at risk of losing everything if they fall into debt—a shameful legacy that is literally written across Black farmers’ bodies. 

For 26-year-old farmer Tamarya Sims, the anxiety lies not in the fear of dispossession—but in the fear that she may never own land at all. Sims is a landless Black farmer in Asheville, North Carolina. By day, she works for a land trust, managing chickens and bees on a community farm. She runs her own business, Soulfull Simone Farm, on the side. The urban flower and herbal farm takes up less than half an acre of rented land. 

Sims, who experiences anxiety related to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), hopes to one day own 60 acres of forested land she envisions as a “healing space” where she can grow herbs and plants, and visitors of color can attend workshops and feel welcome. She describes the distress she deals with as threefold. 

“There’s the stress of being a farmer, then there’s the stress of being a Black farmer, and then of being a landless farmer,” she said. Added to the anxiety she feels, these stressors can make it difficult for her to focus, sapping her energy and ability to solve problems that may arise on the farm. 

As a Black female agriculturalist in an overwhelmingly white area, Sims has experienced strong feelings of alienation. When she spoke out in the wake of George Floyd’s death, she became instantly and uncomfortably recognizable in her community. 

But invisibility, rather than hypervisibility, has been the norm for her. When white visitors stop by the community farm, they often pass her wordlessly, seeking out the first white face they can find as an authority. When she was shopping for her own tractor, she brought a white male associate with her to the dealership, for fear she wouldn’t be taken seriously or get a fair deal. The sales agent spoke exclusively to the white man and refused to look her in the eye, she said. Knowing she must enlist the same tactic in her search to acquire land is upsetting and tiresome. 

“One of the main recurring things I’ve went through is being on land and folks seeing me and thinking that I don’t belong just because I’m Black. Even at my job, I’ve had people slowing down in their cars to see what I’m doing.” If they come onto the land, they ignore her just as the tractor salesperson did. “There’s nowhere I can go where people see me and think I belong, or where I feel safe.”

This feeling has been a primary motivator in Sim’s desire to carve out her own piece of land where she can enjoy the restorative benefits of nature that all farmers love: the joy and relief that comes from digging in the dirt, watching a tiny seed shoot out roots long before its verdant foliage begins to show.

“I work through a lot of my life issues in the garden, and I think that everyone should have the opportunity to do that… When you connect people with land, they see the mountains behind them, and they feel comfortable,” she said. It’s a feeling of ease she continues to chase and an irony many Black farmers experience: that working the land can relieve stress, while also exacerbating it. 

Community as coping 

Former cattle farmer Michael Rosmann is a psychologist who has worked with farmers and institutions for more than 30 years to raise awareness about the importance of behavioral health in agricultural communities. His work with the nonprofit AgriWellness, Inc., a partnership initiative between seven Prairie states facilitated by the Wisconsin Office of Rural Health, informed the framework of USDA’s Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network. 

“The traits that define successful farmers are a capacity to endure extreme hardship, the capacity to work alone, if necessary, self-reliance for making decisions, and keeping things to oneself. These traits cut across all races and cultures,” said Rosmann. 

However, these characteristics can have a downside: a reticence to divulge thoughts and emotions to behavioral health professionals or scholars who could document farmers’ individual or collective mental health needs. To combat this, Rosmann emphasizes a need for counselors and therapists who have a shared understanding of not only agriculture, but the complex racial and cultural histories these farmers hold. 

In practice, that’s not always easy. Rural communities, where most farms are, often lack the medical resources and services offered in major cities. At the same time, only about 3 percent of U.S. psychologists are Black. For farmers, these factors—the disparity in health care services and the lack of representation among health care professionals—mix with other forms of inequity to create barriers to relief from occupational stress. 

In the absence of doctors they can trust and enough rural mental health providers, many Black farmers like Abrams lean on religion to lessen their mental anguish. 

“There is still within this community of older Black farmers, deeply spiritual, deeply rooted ties to their churches. Their spiritual life is what I believe is the No. 1 thing that keeps them sane and grounded,” Kentucky State’s Bernard said. 

He speculated that faith may offset suicide risk among Black farmers. But because Black farmers are not often studied or written about outside the bounds of their racial experiences, there’s little to no information about the prevalence of suicide and self-harm among them. 

That most Black farmers turn to social networks for support bears out an aspect of Farm Bureau research: in general, farmers are far more likely to tap their friends and family for help than seek a doctor’s advice. 

Kaleb “KJ” Hill, 35, is a fourth-generation farmer from New Orleans and the founder of Oko Vue Produce Co., an agricultural business that specializes in edible landscapes and stormwater management. 

He looks inside and outside his community for assistance. 

“A lot of [farmers] are not very vocal with what they’re going through. They’ll speak in a lot of cliches, like ‘You know, it’s just part of the job.’ But the way I live my life, I share if I’m seeking additional support,” Hill said. 

Though he doesn’t presume to recommend mental health services to his peers, “we usually talk to each other,” he said. 

“That’s important,” he went on. “I won’t say it’s like traditional group therapy or anything that’s facilitated by a professional. It’s just us sitting around in a circle or gathering at the end of the season, and having a little dinner together with some of the things we have left over and just talking about how that was a rough year. It’s an ongoing conversation. You’re venting like ‘Man, that was frustrating, this insect ate up everything. What did you do about it’ That’s a therapeutic session in itself.” 

Still, traditional talk therapy keeps him “in touch with reality and it’s helped me grow as a man. … Sometimes you have these emotions that you don’t necessarily have a word for and that professional does,” he added. 

The Provosts also sought help to alleviate their feelings of despair. Both now speak with a therapist regularly. They say it’s had a marked effect on their ability to cope with the day-to-day stress incurred by attempts to preserve their livelihood. But the fight is long from over. What was once an almost 5,000-acre family sugarcane operationJune’s family owned about 300 of those acres and rented the remainder—is now a mere 36 acres, split between June and one of his brothers. Angie’s civil rights claim remains open, and Congress’s effort at debt cancellation, which would have offered them a much-needed reprieve, remains stalled.

This post originally appeared at The Counter on March 17, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Safiya Charles is The Counter’s future of farming fellow, covering the movement around justice for Black farmers and the pioneering agriculture work being done in communities of color nationwide. She previously worked at the Montgomery Advertiser, the Alabama capital’s daily newspaper. Her work has appeared in The Nation and The New Republic.


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The New Labor Movement Is Young, Worker-Led and Winning

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Katie Barrows — IFPTE

From Starbucks and Amazon to political campaigns and digital media, workers in historically unorganized occupations are forming unions—and breathing new life into the U.S. labor movement.

This year, May Day was celebrated during a historic moment for the American labor movement. Nearly every day, news reports announce another example of workers exercising their rights as nonprofit professionals, Starbucks workers, and employees at corporations like Amazon, REI and Conde Nast announce their union drives. The approval rating for labor unions has reached its highest point in over 50 years, standing at 68 percent, and petitions for new union elections at the National Labor Relations Board increased 57 percent during the first half of fiscal year 2021.

Three years ago, we wrote an op-ed about how young workers in historically unorganized occupations—such as digital journalism, higher education and nonprofit organizations—were beginning to rebuild the labor movement. Today, Covid-19 has changed the way that we relate to work and created new sources of economic anxiety, while exacerbating old ones. Yet, young workers continue to fuel the new labor movement as they form new unions to win back a degree of control over their futures in a world fundamentally altered by a global pandemic. With momentum in union organizing and worker activism still growing, it is important to recognize the ways that workers in every industry are helping the labor movement live up to its values and reverse the years-long decline in union density. 

Through organizing campaigns at the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, we’ve learned that successful new organizing campaigns must be member-led. Recent organizing victories at Amazon in Staten Island and at Starbucks stores across the country have reinforced the importance of workers themselves being empowered to be the drivers of their own organizing campaigns. We’ve also seen this in other traditionally unorganized sectors, such as political campaigns, digital media and tech.

There are a variety of reasons why member-led organizing campaigns tend to be more effective. One is the commitment that worker-led union organizing requires—leading a union organizing campaign is not for the faint of heart. Worker-leaders must be dedicated, and their time and energy investment means they have more skin in the game. Additionally, these workers build genuinely supportive relationships with their coworkers through one-on-one conversations, working in teams on union materials, and happy hours that bring more workers into the organizing drive. The relationships built during a worker-led organizing campaign helps workers to feel supported, as they know that their coworkers have their back. This collective approach also solidifies workers’ resolve to push back on empty rhetoric from their employer.

Member-driven campaigns are also key to combating bosses’ anti-union campaigns. When workers are active in setting campaign strategy, reaching out to their coworkers, and driving the narrative of the union campaign, they can successfully push back on corporate union-busters’ messaging that the union is a “third-party” or “outside agitator”—because workers know that they are their union.

The significance of momentum can not be understated. In all of these newly organized industries, we’ve seen the power a single union victory can have when it sparks a new consciousness among workers who previously didn’t know they could join a union, or didn’t think unions existed that understood and could address their specific concerns. Union wins years ago at Gawker, the Center for American Progress and Kickstarter helped incite the momentum for new organizing, and laid the groundwork for the campaigns we are seeing today. 

We’ve also learned the importance of publicizing our unions’ tangible contract gains. Workers want to be a part of a union that’s effective at improving their pay, benefits, and working conditions, so we as a labor movement need to make the public aware of our wins. That’s why our union and others in newly organized spaces will shout our wins from the rooftops with press releases, social media posts, news stories, and through any other means that will spread the word.

Today’s unions are making incredible gains and raising workplace standards. For example, members of our union at the Center for American Progress recently won a new contract that raised starting salaries by 20 percent over three years, secured annual raises of between 22.5 percent, and codified junior staff’s right to be credited on research and policy publications that they work on. Union members at G/O Media ratified a new contract that raised the organization’s salary floor to $62,000, includes trans-inclusive healthcare and prevents forced relocation for remote staff. At NPR, union journalists won 20 weeks of paid parental leave, a hiring process that commits to interviewing more candidates from underrepresented groups, and regular pay equity reviews. The more folks outside of the labor movement know about these victories, the more they will want to learn more about forming a union in their own workplaces. 

Millennials and Gen Z are excited, energized, and winning new gains and a new sense of power at work. For the labor movement to continue to grow, we must learn from each other, continue implementing the strategies that are winning union organizing campaigns, and support new, young leaders. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 9, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the Authors: Katie Barrows and Ethan Miller are the President and Secretary-Treasurer of the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, IFPTE Local 70, which is made up of the staff of 49 organizations in Washington, DC and across the country.


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Starbucks broke the law more than 200 times in effort to squash union organizing, labor board says

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Laura Clawson

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is taking Starbucks’ union-busting campaign very seriously. The board’s regional director in Buffalo issued a complaint late Friday accusing the company of 29 unfair labor practices involving 200 violations of the law.

The complaint specifically names interim CEO Howard Schultz for dangling improved benefits if workers didn’t unionize, and calls on Schultz or Executive Vice President Rossann Williams to make clear to workers what their rights are—the very rights that Starbucks has so dramatically been trampling on—as well as calling for the company to provide “equal time to address employees if they are convened by [Starbucks] for ‘captive audience’ meetings.” The complaint also calls on Starbucks to reinstate seven fired workers, with back pay.

The NLRB complaint also points to Starbucks closing stores in Buffalo as workers started organizing, retaliatory discipline and firings of union supporters, and “unprecedented and repeated” visits by top national executives to the Buffalo stores.

”Starbucks has been saying that no union-busting ever occurred in Buffalo. Today, the NLRB sets the record straight. The complaint confirms the extent and depravity of Starbucks’ conduct in Western New York for the better part of a year,” Starbucks Workers United said in a statement. “Starbucks will be held accountable for the union-busting minefield they forced workers to walk through in fighting for their right to organize. This Complaint fully unmasks Starbucks’ façade as a ‘progressive company’ and exposes the truth of Howard Schultz’s anti-union war.”

“Starbucks is finally being held accountable for the union-busting rampage they went on.”

– Former Starbucks Employee, Danny Rojas.

”Starbucks is finally being held accountable for the union-busting rampage they went on,” said fired Buffalo Shift Supervisor Danny Rojas—one of the seven whose reinstatement the complaint calls for—in the statement. “It is disappointing that Starbucks has refused to work with their partners and instead chose to fire union leaders like myself. Today, the NLRB is validating that the psychological warfare and intimidation tactics that took place in Starbucks stores was unacceptable. Starbucks needs to understand that it is morally corrupt to retaliate against union leaders and I am looking forward to the NLRB forcing Starbucks to make this moment right.”

Despite this aggressive and often illegal anti-union campaign, Starbucks workers have voted to unionize at more than 50 stores so far.

If Starbucks doesn’t settle—which a statement from a company spokesman indicated would not happen—the complaint will go to trial.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on May 9, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

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


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APRIL JOBS REPORT: STRONG JOB GROWTH AS WORKERS DEMAND BETTER JOBS

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Home - National Employment Law Project

Nationwide—The unemployment rate remained at 3.6% in April according to this morning’s monthly jobs report.  Approximately 428,000 jobs were produced, and 5.9 million workers remained unemployed. The unemployment rate for Black workers declined slightly, from 6.2% to 5.9%, yet the Black unemployment rate remained substantially higher than the rate for white workers (3.2%). The unemployment rate for Latinx workers was 4.1% and the unemployment rate for Asian workers was 3.1%. These disparities are a result of structural racism embedded in the U.S. labor market. 

“We continue to see sustained job growth today as a result of the critical relief and recovery measures passed by Congress,” said Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project. “Yet faced with inflation, global conflict, and the continuing pandemic, we cannot take economic recovery for granted. Congress must act to fix the nation’s flawed and exclusionary unemployment insurance system before the next recession. While federal policymakers fail to act, states from Missouri to New Hampshire are moving to further cut and downgrade unemployment benefits, undermining the system’s ability to support workers and help the nation recover from the next downturn.”   

Strengthening unemployment insurance is critical to racial equity, as unemployment and labor force participation rates continue to be uneven.  One bright spot was the decline in unemployment for Black men and women: 309,000 more Black men and 68,000 more Black women were employed in April 2022 than in the first month of the year.  

Growing sectors of the economy included leisure and hospitality, which added 78,000 jobs in April, and transportation and warehousing, which added 52,000 jobs. Employment in retail increased by 29,000 jobs. Yet workers in these service industry jobs—which too often underpay employees, offer unstable schedules, and provide few benefits—are demanding not just employment, but better pay, benefits, and working conditions. From Starbucks, to Amazon, to the Apple Store and a host of smaller employers across the country, workers are standing together to call for recognition of the unions they have formed and improvements on the job. 

Forming unions is a vital way to promote racial equity in the economy. Strengthening unemployment insurance also helps to build power for workers of color by supporting jobless workers as they seek employment that matches their skills and qualifications, rather than forcing them to settle for an unsuitable job.  

Policymakers must implement permanent, structural reform of the unemployment insurance system before the next recession. Senator Ron Wyden’s Unemployment Insurance Improvement Act would begin to address some significant ways the unemployment insurance system disproportionately excludes Black and Latinx workers, women workers, and workers with disabilities. It does so by ensuring states provide at least 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, increasing coverage for part-time workers, and expanding eligibility by requiring states to consider workers’ most recent earnings and standardizing earning requirements. These reforms lay the groundwork for transforming our unemployment insurance system and enabling all workers to thrive. 

This blog originally appeared at NELP on May 6, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The National Employment Law Project is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts research and advocates on issues affecting underpaid and unemployed workers.


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I’m a Black, Queer Woman Working as an Adjunct Professor—And I’m Going on Strike

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Victoria Collins

Last fall, after nearly two years of underemployment due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I began teaching at Mercy College in New York as an adjunct professor. I was excited to finally be back in the classroom doing the thing I loved: teaching. I knew the terms of my contract, and while I wished the compensation was better, I accepted the offer in hopes that a steady income would be the start I needed to finally get back on my feet. 

My story is not unique — it mirrors the lived conditions of Black and brown folks in academia across the country. According to a 2020 report from the American Federation of Teachers, nearly half of U.S. adjunct faculty members “struggle to cover basic household expenses” and more than 20 percent depend on public assistance. The pay rate for Mercy College adjuncts is $3,000 per course, and, while rates vary, adjunct pay remains low. Nationally, adjunct faculty members make, on average, just $3,500 per course. 

This low pay, paired with precarity on the job and two years of stalled negotiations with management, has led adjunct faculty members at Mercy College to plan to strike during the week of May 2. I stand in full support of these workers, and all of those seeking just working conditions.

If Mercy college, along with all U.S. colleges and universities, wishes to attract a more diverse faculty pool, they must begin by offering better working conditions for adjunct faculty members, including higher wages and longer contracts. This is crucial because the majority of Mercy students are low income and people of color. Representations of different racial, class, and gendered experiences among faculty is important. I can attest to the positive effects of having someone who looked like me helming a classroom.

As educators, we give our all to our students. However, when queer educators of color face the socioeconomic disparities that accompany their experiences as marginalized people of color in America, it is more likely that a larger proportion of these educators’ time and attention will be occupied by the day-to-day struggle of staying afloat and living paycheck-to-paycheck rather than serving their students. For institutions whose students are largely people of color, BIPOC representation in faculty — from adjunct to tenured staff — is critical to student success and engagement, and to creating a safe and welcoming campus culture. 

As an educator who knows the economic realities that Black and queer people in academia face sustaining a living, I support striking in order to improve the pay of Mercy adjuncts. Black and brown students and adjuncts at Mercy deserve more, and I hope with this strike that they are able to create a Mercy community that truly empowers students to thrive.

About the Author

Victoria Collins Victoria R. Collins (she/?they) is a queer, Black, southern writer and educator born and bred of the clay soil of Mississippi, currently living and working in The Bronx. Vic holds an MFA in Nonfiction Creative Writing from The New School. Follow Vic @vicwritesthings

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on 4/28/2022. Reprinted with permission.” https://inthesetimes.com/article/mercy-college-new-york-strike-adjunct-labor


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Starbucks is very unhappy about all the customers ordering drinks under the name ‘Union Strong’

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Laura Clawson – Netroots Nation

Starbucks keeps escalating its anti-union campaign, taking it ever more public and more blatant. From quietly shifting national-level managers into the first stores where workers organized, to firing pro-union workers, to interim CEO Howard Schultz whining volubly about the “assault” on Starbucks, the company has ratcheted up and up, and it’s not stopping.

This week, Starbucks announced pay raises and new benefits, including improved sick leave and credit card tipping—but not at stores where workers are organizing. It’s a direct bribe/threat: Stay quiet, and we’ll be nice. Organize, and get the short end of the stick.

Starbucks claimed that it would be illegal to unilaterally change conditions where workers are organizing, but Matthew Bodie, a law professor and former National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) lawyer, told The New York Times, ”If Starbucks said, ‘Drop the union campaign and you’ll get this wage increase and better benefits,’ that’d clearly be illegal,” and it’s “Hard to see how this is that much different in practice.” Starbucks Workers United has filed an unfair labor practice complaint over the company’s action, and has explained that while the company can’t unilaterally impose changes on a store that’s unionized, it can and should offer the changes to the union. That’s telling: Starbucks management is claiming that if it can’t act unilaterally, it can’t act at all, when really it’s time to start engaging the union as a bargaining counterpart.

Starbucks also took action against its own union-supporting customers. Many customers have been expressing support for the union by ordering under names like “Union Strong.” Starbucks is done putting up with that, instructing managers to not call out the names on those orders.

Starbucks even acknowledged, in a recent government filing, that “Our responses to any union organizing efforts could negatively impact how our brand is perceived and have adverse effects on our business, including on our financial results.”

The company knows this might not be so great for its image. And it’s not working. But executives are so committed to it that they’re even trying to silence customers.

About that “it’s not working” part: The union has a 90% win rate, according to a recent NLRB graph flagged by Steven Greenhouse. In recent days, that includes wins in several southern locations, including Tallahassee, Florida; Boone, North Carolina; and Farmville, Virginia, following an earlier win in Augusta, Georgia. On top of that, votes were held in four Massachusetts locations, and the union got a clean sweep, along with wins in Massapequa and Brooklyn, New York; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Plover, Wisconsin; and Summit, New Jersey. While many of the union wins have been blowouts, the few losses have largely had very close margins, and some votes remain uncalled because the number of challenged ballots could shift the outcome.

While Starbucks has been an ongoing drip drip drip of good news on the union front, the recent surge of worker-driven organizing did suffer a significant defeat this week when the second Staten Island Amazon warehouse to vote on union representation was a lopsided no. The fact that a group of workers forming an independent union and organizing against the multimillion-dollar union-busting campaign of one of the biggest companies in the world got one win remains massive, even if the second try didn’t replicate that success. But if the LDJ5 warehouse had voted to unionize, it would have suggested a truly seismic shift, especially given that even a small Amazon warehouse has as many workers as dozens of Starbucks stores.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on May 5, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Amazon Workers Decide Not to Form Union at a Second U.S. Facility—But Organizers Pledge to Fight On

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One month after making history by organizing the first U.S. Amazon warehouse, workers voted against forming a union at another facility in New York.

Update (May 2, 2022): Following a hard-fought campaign, the Amazon Labor Union came up short at the LDJ5 complex, with 380 workers voting in favor of the union and 618 against. In response, ALU founder Chris Smalls wrote: “Despite todays outcome I’m proud of the worker/organizers of LDJ5 they had a tougher challenge after our victory at JFK8. Our leads should be extremely proud to have given their coworkers a right to join a Union. ALU will continue to organize and so should all of you.”

After a stunning victory last month when Amazon workers at the JFK8 warehouse in New York became the first to unionize a company facility in the United States, the independent Amazon Labor Union (ALU) is hoping to notch a second union win at a neighboring sorting center on Staten Island—the LDJ5 warehouse.

The results of the vote are expected Monday. More than 1,500 workers began casting ballots starting April 25 and ending on April 29. Worker organizers face an uphill battle in replicating their success at the second warehouse because it is relatively new, having opened in 2020, and is comprised of a workforce that is largely part-timers. The second warehouse also has fewer worker organizers than JFK8.

Organizers say that the company’s union-busting has been even more aggressive at LDJ5, attempting to wallop the nascent union movement at the corporate behemoth.

Ahead of the vote, In These Times spoke to organizers Julian Mitchell-Israel, 22, and Madeline Wesley, 23, about their experience in the campaign and how Amazon workers are making history. 

Julian Mitchell-Israel:

Can you talk about why you are organizing inside the LDJ5 warehouse?

When it comes down to it, what we’re doing inside the warehouse is talking about what’s been taken from us. It’s listening to other workers, and it’s spreading the love. We are making everyone realize that the reason we’re fighting for this [union] is not some ulterior motive. It comes down to the bread and butter issues. And it comes down to the fact that we’re all being robbed in the exact same way. And the only way that we stop them is together.

From the time that you sent ALU founder Chris Smalls your resume to now, what have you learned in this whole process?

I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned how to talk to people that I would never have talked to before. I’m a born and raised New Yorker, I know how to talk to New Yorkers. But there’s a difference in terms of speaking to people about the issues. There’s a difference in speaking to people about overtly political issues and speaking to them about their day-to-day life, about their workplace, because it becomes very personal very quickly. 

And one thing that got reinforced for me is that when it comes to organizing, you have to be vigilantly kind. And it takes discipline. And it takes a sort of militancy and love. And that’s a hard thing to understand. But when when you’re up against misinformation, when you’re up against people that are violently anti-union, you have the instinct to sort of get on the defensive to go, “screw you.” The one time I snapped during this entire campaign, I said to a worker, “why are you bootlicking Jeff Bezos right now?” And I saw the hurt in his eyes after I said that, because I didn’t get it right then. I think he was genuinely curious about things and he was genuinely trying to understand. And it’s hard because, you know, Amazon has brainwashed all these people. I went into my car, and I cried after that, because I was saying to myself that that is the mistake that has stopped this movement from happening for so long. 

People need to have unlimited chances here. One of my favorite things that one of the other organizers said is that there’s no such thing as an anti-union worker, there’s just a misinformed worker. And I think that’s a fact. Because you’re never going to work against yourself. And so I think what I’ve learned here is that when you bring love to the table, and you focus on that as the prime motivator, there’s nothing that can stand in your way.

How do you feel about the vote? 

I think we could win this thing. I really do. I’m not confident, but I’m hopeful. We have an incredible amount of momentum on our side. I think if we had one more week, I would say we have it on lock. But we don’t. And so the question is just, “did we gain enough ground back?” 

Why do you think you’ve lost ground because of JFK8?

Maddie and I took three weeks of time off of work at LBJ5 to help run the campaign for JFK in the final couple of weeks. And in that time, Amazon planted a seed of a very deep anti-unionism in a lot of the workers here. They riled up the people that were already against us to be more vocal. So when we came back into the warehouse, although some people were more on our side than ever, a lot of people were more against us than ever. So it was sort of this one step forward, one step back kind of thing. 

Madeline Wesley:

Take me back to how you got involved in this campaign. And do you think you’re on the eve of, potentially, a victory?

Potentially? Yeah.

I got involved nine months ago or so. I spoke to Chris [Smalls] and I asked him a lot of questions. And he answered all of them. And so yeah, here we are.

What set of circumstances set you on the path to becoming a union organizer coming to New York?

I was a Wesleyan student in Middletown, Connecticut. And our dining hall workers are represented by Unite Here local 17. I got involved with a group called the United Student Labor Action Coalition. So that’s how I got involved with student labor organizing. And then I also got involved with Unite Here through that. I worked with local 26 in Boston and local 355 in Miami, and I was originally planning on staying in Miami. But I made a last-minute decision to switch gears and then do this campaign here in Staten Island with Amazon Labor Union after I got a call from my good friend, Seth Goldstein. Or, not one call—I got many calls from my good friend, Seth Goldstein, about this campaign. And I figured, at the end of the day, this is something that I probably only have one chance to be a part of. So I took it

What stood out to you about the campaign? 

I really saw the potential in this movement. I think one thing that really sold me was that it was a worker-led movement. This is the kind of thing that people like us only dream about—a truly worker-led movement against one of the richest companies in the world. It doesn’t come around that often. 

You wanted to be a part of history?

When I first started on the campaign, I figured that the odds were against us, and we probably wouldn’t win, but it was it was worth a shot anyways. And here we are.

How are you feeling about the vote today? I know the campaign has really heated people up. 

It was pretty intense for a while. But I’m so proud of my team. Because even though it was really discouraging a couple of weeks ago, and Amazon was throwing all of this shit at us, we stuck through it. And no one gave up. We all prevailed, and we chipped away at it one person at a time. And now we’re at this point where I feel like we’ve got a pretty good chance of winning. I mean, nothing’s certain. And it’s always kind of difficult to tell. 

What makes you feel confident about the win? 

Just people coming up to us and being like, “I was No [on the union], but then I saw that you guys weren’t just some outsiders, you were actually here in the building, you were actually Amazon workers.” And that made the difference for me, people coming up to us being like, I don’t say a lot, but I’m with you guys. I think over the past couple of weeks we’ve changed a lot of minds and hearts. And it’s the work of the whole team. 

Is there anything that has surprised you in this campaign at LDJ5? 

I think that after winning JFK8, some of us thought that LDJ5 would be an easy win. And what we realized was that we were absolutely wrong. Amazon is really angry at us for winning JFK8, they weren’t expecting it at all. And now they’re giving us everything that they’ve got here at LDJ5. They successfully rallied some anti-union workers, so we had to fight a lot of misinformation and rumors and lies. You always have to change your tactics based off what’s going on. What we found is that we’ve had to fight for LDJ5 just as hard as we had to fight for JFK8.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 2, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Luis Feliz Leon is a staff writer and organizer at Labor Notes.


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