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What Can Unions Do Now to Defend Abortion Rights?

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Sarah Hughes

The Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health on June 24 overturned the Roe v. Wade precedent, erasing the constitutional right to an abortion.

Already for years, large parts of the U.S. have severely restricted abortion—especially hurting those least likely to have resources to travel for care, including poor, Black, indigenous, undocumented, and disabled people.

The U.S. has the highest maternal mortality rate of any wealthy country, and Black women are three times more likely to die from childbirth-related causes than white women.

Many unions issued public statements condemning the Dobbs decision. A few turned out to protest. And we can expect many to emphasize voting for Democrats this fall.

What more can unions do?

There is a no clear pathway to winning national abortion and reproductive health access. It will surely be a long struggle, involving many organizations and strategies.

But there are specific interventions the labor movement can make, beyond turning out voters and joining rallies.

BARGAIN OVER BENEFITS

Here’s an immediate one: workers can demand to bargain over changes in benefits, which might now include abortion access.

A committee at the NewsGuild of New York has developed a bargaining framework for the questions this raises, including ensuring that your health insurance covers abortion, bargaining for travel funds to cover an abortion out of state if it is prohibited where you live, protecting your personal information, guaranteeing additional leave for travel, and securing non-discrimination language on the basis of gender and pregnancy.

The NewsGuild committee suggests that members look at current contract language where unions could demand to bargain over impacts, based on changes to their health coverage.

If your plan used to cover health care that is now prohibited in your state, that is a substantial change in your insurance, and your employer should have to work with the union to find alternatives. Perhaps employers could cover the difference in cost for an out-of-network, out-of-state provider, provide additional time off, and pay for the travel and associated costs.

DEFEND MEMBERS IN COURT

Unions can use their legal departments or hire lawyers to defend members who get sued or prosecuted for allegedly performing, getting, or helping someone get an abortion.

In the course of their jobs, this could involve health care workers, including mental health providers; people who deliver abortion medications, like postal workers or UPS drivers; and others. Unions should defend them just as they would defend members in other work-related disciplinary proceedings.

Last year Texas criminalized abortion after six weeks of pregnancy (about when fetal cardiac activity can be detected). The law allows private citizens to sue anyone they believe was involved in an abortion, including anyone who reimbursed travel or medical costs. Oklahoma has followed suit, and a similar law is pending in Idaho.

These laws will likely be argued in courts for months or years to determine exactly where and for what the states have jurisdiction to prosecute.

Some union contracts provide legal services to support members in housing, family, and civil courts. If a member were accused outside of work of obtaining or aiding and abetting an abortion, the member legal services could be expanded to cover this as well.

And unions should support workers in defying the laws. Abortion access was originally won through sustained, public civil disobedience.

“Most of the physicians I know and have been talking to are not interested in holding back,” says Paul Prater, chair of the Illinois Nurses Association political action committee. “They are going to provide the care people need and will deal with consequences after.”

DEFEND MEDICAL WORKERS

The risk is particularly dire for health care workers. While they can only be privately sued in the states mentioned above, in other states workers can be criminally prosecuted for providing abortion care.

In these states, if a pregnant person comes into a hospital for care and the appropriate treatment is to terminate the pregnancy, that is now a crime if there is still fetal cardiac activity or the person’s life is not immediately endangered.

Health care workers will be facing this dilemma routinely. For instance, about 2 percent of pregnancies are ectopic, where the fertilized egg has implanted somewhere outside the uterus, dooming the pregnancy and endangering the pregnant person; termination is the treatment.

In order to avoid potential legal problems, health care facilities are now avoiding or delaying these treatments, sometimes waiting on clearance from hospital lawyers. A 2022 study of two Texas hospitals found at least two dozen cases where a procedure was delayed longer than doctors wanted to, in one case until the patient required a hysterectomy.

In some states, if a health care provider suspects the pregnant person had an abortion, they are expected to report it to law enforcement. This reporting has already led to the prosecution of many people suspected of intentionally harming their fetuses, sometimes despite little evidence.

Women of color are more likely to be charged for suspected abortions. Union-led education on racial disparities could help workers not to stereotype their patients.

PROTECT MEDICAL JUDGMENT

All these laws will have a profound impact on health care workers. Not coincidentally, the states with such laws are also the states with the lowest union density—though there are exceptions, like union-dense Ohio, where abortion is illegal after six weeks, and Montana, with little union presence but no abortion restrictions.

The new risks could inspire more doctors and nurses to unionize.

What else should health care unions consider doing? They can demand to bargain, since the scope of work has changed for health care workers—they could face liability for using their medical judgment. Unions could bargain for employers to provide liability coverage against civil litigation, if possible, and to defend accused workers.

Unions should also bargain for clear policies about the treatment of pregnant people and who determines what is medically necessary when.

The laws are largely untested and have huge amounts of gray area, and health care professionals get little say in their employers’ interpretation. One Missouri hospital administration denied patients the contraceptive “morning-after pill” after the Dobbs decision, then reversed its decision within a day.

Union legal teams can do their own legal research, to educate members on what is clear and what is still contested. For instance, what would be the process for determining that a pregnant person’s life is at risk if a termination is not performed? Who would make that call, on what grounds, and how can they be protected in that decision?

Health care unions have fought hard to protect nurses’ and physicians’ judgment in patient care, and unions should bargain to push for the broadest possible reading of these policies.

EMBRACE ABORTION WORKERS

There has been a recent flood of unionizations in the “repro” movement, including at Planned Parenthood North Central States region (the Dakotas, Nebraska, Iowa, and Minnesota) and other states (SEIU); Preterm Clinic, the independent abortion provider in Ohio (SEIU); Feminist Majority Foundation (Nonprofit Professional Employees Union); and about two dozen others, according to Reprojobs.

Reprojobs, a website that began as a jobs posting site for repro workers, now features articles and networks to support repro workers unionizing, including a column called “Ask a Union Organizer.”

For abortion providers, many of their organizing issues echo those of other health care workers: low pay, critical staffing shortages, and frustration over management’s handling of Covid. They also face threats of violence from anti-abortion protestors.

Facing an uncertain future as parts of their jobs are criminalized state by state, workers are unionizing also partly to win some level of control in budgets and layoffs.

Workers at the at the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research center, won their election to unionize with OPEIU Local 153 on July 14. Less than an hour after the results were announced, one organizing committee leader was fired without cause; the union continues to fight for reinstatement. Planned Parenthood affiliates in Austin and Miami have also come under fire for laying off active members of union organizing committees.

Thishi Gangoda, on the organizing committee at the Preterm Union in Cleveland, Ohio, says workers there unionized because “abortion is health care and abortion workers are health care workers. We deserve power to decide our workplace conditions.”

Abortion after six weeks of pregnancy is now illegal in Ohio. Preterm is still open for some reproductive care, early abortions, and counseling to other states, but many workers have left for lack of work, or burned out by the stress of the last several months.

Labor can recognize these workers as siblings in our movement, and organize more of them. We can back their fights for strong contracts that will allow them to continue working in politically charged, changing, and occasionally violent workplaces.

ORGANIZE CATHOLIC HOSPITALS

Compounding the impact of the overturn of Roe, Catholic hospital chains are continuing to gobble up health care facilities around the country, posing a particular risk to access to reproductive care.

“Catholic hospitals in Illinois have never provided this care,” said Prater. “Companies like Ascension and Aurora Advocate have bought up several facilities and imposed their values on hospitals, sometimes the only ones available in a community.”

These institutions may refuse to provide even legal reproductive care, along with contraceptives and gender-affirming health care for trans people.

In 2020, four of the largest 10 hospital systems were owned by Catholic-affiliated corporations. These institutions already control 40 percent of hospital beds in some parts of the U.S., and they’ve been growing rapidly through mergers and acquisitions.

For Prater, the punchline is: unions must organize these health care workers, to defend themselves and their patients.

Meanwhile, where abortion access remains, workloads will snowball. Border states like Illinois will see a huge influx of abortions from surrounding states.

With staffing levels at a crisis point already, health care unions must fight for wages and conditions that can make these nursing and caregiving jobs sustainable and attractive, and union protections for workers to provide appropriate health care.

TALK ABOUT IT

One more thing that all unions can do is break their silence on reproductive rights. Unions may be cautious about taking a stance on a divisive issue, especially in open shop states and sectors.

But how divisive is it, really? We know the majority of the country supports the right for people to make decisions about their own bodies.

Members can engage in these conversations in good faith—particularly around issues of health, autonomy, and the ability to use your professional judgment at work.

This blog is printed with permission.

About the Author: Author’s name is Sarah Hughes. Sarah is a staff writer and organizer at Labor Notes.


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International Students in Ontario Are Fighting Wage Theft—And Winning

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Caitlyn Clark

In Brampton, Ontario, a small team of young organizers has begun taking on the businesses that exploit them, one case at a time.

The Naujawan Support Network, a collective of international students and migrant workers from Punjab, India, has won back more than $200,000 Canadian ($154,000 U.S.) in stolen wages in just over a year.

“We started a year ago because we observed that there was an increase in suicides among international students,” said Simran Dhunna, one of the founding members of NSN. “Every week we would see GoFundMes raising funds to cover the costs of sending the corpse of a young worker back home. A big reason behind it was the exploitation people faced.”

Over 30 percent of international students in Canada come from India, and while enrollment of Indian students in Canada has increased by nearly 200 percent over the last five years, many are struggling.

International students in Canada are limited by their student visas to parttime work, totaling no more than 20 hours per week. To keep up with the cost of living, they often work “under the table.”

In Brampton, international students commonly work at small businesses such as restaurants and logistics contractors. Conditions are brutal, with workers often paid below minimum wage.

Satinder Kaur Grewal said she was paid $100 Canadian ($77 U.S.) per day for 12-hour workdays at Chat Hut, an Indian restaurant in Brampton. Chat Hut had promised to support her permanent residency application, a tactic many employers of international students use to keep workers in line. After protesting with NSN, Satinder received $16,495 Canadian ($12,705 U.S.) back pay from Chat Hut in February.

NSN runs awareness campaigns to inform international students that they are eligible to file claims for stolen wages with Canada’s Ministry of Labour, even if their employer paid them in cash under the table. But because the claims process is often long and arduous—and results in only partial wage repayment—NSN has taken a hands-on, direct-action approach to recover stolen wages directly from employers.

NSN members say they were inspired by the Indian farmer-laborer protests, when tens of thousands of farmers occupied the borders of Delhi from August 2020 to December 2021 until India’s repressive and exploitative Farm Bills were repealed. The exertion of worker power in India moved Punjabi students to take the wage theft crisis in Canada into their own hands.

“What we have learned from our history back home is that we have to have the courage to fight for ourselves,” said Dhunna. “We emphasize self-organization, independent organization led by workers themselves.”

THIEF ALERT

“We had to organize in a way that wasn’t in the traditional sense,” said Amandeep Singh, an organizer with NSN who won back $3,000 Canadian ($2,310 U.S.) in stolen wages from his former employer at a trucking company.

“Workers are not paid, or are mistreated, and they leave the job. There are no stable jobs for immigrants. We are working in jobs that are non-unionized, that have high turnover.” This has led NSN to emphasize direct action, social media strategy, and public pressure campaigns to win back stolen wages. “We’re reflecting the working conditions of our membership.”

“One of the unique features of NSN is that we directly confront the people who exploit us,” said Dhunna. NSN frequently engages in marches on the boss’s home to deliver demands, a tactic that helped win Singh his wages back.

A typical NSN campaign begins with the hand-delivery of demands to the employer’s home with a one-to-two-week deadline to resolve the issue privately; if they don’t, the protests and social media campaigns begin.

Shame is one of the group’s most powerful tools. NSN’s social media pages often circulate images of business owners with the caption “CHOR ALERT”—“chor” means “thief” in Punjabi. Through such public shaming, NSN has mobilized community members to join protests and boycott businesses until workers receive payment.

FILLS A GAP

Dhunna believes NSN’s unconventional approach fills a gap left by unions and advocacy groups in Canada.

“I don’t think that the traditional labor establishment like unions has figured out a way to organize recent immigrants or international students who are moving jobs a lot,” she said. “It’s a sector of society that isn’t prioritized or captured by unions right now.”

NSN’s success has been met with retaliation through defamation lawsuits from bosses. But the group has already won a suit filed against it by Buta Singh, owner of trucking company Flowboy Haulage, after NSN began a protest campaign to win back 194 hours of stolen wages for truck driver Gagandeep Singh.

The Superior Court dismissed the suit, and the Ministry of Labour ordered that Gagandeep Singh be repaid more than $5,000 Canadian ($3,871 U.S.) in wages.

You can give to the Naujawan Support Network’s legal defense fund on GoFundMe. Follow NSN on Twitter @NSNPeelTikTokInstagram, and Facebook.

This blog originally appeared at LaborNotes on July 21, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Author’s name is Caitlyn Clark. Caitlyn is an intern at Labor Notes for the summer of 2022.


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Nurses in the U.S. Are Suffering “Moral Injury”

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Kari Lydersen

Minnesota emergency room nurse Cliff Willmeng remembers, during the early days of the pandemic, treating a patient at United Hospital who asked how the nurses were doing. The man was a Vietnam veteran, and Willmeng recalls that he said, “This is your war.”

“I kind of laughed, like what do you mean by that?” said Willmeng, who recalled he didn’t grasp at the time how horrible the pandemic would become. “He said, ‘We dealt with this in Vietnam. You don’t know it yet but none of you are ever going to be the same again.’”

More than two years later, Willmeng, like countless other nurses and frontline workers nationwide, knows all too well how true those words turned out to be. 

“The combination of the lethality of the virus and the seemingly total abandonment of collaboration from the management I was under produced anxiety and fear in me I had never felt, never,” said Willmeng, who had worked in emergency rooms and a trauma intensive care unit in Colorado and Chicago. “I was watching nurses sign their advance directives right there at the nursing station, preparing to be intubated and die. It was terrifying.”

In recent years, academics and frontline workers have used the terms “moral injury” and “moral distress” to describe the debilitating combination of anxiety, fear, guilt, shame, anger and betrayal that results when workers like nurses are thrust into life-or-death situations without the resources and support structures to carry out the mission they’ve committed to. 

The term “moral injury” was coined by former U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs psychiatrist Jon­athan Shay based on his work with Vietnam veterans, as explained in a December 2020 white paper by the National Nurses United (NNU) union. Moral injury involves the “deleteri­ous long-term, emotional, psychological, behavioral, spiritual, and/or social effects” of “perpetrating or failing to prevent acts that trans­gress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations in a high-stakes environment,” the paper notes. 

Nurses describe deep parallels between the experiences of veterans who are thrust into horrifying conflicts, left to fend for themselves and forced to make painful choices by corrupt or absent leadership—then blamed or punished for their actions.

Academic studies explain that moral injury is closely related to post-traumatic stress disorder, and can be a significant factor in veterans, emergency workers and others developing PTSD, as a number of studies have shown. It is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statical Manual related to mental illness, and moral injury is not considered to be a mental illness or to directly cause mental illness. This is in part because there is some ambiguity in defining exactly what moral injury entails, as it involves philosophical, social and ethical, as well as psychological, questions, which an article the British Journal of Psychiatry and other journals have explained. 

That journal notes that relatively few studies have been done on moral injury, yet it is recognized by many as a serious issue that goes beyond the ethical dilemmas that most people face. With many ethical dilemmas, the journal notes, people have the power to make a choice. “In moral injury, individuals commonly feel at the mercy of events, constrained by an overarching strategy or hierarchical rules that govern their actions. For some, it may erode their sense of meaning and place in the world,” says the 2020 journal article, by Edgar Jones. 

In military situations, an individual can experience moral injury when they are forced to harm civilians or take unjustified military actions, and the emotional and mental impacts are worsened in situations like the Vietnam War, where veterans face blame and hostility from the general public, or situations like the Iraq War, where the general public is largely unaware of what the veterans have been through, studies note. Nurses report a dynamic that has some parallels: They don’t have the resources to serve their patients well, but hospital administrators blame them for failings or don’t acknowledge the extreme conditions they are working under. And where patients often treat them with hostility or even violence. 

During the pandemic, experiences causing moral injury ranged from having to choose which patients got ventilators, to not being able to check in on Covid-19 patients regularly in order to minimize risk of transmission.

Elizabeth Lalasz, a registered nurse and NNU steward at Chicago’s public hospital, explains that the burn-out, depression, stress and anxiety that nurses face has typically been framed as an individual experience, rather than a systemic injustice caused by a broken healthcare system driven by the bottom line.

In 2021, the United States ranked last among high-wealth countries in the quality of its healthcare system, despite spending the highest amount of these countries on healthcare. Countries with much better healthcare systems provide universal coverage so that finances don’t prevent people from accessing healthcare, and money was not wasted on administrative burdens or siphoned off to insurance companies and massive profit for private healthcare companies. 

Lalasz noted that the pandemic just exacerbated and laid bare longstanding problems with the healthcare system, including lack of access for poor people, and private—and cash-strapped public—healthcare systems trying to save money or maximize profit by not investing adequately in staffing and resources. 

“We do this with the intention of trying to help and save lives,” said Lalasz, who worked three stints in Covid-19 wards and contracted the disease herself, missing 18 days of work. “If you’re not able to have what you need to be able to do that, it’s systemic. All these things existed prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, but that really brought it to a head.”

She said nurses like herself who contracted Covid-19 felt management was “minimizing” their experiences and their concerns, and “gaslighting” them into thinking they just had to toughen up. 

“There needs to be an acknowledgement that there is a systemic problem with the way the healthcare system is run in this country,” Lalasz said. “This was something that happened called a worldwide pandemic. It’s not my fault that it happened—it’s capitalism’s fault.” 

During the pandemic, healthcare workers faced guilt and anxiety about bringing Covid-19 home to their families, on top of the trauma of being unable to adequately care for patients and fearing for their own lives. Meanwhile, workers had to fight and fundraise just to get the basic PPE that could help protect them and their patients and communities—a recipe for moral injury. 

“We had managers telling us it wasn’t an airborne disease,” Willmeng remembers. “We’re doing the math on it: If I get it, maybe I’ll be ok, maybe I’ll die. Either way, I could also give it to my patients or my wife or my son or my next door neighbor or that nice woman at the grocery store.” 

As the pandemic has evolved and become slightly less of an acute crisis, the behavior of healthcare institution management has accelerated a nursing shortage that has become its own crisis. Hundreds of thousands of healthcare workers have retired or otherwise left the profession during the pandemic. Meanwhile, thousands of nurses have left staff jobs—often unionized—to work as gig-worker “travel nurses” earning much higher hourly pay but without collective bargaining rights or job security. 

A recent report by McKinsey & Company estimates the United States could face a nursing shortage of 200,000 to 450,000 available nurses—10% to 20% fewer than needed by 2025. A November 2021 industry study found that 90% of nurses surveyed are considering leaving the profession, citing burnout, staff shortages and unmanageable workloads as key reasons. 

The nursing shortage makes conditions more stressful and dangerous for those who stay in the profession, creating an intense negative feedback loop rife with the potential for continued moral injury. 

This cycle is also exacerbated when nurses leave unionized staff jobs to become traveling nurses with much higher pay but no job security, collective organizing rights or sense of permanency with their patients and community. In keeping with the cycle of blame and guilt typical of moral injury, traveling nurses have been criticized for taking high pay and abandoning their staff posts, when the underlying problem is hospitals’ failure to create physically and morally sustainable staff jobs. 

“There’s not a shortage of nurses,” said Lalasz. “There’s a shortage of nurses who want to work under these conditions.” She argued that the system takes advantage of the workforce made up largely of women, disproportionately women of color, assuming they will be willing to do the work without adequate protection or compensation. “It’s like, ‘You’re caring, you’ll do this.’ We’re done with that. That’s why people have gone [into] traveling [jobs]. The working conditions are so bad, the staffing is so horrendous, you’re not respecting us, so we’re done.” 

Especially at a “safety net” hospital like Chicago’s John H. Stroger, Jr. Hospital of Cook County where Lalasz works, Lalasz notes, it’s important to have staff nurses who understand the needs and deep vulnerability of their patients—like the people incarcerated in the county jail whom she treated early in the pandemic. 

Ironically, the shift to travel nursing undermines the very organized labor system that is more necessary than ever in a time of crisis. Organizers stress that they want to identify and explain the concept of moral injury so that healthcare workers channel their trauma into organizing rather than turning inward or dropping out. The NNU white paper cites trauma experts saying that:

Those who expe­rience moral injury as a perpetrator of an immoral act or from failing to prevent an immoral act typically respond with internalizing emotions such as guilt and shame, whereas those who experience moral injury as a witness who was unable to prevent an immoral act typically respond with externalizing emotions such as anger and resentment. It is crucial that those involved ascribe the blame to the responsible actor(s) and not inappropriately take responsibility for failing to prevent a transgression, if that was not in their power. Anger and resentment are more likely to lead to the collective action necessary to redress transgressions by authoritative leaders or institutions while emotions such as shame and guilt may lead to withdrawal.

Willmeng is disappointed that healthcare unions didn’t do more to assert their rights and demand changes from the industry during the height of the pandemic. As NNU and other healthcare unions have reiterated, higher levels of unionization and a meaningful role for healthcare workers in making decisions about resource allocation and strategy would go a long way to providing better healthcare for patients and making the profession tolerable for workers. Ultimately, NNU and countless individual healthcare workers and leaders say that universal healthcare would vastly improve patient care, allowing access for people regardless of income and eliminating the profit motive that causes private hospitals and insurance companies to ration care and skimp on resources. A recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that universal healthcare would have meant 338,000 fewer people dying of Covid-19. 

Willmeng feels that now unions are better marshaling their forces, with Minnesota nurses threatening a statewide strike as multiple contracts for 15,000 nurses are in negotiations. In early June, nurses picketed at 11 Twin Cities-area hospitals, highlighting stratospheric executive pay even as nurses struggle with debilitating understaffing and Republican legislators killed a bill that would involve nurses in staffing plans and provide loan forgiveness for hospital nurses. 

“U.S. capitalism is calling you essential, and you parlay that into what we failed to rise to a major historical event—we’re trying to put the pieces back together again now,” said Willmeng, who started his current emergency room job hours after the union contract expired. He was fired by a different hospital during the pandemic for wearing hospital-issued scrubs, rather than his own, since he didn’t want the extra contagion risk of bringing scrubs home. He was later reinstated and settled a wrongful termination lawsuit. 

In late June, Chicago hosted the Labor Notes international convention of union members and activists, a gathering of progressive rank-and-file union members and leaders and labor activists from the United States and other countries. Much attention was focused on the need for mental healthcare for frontline workers. 

Elizabeth White, a therapist in Kaiser Permanente’s California system that serves many public union members, described the difficulty of getting crucial mental health appointments for her clients—and the toll that takes on therapists themselves. 

“You’re basically always playing a game of Twister, twisting things to try to make it work for people,” she said. “We want to do the right thing for our patients, and the employers take our good intentions and exploit that. That’s the moral injustice.” 

During one Labor Notes session, nurses and other healthcare workers packed a large ballroom to speak out about their experiences, frequently mentioning moral injury and sharing their tactics for survival and organizing. 

“Nurses who have been through the meat grinder of Covid are now having their benefits taken away, feeling like no one cares if we live or die,” said registered nurse and Michigan Nurses Association former interim president Anne Jackson, after the session. “We’re not able to give the care we used to give, and we’re ashamed, and yet hospitals are making record profits.”

Marty Harrison is a staff registered nurse at Temple University’s hospital in Philadelphia, serving among the country’s poorest zip codes, where patients typically have multiple underlying conditions and complex problems. 

“I feel like I’ve done something evil because I didn’t have the capacity to take care of this person,” she said. “That went from being due to the pandemic to being due to the staffing crisis. The employer doesn’t appreciate the degree to which doing a good job is essential to us. No matter how much money I make, I’m not happy if I can’t take care of my patients. We can’t communicate that to them, because they don’t feel that way about their jobs.” 

She and others said that the hemorrhaging of staff nurses has obliterated the mentoring and organizing networks that used to exist for young nurses. “They’re not letting new nurses even know what quality care would be,” she said.

New nurses often leave the field or move to traveling jobs quickly, she and others said, overwhelmed by the lack of support and depth of dysfunction. While healthcare workers at Labor Notes said they understand that reaction, they hope their colleagues will turn their feelings of moral injury and distress into organizing. 

“What I do is fight back,” said Harrison. “For me that’s an essential mechanism.” 

This blog is printed with permission.

About the Author: Author’s name is Kari Lydersen. Kari is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.


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Inflation and Your Next Union Contract

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Samir Sonti

What’s going on with inflation? It’s a question that everyone is asking, and one that is particularly important for anyone entering bargaining this year.

We can’t predict what is to come, but the evidence from the past year hasn’t been good for workers. The Consumer Price Index rose by more than 8 percent, its fastest pace in 40 years. Essential expenses like housing, food, and gas have climbed especially fast.

Despite all the talk of labor shortages and a tight job market, wages have not kept pace with the cost of living. Since April 2021, inflation-adjusted hourly earnings have fallen by more than 2 percent. Any stimulus savings that people had accrued have largely dried up by now, and there is currently no plan for federal relief for working people facing the affordability crisis posed by historic inflation rates.

ENORMOUS PROFITS

Profits, on the other hand, have boomed. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, pre-tax corporate profits rose 25 percent in 2021, the largest annual increase in 45 years. Another recent study of 22 corporations including Amazon, McDonald’s, and Disney showed that their shareholders reaped $1.5 trillion in wealth during the first two years of the pandemic—almost triple their earnings in the two years prior.

Oil and gas companies, for their part, have made a fortune since the war in Ukraine began. The largest producers collected nearly $100 billion in profits in the first quarter of 2022 alone, some 127 percent more than last year.

These enormous profits help explain much of the increase in prices since the beginning of the pandemic. This is not to say that price gouging by big business caused the inflation in the first place. Pandemic disruptions in supply chains, as well as energy and food markets shocked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, are at the root of the problem.

But corporate pricing decisions have certainly taken advantage of the inflationary environment, and probably made it worse. In any case, the bottom line when it comes to bargaining is that employers can afford to pay.

RECESSION COMING?

What is less clear is how long this profit bonanza is going to last. Walmart, Target, and other retailers reported lower-than-expected profits for the first quarter of 2022. This is largely due to the ongoing inflation; the rising cost of food, fuel, and housing has forced households to cut back on expenditures like TVs and patio furniture.

Of course, we don’t need to feel bad for Walmart and Target. But given that consumer spending is a key driver of economic activity, this could be a warning sign of an impending downturn.

And there is an even bigger reason to be concerned about the health of the economy over the next year or so: the Federal Reserve. As the central bank of the United States, its official mandate is to help the economy achieve stable prices (that is, low inflation) and maximum employment. When push comes to shove, however, central bankers tend to be more concerned about inflation than unemployment—and those two goals often run at cross purposes.

A quick look at the mechanics makes this clear. The Federal Reserve tries to accomplish its objectives by using monetary policy, or adjustment of interest rates—lowering interest rates to give the economy a boost, raising interest rates to slow it down.

Why would they want to slow the economy down? Their reasoning is that inflation is the byproduct of economic overheating, or “too much demand chasing too few goods.” From this perspective, high inflation calls for high interest rates, which in theory will bring “demand” back to where it should be.

Beneath all the technical terms and concepts, what this means is quite simple: the Federal Reserve fights inflation by engineering recessions and intentionally raising unemployment. Monetary policy, when used this way, is a blunt weapon of class war.

GET IT WHILE YOU CAN

Early this year, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell announced plans to begin doing just that—raising interest rates and ending other Covid emergency monetary measures. Since then, Powell and other central bankers have only become more hawkish, increasing the pace and size of scheduled interest rate hikes.

In addition to being an objectively anti-worker policy, this approach is also plain wrong-headed: current inflation is the result of pandemic shut-downs and war in Ukraine, not the result of an overheated economy. Monetary policy will not do anything about the supply chain problems, food and energy market volatility, or corporate pricing decisions that are driving prices upward.

What this new monetary policy may do is produce a recession. This is where inflation and the Federal Reserve’s response becomes most relevant to those entering bargaining in the coming months.

Corporate America has just had one of its best runs on record. And thanks to federal aid, state and city governments are in a better financial position than any time in recent memory. But because of the Federal Reserve, conditions may not remain favorable for long. So there is every reason to take advantage of this opportunity to lock in the most that you possibly can before things take a turn for the worse.

THE FED’S CLASS WARFARE

It is also worth taking a moment to step back and consider inflation for what it is: an issue of class politics. Why is the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy the only tool on offer for controlling inflation? Why does the burden of inflation control fall on workers, and not on corporate shareholders?

What if we limited corporate profits and controlled the prices of key goods rather than suppressing wages—would businesses stop investing? Let’s say they did. If so, couldn’t the government step in and provide more goods and services publicly?

There are no correct technical answers to these questions. They can only be resolved politically, through struggle over the kind of society we hope to call into being.

This blog originally appeared at LaborNotes on July 8, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Author’s name is Samir Sonti. Samir teaches at the City University of New York School of Labor and Urban Studies.


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Top 6 Workplace Issues Facing Remote and Hybrid Workers

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Dan Matthews, Author

The world of work has changed dramatically in recent years, and the pandemic only accelerated a shift that was already well underway. Today, millions of Americans find themselves working remotely at least some of the time.

Remote and hybrid work models offer many benefits to employees. Parents and caregivers may not need to worry about finding or funding elder care or childcare. Staff doesn’t have to incur the food and fuel costs of working in the physical office. Employers enjoy reduced overhead and a truly globalized talent pool.

For all its advantages, however, there are several issues of which remote and hybrid workers should be aware.

The Risk of Loneliness, Isolation, and Burnout

Despite the convenience of remote work, there can be a psychological toll. Employees may feel lonely and isolated when working from home because they don’t have the level of personal interaction with their colleagues to which they may have grown accustomed.

In addition, employees are likely to experience higher levels of stress and a greater risk of remote burnout because, ultimately, when you work from home, you never really get to leave your office. 

This means that remote and hybrid workers must prioritize self-care, including establishing firm boundaries around their work hours. Remote workers must commit to turning off their phones and computers and disconnecting from work when they’re officially off the clock.

At the same time, it’s also imperative for those who work from home to enjoy frequent social activities with colleagues, whether through a weekly online game night or a bi-monthly dinner out. Employers should support employees’ mental health by offering up social activities. However, you may need to take the initiative to increase your socialization time.

Digital Privacy

Digital privacy is a concern for any business, but it’s particularly important for employees who are working from home. Cyberthreats, from phishing scams to malware attacks, are a constant threat. Employees may also be concerned with the amount of access their employer has to track remote-work activity. Employees need support in ensuring the security of their systems and personal information when working from home.

For this reason, employers should equip work-from-home staff with the systems they need to protect their own data and that of the company, including VPNs, antivirus software, password-protected routers, and firewalls. You may also want to use a webcam cover to prevent camera hacks. Also, make sure you have a solid understanding of how your employer intends to track your work-related behavior.

Communication and Collaboration

Another significant issue remote workers can face is problems with communication and collaboration. Your staff can’t just walk to the next cubicle or knock on the manager’s door to ask a question or get a status update. 

This can lead to significant delays in workflow if the employee has to jump on the phone to try to reach the person they need to speak to or track down the document they need to complete a project. In addition, without a clear plan for ensuring that all employees are up-to-date on project statuses, home-based workers may find themselves doing redundant work or using outdated processes. 

For this reason, remote workers must have the tools they need to remain in constant communication with their colleagues. This might include internal instant messaging platforms, such as Slack; project management tools, such as Asana; and document sharing tools, such as Google Docs. It’s also helpful to use visual aids, such as a flowchart, to help overcome problems associated with communication and collaboration in remote and hybrid environments. Regardless of what tool you choose, everyone in the company should have frequent, unrestricted access.

Difficulty Unionizing

When you’re working from home, you can feel like you’re on your own. That can make it hard to navigate workplace challenges, particularly when it comes to the need for collective action. The good news, though, is that momentum for the capacity of remote workers to unionize appears to be growing. The bad news, however, is that traditional ways of organizing are often inaccessible to remote workers, placing the onus on employees and unions to discover innovative strategies for integrating work-from-home employees.

Restlessness, Distraction, and Lack of Focus

Working from home is often a lot different than working in an office. This is especially true if you have children or pets at home. Many remote workers report feeling restless, distracted, and unfocused when trying to work remotely. It’s possible to overcome the challenges of remote-work distractions, however.

Try creating a designated work space — ideally a room with a door you can close during your work hours. You will also need to establish clear guidelines for family and friends as to when you will be working and unavailable for personal time.

Tech Issues

Some remote or hybrid workers may feel anxious about being able to use work-from-home technology effectively. For instance, newly remote workers may find themselves needing to install and use more advanced systems than they’ve ever deployed in their homes, from printers and copiers to routers and VPNs.

Employers are obligated to help set their remote workers up for success not only by providing them with the tools they need to do their work effectively but by providing them with the training and support they need to install and use them.

The Takeaway

Remote and hybrid work models can be ideal, particularly for employees who are also caregivers, have medical conditions, or live in remote areas. However, those who are working from home often face an array of challenges they may not have anticipated. Workers and employers alike must take a proactive stance toward understanding and remediating these issues to support employee performance and well-being.

This blog is printed with permission.

About the Author: Dan Matthews is a writer, content consultant, and conservationist. While Dan writes on a variety of topics, he loves to focus on the topics that look inward on mankind that help to make the surrounding world a better place to reside.


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The Value of Intrinsic Motivation Within a Team

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Dakota Murphey

Motivation is essential to running a successful business, but it’s a topic that’s more complex than many people realize. There are two types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. When most businesses think of motivation, they settle on extrinsic, which is focused on title, rewards, status and power. But, intrinsic motivation is related to meaning and purpose, learning and growth, and it’s this type of motivation that mid to top level leaders should be prioritizing for the best results within teams for the benefit of every employee. 

Here, we examine what intrinsic motivation is, how it differs from extrinsic motivation and why it offers true value when it comes to building an aligned and proactive team. 

What is Intrinsic Motivation?

Intrinsic motivation is the method of encouraging people to change their behavior or adopt new ways of working due to personal satisfaction or finding meaning in what they do every day. It’s the incentive to engage a team to complete tasks or give their all everyday to their work, without necessarily having a tangible reward at the end of it all, such as money or a similar perk. 

When someone is intrinsically motivated, they derive enjoyment or fulfillment from the task, rather than only doing it for the reward at the end, and that can be incredibly powerful for businesses as it offers long-term benefits. Intrinsic motivation is valuable for both individuals and wider teams, because when people engage in activities that provide them with inherent satisfaction, it enhances wellbeing and boosts morale, creating a culture of productivity.

Intrinsic Versus Extrinsic Motivation

There’s no denying that extrinsic motivation has its place and can be a great driver for people. These perks are certainly beneficial but extrinsic rewards are short-lived and after a while, they lose their appeal. In fact, workplaces today are finding that staff are less motivated by the likes of pay or perks – they want an inclusive work culture, more flexibility in their roles and appreciation for what they do every day. Someone who is intrinsically motivated may be eager to master more skills related to their role and build their learning, for example, rather than simply getting a bonus once a year. 

We know that pay and other fringe benefits are essential, but research has shown that the presence of these factors has no long-range motivational effects. However, those that do have long-term effects include a sense of achievement, participation, challenges, growth and recognition of a job well done. When employees identify with the goals and vision of the business, they feel more motivated to work hard because they understand where they fit into the bigger picture. Fostering a culture of intrinsic motivation builds trust within the team, because it shows they are being listened to and will be supported in the areas where they want to flourish. 

Putting it Into Practice

So, what does intrinsic motivation look like in practice? There are various ways that leaders can motivate teams to do more and do better. While leadership styles can vary, it’s important for all leaders and senior members of the team to remember that intrinsic motivators create a more positive and engaged working environment for the long run, rather than a temporary fix. 

Some ways that businesses can motivate their team include participating in team building games that are fun and foster better relationships at work, without them being seen as a reward that’s only given after a certain milestone is achieved. This also gives people the chance to collaborate with team members on projects because they want to, rather than it being a requirement of their role. 

Education and skill building can also be a highly effective form of intrinsic motivation, with leaders enabling staff to learn new skills, build their knowledge and earn certifications that will give them more job satisfaction and confidence. It keeps staff engaged and that’s a huge motivator in itself, and helps businesses to create a team of skilled, multifaceted employees who are passionate about building their skills. 

To encourage a team through intrinsic motivation, employees should be granted more autonomy and responsibility over their own work. Building trust offers benefits for all parties, because workers feel free to work in the ways that suit them best to achieve the best results, and leaders can feel confident that their team are being productive and hitting targets without needing to be micromanaged. 

Similarly, praising employees, motivating a team and letting them know that the work they’re doing is valuable and makes a difference, allows each employee greater pride in what they do. This shouldn’t just come from leaders though, as encouraging employees to highlight the work of their colleagues, helps to create a workplace culture that’s positive, encouraging and an enjoyable place to be part of. Employees often cite regular, genuine praise and recognition as being a valuable motivator, far more than physical rewards because it makes them feel valued and appreciated. 

Intrinsic motivation offers so many benefits for businesses and teams of all sizes. It keeps staff engaged, proud of their work and productive, which in turn helps businesses achieve their goals. Staff are no longer happy to settle for a bonus or additional perks. These features of a role are nice to have, but they’re not conducive to long-term motivation. Motivating a team with things they have a natural desire to do, whether to achieve more in their career, or simply for the intrinsic satisfaction of doing so, can be so beneficial in creating a culture of curiosity. This will positively result in employees being driven by their love of the job, rather than simply showing up for a paycheck. 

This blog is printed with permission.

About the Author: Dakota Murphey is a freelance writer based in the UK, specializing in Digital Trends in Business, Marketing, PR, Branding, Cybersecurity, Entrepreneurial Skills, and Company Growth. Having successfully contributed to a number of authoritative online resources, she has secured a platform to share her voice with like-minded professionals.


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Viewpoint: The NLRB is Underfunded and Understaffed—And That’s a Big Threat to the Current Organizing Wave

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Gay Semel

The budget for the National Labor Relations Board for fiscal year 2022 was $274 million, which might sound like a lot of money. But it is the same amount as the Board’s budget for Trump-era fiscal years 2021 and 2020, and that is a problem.

In fact, the NLRB has not had an increase in funding since 2014, the year that the Republicans took control of Congress during the Obama administration and reignited their decades-old campaign to deep-six workers’ rights to unionize.

No increase “means a cut to the agency’s funds, due to inflation and other factors,” explains Burt Pearlstone, president of the NLRBU, the union representing workers at the agency.

The Biden administration had sought a 10 percent funding increase for the NLRB this year. But Republicans dug in to oppose an increase, claiming the cost was too high. Privately many were simply doing the bidding of their corporate backers to further weaken an agency already in trouble. When the overall budget was finally passed in March, the administration had accepted flat funding.

HOLLOWED OUT, ON PURPOSE
A goal of the Trump administration, and the Republican Party generally, has been to decimate what they refer to as the “administrative state.” During the Trump years, agency heads were appointed to hollow out federal agencies from within. At the NLRB, Trump named Peter Robb, a management lawyer famous for breaking the strike of air traffic controllers under Reagan, as General Counsel.

Robb set out to weaken the agency by overturning pro-union case law and reducing agency staff, but many of his initiatives were stymied.

Case law at the Board changes slowly. Before a General Counsel can put into place changes that he or she seeks, the right case must be filed with the agency; the case must be tried before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) and then the Board in Washington, D.C.

Some of Robb’s initiatives were stopped by ALJs; for others, he did not find the appropriate case. Had Trump won a second term and Robb stayed in power, the story would be quite different.

Nonetheless, Robb was able to do significant damage to the agency. During his reign, jobs were left vacant across the country. There is always a certain amount of turnover, as staff move on to other jobs; those jobs were not backfilled during Robb’s tenure. In 2018 he offered buyouts, enticing additional staff to leave, and those jobs also were not backfilled.

The NLRB even failed to spend its budget in 2018 and 2019, prompting an investigation by the Board’s Inspector General. Underspending violates the laws establishing Congress’s spending authority (as does overspending).

As the NLRB Regions lost people, the workload increased significantly for those still working at the agency. In 2021, when President Biden took office, there already was a significant backlog of trials waiting to be scheduled. Those that were scheduled took longer and longer to get before an ALJ.

A NEW SHERIFF
To his credit, Biden took the unprecedented action of firing Robb on his first day in office. Shortly after, he appointed Jennifer Abruzzo as the agency’s General Counsel.

Abruzzo had worked at the NLRB in various capacities, including as Assistant General Counsel, for 23 years. When Trump appointees took over the agency, she left and went to work for the Communications Workers (CWA).

Abruzzo knows the agency inside and out. She wants to enforce the original intent of the National Labor Relations Act: to level the playing field between workers and employees, and to protect the rights of working people collectively seeking to better their lives.

Almost immediately, Abruzzo issued memos alerting the agency of cases and practices she would like to see revisited and revised. She called for reinstating the Joy Silk standard (where the Board would require an employer to recognize the union once a majority of workers had signed union authorization cards), increasing penalties on law-breaking employers, declaring mandatory anti-union meetings unlawful, and other pro-worker initiatives. The labor movement took notice.

Biden also appointed two union-side labor lawyers to fill existing vacancies on the five-person Board: Gwynne Wilcox and David Prouty. The majority of Board members are now Democratic appointees. Both Wilcox and Prouty have fought in the trenches for years on behalf of workers and unions and understand how NLRB case law and procedures can be used to help workers or to hinder them.

HAMSTRUNG BY UNDERSTAFFING
The new appointments to the Board and the new General Counsel are exciting news—and not a moment too soon. Union organizing is way up. Workers across the country are taking on big corporations like Starbucks, Amazon, and Trader Joe’s, as well as seeking to unionize in unexpected places—comics, gaming, tech.

Filings at the NLRB for union elections from October 2021 to March 2022 were up 57 percent compared to the same period a year earlier. In response, employer lawbreaking is increasing. Unfair labor practice charges against employers are up 14 percent for the same period.

All the pieces are in place for positive developments at the NLRB, except for one thing—there are fewer people to do the work.

The Republican attack on the agency, accelerated under Robb, is being felt now. Between 2012 and 2022, the field staff at the agency was reduced by more than 40 percent.

Field staff are the lawyers and examiners who handle union elections, investigate cases, and prosecute unfair labor practices, as well as the administrative professionals who support this work. At the Brooklyn Region, which ran the elections in Staten Island at Amazon, the staff is down 40 percent since 2012.

Everything now takes longer. Delay favors the employer. Workers begin to feel that they can’t win and give up or move on.

DEATH BY DELAY
That is Amazon’s goal in Staten Island. The company filed 25 objections to the election at the JFK8 warehouse. Along with claiming objectionable behavior by the Amazon Labor Union, Amazon alleges that the Brooklyn Region of the NLRB delayed the investigation of unfair labor practice charges, instead of dismissing them, creating the impression that Amazon violated the law affecting the vote.

Even though the Brooklyn Region received assistance from field staff at other Regions to help with the Staten Island vote, Amazon claims that the agency mishandled the election by providing insufficient staff for the election. Thus, Amazon is claiming that the underfunding of the agency is cause for overturning the vote.

Amazon’s claims of violations on the part of the Brooklyn Region also caused the hearing to be moved to the Region in Phoenix, Arizona, to avoid a conflict of interest. This, too, created delay. The hearing in Phoenix did not begin until June 13, months after the actual vote.

The objections hearing alone may take months, and then there will be many more months before the briefs are filed and a decision rendered. Other legal delaying tactics will follow.

Dragging things out is Amazon’s goal; understaffing aids that goal.

Even if the agency adds staff to resolve issues at Amazon (which it has done), fewer field staffers are available to handle the increased caseload involving workers and unions at other companies.

Workers at the Brooklyn Region feel overwhelmed by the workload. Many have begun talking about leaving. The Brooklyn chapter of the NLRBU has met with Abruzzo seeking relief.

“Brooklyn is not the only Region feeling overwhelmed by the workload,” says Pearlstone. He hears this from workers at NLRB Regions across the country. “The only solution is more money to hire more people.”

BIDEN MUST FIX THIS
President Biden claims to be pro-worker and pro-union. He has supported the PRO Act, recommended greater worker rights in the federal government, issued a pro-worker message to employees at Amazon’s Alabama warehouse, and jubilantly told Amazon “Here we come!” after the first union win in Staten Island. And he has nominated a General Counsel and new Board members that care about enforcing the National Labor Relations Act.

But without sufficient funding for the NLRB, all of Biden’s statements could end up being little more than hollow promises.

Unions and labor activists need to demand that the Biden administration find additional resources for the NLRB now. Adequate funding for the agency has got to be a major issue for the labor movement—or else the wave of new organizing that has ignited our imaginations and revived an understanding of the importance of labor may wither away.

Gay Semel is a retired union-side labor lawyer. She was District Counsel to District 1 of the Communications Workers in New York for more than 30 years. She also worked as a field attorney at Region 2 of the NLRB in Manhattan for two years. She is currently working on a book about a lengthy battle to get and keep a union at Brooklyn Cablevision.

This blog originally appeared at LaborNotes on July 6, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Gay Semel is a retired union-side labor lawyer. She was District Counsel to District 1 of the Communications Workers in New York for more than 30 years. She also worked as a field attorney at Region 2 of the NLRB in Manhattan for two years.


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Women Are Taking Over the U.S. Labor Movement

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Chabeli Carrazana

As she considered striking at the grocery store where she had worked for a decade, the dozens of moments that had pushed Ashley Manning to that point flooded back. 

She vividly recalled the indignities she endured throughout the pandemic, starting with child care. When schools shut down, no one could watch her 12-year-old daughter. She wouldn’t allow her elderly grandmother, Ruby, to do it, fearing she would get sick. And her store, a Ralphs in San Pedro, California, where she is the manager of the floral department, refused to work with her schedule, she said. 

No one can cover you, she said they told her. Your contract is for six days a week, we need you six days a week.

Unable to work and care for her daughter, she burned through three months of unpaid leave at the end of 2020 as she waited for in-person school to resume. When she came back, the store was in disarray. Managers were not enforcing mask mandates or limits on the number of people in the store, she said. Customers were spitting at employees. There were no plexiglass barriers up.

By then, Manning’s grandmother had started caring for her daughter — they were out of options, schools were still closed and Manning had no leave left to take. So when one of them got COVID-19 in the summer of 2021 — they still aren’t sure who got it first — Manning’s entire family got sick. Manning was hospitalized for two days, her mother for two weeks, her grandmother for three weeks. Her daughter got sick, too. 

“The only thing that [work] could do while I was gone was keep calling me: ?‘What day are you coming back to work?’” said Manning, 32.  “It wasn’t, ‘Are you feeling good’ It wasn’t, ‘Do you feel better?’ It wasn’t, ‘We can make adjustments.’ It wasn’t any of those things.” 

On August 13, Manning’s grandmother died alone in the intensive care unit at a hospital in Los Angeles, two days before Manning’s birthday. No family or friends were able to see her before she passed. 

“Until this day, it could be my fault that she’s not here,” Manning said. “I look at it that way because I was the one who was working at the grocery store.” 

Manning still carried that wound with her when she considered striking against Kroger, Ralphs’ parent company. The stress of her grandmother’s death and everything that came before it led Manning to take short-term disability from work for five months. When she returned early this year, negotiations between the union that represents her and 47,000 workers at several other Kroger-owned grocery stores in Southern and Central California were beginning to deteriorate. Their contract was up and both parties were far apart in the negotiations, which included demands for raises to account for cost of living and inflation increases over the last three years.

Kroger’s first offer: a 60 cent hourly raise.

By late March, 95 percent of workers who voted agreed to authorize a strike, Manning among them. Most of those workers were women, many of them women of color or single mothers like Manning, who were entering into the fight with their employer fueled by two years of turmoil that hit them — and, critically, their families — the hardest. 

Over the course of the pandemic, the majority of essential workers were women. The majority of those who lost their jobs in the pandemic were women. The majority of those who faced unstable care situations for their children and their loved ones were women. 

And now the majority of those organizing their workplaces are women. 

Kroger workers are part of a surge in organizing led by women, women of color and low-wage workers impelled by this once-in-a-century pandemic. Many said they feel the pandemic has unmasked the hypocrisy of some employers — they were “essential” workers until their employers stopped offering protections on the job, good pay and commensurate benefits.

Among them, a deep recalibration is happening, dredging up questions about why they work, for whom, and how that work serves them and their families. For many it’s the chance to define the future of work. 

“Most women are carrying their families on their backs,” Manning said. “We feel disposable. Everybody is enraged.” 

Over the past decade, about 60 percent of newly organizing workers have been women. Women now are also the faces of some of the largest labor movements in years, including the baristas who have unionized over a dozen Starbucks since late 2021, the bakery workers who recently went on strike for four months to secure their first union contract, the call center workers — mostly women of color — who went on strike in Mississippi, and the 17,000 Etsy sellers who went on strike last month to combat transaction fee increases.

All of those movements, most of them happening in companies and even industries for the first time, are ending a disparity that has long existed between men and women in union organization. In 2021, the gender gap in union representation reached its narrowest point since the data started being tracked in the early 1980s by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 10.6 percent of men are members of a union, compared to 9.9 percent of women; in 1983, the first year data was available, it was 24.7 percent of men and 14.6 percent of women. (BLS does not collect data on nonbinary people.) 

For women, unions can be a pathway to equal pay. Studies have found that unionization tends to benefit women more than men, eliminating factors that fuel pay disparity such as secrecy around salaries and societal barriers that discourage women from negotiating pay and benefits.

While union membership has waned in recent decades and was slightly down in 2021 compared to 2020, moments of upheaval have in the past turned into opportunities for women to organize. Take the suffrage movement and the Triangle Shirtwaist fire that killed 146 largely young immigrant women in New York in 1911, the wave of women entering the workforce during and after World War II, and the women’s liberation movement in the late 1960s and ?‘70s that helped women join the workforce en masse. Each of those moments changed the course of women’s involvement in the workforce, helping to pass the 19th Amendmentincrease union membership and pass equal pay legislation.

The pandemic, which set off the first women’s recession, might be that next catalyst, said Jennifer Sherer, the senior state policy coordinator at the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank. 

“It feels like we are living through potentially another one of those moments, where the public and media are awake at a different level right now because of the activity in multiple sectors,” Sherer said. 

The shift happening now comes along with a critical change in leadership at the nation’s major unions. After the death of former AFL-CIO president and prominent national union leader Richard Trumka in 2021, longtime labor leader Liz Shuler took over as president?—?marking the first time a woman took the helm of the largest and most powerful federation of labor unions in the country. 

“As work is changing, as the workforce is changing, we are going to be changing with it,” Shuler told The 19th. ?“Coming out of COVID-19, work is looking differently. That’s why the labor movement is so sorely needed: to show workers that they have a voice and a place in that change.”

The pandemic was a conduit, she said: It allowed women workers to bring up issues that had long plagued them — caregiving, family, health — that had long been treated as niche topics. 

“This has been building for a long time, and the pandemic really brought to the surface all of the issues that women have been fighting for and advocating for for a long time,” Shuler said. 

Mary Kay Henry, who in 2010 became the first woman to head the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — the second-largest industry union after the Education Association of the United States — said this moment feels like a turning point. It gets at the very core of the role women play in communities, families and the workplace. 

“Women leaders in the worksite and of organizations like mine are leading a fundamental reorganization of power that isn’t just about our workplace, but is about our communities. And for us, it’s reflected in the demand to be respected, protected and paid,” said Henry, who still runs SEIU.

Taken in the broader context of the rise of the #MeToo movement, the dismantling of care and the ping ponging value of the essential workforce, the reasons for organizing are more gendered now, said Sarita Gupta, co-author of “The Future We Need: Organizing for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century.” 

“In years past, issues like sexual harassment — that’s not in the bargaining agreement,” Gupta said. “How we think about these movements is not to the side of what a worker movement is, but actually integrated into the worker movement.”

Kathy Finn, the secretary-treasurer of the union representing the Kroger workers in California, has been organizing workers long enough to remember when they held what was then the longest grocery store strike in history, a four-and-a-half-month long ordeal from 2003 to 2004. Then, a grocery store job used to be a career that could support a family, Finn said. Over the past several decades, those jobs have increasingly become part-time positions with lower pay and limited benefits, a result of cost-cutting measures driven by competition, automation and decreased union participation.

Now, many moms — particularly single moms — at grocery stores feel like their employers are actively working against their needs as parents. The majority of the union’s bargaining committee is women for the first time. 

“It definitely feels very different right now,” Finn said. 

This is partly because low-income workers, mostly women, have more power to speak up about the support they need from employers. When Manning was away from work after her grandmother’s death, the tenor of the phone calls she received from her bosses had changed from when she was sick last year, she said. They couldn’t find anyone qualified to fill her spot. 

When are you coming back, she said they’d ask. We know your grandmother took care of your daughter, we can work with your schedule. We can make adjustments, they said. 

Manning returned to Ralphs because she didn’t have the option not to, but something snapped into focus for her. Her value, she said, felt conditional. 

As she voted to strike, Manning thought of her grandmother, who never once made her question her self-worth. When Manning tried to start her own floral business, it was her grandmother who encouraged her to pursue it, who got a shed built in her backyard to house Manning’s dream. 

“I feel like she’s on board with me, this is where you need to be,” Manning said. 

A couple weeks after the vote, Manning, who is on the bargaining committee, was able to help secure a historic agreement that increases hours for part-time employers, improves pension benefits and creates health and safety councils at each store — most of the demands they had been seeking. 

The wage increase won’t be cents. It’ll be $4.25 an hour. 

This reckoning was forged on the shop floor, through conversations between women in workplaces that once didn’t welcome them at all. 

In the 1990s, when women’s labor force participation was peaking in the United States — it has stalled since — women were joining industries long dominated by men. Unionization for a lot of women meant organizing to secure basic rights. Sanchioni Butler, who at the time worked at a Ford plant in Carrollton, Texas, recalled the moment when the few women at the auto plant joined together to help improve the conditions of the women’s bathroom so they would have somewhere to sit during breaks or during their menstrual cycles. 

“We got improvements by sticking together,” Butler said in “The Future We Need: Organizing for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century.” “…When we fought for a shower and couch in the women’s bathroom, that was our women’s movement.”

It seemed then like the only way to improve conditions in a vacuum of federal policy. The Paycheck Fairness Act, for example, which aims to close loopholes in pay discrimination laws, was first proposed around the time Butler was fighting for a couch in the women’s bathroom. It still has not passed.

“If we’re trying to strengthen and improve women’s position in the workforce, the idea of allowing and creating platforms for women to be able to negotiate their conditions, both through a union as well as through community-based, worker-led standards boards, for some of these essential sectors — that’s a start,” said Erica Smiley, co-author of “The Future We Need.” 

That nascent start has blossomed into more. In 2011, The New York Times ran “Redefining the Union Boss,” a piece about the women, including SEIU’s Henry, who were heading up major unions and rekindling a hope that their leadership could drive a comeback in unionization after years of reduced membership. 

In the decade since, the number of women represented by a union started rising again, peaking in 2015. And the numbers don’t break out evenly across race. Union membership has been rising steadily for Latinas, the group with the largest gender pay gap in the country, while it’s leveled out or decreased for other groups. Since 2010, the number of Latinas represented by unions has risen by 31 percent. But by 2021, rates across the board were back near where they were in 2011. 

Still, those numbers mask the amount of organization in 2021, which may not be reflected in statistics for several years. It often takes years to negotiate a union contract and get counted under those figures, and the upswell in organizing now is happening in workplaces that are at the very beginning of that process, workplaces that likely spent a part of 2021 disaggregated and diffuse. 

“People are having to overcome a set of obstacles in their daily lives like never before. They’ve lost loved ones and haven’t been able to properly bury them or grieve them because of the COVID pandemic,” Henry said. “They are dealing with staffing shortages and lack of health and safety, but are persevering and organizing on a scale that I’ve never seen before.” 

Those obstacles have led people to demand responses from companies that actually reach down to the lowest wage workers, not just talk about them, said Gupta, who is also the vice president of U.S. programs at the Ford Foundation. 

“These strikes matter because they are just saying, ‘You can’t just talk about [diversity, equity and inclusion] in your corporate boardroom. What are the other ways you are going to support my ability to stay in the labor force?’” Gupta said. 

Some employers are hearing that message, said Maria Colacurcio, the CEO of Syndio Systems, a platform that works with more than 200 companies, including 10 percent of the Fortune 200, to identify racial and gender pay gaps and improve pay bands and benefits for employees. 

Those conversations have changed, she said. Three years ago “they were like, ‘I’m just here to reduce my risk of a pay equity class action.’ Now 99 percent of our customers are looking at some racial comparison. And I really do think it’s because of the pressure that’s come out of this movement from employees around: This isn’t a gender problem. This is workplace equity, without regard to gender, race, ethnicity, disability, age.” 

High-profile union drives, like the one led by Starbucks workers, are forcing employers to think more proactively about what they can offer workers beyond higher pay. 

“It’s not a flash in the pan — there are also things getting embedded that are going to force it to be long-term,” Colacurcio said. “It’s really difficult to undo once you’ve opened the windows.” 

And yet, being a woman leader in a movement that has rarely allowed women to lead, has dredged up for many why this has taken so long. 

Kim Cordova, the first woman president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 in Colorado, saw it first hand this year when she faced negotiators on behalf of Kroger, the parent company of 8,000 grocery store employees in Boulder, Parker and the Denver area her union represents. It was her fight in Colorado that set the stage for what the California workers were recently able to do.

But those negotiations were dripping with gendered vitriol. 

She was that woman to them.

“It’s tough being a union president but it’s tougher being a female president,” Cordova said. “You have to speak louder than everybody in the room, you have to earn your respect that way — you have to fight for it. I’m a double whammy: I’m Latina and I’m a female.”

The corporate negotiators went over her head, she said, reaching out to male lawyers instead of her during the negotiations. 

“I am the chief spokesperson, I am the negotiator. I had to send a letter saying, ‘You need to send your questions to me,’” Cordova said. 

The fight led to a 10-day strike in the January cold, after which workers secured hourly raises as high as $5.99, unheard of, she said. “We’ve seen raises to the right of the decimal point, cents not dollars.” The new agreement also addressed the two-tier pay structure that led the men who dominated meat departments to earn more than the women in the lower-paid grocery jobs.

Cordova said the movement of the past three years has been “a career-defining moment” for her after 37 years with a union. 

It feels fierce enough to last. 

“This is our year, this is our time,” Cordova said. “I don’t think they are going anywhere backward.” 

The Kroger strike in Colorado inspired the workers in California. Many of the problems are the same: stagnant wages, lax health and safety precautions, and people who feel like they have been pushed to the edge of what they can endure. 

In Beverly Hills, Pavilions grocery store cashier Christie Sasaki remembers how hard the strikes in 2003 and 2004 were, but it felt last month like there was no option left. She is often doing the job of two or more people. Her wages have maxed out at $22.50 an hour after 32 years at Pavilions. She has nothing saved for retirement and three quarters of her paycheck goes to her rent, a 2 bedroom apartment she shares with her teenage daughter and a roommate she took on to help offset the cost. 

“I would like one day to have the American dream — to be able to retire,” said Sasaki, 54. “After almost 33 years, I don’t think I can. It brings a tear to my eye because I would like to be able to go on vacation, I would like to go out to eat.” 

Her only opportunity, she said, is to get the best contract she can for herself and her colleagues. She spoke directly to Kroger’s representatives about those struggles in meetings earlier this year, surrounded for the first time by the women who have worked with her shoulder-to-shoulder.

“During the bargaining committee, my entire table,” she said, “is female.” 

This story was originally published by The 19th on July 5th, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Chabeli Carrazana is an Economy Reporter at The 19th.


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