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How Amy Coney Barrett’s Appointment Would Escalate the War on Workers

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The death of Supreme Court Jus­tice Ruth Bad­er Gins­berg has trig­gered a hasty search by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and Sen­ate Repub­li­cans for a jus­tice to fill the emp­ty seat before the Novem­ber pres­i­den­tial election. 

Now Trump has cho­sen Amy Coney Bar­rett, of the two women at the top of his short­list, as his Supreme Court nom­i­na­tion, but she has not yet been con­firmed. Bar­rett, a staunch con­ser­v­a­tive groomed by the Fed­er­al­ist Soci­ety, has been iden­ti­fied as a strong­ly anti-abor­tion nominee.

In employ­ment cas­es that Bar­rett has seen, she has adopt­ed large­ly anti-work­er—and on two occa­sions, racial­ly dis­crim­i­na­to­ry—posi­tions. In 2017, Bar­rett vot­ed not to re-hear U.S. Equal Employ­ment Oppor­tu­ni­ty Com­mis­sion v. Auto­zone, in which a three-judge pan­el ruled in favor of an Auto­zone which had seg­re­gat­ed its stores based on race. In a 2019 case, she ruled against a Black Illi­nois Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion work­er who had alleged that his fir­ing was racial­ly-moti­vat­ed, giv­en racist ver­bal harass­ment he expe­ri­enced on the job. And this year, Bar­rett ruled that Grub­Hub dri­vers could not file a class action law­suit against their employ­er—a blow to work­ers in the rapid­ly expand­ing gig economy. 

If appoint­ed, Bar­rett would cement the con­ser­v­a­tive major­i­ty on a court that has already demon­strat­ed a strong anti-work­er ten­den­cy. In two major labor cas­es in the last three years the Supreme Court ruled 5–4 to curb union and work­er pro­tec­tions. In Epic Sys­tem Corp. v. Lewis, the Supreme Court deter­mined that employ­ers could con­trac­tu­al­ly oblig­ate work­ers to for­go their right to col­lec­tive­ly sue the employ­er—before the deci­sion, class action law­suits were regard­ed as “pro­tect­ed con­cert­ed activ­i­ty” under Sec­tion 7 of the NLRA. And in Janus v. AFSCME, the court ruled that pub­lic-sec­tor unions could no longer require rep­re­sent­ed work­ers to pay union fees, again vot­ing along con­ser­v­a­tive-lib­er­al lines. 

In These Times spoke to James Gray Pope, a labor activist and legal schol­ar from Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty, about the con­ser­v­a­tive court and labor. 

In These Times: What kinds of labor lit­i­ga­tion do you antic­i­pate com­ing before the court? And what are the impli­ca­tions for labor when the court becomes so over­whelm­ing­ly conservative?

James Gray Pope: The big-pic­ture point here is that through­out the whole range of issues that affect the work­ing class, the Supreme Court is going to be in a fun­da­men­tal­ly reac­tionary pos­ture. And we’ve been through a peri­od like that, the so-called Lochn­er era, which refers to the late 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry Supreme Court trend of oppos­ing legal reg­u­la­tions around work­ing con­di­tions. The Lochn­er case itself involved a New York max­i­mum hours law that the court struck down because it vio­lat­ed the indi­vid­ual free­dom of con­tract of employ­ers and work­ers to agree that the work­er would work for any num­ber of hours that they want­ed. And the court said it was ille­git­i­mate for a leg­is­la­ture to take into account imbal­ances of pow­er in a con­trac­tu­al rela­tion­ship, unless the pro­tect­ed indi­vid­u­als were some­how inca­pable of tak­ing care of them­selves, like chil­dren. So, that being the basic ide­o­log­i­cal cen­ter-point for jurispru­dence dur­ing that peri­od, the court did a lot of inter­ven­tion in terms of strik­ing down work­er-pro­tec­tive leg­is­la­tion, max­i­mum-hours laws, min­i­mum wage laws, union-rights laws, and laws out­law­ing yel­low dog con­tracts.

And this peri­od today is sim­i­lar. The core ide­ol­o­gy is real­ly the same, but the court can’t imple­ment it with the kind of puri­ty that it could imple­ment it dur­ing the Lochn­er era, because labor stat­ues are sit­ting there. The state­ment of pur­pose of the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act (NLRA) talks about inequal­i­ty, bar­gain­ing pow­er, and the need for full free­dom of asso­ci­a­tion of work­ers. So they have to deal with that. 

But you can see it in Epic Sys­tems. You can see right from the begin­ning of the opin­ion, Jus­tice Neil Gor­such is irri­tat­ed at the work­ers there for bring­ing a suit against their employ­er after they had agreed not to. So the idea here is that an indi­vid­ual work­er, you know, sits down with an employ­er and is in an equal rela­tion­ship in nego­ti­at­ing some­thing. Where­as, of course, as Jus­tice Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg says, in foot­note two of her opin­ion, it did­n’t hap­pen that way. The com­pa­ny just sends out an edict say­ing, “You either agree to this or you lose your job.” That’s the present-day ver­sion of the Lochn­er era, indi­vid­ual lib­er­ty of contract. 

In These Times: Beyond cas­es that deal direct­ly with the NLRA, what is the kind of lit­i­ga­tion that could come before the Supreme Court that would affect workers?

James Gray Pope: I don’t think any­thing’s going to be so much dif­fer­ent from the recent direc­tion. It’s just that it’s going to be more intense and con­sis­tent. What’s going to be an issue here in terms of what the court does, I think, is the extent to which Supreme Court Jus­tice John Roberts, who has some sense of his­to­ry and some con­cern about what the his­tor­i­cal ver­dict on his chief jus­tice­ship is going to be, is going to con­strain the court in the labor law area. I think he under­stands the need to con­strain the court in the civ­il rights area, and even some of the oth­er con­ser­v­a­tive jus­tices have issued sur­pris­ing pro-civ­il rights opinions. 

The Supreme Court is like any polit­i­cal body in the sense that you spend polit­i­cal cap­i­tal, and there’s an assess­ment: “Well, do we want to spend our polit­i­cal cap­i­tal on this issue? Are we going to spend it on that issue?” And that’s going to be the big ques­tion now that they’re going to have. If this nom­i­nee gets con­firmed, con­ser­v­a­tives are going to have a very strong major­i­ty. And they’re going to have the pow­er to trans­form the law immense­ly. And so the ques­tion is, where are they going to put their ener­gy? And my fear is not so much for labor law, because labor laws are fun­da­men­tal­ly weak any­way, but more in the area of vot­ing rights and gerrymandering. 

In These Times: How does the Fed­er­al­ist Society’s tex­tu­al­ist or orig­i­nal­ist tra­di­tion affect rul­ings on labor-relat­ed cases? 

James Gray Pope: Orig­i­nal­ism ini­tial­ly was a pure­ly con­ser­v­a­tive phi­los­o­phy where basi­cal­ly you imag­ine set­ting a time machine back and ask­ing the peo­ple who enact­ed the 14th Amend­ment, for exam­ple, “Well, did you intend to give women equal rights to men?” And that was the kind of method­ol­o­gy that’s now referred to by more sophis­ti­cat­ed pro­po­nents of orig­i­nal mean­ing as “orig­i­nal expect­ed appli­ca­tion,” where instead of going after the orig­i­nal mean­ing you’re going back and you’re going after the ways in which peo­ple in that his­tor­i­cal era would have applied the provision. 

One of the big prob­lems with orig­i­nal­ism is, what hap­pens if a body of prece­dent builds up that seems to con­tra­dict your view? In a way, the most dra­mat­ic illus­tra­tion is Supreme Court Jus­tice Clarence Thomas on the scope of the Com­merce Clause. And this relates to labor. Thomas thinks that the word “com­merce” is the Con­gress’s pow­er to reg­u­late inter­state com­merce, the word com­merce just means the buy­ing and sell­ing of things. And so, in his view, the deci­sions that upheld the Wag­n­er Act and the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act are wrong from an orig­i­nal­ist point of view.

Well, the prob­lem is that stare deci­sis—a judi­cial pol­i­cy that courts gen­er­al­ly fol­low ear­li­er rul­ings (prece­dent), some­times even when the ear­li­er rul­ings were erro­neous—is total­ly manip­u­la­ble: It’s a mul­ti fac­tor analy­sis that’s eas­i­ly manipulable. 

In These Times: Con­sid­er­ing the fact that labor law in the Unit­ed States is real­ly weak, and work­ers’ pro­tec­tions will like­ly be fur­ther erod­ed in the com­ing years, what are the ways that you might antic­i­pate unions or work­ers orga­ni­za­tions respond­ing to that land­scape, through the law or not?

James Gray Pope: Broad­ly, I would say that pol­i­tics are key. And what’s real­ly cru­cial is to get strong pro­gres­sives into elect­ed office, from which point they can pack the court. So if you want it to go through for­mal legal method mech­a­nisms, that would be the way to do it. And obvi­ous­ly, that’s an area that’s fraught right now with the ger­ry­man­der­ing opin­ion, the vot­er ID rul­ings, and Cit­i­zens Unit­ed guar­an­tee­ing the right of mon­ey to skew the polit­i­cal process. All of those things are going to make it very dif­fi­cult to break through. 

The last time this was a prob­lem was around the Lochn­er era, dur­ing which a lot of peo­ple were denied the right to vote, includ­ing not only African Amer­i­cans in the South, but also poor whites in the South, and women. So the demo­c­ra­t­ic process was skewed then as well. Ulti­mate­ly, what was cru­cial was mass resistance. 

And the strikes in 1934—that was the peri­od where you had gen­er­al strikes and threat­ened gen­er­al strikes in a num­ber of cities, bring­ing about the per­ceived pos­si­bil­i­ty of, if not rev­o­lu­tion, some­thing at least threat­en­ing the order. And that got the NLRA passed. And in my opin­ion, that’s what got the NLRA upheld as con­sti­tu­tion­al along with Pres­i­dent Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s threat to pack the Supreme Court with jus­tices sym­pa­thet­ic to the New Deal.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 28, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alice Herman is an In These Times Good­man Inves­tiga­tive Fel­low, as well as a writer based in Madi­son, Wis­con­sin, where she works at a restau­rant. She con­tributes reg­u­lar­ly to Isth­mus, Madison’s alt-week­ly, and The Pro­gres­sive magazine.


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National Hispanic Heritage Month Profiles: Dora Cervantes

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Throughout National Hispanic Heritage Month, the AFL-CIO will be profiling labor leaders and activists to spotlight the diverse contributions Hispanics and Latinos have contributed to our movement. Today’s profile covers Dora Cervantes.

In nearly 30 years in the labor movement, Cervantes has participated in nearly every aspect of the fight for the rights of working people, and she has a distinguished career that is still going stronger than ever. Cervantes joined the labor movement in 1989, when she became a reservations agent for Southwest Airlines in Houston. Before long, she was an active member of Machinists (IAM) Local 2198, serving as an organizer, shop steward, recording secretary and then vice president.

After a decade of dedicated service, she was chosen to serve as an apprentice organizer for Air Transport District 142 and then became a general chairperson for the district the following year. Tom Buffenbarger, then-IAM international president, later appointed her to serve on IAM’s 2002 Blue Ribbon Commission. In the following years, she served as a special representative in the Transportation Department of the IAM Grand Lodge and then Grand Lodge representative.

In 2012, Cervantes was chosen to serve as assistant secretary to then-IAM General Secretary-Treasurer Robert Roach Jr. The next year, she became the first Hispanic woman to serve as a general vice president for IAM. In 2015, she became IAM’s 12th general secretary-treasurer, the first woman to direct the union’s finances. She continues in this capacity today.

She also serves as a national board member for the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, is an active member of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, is a member of United Against Human Trafficking and is a trustee for the National IAM Benefit Trust Fund and the IAM National 401(k) Plan.

Cervantes holds a bachelor of arts degree in labor studies from the National Labor College and helps teach the Spanish leadership series for the William W. Winpisinger Education and Technology Center and the IAM-Aviation High School Partnership Program.

This article originally appeared at AFL-CIO on September 25, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.


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Hospital Workers Fight Job Cuts at Duluth’s Biggest Employer

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Our health care employer announced hundreds of unnecessary layoffs this spring. Outraged at its poorly disguised greed, we didn’t just rely on negotiations. Instead, the members of our union voted unanimously to take the fight to the streets and into the community. We spent the summer fighting back—including holding our local’s first-ever pickets.

Essentia Health is far and away the largest employer in Duluth, Minnesota. Its sprawling main campus is a neighborhood unto itself, and its clinics and other facilities spread out across the region into almost every community of more than a few thousand people. Its very well-paid CEO and other top executives have overseen year after year of dramatic expansion; now they’re building a new state-of-the-art $900 million hospital. Business has certainly been good for Essentia Health.

But much of Essentia’s growth has come at the expense of its workers. For years we have been made to take on more and more work, while vacancies are left unfilled. This is sadly a common trend throughout health care. The COVID-19 pandemic has only thrown more fuel on the fire.

SMOKE AND SPIN

This spring, despite receiving $112 million from the government, Essentia announced its intentions to permanently eliminate 900 jobs. Its PR statements talked about how this was necessary because of the hard times that the pandemic was causing the company, and said that even the top executives and physicians would be taking pay cuts.

But it was all smoke and spin. The reality is that Essentia wasn’t even in the red; in fact, it took in more revenue this year than last year. At the same time as the chain was eliminating jobs, it was spending tens of millions of dollars to buy out a hospital in Moose Lake, Minnesota, and continuing full speed ahead with the construction of a new hospital in Duluth.

The top brass of Essentia cut their salaries—but we’re skeptical how long that will last. In the meantime, we’re sure they won’t have trouble getting by after receiving exorbitant sums like the $1.5 million in compensation paid to CEO David Herman in 2019.

FIRST PICKET EVER

United Steelworkers Local 9460 is the largest union at Essentia. Members voted unanimously to launch a fightback campaign across the chain across our 11 units in the chain.

Our campaign kicked off on June 1, with a car caravan protest and informational picket at Essentia’s main campus in Duluth. Several dozen cars and trucks filled with union members and supporters waved their way through Duluth’s streets and drove around the Essentia Health campus for hours, honking the whole time. At the same time dozens of workers held signs and gave our leaflets at all of the intersections around their campus.

The response from the community was overwhelming. Numerous motorists spontaneously joined the caravan, and almost every pedestrian we encountered indicated support—some even joined the informational picket. A number of other unions participated, including the Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the Minnesota Nurses Association, and the Service Employees (SEIU), as well as miners from the nearby Iron Range who are also part of the Steelworkers. The impressive pickets and union solidarity that had been built around MNA’s 2019 contract fight at Essentia helped lay the groundwork for our campaign.

This was the first picket of our own that Local 9460 had ever organized in our 20-year history, and it created a buzz in the community, the local labor movement, and the media. Next we mounted an aggressive information campaign, distributing hundreds of “No Layoffs at Essentia!” yard signs and posters throughout the communities where Essentia Health has facilities, and putting up billboards in Duluth, Ashland, Hayward, Spooner, and the Iron Range. The message of the billboards was “Essentia Health: Putting Wealth Before Health Like Nowhere Else”—a pointed mocking of Essentia’s official advertising slogan, which is “Like Nowhere Else!”

The yard signs, posters, and billboards generated a new wave of media coverage—and legal threats from Essentia. But the union refused to back down, and in the end the billboards stayed up and were seen by hundreds of thousands.

‘BRING OUR JOBS BACK!’

As the summer went on, we held more actions, including an informational picket in downtown Spooner, Wisconsin, where our members work at an Essentia outpatient clinic. We promoted the pickets with full-page ads in the local newspapers and a series of guest editorials.

In the face of this resistance, Essentia unfortunately did forge ahead with its layoffs. They started with non-union workers and managers, before moving on to the different worksites where Local 9460 represents almost 2,000 Essentia workers.

By the time the layoffs ended this fall, our union had lost about 300 members. This was considerably less than had been expected, but it still represented a huge loss. The cuts ranged from clinical assistants to janitors. Few job categories were spared.

Essentia, of course, will never admit that the fightback campaign reduced the number of union members laid off, but we are confident that it did. And we’re even more confident that it will cause the company to think twice from here on out, now that management has seen that our union can and will fight back.

The battle is far from over. We still have members without jobs, and those who are working are doing so woefully short-staffed. Local 9460 is preparing to enter contract negotiations with Essentia, and to launch a new community campaign around the theme, “Bring Our Jobs Back!” The struggle continues.

This article originally appeared at Labor Notes on September 28, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Adam Ritscher is vice president of United Steelworkers Local 9460.


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Restaurant Workers Are Building Solidarity Amid the Pandemic

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BOISE, IDA­HO—It was rain­ing light­ly June 29 when Geo Eng­ber­son, own­er of the Pie Hole pizze­ria, con­vened an emer­gency staff meet­ing. He had intend­ed a quick con­fer­ence in the park­ing lot behind the restau­rant, known for its steady stream of week­end bar-goers. Giv­en the weath­er, Eng­ber­son fer­ried the hand­ful of work­ers into his trailer. 

Ear­li­er that month, work­ers at the piz­za joint peti­tioned for an hourly wage bump. Wor­ried that Pie Hole was pre­pared to replace them, for­mer employ­ee Kiwi Palmer says, she and her cowork­ers refused to train new hires. This refusal trig­gered a conflict. 

In a record­ing of the trail­er meet­ing obtained by In These Times, Eng­ber­son says, “Kiwi, yes­ter­day you told [the man­ag­er] you wouldn’t train new hires, any scabs. That still how you feel?” 

When Palmer and fel­low work­er Mar­shall Har­ris reaf­firmed they would not train new hires, Eng­ber­son fired them. 

In the weeks since, the Pie Hole work­ers have orga­nized a series of pick­ets in front of the restau­rant. Call­ing them­selves the Pie Hole Work­ers Union, they filed a com­plaint with the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board alleg­ing the fir­ing was retal­ia­to­ry and vio­lat­ed their right to par­tic­i­pate in “con­cert­ed activ­i­ty” with­out reprisal. 

Eng­ber­son rejects the claim that Palmer and Har­ris were fired for orga­niz­ing and that the busi­ness planned to replace them. “We got busy, and we need­ed to hire more peo­ple,” Eng­ber­son tells In These Times. He adds, “I treat my employ­ees like fam­i­ly … and I don’t ever hear from them that they’re dis­grun­tled about their wages.” Eng­ber­son also says that, when he used the word “scabs,” he was quot­ing Palmer— not con­firm­ing the new work­ers were, in fact, scabs. 

The Pie Hole work­ers have found sup­port from the Boise chap­ter of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA), which has aid­ed in pick­ets and con­nect­ed them with DSA’s nation­al Restau­rant Orga­niz­ing Project. 

Beyond Boise, mul­ti­ple left-wing labor groups have tak­en on the cause of restau­rant orga­niz­ing. In addi­tion to its Restau­rant Orga­niz­ing Project, DSA has col­lab­o­rat­ed with the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (UE)—a demo­c­ra­t­ic, rank-and-file union—to advise work­ers on union dri­ves and work­place actions. Between the DSA projects and UE’s orga­niz­ing, the Left has tak­en a cen­tral role in pan­dem­ic-era organizing.

“We’ve seen a sig­nif­i­cant uptick in work­ers con­tact­ing us about orga­niz­ing from the restau­rant indus­try, and in the food ser­vice [and] hos­pi­tal­i­ty sec­tor more broad­ly,” UE orga­niz­er Mark Mein­ster says. “Work­ers are very con­cerned about the lack of safe­ty pro­tec­tions regard­ing Covid, the lack of paid sick leave and the drop in income many antic­i­pate as a result of serv­ing few­er customers.”

This wave of labor activism in hos­pi­tal­i­ty has already ush­ered in wins. In March, a coali­tion of New Orleans ser­vice and hos­pi­tal­i­ty work­ers cam­paigned to dis­burse reserves from the city’s con­ven­tion cen­ter direct­ly into the hands of work­ers; by April 22, the city agreed to pro­vide $1 mil­lion in grants to work­ers affect­ed by the pan­dem­ic. Some restau­rants in Philadel­phia, where hos­pi­tal­i­ty work­ers have orga­nized to end the sub­min­i­mum wage for servers and bar­tenders, have increased wages dur­ing the pandemic.

But the restau­rant indus­try remains dif­fi­cult to orga­nize, and union shops are still the extreme minor­i­ty, with union den­si­ty in accom­mo­da­tion and food ser­vice hov­er­ing around 2.1%.

At Augie’s Cof­fee, a chain in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, work­ers demon­strat­ed 70% sup­port for the Augie’s Union (rep­re­sent­ed by UE) and request­ed the com­pa­ny vol­un­tar­i­ly rec­og­nize their bar­gain­ing unit. The com­pa­ny then shut down oper­a­tions and laid off every­one in the cafés. Now, for­mer work­ers are cam­paign­ing for union recog­ni­tion and to be rehired.

“Peo­ple are so atom­ized, and the job they do is so tem­po­rary,” says Matthew Soliz, a barista orga­niz­ing with Augie’s Union. “I think for peo­ple my age and younger, unions aren’t real­ly a con­cept, right? Like, in talk­ing to my cowork­ers, the most com­mon response is, ‘I don’t real­ly know what that is.’ ”

Giv­en the chal­lenges, restau­rant work­ers are band­ing togeth­er across restau­rants and across cities. In Chica­go, New Orleans, Den­ver and Boise, restau­rant work­ers have formed city­wide sol­i­dar­i­ty orga­ni­za­tions. On July 24, work­ers around the coun­try marched to demand expand­ed ben­e­fits from unem­ploy­ment insurance.

“The fact that [DSA’s Restau­rant Orga­niz­ing Project] is grow­ing is evi­dence [that] A, we’re not crazy, and B, we’re not alone, and C, that there is sol­i­dar­i­ty that is grow­ing rapid­ly,” Har­ris says. “Inside of five weeks, I’ve gone from nev­er hav­ing done any of this to attempt­ing to orga­nize oth­er people.”

This article originally appeared at In These Times on September 29, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alice Herman is an In These Times Good­man Inves­tiga­tive Fel­low, as well as a writer based in Madi­son, Wis­con­sin, where she works at a restau­rant. She con­tributes reg­u­lar­ly to Isth­mus, Madison’s alt-week­ly, and The Pro­gres­sive magazine.


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Advocating for Your Rights Even in Your First Interview

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Going in for your first job interview can be a nerve-wracking experience, no matter what. Whether you’ve been out of the working world for a while, or you’re just looking for something new, it’s normal to be a bit nervous for interviews.

But, don’t let those nerves overshadow your own rights.

When you stand up for your rights in the first interview, you will have a better idea of everything from company culture to any signs of discrimination within the business. That can make it easier to determine if it’s the right place of employment for you.

So, how can you better advocate for your rights in an interview? What should you ask? What do you need to know about what your interviewer can and can’t ask?

What Can’t Interviewers Ask?

There are certain questions that may come up in an interview that should be considered red flags. Additionally, there are questions that interviewers simply aren’t allowed to ask you. Arming yourself with the knowledge of these questions can make it easier to determine if there might be some discriminatory behavior going on. Some questions an interviewer cannot ask you include:

  • What’s your religion?
  • Do you have a disability (unless it is obvious or noticeable)?
  • What is your race?
  • What is your family status?
  • What is your gender?

Employers also can’t ask you about your specific age. You aren’t required to put your date of birth (DOB) on your resume, and interviewers can’t force you to answer questions about it. Even though there are legal protections in place, age discrimination can be a big problem in the workplace, so leaving your DOB off of your resume and knowing you don’t have to answer questions about it can help you to feel empowered.

Interviewers can ask personal questions about things like what motivates you and what makes you unique. But, when it comes to any specific questions about your race, culture, religion, or gender, you don’t have to answer and give fuel to the discriminatory fire.

How to Learn More About the Company During an Interview

It’s important to know what kind of company culture you might be walking into. You might be going back to work for the first time after being a stay-at-home parent. Does the company you’re interviewing with encourage a healthy work-life balance? Do they offer extended time off or childcare services?

You should also develop a strong understanding of how the company feels about employee wellness. Workplace stress is a huge problem, with 25% of people stating that work is their number one source of stress. When an employer takes the health and wellness of their employees into consideration, it shows that they value them. Corporate wellness programs can include:

  • Meditation sessions
  • An on-site quiet room for rest
  • Encouraging physical activity
  • Making sure employees are using their vacation days

In addition to wellness, a positive workplace culture should also be inclusive to people of different ages, races, genders, and identities. Don’t be afraid to ask questions during the interview that are important to you. You’ll want to make sure you feel comfortable within the culture before accepting a job. Knowing your rights when it comes to questions you have to answer, and asking the right ones yourself can make a big difference advocating for your rights during your first interview.

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


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Seattle makes DoorDash and Postmates pay out COVID-19 hazard pay

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Seattle really pissed off gig economy companies by imposing $2.50 in hazard pay for each food delivery order during the pandemic. It’s no surprise that some of the big companies stiffed their workers—but there is a surprise here: Seattle’s Office of Labor Standards (OLS) successfully pressured DoorDash and Postmates to do internal audits and pay up.

“After receiving calls from gig workers, OLS contacted the companies, informing them that if the companies resolved issues regarding premium pay and paid workers back pay and interest by a certain date, OLS would forego a formal investigation,” OLS told Eater Seattle. In all, DoorDash paid $111,435 to 2,998 Seattle workers, and Postmates paid $250,515 to 2,975 workers.

”The city is making clear to these multi-billion dollar delivery companies that they’re not above the law,” Rachel Lauter, executive director of Working Washington and Fair Work Center, said in a statement. “Our worker protections are only as good as our ability to enforce them, and Seattle is demonstrating once again why we’re a national model for enforcing labor standards.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on September 26, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Lessons from the NBA Strike for Black Lives

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In their righteous wildcat strikes, professional athletes showed us both how collective action can directly challenge power but also how a workplace campaign can get cut short if we’re not prepared.

It’s an all-too-common experience in workplace organizing: you and your coworkers have been grumbling about injustices at work for a while but haven’t taken any action. Suddenly a crisis hits and there is a wave of enthusiasm for organizing. “We’ve gotta do something,” people say as they start rallying together. Even typically cautious workers are talking about something big, maybe a walkout.

You channel that energy into a confrontation with the boss, but then…it fizzles out. People aren’t so sure about taking risks anymore. The momentum is lost. Maybe you got a minor concession, but conditions remain pretty much the same.

We all witnessed this scenario unfold before us as NBA, WNBA, and MLB players bravely struck for racial justice after police shot and paralyzed Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August.

Players risked their careers and reputations by violating their contracts and refusing to play. In doing so, they used their platform to support Black liberation, and they leveraged their irreplaceable labor to seriously threaten the team owners’ and media corporations’ bottom lines.

But just days later, players returned to the courts and the fields with no clear victory. While we can’t know exactly what happened behind the scenes—and while any battle with employers is a major undertaking, particularly in the high-pressure spotlight of professional sports—we can see they encountered the same obstacles that any labor organizer could face, be they a bus driver, a bartender, or a basketball player.

Every workplace action benefits from:

  • Clear and specific demands. The Milwaukee Bucks, who kicked off the strike wave by refusing to play, urged the Wisconsin state legislature to “take up meaningful measures to address issues of police accountability, brutality and criminal justice reform.” They smartly identified their target—state legislators—but naming which meaningful measures could have set a concrete benchmark for determining whether their demands had been met or further escalation was needed.

    Specific policy changes described in #8toAbolition, for example, could serve as a model for changes that the legislature is empowered to make, such as removing police from schools and hospitals, withdrawing from police militarization contracts, and funding public housing.
  • A plan for escalation. LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers, one of the lead organizers of the strike, “viewed the Bucks’ initial move—while well-intentioned—as lacking a plan.” Sometimes workplace actions happen spontaneously, and when they do it’s on us to deepen that conflict and take advantage of that energy. Organizers should immediately ask: What is the deadline for our demands? If the target doesn’t comply, how can we up the ante? What will we leverage to put more pressure on the decision makers? How can we get more workers to participate? How should we ask the community to support us?
  • Inoculation to prevent defections. Barack Obama and Michael Jordan encouraged players to return to the game and instead establish a “social justice committee,” which cut into the momentum of the strike. It’s rarely the case that workers win their demands immediately, and it can be tough to maintain a fighting spirit until you do. That’s why it’s critical to prepare each other for possible obstacles.

    How will the boss try to convince us to back down? What about retaliation? When people know what to expect and trust that their coworkers have their back, they are much more likely to hold their ground.

The impact of the athletes’ strike shouldn’t be minimized: They touched millions of people with their commitment to freedom from police violence, likely inspiring many workers to take up demands for racial justice. It is only through multiracial solidarity and collective action such as theirs that we can win.

Labor organizers benefit from watching such a highly public campaign in action and learning from both successes and struggles. We can see that for a strike to succeed, workers need more than righteous anger—we need to be organized.

This blog originally appeared on Labor Notes on September 24, 2020. It is reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Wadlin is a member of Teachers (AFT) Local 2277 in Portland, Oregon, and has facilitated many “Secrets” trainings. She organizes with the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, where a version of this article originally appeared.


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Return of the Lockout: Uber and Lyft Try to Strong-Arm California

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In August a California court ordered Uber and Lyft to reclassify more than 100,000 drivers as regular employees. The two companies, which depend on a business model that defines drivers as independent contractors, got the decision lifted for at least a few months.

But in the meantime their threat to shut down operations in California—and thereby fire thousands of drivers while ending service to millions of customers—raises the question: What do we call this extraordinary corporate stratagem? A public relations gambit? A pressure tactic? Blackmail? A capital strike?

It’s all of the above, but the best historical analogy is the “lockout,” a disreputable, two-century-old employer weapon designed to force workers to knuckle under.

A WEAPON AGAINST SKILLED WORKERS

The Homestead strike of 1892 began as a stoppage by skilled workers who resisted demands by Andrew Carnegie and Henry Frick to slash wages and union power. Frick erected a fence around the entire mill, locked out all employees, and called in a barge full of Pinkerton private police to protect the scabs he hoped to recruit. When workers routed the Pinkertons in a bloody battle, it took the importation of National Guard troops from Philadelphia to put power back in capitalist hands.

Late 19th century lockouts were not uncommon because the status quo had tilted in favor of elite workers: skilled labor controlled the shop floor in many mills and mines and on construction sites, even as deflation was increasing the value of their nominal wages. Bosses responded with lockouts to force concessions and wage cuts.

Lockouts were far less frequent in the mid-20th century decades of union power and successful collective bargaining. That’s when workers went on strike themselves and almost always came out ahead.

But beginning in the 1980s, when just holding on to the contract provisions won in earlier bargaining rounds was often counted a union success, lockouts returned as an employer weapon. Managers locked out union workers in major battles at Caterpillar, the Detroit newspapers, and A.E. Staley in the 1990s. In more recent years, they used the same tactic at Honeywell and National Grid, a Massachusetts gas distribution utility.

Remarkably, the most high-profile lockouts have arisen in professional sports. Here players established strong unions that captured some of the enormous revenue generated by game broadcast rights. And free agency contracts enabled some stars to win enormous salaries. Owners struck back, precipitating lockouts that wrecked the training season: in 2011, the NFL locked out players for 136 days and the NBA did the same for 161 days. The following year, NHL owners locked out players for 119 days.

GIG WORKERS’ FUTURE AT STAKE

But what does all this have to do with Uber and Lyft? Their drivers are not unionized, after all. True, but they have won, in California courts and legislature, a considerable employment-rights victory that, if and when enforced, will transform the meaning of work in the gig economy, greatly enhancing income and security for many.

Last year California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a law that requires Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and many other companies to reclassify as regular employees workers currently illegally treated as independent contractors. This means that in the future they will be paid a more predictable wage, earn sick leave and Social Security credits, and find themselves covered by worker compensation and unemployment benefit laws.

And they will be legally entitled to unionize, in which case workers and managers can negotiate a contact that gives drivers as much “flexibility” as Uber and Lyft now claim they want.

So, like the skilled workers of late 19th century America, gig economy drivers and DoorDash “shoppers” now find the status quo theoretically on their side. At least in California, they are on the verge of enjoying work rights that gig employers want to gut. To do so Uber, Lyft and DoorDash have amassed a $181 million war chest to pass Proposition 22 on the November California ballot. That proposition would once again legalize contract work for millions of workers who by any reasonable definition are regular employees.

Uber and Lyft are strong-arming Californians. They hope their threat will convince drivers to abandon their rights and persuade California riders to endorse the theft.

BLUSTER

In 1941 Henry Ford threatened to shut down his company if workers voted for the United Auto Workers. They did and yet Ford continues to this day. Management bluster is often just bluster, which is probably the case with Uber and Lyft.

But in the last month, they have proposed another way to keep employees from their rights: create a set of franchises to employ their drivers, if Proposition 22 passes. Franchising is an old trick, as any employee at McDonald’s, Days Inn, FedEx, or Jiffy Lube can attest. Workers are legally employees in a franchise, but the real employer, the one with the money and power, remains legally aloof. Workers get squeezed and unionization brings few benefits.

So the lockout, once thought a relic of Gilded Age America, has returned with a vengeance, ingenuity, and determination that would have made Henry Frick envious. We need an equally radical rededication to the concept of jobs with rights, and the rewards, monetary and moral, that are their just compensation.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on September 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Nelson Lichtenstein is Research Professor in History at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


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American Workers Have Lost Control of Their Time. It’s Time To Take It Back.

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It wasn’t sup­posed to be like this, accord­ing to John May­nard Keynes. In 1930, the econ­o­mist pre­dict­ed that his grand­chil­dren would be work­ing 15-hour work weeks. Tech­nol­o­gy would have advanced to the point two gen­er­a­tions after his own that work­ers’ aver­age time on the job would be a frac­tion of what it once was. We would all be strug­gling to fig­ure out what to do with so much free time.

The oppo­site has turned out to be true. Instead of being freed from the tyran­ny of the clock, Amer­i­can work­ers are more shack­led to it than ever, work­ing longer hours, being sub­ject­ed to errat­ic sched­ules, fig­ur­ing out how to work more just to make ends meet, and watch­ing an increas­ing amount of con­trol over their lives slip into the boss­es’ hands.

In his new book Worked Over: How Round-the-Clock Work Is Killing the Amer­i­can Dream (Basic, Sep­tem­ber 2020), Jamie McCal­lum, a pro­fes­sor of soci­ol­o­gy at Mid­dle­bury Col­lege, exam­ines why and how U.S. work­ers are more tied to the clock than ever, the dam­age this has meant for work­ers’ well-being, and what an agen­da for reclaim that time could look like. We spoke by phone in Sep­tem­ber. This inter­view has been edit­ed for length and clarity. 

Explain the over­all sit­u­a­tion for the Amer­i­can work­er and time on the job.

There are three dimen­sions of it. One, the rise of over­all hours worked since the 1970s. Two, an increase in volatil­i­ty and the unpre­dictable nature of work­ers’ sched­ules. Three, work­ers not hav­ing enough hours to make ends meet. 

That’s a con­tra­dic­to­ry sit­u­a­tion, no? Peo­ple are work­ing too many hours, but also not enough hours. There’s a lack of con­trol of peo­ple’s over­all time both at work and when they’re not at work. Either way, peo­ple are sub­ject­ed to a tyran­ny of the clock.

That’s right. Peo­ple often ask me about this one sta­tis­tic that work time has increased sig­nif­i­cant­ly since the 70s for all wage and salary work­ers, which it has. But if you dig into that, you get a dif­fer­ent pic­ture. Most peo­ple are famil­iar with the idea that tech work­ers and lawyers and cor­po­rate lob­by­ists put in 70-hour weeks. They still work the longest out of every­one. But it’s low-wage work­ers who have increased their work time the most.

So the num­ber of hours that the high­est-paid work­ers work is con­verg­ing with the hours worked by the low­est-paid employ­ees. Is that because the low­est-paid employ­ees, who have been sub­ject to decades’ worth of wage stag­na­tion, are try­ing to make up for that stag­na­tion through work­ing more hours?

Yes. The work­ing rich today tend to pull away from the rest of the peo­ple below them wage-wise through bonus­es, high­er salaries, etc. Peo­ple at the bot­tom do it through work­ing longer hours. 

You talk in the book about this his­to­ry of dis­cus­sions of work time. It’s sim­i­lar to what the late anthro­pol­o­gist David Grae­ber talked about with tech­nol­o­gy—he argued that years ago, we all thought we were going to be liv­ing in this tech­no-utopia, some­thing like The Jet­sons, in which tech­nol­o­gy would pro­vide for many of our needs and make life bet­ter and eas­i­er. Instead, we now live in a pret­ty dystopi­an world. That’s also true of work time. 

Thinkers like John May­nard Keynes used to say that we would soon have more free time than we knew what to do with. Instead, we find our­selves work­ing longer hours than ever, and our work is always expand­ing into every nook and cran­ny of our lives. Instead of arriv­ing at a utopia, we’re in a place where work nev­er ends.

Exact­ly. Keynes thought that we would have a 15-hour work week by some­thing like 2030. And there were good rea­sons to think that. For about a hun­dred years, the num­ber of hours worked declined. The work day declined, the work week declined. But this began to shift in the 70s, when work­ers began return­ing to work­ing longer hours. But Keynes was onto some­thing. I think that he thought increased pro­duc­tion and com­pound inter­est and all the oth­er ris­ing indi­ca­tors of our econ­o­my would lead us to a leisure­ly soci­ety. He was right about the com­pound inter­est part—he was right about the prof­itabil­i­ty. But he was wrong about the time. 

Some­body was col­lect­ing all the wealth dur­ing that time and ben­e­fit­ing off of the advances of the econ­o­my and soci­ety, but it wasn’t work­ers.

Leisure actu­al­ly is expen­sive. Ben­jamin Kline Hun­ni­cutt wrote a great his­to­ry of this and argues that in the 1940s, peo­ple began desir­ing more leisure. Leisure costs more mon­ey, so they stopped desir­ing short­er hours to work longer, to make more mon­ey to pay for leisure. 

When you say they lose their time, you mean they lose con­trol of their life. They do not have con­trol over the most basic thing upon which every­thing else depends—their time.

Who­ev­er con­trols labor con­trols time. They con­trol when we have week­ends, when we raise our kids, when we eat, when we sleep, when we get up in the morn­ing, when we go to bed at night. There’s a rhythm to it that is very attached to work. When our work time is out of our con­trol, so is our oth­er time. 

To me, that is crim­i­nal. So there was a moral or eth­i­cal polemic that was run­ning through me when I was writ­ing this book. A “time squeeze” is real­ly about peo­ple being pushed around. That is a real­ly dis­mal way to live.

Not to men­tion that you can’t have things like democ­ra­cy with­out hav­ing the time to par­tic­i­pate in civic insti­tu­tions, in polit­i­cal activism, in any­thing out­side of your work.

Prac­tic­ing our free­doms and hav­ing a basic demo­c­ra­t­ic exis­tence requires hav­ing free time. If peo­ple are work­ing 50, 60 hours a week, or they’re des­per­ate­ly try­ing to scrape togeth­er a hodge­podge life, it’s hard to orga­nize. All those things are dis­rupt­ed when we have the kind of work­ing rhythm that we do.

In addi­tion to being unable to par­tic­i­pate in demo­c­ra­t­ic life, the work­place itself is the fur­thest thing from a democracy. It’s a dic­ta­tor­ship, in which your boss is king. And then when you’re home, in your time that you were sup­posed to have to do what­ev­er you want, you’re instead wor­ry­ing about work—the unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic régime of the work­place extends into your home.

Sta­tis­tics cap­ture leisure as time, but what we call leisure is typ­i­cal­ly spent recov­er­ing from work in order to return back to work. And even aside from demo­c­ra­t­ic norms, we need time for hol­i­days or enjoy­ing breaks or the great out­doors. You need space and real dis­tance to actu­al­ly pon­der and con­sid­er your life. And if all you’re doing is think­ing about the job you just came from and prepar­ing to go back to it the next day, you don’t have time to do it.

Talk about the details of this time régime of 21st-cen­tu­ry work. How is the time régime enforced? What are the mechanisms?

I became inter­est­ed in this project because of the “fair work­week” move­ment, which I think is one of the most vis­i­ble exam­ples today of work­ers orga­niz­ing for the con­trol of time. The move­ment high­lights a lot of low-wage retail, food ser­vice, health­care and trans­porta­tion work­ers whose work lives are dis­rupt­ed by peri­ods of unpre­dictable and volatile breaks. They’re unpre­dictable by design. Their sched­ules are pur­pose­ly removed from their con­trol and often giv­en to either an algo­rithm or a super­vi­sor, both of which will make the sched­ule that is obvi­ous­ly best for that par­tic­u­lar com­pa­ny, not the worker. 

I worked in retail when I was younger, and I’d be sched­uled three weeks in advance. That’s just not the case any­more. I remem­ber doing inter­views on 34th Street in New York City, a main shop­ping area, and in Burling­ton, Ver­mont. When you talk to sales clerks, they’ll say, “I got my sched­ule three days ago. But I’m being sent home ear­ly today at 3:15 PM.” They’re sent home at the exact moment they’re no longer need­ed. Those sched­ules are based upon a pre­dic­tive algo­rithm that cal­cu­lates the opti­mum amount of sales­peo­ple and sales hours on the floor based upon the weath­er, the time of year, etc. 

So your sched­ule is more like­ly to be cut. Or alter­na­tive­ly, you’re more like­ly to be held over. Work­ers become com­plete­ly exhaust­ed, not just by being over­worked, but by being over­run by the unpredictability.

Talk about the Dunkin’ Donuts work­er you profiled.

Maria Fer­nan­des worked at three dif­fer­ent Dunkin’ Donuts loca­tions in North­ern New Jer­sey. At the time, she was sup­port­ing a part­ner who also had chil­dren. One morn­ing, she got off of one shift around 6:00 AM but was not sched­uled to start her next shift until hours lat­er. She slept in her car overnight to “nap” before work. She nev­er woke up, from gas fumes. She died in her car in her Dunkin’ Donuts outfit. 

For a while, she became a sym­bol of the low-wage, over­worked Amer­i­can work­er. And for a while, there were calls from union lead­ers and activists to make leg­isla­tive changes in response—there was even a law pro­posed in her name. 

It is an incred­i­bly sad sto­ry. And there are plen­ty of peo­ple who are still work­ing those jobs and who are still sub­ject­ed to those same sched­ules who may have suf­fered sim­i­lar tragedies, but we don’t know their names.

You also write a lot about the new tech­nolo­gies that are used—not just algo­rith­mi­cal­ly defined sched­ul­ing, but all kinds of wild tech­nolo­gies used to hyper-Tay­lorize work in places like Ama­zon. You talk about a socio­met­ric badge that some MIT sci­en­tists cre­at­ed that was put around employ­ees’ necks that records all inter­per­son­al inter­ac­tions through an embed­ded micro­phone and mea­sures how often you talk to mem­bers of anoth­er gen­der. Does your voice con­vey con­fi­dence or anx­i­ety, are you wait­ing your turn to speak or con­stant­ly inter­rupt­ing oth­ers? The com­pa­ny is called “Humanyze.”

It sounds like Black Mir­ror. Humanyze actu­al­ly has stopped using the badges. I inter­viewed the guy who invent­ed those badges, he actu­al­ly seems thought­ful about what they’re doing com­pared to a lot of com­pa­nies who are just like, “look, man­agers need greater con­trol.” Oth­er soft­ware can access your web­cam and take ran­dom screen­shots of your work­space from wher­ev­er you are at ran­dom times through­out the day.

Work­ers have always hat­ed this kind of sur­veil­lance. Ever since Fred­er­ick Winslow Tay­lor walked into a fac­to­ry with a stop­watch and a slide rule in the 1890s, work­ers have hat­ed man­agers look­ing over their shoul­ders. Today we see the evo­lu­tion of that idea. It’s less through a fore­man and more through computers.

The impor­tant part to remem­ber about this stuff is not that it’s Orwellian or what­ev­er, but that it is the result of a dis­or­ga­nized work­ing class. As unions began to decline, man­agers gained more con­trol over their work­ers. As sub­con­tract­ing became a pop­u­lar way to save costs, and work­places couldn’t bar­gain over the use of sub­con­tract­ed labor, man­agers began increas­ing­ly using elec­tron­ic sur­veil­lance tech­nol­o­gy to mon­i­tor them from afar. This paved the way until today where it is a com­mon prac­tice among in-house work­ers too. Though work­ers rou­tine­ly report they don’t like it, they’ve been vir­tu­al­ly unable to resist it. It’s actu­al­ly increased dur­ing the pandemic. 

You wrote the book large­ly before the pan­dem­ic, but I can only imag­ine that just as com­pa­nies like Zoom are hav­ing a field day because we bad­ly need their tech­nol­o­gy under quar­an­tine, the tools that you’ve described, like the one where your boss can take over your web­cam and watch you while you work at home, are also being used more against workers.

Right. We’ve known a lot about this in the con­sumer realm for a long time. It’s real­ly about data col­lec­tion. This is also the main point of Shoshana Zuboff’s writ­ing about “sur­veil­lance cap­i­tal­ism”— it’s a new régime of col­lect­ing data. For a long time, com­pa­nies like Google and Face­book did not know what to do with that data. Now they do, and they can use it against you. They can use it in per­for­mance eval­u­a­tions, they can do it when it comes to wages, rais­es or bonus­es. They can dis­ci­pline you or fire you based upon your pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. But they would not be able to do it as well or eas­i­ly if work­ers had more pow­er to resist those things.

That issue of work­er pow­er is why we don’t have the fly­ing cars and 15-hour work weeks, right? Those ideas were advanced at a time when union den­si­ty was at its high­est. When work­ers don’t have that con­trol, tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment con­tin­ues apace, but is wield­ed against work­ers rather than for them.

There is a clear need for us to fig­ure out ways to have tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion in a way that decreas­es our over­all work and elim­i­nates the most ardu­ous jobs. That inno­va­tion can’t come at the expense of peo­ple’s liveli­hoods, it should make people’s lives bet­ter. In the 50s and 60s as work­place automa­tion arrived at indus­tri­al fac­to­ries, there’s some evi­dence that work­ers and their unions, which were much denser and stronger, were able to trans­late that automa­tion into free time or high­er wages. Today we don’t have that same ability.

Let’s talk about robots and gig work and the gen­er­al ero­sion of work in the Unit­ed States and through­out the wealthy world. Your dis­cus­sion of this in the book is one of the most nuanced that I’ve read, because on the one hand, breath­less dis­course along the lines of “the robots are going to take all our jobs” is com­mon. On the oth­er hand, you have some peo­ple who say this rhetoric is overblown—that there’s actu­al­ly lit­tle evi­dence that robo­t­i­za­tion and gig work are much more preva­lent than they always have been. This is just what cap­i­tal­ism looks like: insta­bil­i­ty, peo­ple not hav­ing con­trol of their jobs and of their lives. You take from both of those arguments.

It’s dif­fi­cult to assess it clear­ly. I agree with you that there are sort of breath­less and Pollyan­naish takes on both sides. The most recent and cel­e­brat­ed one was pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Andrew Yang: his cam­paign was all about the fear of automation. 

There’s cer­tain­ly evi­dence that robots are get­ting much cheap­er and much eas­i­er to put into work­places. I pro­filed a com­pa­ny that basi­cal­ly rents robots; if you have a prob­lem, the com­pa­ny devel­ops a robot for it, and you can rent it for how­ev­er long you want it for. When you’re done with it, they take it back. That great­ly low­ers the bar­ri­ers to entry to bring­ing automa­tion on to a par­tic­u­lar kind of assem­bly line or a par­tic­u­lar kind of pro­duc­tion process.

But I was inter­est­ed in the way we talk about robots. I uncov­ered stuff from pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions where peo­ple were very fear­ful of the poten­tial monot­o­ny of a life where we are just adjuncts of machines at work, or where machines do all of our work for us. Isaac Asi­mov once said we’re all going to become machine ten­ders. Today, fear of robots isn’t about bore­dom or malaise, it’s about los­ing a liveli­hood. I think that has some­thing to say about the dif­fer­ent kinds of regimes that peo­ple were work­ing under those dif­fer­ent times. 

There’s a clear his­to­ry of peo­ple embrac­ing tech­nolo­gies that lim­it ardu­ous work. I think peo­ple would wel­come that kind of tech­nol­o­gy today. The prob­lem is that we don’t have the con­trol to do it. Instead, we get a lot of fear and scape­goat­ing. When we don’t have con­trol over tech­nol­o­gy, we either blame tech­nol­o­gy or blame oth­er peo­ple, rather than the peo­ple who are actu­al­ly in con­trol of this technology.

Work­ers and unions need to think care­ful­ly about hav­ing these kinds of issues in their bar­gain­ing con­tracts. There’s actu­al­ly a recent increase of peo­ple talk­ing about app use in con­tract nego­ti­a­tions. Ways that work­ers can exer­cise some degree of con­trol or lever­age over how tech­nol­o­gy is used are crucial.

What about gig work? You pro­file gig work­ers and talk about what their work lives and non-work lives are like. But there’s a sim­i­lar way that gig work is talked about: that we’re all going to be gig work­ers soon. How much truth is there to that assertion?

I’m that per­son who strikes up an oafish con­ver­sa­tion with the Lyft dri­ver. You get real­ly dif­fer­ent reflec­tions: some peo­ple real­ly do see their job as a side hus­tle and enjoy some of the free­doms that come with it. And some peo­ple see those free­doms very differently. 

I pro­file peo­ple who dri­ve for Uber Eats. They can work when­ev­er they want, right? Wrong. They can’t work when peo­ple don’t want food. And they have to work when peo­ple want food that costs the most amount of mon­ey and they’ll get the largest amount of tips. So they’re actu­al­ly seri­ous­ly con­strained. I inter­viewed a woman who spent time dri­ving around each night from 9:00 PM to 1:00 AM, often with her six-year-old daugh­ter in the back­seat, deliv­er­ing meals. She didn’t feel she was free to work whenever. 

App work­ers are work­ers and should be rec­og­nized as such. They should have rights and lib­er­ties and ben­e­fits that come with being a work­er. The inde­pen­dent con­trac­tor sta­tus has been such a lie, and a way to exert so much more con­trol over that workforce. 

Which is some­thing under dis­cus­sion right now, par­tic­u­lar­ly in Cal­i­for­nia.

I have a strange sense of opti­mism that they will win. There’s a lot of orga­niz­ing going on in the gig econ­o­my by dri­vers and deliv­ery work­ers. Even since the pan­dem­ic start­ed, there were maybe half a dozen work stop­pages at a num­ber of impor­tant gig employ­ers. That activ­i­ty will lead somewhere. 

Let’s talk about the ide­o­log­i­cal aspects of this time cri­sis. That was one of the most inter­est­ing parts of your book: you talk about what the ide­o­log­i­cal jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for the time régime—the “do what you love” ethos, the idea that you need to not just work a job to pay the bills but find a job that you find ful­fill­ing on a deep per­son­al and exis­ten­tial lev­el. This is just an ide­o­log­i­cal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for shit­ty work at longer hours. 

It’s one thing to under­stand how and why low-wage work­ers end up hav­ing to put in more time. But rel­a­tive­ly well-off people’s work-time grow­ing is some­thing dif­fer­ent. Cul­ture is clear­ly part of this, but there’s also a mate­r­i­al basis. This is one of the things that peo­ple don’t appre­ci­ate enough about the “mean­ing­ful work” dis­course. It’s easy to roll your eyes at the cyn­i­cal recu­per­a­tion by man­agers and gurus about doing what you love, blah. But we actu­al­ly all want mean­ing­ful jobs. We deserve them. If we have to work to sur­vive, at the very least, we should be able to like what we’re doing for eight-plus hours a day. 

I’ve always found it strange that some peo­ple are will­ing to write off the idea of mean­ing­ful work alto­geth­er as if it’s a cap­i­tal­ist plot. The prob­lem is not that peo­ple are encour­aged to find mean­ing­ful work. You write in the book that that is a right that we all should have. The prob­lem is when that con­cept is used to paper over work­ing con­di­tions and pay that are get­ting worse and worse.

It’s no sur­prise that the “do what you love ethos” explod­ed at the very same time that con­di­tions for work­ers began to stag­nate. It’s not some elite con­spir­a­cy—there was a gen­uine desire to leave monot­o­nous, tire­some, gru­el­ing fac­to­ry labor behind. And there was just as much a real desire to burn down your cubi­cle like they did in Office Space. But those desires were eas­i­ly recu­per­at­ed and re-enlist­ed in a cam­paign to say, “if work is mean­ing­ful and work is ful­fill­ing and work is good for my soul, then more work must be better.”

The Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board had to rule against a pro­pos­al by T-Mobile that work­ers had to main­tain a pos­i­tive work envi­ron­ment. The NLRB ruled that no, you can’t do that. You can’t force peo­ple to like their job. When I talked to dancers at the old Lusty Lady strip club in San Fran­cis­co, they explained that man­age­ment includ­ed a “fun clause” in their con­tract that insist­ed their work was fun. The dancers said, “maybe it is, maybe it’s not, but that’s not your deci­sion. That’s up to us.” 

Speak­ing of San Fran­cis­co, you also were in the Bay Area to talk to tech work­ers. You have a fun­ny scene where you get on a Google bus and are kicked off for ask­ing tech work­ers about their jobs. Sep­a­rate­ly, you go to this swanky Sil­i­con Val­ley bar where… I don’t know, deals get made, I guess. And a guy who works at Google tells you, “Every­where you look, you hear peo­ple talk­ing about ‘mean­ing.’ They aren’t philoso­phers. … They sell ban­ner ads. What do they know about meaning?” 

There have been numer­ous books writ­ten on the mar­riage of the coun­ter­cul­ture and the com­put­er age. It’s such an inter­est­ing his­tor­i­cal switch. Peo­ple were inter­est­ed in a “let’s destroy the office, let’s have ful­fill­ing work­days, let’s have free­dom to exper­i­ment with new kinds of employ­ment rela­tion­ships.” And now they’re lead­ers of a move­ment to keep peo­ple at work longer and longer through a cou­ple of perks.

You argue in the end of the book for a time agen­da that work­ers could unite around, around this shared expe­ri­ence of not hav­ing con­trol of their work lives. What should the 21st-cen­tu­ry time agen­da look like? What should it include? What should be on the ban­ners of the move­ments in the street demand­ing their time back?

The old ban­ners used to say basi­cal­ly “few­er hours for more mon­ey.” For a long time, the labor move­ment was suc­cess­ful at win­ning exact­ly that. Dur­ing a cri­sis, espe­cial­ly like the one right now, it often seems tone deaf to talk about few­er hours when peo­ple are unem­ployed, when peo­ple aren’t get­ting CARES Act fund­ing and unem­ploy­ment insur­ance is run­ning out. But there’s a his­tor­i­cal prece­dent here. Dur­ing the Great Depres­sion, the gov­ern­ment used work-shar­ing ben­e­fits. They spread the work around to avoid lay­ing peo­ple off, reduc­ing hours and using gov­ern­ment pro­grams to sub­si­dize you at your pre­vi­ous wage. We should be doing more of that.

Protests around health­care, or to expand the purview of care in gen­er­al in an econ­o­my, are sig­nif­i­cant, too. We could cut and paste pro­grams from some peer nations in West­ern Europe. We work about 400 hours per year more than the Ger­mans, 250 hours more than French work­ers. They’re not starv­ing—they’re doing fine. State pro­vi­sions are impor­tant not only because they’re good for peo­ple’s health­care, but because it allows peo­ple to step back from work. But half of Amer­i­cans get their health insur­ance through a job, and min­i­mum-hour require­ments and eli­gi­bil­i­ty statutes require that peo­ple con­tin­ue work­ing, often longer than they want, just to main­tain their health­care. It’s trag­ic and it’s criminal. 

When I inter­viewed work­ers from Ohio from a laid-off auto plant out­side Day­ton, Ohio, they said, “Health­care should be tak­en off the union bar­gain­ing agen­da. It’s a dri­ver of lock­outs, it’s a dri­ver of dis­rup­tions, and most impor­tant­ly, we spend so much time argu­ing about health­care that we can’t talk about high­er wages and hours.” So uni­ver­sal health­care, Medicare for All, is an impor­tant goal of any­one think­ing about short­er hours.

You also talk about the upsurge in the labor move­ment around teachers. 

We think of teach­ers hav­ing the sum­mers off, right? I am the son of a teacher myself, and remem­ber our kitchen table piled high with books for the entire sum­mer, because that’s when you plan lessons and do a lot of oth­er impor­tant work ahead of the school year. Recent­ly, we’ve seen teach­ers get­ting not only sum­mer jobs to sup­ple­ment their income, but night jobs after school. 

But teach­ers have tak­en so much lead­er­ship in reori­ent­ing their work­places through strikes, and strikes that do more than just talk about teach­ers’ work issues. They talk about race and racism, immi­gra­tion, hous­ing, access to food. There’s no rea­son why work­ers can’t also talk about reduc­tion of work­ing hours. 

When it comes to con­tract nego­ti­a­tions, this is what peo­ple call “bar­gain­ing for the com­mon good.” Free time should be a pub­lic good. And we should use our moments of nego­ti­a­tions with employ­ers to think about win­ning soci­ety-wide agree­ments to decrease work time.

Let’s imag­ine this pan­dem­ic is over. What’s num­ber one on the “Jamie McCal­lum Agen­da for Free Time?” 

Oh, wow. [Long pause] I’m stalling just think­ing about it…

Our work-time régime has made you unable to even con­sid­er this ques­tion because it feels so far out­side of the realm of possibility.

It real­ly does. I’ll say two things. My the­sis advi­sor in grad­u­ate school was Stan­ley Aronowitz, one of the great labor schol­ars of the last half cen­tu­ry. I wrote him in June and said, “I’d like to meet with you.” He wrote back, “there are three rea­sons to become a pro­fes­sor: June, July, and August. Come to me in Sep­tem­ber.” I was like, man, I want that guy’s job and the free­dom that comes with it. One of the most reward­ing things about hav­ing the free­dom to write this book was the free­dom I had to go around the coun­try and meet peo­ple, talk to work­ers and hear what they’re deal­ing with. I want to be able to do more of that.

The oth­er thing is, any­one right now in Amer­i­ca with a small child is just going absolute­ly insane dur­ing this pan­dem­ic. So I want more schools, day­care camps, play­grounds, what­ev­er, to be open 24–7. I would like that to change not only for my son’s ben­e­fit, but just for the gen­er­al men­tal and emo­tion­al san­i­ty of the society. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Micah Uetricht is the deputy edi­tor of Jacobin mag­a­zine and host of its pod­cast The Vast Major­i­ty. He is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor and for­mer asso­ciate edi­tor at In These Times. He is the author of Strike for Amer­i­ca: Chica­go Teach­ers Against Aus­ter­i­ty (Ver­so 2014), coau­thor of Big­ger Than Bernie: How We Go From the Sanders Cam­paign to Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ism (Ver­so 2020), and is cur­rent­ly at work on a book on New Left­ists who “indus­tri­al­ized.” He pre­vi­ous­ly worked as a labor orga­niz­er. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @micahuetricht.


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What a Just Transition Would Actually Mean for Workers

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just tran•si•tion

noun

1. A frame­work to address the liveli­hoods and needs of the work­ers and com­mu­ni­ties most impact­ed by the switch to renew­able ener­gy

“We want [a plan to] mobi­lize the econ­o­my in a way that tran­si­tions us off of fos­sil fuels in 11 years, but also pro­tects every sin­gle work­er [and] their abil­i­ty to have a job and health­care.” —Nicole Karsch, Sun­rise Move­ment Organizer

Where does this idea come from? 

The super­fi­cial con­flict between sav­ing the plan­et and sav­ing the econ­o­my has long dogged envi­ron­men­tal­ists, but the “way out,” accord­ing to U.S. labor leader Tony Maz­zoc­chi back in 1993, is to “make pro­vi­sion for the work­ers who lose their jobs in the wake of the country’s dras­ti­cal­ly need­ed envi­ron­men­tal cleanup.” Maz­zoc­chi, once vice pres­i­dent of the Oil, Chem­i­cal and Atom­ic Work­ers Inter­na­tion­al Union (lat­er absorbed into the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers), was respond­ing to chem­i­cal plant clo­sures and then-new Super­fund envi­ron­men­tal cleanup pro­grams. If there can be Super­fund for tox­ic dirt, the think­ing went, there should be one for work­ers. That vision of labor and envi­ron­men­tal­ists work­ing togeth­er is at the cen­ter of a “just transition.” 

Is a just tran­si­tion part of the Green New Deal? 

It should be! While Alexan­dria Ocasio-Cortez’s land­mark 2019 res­o­lu­tion includ­ed such mea­sures as a fed­er­al jobs guar­an­tee, it did not specif­i­cal­ly address fos­sil-fuel work­ers, leav­ing it open to crit­i­cism by union lead­ers. Bernie Sanders’ ver­sion, released lat­er that year, includ­ed up to five years of income replace­ment and free edu­ca­tion for dis­placed work­ers. Cli­mate groups, includ­ing the Sun­rise Move­ment, also advo­cate income guar­an­tees. These pro­vi­sions, mod­eled after the GI Bill, are an impor­tant step toward win­ning sup­port from labor. 

Giv­en how 2020 has gone so far, what are the odds we’ll get any­where near this? 

It may not sur­prise you that, for all his talk about coal coun­try, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has not weighed in on what a just tran­si­tion would look like. The new Joe Biden cli­mate plan, more aggres­sive than his pri­ma­ry plat­form, at least leaves the con­ver­sa­tion open with the poten­tial to cre­ate mil­lions of new cli­mate jobs. States, too, can take action. Col­orado passed a ground­break­ing just tran­si­tion law in 2019 that guar­an­tees ben­e­fits and grants for for­mer coal work­ers and coal-depen­dent com­mu­ni­ties. It’s hard to imag­ine repli­cat­ing this vic­to­ry giv­en state bud­gets dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, but the pan­dem­ic also empha­sizes the impor­tance of a just tran­si­tion?—?as oil demand plum­mets and thou­sands of refin­ery work­ers may face immi­nent lay­offs nation­wide. The tran­si­tion is hap­pen­ing regard­less. The ques­tion is whether work­ers and com­mu­ni­ties will be left behind.

This is part of “The Big Idea,” a month­ly series offer­ing brief intro­duc­tions to pro­gres­sive the­o­ries, poli­cies, tools and strate­gies that can help us envi­sion a world beyond cap­i­tal­ism. For recent In These Times cov­er­age of a Just Tran­si­tion in action, see, “The Just Tran­si­tion for Coal Work­ers Can Start Now. Col­orado Is Show­ing How,” “Cli­mate Activists Can’t Afford to Ignore Labor. A Shut­tered Refin­ery in Philly Shows Why” and “This Cri­sis Can Be a Gate­way to Cli­mate Action. These Activists Are Show­ing How.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 25, 2020. Reprinted with permission.


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