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National Hispanic Heritage Month Profiles: Linda Chavez-Thompson

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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 made to our movement. Today’s profile features Linda Chavez-Thompson.

A second-generation American of Mexican descent, Chavez-Thompson grew up in Lubbock, Texas. An oft-told anecdote from her childhood told the story of a young Chavez-Thompson convincing her father that her mother should stay home and care for the household rather than working in the fields. She and her siblings threatened to walk off the job in support of her mother. Her father agreed and Chavez-Thompson got her first organizing victory.

In 1967, she started working as a secretary at the Laborers (LIUNA) local in Lubbock. As the only bilingual staff member, she soon became the union representative for Spanish-speaking LIUNA members. Before long, she was drafting grievances for workers and representing them in administrative proceedings.

Later, she moved to San Antonio and began working with AFSCME. In 1986, she began serving as a national vice president for the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement. Her accomplishments and hard work helped her become an international vice president of AFSCME in 1988, and in 1993, she was elected to serve as a vice president on the AFL-CIO Executive Council. In 1995, she won her election to become the federation’s first elected executive vice president. She was the first person of color to hold one of the AFL-CIO’s top three positions.

During her time as an AFL-CIO officer, Chavez-Thompson focused heavily on recruitment, particularly trying to convince more women and people of color to join unions. She also focused on teaching the importance of unions to young people. Even more successful were her efforts to partner with community groups in recruiting members and fighting back against anti-union efforts. She represented the federation and working people in a variety of organizations, including the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, the United Way of America and the Democratic National Committee. She also was elected president of the Inter-American Regional Organization of Workers, a part of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.

Chavez-Thompson retired from the AFL-CIO in 2007.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on October 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth  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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With City’s Economic Future in Doubt, Can New York Unions Stop the Cuts?

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The COVID-19 pandemic has killed nearly 25,000 New York City residents. The worst of the public health crisis may have passed, but its dire toll has triggered a second crisis. Shutting down huge swaths of the economy was necessary to save lives, but the deep freeze on economic activity has plunged the city into its worst fiscal crisis since the troubled 1970s.

Then as now, municipal workers and their unions are in the crosshairs. If the city’s economic and political elites have their way, labor will pay for the crisis againjust like it did in the 1970s.

A FRAGILE GIANT

New York City’s economy was particularly vulnerable to a deadly pandemic. COVID-19 thrives on close interaction, and so do many of the city’s leading industries: personal services, tourism, leisure and hospitality, food and drink, education, health care, entertainment. In normal times, millions of workers travel to and from the city daily to work in densely packed offices, ride crowded elevators, crush against each other in subways and buses, and pack bars and restaurants.

With New York’s contact-intensive economy suspended, hundreds of thousands of workers were unemployed or thrown into the uncertainty of indefinite furlough. While employment has begun to rebound, about 16 percent of the city’s workforce was still unemployed in late September, twice the national average.

Medicaid enrollment has increased nearly 10 percent since February and SNAP (food stamps) recipients increased by more than 12 percent. And of course the city is paying for a sharp increase in staffing in the public hospitals, personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators, testing, and other coronavirus needs.

Unemployment is up, tax revenues are down, and emergency expenses are still necessary. In June, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council passed a fiscal year 2021 budget that cut overall spending by $5 billion from the previous fiscal year. The city made immediate cuts to trash collection, composting, and the Staten Island Ferry, and it kept most public swimming pools closed for the summer. But this is only a small taste of what could come under a post-pandemic austerity program.

The FY 2021 budget’s $5 billion cut doesn’t even include the truly crucial number for New York’s 325,000 municipal workers—the additional $1 billion in labor savings the city says it must find in order to avert 22,000 municipal layoffs.

‘HARD CHOICES’ FOR WHOM?

The city needs to balance its budget if huge service cuts and layoffs are to be avoided. The question is which choices will be made, and who will pay for them?

For New York’s business elite and their mouthpieces, the answer is easy: unionized municipal workers and working people in general. The Citizens Budget Commission, an influential business-backed “fiscal watchdog” group whose “nonpartisan” budget analysis shapes public debate, called for “Hard Choices” to shore up the city’s finances. To anyone familiar with the CBC, its recommendations are hardly surprising: cuts to services, cuts to the unionized workforce, and shifting health care costs from the city to employees, among other measures.

While the CBC does not call for layoffs, it proposes a sharp pace of attrition, filling just one of every three vacancies over the next two years. It wants to eliminate the Absent Teacher Reserve, popularly known as the “rubber room” or “teacher jail,” which would permanently lay off hundreds of “excessed” union teachers. Since many teachers end up there without explanation or justification, this would amount to an unfair denial of their due process rights under the contract.

“Premium-sharing” for health insurance would save the city $700 million each year. Nearly all New York City employees and retirees currently do not pay premiums for health insurance, which also includes their dependents—a benefit that most American workers can only dream of.

The CBC wants retirees to pay 16 percent of their pre-Medicare insurance premiums and 25 percent of Medicare Part B and Supplemental Medicare coverage. This would cost pre-Medicare retirees $2,500 annually and Medicare recipients $800.

Current city employees with salaries below $65,000 would contribute 6 percent of premiums for single coverage ($575 per year) and 8 percent for family coverage ($2,000). Those with salaries above $65,000 would contribute 14 percent for single coverage ($1,350) and 16 percent for family coverage ($4,000). For years the unions have traded higher wage increases for maintaining the zero-premium health benefit, so any cost-shifting to employees has a real impact, particularly on the lowest-paid workers.

In 2014, Mayor de Blasio and the municipal unions struck the first “health savings agreement,” aimed at reducing insurance costs without implementing premiums. They struck a second such agreement in 2018, and these deals have allowed them to wring out billions in savings through measures like raising co-pays for emergency room visits and terminating coverage for ineligible dependents.

Since the low-hanging fruit was picked in 2014 and 2018, it’s possible that concessions on zero-premium insurance could actually be on the table this time around. That would be a major victory for the budget hawks at the CBC and in the business community, who have been pushing to shift the cost of health insurance on to labor for decades. They consider the zero-premium benefit an unjustifiable expense precisely because it’s so rare. In their view, since most other workers in the U.S. pay premiums, New York’s municipal workers should too.

WHAT’S THE ALTERNATIVE?

Mayor de Blasio, city council members, and the municipal unions have called for the governor to give the city long-term borrowing authority to plug budget gaps, something it hasn’t had since the imposition of financial controls by the State during the 1970s fiscal crisis. But business interests and budget hawks in both parties are strenuously opposed to taking on debt. For them, this would signal a return to the bad old days of the 1970s, when New York was supposedly led to ruin by runaway welfare spending and overpaid municipal workers.

In addition to borrowing authority, the union-backed Strong Economy for All Coalition is also calling for tax increases on billionaires and millionaires at the state level. Those increases would prevent the state from cutting billions of dollars in aid to schools and local governments, including New York City. The unions are also proposing an old standby for hard times, an early retirement incentive for state and local government workers, to reduce the workforce without layoffs. Along with Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio, they are also calling for federal aid to close budget gaps.

It’s clear, however, that Washington won’t be coming to New York’s rescue as long as Donald Trump is in the White House and Republicans control the Senate. Even if Joe Biden becomes president and the Democrats make gains in Congress, it’s not guaranteed that the city would receive enough federal aid to avert a deep austerity program. Biden’s closest advisors have already signaled that they think the federal “pantry is bare” because of the Trump tax cuts, and that a massive increase in federal spending is not forthcoming.

The force of events may change their perspective, but Biden’s long record as a fiscal moderate does not inspire confidence that he will spend what’s needed to keep state and local governments out of budget hell.

Unfortunately, the city is not the master of its own fate. That power lies, to a significant extent, in the hands of Governor Cuomo and the state legislature’s Democratic Party majority. If the city is to take on debt, raise taxes on the wealthy, and otherwise avoid an austerity program, it must get authorization and support from the state.

One might think this would be easily forthcoming, considering the fact that all the most important political figures here are Democrats. But Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio can’t agree on the time of day, much less the right fiscal policy, and the state is facing its own serious budget crunch. The governor and many of his closest allies have already announced their opposition to soaking the rich, on the false grounds that they will leave for greener pastures in other states.

For its part, the state legislature’s Democratic majority includes an exciting new crop of democratic socialists and other progressives, but also many suburban moderates who have ridden the wave of anti-Trump sentiment into office. They may not be willing to send enough help to a city that many of their constituents believe, against all evidence, is falling into violent chaos.

WHERE’S LABOR?

As the 2020 school year approached, it briefly looked like a previously unthinkable event might come to pass: a public schools strike. This was because of the dogged organizing of activists in the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators (MORE), the reform caucus in the giant city teachers union. The union’s Delegate Assembly scheduled but ultimately did not carry out a strike authorization vote because the leadership hammered out a reopening agreement with the mayor before the meeting. But rank-and-file members have continued to organize, and their organizing for a sickout and other actions showed their ability to mobilize members for worker and student safety.

Aside from these actions, and some public health worker demonstrations for increased funding and PPE, the municipal labor movement has been rather quiet. AFSCME District Council 37 and other unions held a rally against layoffs in September, but like most of the city unions’ labor rallies, it went largely unnoticed. Despite the scale of the crisis, it appears as if New York’s labor establishment is turning once again to its well-worn playbook of behind-the-scenes lobbying, politicking, and dealing.

The uncomfortable fact is that New York’s municipal labor movement is, with some notable exceptions, hidebound and risk-averse. Union membership in the public sector remains very high, and the collective bargaining system has not been dismantled. The city’s system of labor relations has largely been preserved: a labor-management partnership in which deals are hammered out at the top with little in the way membership participation or collective action. This has insulated the municipal unions from the worst effects of the national anti-union offensive, but has tended to make leaders inward-looking and resistant to change.

This situation stems, to a significant extent, from the resolution of the 1970s fiscal crisis. New York’s municipal union leaders still talk about how labor “saved the city” by buying municipal bonds with pension funds and accepting massive contract concessions: layoffs, wage freezes, benefit cuts, and, in future contracts, the linkage of wage increases to productivity gains. The unions eventually regained their membership numbers, supported by the passage of New York State’s 1976 agency shop law. But these measures and those that followed tended to draw union leaders closer to public officials and away from their own members and the people they serve.

NEW YORK IS NOT OVER

New York City is not “over,” as so many commentators have recently claimed. But it will probably be different, now that we know that many workers, particularly white-collar office workers, can work remotely and don’t need to fill Manhattan’s mammoth office buildings every day. If they don’t come back in big numbers, workers in retail, restaurants and bars, and other service industries will continue to suffer even after the public health crisis is resolved.

With the future of New York’s economy in doubt, the labor movement has an opportunity to articulate a different vision for the city as a whole—one that is less reliant on the consumption spending of office workers, tourists, and the wealthy. But doing so will require many of the city’s unions to adopt a different approach, one that is proactive instead of defensive, activates the dormant power of member action, and embraces the common good in addition to their own needs and interests

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on October 12, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Chris Maisano is a union staffer in New York City.

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A Blow But Not Fatal: 9 Months After Janus, AFSCME Reports 94% Retention

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Image result for Heather GiesThe labor union in the crosshairs of the right wing-led effort to gut public sector unions through a landmark Supreme Court case released new membership data Wednesday showing a decline that experts say could mark the beginning of larger losses, but is far shy of a fatal blow.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees(AFSCME) reported a 6 percent loss last year, down from 1,411,877 members, agency fee payers and retirees in 2017 to 1,329,594 in 2018.

The numbers offer the first concrete picture of the preliminary fallout from last year’s Janus v. AFSCME decision that eliminated public sector unions’ ability to collect agency fees—also known as “fair share” dues—from workers who do not sign up for full membership in the union but still benefit from its representation.

Many predicted the case, bankrolled by a network of conservative billionaires and think tanks, could put the nail in the coffin of public sector unions by encouraging workers to opt out of paying dues in favor of becoming “free riders.”

AFSCME’s numbers, part of its annual Department of Labor filing, show one of the largest public sector unions has managed to dodge a worst case scenario in the immediate wake of Janus, due in no small part to its preparation for the decision, which focused on retaining rank-and-file members.

Since unions braced for revenues from agency fee-payers to evaporate when the Janus decision came down, a 6 percent decline in membership—less than the total number of “fair share” workers AFSCME represented last year—was an anticipated loss.

However, AFSCME’s member sign-ups since the Janus decision outpace member opt-outs at a rate of 8 to 1. The union reported an increase of 18,638 dues-paying retirees and 9,097 dues-paying members, though it is not clear whether those members are new hires or former fee-payers who got on board as full members.

AFSCME previously told In These Times that nearly 200,000 fee-payers joined as full union members ahead of the Janus decision as part of a one-on-one union-building strategy it says marked a “major culture shift.” In 2017, 112,233 of the 1,411,877 workers it represented were “fair share” fee-payers.

“In overwhelming numbers, AFSCME members have blunted the attacks of the wealthy special interests and chose to stick with their union,” AFSCME president, Lee Saunders, said in a statement Wednesday.

But experts Robert Bruno and Frank Manzo, who released a reportforecasting the impacts of Janusahead of the Supreme Court decision last year, warned that AFSCME’s preliminary 6 percent membership decline could still put the union on track to suffer the losses their research projected.

“A loss of 82,000 is nothing to brush aside,” Manzo, policy director of the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, told In These Times.

“These data show that public sector union membership has dropped, and they suggest that it may be on track to decline dramatically over time,” he said. “But, they also show that the labor movement can take concrete steps to avoid that fate.”

In their report, Manzo and Bruno predicted a loss over three to five years of 726,000 members in unions representing state and local government employees—and a 3.6 percent drop in wages. They see AFSCME’s membership contraction, representing 11 percent of their total forecast for the sector, as consistent with their long-term outlook.

Manzo said that while the labor movement should be “encouraged” by AFSCME’s 94 percent retention rate, it should also be “concerned” about the losses, noting that reduced organizing budgets could have a “cascading effect” in years to come. “The union needs to take steps, and frankly policymakers should consider taking steps, to correct that loss,” he said. For now, AFSCME plans to expand its organizing resources.

The membership data comes on the heels of an onslaught of well-funded right-wing efforts targeting public sector union members with opt-out campaigns in attempts to chip away at membership in the wake of Janus.

“This has to be measured against the resources that have been marshaled by anti-worker, anti-union organizations,” Robert Bruno, professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign School of Labor and Employment Relations, told In These Times of AFSCME’s membership levels. Despite the net loss, unions’ ability to attract members—whether by converting former fee-payers or recruiting new hires—while facing aggressive anti-union campaigns is notable, Bruno said.

An AFSCME representative told In These Times the reduction represents the loss of former agency fee-payers. However, the national data doesn’t offer a detailed picture of who is opting out, including a break down of which of the 23 states where agency fees were previously allowed are bearing the brunt of the losses, or if any workers who previously paid full membership dues have deserted.

Many variables could still shape the way Janus plays out in the long-term, including legislation to mitigate the impacts, as well as any further court decisions that could imperil the future of public-sector unions.

Since Janus, conservatives in a number of states have launched efforts to force unions to pay back agency fees collected prior to the decision, which could defund these unions. So far, such efforts have fallen flat in Alaska, California, Illinois, Ohio, Oregon and Washington.

But Moshe Marvit, a fellow at the Century Foundation, warned the threat of these lawsuits “could be seriously damaging” despite their “dubious” arguments. “The theory in Janus never won before any judges, before it won at the Supreme Court,” he told In These Times.

Meanwhile, the Buckeye Institute—part of the State Policy Network of anti-union groups that funded Janus—has filed three cases taking aim at exclusive union representation. Janusallows union members to opt out of membership and paying dues, but the union still has a duty to represent all workers in the bargaining unit. The lawsuits, filed in Maine, Minnesota and Ohio, argue that automatic representation violates workers’ First Amendment rights.

Last month, an appeals court rejecteda similar challenge to exclusive representation brought by the Freedom Foundation and National Right to Work Foundation in Washington, finding union representation did not infringe on free speech rights.

Marvit dubbed these lawsuits a kind of “bait and switch” after Janus as anti-union interests seek new ways to “use the First Amendment to limit membership and limit funding of unions.” The Janus decision scrapped agency fees while keeping exclusive representation intact, finding the two “are not inextricably linked.” But Marvit doubted the Supreme Court would offer “any principled consistency other than a sort of anti-union animus” if it came to ruling on exclusive representation.

Increasing union movement-building and education will likely continue to be important responses amid anti-union hostility. This is especially true considering the unfavorable Supreme Court landscape facing union supporters hoping to undo Janus through litigation.

Marvit said that the free speech in logic in the Janus ruling—claiming that agency fees compel speech and violate the First Amendment—could create space for litigation aimed at carving out pro-union rights, though he admitted this would be an “uphill battle.”

“Unions for a long time in litigation have been on the defensive,” he said.” This has opened up and triggered a new desire to go on the offensive with lawsuits and see in what ways it can lead to an expansion of actual free speech, not just money as speech in the way that Janus did.”

But even as the right-wing groups behind Janus seek to smear public sector unions as unfairly dipping into workers’ pockets, approval ratings of labor unions are the highest they have been in 15 years, according to Gallup.

Ken Jacobs, chair of the Labor Center at the University of California Berkeley, told In These Times that Janus has coincided with a “huge shift” in public opinion toward the labor movement, boosted in part by the recent wave of historic teacher strikes. The recent government shutdown also offered “a reminder of what public workers do and how important they are,” he said.

Jacobs added that while it is still early to assess the impacts of Janus, how unions prioritize resources as they tighten their belts to adapt to the financial fallout from Janus will play a key role in defining their long-term capacity to withstand such an existential threat.

“One of the important things we have seen is a real increase in union activity in the public sector, especially among teachers,” Jacobs said. “That deep worker engagement will be essential for public sector unions going forward.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 27, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Heather Gies is a freelance journalist who has written on human rights, social movements and environmental issues for Al Jazeera, The Guardian, In These Times and National Geographic. Follow her on twitter @HeatherGies.


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How Business Unionism Got Us to Janus

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In September, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Janus vs. AFSCME, a case that has the potential to undermine public sector unions by curtailing unions’ right to charge non-members an “agency fee.” This fee covers the protection and services the union is obligated to provide all employees in the bargaining unit.

Many labor leaders and pundits have identified unions’ loss of revenue as the most dire consequence of an unfavorable ruling in the Janus case. Others have pointed out that the forces behind Janus don’t only aim to weaken public employee unions: they are seeking to destroy the public sector and public ownership of resources across the board.

However, the Right’s deeper, darker strategic purpose has been mostly ignored, even by unions: Janus fits in with a larger project, led by the State Policy Network—a network of right-wing think tanks—that aims not only to “defund and defang” unions but to “deliver the mortal blow to permanently break” the Left’s “stranglehold on our society.”

Anyone who cares about democracy and the social and economic well-being of workers has a stake in how unions will respond to the Court’s decision. And with Trump-appointee Neil Gorsuch now sitting on the bench, it appears likely that the ruling will not go in labor’s favor.

The real crisis at hand

The tacit assumption of Janus supporters and foes alike is that, when faced with a choice between being a union member and paying dues or not, significant numbers of members will bolt, and non-members who have been paying “agency fees” will not join. Because unions understand the danger posed by Janus as largely financial, they have focused on saving money, cutting staff and pursuing mergers. Some have also determined that they must be proactive to stave off mass desertions and are reaching out to members to solidify their support as dues payers.

Belt-tightening and talking to members may temporarily fortify union apparatus, but this approach ignores the question Janus demands we ask: Why is labor predicting members will desert their unions and that agency-fee payers will refuse to join?

These assumptions labor holds around Janus exemplify the real crisis unions confront—one not often discussed, even behind closed doors. In defining their purpose primarily as protecting members’ narrowly conceived economic interests and shaping the organization to function like a business, unions construct a very limited role for the workers they represent. Under this status quo, members are generally considered passive, with limited authority and voice. Their sole “power” is to pay dues and cast votes in what are generally uncontested elections for officers.

The right-wing forces behind Janus have used their frighteningly vast financial resources to exploit this weakness. The Janus brief, filed by the National Right to Work Foundation on behalf of Illinois public employee Mark Janus, articulates anti-union arguments familiar to any union activist who has tried to recruit skeptical co-workers. The plaintiff’s claims interrogate AFSCME’s purposes, its presence as a political force and whether it serves as a collective voice for working people on the job and in the larger society.

The brief reads:

Janus objects to many of the public-policy positions that AFSCME advocates, including the positions that AFSCME advocates for in collective bargaining. For example, he does not agree with what he views as the union’s one-sided politicking for only its point of view. Janus also believes that AFSCME’s behavior in bargaining does not appreciate the current fiscal crises in Illinois and does not reflect his best interests or the interests of Illinois citizens.

In building support for Janus, the Right has questioned the meaning of union membership while also criticizing public employee unions’ engagement in politics. Unions have frequently been ineffective in responding to the charge that they are just another special interest group, buying politicians for their members’ benefit. Unions have disarmed themselves in this assault by adopting the mentality and tactics of special interests. Labor has by and large accepted the Right’s definition of the contest (winning over “friendly” politicians in either party), the weapons (campaign donations), and the opponents (workers in other countries as our competitors). In doing so, labor has turned its back on its unique and most powerful resource—an informed, empowered and mobilized membership.

Instead, labor has countered the Right’s arguments on narrow grounds, railing against “free riders,” who they say will require unions “to represent non-members, who would be paying nothing at all, passing that burden off to dues-paying members.”

But this argument has little resonance to workers who already feel they are not well-represented. Like Mark Janus, they don’t feel their voices count. The “union” exists apart from them, with staff and officials insulated from even hearing, let alone responding to, members’ opinions and needs. The economic payoff from union dues can be hard to see when your paycheck hasn’t increased or in some cases, has decreased, despite your union having bargained in your name.

And this argument also avoids addressing the larger case made by the Right: that joining a union is not in workers’ best interest. The Right has confused workers by selling an individualistic, competitive ideology. And unions have been too slow to address why this ideology is harmful and antithetical to principles of collective action and solidarity. As others have observed, organized labor has by and large forgotten the grammar and vocabulary of class struggle.

From “it” to “we”

Though we shouldn’t adopt their methods or mentality, labor can learn a great deal from the Right’s victories. To move from defense to offense, labor needs to develop a new mindset. The strategies being discussed to avoid disaster post-Janus reflect many unions’ unwillingness to reimagine themselves.

One of these strategies is to eschew the legal responsibility to be “exclusive representative” of the bargaining unit, thereby creating competition between unions. Multiple unions representing workers for a single employer is the norm in other countries, where unions are allied with political parties. And some might consider it an idea worth pursuing. But encouraging competition among unions is a disaster, as Chris Brooks demonstrates in a close study of what occurred in Tennessee when an NEA affiliate lost exclusive representation. Workers turn against one another, viewing one another as rivals. Company unions, masquerading as professional groups that offer low insurance rates, compete, successfully, against traditional unions.

Is a “Workers’ Bill of Rights” an answer to Janus and the anticipated loss of collective bargaining in more states, as has been proposed in this publication? This is an interesting strategy but its limitation is that it’s a legalistic solution, not a political one. It doesn’t speak to the reasons workers choose not to join unions when they have that right, or to why they vote them down in elections.

Further, as Nelson Lichtenstein points out, the “rights discourse” is limited by being individual. What makes unions unique is that they represent members’ individual interests through struggle for their collective interests. Moreover, such a bill of rights ignores social oppression that workers experience on the job and separates their lives and rights outside the workplace from those they have inside. This strategy’s major flaw is not in what it tries to do but that it substitute for labor’s ability to critically analyze its losses.

One way to understand what adopting a new mindset would mean is looking to what occurred when the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), the reform caucus of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), won the union’s leadership. This caucus conceived of the CTU as a member-driven union that served members’ economic interests best when it supported social justice issues across the board. The newly elected leadership altered the way the union made its purpose evident and worked to make all the union’s operations support this new mindset.

CORE put the people it represented, employees of the Chicago Public Schools, at the center of its organizing, as Jane McAlevey puts it. A member-driven union gives people a reason to be union members and not agency fee payers. The goal? Shift the union from being an “it” to being “we.”

Democracy or bust

Putting workers at the center of organizing requires union democracy. It also demands moving towards international solidarity. What Kim Moody calls “labor nationalism” has weakened the unions by allowing workers to fall prey to Trump’s xenophobia. “’Buy American” is very close to “Make America Great Again.” Such slogans lead workers to become hostile to their counterparts in other countries rather than to the transnational corporations and elites that set economic policy.

Overcoming the fallout from Janus will require reimagining union membership by inverting hierarchical relations that replicate disempowerment on the job. To do this, unions need to grapple with a number of pressing questions:

Why have professional negotiators or paid staff sent to the bargaining table by national- or state-level unions rather than members who have been elected based on their leadership and ideas? Should union organizers be elected rather than being hired and appointed? Why aren’t members allowed to know how their representatives vote in the unions’ executive council meetings? Should endorsements for political office be made by the membership in a referendum? Should unions use “participatory budgeting” to have members decide priorities for where their dues are allocated? What is a member’s responsibility for recruiting and educating co-workers about the union?

Activists who have tried to recruit co-workers to their union know that changing people’s minds about joining can be slow and hard work. It requires listening and a deep commitment to union ideals because people often hold beliefs that are inimical to collective action. This work also requires having a union you trust will make a difference in the lives of its members. Like democracy anywhere, union democracy is difficult to obtain and fragile. It can be inefficient and it creates tensions. But it’s also the key to union power. Vibrant democracy and a mobilized membership are crucial to winning at the bargaining table and to enforcing any agreement in the workplace. Like all legal rights, the contract is only as strong as members’ knowledge of its provisions and willingness to protect it.

This is a moment of truth for unions and their supporters. We need to look in the mirror and see that Janus has two faces. The case could reduce organized labor to a shell, or it could be the start of a remarkable revitalization that draws strength from the widespread social movements that have emerged from both the Bernie Sanders campaign and Trump’s election. The latter is possible, but it will be up to all of us to make it a reality.

This article was originally published at In These Times on November 10, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Lois Weiner is a professor of education at New Jersey City University who is on the editorial board of New Politics. Her newest book is The Future of Our Schools: Teachers Unions and Social Justice.


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The Entire Public Sector Is About to Be Put on Trial

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Within the next year, the Supreme Court is likely to rule on the latest existential threat to workers and their unions: Janus v. AFSCME. Like last year’s Friedrichs v. CTA—a bullet dodged with Justice Antonin Scalia’s unexpected death—the Janus case is a blatant attack on working people by right-wing, moneyed special interests who want to take away workers’ freedom to come together and negotiate for a better life.

For years, the Right has been hammering through state-level “right-to-work” laws in an effort to kill public sector unionism; it would see victory in the Janus case as the coup de grace.

Right-to-work laws allow union “free riders,” or workers who refuse to pay union dues but still enjoy the wages, benefits and protections the union negotiates. Not only does this policy drain unions of resources to fight on behalf of workers, but having fewer dues-paying members also spells less clout at the bargaining table. It becomes much more difficult for workers to come together, speak up and get ahead. In the end, right-to-work hits workers squarely in the paycheck. Workers in right-to-work states earn less and are less likely to have employer-sponsored healthcare and pensions.

As a judge, Neil Gorsuch, Scalia’s replacement, sided with corporations 91 percent of the time in pension disputes and 66 percent of the time in employment and labor cases. If the court rules in favor of the Janus plaintiff—an Illinois public sector worker whose case not to pay union dues is being argued by the right-wing Liberty Justice Center and the National Right to Work Foundation—then right to work could become the law of the land in the public sector, weakening unions and dramatically reducing living standards for millions of workers across the country.

That’s the Right’s immediate goal with Janus. Then there are the more insidious effects. The case is the next step in the Right’s long and unrelenting campaign to, as Grover Norquist famously said, shrink government “to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” The Trump team has made no secret of this goal. Trump advisor Steve Bannon parrots Norquist, calling for the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” and Trump’s budget proposal cuts key federal and state programs to the quick. According to rabidly anti-worker Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), Vice President Mike Pence indicated in a February meeting with him that Pence was interested in a national version of Walker’s infamous Act 10, which eliminated public sector collective bargaining and gutted union membership.

An assault on public sector workers is ultimately an assault on the public sector itself. The Right can strike two blows at once: demonizing government and undermining the unions and workers who advocate for the robust public services that communities need to thrive. A ruling against AFSCME in Janus would decimate workers’ power to negotiate for vital staffing and funding for public services. Across the country, our loved ones will wait longer for essential care when they’re in the hospital, our kids will have more crowded classrooms and fewer after-school programs, and our roads and bridges will fall even deeper into disrepair. The progressive infrastructure in this country, from think tanks to advocacy organizations—which depends on the resources and engagement of workers and their unions—will crumble.

Public sector unions are working on building stronger unions, organizing new members and connecting more deeply with existing members to stave off the threat posed by Janus. AFSCME alone, where I serve as an assistant to the president, has a goal of having face-to-face conversations with one million of its members before the Supreme Court rules. So far, union leaders and activists have talked to more than 616,000 members about committing to be in the union no matter what the court decides. Even so, Janus will make it harder for public sector unions to lead, or even join, fights on social and economic issues that benefit all workers, union or not. And that’s just what the Right wants.

We need the entire labor and progressive movements to stand with us and fight for us. We may not survive without it—and nor, we fear, will they.

This blog was originally published at Inthesetimes.com on May 25, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Naomi Walker is the assistant to the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, writes the “9 to 5” column for In These Times.

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At MLK March, Renewed Call For Obama Executive Order on Wages

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Bruce VailWASHINGTON, D.C.—On the eve of a march to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, labor and civil rights activists are calling on President Barack Obama to honor King with an executive order that would raise wages for as many as two million workers.

One of the most poignant calls came Wednesday from Alvin Turner, a veteran of the famous 1968 Memphis garbage workers strike. Recalling a recent face-to-face meeting with Obama, Turner said “he told me personally he was working hard for the little man. If he don’t sign, he’ll disappoint me badly.”

Turner and others are pressing for an executive order that would establish a “living wage” for workers whose employment is tied to federal government contracts, grants, loans, or property leases. Earlier this year, the labor-backed “Good Jobs Nation” campaign produced evidence that many fast food workers at government-owned buildings in Washington, D.C., are earning below poverty-level wages, and that the same problems extend to other workers whose jobs are tied to federal government action. A study earlier this year from the pro-labor group Demos estimated an executive order could raise the income of about two million low-wage workers nationwide.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and other members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus are making the order a centerpiece of their pro-worker “Raise Up America” campaign launched in late June. The Change to Win federation—backed most notably by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Teamsters—is a partner in the Progressive Caucus campaign.

Such an order would not require a vote in Congress or any cooperation from the anti-labor Republicans, noted Mike Casca, a spokesperson for Ellison. The president has sole discretion on whether to issue such orders, and pressure is rising on Obama to do so from prgressive Democrats, labor unions, faith-based groups, and others, Casca said.

If Obama fails to sign the executive order, “the federal government is complicit in the perpetuation of poverty,” charged Bill Lucy, a retired executive of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union, who joined Turner Wednesday for a public panel discussion of the issue. A similar executive order was signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, he added, so “it’s not like it’s anything new.”

Radio talk-show host Joe Madison said marchers at the Aug. 24 events to honor the 50thanniversary of King’s speech will hear repeated calls from the speaking platform for an executive order. “We will do a disservice to those (original 1963) speakers—to Dr. King, to A. Philip Randolph—if we do not demand” presidential action on an executive order,” Madison said. Without a demand for action “it’s just a ceremony, and we don’t need any more ceremonies,” he said.

“King was at the intersection of the civil rights and labor movements,” commented Moshe Marvit, a lawyer, author and labor activists. King would have understood that “we need bold action from the president in the form of an executive order” to begin raising wages across broad sectors of the economy, Marvit said.

Change to Win spokesperson Paco Pabian told Working In These Times that there has been no unequivocal response from the White House yet on calls for the living wage executive order. There have been reports that Ellison asked Obama directly for such an order at a June 6 meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and that Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) had made a similar request, he said. In both cases, lawmakers were told that the matter would be reviewed by White House staff and that a definitive answer would be forthcoming sometime soon, Fabian said.

The push for the executive order gained an important backer on August 12, Fabian noted, when the New York Times published an editorial endorsing the idea.

“Many laws and executive actions from the 1930s to the 1960s, require fair pay for employees of federal contractors. Buth over time, those protections have been eroded by special-interest exemptions, complex contracting processes and lax enforcement. A new executive order could ensure that the awarding of contracts based on the quality of jobs created, challenging the notion that best contract is the one with the lowest labor costs,” the New York Times editors wrote.

Full disclosure: AFSCME is a web sponsor of In These Times.

This article originally appeared on In These Times on August 24, 2013.  Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.


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AFSCME Members Rally to Save Public Services

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Image: James ParksWhile state and local governments and school districts across the country struggle with budget deficits, AFSCME members are standing up to tell their elected representatives that raising revenues is the best solution to a budget crisis instead of cutting critical public services just when they are needed the most.

State and local governments and school districts have a $178 billion budget shortfall this year alone.

In Illinois, more than 3,000 activists, including hundreds of members of AFSCME Council 31, rallied at the state Capitol rotunda in Springfield this month to demand that lawmakers pass legislation to increase the individual income tax rate and expand the state’s sales tax base.

AFSCME members in Washington State lobbied lawmakers to preserve state services.
AFSCME members in Washington State lobbied lawmakers to preserve state services.

Meanwhile, some 1,500 AFSCME members from throughout New York State demonstrated and met with legislators in Albany earlier this month to find a fair way to protect essential public services.

AFSCME President Gerald McEntee told the New York State workers:

Elected leaders are on the verge of destroying vital public services and putting more people out of work. They’re jeopardizing the health and safety of the people and our communities.

In Maryland, a delegation of AFSCME members carried boxes of “Budget Fight Back” cards to their lawmakers in January. Signed by more than 3,000 state employees, the cards propose a plan to generate more than $2 billion in revenue to close a budget gap, including drawing on the state’s rainy day fund, expanding the sales tax to more services and increasing gas and alcohol taxes.

You can read more about efforts by AFSCME members in other states to save public services on AFSCME’s website here.

*This article originally appeared in AFL-CIO blog on February 24, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: James Parks had his first encounter with unions at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. He is a journalist by trade, and worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. He has also been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections. Author photo by Joe Kekeris


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