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Los Deliveristas Speak: How Delivery Workers Are Organizing to Take On the Apps

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More than 2,000 food couriers snarled traffic in Times Square through pouring rain in protest April 21 demanding better working conditions and protection from violent assaults. The mass demonstration was organized by Los Deliveristas Unidos, a loose network of immigrant gig workers that was born in the strife of the pandemic last year through online chat groups on Facebook, WhatsApp, and Telegram. Since then, Los Deliveristas have coalesced into an organization with support from the Brooklyn-based Worker’s Justice Project (WJP), a worker center that organizes immigrants in construction and service sector jobs. WJP has received backing from Service Employees Local 32BJ. Learn more about Los Deliveristas in our June cover story, “Can a Driver Uprising Make Food Apps Deliver?”

No sooner had their rain-whipped faces dried than gig companies moved to thwart them through legislative maneuvering. Last month, a bill backed by the New York State AFL-CIO, the Transport Workers Union (TWU), and the Machinists’ Independent Drivers Guild attempted to kneecap the Deliveristas. TWU President John Samuelsen walked back his support for the bill after Los Deliveristas Unidos opposed the legislation.“If they don’t want this particular bill, we will support them and work with them to craft a bill [that] satisfies the workers,” Samuelsen told The City.

The draft bill would have established a legal scheme for app-based workers to exercise certain collective bargaining rights without the labor protections afforded to employees. In return workers would forgo the rights to “picketing, strikes, slowdowns, or boycotts,” as well as agreeing to “not disparage, defame, sully or compromise the goodwill, name, brand, or reputation of the network company.”

The bill would have all but banned the April demonstration. Opposition was vociferous and support has faltered—killing the bill at least for this legislative session. Read more about it in “Draft Legislation in New York Would Put Gig Workers into Toothless ‘Unions.’”

Shortly after the April mass demonstration, Labor Notes writer Luis Feliz Leon spoke to Deliverista worker leader Jonán Mancilla and WJP executive director Ligia Guallpa. The transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Part of the interview was conducted in Spanish and has been translated.—Editors

Labor Notes: Jonán, can you tell me a little bit about where you work? Who are the members of Deliveristas Unidos, and what do they do?

Jonán Mancilla: I am from Mexico City. I’ve been here for 15 years. I started working as a delivery boy in a laundry and then I started working in a restaurant. I left it because the work was too heavy. I worked as a barback and I had to carry the kegs and cases of beer. It was a lot of hours and little money. Four years ago I started with the platforms [food delivery apps], on the recommendation of a relative.

What is a typical day like for you?

I get up at seven in the morning. I drop my son off at school. I go back home to get my things ready. At nine in the morning I enter the platform, leave at one in the afternoon, come to have lunch, have a tortilla or something and go back to the platform again at two in the afternoon and finish at eight, nine in the evening.

How is it? Is there a lot of traffic? You have to, I imagine, take food up to different buildings where they don’t have working elevators. Tell me a little bit about that.

Yes, that’s an everyday thing. You can have a bad day when you have to use the stairs all day long, or you can have a day when you don’t use the stairs.

The problem is when you have to go to a building or to a public housing project where you know that your colleagues have already been assaulted and they send you there again.

How would you describe the work? Do you like it?

Yes, I like it, but with this pandemic, it is not as satisfactory as before. There is abuse from the companies in many aspects. One is the distances, another is the excess weight they make us carry, and another is the abuse with the payment. They demand things from you—for example, “put on gloves”, “put on masks”, “use antibacterial gel” [but they don’t pay for those supplies]. You have to buy the bicycle. Then it is stolen, and you have to buy another one. The company doesn’t take care of any of those things.

How did those experiences influence your decision to join Los Deliverista Unidos?

That caused us to unite. Thanks to the Worker’s Justice Project (Proyecto Justicia Laboral), I found out that this march was going to take place [on October 15].

After the march, our ethnic groups became more united. There is a big group of Latinos, but there is also a group of Africans, Bangladeshis, Chinese, other groups of people uniting in one voice and fighting for us to have rights at least. The fact that everybody was suffering from the same thing—the abuse and everything I was telling you about earlier—that was very influential.

What are the rights that you want to obtain as workers?

Prevention measures against bicycle thefts. Protections against assaults and accidents. Access to restaurants’ bathrooms, because that really sucks. A living wage besides the tips. Many people think that tips are a salary, and that is not a salary. [Income for food couriers averages between $300 to $800 weekly, according to The City.—Eds.]

The right to decent public places for protection from extreme weather. A lot of people have no idea what it’s like to wait for their bag of food when it is below 10 [degrees], or below 15. Protection against tip theft and retaliation from the apps. That’s pretty easy to explain: the apps put out messages warning, “Don’t ask about tips and if you ask you can be blocked.”

And the right to receive personal protective equipment. As I told you, they demand things from us, but they have never sent us anything. To receive compensation for accidents and to have paid sick days, which don’t exist either. The right to organize, and why not have representation? That is the Los Deliveristas Unidos movement. We are asking to be allowed to organize so that we have rights.

And when you talk about representation, what do you mean? Union representation?

Yes, I mean that a union be formed. So that there is a union group like the Taxi Workers Alliance or like the construction workers. In other words, a delivery workers union so you can count on that backup, and you don’t worry about anything happening to you. I am afraid that I will be assaulted, or that I will be robbed or something. But if there is a union—no, don’t worry. That would be very nice.

You mentioned to me some of the most important issues around which you are organizing. Any successes so far that you want to mention?

Well, right now, thank God, we have the [state] senator, Jessica Ramos, who was very influential in getting us vaccinated. [Los Deliveristas demanded to be put on the priority list for the vaccinations, and Governor Andrew Cuomo acceded to their demands in February—Eds.] There is also [New York City councilor] Carlos Menchaca and other elected representatives who have wanted to help us. They are writing legislation. [After the April demonstration, the New York City Council introduced a package of five bills to address some of the demands. One bill fines restaurants that deny drivers bathroom access. Another establishes minimum pay per trip (as Uber and Lyft drivers have). Another allows drivers to set their own routes. –Eds.] Thanks to this Deliveristas Unidos community we have made ourselves heard and that has caught their attention.

Ligia Guallpa: And can you mention DoorDash? After [Deliveristas] virtually meeting with DoorDash, the Restaurant Association sent out a press release asking restaurants to allow access to the restrooms, and DoorDash felt pressured also to ask. I think DoorDash said that they’ve gotten 200 restaurants [to agree].

Mancilla: DoorDash reached out to us, we did not look for them. DoorDash reached out to us for a meeting, to say, “I am concerned about this issue because I have many delivery drivers and I would like to know what their complaints are. What is bothering them? What do they need?” And then, the issue of the restrooms was addressed, wasn’t it? Because they had already sent a message to the restaurants. And they said that they had about 200 restaurants committed at that time, but I think there must have been more, thanks to that ruckus we made.

You protested and then DoorDash responded to your complaints? And said, “We hear you. We’re going to grant you access to the restrooms.” When did that happen?

In the first march [on October 15] there were over 800 delivery workers, I believe. I couldn’t count them either, it was impossible. But DoorDash noticed. I mean, DoorDash is not blind. DoorDash said, “They’re marching for a reason.” They noticed the signs, that it was not only Relay, but also DoorDash, Uber, Grubhub—all the platforms. They were the only ones that took notice and were concerned about their company and said: “We are going to have a meeting so that they tell us what is bothering them.”

So, basically you’re talking about power in numbers. Right? The last protest in April had 2,000 people. So, how did you guys build that organizational power? 2017 was the last time the immigrant community, in particular, mobilized in this way. There was a day without immigrants after Trump was elected, but other than that there hasn’t been such large mobilizations. So, can you talk to me a little bit about how you guys have built that collective power?

First of all, it is thanks to the Worker’s Justice Project. Because I can tell you, “I created the [Facebook] page for Los Deliveristas Unidos,” but without them we would not have done anything. They were the foundation—not only economically, but the support we receive from them is also moral: “Give it your best, guys! Let’s do it! Don’t let yourselves be defeated. These companies are nothing without you.” They tell us that a lot. “Imagine if you didn’t work there. Understand that without you, the companies wouldn’t exist.”

It is something that many people have understood, [but] many people are afraid to understand it. Or they are afraid to acknowledge it, because of retaliation.

First, we thought it would be easy with four of us [speaking about Worker’s Justice Project organizers—Eds.]. But we realized we need a bigger team, which joined us in this march. I saw many people that I didn’t know. We were thinking that there were going to be delivery workers, but we didn’t think that people who don’t deliver, but have a family member or an acquaintance who does, could march just to support the people. We didn’t expect that.

Guallpa: After October 15, Jonán and other leaders started to talk to other delivery workers on the streets, to connect with other groups and to tell them, “Hey guys, you’ve gotta join! Here are the [WhatsApp and Telegram] chats, like the [Facebook] page.” Going where they are working to talk to them every day, identifying the leaders. I hear Jonán say all the time—what’s the name of the one with the Dominicans there, the one from the tigers?

Mancilla: Henry. Right?

Guallpa: He says, “Henry is the leader of this group.” And he says, “Henry, you’re going to lead this group of 20.” It is something powerful. The organization supported by bringing resources [and] strategy, but I think the overall movement has been growing because of the leaders who are here now.

There are leaders in Queens. There is, for example, Isaias, who has a group of almost 80, 90 delivery workers who are everywhere mobilizing. Jonán created emergency chat groups, where they move quickly to assist each other. Either there’s a march, or there’s an action. And I think that the most powerful thing in this movement is that the network keeps growing every day. Right now, they are reaching out to Africans, to Bangladeshis.

They are asking us right now to have all the materials in [other languages]. [Many of the] Africans speak French. But the most powerful secret has been the leadership of leaders like Jonán, and they know that new leaders need to be groomed. They constantly say, “No. I’m not going be able to do this on my own.”

Mancilla: That forced us to be more leaders, because that is what I was telling Luis, that all of a sudden we were not enough. I was telling Ligia: “I can’t control this group, because there are so many of them.” “Ok. Well, let’s go talk to Henry. Let’s talk to Manolo, and let them help you… I know that Sergio is very intelligent and that he leads the group down there.”

This grew very fast. You can see that from October to February, not even a year. I never imagined that the page and the help groups would grow so fast. Well, I don’t like those to grow because it implies that the city is not safe, right? But it is something that we have to recognize, that they have grown because insecurity has grown.

So many people have the confidence to write to us for any kind of problem. Whether it is with their application, whether it is with their employer, or with some platform. In fact, they write to us for any nonsense. “Hey, do you know where there is a bike shop here in this area?” And I’m like, “A bike shop?!” So, it’s something that sometimes makes us laugh, but you know you’re doing something, and you know you’re doing good with the page.

I think you describe it in a way that might give the impression that it’s easy, but there are a lot of people who would like to be where you are—to be able to identify leaders and build the trust of those leaders. Could you share with me some lessons you’ve learned in organizing and what tools the Worker’s Justice Project has offered you to do the work?

Mancilla: Well, number one, the first thing I was taught in order to be a leader is not to say you can’t. Never say you can’t. And to have confidence in ourselves because if you don’t have confidence in yourself, you’re not going to get anywhere. That is something that maybe I had never told Ligia, but it is something that she has taught me a lot.

Her and Glendy [a lead organizer at Worker’s Justice Project—Eds.], they are always pushing me. Not in a bad way, but they tell me: “Yes you can, yes you can. Don’t tell me you can’t.” They go into the can-do mode and you can’t get out of it. There is no such thing as being afraid either—because many of the delivery workers are afraid to talk. You approach them, and they are afraid of you. We had to learn to talk, and I also learned a lot with her, because I think she is more used to talking to people on the street.

When I arrived and [Ligia] said: “Talk to him, talk to him,” I would say: “He won’t answer me, I know him.” “Talk to him, talk to him. You can do it, you can do it.” That helped me a lot to have self-confidence, to be sociable. Just by starting to go out with them, you realize how they act. You say: “I want to be like Ligia,” who has this leadership power, so natural that it doesn’t even show. I said, “I want to be just as natural.”

Guallpa: Also connecting with the groups, because there are different groups. The nice thing about this food delivery community is that, even if you see them alone, handling their food, they are always connected to a community. Even if it’s because they live in the same neighborhood, they are family. For example, downstairs there is a little group called the Garrafones and they are a group of 20 Mexicans. There are the Tigres [streetwise crew, in Dominican slang—Eds.], the Dominicans who are always there on the corner.

Something that didn’t happen is that they didn’t communicate among the networks. For example, the Tigres don’t talk to the Mexicans or the Garrafones. What separates the working community is always identity—where are you from? Ethnic groups.

But I think that in the delivery community everyone self-identifies, because everyone has had their bicycle stolen. Everybody has been denied the bathroom, so there’s an immediate sense of solidarity. Right? And something that Jonán and Sergio [another worker leader] have done a lot is to be quick to respond, and that helps to build trust quickly with the workers.

For example, if someone’s bicycle is stolen, they automatically post or send to the chats: “Can someone go to 112th Street right now, because there is an emergency?” Soon other workers show up to stand together against thieves. They’re the eyes, and they act fast. I think they’ve gained the trust of their peers. They are talking to the other compañeros, “You can do it and you are the leader. You are going to liberate this group.”

Mancilla: I think that these WhatsApp groups did something to break the ice between many ethnic groups. There was this saying, “Oh, he is from Guatemala, don’t talk to him.” Or “he’s from Ecuador.” And, “If he pretends he is Mexican, don’t talk to him. Don’t talk to those from Guatemala.” Those groups broke the ice a lot.

Do you remember at Thanksgiving when we went to play soccer? And we were there, the Guatemalans, the Mexicans, I think there were Ecuadorians there too. It was great to see that there is no longer that ice, thanks to the pages and the groups that were formed, thanks to the march.

Among the Latino community there are definitely divisions and you’ve talked a little bit about how you were able to create solidarity, but also, you’re working with other workers of different races and ethnic groups. Can you explain a little bit how you’re doing that work? And what are the working conditions and the racial inequalities that you share?

Guallpa: What we are doing with the delivery workers from Africa and the Bangladeshis is the same thing that we were doing with the Latinos, which is to gain the trust of the networks. Glendy and I don’t do food delivery, but the moment I feel that they give us the chance to open up, or they give us the chance to go visit them in their free time, then we go with Jonán, because we need them to see that he’s another delivery guy.

And it’s slowly building trust, because Africans have their networks as well. [But] when we go and talk and they listen to what the Latinos are doing, they identify automatically: “Well it’s about time someone fought for that, and I want to be part of it.” So, they started to give likes to the page.

We created fliers in French, so that’s been the tool, but we don’t speak French. So we are identifying partners who speak a little bit more English and who are the translators. There are some Africans who speak a little bit of Spanish because they are from a country in Africa where people speak Spanish [Equatorial Guinea].

So, that has been the way we have been growing. I’m the one doing the most outreach to the Bangladeshis in Brooklyn. I don’t speak Bangladeshi, but we have connected with some leaders and there is also a page of Bangladeshis, who communicate about robberies and all that.

It’s a process. It doesn’t mean it’s already perfect. I think that growing a more diverse movement takes time, and so does creating the foundation of values. Recently [we have talked about]—well, we have not talked about it constantly because everything has been going very fast—about inclusion, the language we use, how we make the [Los Deliveristas Unidos Facebook] page more inclusive because there are compañeros who speak [languages other than Spanish]…

Now, those who follow the site speak French. Some are already suggesting posting in English as well. So, little by little, for example, Jonán and others are trying to educate compañeros because sometimes it is talked about. When you talk about a problem, you talk based on color. How to remove the color as part of the problem, because in the end color does not matter. In the delivery industry people come in all colors and all flavors.

But it is a long process that is just beginning. As well as they have grown, they are in the first steps of building relationships with the new groups. And, for example, the most powerful thing that happened this time at the march [on April 21] was that one of the leaders of the West African networks wanted to speak.

He said, “I want to be there. You can’t leave me out of that program.” And I think the most beautiful thing about that day [was when] he talked about how “we are tired, we are essential, we are the ones who distribute, we are the ones who fed the doctors, the sick, and we are the most screwed. And here I am. I’m a deliverista.” And the fact that he said it in Spanish: “I am a deliverista. We are deliveristas.” It’s like acknowledgement, isn’t it? That this movement is his too.

And he says, “When is the next one? Because I have to bring my brothers.”

Mancilla: A lot of people got interested. They are like, “when is the next one? When is the next one? When is the next one?” I don’t know if you saw, Ligia, a guy said, “why they did only one, if when George Floyd was killed, there were marches every day?” “Well, you’re right. Why don’t we do another one?” But it’s not that easy.

Jonán, you mentioned the robberies. How are you all organizing around the security issues?

Mancilla: We have WhatsApp groups and other compañeros use Telegram, but there is also the Facebook page. Many people have come to trust it. Sometimes Ligia has to tell them, “You know what, call the police. [Oh,] you called the police already?” I don’t know what kind of page they think we are. They think we are from the police. They see it so big that they say, “I better tell them. Let’s see if somebody comes.” I feel that the page is something very important. The WhatsApp groups, the Telegram, and the page more than anything have made it into an emergency call, a solution for them.

Of course, they are not necessarily self-defense groups. What is it then?

Mancilla: I don’t know if I should call it that, but they do exist within the WhatsApp groups, because you send an emergency, as Ligia said today, “we need someone here. 148 and Amsterdam,” and all of a sudden you are going to see five or 10 people getting there and they help you.

You also mentioned George Floyd earlier and all the protests that have taken place through the summer and to this day. So, there’s a climate where a lot of people in the Latino community and the African-American community say that they fear police. How do you position yourselves in that debate? For example, street vendors often complain about how the police treat them. But then there are also other occasions where, if there is an attack, who do they call if the compañeros can’t come—who comes?

Mancilla: At the beginning it was as if many people understood that they had to call the police, but later they realized that the police don’t come. That led many to join the WhatsApp and Telegram groups, because they know they will come.

I don’t know if you saw the last video with the Queens compañeros. They sent a message to please let the groups know that they needed help. And if you look at the video, the last one shows how the [drivers] start to arrive, because the police don’t come—and if the [police] come they don’t do anything.

My friend says they were kids, teenagers, and they told him he was going to take the bicycle and then they started to fight. One of the bicycle thieves was caught and he was the one who got beaten badly. When the police arrived, they took the beaten teen away and my friend says that they saw him free later. So, it is a reality that the police don’t do anything. I don’t know if they don’t feel like it, if they don’t like the paperwork, or because they are minors they can’t do anything else. So, these self-defense groups, as you call them, emerged.

Guallpa: But what is funny is that the compañeros arrive faster than the police. For example, the chat messages, in less than five or 10 minutes, there are already five or 10, those who are nearby mobilize to get there faster. And they have helped compañeros when they have an accident to contact family members, or when a bicycle is stolen, if they are close by, they have rescued bicycles.

Mancilla: Yes, because the police do not come.

Guallpa: Or when they get stuck with a motorcycle. They’ve managed to react faster than the police. And the reason they are reacting like that is because, as Jonán said, the police are not doing anything. They are on their own, they only have themselves.

So, to wrap up the interview, Jonán, what are the next steps after last week’s protest?

Mancilla: Well, I don’t think we have finished the first steps yet. We have to keep on fighting because I don’t feel that they have listened to us yet. We have some legislation, don’t we, Ligia? We still have many things to do. If you notice, they tell us that we are essential, but they do not show it to us.

[Here the interview with Jonán Mancilla ends and the interview with Ligia Guallpa continues.]

Jonán mentioned all that you folks have done to support them. Can you take me back to where this campaign started and what kind of tools Worker’s Justice provided to the delivery drivers to help them get organized?

Guallpa: For him it started on October 15, but for WJP actually it started much earlier, in May of last year. When Covid happened, the Worker’s Justice Project became an emergency relief center for migrant workers and we had to turn our worker center serving Williamsburg, Sunset Park, and Bensonhurst into emergency relief centers where workers could pick up masks or ask for information. It was in April that we realized that Covid was going to be a long-term thing, and we saw many of our members going unemployed, being scared of Covid, not knowing if they should go back or not go back to work, also realizing that their co-workers were getting sick and they were not even notified whether they had Covid. We raised money to start doing cash relief, and we started seeing how most of our members started moving into food delivery work as an alternative.

In Bensonhurst we opened one of the worker centers to do food relief, and the people who were coming through our doors were actually the delivery workers. We started noticing that it was a whole different sector that nobody had been outreaching to, and in May, June, we started connecting with different networks.

We started connecting with different leaders that started telling us how they were doing this work and [about] access to bathrooms. They were sharing how they were carrying bottles of water to do their basic necessities, how they were treated by the restaurants, how they were pressured by the companies. I think one of the most important things for WJP is how fast and how quickly we started building trust with the different networks.

It was by May, June, July, September, we were having access to many of these networks; and also, understanding that this was not a specific issue workers were facing in Brooklyn, it was at a much bigger scale, and it was because most of these workers were not working as workers—they were treated as independent contractors. And doing this power analysis at the end of the day, it was because of these apps.

The apps were having full control of their lives. We’re talking to the leaders about understanding the power— many of them were blaming the restaurants, but we were trying to help them understand that it’s not just a restaurants’ responsibility, but the app has full control of this. The apps are the ones who negotiate these contracts in this partnership with the restaurants.

The apps could have easily said to the restaurants, “Hey, we’re going to enter into an agreement with you: we’re going to provide you the service, but you have to provide bathrooms,” and it was the apps who were actually not negotiating any conditions because they didn’t care. They just wanted to get restaurants to pay the 30 percent fee, and didn’t care about what conditions workers were facing.

One of the most powerful things was that in September, as we started connecting with different networks and talking through issues, every single worker was agitated. They were mad, they were angry, they were desperate because things were getting worse. I mean, if you think about September, it was already seven months of inhumanity; of so much unfair treatment that you have to go through that many said, “Enough.” They were like, “Somebody has to hear us.”

When we talked to the different networks and we were like, “We are ready, we’re going to march,” they initially thought, “We want to talk to the police, we’re going to march to the police,” and then we did a couple meetings.

We did something about strategy as well, like understanding who has the power to make things better, and we had conversations with the leaders that, you know, the company is responsible, has power to make changes, city council has power to make changes. The mayor of New York City has power, the restaurants have power; so, these are our main targets. The police is just one actor. They should do their jobs, but at the end of the day, they can’t give you what you need.

And there was the first time that I said, “We have to target our city council members,” and that’s when we started training our leaders, we started doing the framework of how to message. I think that’s something powerful, because they have the most powerful stories—they’re essential workers, they’re more like frontline workers. They’ve been delivering and keeping everybody fed and being treated without humanity.

Glendy and I will not only identify leaders and connect with the leaders in building trust but make sure that leaders really understand where their power is, and who has power to give them what they need, and that’s exactly what we did.

Yes, you should start targeting the restaurants who should give you access to the bathroom, but at the end of the day it’s the company who’s the target. Right? It is the mayor, it is city council who has the power to put legislation to regulate the apps.

We started doing informally this power mapping and making sure they understand the dynamics of that industry, who has the power to give it to them, and also making sure that they can tell the story of their own conditions. We started building with them what’s the narrative that they want to share, and building confidence. With Jonán, I feel like he’s a natural leader, but a lot of the leaders live with a lot of fear. “What about, if I say something, I get disconnected? or what about, if I talk to other leaders, they might not trust me.” So we’ve been helping Jonán build trust with other leaders and validating him in spaces that he’s a leader, and mentoring them.

There is so much power in the city, and they know it. But owning it has been a whole process for them, to own the power that they have, and that they could exercise. And also, building power takes time.

I remember when we did the first march. The leaders were pissed off. Not everybody came in. We only had I think between 700 and 800 people. Not all the leaders got into the buy-in of doing this march. There was a lot of criticism among them, like, “What do we want out of this march?” And I think what inspired and motivated them was DoorDash after the march. We were publicly shaming DoorDash and DoorDash was like, “Okay, we need to talk to them, because obviously they’re not talking good about the company and this is bad PR for us.” They reached out to Los Deliveristas: “We want to talk to the workers.”

Acknowledging these victories and how they’re escalating motivates them and inspires them to say, “we can do this.” Who brings a big powerful company to meet with a group of workers? That’s powerful. Or who expects the Restaurant Association to put out a press release asking the restaurants to open the bathrooms?

Acknowledging the power that they have, I think it has leveraged the movement to understand that this is their time, that this is their movement. I also see how they’re exhausted, of being like not only first responders as food delivery workers, but now also managing all these self-defense networks. I remember we were having a one-on-one meeting with Jonán, and he was like, “Ligia, I can only] manage so many people. Everybody’s expecting me, that as a leader, I should respond.” And that’s when we’d sit down with him, that part of the role of a leader is to develop other leaders, and what kind of leader you want to start identifying.

It is not just the person that talks the most—you know, Latinoamerica is like, the leader is the one who talks better, who talks the most and who’s louder. That is not a leader. You want to look for the one that has the followers, the one that is consistent, the one that you know is going to respond, the one that you know is committed to the movement.

The next phase is to diversify the movement. Bring more Africans, Bangladeshis. They took the first step by making sure that the agenda is open to other groups. Even though they have a struggle within, because they don’t speak English. So they have said, “we can distribute the flyers, but you guys have to help me follow up.” They might not talk but they go, “here’s a flyer, just read it. In your language.”

It sounds like a lot of the leadership development was done by modeling behavior through one-on-one conversations. Was there any curriculum that informed how you were power mapping, how you were helping Jonán and other leaders develop that credibility? Where do you get your lessons from?

To be honest, there is no formal training, A lot has been done one on one and with mentoring. Glendy talks to the leaders almost every single week, not only to check in with them, but we give them little homeworks. One of the most powerful things that I think organizers have to understand is that workers know the solutions better than the organizer. I talk every day to some of the leaders in Brooklyn, and they come up with these incredible ideas. Like, they came up with a sticker idea. They were saying that we had a need for something that self-identifies them as a group.

And he said, maybe stickers, to put on the bikes. And I said, how do you think the stickers will be used? And we started developing a strategy with them—like, maybe that’s a way to also talk to them about who we are and what we’re doing. They came up with the idea of giving out hardhats, because not all the delivery workers were wearing hard hats. And we consistently are asking, how do you think we can be building this strategy of hardhats?

What Glendy and I are doing is doing a lot of strategy, per borough and per neighborhood. What is needed for Harlem is not what sometimes is needed in Queens. The leaders know better what’s the dynamic in the neighborhood, so a lot of what we do is like holding open strategy sessions with leaders. We do a lot of listening; we ask a lot of questions. We also mentor them. For instance, Jonán, sometimes he’s afraid to go and talk to the bike shops, and we said, “Do you want us to go with you?” And he’s like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah because I don’t know.” And then we asked him to do it and then he’s like, “Okay.” So it’s like, “See, you can do it.”

One of the things we want to do is bring all the leaders into one room to debrief what has worked and what hasn’t worked. We’re having these one-on-one conversations about what inclusivity means. Not only gender, but with other communities. That’s a conversation we are having one on one, because sometimes workers themselves make comments that can be racist.

A lot of the work that we’re doing is trust building, identifying leaders, mapping different neighborhoods where there is a high density of food delivery sites. We’re mapping where workers congregate. We are doing a strategy-one-on-one as well with each of the leaders. We are helping them sustain a lot of these networks, helping them manage by including more people into it and helping them identify new leaders as well.

But I think one of the most powerful things is that this is a community that believe it or not has this natural level of solidarity. They’re there for each other. I think that one of the things that Glendy and I have been able to do, including with Jonán and others, is build trust with the different groups. But also, unfortunately, conditions have become these most deadly jobs, which agitate workers to unite.

Every time they post something, they use this phrase: “Unidos somos más fuertes.” [Together we are stronger.—Eds.] All the texts when they win something or they want to agitate others, they created a hashtag. And then Glendy and I thought, you know, every time they finish a sentence we are like, “Unidos somos más fuertes, chicos!

Glendy and I cannot act so fast the way they are, there’s no way. Yesterday, Gustavo [another worker leader] was like, “I’m going to need help, because there’s some member leaders who came, brought groups, and they didn’t get a T-shirt.” And we just need to make sure that we collect their names or phone numbers because they want to grow their database, they know how important phone numbers and access to that is. So, I went to help him to collect all the phone numbers, and I was shocked because they created these stickers of Los Deliveristas Unidos. They created their own logo, how they want it to be, which is like a delivery worker with a big fist. Everybody came in, I thought they were coming for the T-shirts, but no. They’re coming for the stickers. And when they took the stickers, they said give me three, no, no, no, give me four. I asked one of the workers, I said why do you guys want so many stickers? He’s like, “I have a friend.” And I said, “Yeah but, you know, it’s a sticker, why do you need…?” He is like, “Because when we see this sticker, we know that we belong to each other. But not only that, I think the thieves are seeing these stickers, so they’re getting scared. They think that we’re part of the mafia.” I was laughing. I was shocked, but at the same time I felt like, wow, people are acknowledging how powerful they are.

This is how they own their power. They want people to know, “We’re not alone anymore. Watch us. We’re coming after you.”

Where does Los Deliveristas Unidos fit in the broader debate within the labor movement around fighting misclassification? You know, especially in the wake of Prop 22 in California, this seems to be like a poster child case of rampant misclassification.

This is much more than just fighting for basic rights for food delivery workers. The way I see it is, this is about defending the rights of all workers, whether or not they are food delivery workers. Because what they’re fighting is not just the big multi billion-dollar companies like DoorDash, GrubHub. These companies are building a new economy where they’re trying to erase decades of labor protections that historically the labor movement has won. Like minimum wage or workers comp, all these things were won because workers fought so hard for decades.

Tech companies are looking to rewrite every single labor law and redefine who’s a worker and who’s not a worker. They’re building a whole new economy. They’re using their power to define who gets protections and who doesn’t. What happened in California, it showed how powerful these companies are, and they’re looking into doing it in every single state.

They were able to make progress under Trump because Trump was more flexible about giving more power to the companies to expand the definition of independent contracting.

In New York, we know DoorDash and other companies are looking to do the exact same thing that they did in California. [The proposed New York bill fell apart in late May, thanks in large part to opposition from the Deliveristas—Eds.] And I don’t think DoorDash and others are ready to confront Los Deliveristas Unidos. They were all profiting from the pandemic. They were making good money. Nobody was complaining, the city was happy; restaurants were complaining but they realized that, at the end of the day, they were also helping businesses, they were helping New Yorkers. And they weren’t ready for workers to start raising their voices and building up so much power.

As soon as the October 15 march happened and workers started being vocal, and shaming [companies] publicly, the public [began] to realize, “Oh my god, the delivery worker that brought my food you’re telling me that he couldn’t eat? Or you are telling me that he’s not paid? But I’m still paying this high fee to DoorDash?”

And also moving elected officials to start paying attention and making it public.

We are hoping that more labor unions will join this fight because Deliveristas Unidos are about to define the future of the labor movement. And you’ve heard it from Jonán, they want representation. And the fact that we see some—32BJ, one of the unions saying we’re going to support you—it’s huge! We’re hoping that other unions will follow. Because this is a big fight. It’s about protecting basic labor protections that the labor movement won for decades.

Amazon has its Delivery Service Providers network, which also hires subcontracted delivery drivers. They are opening up shop in Hell’s Kitchen to have folks on e-bikes make deliveries. Are any Deliveristas part of that subcontracting arrangement?

Yeah, they are. One of the things they’re doing is, whenever they give a sticker, to get the person’s name and the phone number and ask, what app do you work for? Where do you deliver? And they are looking into expanding their WhatsApp groups because they also realized there is Amazon Flex—it’s one of the, one of the most common things that workers are using, which is people with cars or bikes that pick-up food from grocery stores, Whole Foods, and others.

Have you folks done a breakdown of what apps most of the deliveristas work for?

We are working on the research now, doing a survey that hasn’t been completed yet. We’re working on that with Cornell. We’re hoping that it will be completed at the end of May. I think it will give a huge understanding about where the industry is and which apps are the big actors.

In response to Amazon entering the bike delivery space, any thoughts? Amazon has been in the headlines because of the warehouse worker organizing campaign in Bessemer, Alabama. I’m curious, what is the potential for these struggles coalescing into a movement?

The movement is interconnected. Because at the end of the day, Deliveristas, Amazon workers are all fighting against corporate greed. I think the point of connection is to make sure that workers who are working for Amazon are also talking to workers who are doing food delivery. I think the big step right now is how we bring these worker leaders who are leading this amazing fight to talk to each other in real solidarity.

It’s so critical to fight together, and it takes time. Unfortunately, time is what we don’t have, because these companies are moving so fast. But the big job for unions and worker centers is to come together to understand and fight together, strategize together. This is why I think naturally 32 BJ said “Yes, we’re fighting the big fast-food companies, you know, we’re never gonna say no to the Deliveristas.” We are asking for other unions to step it up as well.

I share your belief in the potential for the labor movement to unite as a social movement of working-class people, and a multiracial working-class movement that, no pun intended, delivers for working people.

This is something I think many people don’t understand. Worker’s Justice Project and other worker centers are part of a movement that truly understands that there is no labor movement without organizing the new workforce, which just happens to be immigrant in New York—which is the exact same way the labor unions got started back in the day, right? They got started by immigrants. Los Deliveristas were born by immigrants, and look, they organized a massive march! We believe it was more like 3,000 people, not 2,000 people, because we bought 2,000 T-shirts and all of them were gone.

What stands out to me about this is that that’s the type of mass grassroots working organizing that unfortunately is all too rare these days, and we have not seen many big demos by immigrant workers in a long time. This is one of those moments where immigrant workers flex their muscle. So I want to ask for your last thoughts on that. How did these workers build up that kind of organizational power, and what’s next?

That’s a hard question, because everything is changing so fast. One of the true things that we believe as a worker center is that there’s a lot of power when people organize. What Worker’s Justice Project is doing right now is validating that power everywhere we go. We need to make sure workers understand that they have the power, and they just need to use it, and that we’re going to be there to back them up all the way through.

And also, being honest that it’s not easy to exercise your power. There’s challenges. And it has to be diverse, not just led by one leader. Los Deliveristas Unidos has grown so fast because it is led by workers and leaders, and in every borough, in every corner, every neighborhood there is one. Our job is to build their trust, build their confidence, give them the tools and make sure that they understand that this is a much broader movement, that it takes time.

What’s next? Right now, what they’re looking for is to fight specific protections at the city level. They want the city to pass some local legislation that will make things better.

They’re talking about building a much broader organization that can scale up. That takes more organizing and more base-building work, as well as deeper understanding and a stronger strategy—because they are not confronting, you know, un empleador cualquiera [just any employer—Eds.]. They are confronting multibillion-dollar tech companies that have not only a lot of economic power, but a lot of political power too. This is not a fight that can be won alone. We need to bring other people to fight together.

This blog originally appeared at LaborNotes on June 7, 2021. Reprinted with Permission.

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


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What Your Boss Doesn’t Want You to Know, and Where to Find It

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Tom Juravich | Labor Center | UMass Amherst

Given the wealth of information available online, conducting research on your employer is more possible than ever—and more important than ever, as firms become more complex and globalized.

There’s no reason we should ever begin bargaining or start an organizing campaign without a strong sense of who the employer is, how it generates its profit, where it is growing, who its decision-makers are, and where it is most vulnerable. This information is much easier to find than most people think.

More information is available on companies that trade on one of the stock exchanges, but there is still plenty of information on privately held firms and nonprofits. And this approach is relevant for firms both large and small, across a wide variety of sectors.

General Internet searching is not enough.

The mistake that many first-time researchers make is to jump onto Google and start looking for information about the company.

While general Internet searching can be helpful, it’s not a very efficient way to do corporate research. It’s easy to drown in all the information that’s out there, and what you’re finding is what the search engine has indexed for you. Plus, companies manipulate what shows up first on a general Internet search. Often you have to weed through hundreds of pages of marginal information before you get to real substantive information on your company.

You need a framework to direct your research.

To avoid getting overwhelmed and quitting, you need to know what questions you are trying to answer. And rather than hunting around, you also need to know the best places to find those answers.

That’s why we built the Strategic Corporate Research website (strategiccorporateresearch.org), a free resource to help labor, community, and environmental activists take a look inside the corporate world. It starts by providing a framework to direct your research.

The site lays out 24 questions to guide your investigation into the command and control of a firm, its operations, and its outside stakeholders. These include: Who are the stockholders? Who is on the board of directors? Who are their major suppliers and customers? What is their health and safety and environmental record?

Focus on primary documents.

For each of these questions we provide the key websites where you can find answers. Whenever possible, we focus on primary documents.

It might be tempting to rely on a website that gathers the information for you, for instance on CEO salary, but you are going to find the most accurate and up-to-date information in the primary documents that the company files with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). We provide a number of videos with screenshots that help first-timers navigate through websites including the SEC, OSHA, OpenSecrets (which provides information on the political donations of your employer), and many more.

Build a diverse research team.

Build a diverse team in your local or your workplace to conduct research on your employer. Include people from different shifts and different jobs; make sure women and people of color are represented. You want to demonstrate that the research team represents the whole union, not just a select few. This is critical for other members to see the information you gather as credible and actionable.

If one or more individuals have some prior research training, it’s great for them to step up—but they should take a mentoring approach so that everyone on the team is learning new skills. The more people we can bring along with us, the more capacity we have. This is a great way for rank-and-file members to become more involved in the union.

Adopt a brainstorming attitude.

It is critical to adopt an inclusive brainstorming attitude when conducting your research. We provide a Google document on the website (bit.ly/SCR24questions) which allows you to create your own copy of the 24 questions to guide your research. Break up the questions, work in small teams, and put all the information up there.

You never know how what you find out might connect with other pieces of information or how it can be used in the future. There will be time later to sort out contradictory information.
This process encourages everyone on the committee to participate and is critical in building your capacity as a team.

Analyze as you go along.

Don’t just gather information, but analyze it as you go along. Look for connections and for information that confirms what you’ve found.

For example, you may have found that two new board members come from a sector which you have already identified as a growth area for the company. This confirms that your research is correct and that the company is moving in this direction.

Work through what might be inconsistent or contradictory. This often comes up when looking at financials that get reported over several years. Make sure you are using the most up-to-date numbers.

Keep your campaign in mind.

It is easy to get excited about all the information you are gathering. You may have discovered that the company was fined by the Environmental Protection Agency or a key board member has been named in a number of lawsuits and judgments.

But the goal of strategic corporate research is not just to gather information, but to use this information to build a strong campaign and win. Be careful not to get sidetracked. You may have found some juicy information on the CEO, for example, but remember campaigns are rarely won by focusing on one issue. Keep researching and develop multiple points of leverage.

Our website provides a number of charts and resources to help you make your research actionable and plan an escalating campaign to bring pressure on the strategic targets you identify.

For example, you may have discovered that one division of your employer is the most profitable, so you shift the focus of your campaign to that part of the firm. Or you may have identified a highly vulnerable board member, so you design tactics to escalate against him. Take the time and work collaboratively to shape a multifaceted campaign building on all that you have learned.

Build new muscles.

If this kind of research is new to your local, it will take some time to build the skills and integrate them into the life of your union. But with some careful attention and teamwork you will be surprised how fast rank-and-file members and leadership can gather and use basic corporate information in both bargaining and organizing.

It’s not enough just to put this research team together as you prepare for contract expiration. Once it’s operating, the team should continue to grow and build its capacity between contracts to put the local in an even stronger position for the next round of bargaining or your next organizing campaign.

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

About the author: Tom Juravich is a professor of labor studies and sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.


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Unions eye Brookings, Urban Institute as push to organize think tanks grows

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Workers at two of the largest, most influential think tanks in Washington, D.C. are forming a union, adding to a growing trend in white-collar collective bargaining. 

Staff at the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute on Tuesday asked their employers to grant them voluntary recognition — which doesn’t require a secret ballot election — of their unions, which are affiliated with the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, IFPTE Local 70.

The labor movement’s efforts to organize think tanks — major players in influencing and informing the policy debate on Capitol Hill — is the latest white-collar sector to see a burst in collective bargaining. Labor efforts have poured into Silicon Valley and have expanded to groups of workers not typically protected under federal labor law, like independent contractors. 

“We believe Urban needs a nurturing workplace for all employees in order to bring rigorous research to advance equitable policy solutions,” the Organizing Committee of Urban Institute Employees Union said in a statement. “We believe that nobody can represent workers’ interests better than workers themselves and that our perspectives are vital to Urban’s longevity and its institutional ethics.”

The Brookings United Organizing Committee said in a statement that “Brookings is an intellectual home for policy ideas that empower working people. And Brookings United is excited for this new partnership so that together, we can create a more inclusive and sustainable environment in the post-COVID-19 world.” 

Brookings management said that it “will carefully review” and follow up on the staffers’ request that it remain neutral in the union drive

“We respect our employees’ right to organize, and we are committed to making certain Brookings continues to be a great place to work,” the organization said in a statement to POLITICO. 

A spokesperson for the Urban Institute was not immediately available for comment. 

The NPEU has successfully organized several other prominent think tanks in the D.C. area, including The Center for American Progress, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Economic Policy Institute, National Immigration Law Center, and the National Women’s Law Center, among others. 

While many of those institutions are considered left-leaning or progressive, Brookings tends to fall more politically in the center, and the union says it’s prepared to file for a ballot election with the National Labor Relations Board if not granted voluntary recognition. 

“It can sometimes really surprise us which organizations crack down most aggressively on their staff,” said Daniel Essrow, an organizer with the NPEU. “Ideology definitely comes into play, but organizational culture is often a bigger factor.” 

“In the case of Brookings and Urban, they are certainly slightly more centrist than some of the nonprofits where we have received voluntary recognition,” he added. “But the breadth of research they have produced on the benefits of collective bargaining is unmatched — we are hopeful they will follow their own research and recognize their staffs’ unions.”

The nearly 200 employees forming a union at Brookings say they want to improve diversity, retention, and paid family and parental leave, among other issues, NPEU says. 

Similarly, The Urban Institute Employees’ Union, which would represent nearly 250 workers, says it’s looking to ensure that the think tank supports its diverse staff through “equitable pay, treatment, promotion processes, access to leadership positions, and mental health resources.” 

Rachel Greszler, a research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative thinktank, said that the growth in nonprofit unions “will be an interesting story to follow,” given the nature of the work and nonprofit employees’ relationship to their organization’s message. 

“Traditional unions are not well-suited for industries like non-profits and think tanks where job duties often vary significantly within the same job title, and where organizations’ missions rely on both flexibility and accountability,” she wrote via email. “Most people who work at non-profits and think tanks do it because they are passionate about their organization’s mission and they want to help build their organization up.”

Greszler argues that unions “typically rely on strong-armed tactics and adversarial relationships.” She says that often leaves “workers feeling like their employer is their adversary instead of their ally.” 

The growth in organizing inside some of the most influential institutions in Washington follows efforts by the labor movement to organize in new sectors beyond the traditional trades.

The Communications Workers of America launched an initiative early last yearto support union organizing efforts in the tech and video game industries.

In January, more than 400 Google employees formed the Alphabet Workers Union, a non-traditional union in the sense that the group didn’t seek certification with the federal labor board, meaning that the company won’t be required by law to bargain “in good faith” with the group.

However, efforts made by the union, which is affiliated with the CWA, to advance working conditions at the company will still be protected under the National Labor Relations Act.

Drivers for app-based taxi services like Uber and Lyft have also formed worker organizations, despite being classified by their companies as “independent contractors.” Such workers are not protected under the National Labor Relations Act, and thus don’t have collective bargaining rights that can be policed by the federal labor board. 

Despite the labor movement’s efforts to expand into new sectors like nonprofits, at least one labor expert is skeptical those unions will have staying power. 

“I will be curious to see how many high-powered professional workers, who are researchers at think tanks are going to want a union to represent them,” said Douglas McCabe, a professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. 

McCabe, who said he is pro-union, added, “Whether they’re at Brookings Institution on Mass Ave., or the Cato Institute, I’d be very hesitant to see whether they’re going to be willing to join a union.” 

But workers who are part of the union drive say that they hope their efforts will galvanize more think tanks to organize. 

“When we’re working towards this union effort I think a lot of us are thinking about solidarity,” said Kate Hannick, a member of the Brookings Union Organizing Committee, “and knowing that a place as influential and prestigious as Brookings forming a union, it could really become industry standard in the think tank world and beyond.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on April 13, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.


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Swarming Solidarity: How Contract Negotiations in 2021 Could Be Flashpoints in the U.S. Class Struggle

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The labor movement’s pundits and prognosticators ring in the New Year like commentators anywhere. They make pronouncements about what “will” happen and what “should” happen to revitalize the shrinking U.S. trade union movement.

At 6.2 percent density in the private sector, U.S. unions aren’t even treading water; we are drowning. That makes it more imperative than ever to engage members to strengthen connections between our union struggles and build broader public support.

The best opportunity to involve union members in 2021 will be through the large-scale collective bargaining agreements that are due to expire this year. Economic struggles remain the center of gravity for the U.S. working class and its organized members in particular. An analysis of the collective bargaining calendar points us in the direction of where those struggles are most likely to occur.

This year, 450 collective bargaining agreements covering more than 200 union members apiece will expire, according to Bloomberg, which maintains the most comprehensive database of expiring agreements outside of the AFL-CIO. Of these, 160 agreements cover more than 1,000 workers.

These 450 contracts, involving more than a million and a half workers, are an ideal opportunity for the labor movement to showcase our power and the advantages of collective bargaining. 

HOT SPOTS

Agreements covering 200,000 health care workers will expire. In the public sector 161,000 municipal workers, 112,000 state workers, and 100,000 school employees have contracts expiring. 

Most of these workers have been on the front lines providing essential services during the pandemic. But with the economy sinking, employers will be preaching austerity and looking for concessions. There are likely to be many contentious negotiations, some leading to vigorous contract campaigns or strikes. 

Union leaders and rank-and-file members need to brace themselves for the coming battles. These contract campaigns—and some inevitable strikes—will offer the best opportunity for the labor movement to build class consciousness and recast our unions as vehicles to advance wages and working conditions—or at a minimum, maintain them. 

The single largest contract is the Postal Workers (APWU) agreement with the U.S. Postal Service that expires in September, covering 200,000 workers. Another USPS agreement with the Rural Letter Carriers, covering 131,000 workers, expires in May. 

The 50-state scope of these agreements, and postal workers’ newly evident status as providers of a service essential to our democracy, make their contract fights a natural for nationwide solidarity. While it’s unlikely (though not impossible) that there will be a strike, given the legal straitjacket imposed on postal unions and their scant recent history of shop floor militancy, the reform leadership at the helm of the APWU is committed to workplace contract campaigns and outreach to the public. Postal workers have plenty to be mad about—months of forced overtime, intense understaffing, jammed mail plants, attacks from a hostile new Postmaster General, and a two-tiered workforce—and they’re very visible in every community of this country.

There will also be state and regional opportunities to build solidarity among workers in different unions who may be facing common problems or making similar demands. With 52 expiring agreements covering more than 200 members, California is the state with the most opportunity for geographic solidarity, closely followed by Washington (36), Pennsylvania (35), and New York (32). 

An even better possibility for synergies is at the metropolitan level. Cities with the most expiring agreements over 200 members are New York (16 contracts), Minneapolis-St. Paul (12), Seattle (11), and Portland (8). Of course, there are many smaller expiring agreements in these cities that could also be included in any metro solidarity initiative. 

There are a few other large multistate agreements that might lend themselves to a national focus: 

  • Kaiser Permanente’s agreement with a coalition of unions representing 45,000 workers expires in September.
  • United Airlines’ agreement with the Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA), covering 25,000 workers, expires in July.
  • The school bus company First Student’s agreement with the Teamsters, covering 20,000 workers, expires in March.
  • Throughout 2021, the TV networks (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) have big agreements that expire with SAG/AFTRA, CWA-NABET, and the Electrical Workers (IBEW).

INSPIRE THE UNORGANIZED

The struggles for new agreements will also be labor’s best opportunity to showcase the advantages of collective bargaining to not-yet-union workers. As millions of union workers get into motion to resist austerity and win Covid-19 protections, the unorganized will be watching—and evaluating the efficacy of uniting with their co-workers.

In our experience, unorganized workers are generally attracted to unions that engage in contract campaigns and strikes. For example, after the 1997 Teamsters UPS strike, workers at FedEx, Overnite, and many other freight and delivery companies were inspired to try to form unions with the Teamsters. 

BUILD ON PUBLIC SUPPORT

To the extent that unions make our struggles in the public interest and for “the common good,” contract expirations offer an opportunity to build alliances with patients, parents and students, subway and bus riders, and people who depend on state and municipal services.

Who can dismiss the importance and bravery of bus drivers and train operators during the pandemic? There’s never been more public support for the 67,000 transportation workers who are going to the table nationwide in 2021.

Thousands of other workers who were deemed essential during Covid-19 will soon square off against their employers too: 37,000 airline workers in seven agreements (plus 2,500 pilots who fly for UPS and 4,000 who fly for FedEx), 27,600 construction workers in 16 agreements, and 48,500 grocery workers in 17 agreements.

The biggest grocery agreement, with Kroger, covers 20,000 Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) members in the Greater Cincinnati area. These negotiations come after a year when consumers have gained a new appreciation for frontline supermarket workers for their pandemic shopping needs and deliveries. 

In recent years, union bargaining teams have brought their “constituents” (customers, patients, students) directly to the table to raise their shared concerns for the staffing and skills needed to maintain or improve services. What better way to educate our allies about collective bargaining and show management a broader united front than to bring them into bargaining with us? 

CROSS-POLLINATE IN KEY SECTORS

With more than 300 of the agreements expiring on or after June 1, union leaders and activists have ample to time to prepare. The biggest expiration months are June (140), August (43), and December (38).

In recent years, teachers have been the most militant sector of the labor movement. The National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) respectively have 71 and 39 school agreements up in 2021 that cover more than 200 members each, collectively involving 77,500 K-12 educators and support personnel.

Imagine the movement that might emerge from holding joint meetings of leaders and activists from these 100-plus unions to share strategies and coordinate bargaining demands. Not to mention representatives from unions covered under the many smaller expiring agreements, who could also be invited to participate.

The 224,400 health care workers and 40,600 nurses with expiring contracts—who are unfortunately spread out among nine different national or international unions (AFSCME, AFT, National Nurses United, Communications Workers, National Union of Healthcare Workers, Operating Engineers, Service Employees, Teamsters, and UFCW)—have a similar opportunity. The need for improved coordination and information sharing in the health care industry has never been greater. 

GET POLITICIANS INVOLVED

We’ve just been through an election cycle where many Democratic politicians pledged to support unions and collective bargaining. Some even showed up to picket lines and union rallies. They must have remembered the powerful boost that Bernie Sanders got from assisting the Verizon strike during his 2016 run for the Democratic nomination. 

Our contract negotiations can assume a political character with the support of politicians. But beyond perfunctory appearances, it’s time for supposedly pro-union elected officials to weigh in by regulating the ability of corporate owners to repress labor action. Should public pension funds finance strikebreakers? Should police herd scabs? The power of the state at the local, state, and federal level can help swing the outcome of many labor disputes.

The historic Senate election of Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in Georgia has put the Democratic Party in control of Congress and the White House. Many union members will be hoping for passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. Against the backdrop of this push for labor law reform, these 450 expiring contracts could take on an even greater political character. 

Putting aside whether labor law reform can pass in a very divided Congress, many in labor hope “Scranton Joe” Biden will be a powerful cheerleader for unions and use his executive power to aid his allies. Top priority on our list would be a $15 minimum wage and union neutrality for employees of federal contractors. 

As an example, the president could use his bully pulpit to voice forceful support for the tens of thousands of essential workers with expiring contracts who have been recognized as heroes of the pandemic. And with more federal-level support, local elected officials could be urged to use state and municipal regulations to help workers gain additional bargaining leverage.

In each sector of the economy, unions can strengthen their arguments by pointing to the public largesse their employers received during the pandemic, or the essential services their members provide. As is both usual and necessary, members themselves will be the very best ambassadors to make the case to the public.

HOW TO DO IT: SWARMING SOLIDARITY

The best way to convey the economic significance and high drama of these collective bargaining struggles onto the political landscape is “swarming solidarity.”

That means getting union activists and other friends of labor to rally in support of each other’s struggles by marching on picket lines, testifying at city council and state hearings, writing letters, and showing support on social media. It was the core tenet of Jobs with Justice’s “I’ll Be There” pledge and the AFL-CIO’s “Street Heat” in the ’80s and ’90s. 

For example, successful supermarket strikes have always involved other unions adopting stores and picketing to keep their members and their families from crossing the lines as hungry consumers. 

Imagine if all the pro-union members of the California legislature showed up at airports to support striking airline workers? Or if those legislators confronted store managers while 5,000 UFCW members picketed after their contracts expire in July at Rite-Aid stores? These kinds of creative solidarity can propel labor struggles into the public consciousness and force a “which side are you on?” moment for the American public and elected officials. 

Labor Notes’ subscribers and its conference participants are a great network of activists well positioned to assist unions in a broad mobilization. Other networks that could be enlisted include Jobs with Justice coalitions, central labor councils, occupational safety and health (COSH) networks, branches of the Democratic Socialists of America, Labor for Bernie supporters, and the relatively new Labor Action to Defend Democracy.

Labor leaders and activists everywhere need to study the national, regional, and local bargaining schedules—and get everyone to mark their calendars with expiration dates. It’s time to reach out to local union leaders and begin making plans to expand their collective bargaining campaigns. There is ample time now, months in advance, to make plans for “swarming solidarity” and begin aggressive support for the key upcoming contract battles. Labor should not squander these important opportunities in 2021 and beyond.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on January 14, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rand Wilson is chief of staff at SEIU Local 888. He was communications coordinator for the Teamsters’ 1997 UPS strike.

About the Author: Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director at the ILWU, currently working with a national network of Amazon employees and organizers. 


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How to Boost Unions’ Power? Sectoral Bargaining.

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sec•tor•al bar•gain•ing

noun

1. a labor pol­i­cy that enables unions to set stan­dards for their whole indus­try, boost­ing their lever­ag­ing power 
“Sectoral bargaining could shift employers from competing based on who can pay their workers the least, to competing based on the quality of their services.” —Charlotte Garden, Professor, Seattle University School of Law

Why can’t unions do “sec­toral bar­gain­ing” now? 

In the­o­ry, they can—and have before. In 1980, for exam­ple, about a tenth of work­ers were cov­ered by mul­ti-employ­er agree­ments that set indus­try-wide stan­dards, espe­cial­ly work­ers in steel, auto, truck­ing, con­struc­tion and mining. 

What hap­pened? An onslaught of dereg­u­la­tion and anti-union attacks reversed those gains. 

Only 11% of work­ers are cov­ered by union con­tracts today, total. (And just 6% of the entire pri­vate sec­tor.) Unions sim­ply lack the pow­er and mem­ber­ship to orga­nize entire sec­tors and indus­tries. Sec­toral or mul­ti-employ­er bar­gain­ing does exist—in heav­i­ly union­ized indus­tries, like hos­pi­tal­i­ty—but, most­ly, unions nego­ti­ate wages and improve con­di­tions at one indi­vid­ual work­site at a time. 

How much of a dif­fer­ence would sec­toral bar­gain­ing make? 

You may have already heard of the “union dif­fer­ence”—that the aver­age union­ized work­er has high­er wages, bet­ter ben­e­fits and safer work­ing con­di­tions than a non-union work­er. There’s also a “sec­toral bar­gain­ing dif­fer­ence” (the phrase just isn’t as catchy). In Euro­pean coun­tries where indus­try-wide bar­gain­ing is rou­tine, union con­tracts cov­er more work­ers and have an even greater impact on decreas­ing eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty while improv­ing work-life bal­ance. Ger­man met­al­work­ers, for exam­ple, won a 28-hour work week in 2018. 

Less inequal­i­ty and more pow­er for work­ers sounds good. How do we get sec­toral bargaining? 

We have a bit of a chick­en-and-egg prob­lem: To build a stronger labor move­ment, we could use bet­ter labor law that favors work­ing peo­ple—pre­vail­ing wage laws, for exam­ple, would help force employ­ers to nego­ti­ate indus­try-wide stan­dards. But to win bet­ter labor law, we could real­ly use a stronger labor movement. 

So the place to start is wher­ev­er you hap­pen to be: Labor needs more union mem­ber­ship. And pret­ty much every­one in labor agrees it needs to be eas­i­er for work­ers to join unions.

The Pro­tect­ing the Right to Orga­nize Act would remove some of the major dif­fi­cul­ties faced by union orga­niz­ers and passed in the House ear­li­er this year. It now waits in the Sen­ate. Like so much else, its chance of becom­ing law any time soon great­ly depends on who wins in Novem­ber. If it does pass, unions can begin the process of rebuild­ing their bar­gain­ing pow­er from the bot­tom up. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 22, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: This blog was written by the editors of In These Times as part of their Big Idea series.


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Trump Is Waging War on the VA’s Union, and Workers Are Living in Fear

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As Don­ald Trump cam­paigns for reelec­tion by declar­ing his love for the mil­i­tary and its vet­er­ans, the union that rep­re­sents more than a quar­ter of a mil­lion Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Affairs (VA) employ­ees says that the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has cre­at­ed an atmos­phere of fear and retal­i­a­tion among the peo­ple tasked with tak­ing care of America’s veterans.

More than 250,000 VA work­ers are rep­re­sent­ed by the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Gov­ern­ment Employ­ees (AFGE), and the union says that the VA’s con­tract is the largest sin­gle pub­lic sec­tor union con­tract in the coun­try. Nego­ti­a­tions for a new con­tract are cur­rent­ly mired before a “Fed­er­al Ser­vices Impasse Pan­el,” which is tasked with resolv­ing bar­gain­ing dis­putes. (AFGE also filed a law­suit against the pan­el itself, charg­ing that its anti-union pres­i­den­tial appointees were improp­er­ly installed. Regard­less, the union expects the pan­el to ren­der a deci­sion on its con­tract in a mat­ter of weeks). The bureau­crat­ic maneu­ver­ings sur­round­ing the con­tract are just the lat­est man­i­fes­ta­tion of a years-long cru­sade by the Trump admin­is­tra­tion to crush fed­er­al unions—one that VA union lead­ers say is push­ing their mem­bers to the break­ing point. 

In These Times spoke to the pres­i­dents of three AFGE union locals, who rep­re­sent thou­sands of VA mem­bers across the coun­try. They paint­ed a pic­ture of an agency in which employ­ees live in fear of retal­i­a­tion from man­age­ment if they speak out about injus­tice in the work­place. And they say that the effects of a set of 2018 Trump admin­is­tra­tion exec­u­tive orders that dras­ti­cal­ly restrict­ed the union’s rights—in par­tic­u­lar by slash­ing the “offi­cial time” pro­vi­sion giv­ing access to union rep­re­sen­ta­tives at work, and by kick­ing the unions out of their long­time office space inside VA build­ings—have weak­ened the VA itself and made work­ers’ lives hard­er, even jeop­ar­diz­ing safe­ty in the midst of a pan­dem­ic. The real­i­ty for VA employ­ees is quite dif­fer­ent from Trump’s rhetoric about valu­ing vet­er­ans above all. 

Keena Smith, the pres­i­dent of AFGE Local 2192 in St. Louis, says that the Trump administration’s orders have evis­cer­at­ed the union’s last con­tract, strip­ping out health and safe­ty pro­vi­sions and whistle­blow­er pro­tec­tions, and severe­ly cut­ting back employ­ees’ rights to fight back against dis­ci­pli­nary actions. She describes a work­place in which VA employ­ees who process claims are “ter­ri­fied” that they will be fired for fail­ing to meet unre­al­is­tic quotas. 

“It’s def­i­nite­ly changed how we work and how we’re able to ser­vice our employ­ees. Over 80% of the employ­ees [here] are vet­er­ans them­selves,” says Smith, who is also a U.S. mil­i­tary vet­er­an. “These attacks become per­son­al… this is the thanks that you give those vet­er­ans who have already done their time. You put on fear tac­tics, and stan­dards that are almost impos­si­ble to make.” 

Smith seems gen­uine­ly stag­gered by the con­tempt with which the admin­is­tra­tion has treat­ed her union mem­bers, who process ben­e­fit and com­pen­sa­tion claims for vet­er­ans. “We lit­er­al­ly got evic­tion notices” for union offices in VA facil­i­ties,” she says, still incred­u­lous. “They said, ‘You have to get out or pay rent.’ What?” 

For the past three years, Lin­da Ward-Smith has led AFGE Local 1224 in Las Vegas, rep­re­sent­ing about 3,000 work­ers at a VA hos­pi­tal. “Pri­or to the Trump admin­is­tra­tion tak­ing over, I can attest to you that man­age­ment and labor had cor­dial rela­tion­ships,” includ­ing week­ly labor-man­age­ment meet­ings to dis­cuss work­ing con­di­tions, she says. That has all changed since Trump’s exec­u­tive orders. Now, she says, man­age­ment is so unre­spon­sive that it has left many of the union’s mem­bers dispir­it­ed and ques­tion­ing the point of the union’s existence. 

“We’d hear rumors like, ‘the union isn’t here any more, there’s nobody for us.’ Espe­cial­ly when we got kicked out of the office and our equip­ment got tak­en away,” says Ward-Smith. Though she still tries to meet with man­age­ment as she can, “I feel like I’m at their mer­cy. I have to some­times bite my tongue and do things on behalf of the mem­bers. But now the man­agers feel empow­ered as if they’re Superman.” 

Christi­na Noël, a press sec­re­tary for the VA, says of the ongo­ing con­tract bat­tle, “AFGE has con­sis­tent­ly fought for the sta­tus quo and opposed attempts to make the VA work bet­ter for Vet­er­ans and their fam­i­lies. It’s no sur­prise that AFGE has tak­en the same approach with its refusal to accept com­mon­sense improve­ments to its col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agreement.”

For Bar­bara Whit­son Casano­va, who has led AFGE Local 2054 in Arkansas for two decades, deal­ing with the Trump admin­is­tra­tion “was like wak­ing up in a for­eign coun­try.” As the VA has become almost com­plete­ly unwill­ing to work with the union unless it is legal­ly required to, a con­se­quence has been that the union is oblig­at­ed to use the legal arbi­tra­tion process to address minor dis­putes that in the past could have been solved with good faith dis­cus­sions. Casano­va says that before Trump, her local might have only filed one arbi­tra­tion case per year; now, it has 17 arbi­tra­tion cas­es in process, each one cost­ing the gov­ern­ment itself thou­sands of dol­lars to litigate. 

“We feel like our Com­man­der in Chief has waged war on his troops,” she says. “The staff is burned out and liv­ing in fear.” 

All gov­ern­ment employ­ees now have “right to work” sta­tus, mean­ing that the union is oblig­at­ed to rep­re­sent them, but can­not make them pay dues if they don’t want to. Nor do the VA’s work­ers have the right to strike, by law (a right that not even pub­lic sec­tor union lead­ers are will­ing to spend the polit­i­cal cap­i­tal to fight for). Those legal restric­tions, com­bined with the Trump administration’s bat­tle against labor rights of fed­er­al work­ers, have left AFGE strug­gling for ways to assert its pow­er. “It’s a bat­tle not to give up and feel total­ly hope­less,” Casano­va admits. 

The VA’s union holds infor­ma­tion­al pick­ets and ral­lies to pub­li­cize its plight, and is enmeshed in law­suits against the gov­ern­ment, but it is unwill­ing to vio­late the law with more aggres­sive labor actions. Boxed in by reg­u­la­tions designed specif­i­cal­ly to lim­it its pow­er, the union lead­ers inside the VA say that the bal­lot box is their only promis­ing route back to nor­mal­cy. AFGE has endorsed Joe Biden, who has said he will roll back Trump’s exec­u­tive orders. Ward-Smith believes that every­thing hangs in the bal­ance on Elec­tion Day. 

“If we con­tin­ue the way we are,” she says, “the union will not be in existence.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 24, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.


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New Collective Bargaining Law Paves the Way to Worker Justice at Delaware DMV

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Kenneth-Quinnell_small

After Delaware Gov. John Carney signed a bill to expand collective bargaining rights for public employees in June, workers have begun organizing at state agencies. Employees of the Delaware Division of Motor Vehicles voted last week to join Laborers (LIUNA) Local 1029, establishing a union there for the first time.

Gurvis Miner, business manager for Local 1029, said the organizing win was hard earned and well worth it.

“Employees at the DMV now have a voice on the job, and I commend the state Legislature and Gov. Carney for changing the law to expand our rights and making this all possible,” he said.

The new bargaining unit includes 340 workers at the DMV.

SB 8, the bill that provided these employees their new collective bargaining rights, was made possible through the diligent advocacy efforts of the Delaware State AFL-CIO and others. The law expanded collective bargaining rights for about 2,000 workers across the state.

“We congratulate LIUNA Local 1029 and all of the DMV workers, and we welcome these brothers and sisters to our growing labor movement in Delaware,” said Delaware State AFL-CIO President Jim Maravelias (LIUNA).

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on July 25, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michael Gillis is a writer at AFL-CIO.

 


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