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Unions predict a Great Awakening during a Biden presidency

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Labor leaders are eyeing a Joe Biden victory in November as the start of a union revival, one with the potential to undo decades of policies that have diminished union influence, undermined the right to organize and exacerbated income inequality.

And they’re planning on playing a central role.

“It’s clear to me it’s going to be the most significant pro-labor, pro-worker administration in a long, long, long time,” said Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters — the first union to endorse Biden during the Democratic primary.

Reversing America’s decades-long decline in union membership, however, will be a difficult task for even the most labor-friendly administration. Just over 10 percent of workers were represented by unions last year, according to Labor Department data — a share that has been cut in half since 1983. And unless Democrats win the Senate as well as the White House, it will be an uphill battle for Biden to move any of the legislation union leaders are advocating for.

Labor officials have reason to be confident, though, that they’ll have a line into the Biden administration, should he win next month’s election. The former vice president and veteran senator has longstanding relationships with union leaders built over more than 40 years in politics.

He’s already named two union presidents — Teresa Romero of the United Farm Workers and Lonnie Stephenson of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers — to his transition team’s advisory board. At least five others served as members of the unity task forces Biden set up with Sen. Bernie Sanders over the summer, which published formal policy recommendations that helped shape the Democratic Party’s official platform.

Many expect Biden to appoint a union leader to his Cabinet — the Departments of Labor and Education are most often mentioned — or in senior positions throughout various agencies. And he has pledged to create a Cabinet-level working group comprised of labor representatives, “that will solely focus on promoting union organizing and collective bargaining.”

His policy plans across the board are peppered with references to expanding the right to join a union. And senior campaign officials, led by Biden’s longtime confidant and campaign aide Steve Ricchetti, have been holding a biweekly evening call with union leaders to keep them apprised of campaign developments and to allow them to offer their input.

“He’s doing more of this outreach than any other candidate that I’ve known on the Democratic side,” said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, who has been with his union since the late 1970s. “When he talks about organized labor, when he talks about the importance of unions, he really means it.”

Still, it’s an open question whether the labor movement can convince Biden and his team that it is worth spending the “political capital that will have to be spent in order to get major labor law reforms,” said Robert Reich, a former Labor secretary under Bill Clinton.

“It’s a chicken and egg problem,” Reich said. “Because right now, organized labor doesn’t have very much clout.”

And labor allies warn that Biden’s ability to enact changes will depend in large part on whether Democrats regain control of the Senate in November. Pushback from Biden supporters throughout corporate America, employers who might not want to see a resurgence of unions, could also hinder any effort.

That makes the Biden transition preparations, which involve vetting possible Cabinet appointees, plotting out policy priorities and strategizing on how to implement them, a crucial time period.

“I’m very confident that we’re being afforded and will be afforded an opportunity to offer our view and opinion on key positions and personnel that will become part of the administration,” Schaitberger said.

Saunders and other union leaders interviewed by POLITICO also said they have been engaged with senior members of Biden’s transition team, and many are preparing policy memos to share with the team if Biden wins. They emphasize their personal ties to the former vice president, and the interactions they’ve had with him, as evidence of how much he will do for them if he wins.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said Biden was her union’s “go-to person” in the Obama administration, and AFT members are currently engaged with members of his transition team.

Teachers are encouraged by Biden’s pledge to tap an educator to lead the Department of Education and feel connected to his wife, Jill Biden, a longtime community college professor, said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association. Construction workers are hopeful about Biden’s commitment to deliver an infrastructure plan — something President Donald Trump promised but failed to produce — and to create American jobs in the process, said Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Union.

From a labor perspective, Biden’s long record is not spotless. He voted in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement as a senator, a move some union members still hold against him. More recently, as a member of the Obama administration, he’s faced criticism for failing to push through the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made it easier for workers to form unions.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on October 9, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Megan Cassella is a trade reporter for POLITICO Pro. Before joining POLITICO in June 2016, Megan worked for Reuters based out of Washington, covering the economy, domestic politics and the 2016 presidential campaign.


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What’s at Stake for the Labor Movement on Election Day? Everything.

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Amer­i­ca is in cri­sis. There can be no doubt about that. All of our imme­di­ate crises—the pan­dem­ic and the unem­ploy­ment and the eco­nom­ic col­lapse and the death spi­ral of var­i­ous pub­lic insti­tu­tions—have lent the upcom­ing pres­i­den­tial elec­tion an air of emer­gency. For work­ing peo­ple in Amer­i­ca, though, the emer­gency is noth­ing new at all. What is at stake for labor in this elec­tion is every­thing. Noth­ing, there­fore, has changed. 

Don­ald Trump and the coro­n­avirus, the two fac­tors infus­ing this elec­tion with urgency, are of recent vin­tage. But the cri­sis for work­ing Amer­i­cans has been grow­ing worse for at least four decades. Since the Rea­gan era, eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty has been ris­ing, union pow­er has been declin­ing, and glob­al cap­i­tal­ism has been widen­ing the chasm between the rich and every­one else. 

Orga­nized labor has been fight­ing a los­ing—and some­times inept­ly fought—bat­tle against these trends in every elec­tion since 1980. The once-in-a-cen­tu­ry cat­a­stro­phe sur­round­ing the 2020 elec­tion may be what it needs to final­ly reverse two gen­er­a­tions of dis­re­spect and defeat. 

Labor unions, which rep­re­sent work­ers in a work­place, have always includ­ed peo­ple of all polit­i­cal stripes. The labor move­ment—the broad­er uni­verse of groups pur­su­ing the inter­ests of work­ing peo­ple—will con­tin­ue to lean left, in the direc­tion that val­ues labor over cap­i­tal. (See­ing police unions endorse Trump, whose admin­is­tra­tion is deter­mined to crush labor rights, is an exam­ple of the fact that indi­vid­ual unions and their mem­bers can act in self-inter­est­ed ways that go against the labor move­ment as a whole.) 

For rough­ly the past half cen­tu­ry, union house­holds have tend­ed to vote Demo­c­ra­t­ic by about a 60–40 mar­gin, but that mar­gin has fluc­tu­at­ed. In 1980, Ronald Rea­gan nar­rowed the gap to only a few points. Barack Oba­ma took the union vote by 34 points in 2012, but in 2016, that gap shrank by half. Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Joe Biden, tout­ing his Oba­ma con­nec­tions and fac­ing an out­right incom­pe­tent racist, will like­ly expand that mar­gin again. 

Since Con­gress passed the Taft-Hart­ley Act in 1947, unions have been oper­at­ing in the frame­work of a set of labor laws designed to rob them of pow­er. The state of those laws today is abysmal. The right to strike is restrict­ed, and com­pa­nies have been able to clas­si­fy large swaths of their work­ers as “inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors,” who lack the right to union­ize. More than half the states in the coun­try have passed “right to work” laws, which give work­ers the abil­i­ty to opt out of pay­ing union dues, mak­ing it extreme­ly dif­fi­cult for unions to orga­nize and main­tain mem­ber­ship. The 2018 Supreme Court deci­sion in the Janus v. AFSCME case made the entire pub­lic sec­tor “right to work” as well, which is sure to eat into that last bas­tion of strong union den­si­ty. The unful­filled desire to achieve some sem­blance of labor law reform has been the pri­ma­ry rea­son that unions in Amer­i­ca have poured mon­ey into the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty for decades, despite get­ting decid­ed­ly mod­est leg­isla­tive wins in return. 
“It’s critical that in the new administration, labor doesn’t just get siloed: ‘What’s the thing we can do to make the unions happy’ It’s got to be an approach to looking across everything, especially in light of the economic situation.” —Sharon Block, former Labor Department official in the Obama administration

Ear­li­er this year, Sharon Block, a for­mer Labor Depart­ment offi­cial in the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion who now heads the Labor and Work­life Pro­gram at Har­vard, and labor expert and Har­vard pro­fes­sor Ben­jamin Sachs spear­head­ed the assem­bly of the “Clean Slate for Work­er Pow­er” agen­da—some­thing of a union-friend­ly labor law plat­form for Democ­rats in exile dur­ing the Trump years. That agen­da is a fair sum­ma­tion of the labor movement’s wish list. It calls for a swath of reforms that make it eas­i­er for all work­ers to orga­nize and exer­cise pow­er. Its pil­lars include sec­toral bar­gain­ing, which would allow entire indus­tries to nego­ti­ate con­tracts at once; a much broad­er right to strike; work­er rep­re­sen­ta­tives on cor­po­rate boards; stream­lined union elec­tions; more labor rights for inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors and oth­er gig work­ers; the end of statewide “right to work” laws; and stronger enforce­ment of labor stan­dards. Biden’s own labor plat­form, while not quite as rad­i­cal—it con­spic­u­ous­ly does not include sec­toral bar­gain­ing—does include the major­i­ty of the Clean Slate agen­da. Biden’s plat­form also says there will be a “cab­i­net-lev­el work­ing group” of union rep­re­sen­ta­tives, which could pre­sum­ably push his plat­form even fur­ther left. Though Biden was among the most cen­trist of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry can­di­dates, the party’s cen­ter has moved so much in the past four years that he has the most left­ist labor plat­form of any nom­i­nee since the New Deal. 

While Biden is regard­ed by many as very pro-union, his­to­ry has taught the labor move­ment that its great­est chal­lenge will be get­ting him to actu­al­ly pri­or­i­tize labor if he assumes pow­er. “I had the priv­i­lege of see­ing Joe Biden in action. When he walked into a room where we were dis­cussing pol­i­cy, we knew that the inter­ests of work­ers, their col­lec­tive pow­er, and the labor move­ment was going to be on the table,” Block says. But, she warns, “It’s crit­i­cal that in the new admin­is­tra­tion, labor doesn’t just get siloed: ‘What’s the thing we can do to make the unions hap­py’ It’s got to be an approach to look­ing across every­thing, espe­cial­ly in light of the eco­nom­ic situation.”

In oth­er words, the new admin­is­tra­tion must treat orga­nized labor not as a spe­cial inter­est but as the key to chang­ing our increas­ing­ly two-tiered econ­o­my. That point is key to under­stand­ing the divide between the part of the labor move­ment that sup­port­ed left-wing can­di­dates like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Eliz­a­beth War­ren (D-Mass.), and those that sup­port­ed Biden. While Sanders’ back­ers will speak of his fanat­i­cal moral devo­tion to pro-work­ing class pol­i­cy, Biden’s allies will speak of the per­son­al rela­tion­ship they have with him. It is the divide between those who see unions more as part of a greater effort to improve con­di­tions for all work­ers, and those who see them more as a prac­ti­cal tool for mem­bers. “Joe Biden had an open door pol­i­cy. That was the biggest thing. That was the crux of the rela­tion­ship,” says a spokesper­son for the Inter­na­tion­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Fire Fight­ers, the first big union to endorse Biden when he entered the 2020 race. “With Joe Biden at the White House, our voice is heard. We get pri­or­i­ty access.”

This trans­ac­tion­al, loy­al­ty-cen­tric approach is unsur­pris­ing for a career politi­cian like Biden, but it can leave out labor lead­ers who don’t have such a long his­to­ry of back­ing him. Most major unions did not endorse in the 2020 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry, pre­fer­ring to focus on back­ing who­ev­er became the nom­i­nee to oppose Trump. And Biden—though he has many union allies—is not a cru­sad­er, but a politi­cian with decades of strong cor­po­rate back­ing, lead­ing many in labor to won­der how much he real­ly means what his plat­form says. The Biden cam­paign tried to mit­i­gate that wor­ry by includ­ing mul­ti­ple pro­gres­sive union lead­ers in the Biden-Sanders “Uni­ty Task Force,” which was explic­it­ly set up to uni­fy the left and cen­trist wings of the par­ty, in part by get­ting pro­gres­sive poli­cies into the Demo­c­ra­t­ic plat­form. That task force prod­ded Biden mod­est­ly to the left but not so far as to endorse core pro­gres­sive ideas like Medicare for All. The unions clos­est to Biden, par­tic­u­lar­ly the fire­fight­ers, are opposed to Medicare for All because they want to keep the health­care plans they nego­ti­at­ed for themselves.

The biggest labor unions often have strong pro­gres­sive fac­tions but most­ly plant them­selves firm­ly in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s main­stream. In fact, four major union lead­ers who serve on the plat­form com­mit­tee of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee vot­ed against includ­ing Medicare for All in the party’s plat­form. One was Ran­di Wein­garten, pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers, who also served on the Biden-Sanders Uni­ty Task Force. She says the DNC plat­form vote was a result of a pri­or agree­ment among those on the Uni­ty Task Force to vote for its rec­om­men­da­tions, in the way you might vote for a union con­tract that was imper­fect but the best you could get.

The wretched­ness of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has pushed unions to view the elec­tion as a mat­ter of sur­vival. “What Trump has done with his abysmal han­dling of Covid, and his even worse han­dling of racism, is to have sobered up every­one that this is an elec­tion like no oth­er,” Wein­garten says. “That this elec­tion needs to be won by Biden to make sure that our democ­ra­cy, as imper­fect as it is, stays in place. … Yes, it’s aspi­ra­tional about how we need to do bet­ter. But it’s also very pri­mal, about what the stakes are right now.” 

The bru­tal real­i­ties of the pan­dem­ic mean that many unions are forced to focus on their imme­di­ate needs more than on long-term ide­o­log­i­cal goals. In the Feb­ru­ary run-up to the Neva­da cau­cus, Joe Biden and the oth­er Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry can­di­dates bat­tled to win the endorse­ment of the pow­er­ful Culi­nary Union, which has orga­nized the state’s casi­no indus­try. (The union ulti­mate­ly did not endorse, and Bernie Sanders won the cau­cus.) Less than two months lat­er, the unem­ploy­ment rate for the union’s mem­bers was close to 100%. Geo­con­da Argüel­lo-Kline, the union’s sec­re­tary-trea­sur­er, says the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion is now framed in relent­less­ly prac­ti­cal terms: The refusal of Repub­li­cans to deal with the pan­dem­ic and the eco­nom­ic cri­sis show that only Biden can make the gov­ern­ment sup­port work­place safe­ty leg­is­la­tion, pro­tect health insur­ance and pen­sions, and fund ade­quate unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits until Las Vegas is back on its feet. 

“The gov­ern­ment real­ly has to pro­vide every­thing that the work­ers need dur­ing this pan­dem­ic,” Argüel­lo-Kline says. Her union is adapt­ing its leg­endary get-out-the-vote machine for a social­ly dis­tanced era, rely­ing on phone bank­ing, text mes­sag­ing and dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion more than door-knock­ing and ral­lies. She’s con­fi­dent that Trump will not car­ry Neva­da. “Every­body in the coun­try sees how he’s being oppres­sive to minori­ties over here. How he’s attack­ing the Lati­no com­mu­ni­ty. How he doesn’t want to have any­body in this coun­try who doesn’t look like him,” she says. “We know work­ers nev­er have an easy road.” 

Across the coun­try, unions that typ­i­cal­ly would be spend­ing the sum­mer and fall months focused on elec­tion­eer­ing are forced to bal­ance that with the work of triag­ing the needs of mem­bers fac­ing very real life-and-death sit­u­a­tions. The Retail, Whole­sale and Depart­ment Store Union rep­re­sents front-line retail work­ers who have been sub­ject­ed to wide­spread lay­offs that now appear to be per­ma­nent. It also rep­re­sents poul­try plant work­ers in the South who have con­tin­ued to work through­out the pan­dem­ic with des­per­ate short­ages of pro­tec­tive equip­ment. It is hard to tell whether the work­ing mem­bers or the unem­ployed mem­bers of the union face more dan­ger. Stu­art Appel­baum, the union’s pres­i­dent, has been a mem­ber of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee for decades, but he has nev­er dealt with an elec­tion year that com­bines such dire cir­cum­stances for work­ers with such logis­ti­cal chal­lenges to mobi­lize them to fight. 

If there is any sil­ver lin­ing, it is that the val­ue of unions is clear­er than ever before. Their pub­lic pop­u­lar­i­ty is near a 50-year high. Trump’s car­toon­ish class war lent the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­maries a strong pro-union fla­vor, and the work­place inequal­i­ty exposed by the pan­dem­ic has only sharp­ened the recog­ni­tion of the need for work­place pro­tec­tions. “We heard more talk about unions and sup­port of unions than we’ve heard in any oth­er cam­paign that I can remem­ber,” Appel­baum says. “There is more of a recog­ni­tion in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty now and in soci­ety as a whole as to the impor­tance of work­ers hav­ing a col­lec­tive voice. I remem­ber when Bill Clin­ton was first elect­ed, and I’d go to union meet­ings where peo­ple would say, ‘Is the pres­i­dent ever going to men­tion the word union?’ That’s not a ques­tion we have now.” 

That, of course, is no guar­an­tee that things will work out in unions’ favor. The right wing’s long attack on orga­nized labor has sapped some of the basic abil­i­ty of unions to exer­cise pow­er. No employ­ees have been more direct­ly sub­ject­ed to that attack than the work­ers of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment itself. The Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Gov­ern­ment Employ­ees has butted heads with the Trump admin­is­tra­tion inces­sant­ly over issues such as the lack of pay­checks dur­ing the gov­ern­ment shut­down, efforts to take away col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights from hun­dreds of thou­sands of employ­ees at the Defense Depart­ment, and work­ers at fed­er­al agen­cies being forced back into the office before the pan­dem­ic is under control. 

“For us, this elec­tion isn’t about par­ty affil­i­a­tion. It’s not about the dai­ly out­rages from Twit­ter. It’s about our very liveli­hoods. It’s about our rights and our lives at work,” says Everett Kel­ley, pres­i­dent of the 700,000-member union. “The issues that our mem­bers are fac­ing are real­ly the same issues that face labor as a whole—our mem­bers just work in a sec­tor where the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has the widest lat­i­tude to imple­ment its anti-labor poli­cies. But there’s no doubt that they want to export their union-bust­ing play­book from the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to the broad­er pub­lic and pri­vate sectors.” 

All of the mon­ey, email blasts and vir­tu­al get­ting-out-the-vote that unions are engaged in on behalf of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty will, if suc­cess­ful, result in mil­lions of mail-in bal­lots. And all of it will be worth­less if those bal­lots are not deliv­ered and count­ed prop­er­ly. Sav­ing the post office—and, who knows, per­haps democ­ra­cy itself—is a job that has fall­en in the lap of the labor move­ment. Unions have been key play­ers in pub­li­ciz­ing the threat to the postal ser­vice. They have ral­lied polit­i­cal sup­port behind postal work­ers and the pop­u­lar insti­tu­tion as a whole. What may have been seen as just anoth­er under­fund­ed gov­ern­ment agency a few years ago is now an avatar of every­thing wrong with Trumpism.

The U.S. Postal Ser­vice is, like many oth­er insti­tu­tions, fac­ing a pan­dem­ic-induced loss of rev­enue. It is also the tar­get of the Repub­li­can Party’s long-term desire to pri­va­tize mail deliv­ery and allow cor­po­ra­tions to take over its oper­a­tions. Add to that the president’s appar­ent desire to sab­o­tage the postal ser­vice before the elec­tion to pre­vent mail-in bal­lots from being count­ed, and sud­den­ly, the hum­ble post office finds itself at the cen­ter of a nation’s sense that the entire gov­ern­ment may be tee­ter­ing on the edge of irre­triev­able corruption. 

“Pri­va­ti­za­tion usu­al­ly means three things. It means high­er prices for the con­sumer, less ser­vices, and low­er wages and ben­e­fits for the work­ers,” says Mark Dimond­stein, head of the 200,000-member Amer­i­can Postal Work­ers Union. “This is cer­tain­ly the fork in the road of whether we’re going to have a pub­lic insti­tu­tion that belongs to every­body, serves every­body and is the source of good, liv­ing-wage union jobs—or a pri­va­tized, bro­ken-up gig econ­o­my postal service.”

With tens of mil­lions of Amer­i­cans unem­ployed, a dead­ly dis­ease rag­ing and an incum­bent pres­i­dent who appears not to care very much about either cri­sis, unions and their allies find them­selves pushed into a famil­iar cor­ner: Fight like hell for the less-than-ide­al Demo­c­rat—main­ly because there is no alter­na­tive. Joe Biden is an imper­fect ally. His record is busi­ness-friend­ly, and his labor plat­form, though strong in the­o­ry, is not as aggres­sive as those of some of his pri­ma­ry rivals. Labor move­ment vet­er­ans remem­ber 2008 well, when the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion swept in with promise but failed to deliv­er on the Employ­ee Free Choice Act, which would have enabled “card check” orga­niz­ing (a method of form­ing a union with a sim­ple major­i­ty vote) and was labor’s main (rel­a­tive­ly mod­est) wish. Biden is sell­ing him­self as Obama’s suc­ces­sor. It is up to the labor move­ment to ensure that a Biden admin­is­tra­tion does not take them for granted.

“We have to look at a Biden vic­to­ry not as an end to our work, but a begin­ning,” Dimond­stein says. “The his­to­ry of this coun­try is, it’s always been the peo­ple and the move­ment, includ­ing the work­ing class move­ment, that have cre­at­ed change in Con­gress. Not the oppo­site way.”

That, in fact, is the task that the labor move­ment—shrunk­en, bat­tered and divid­ed though it is—should be pour­ing most of its ener­gy into, even now. Union den­si­ty in Amer­i­ca has fall­en by half since the ear­ly 1980s. Bare­ly one in 10 work­ers are now union mem­bers. That exis­ten­tial decline must be turned around, or labor will nev­er have enough pow­er to win the eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal gains that work­ing peo­ple need. No new pres­i­dent can do this for the labor move­ment—they can only remove some bar­ri­ers to make it eas­i­er for the move­ment to do it for itself.

Biden looks strong in the polls, but there is no cer­tain­ty about what lies ahead. Few union lead­ers want to engage seri­ous­ly with the ques­tion of what hap­pens if Trump wins. The answer is always some vari­a­tion of “Just keep fight­ing.” But anoth­er four years of Trump would be grim, and sur­viv­ing it would require a fero­cious turn toward rad­i­cal­ism. After 2016, some fac­tions of the union world toyed with the the­o­ry that the way to meet the moment was to cater to the minor­i­ty of “white work­ing class” union mem­bers who felt left behind and embraced Trump. That approach was always flawed—Trump’s base is the upper, not low­er class—and sub­se­quent events have ren­dered it a moot point. The labor move­ment has loud­ly allied itself with Black Lives Mat­ter and pledged to join the fight for social jus­tice. Liv­ing up to that pledge means mak­ing a choice to oppose Trump. If he is reelect­ed, orga­nized labor should expect to be one of many tar­gets of his vindictiveness.

All of which points to the fact that nei­ther elec­tion out­come will mean auto­mat­ic sal­va­tion for work­ing peo­ple. The past 40 years of his­to­ry demon­strate that. Con­trol of the White House has gone back and forth, but through it all, the rich have got­ten rich­er, the wages of work­ing peo­ple have stag­nat­ed, union den­si­ty has declined and labor law has remained bro­ken. The worst-case sce­nario for the labor move­ment is to see more of the same.

“I don’t real­ly look to the Democ­rats for lead­er­ship; I look to the labor move­ment,” says Sara Nel­son, the head of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Flight Atten­dants and one of labor’s most promi­nent pro­gres­sive voic­es. “And we have the pow­er to change this right now if we choose to do so. That pow­er is not an appendage of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. It’s our labor. It’s our sol­i­dar­i­ty,” she says. “As long as we out­source our pow­er to politi­cians, we are nev­er, ever going to get what work­ing peo­ple need.”

The views expressed above are the authors’ own. As a 501©3 non­prof­it, In These Times does not sup­port or oppose can­di­dates for polit­i­cal office.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 22, 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 [email protected]


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New England UAW Workers Join Parade of Local Unions Endorsing Bernie Sanders

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A New England United Automobile Workers (UAW) local this week voted to endorse Sen. Bernie Sanders for president, the latest in a stream of union locals across America backing Sanders even when their national parent unions have not issued endorsements.

The executive board of UAW Local 2322, representing about 5,000 workers in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont, voted to endorse the Sanders campaign, reported here for the first time. Anais Surkin, the local’s president, said that the board chose to endorse based on widespread support of Sanders by the members, and as a result of frustration with the UAW international’s lack of a process for backing candidates in the Democratic primary.

“What are they gonna do to us as a local if we endorse?” Surkin said. “We can and should express the will of the membership… the [Sanders] campaign isn’t focused just on the national leadership of unions. It’s focused on member-to-member communications.”

Local 2322 is an amalgamation of 27 different shops, including graduate student workers, child care workers, health care workers and teachers. There was not a vote of the full membership regarding the endorsement, but the board plans to bring its endorsement to a meeting of the joint council of all the bargaining units later this week and expects to gain their formal support.

The UAW, like many national unions, has not endorsed a candidate in the Democratic primary. Despite the decision of some national unions to bide their time until the general election, the Sanders campaign has been picking up endorsements from local unions across the country all year. In January, Sanders won the endorsement of a 10,000-member SEIU branch in New Hampshire. In February, 7,000 members of the American Federation of Musicians in Los Angeles backed him. Last week, he picked up the endorsement of UFCW 21, a 46,000-member local in Washington state; this week, he was endorsed by AFGE Local 704, a notable high-profile endorsement from federal workers at the Environmental Protection Agency. His campaign has also been endorsed by tens of thousands of people collectively represented by locals of AFSCME, CWA, UNITE HERE and other unions that chose not to issue primary endorsements on the national level.

National unions that have chosen to endorse candidates in the primary other than Sanders have risked an internal backlash. Last week, Sanders supporters within the IBEW released a letter signed by 1,300 members calling on their parent union to retract its endorsement of Joe Biden. The Amalgamated Transit Union, which endorsed Biden this month after backing Bernie in 2016, is also the subject of an internal effort by Sanders supporters to get that endorsement retracted. And the leadership of the Culinary Union, the powerful UNITE HERE local in Las Vegas, found itself at the center of a week-long hostile news cycle after it tried to dissuade members from voting for Sanders because of his support for Medicare For All, only to see him win the Nevada caucus with strong support from those very Culinary Union members.

The vocal backing of Bernie Sanders within organized labor is propelled in part by Labor For Bernie, a volunteer group rich with labor organizers who work to build and coordinate his support in the union world. Indeed, Anais Surkin says that many of the members of UAW 2322 have been organizing for Bernie on the side, helping to enhance his support within the union. The bulk of the local’s members are in Massachusetts, which votes on Super Tuesday (March 3). Even though the state is the home of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Labor For Bernie volunteers are optimistic that Sanders may have a chance to win there now, building on his momentum from Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.

“It’s a campaign that stands for the things we stand for,” Surkin said. “This is a way to take them beyond the confines of our collective bargaining agreements.”

Read the full endorsement here.

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 25, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporting fellow at 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 [email protected].


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Sanders and Warren pledge to skip next debate if the alternative is crossing a picket line

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The next Democratic presidential debate had its location changed over a labor boycott of the University of California. Now, top contenders Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren say they will skip the debate if a labor dispute with the new location, Loyola Marymount University, isn’t settled.

Food service workers at the university have been in contract negotiations with Sodexo, the company that employs them, for over a year. With the negotiations stalled, the workers have held pickets, and a Democratic debate could provide them leverage. It’s a little late in the game for the debate to be moved again, but the university could pressure Sodexo.

At the time of this writing, none of the other candidates who have qualified for the debate have committed to honor a picket line.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on December 13, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

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

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Dem campaigns bulk up with hiring spree

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Daniel StraussSen. Elizabeth Warren has the largest staff in the 2020 Democratic presidential race. Sen. Bernie Sanders is close behind. And others trying to go big are weighing the dangers of the most expensive piece of the “invisible primary”: the people running the campaigns.

Warren had 303 people on her campaign payroll during the second quarter of the year, according to a POLITICO analysis of Federal Election Commission records. It’s a reflection of her campaign’s belief in the importance of early organizing, which is shared by Sanders’ campaign and its 282 people on salary and echoes the successful approach of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.

The early size of the 2020 campaigns roughly illustrates the current tiers in the Democratic primary, with the top five candidates in polling and fundraising and several underdogs hoping to lay groundwork for a future leap among the leaders. No 2020 Democrat has yet matched the size of Obama’s early campaign operation, which employed a whopping 432 staffers at this point in 2007 as he and Hillary Clinton (339 staffers) prepared for their primary. A large team can create positive feedback loops for campaigns, Democratic operatives said — organizing and gathering more supporters, which leads to higher fundraising and momentum and can be reinvested in more staff to keep the cycle going.

But staff buildups are also fraught with danger, reliant on unpredictable future fundraising projections to sustain them and prevent financial ruin.

“Every staff decision in terms of scale is a calculated risk,” said Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA, the Democratic outside group focused on the 2020 presidential race. “Because you’re making some assumptions about whether or not you can sustain it over time.”

Warren and Sanders’ campaign staffs are well ahead of the next-biggest campaign — former Vice President Joe Biden’s — and the four others who have staffs numbering over 100: Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Kamala Harris, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

And Warren won an early gamble on staff by turning in a massive second-quarter fundraising total, $19.1 million, after a much slower start to the year, meaning she can sustain the big campaign she’s building — which cost her nearly $4.2 million in salary, payroll taxes and insurance in the last three months. Warren has managed to fundraise competitively with her top 2020 rivals despite eschewing traditional campaign fundraisers and focusing on online contributions instead.

“Ultimately, the risk paid off,” Cecil said. “I think it’s especially important when you think about how quickly the primary calendar moves.”

Booker and O’Rourke don’t generally poll near the front of the pack, and both have struggled to fundraise at the same level as the top candidates in the primary. But the large number of staffers on their payrolls underscores that their respective campaigns are betting an early heavy investment in bodies will pay off later in the primary.

“A couple of these campaigns jumped out early and hired a bunch of staff and really put those folks off the table,” said Brandon Davis, a veteran Democratic strategist. “There was an opportunity, which I think was a strategic play for hiring this staff — and both having a good operation and taking some folks off the table [for other campaigns].”

But some campaigns still have to prove they can survive the costs imposed by their size. Past presidential elections are littered with examples of large campaigns flaming out, like Scott Walker’s short-lived White House bid in 2015, or massively downsizing to try to survive until the voting starts, like John McCain’s in 2007.

There are already signs of the financial stress imposed by hiring a big staff in 2019.

Just over half of Booker’s $5.3 million in total second-quarter expenses were on personnel (including salary, payroll taxes and insurance), and Booker spent $740,000 more than he raised from April through June. Personnel accounted for nearly one-fifth of O’Rourke’s outlays in the second quarter, when he raised $3.6 million but spent a whopping $5.3 million.

Even on the smaller end, staff can still squeeze an upstart presidential campaign budget. Staff costs helped put Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (66 people on salary) and Amy Klobuchar (79) in the red for the second quarter, though both, like Booker, have some cash leftover from their Senate campaign accounts to help handle the expense.

It’s clear why the campaigns want to build up in size, though, and spending breakdowns show how much campaigns value their manpower. Booker is the only candidate whose personnel spending accounted for the majority of overall spending in the second quarter, but Warren’s salaries, payroll taxes and insurance accounted for 39 percent of total expenses, while Sanders and Harris came in at 32 percent.

Steve Elmendorf, a deputy campaign manager on John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, said that a large staff can be part of a feedback loop generating attention, fundraising and more staff hiring in a virtuous circle.

“It’s all self-reinforcing,” Elmendorf said. “They’re increasing their seriousness and get you paying more attention to them therefore they raise more money therefore they’re on the debate stage.”

That means a set of steps for the rest of the field, especially candidates who have been lagging in fundraising and polling.

“Everybody else has to figure out how they get in the game financially and get in the game in terms of the narrative out there,” Elmendorf said of the rest of the field. “I assume it’s go to the next debate and do what Kamala did which is try and create some conflict. Then they get noted then they can raise more money then they can hire more people.”

This article was originally published at Politico on July 20, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author:Daniel Strauss is a politics reporter. He previously covered campaigns and elections for Talking Points Memo and before that was a breaking news reporter for The Hill newspaper. Daniel grew up in Chicago and graduated from the University of Michigan where he majored in history.


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Bernie’s Ideas And Biden’s Burden

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Anyway, my time is up. I’m sorry.” Joe Biden may have been talking about the timer, but his hapless performance in his first Democratic debate imparted an ironic twist to the words. This first debate of the season is but one of many, but it may well mark a turn in Biden’s prospects.

Slow, old, he seemed to have lost his fastball, and surely sowed doubts about the sole rationale of his candidacy: that he is the one who can take on Donald Trump.

Kamala Harris silenced the stage early in the second night’s debate, saying: “America does not want to witness a food fight, they want to know how we are going to put food on their table.”

That pre-packaged line is, of course, wrong. Debate audiences tend to be more engaged voters. Most watch the debates like NASCAR fans watch the speedway: They may enjoy the jockeying of the cars, but they are waiting for the collision. What’s actually said in a debate—particularly about policy—has less import than the legend that gets formed about it in the days following in social and mass media. The put-downs and bust-ups are more memorable than the policy positions. Here are five takeaways from the first round of debate.

Bernie’s World

“First of all, I agree completely with Bernie about what the fundamental challenge we’re facing as a country is, 40 years of no economic growth for 90 percent of the American people…and the worst income inequality that we’ve had in 100 years.” Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, who has framed his campaign in opposition to Sanders’s reform proposals that he scorns as “candy,” acknowledged the force of the Sanders critique. Sanders, like Elizabeth Warren on the first night, was not particularly assertive in the debate. He didn’t interrupt or elbow his way into conversations, and didn’t unleash a memorable one-liner. As always, he stayed relentlessly on message.

Yet Sanders’s ideas now frame the debate in the Democratic Party—an extraordinary victory for progressives. Even Joe Biden now endorses a $15 minimum wage, tuition-free college, a Green New Deal, and—in reaction to Sanders’s call for Medicare for All—a public option in Obamacare. With Sanders and Warren leading the way, the Democratic candidates are forced to address the glaring, structural inequities and failures of our current system.

Biden would prefer a campaign focused on a restoration to normalcy after Trump. But even the moderate Democrats agree there is no going back. Trump is a symptom, not a cause; beating him is necessary but not sufficient. As Warren put it, “When you’ve got a government, when you’ve got an economy that does great for those with money and isn’t doing great for everyone else, that is corruption, pure and simple. We need to call it out. We need to attack it head on. And we need to make structural change in our government, in our economy, and in our country.” Conservative pundits like David Brooks fret that Democratic populism will leave “moderates homeless.” In fact, the populist energy driving the debate gives whomever emerges with the nomination a far greater chance against Trump.

Biden’s Burden

Biden is particularly ill-equipped to deal with the progressive ideas and movements that are driving the debate. The new populist surge—on right and left—arises because of the catastrophic failures of the center that Biden personifies. Biden, a Democratic stalwart in the Senate and the Obama White House, is burdened with a record now exposed as continually getting it wrong. Harris defenestrated him on busing and on the harsh reality of the Obama deportation policy. Sanders took him on for supporting the war in Iraq, surely the greatest foreign policy debacle since Vietnam. Bennet challenged his boast about the Obama budget deal that kept most of the Bush tax cuts in place and put harsh lids on domestic spending. No one pressed him on his support for NAFTA, China in the WTO and the TPP, or his contribution to mass incarceration, but they will in the future. The list goes on. Experience is a wonderful asset, except when the record consists of one of one bad call after another. Biden had a bad night last night, but it could easily get worse.

Harris Breakout

Without question, however, what will be remembered from the two nights of debate is Harris’s charged exchange with Biden over his opposition to busing. “I don’t believe you are a racist,” she began, “but…” She was personal, forceful and direct. Biden’s response was bumbling and inept. Harris looked, as they say, like someone that just might be able to take on Donald Trump straight up.

Harris, whose chief advisers—led by her sister—come out of the establishment Center for American Progress and the Hillary Clinton campaign, has refashioned herself to fit the populist temper of the time. She now champions Medicare for All, tuition-free college, a $15 minimum wage, and the Green New Deal. She’s a staunch liberal on social issues. In the face of progressive doubts about her less-than-sterling record as California attorney general, she’s forcefully moved to more progressive positions in this campaign.

One of her best moments in the debate came early when—in Warren-Sanders fashion—she turned on a question on how to pay for the reforms, asking, “Where was that question when the Republicans and Donald Trump passed a tax bill that benefits the top 1 percent and the biggest corporations in his country…. For too long the rules have been written in favor of the people who have the most and not in favor of the people who work the most.” Warren or Sanders she is not, but she’s also not part of the nay-sayers arguing for incrementalism or a restoration of the past.

Up And Down

One debate doesn’t a campaign make, but with 20 candidates on the stage, keeping score in the early innings is useful. Clearly, on the first night, Warren stood out, Booker and Castro did well. Tulsi Gabbard eviscerated Representative Tim Ryan on Afghanistan. O’Rourke was schooled by Castro on immigration and looked hopelessly out of his depth. Bill de Blasio was more forceful than expected. Governor Jay Inslee and John Delaney did nothing to help their case.

The Money Question

Corey Booker was asked why he criticized Warren for “running around pointing at companies” like Facebook, Amazon, and Google that should be broken up. Booker reversed himself, shifting the focus to drug companies and Big Ag. The unspoken reality, of course, was that Democrats raising money from Wall Street and high-tech deep pockets may take up populist postures, but don’t want to bite the hands that feeds them. Joe Biden’s bad night began with the first question posed to him, asking, “What did you mean…?” when he told a group of wealthy donors that Democrats should not “demonize the rich,” and that “Nobody has to be punished. No one’s standard of living would change. Nothing would fundamentally change.”

On the second night, in his remorseless fashion, Sanders used his closing to lay down the marker for every candidate: “Nothing will change unless we have the guts to take on Wall Street, the insurance industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the military-industrial complex and the fossil fuel industry. If we don’t have the guts to take them on, we’ll continue to have plans, we’ll continue to have talk and the rich will get richer and everybody else will be struggling.”

As voters try to sort through the Democratic contenders, that is a pretty good standard to measure them by.

This blog originally appeared in ourfuture.org on July 2, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

Robert Borosage is a board member of both the Blue Green Alliance and Working America.  He earned a BA in political science from Michigan State University in 1966, a master’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University in 1968, and a JD from Yale Law School in 1971. Borosage then practiced law until 1974, at which time he founded the Center for National Security Studies.


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Will 2020 Be the Year Presidential Candidates Actually Take Labor Issues Seriously?

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Call it a sin of omission, but the historic decline of labor union power was on full display during recent CNN town hall meetings with 2020 Democratic presidential aspirants Sens. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar.

All three nationally televised forums featured questions on a range of issues from students, nonprofit directors, community leaders and other traditional Democratic constituencies (including undisclosed lobbying firms), but not a single question was asked about national labor law.

It’s not just CNN, either. By and large, the announced 2020 presidential candidates have not spoken at length on the stump about their agenda for labor, at least not yet, instead sticking to broader themes such as economic inequality and policies like raising the minimum wage, Medicare-for-All, free college tuition and universal child care.

“The candidates are making a distinction between labor policy and labor issues,” David Yepsen, the host of Iowa Press and a leading expert on presidential politics, told In These Times. “It’s politically safer to talk about health care, expanded Medicare, and a higher minimum wage than it is to talk about things like card check.”

Most voters don’t understand the latter, even though you’ve got to do things like the latter to get the former,” Yepsen added. “If you don’t find ways to strengthen the labor movement, there isn’t going to be the political support to do the things needed to rebuild the working class.”

The failure of the Obama administration and a filibuster-proof Democratic congress to pass the 2009 Employee Free Choice Act is a good example. The legislation would have made it easier for workers to form a union with a simple 50 percent majority. But there was little political will by the Democratic leadership at the time to get it done given other priorities such as an economic stimulus, Obamacare, reining in Wall Street and withdrawing troops from Iraq.

The issue agenda of the Obama White House was perhaps justifiable at the time, but it also came with a steep opportunity cost. The Democrats’ failure to strengthen union bargaining and consolidate a working-class base of political support when they had the chance helped lead to an eventual Republican takeover of government between 2010 and 2016, paving the way for future attacks on labor by right-wing governors and the Supreme Court.

Has the new crop of 2020 presidential candidates learned this lesson? All of the declared candidates who are considered front runners have strong ties to organized labor.

With the notable exception of Klobuchar, nearly all of the senators running for president— Gillibrand, Harris, Warren and Booker—co-sponsored Sanders’ 2018 Workplace Democracy Act, which would overhaul existing labor law and make it easier for workers to form and fund their own unions.

“The Workplace Democracy Act is Sen. Sanders’ key labor union legislation,” a spokesperson for Sanders told In These Times.

According to Sanders’ congressional office, the Workplace Democracy Act would enable unions to organize through a majority sign up process; enact ‘first contract’ provisions to ensure companies cannot prevent a union from forming by denying a first contract; eliminate “right to work” laws; end independent contractor and franchisee abuse; legalize secondary boycotts and picketing; and expand the ‘persuader rule’ to weaken union-busting efforts.

As Sanders explained when introducing the latest iteration of the bill last year, “Corporate America understands that when workers become organized, when workers are able to engage in collective bargaining, they end up with far better wages and benefits… and that is why, for decades now, there has been a concentrated well-organized attack on the ability of workers to organize.”

Sanders, Harris and Warren have all also taken symbolic actions since announcing their presidential runs in order to highlight their close relationship with unions and the working class.

Warren, for example, formally announced her candidacy for president in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the site of the 1912 strike by textile workers known as the “Bread and Roses Strike.”

“Supporting labor and making it easier for American workers to join a union is absolutely a priority for Sen. Warren,” Jason Noble, Warren’s communications director, told In These Times. “She is a co-sponsor of the 2018 Workplace Democracy Act, introduced a bill in 2017 to ban “right to work” laws, and has been very vocal about the need for stronger labor organization and wider access to unions.”

Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Actwould also allow workers at corporations with more than $1 billion in revenue to choose up to 40 percent of the company’s board of directors, shifting the balance of power toward the rank-and-file.

California is one of the last remaining union strongholds in the country, and Harris has hired the former president of the state’s largest and most diverse labor union, SEIU’s Laphonza Butler, to be her senior campaign advisor.

“Sen. Harris is a strong and passionate supporter of organized labor and workers’ rights,” the Harris campaign’s national press secretary, Ian Sams, told In These Times.

“She’s sponsored multiple bills in the Senate, including Workers’ Freedom to Negotiate Act, WAGE Act, Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, Workplace Democracy Act, and Protecting Workers and Improving Labor Standards Act.”

In February, Sanders publicly jumped in on the side of striking workers in Erie, Pennsylvania after announcing his own 2020 candidacy. Since 2016, he has also joined workers in fights against Amazonand McDonalds, helping them to win major wage increases.

“Many blue-collar workers supported Trump in the last election,” Yepsen, the Iowa-based national political analyst, said. “Both presidential candidates and labor leaders have to figure out ways and messages to move them back onto the progressive side if they hope to get 270 electoral votes for a presidential candidate. The phrases ‘labor policy,’ ‘labor movement’ and ‘organized labor’ aren’t well understood by voters. ‘Health care’ ‘minimum wage’ and ‘improved education’ are understood. So give the candidates some credit for talking about important issues in a way people can understand.”

As Yepsen previously noted, however, this kind of thinking may help win elections, but it can also lead to a paradox. Focusing on easily-understood, ‘bread and butter’ issues—talking about working families but not union power—and relying on congressional voting records and scorecards instead of stump speeches and bold new proclamations won’t build a popular mandate for labor law reform, or the long term working-class political power that comes with it.

“Most Americans take for granted the things the labor movement has done for them over the decades—child labor, minimum wage, a 40-hour work week, health care,” Yepsen said. “A lot of workers have forgotten that too. The good news for labor is that people seem to be waking up. The polls show support for unions increasing and look at the success teachers have been having.”

On another measure, worker militancy has been on the rise—a record number of workers engaged in strikes or work stoppages in 2018. This increased labor action will have to be harnessed by voters in order to push even the strongest candidates into elevating union rights as a priority issue on the campaign trail.

Workers in early voting states can help do so by attending campaign events and asking the candidates to publicly explain their support for the Workplace Democracy Act—or whether or not they back a national “right to strike” law for public sector unions.

The more explicit presidential politicians are about labor rights on the stump, the more likely union power will become a “day one” issue if a Democratic president takes power in 2020. In the long run, this may be one of the only effective ways to both win progressive social change and defend workers’ gains from the inevitable right-wing counterattack.

About the Author: David Goodner is a writer, organizer and Catholic Worker from Iowa City.
This blog was originally published at In These Times on March 6, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

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Forget Elections—Labor Needs To Get Back to Its Roots

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With the midterms behind us, we have Nov. 4, 2020, to look forward to—labor’s next morning after. On Nov. 5, 2008, we were euphoric and full of delusional hope over the imminent passage of the Employee Free Choice Act and the restoration of labor. On Nov. 9, 2016, we were paralyzed by despair and denial.

At this point, betting our future on the next brutal mating ritual of Republicans and Democrats is not a bet most workers are willing to take. Since the 1950s, union membership decline has been a straight line downward, regardless of which political party is in power. Only 10.7 percent of workers are unionized; an enormous 89.3 percent are not. That’s too low to make much difference for most people in most places—more molecular level Brownian motion than labor movement. No threat to wealth, the wealthy, or powerful. Much worse, no voice or power of, by, or, for workers. Instead, organized labor has become so marginal Donald Trump has been able to usurp its role as the emotional voice for workers.

The economy is doing great—apart from workers. Wages remain stagnant. Forty percent of adults don’t have enough savings to cover a $400 emergency expense such as a car repair or medical crisis. Forty-three percent of families aren’t making enough to cover monthly living expenses. Uncertain work, unpredictable work hours, mandatory overtime, dictatorial bosses, miserable job standards, create day-to-day desperation with psychological and social tolls. The labor market is ripe for an organizing explosion, but it isn’t happening.

Blaming the rich and the Republicans is great sport. The income inequality research industry is booming and there is no need to catalog Republican offenses—they campaign on them. Long ago, labor outsourced its representation in the public sphere to the Democratic Party, and in the process become a dependent franchise and an easy target. But the truth is that the Democrats patronize labor on a good day, sell us out on a bad day, and ignore us on most days. (I speak as a recovering politician, a Democrat who ran and was elected four times to city council in my heavily Republican small town.)

Partisan and competitive thinking insidiously affects behavior. Fifty percent plus one passes for solidarity. Unionists succumb to political speak, sounding like Washington rather than “folks ‘round here.” We blame workers for voting for Republicans. If they’d only voted how we told them, then we could get things done. We estrange ourselves from large chunks of workers while giving ourselves an excuse for failure. We don’t have to do the hard work of building a movement, we only need to win an election.

Maybe we should rethink that.

Instead, start today from where we are and who we are. Simple collective self-representation without institutional, ideological, partisan or monetary artifice. Understanding who and where we are by our own compass; by our own position, not opposition. This requires radical respect for our fellow workers. For lack of a better term, this unadorned organizing is social organizing.

Abundant example are scattered across the globe and buried in history. I witnessed a jarring worker tutorial in social organizing in Poland in 1995, when AFL-CIO desperation over labor’s decline and my good luck resulted in a leave of absence from my elected Central Labor Council job to work in those early post-revolutionary years with Solidarnosc leadership and membership. Ironically, at one point, I was tasked with organizing a conference on American union organizing for Solidarnosc activists. Just as the accomplished, well-educated American organizer sent over by the union began his presentation, one Solidarnosc members interrupted to ask, “What do you mean “organize?” A moment of awkward silence followed. Then, charitably, another Solidarnosc member suggested, “Do you mean, join our organization and we’ll represent you?” The original questioner jumped in, “we had 45 years of that with the Communists.” The workers then came up with their own definition of organizing, “co-creating our own future.” Workers, not the organization, were the of, by, and for.

Post-revolution, the solidarity of Solidarnosc dissipated into political and institutional factions. Still, this incident illuminates the commitment to social organizing that helped spark this transformational worker movement.

When all we have is each other, social organizing is where we start.

Back to basics

Social organizing built the labor movement. When 19th-century American workers had virtually no institutional or political voice or power, they developed both by caring about and for each other. In nearly every inch of America, now-forgotten workers came together with that definition of solidarity.

In 1894, Coxey’s Army of unemployed workers marched on Washington, D.C., to press for defined jobs and meaningful work. As branches passed through cities and towns—including Fort Wayne, Ind., where I work—the Fort Wayne Sentinel reported that local residents lavished them for days with food and social support. That same year the Sentinel reported, during the 1894 streetcar workers strike, housewives directed garden hoses at scabs, horse drawn wagons inexplicably unhitched on the tracks, and riders boycotted the streetcars. Returning the solidarity, striking workers went back to work without pay for one day, Memorial Day, so citizens could visit the graves of their departed. Streetcar workers and the community won that strike.

Thousands of lost histories such as this were the roots of community-based solidarity in industrial America. This populist industrial solidarity spawned and supported Workingmen’s Associations, Knights of Labor chapters, Trade and Labor Councils. In turn, these organizations incubated worker organizing in workplaces and by trades. Local solidarity in railroad towns and company towns built the institutional, political and legal foundations for our now diminished labor movement. The gravity of solidarity drew workers into the inextricably intertwined labor market and community. This culture of solidarity included direct actions such as strikes and boycotts but, more consistently and importantly, direct education of, by, and for workers. Apprenticeships,“lectors” who read news and literature aloud to workers on the job, and intentionally educational union meetings with guest speakers were part of the culture. Railroad and industrial activities were regularly covered in newspapers, with the reporting focused more on workers than bosses or business. Journalists, whether Knights of Labor or just solid reporters, would commonly cover union federation meetings. Union leaders understood their role as representative in the community meant talking to reporters, not hiding from them. Everybody had something to teach and everybody had something to learn and an obligation to do both. A culture of solidarity meant educate to organize and organize to educate.

We could take solace and avoid the hard work of organizing by saying America and the world are different now. Our mid-twentieth century institutions, economy, and democracy have decayed or been hijacked. Our social divisions can feel insurmountable. We’ve been sliced, diced, monetized, politicized and controlled. But are we so special that we now believe we are the first ones to have ever been so seemingly screwed? Or do we try to work through it, experiment based on what we can learn from other times and places and most importantly, each other?

Social organizing after the 2008 Recession

Since 1996, the folks I’ve been working with at the Workers’ Project, a research and education nonprofit, have experimented scores of times with worker representation through social organizing. We are confident and hopeful various configurations of workers have been experimenting elsewhere. We have learned some lessons from our successes and failures.

One instructive experiment focused on unemployed workers’ social organizing for voice and power during and after the Great Recession. A torrent of mostly non-union workers, newly jobless after the economic crash, were overwhelming Indiana’s unemployment offices. The state offices were disinterested or actively hostile toward unemployed workers. Meanwhile, a union foundry in Kendallville, Ind., was closing. Busted up from years of foundry work, the union president, the late Leonard Hicks, was ready to quit working but unwilling to stop representing his folks as their lives became even tougher.

To address both problems, we brought together union and non-union unemployed workers to bargain with the state through a social organizing movement, Unemployed and Anxiously Employed Workers’ Initiative (UAEWI).

First, we listened as workers talked about problems and possibilities. We developed a survey. In the unemployment office parking lot, we surveyed unemployed workers about how the office was doing, giving them a report card style survey to fill out, with a voluntary contact information form. The state immediately called in the police to stop us—claiming that we were trespassing on private property, because the public office was housed on private land. We alerted the media and the state received reams of bad press.

The media coverage revealed to unemployed workers they could have a voice and some grit. They began coming to UAEWI meetings, along with the union foundry workers in Kendallville and other union shops experiencing mass lay-offs.

Our ranks of unemployed included workers with education and experience in sociology. With their assistance, the UAEWI members developed and collected a broader survey. The survey was not for academic publication, or for an institutional or partisan agenda, but instead for collective self-representation. It had real value for public policy discussions. While the political class talk about or for unemployed workers, UAEWI represented themselves.

Membership was determined solely by a worker’s decision to participate in the survey—to voluntarily add their voice to the collective voice. We conducted education and training classes as well as group talk sessions. Within a few months, the State’s unemployment office management found themselves in a union hall across a bargaining table with the UAEWI members. Unemployed workers gained improvements in services including increased staffing and training but most importantly, a change in attitude. Most UAEWI members had never been union members; they learned how collective representation worked.

For seven more years, we continued and broadened annual UAEWI surveys. We gathered responses wherever we found voiceless workers: from folks leaving food banks, township trustee office, social service agencies, a mobile Mexican consulate. Our sampling exceeded 500 workers in 2012 and was conducted in English, Spanish and Burmese. We asked more wide-ranging public policy questions about issues such as economic development.

UAEWI members bargained in the public sphere. They provided local, state, national, and international journalists with reliable data, context, and access to socially organized workers willing to tell compelling stories. Some of the stories supported Peabody and Murrow investigative journalism awards. UAEWI members presented survey report results to other members and the public in very public formats ranging from traditional research reports to semi-theatrical presentations and even cinematic effort. UAEWI members attended and spoke before the local and state Workforce Investment Boards, Fort Wayne City Council, Indiana Economic Development Board meetings.

Just the modest act of asking drew workers out of their isolation and into solidarity. Many UAEWI members were personally transformed as they shaped public policies from the unemployment office to well beyond. They were co-creating their own futures. This was bargaining in the public sphere, bargaining with the state over the terms and conditions of our lives. Bargaining with state is foundational for worker representation in the 21st century, just as it was with Coxey’s Army in the 19th century. The UAEWI effort only updated representation with a bit of worker-driven social science.

In the last four years, learning from UAEWI effort, we have experimented with applying worker-driven social science and applying it to original NLRA intent in workplaces. In labor speak workers develop “non-certified minority status bargaining” with so-called private employers. (This less legalistic, institutional and technocratic organizing was envisioned when the NLRA was first implemented—the work of labor law scholar, the late Clyde Summers, as well as Charles Morris’s in Blue Eagle At Work documents this well.)

We helped workers develop their collective understanding and identity to, from the worm’s eye view, make things better at work. In each case, their self-organizing grew from “solidarity selfies” and a survey of co-workers’ thoughts on the terms and conditions of their employment. It is simultaneously concerted activity under the NLRA and, more importantly, intellectual property owned by the workers. We provided supportive research and education for Latina workers at a manufacturing plant; sub-contracted workers at a retail outlet; and Burmese workers at a manufacturing plant. One group faced unsafe work conditions causing miscarriages. The second faced a classic bullying boss culture. The third faced systematic ethnic and language discrimination.

We provided them access to social science, legal support, and social organizing talent, as well as a place in our community of solidarity. We supported their conversations to develop strategies to negotiate with the boss. They succeeded on their own terms. First the survey process overcame employer-imposed isolation. Workers experienced their own workplace “me too” revelations which led to collective voice. They built their representational power by developing a research report on their work lives that became collectively owned and copyrighted intellectual property with real bargaining value. Each unit could choose to share the findings with whoever they decide in the public-private spectrum: media, government regulators, elected officials, customers, suppliers, competitors, stockholders or, if willing, across the table with the boss.

The Latina factory workers met with the plant owner to present their findings. Safety conditions improved, maternity leaves were granted, healthy babies were born, and little Jose Manuel now attends our events. Some of the workers were fired, most moved on to other jobs, some won legal settlements. Most remain active in the Hispanic Workers Circle.

The subcontracted retail workers successfully confronted top national corporate management. They ended the bullying management culture and maintain an ongoing social “solidarity union” collecting no dues and participating in all Workers’ Project activities.

The Burmese factory workers efforts are ongoing. They constitute a significant portion of our Burmese Workers Circle which is developing as a workers’ and civil rights organization.

Stay tuned for more news: All groups continue full-throated participation in Workers’ Project activities and Fort Wayne’s huge annual Labor Day picnic.

We think collective intellectual property is an intriguing innovation. As workers we are robbed of our intellectual property as employers pick our brains, pick our pockets, only to pick up and leave us jobless. As consumers, our data has collected by others, monetized and politicized at our expense to benefit wealth. Intellectual property we own collectively can help us bargain with anyone in the power spectrum, from private employer to the state.

Owning our own voices and power, collective human agency, is our democracy where we work and where we live. Valuing each other, sharing our experiences, information, ideas, and respect seems a great place to start especially when you are starting at scratch. Social organizing, old school or innovative, is still solidarity.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on November 16, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Tom Lewandowski is co-founder and director of the Workers’ Project in Fort Wayne, Ind.


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Democrats have the House. They should use it to show how they’ll fight back in the war on workers

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Winning the House doesn’t just let Democrats block some of the worst things Donald Trump wants from Congress. It also offers a chance to show what Democrats would do if they had the chance. For years Democrats have been introducing great legislation that Republicans would never allow to even come to a vote. Now is the chance to pass some of that in the House and let Senate Republicans explain why they’re not taking action.

Let’s start with the minimum wage. The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009, while red states like Missouri and Arkansas (most recently) have voted to increase it, showing how deep and broad voter support is. Democrats should be able to pass a substantial minimum wage increase in the House quickly.

Democrats should pass a Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to strengthen protections for pregnant women and prevent abuses like these.

Paid family leave. Sick leave. Protections for Dreamers. These are all obvious, necessary things with widespread support.

But you can go deeper: “Workers should not be forced to sign away their rights as a condition of employment,” Celine McNicholas and Heidi Shierholz write. Democrats should undo one of the worst recent Supreme Court decisions with the Restoring Justice for Workers Act, which allows workers to have their cases against employers heard in a real court, not a rigged arbitration process.

No, this stuff isn’t going to get through the Senate or Donald Trump. But Democrats, show us what you would do if you could. Let the country know that while Republicans use Congress and the presidency to dismantle health care and give big tax breaks to corporations, Democrats would use it to raise the minimum wage and protect pregnant workers and let workers have their day in court.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on November 10, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

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Labor-Backed Candidates Win Big in Tuesday’s Elections

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It was a big night for labor’s agenda as pro-worker candidates won election from coast to coast Tuesday.

In Virginia, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam handily defeated Ed Gillespie as AFL-CIO-endorsed candidates won throughout the commonwealth. Virginia AFL-CIO President Doris Crouse-Mays hailed the victories:

“Today, Virginia’s voters turned out in record numbers to stand with working people and reject the hateful, divisive rhetoric that has taken over the airwaves throughout the campaign. Virginia voters have spoken—we must work toward a commonwealth that puts working families first and prioritizes real issues that impact our lives each and every day. All students must have quality public education and job-training opportunities. All workers must be guaranteed fair wages, safe working conditions and the freedom to join in union. And all Virginians must have access to quality, affordable health care no matter where they live.

“We are proud to stand with you all and elect Ralph Northam, Justin Fairfax, Mark Herring and a host of delegates in districts from Blacksburg to Hampton and so many places in between. Voters came together to enact real change in our commonwealth by flipping control in at least 15 house districts despite our heavily gerrymandered lines.”

In New Jersey, Democrat Phil Murphy defeated Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, one of several key victories for labor in the state. New Jersey State AFL-CIO President Charlie Wowkanech said union solidarity made it possible:

“The results of New Jersey’s critical gubernatorial election are in, and the election of Phil Murphy as governor and Sheila Oliver as lieutenant governor speaks to the unmatched mobilization efforts of organized labor and the New Jersey State AFL-CIO’s political program that is unparalleled by any other in our state or nation.

“Let’s be clear: what made the difference tonight was our unified labor voice, comprised of support from thousands of union volunteers, national, state and local affiliates, central labor councils and Building Trades councils. We had an opportunity to show strength and solidarity and we did. We joined together every Saturday for labor walks, made calls at evening phone banks and delivered thousands of mail pieces around the state. There is no question that our 1-million-member-strong state labor movement determined the outcome of this election.

“Working people needed a victory and organized labor delivered. The results of this election make clear that the New Jersey labor movement will lead the way forward for the rest of the nation, securing needed reforms that promote job creation, quality education, skills training, modernized infrastructure, affordable health care, equitable taxation, and a sustainable and secure retirement future for all New Jersey families.”

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on November 8, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tim Schlittner is the AFL-CIO director of speechwriting and publications and co-president of Pride At Work


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