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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 Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.


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National Hispanic Heritage Month Profile of Labor Leader Ernesto Galarza

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

Ernesto Galarza was born in Jalcocotán, Nayarit, Mexico, in 1905 and immigrated to California with his family after the Mexican Revolution began. As a youth, he assisted his family during harvest season, gathering his first experience as a farmworker. Because he had learned English in school, other Mexican migrant workers asked him to speak to management about polluted drinking water, providing him with his first experience in organizing and activism.

Galarza attended Occidental College on a scholarship and worked summers as a farm laborer and cannery worker. After graduation, he attended Stanford University and earned a master’s degree in history and political science. He continued his graduate studies while on a fellowship at Columbia University, where several of his research reports were published. 

Because of his experiences and education, he began to focus his efforts on improving the living conditions of working-class Latinos. This led to him being hired by the Pan American Union (later the Organization of American States) as a research associate. When the union created a Division of Labor and Social Information, Galarza was chosen to lead it. 

In the late 1940s, he was recruited by the National Farm Labor Union, which later became the United Farm Workers, to be director of research and education. Over the next several years, he helped direct numerous strikes and fought back against “right to work” laws. He became a leading figure in exposing abuse of Mexican American workers in government. 

In the ensuing years, Galarza became a leading writer on the plight of Mexican and Mexican American workers and the abuse of farmworkers. During his career, he wrote more than 100 publications and was a professor at the University of Notre Dame, San Jose State University, University of California, San Diego, and University of California, Santa Cruz. 

As an activist, scholar and organizer, it is hard to overstate the impact Galarza had on working-class Mexican American families and our broader culture.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on September 21, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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In California, a “Labor Slate” Aims to Redefine the Relationship Between Unions and Politics

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From union jobs to Medicare for All, this new pro-worker slate is pushing a progressive platform—and could become a model for how organized labor approaches elections.

The political influence of organized labor usually involves jockeying with other interest groups that are trying to sway Democratic politicians. In recent decades, this dynamic has achieved mixedresults, at best. In California, one group of union activists is now trying to take a more direct approach: forming a “Labor Slate” of candidates, in what they hope will become a model for future election cycles.

Centered in the Bay Area, the idea for the Labor Slate effort began germinating last summer. Gaelan Ash, an AFSCME staffer and one of the Labor Slate’s organizers, said that even in progressive Northern California, “It’s a pain in the ass going up against so-called progressive politicians” who do not end up prioritizing the needs of the working class. “There are so many amazing labor leaders who would make better politicians,” he said. “[We realized] we need to make this much more about building an organization that’s membership based and rooted in labor.”

The project came together in full force earlier this year, taking advantage of the fact that everyone had more free time after the pandemic struck. Now, Labor Slate is an established organization with a full platform and a slate of six candidates—three of whom are running for City Council in the East Bay city of Hayward, and three who are running for various board positions in other Bay Area cities. Organizers say that they made the strategic choice to only back candidates who are running in nonpartisan races this November, in order to avoid an immediate clash with the established political parties. If all goes well, they hope to scale up to partisan races like those for California State Assembly in four to six years.

Labor Slate is funded by member dues of $5 a month. The group is not formally allied with any unions, but draws on the interest of true believers in the labor movement. All of the candidates the group nominates must agree to its platform, which was developed by an internal working group. The platform emphasizes union jobs, affordable housing, Medicare for All, public education and transportation, as well as increasing taxes on the rich. Jon Ezell, the group’s recording secretary and an ILWU member who works at San Francisco’s recently unionized Anchor Brewing Company, said that the platform committee had the advantage of having input from union members working directly on many of the issues—when discussing healthcare, for example, union nurses were in the room. The group’s platform, Ezell said, is intentionally broad, so that candidates can “fill in the gaps” based on local conditions.

Anchor Brewing’s union drive drew public support from elected officials in San Francisco. That opened Ezell’s eyes to the potential for building union power through electoral politics. “You can help people unionize,” he said, “or you can change the environment they unionize in.”

One of the Labor Slate’s candidates is Eduardo Torres, who is running for a board seat in the Ambrose Recreation and Park District in Bay Point, where he’s lived for 41 years. Torres is a longtime activist and organizer with Tenants Together, which promotes affordable housing and tenants’ rights in California. (The other five candidates are also members of unions or labor groups in the area). “I am part of the working class. We have elected officials that don’t look back at the community that helped get them elected,” Torres said. “We’re sick of our elected officials not doing what they should be doing, which is helping low income and working people.”

Though Labor Slate is a new and relatively small group, it has the advantage of being rich with trained organizers. Dozens of union locals are already represented in its membership. If it can find success with its first crop of candidates in November, it can lay claim to being a legitimate new model for union members to engage with local politics. Its promise is not just in who it gets elected, but in the potential for building a labor-centric approach to elections that sits outside of the Democratic Party—which has, on a national scale at least, largely come to take union support for granted.

For Torres, who grew up in a union household, the advantage of the Labor Slate is not just the phone banking and door-knocking it brings to his campaign, but also a sense of mutual accountability between candidate and cause. “It helps me see the bigger picture,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to be done. And it will be done by the working class.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 2, 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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Labor Movement in Tucson Demands Freedom for Mexican Labor Attorney

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Susana Prieto Terrazas, a Mexican attorney and activist who organizes workers in the maquiladora factories along the southern border, was arrested by Mexican authorities last month on trumped-up charges. On June 10, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka (UMWA) called her arrest “an outrage” and demanded her immediate and unconditional release from prison.

Members of the Pima Area Labor Federation and Jobs With Justice took direct action. They delivered a joint letter to the Mexican Consulate in Tucson, Arizona, along with a letter from the UAW and a copy of Trumka’s statement. The members met with Consul Enrique Alfonso Gómez Montiel, who assured them he would send the letters and statement to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Prior to the meeting, the members had a constructive conversation with the consul’s staff explaining the details of the situation and the desire of America’s labor movement to see the release of Prieto Terrazas.

It was announced after the meeting at the consulate on July 1 that a judge had ordered her release from prison just hours after the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement on trade went into effect. However, the criminal charges against Prieto Terrazas still remain. The Pima Area Labor Federation, under the leadership of Chair Trish Muir (IBT), posted an update on Facebook: “We will continue to push for her to be absolved of these erroneous claims, and stand with workers everywhere.”

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on July 13, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Aaron Gallant is a contributor for AFL-CIO.


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Respect at Work Has to Become the New Normal: ILO Convention 190 and Rebuilding for a Fairer Economy

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The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into stark relief the direct correlation between the exploitative labor model that fuels our global economy and the systemic racism and discrimination that leads to attacks on Black people’s bodies and lives. It is a system rooted in discrimination and oppression, one that strategically devalues and dehumanizes Black and Brown workers, particularly women. Returning to “normal” is not an option or even desirable—we must instead rebuild an economy designed to meet human needs and protect fundamental rights, including safety and respect on the job.

After years of campaigning by the global labor movement, workers, governments and employers came together June 21, 2019, at the International Labor Organization to negotiate a global standard to end violence and harassment in the world of work. The ILO Convention that resulted from those discussions, C190, was the first international treaty to recognize the right of every worker to be free from violence and harassment, including gender-based violence and harassment, and the responsibility of governments and employers to ensure safe, respectful workplaces. Uruguay recently became the first country to ratify the convention, and others are soon to follow its lead. One year later, as we confront racial, economic and health crises, the convention takes on an even greater role in addressing the many forms of work-related violence and harassment workers are reporting related to the pandemic. 

With increased incidence of domestic violence and health and safety violations during the current crisis, unions are using the C190 framework to negotiate with employers and governments for policies that address the forms of violence they confront. Female workers throughout the global economy often are the first to lose their jobs as the economy contracts or are forced to work in low-paid positions with few health and safety protections. C190 requires that employers recognize gender-based violence and harassment in their safety and health protections. It is clear the convention provides an important framework for addressing the systemic discrimination and exploitation workers face around the world.

Rebuilding our economy will require that we proactively design and implement systems that empower and protect workers and address systemic power imbalances. As countries shape policies for reopening and rebuilding economies, the C190 framework provides guidance on how to ensure workplaces are safe and address the continuum of violence workers often experience. C190 calls on all governments to address the root causes of violence and harassment at work, including discrimination, and develop strategies to address the underlying factors that support these systems.

Women, particularly women of color, have been on the front lines of the pandemic, many working for very low wages. Overall, front-line workers are 64% women and disproportionately people of color. According to the National Domestic Workers Alliance, 73% of Black immigrant domestic workers report not being provided with any form of personal protective equipment (PPE) by their employers. Women particularly are overrepresented in care work, making up more than 85% of child care workers and 75% of health care workers. Caring for others sustains our communities and allows our economy to function, but it has long been dismissed as women’s work and systematically devalued, informalized and underpaid. Not coincidentally, these professions also face high rates of violence and harassment on the job. 

In addition, women, along with marginalized groups such as migrant workers, Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming individuals, are disproportionately pushed into the precarious workforce. And while precarious work arrangements—aka corporations using subcontractors, franchises and gig models to avoid a formal employment relationship and escape liability for some or all labor rights—predate COVID-19, the pandemic has spotlighted how these jobs operate with little to no regard for worker safety. 

C190 explicitly requires governments to address precarious work arrangements and ensure that everyone in the working world has legal protections from violence and harassment. It also contains protections for others in the workplace who are often left unprotected by labor laws and social protection systems, including people looking for work, unpaid interns and apprentices. As unemployment rises and state reopenings foreclose many from qualifying for emergency assistance, people will become increasingly desperate for income and can be forced into more dangerous and exploitative situations.

Critically, C190 also recognizes the importance of addressing underlying power relationships at work. Ending violence and harassment requires shifting more agency and control into the hands of workers themselves. This pandemic has made clear that far too often, workers are not viewed as human beings deserving of dignity and safety, but as expendable cogs in a machine. Violence and harassment exist in this system not as a glitch, but as a feature—tools of control used to reinforce hierarchy both in the workplace and in society.

To get all of this done, we need to build alliances across our movements. Feminist, worker, climate, racial justice, migrant and human rights organizations must build joint analysis and campaigns that work toward ratification and implementation of C190. All workers must have the ability to organize collectively to proactively shape their own working conditions. A union is how change is made, and one of the few inspiring outcomes of the pandemic has been the rise of new waves of worker and community organizing. Going forward, we must create an enabling environment for organizing to demand respect on the job by protecting everyone’s fundamental right to come together and act in concert to demand better. 

One of the most heartbreaking elements of the COVID-19 crisis is that so much of the suffering is the result of political choices, made to prioritize the stock market and uninterrupted markets, rather than human life. C190 provides us a framework for a worker-centered response and recovery that builds systems for all workers and addresses the power imbalances created by systemic discrimination. We can and must make different, better choices—choices to recognize the inherent dignity and value of all workers, to require respectful, safe working conditions, and to allow people more agency in shaping their working lives.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on June 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Cathy Feingold is a leading advocate on global workers’ rights issues. As director of the AFL-CIO’s International Department, Feingold is a committed and passionate advocate, strategic campaigner and policy expert. In 2018, Feingold was elected Deputy President of the International Trade Union Confederation, the organization representing 200 million unionized workers worldwide. She brings more than 20 years of experience in trade and global economic policy, and worker, human and women’s rights issues. Her work in both global and grassroots fora reflect her commitment to strengthening the voice of working people in global policy debates.


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Celebrating Juneteenth, Labor Finds Its Voice for Racial Justice

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In work stoppages, rallies, motorcades and a spectacular West Coast port shutdown, labor tied itself to the movement in the streets.

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—The enormous white stone arch in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza is a memorial to the Union’s victory in the Civil War. Confederate monuments are toppling across the country, but the arch is only getting more popular. At 11:30 on a hot Juneteenth morning, Kyle Bragg stands in its shade, wearing a red T-shirt, a New York Knicks-branded face mask, and a purple hat with the logo of 32BJ SEIU, the 175,000-member union that he leads.

“My son is 25, and my daughter is 29. I worry every single time they’re out of the house,” says Bragg, a Black man who has spent decades as a labor leader. “The most important conversation I had with them when they were young was not about sex or drugs. It was about how to deal with the police.” 

The uprisings that have swept America this month are spontaneous, massive and often leaderless, and the structured world of unions initially seemed puzzled as to how to react. The burning of the AFL-CIO’s headquarters in the early days of the protests was symbolic of the disconnect between organized labor and the streets. But as the days went by, labor rallied to the cause. In the week leading up to Juneteeth, the June 19 holiday commemorating the end of slavery, it seemed unions found their voice.

The ILWU, the longshoremen’s union, spectacularly shut down West Coast ports on Juneteenth. United Auto Workers nationwide stopped work for eight minutes and 46 seconds in honor of George Floyd. The AFL-CIO’s headquarters, boarded up but newly festooned with “Black Lives Matter” banners, became a staging ground for marches and rallies. The labor federation organized a set of coordinated “Workers First Caravan” events across the country on Wednesday, June 17, with union members driving around in cars covered in signs demanding racial and economic justice.

It was not quite the socialist dream of melding labor’s class war with the movement for racial justice into one big, huge, perfect revolution, but it was something. It was an effort by organized labor to publicly tie its fate to that of the people marching in the streets, many of whom have no connection to unions. It was a start. 

And in New York City, 32BJ—a union whose purple shirts and hats and banners are familiar to anyone who has been to any protest for economic justice in the city in the past decade—held protests for the entire week. On Tuesday, union members took a collective knee near Rockefeller Center, in honor of the 30th anniversary of SEIU’s “Justice for Janitors” strike in which Los Angeles police infamously beat and injured workers. And on Friday, Juneteenth itself, 32BJ gathered in Brooklyn for a motorcade that would wind through the city, all the way up to the Bronx, a purple river flowing through a landscape of anti-racism rallies citywide. 

The pre-motorcade rally began just before noon at the Grand Army Plaza arch. Three children were assigned to hold up a green banner reading “JUNETEENTH DRIVE TO JUSTICE,” which kept drooping in the middle as the kids’ attention strayed. Assorted local officials had shown up to pay homage to the day, and to the union, and to the assembled media. The twist-the-knife ethos of New York City politics has been heightened by the weeks of uprisings, and the politicians who consider themselves the philosophical brethren of the protesters are enjoying their sudden moment of advantage against the entrenched powers. Jumaane Williams, the public advocate, gave an obligatory nod to the city’s new ban on police chokeholds, but made a point of not crediting city leaders.

“The only reason that’s happening is because the streets have been hot,” he said. “I know the governor said you won and you don’t have to protest any more. Nothing could be further from the truth!”

When 32BJ president Kyle Bragg’s turn came at the podium, he pulled his Knicks mask down to his chin. “It’s our mission to provide economic justice—but there is no economic justice without social justice,” he said. “There’s a triple threat. There’s an economic crisis. There’s a pandemic. And now there’s a racial crisis.” 

As he was speaking, the microphone abruptly cut off; despite frantic effort, it could not be revived. All fell silent. But after a moment, someone handed Bragg a megaphone. He held it up to his mouth, and carried on.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 20, 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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Tammy Johnson Leads Wyoming’s Labor Movement, Fighting for Struggling Workers and the Unemployed

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With the Wyoming Legislature scheduled to begin an emergency session later this week, Wyoming State AFL-CIO Executive Secretary Tammy Johnson (USW) is taking the lead fighting for workers in her home state. Policymakers are considering a bill that includes three major components: unemployment insurance (UI), workers’ compensation and rent relief. The UI provisions would hold employers harmless as the state provides additional money to cover the increase in UI claims, and the rent relief portion would provide additional eviction protections for tenants.

However, Johnson and the state federation are working to change the state’s workers’ compensation system so that all front-line workers who get infected will be presumed to have been infected on the job. Currently, most employers are exempted from the state’s workers’ compensation system unless their employees are performing “extra hazardous” jobs. Johnson said legislators were surprised to learn that many grocery store workers in Wyoming would not be eligible for compensation under the proposed legislation.

“We have to have some kind of protection in place for workers,” she explained. “If they don’t have health care because their hours have been cut to part time and they can’t take unemployment because there’s work available, then they’ll have to go to work sick. You would not want sick grocery store workers to be in the stores.”

Johnson was also appointed by Gov. Mark Gordon to be on the Business and Financial Sector Task Force that is providing policy recommendations for reopening Wyoming’s economy. She said that one of the local unions she has helped is United Steelworkers (USW) Local 13214, whose members mine soda ash. Working with her colleagues on the task force and the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, she helped ensure that those USW members who were placed on furlough wouldn’t be penalized by the UI system for drawing on their pensions or for taking a “voluntary” furlough. “The challenge going forward is to educate everyone that all workers contributed to these systems and we have to modernize thinking about compensation packages,” she said.

“The backbone of Wyoming is exposed right now. Big corporations are keeping us in the shade, but it’s the workers who keep these companies up and running,” Johnson explained. “Companies may leave, but the workers are still going to be here, and they are the people who make up our communities….COVID-19 has made it clear where the strength in our economy is: It’s with the workers.”

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on May 14, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Aaron Gallant is a contributor for AFL-CIO.


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We Need the Labor Movement To Organize Worker Fightback in the Face of the COVID-19 Crisis

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Life-and-death circumstances are being imposed on U.S. workplaces and workers are increasingly responding by standing up, fighting back and walking out, but frequently without the support of organized labor. Unions have a choice right now: Hunker down and try to ride out the COVID-19 storm or put our shoulders to the task of assisting workers in their fight to either improve conditions on the job or shut their workplaces down. If unions seize the moment, we can not only improve the immediate situation for millions of workers but also create a wave that changes our society greatly for the better, organizes many new workers into unions and forges a generation of workplace leaders who will be able to build fighting organizations for years to come.

With the enhanced unemployment benefits currently in place and with real fears surrounding just showing up for work every day, workers have the upper hand. Employers need them much more than the other way around. Workers who learn how to use collective action to shut a workplace down or to force management to yield to their safety and compensation demands will not soon forget those lessons.

The immediate need of workers at this moment is not a comprehensive list of demands but rather three basic principles that speak to their survival needs.

  • Fight to make employers shut down all workplaces except those truly critical to sustaining life until the public health crisis has been controlled.
  • Give workers in those critical jobs everything they need to do their work safely and compensate them for the immense risk they are taking.
  • Provide robust economic support for everyone else to allow and incentivize them to stay home.

Likewise, rather than an attempt to plan a national coordinated set of actions that would likely be joined by only a smattering of already-committed activists, what is needed instead is to help large numbers of workers gain the tools they need to lead fights at their workplaces.

Out of these fights the workers will develop the demands they need to protect themselves. And each of these fights, if given the proper direction and support, can inspire solidarity throughout the country and move many other workers into action, creating the conditions not only for more workplace victories but also to produce political pressures that force the federal government to address the needs of working people.

While the relief packages passed by Congress so far provide some economic support to laid-off workers, much more is needed, including to address all those left out, not least the undocumented. Congress must also act to provide health care to all given that millions more will now be without insurance due to the loss of their jobs. Already, a number of excellent proposals address these issues. Getting workers into motion is going to be the way to win them, just as widespread worker unrest in the 1930s won the relief programs and labor rights that workers needed then.

To organize the worker fightback needed right now, unions should:

•       Aggressively promote these principles, both to their own members and to the unorganized, and then provide workers the help they need to take on their employers.

•       Provide basic toolkits on their websites to educate workers on their rights and to outline for them the initial steps in self-organization and taking their demands to the boss.

•       Make union staff available to provide guidance and facilitate needed support.

•       Recruit labor leaders and member activists committed to solidarity actions that produce immediate pressure on the relevant corporate or political targets.

•       Create new and robust structures for coordinating effective solidarity.

Our union, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), has called on all workers, both our members and nonunion workers, to stand up and fight. We have created online resources to help nonunion workers take action to win safe workplaces. We have published a special issue of UE Steward on how to organize members around COVID-19 issues in the workplace. Alongside the Democratic Socialists of America we are launching a joint effort called the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, which will provide organizing and logistical support to workers who are ready to take on their boss. Our members, both in organized shops and in workplaces where we have organizing campaigns, are winning concessions from their employers through militant and creative tactics.

Now is the time for all labor organizations committed to forging a better society for working people to step up and help launch workers into the kinds of fights needed to win that future. UE is committed to doing just that, and to work with and support all others who do so. We see some others in the labor movement doing likewise, but not nearly enough. We call on all labor unions to join us in this fight.

This blog was originally published at InTheseTimes on April 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Carl Rosen is the UE General President. Andrew Dinkelaker is the UE General Secretary-Treasurer. Gene Elk is the UE Director of Organization.


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