From unions in the United States fighting to save our supply chain from the destruction wrought by corporate tycoons, Wall Street vampires, and bought-off politicians, to the National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport Workers (RMT) leading the fight against austerity politics and ruling-class union busting in the United Kingdom, to rail workers with the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) in France joining their compatriots in the streets in aÂ general strike against President Emmanuel Macronâ€™s neoliberal attack on the countryâ€™s beloved pension system, rail workers around the world are fighting different battles in the same war: the classÂ war.Â
In this special international episode, we bring together a panel of rail workers from the US, UK, and France to talk about what they are up against, what the struggle looks like in their corners of the world, and what we can all do to connect those struggles and build international worker solidarity.
Panelists include: Ross Grooters of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and Railroad Workers United in the US; Cat Cray and Clayton Clive of the RMT in the UK; Matthieu Bolle-Reddat of the CGT Cheminots Versailles in France.
This blog originally appeared at In These Times on March 3, 2023 alongside a podcast recording and transcript.
About the Author: Maximillian Alvarez is editor-in-chief at the Real News Network and host of the podcastÂ Working People, available at In These Times. He is also the author ofÂ The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke.
Labor Secretary Marty Walsh is expected to step down in the coming days. He plans to take a job leading the National Hockey League Players Association. While thatâ€™s not official yet, the jockeying to replace him is already well underway.
Thereâ€™s an obvious choice to replace Walsh: Deputy Labor Secretary Julie Su.
Diversity and Endorsements
Sheâ€™s hugely qualified — in addition to being the current deputy labor secretary, sheâ€™s a former California labor secretary — and President Joe Biden has already faced pressure over the low representation of Asian Americans at the Cabinet level in his administration.
(In addition to Vice President Kamala Harris, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai and Office of Science and Technology Policy head Arati Prabhakar are considered Cabinet level. But there are no Asian Americans currently holding the title of secretary in a traditional Cabinet role.)
â€ťGiven her experience serving as Deputy Secretary of Labor since July 2021, we know Deputy Secretary Su can hit the ground running on executing existing initiatives of the Department while implementing new ones,â€ť CAPAC said in its statement.
â€śBecause she is in the best position to understand the Departmentâ€™s work and needs, and because the inclusion of an AANHPI as a Cabinet Secretary is long overdue, CAPAC endorses her to serve as Secretary of Labor and urges President Biden to swiftly nominate her to the role when appropriate.â€ť
Acting Labor Secretary
If Walsh leaves as soon as expected, Su will become acting labor secretary. At The American Prospect, Robert Kuttner has noted that she was confirmed to her current role with just 50 votes. He says she could face difficulty even with the slightly expanded Democratic majority in the Senate. This is especially true because the big gig work companies like Uber and Lyft really hate her and are prepared to lobby against her. He advocates for Biden to leave Su in the acting role until the end of his current term.
Acting or confirmed, Su would, as CAPAC noted, be able to â€śhit the ground running on executing existing initiativesâ€ť while drawing on deep experience fighting for workers and fulfilling Bidenâ€™s stated commitment to diversity. Sheâ€™s the right choice.
There are other options, though.
One name mentioned frequently — now and when Biden was first elected, before he nominated Walsh — as former Rep. Andy Levin, who lost a member versus member primary in Michigan last year following redistricting.
Before running for office, Levin had a career as a labor organizer, serving as assistant organizing director at the AFL-CIO for more than a decade. He, too, would be highly qualified for the role — but he is not campaigning for the job. Instead, he reportedly hopes to be named ambassador to Haiti.
Another name has come up recently, though, who is campaigning for the job despite being much less qualified. Former Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney was head of the DCCC in 2022 and lost his own seat amid massive underperformance by Democrats in his home state of New York.
Maloney was a staffer in the Clinton White House (not on labor issues) and has worked as a software company executive and big-law attorney. While heâ€™s been an adequately pro-worker House Democrat, he hasnâ€™t done anything in his life to make him a strongly qualified choice for secretary of Labor.
As a community organizer, I often imagine what it would have been like to march with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and win the Voting Rights Act. I always find inspiration in Dr. Kingâ€™s words, especially this passage from his final book, Where Do We Go From Here?
â€śLet us be those creative dissenters who will call our beloved nation to a higher destiny,â€ť King wrote. â€śTo a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humanness.â€ťÂ
Seen from today, the achievements of Dr. King and his generation seem monumental – they opened the door to civil rights for millions. Surely theirs must have been the best, and most satisfying, time to be an organizer.Â
But the truth is community organizing is never easy. In Dr. Kingâ€™s time, as now, change never feels inevitable – even when, looking back, you were on the cusp of victory. And the resources you need to create lasting change are rarely available when you need them.
Thatâ€™s one reason I wholeheartedly believe that we are living in the best time in decades to be a community organizer, with the opportunity to finally realize a key part of Dr. Kingâ€™s dream. Because right now, a new generation of dissenters and organizers has won investments into our communities at levels we have never seen before.
Over the next ten years, roughly $4 trillion will be invested across the country through four federal programs: The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), and the CHIPS and Science Act (CHIPS) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).
This is an enormous level of investment – more than four times the total size of Franklin Rooseveltâ€™s New Deal. Nearly half of these funds are already available to communities through ARPA, with the rest to come soon. And none of this would have happened without decades of work by dedicated community organizers.
But just as with the Voting Rights Act, the passage of these laws only opens the door: they donâ€™t achieve everything we want, and it will take many hands to unlock their full potential. And unlike the New Deal, these funds are spread through an often-confusing web of agencies and grants, with different rules in every state. But the opportunity to make tangible improvements to the lives of millions of people is real, and this is where we, as community organizers, come in.
Good organizers know how to â€ścut an issueâ€ť – help communities understand what is at stake and recognize an opportunity for action. We bring people together, get to alignment and consensus, build solidarity and trust in one another. We inspire, and most importantly, move people into action to create change together.Â
What We’ve Been Waiting For
As organizers, we have strong intuition for big moments, and if we ever needed an opportunity that could build community cohesion and solidarity, this is what we have been waiting for!
Peopleâ€™s Actionâ€™s Leveraging Federal Resources program, led by senior strategist Ann Pratt, is working with our member groups to identify and navigate these federal funding opportunities so they can find and demand the resources that will help their communities most. We also work with them and their elected officials to make sure these resources reach communities in the most effective ways.
One example of this is in Pennsylvania, where the Whole Home Repairs Act has helped make $125 million in ARPA funds for home improvements available to communities across the state. This law was written and championed by two state lawmakers who came through our candidate trainings, Nikil Saval and Sara Innamorato, and with the support of our local affiliate, Pennsylvania Stands Up.
By taking the message of Whole Home Repairs to local communities across the state, PASU and these lawmakers were able to build support across political lines in both rural and urban areas. And most crucially, implementing home repairs now through ARPA will then make it easier for homeowners and communities to qualify for green energy improvements in the future.
This strategy is replicable, and is now being studied and followed by Peopleâ€™s Action member groups in Connecticut, Washington State and Massachusetts and beyond.
Funding and Programs
There are more victories to celebrate – such as in St. Louis, where Missouri Jobs with Justice helped fund a Guaranteed Basic Income, and on the Jersey Shore, where the New Jersey Organizing Project won ARPA funds to help families fully recover from Superstorm Sandy. Weâ€™ll hear more about this soon – but what excites me is the opportunity these victories create to bring thousands of people into our fight to create a better future for all.
These are just a few examples of what these federal funds can do when they are coupled with good organizing.
Good organizers will recognize the opportunity these new programs offer to help us restore our belief in one another, and in what government can do for – and with – us, when we cogovern with officials like Saval and Innamorato who share our values and commitment to fight for us all.
So yes, we are living in one of the best times in history to be an organizer, because we have the opportunity to more fully realize Kingâ€™s dream.
If we want to have a multiracial democracy that finally lives up to its promises and potential, we have to start by restoring our faith in one another, in what good government can do, and the ability of collective action to improve our lives.
This is a portion of a blog that originally appeared in full at OurFuture on January 16, 2023. Republished with permission.
About the Author: Sulma Arias is a contributor for OurFuture.
Iâ€™ve never organized before. What weâ€™re doing at Amazon is all new to me.
When I first started working at KSBD, the Amazon air hub in San Bernardino, it was the middle of the pandemic and they were hiring in mad numbers. No one else was. I needed a job fast and it seemed like the kind of place where I could move up.
KSBD is brand new. It opened in April 2021, and I was among the first hired; depending on the season, there are about 1,200-1,600 workers there. Itâ€™s located at an airport, so a few hundred people work outside with the planes and the rest of us are inside. I work on the docks, unloading trailers. It operates 24/7.
When I started at the warehouse, I was organizing — I just didnâ€™t recognize it. But I was focused on the work process and making the warehouse run more smoothly. It seemed like Amazon had opened KSBD without a lot of planning; like we were testing the operation as we went. I was really hands-on. We helped to make the way we moved freight through the warehouse safer and more efficient — but for the same low pay.
But then I went to an all-hands meeting of everyone in the warehouse, and some of my co-workers stood up and challenged the managers about unexpected holiday closures. I learned that when Amazon closed the warehouse for additional days around Christmas and New Yearâ€™s, some people lost almost a full week of pay. Suddenly they didnâ€™t have the money they were counting on to buy gifts. One of our co-workers lost her place to live.
So Many ways to Get Fired
On your first day at the facility, Amazon really likes to pound it into you that you have a future with the company — that a lot of people get promoted and thereâ€™s room for progression. They tell this to everybody in group meetings and one on one in our departments.
But you learn pretty quickly that almost none of the Tier 1 associates, entry-level employees like me, ever become managers. You start to hear the stories about people who have applied for promotions and have all of their paperwork in line and they never hear back. They never move up.
When you first get hired, they also tell you that there are many ways to get fired. â€śWe canâ€™t even list them all,â€ť they say. â€śWe canâ€™t tell you all the reasons, because that would take forever.â€ť
In the warehouse they watch you. There are cameras everywhere. When you are under surveillance like that, and you know you can get fired at any moment, it makes you scared. The fear is instilled from Day One.
Why We Went on Strike
I would like to get paid a dignified wage. I literally barely make enough to support myself; $19.20 an hour, which doesnâ€™t go very far in California. I have nieces and nephews and brothers. I want to be able to do things like take them out to dinner or buy them birthday or Christmas gifts. This year I wasnâ€™t able to do much of that.
I would also like the warehouse to be a safe place; we have high rates of musculoskeletal injuries, concussions, heatstroke, and repetitive motion injuries. And I would like it to be a place where you are not in fear of losing your job all the time. Where you could have a career, or stay there and have a good job for a while.
Each time, about 150 of us walked out — the majority of the shift. While we were outside the facility, we heard that managers were frustrated and the volume of freight being processed was way down.
Since our strikes we have won some safety improvements: we got more access to water and fans, and managers finally acknowledged we have the right to take heat breaks to prevent our bodies from overheating. And we have won $1-an-hour increase, with more for the night shift. These changes are why we wonâ€™t stop organizing.
I donâ€™t know if itâ€™s something most people can imagine. A consultant employed by Amazon is paid a lot to watch us, to talk to the people I work with, and just to be there. Or they isolate me, assign me for the day to a different area with just one or two other people. It definitely has an effect on my mental health.
When I spoke up to the building manager about this retaliation against all of us, they suspended me. My job was threatened. But my co-workers had my back.
We quickly put together a plan. Someone suggested wearing stickers that said â€śWhere is Sara?â€ť
We mapped out how to get everyone in the warehouse talking about Amazon retaliating against an associate, and we filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board.
They wore the stickers until I was reinstated, three days later.
I kept my job — and I owe it to my co-workers working together.
For me the highlight of working at Amazon is being part of Inland Empire Amazon Workers United — spending time with my co-workers and making our workplace better and safer. When itâ€™s you vs. Amazon, you know who has the power. But when we work together, thereâ€™s nothing better to protect you.
This blog was originally posted at Labor Notes on February 6, 2023. Republished with permission.
About the Author: Sara Fee works at the Amazon air hub in San Bernardino, California, and is a founding member of the Inland Empire Amazon Workers United.
Over the past year, impressive numbers of workers, especially in the retail and service sectors, have begun the process of organizing a union. Workers at Starbucks, Chipotle, Trader Joeâ€™s, Amazon, and other establishments have won union elections.
Many of these unions are now negotiating for their first contracts — always a difficult task. Employers can drag out the process for months or years. And employers may seek contract language that grievously weakens the union, now and for years to come.
Among the biggest pitfalls in first-contract negotiations are employer demands for language covering:
Duration of benefits
This article focuses on management rights. Future articles will discuss other pitfalls.
First, a warning: Some members of the bargaining team may assume that if the union gives in to compromising language in the first contract, it will be able to revise the agreement the next time around.
But as veteran union leaders are painfully aware, once a union agrees to a contract provision that affords an employer expansive rights — for example, the exclusive right to enact work rules — getting it out is harder than Hades.
Management Rights Clauses
Management rights clauses have found their way into almost all union contracts. But for years, they often consisted of a single sentence.
For example, an SEIU agreement with Boston University says: â€śExcept to the extent expressly abridged by a specific provision of this Agreement, the University reserves and retains, solely and exclusively, all of its rights to manage the University and its activities and operations.â€ť
Another common provision reads: â€śThe employer retains the responsibility and authority of managing the companyâ€™s business.â€ť
Unions can safely agree to such clauses, sometimes as exchanges for language guaranteeing union security or dues checkoff.
In recent years, however, many employers have attempted to expand management rights clauses. Their goal is to take away two important — one might even say existentially importat — union rights.
First, employers want to take away the unionâ€™s statutory right to receive advance notice of any significant changes that might affect employees. Second, they want to take away the unionâ€™s legal right to bargain to agreement or impasse before the employer puts the change into effect.
This body of law is known as the rule against unilateral changes. It was approved by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1962 in a decision called NLRB v. Katz, and is one of the strongest benefits of forming a union.
Following Katz, employers began to demand management rights clauses that waived the unionâ€™s right to bargain over a wide array of mid-contract changes. Many proposals detailed a long list of subjects — for example, subcontracting, assigning duties, and adopting work rules — that the employer could carry out without notice or bargaining.
It has now gotten to the point where a union that agrees to such a clause may actually be putting itself in a weaker position than if it refused to sign a contract at all. At least then, the employer would have to bargain to agreement or impasse before changing or adopting new terms or conditions of employment.
Management rights clauses became even more of a burden in 2019 when the Trump Labor Board issued its decision in MV Transportation. MV says employers can make unilateral changes in all areas that fall under the â€ścompass or scopeâ€ť of a management rights proviso, ending the longtime union-friendly â€śclear and unmistakableâ€ť standard.
Responding to a Demand
One response to an employer demand for an expansive management rights clause is to refuse it unless the employer narrows it down to a simple acknowledgment that the employer manages the enterprise.
A union bargainer might say “Most of your language is totally unnecessary. Obviously, you have the right to manage the enterprise — and we are willing to will put that into the agreement. But we also have a right to have a properly functioning union.
â€śYour proposal takes away our voice on almost every possible change over the term of the agreement. If we agree to this, we will have fewer rights than we have now! The reason we formed this union is to have an input into the decisions that affect us.â€ť
The union might also threaten to file a Labor Board charge asserting that the employerâ€™s insistence on an expansive management rights clause is an unfair labor practice.
Support comes from the case Public Service Co. of Oklahoma, 334 NLRB 487 (2001) which held that insisting on proposals that grant an employer â€śunilateral control over virtually all significant terms and conditions of employment during the life of the contractâ€ť is evidence of bad faith bargaining.
Another union response might be a demand that a sentence such as the following be added to the management rights clause:
â€śNotwithstanding anything in the preceding clause, the employer agrees that it will give the union notice before adopting or changing any rule, policy, or practice having a significant impact upon one or more members of the bargaining unit. Moreover, if the union requests, the employer will bargain in good faith, to agreement or impasse, before carrying out the change.â€ť
Whither the Board?
In 2019, when the Labor Board issued MV Transportation, the Board consisted of three Republican members and one Democrat.
That ratio was upended by President Biden. There are now three Democratic members and two Republicans. One of the Democrats, now-Chairperson Lauren McFerran, had dissented in 2019, warning that the new standard would â€śfrustrate the bargaining process, inject uncertainty into labor management relationships and ultimately increase the prospect for labor unrest.â€ť
The Biden majority has begun (haltingly) to overturn Trump-era rulings. MV Transportation is a likely candidate for reversal. In that event, many expansive management rights clauses that unions agreed to may lose their legal foundations.
As a consequence, however, employers may try to make management rights clauses even more comprehensive. In any event, management rights language is sure to be a hot bargaining topic for many years to come.
This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on January 3, 2023. Republished with permission.
About the Author: Robert Schwartz is a labor attorney and the author of “No Contract, No Peace: A Legal Guide to Contract Campaigns, Strikes, and Lockouts.”
Itâ€™s December, which means that it is, by law, the time when we look ahead at the coming year, and make shockingly insightful predictions about what lays ahead. AÂ year ago, we madeÂ Ten Predictions for the Year Ahead in LaborÂ that were, it turns out, very good. More on that below. With that track record of quality, you must feel compelled to read our predictions forÂ 2023. Joys, disappointments, and killer robots,Â ahoy!
Standard disclaimer: Predictions are folly, and only fools make them.Â So:
1. AI is aÂ labor problem.Â
Have you played withÂ DALL-EÂ 2, the artificial intelligence system that can spit out professional-quality illustrations based on any prompts you give it? How aboutÂ ChatGPT,Â that can write essays, computer code, or anything else as you converse with it? They are amazing pieces of technology, and they are also aÂ big, flashing sign of gargantuan labor problems ahead.
Enormous swaths of work could be outsourced not to impoverished foreign nations, but to computer programs. This has been aÂ theoretical threat for years, but now AI has reached the point at which it is about to get very, very real. Unions must get ahead of the problem now to try to protect workers. DO NOT WAIT! DO NOT WAIT!
Trying to ban AIâ€™s use is useless, but we would all be wise to seek out advice from unions like the Longshoremen, who have had some success shielding themselves from the ravages of automation. The main point is: We need strong strategies on AI now, because soon, it will be too late. But in even more immediateÂ problemsâ€¦Â
2. The big first contract wall.Â
Weâ€™ve all spent the past year celebrating the success of grassroots union drives at name brand companies: Amazon! Starbucks! Trader Joeâ€™s! Huzzah! Now, those new unions face aÂ task that is, in some respects, even harder: winning aÂ first contract. At Amazon and Starbucks in particular, we have companies that are existentially opposed to unions, and that can and will drag out the contract process unto infinity, in hopes of drowning their fledgling unions in the bathtub.
That would be aÂ blow not just to workers at those companies, but to an entire countryâ€™s worth of grassroots enthusiasm about organizing, which has launched aÂ wave of independent unions. We shouldnâ€™t fool ourselves: Winning these contracts will require aÂ lot of money, lawyers and political capital from the entire labor movement. Even in the best case scenario, itâ€™s gonna take aÂ while. And aÂ related issueâ€¦
3. The green shoots of new labor institutions.Â
The rise of independent organizing drives everywhere was proof, above all, that organized labor as currently constituted wasÂ incapableÂ of absorbing aÂ true moment of opportunity. Rather than leading newly radicalized workers to the promised land, the creaky existing institutions in many cases sat on the sidelines. (TheÂ AFL-CIOâ€™s vowÂ to organize aÂ pathetic one million workers in ten years was the splashiest demonstration of this failure of vision.)
InÂ 2023, look for at least the beginnings of some new institutions that aim to draw together and empower the many little explosions of organizing that we saw inÂ 2022. In betterÂ newsâ€¦
4. Union democracy movements flourish.Â
After many decades of calcified, undemocratic leadership, reform movements inside theÂ UAWÂ and theÂ TeamstersÂ have made significant gains in the past year. Similar movements are bubbling inÂ otherÂ big unions as well. These breakthroughs are, at their core, driven by the same dynamic we mentioned above: Raw desire for worker organizing has reached such aÂ high level that it is ready to fix the many broken, lazy aspects of the union world. And speaking of institutionalÂ opportunitiesâ€¦
5. Higher Ed asserts itself.Â
My number one prediction last year was that higher ed would become aÂ significant player in the union world. Amazing insight, yes! InÂ 2022, the five largest union electionÂ filingsÂ in America (and the biggest strike of the year) were ALL grad student workers at major universities. Higher ed is creating more new union members than any other single industry in America — but they are divided among aÂ number of different unions. It is nice to imagine aÂ single dedicated union in higher ed, which would be large enough to be aÂ significant player in the AFL-CIO, and which could pull that institution left. Ah, one can dream. Elsewhere in potentialÂ powerâ€¦
6. A reckoning for transport unions.Â
Bidenâ€™s decision to prevent railroad workers from striking and impose aÂ contract on them was by far the worst labor thing the ostensibly pro-labor president has done. But it, and this yearâ€™s White House freak out over touchy contract negotiations by longshoremen at West Coast ports, point to the inherent power in all the unions that have aÂ position in the supply chain, and transportation in general. They may be hamstrung by the Railway Labor Act, in legal terms, but aÂ rise in radicalism and coordination between railway, airline, and logistics unions could lead to aÂ real, unassailable demonstration of what strike power looks like. Some of the union leaders in these industries have such vision, and some donâ€™t. The weaker ones should watch their backs. Meanwhile, inÂ Washingtonâ€¦
7. Laborâ€™s legislative gains grind to aÂ halt.Â
In two years of Democratic control of the White House and both branches of Congress, organized labor got aÂ lot of money for its pensions, aÂ very good but severely underfunded NLRB, some nice but not transformative regulatory changes, aÂ crushed rail strike, and no PRO Act. That will beÂ as good as it gets. Now that Republicans have taken the House, the chance for anything better, legislative speaking, is dead. Itâ€™s all aÂ good reminder that we need to be pouring everything into organizing new workers, rather than chasing politicians. And to get aÂ little moreÂ fine-grainedâ€¦
8. The Warrior Met Strike ends.Â
More than aÂ thousand UMWA miners in Alabama haveÂ been on strikeÂ now for more thanÂ 20Â months. AnotherÂ 12Â seems impossible. Somehow the strike should settle inÂ 2023, though the prospect of real gains for the strikers still seems uncertain at best. (The fact that the national Democratic Party didnâ€™t use more of its muscle to lift up this strike was shameful, and foolish.) Donate to theirÂ strike fund! And if you need aÂ more relaxingÂ topicâ€¦
The Major League Baseball Players Association joined the AFL-CIO this year, and promptlyÂ unionizedÂ minor leaguers for the first time, as well. That means the NFL and MLB are both in the union federation; if they can convince the NBA players to join, then the full trifecta of major American sports will be officially part of the larger labor movement. There is still greatÂ opportunityÂ in college athlete organizing as well. In terms of PR for organized labor, these people are gold. Americans love athletes, to aÂ stupid degree. We have to get busy putting all these players in front of cameras to talk about how good unions are, and sending them out to picket lines. Use what we have! We need the help! Finally, to close on aÂ positive noteâ€¦
10. The energy in labor remains astronomical.Â
IÂ tend to focus on the labor movementâ€™s problems. WHICH WE ALL SHOULD. Weâ€™re here to improve things, after all, not send ourselves endless thank you notes. But to take aÂ step back and look at the big picture: We are living through the time of the most promise and excitement that the labor movement has seen since Ronald Reagan crushed the PATCO strike, broke unionsâ€™ spirits and launched four decades of growing inequality.
Now! Now is the time! Itâ€™s been coming for years, but the pandemic accelerated the willingness of workers to take the leap towards organizing — to be willing to take aÂ risk in exchange for the possibility of not having their entire working life be so dreary, underpaid and soul-sucking. IÂ see no reason why this period of desire for unions should end next year. The real question is whether organized labor will be able to harness it, before it is crushed by the backlash from organizedÂ capital.Â
The new year is coming. Letâ€™s get to work.
This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 19, 2022. Republished with permission.
About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere.Â
On JanuaryÂ 20,Â 2021, Joe Biden was inaugurated as president, and an invisible clock started ticking.
That clock has been measuring the window of opportunity: The time during which Democrats held the White House and both branches of Congress. History told us that window would probably be closing with theÂ 2022Â midterm elections.
When you think back over the past two years, they may feel, subjectively, like aÂ time of great chaos — Covid, economic peril and great political struggles over democracyÂ itself.Â
Wrong! The last two years were theÂ goodÂ times.
The Democrats did better than expected in the midterms, but they appear likely to lose the House (thanks toÂ gerrymandering). Thatâ€™s all it will take to shut down the chance at any progressive legislation for the next two years.
For organized labor, the question worth asking now is: Did we take advantage of that opportune moment we had? The answer is no. And working people will suffer for that failure for many years toÂ come.Â
Political party power ebbs and flows, but movements are permanent. The labor movement has the same job after the midterms that it had before the midterms: to increase the power of working people relative to the power of capital. In the long sweep of American history, the movement has not been doing this job very well.
The political parties have swapped off control for the past half-century, but for virtually the entire time, union density has continued to decline, and economic inequality has widened. Individual victories notwithstanding, organized labor as an institution has been getting its ass kicked for generationsÂ now.Â
Since Ronald Reagan swaggered into office, the national political situation has been that Republicans try to wipe unions off the face of the earth, and the Democratic Party — in exchange for huge campaign contributions — agrees not to try to wipe unions off the face of the earth.
Joe Bidenâ€™s election offered aÂ respite from this depressing dynamic. Biden has been rightly called the most pro-union president of our lifetime. Itâ€™s aÂ low bar, but one he meets. Jennifer Abruzzo, Bidenâ€™s choice to lead the NLRB, has pursued the most aggressive pro-union agenda that agency has ever seen. ThoughÂ starvedÂ of resources and funding, the NLRB has been the one beacon that illustrates what aÂ government that cared about labor couldÂ be.Â
Legislatively, the union establishment made the passage of the PRO Act, which would transform Americaâ€™s broken labor laws, their top priority.
This was aÂ mistake. It was clear from day one that the PRO Act would never pass theÂ 50-50Â Senate unless we finally scrapped the filibuster. By lobbying for the law itself more voraciously than the structural change that is necessary to get the law passed, we got neither.
Even in this administration, the one that unions cannot stop declaring is the best ever, organized labor has had to settle forÂ aÂ smatteringÂ of nice-but-not-amazing regulatory changes from the White House, rather than any meaningful legislation. In retrospect, unions would have been better served by training all their firepower for the past two years on abolishing the filibuster and fully funding the NLRB, the only real government firewall against the hellacious illegal union-busting that corporations routinely engageÂ in.Â
The Democratic Party did in fact make an attempt to advance some transformative things in its big reconciliation package, once called Build Back Better, but those attempts crashed against the sullen wall ofÂ Joe Manchin. If the labor movement is being honest with itself, it will look back onÂ 2021Â andÂ 2022Â as aÂ period of potential that was not taken advantage of.
If Republicans take control of even aÂ single house of Congress, all legislative hope will instantly die; everything becomes mired in performative recriminations. There is plenty of promise on the state level for worker power — Illinois justÂ enshrinedÂ collective bargaining in its state constitution, and Nebraska, for godâ€™s sake, justÂ passedÂ a $15Â minimum wage — but the climate for unions in Washington, D.C. is not going to beÂ improving.Â
The fact that this meager collection of crumbs is all that the labor movement has been able to shake loose from Washington over the past two years is aÂ stark reminder that political power will always follow from labor power, not vice versa.
Do not fall into despair when the midterms spawn two years of mind-numbing debt limit showdowns over border walls and House investigations into Hunter Bidenâ€™s love life. Do not make the mistake we made in the Obama years, settling for the wolves of neoliberalism out of fear that the dragons on the right were even worse.
Go organize workers. Spend every last cent possible on organizing workers, before this moment of enthusiasm fades. Washington, D.C. is but one small speck in aÂ vast nation of working people waiting impatiently to win aÂ union. The labor movementâ€™s future rests not on the outcome of the midterms, but on its willingness and ability to organize workers. Good things happen when we organize workers, and bad things happen when we donâ€™t.
This blog originally appeared at In These Times on November 14, 2022. Republished with permission.
About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is aÂ labor writer forÂ In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere.
Upskilling isnâ€™t just a benefit for employees to create a stronger team. Itâ€™s something that employees need to prioritize. If the pandemic has taught us anything, itâ€™s that itâ€™s better to be overprepared than underprepared, and that is especially true of our careers. Staff need to be able to stay agile and competitive. Upskilling is one way to stay one step ahead when it comes to employment, as company requirements evolve and technology advances.
Businesses are realizing there are many gaps in their teams that need filling. With technology moving as quickly as it is, the after-shocks of the pandemic affecting customer demand, and the ways in which companies are operating, the gaps are becoming apparent.
Wise employees will note the areas where companies are struggling, and the skills that are most in demand and work on acquiring them when it comes to filling those gaps.
Having these skills in your back pocket means youâ€™re in a position to pivot quickly and successfully, should you choose to switch careers, or if an opportunity with your existing employer arises. From technological advances increasing the need for skilled cybersecurity professionals, to the rising need for qualified electricians, there are various wide-reaching skills that industries are grasping for.
Bring Value to a Business
Taking on new challenges and different roles gives staff the chance to gain new knowledge and grow in confidence, personally and professionally. Those insights can bring incredible value to a business. They make you an attractive candidate for vacancies or opportunities that arise on projects.
When you upskill, youâ€™re able to play an active role in a businessâ€™ transformation. Thatâ€™s a huge confidence boost.
Upskilling benefits you in gaining not just hard skills. Soft skills, such as teamwork, communication, and diligence, are helpful, too. Youâ€™ll have the confidence to work closely with colleagues, share your ideas, and offer a fresh perspective — something that companies are seeking out more and more.
More digital literacy and flexibility across the team will help to transform businesses at scale, creating a culture of learning and putting both businesses and individuals in a stronger position if and when disruption occurs.
Expand your Industry Expertise
When you see the results from your upskill training and how it benefits you in the workplace, youâ€™re more likely to stay up to date with the trends within the industry as a whole. It is more likely to spark your interest and passion for the role and to encourage you to want to learn more.
Companies want a knowledgeable and interested workforce. As an individual, having this broader understanding of your niche can help you stand out for all the right reasons — whether itâ€™s bringing new ideas to a project that youâ€™ve seen done successfully elsewhere or simply being more engaged in your work.
Protection Against the Decreasing Shelf Life of Skills
Weâ€™re in a period of rapid change and technology; Automation is moving at such an intense speed that itâ€™s making some jobs redundant. Workers need to upskill to move into different roles, or they are at risk of being left behind or, worse, left unemployed.
Millions of people could be left without a job if they donâ€™t take the initiative to build their skill set and strengthen their CV to leave them in a better place for the future of work.
Since 2020, businesses in virtually all industries have a renewed appreciation for adaptability. Upskilling keeps you agile and ensures that whatever you can face anything with flexibility –, whether itâ€™s economic challenges, a need to pivot in a new direction, or simply a desire to try something new. It encourages employee growth and professional development, and that in turn helps to enhance job satisfaction and morale.
Workers want to be respected and appreciated. The opportunities that upskilling can provide help to increase happiness in the workplace and aid career progression. It shows employers that youâ€™re willing to put in the hard work and that you have the grit and determination to handle challenges with ease.
Upskilling is beneficial for people of all walks of life, including those wanting to move up the career ladder, career switchers, and those wanting to enhance the skill set they already have.
But more than anything, upskilling can help to make employees more resilient against anything the future may hold, from shifts in demand, to technological advances and unforeseen crises like we experienced in 2020. It makes for stronger, more agile staff who can withstand changes with ease and confidence.
About the Author: Dakota Murphey contributed this blog to Workplace Fairness. Published with permission.
As we celebrate Juneteenth this year, it is important to acknowledge the lasting impacts of slavery on the workplace and the labor market. The at-will employment doctrine, which allows employers in most states to discharge workers for any reason, and the subminimum wage for tipped workers are both rooted in the employer backlash to Emancipation. These laws continue to disadvantage workersâ€”Black and Latinx workers in particular.
The at-will doctrine stems from the period after the Civil War when employers, largely in the railroad industry, sought to limit the growing power of organized workersâ€”including formerly enslaved Black workersâ€”by reserving the right to fire them for any reason. Proponents argued that if workers now had the â€śright to quitâ€ť without restrictions, employers should have a â€śright to fireâ€ť without reason or explanation. Though never turned into legislation, this practice became entrenched in US law through judicial decisions over the course of several decades.
Today, most employers can legally fire anyone without warning or explanation, a power imbalance that forces many workers to accept exploitative working conditions out of fear of losing their jobs.
Under the at-will doctrine, it is exceedingly difficult for workers to prove when they have been illegally fired for discriminatory or retaliatory reasons or for government agencies to enforce laws protecting workers against discrimination or retaliation. These circumstances disproportionately affect Black and Latinx workers, who are more likely than white workers to have low-paying jobs and express concern about retaliation for speaking out about unsafe or unfair working conditions.
As a step toward addressing this power imbalance, state, local, and federal legislators must enact just-cause laws that protect workers against sudden and unjust firings. Just-cause job protections would require employers to provide and prove a justifiable reason for discharging a worker and to give fair notice. In turn, workers could more safely insist on better working conditions with less risk of losing their livelihoods.
Tipping in lieu of wages is another practice that became widespread following Emancipation, when hospitality-sector employers hired many formerly enslaved Black workers. Even after the Reconstruction era, the labor hierarchy that expected servitude from Black workers remained intact, and compensation for their labor was left to customer discretion. Despite the organizing efforts of tipped workers, most service industries were excluded from the first federal minimum wage law in 1938.
While employers are now required to pay tipped workers at least a subminimum wage, it has been frozen at a paltry $2.13 per hour at the federal level for more than 30 years. State law protections are little better in the 43 states with a subminimum wage. As a result, these workersâ€™ livelihoods are still dependent on the good will of patrons. These laws technically require employers to cover differences between total tips and the minimum wage, but that requirement is hard to enforce and often ignored. As a result, tipped workers still earn fluctuating wages for their labor and may have to endure harassment from the customers they rely on. Black tipped workersâ€”and Black women in particularâ€”are at an even greater disadvantage because they earn less in tips than their white counterparts on average, with Black women making nearly $5 less per hour than white men.
The Raise the Wage Act of 2021, currently stalled in Congress, would phase out this unfair subminimum wage for tipped workers and raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 per hour by 2025. According to the Economic Policy Institute, this shift would help eliminate poverty wages and raise the earnings of nearly a quarter of the US workforceâ€”about 32 million workers. Nearly one in three Black workers, one in four Latinx workers, and one in five white workers would benefit from a raised minimum wage. Black and Latinx women in particular are overrepresented among workers who stand to benefit. According to the One Fair Wage campaign, which advocates for eliminating the subminimum wage, paying tipped workers the minimum wage, with tips on top, could reduce the race-gender wage gap in the restaurant industry by 35 percent.
Members of Congress must act now to pass the bill to make a living wage mandatory across the country.
This Juneteenth, we are in solidarity with workers taking to the streets as part of the Mass Poor Peopleâ€™s & Low-Wage Workersâ€™ Assembly & Moral March on Washington and to the Polls to demand the right to an adequate standard of living and to work with dignity. Protecting workers from at-will firings, eliminating the subminimum wage, and raising wages overall are some of the minimum requirements for an equitable society, one in which all jobs pay a living wage and all workers can advocate for their rights without fear of retaliation or discrimination. Reversing unjust labor laws rooted in slavery is one step toward this visionâ€”and it is long overdue.
This is a blog that originally appeared in full at Nelp on June 17, 2022. Reprinted with permission.
About the author: Rebecca Dixon is the executive director of Nelp and an advocate for workers’ rights interested in the intersection of labor and racial equity.
No more arguing over territory or industriesâ€”we need multi-union coalitions capable of organizing on a national scale.
When news spread AprilÂ 1Â that the independentÂ Amazon Labor UnionÂ (ALU) hadÂ won its union electionÂ at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island in New York, the initial response from anyone who supports the labor movement was exultation at this unprecedented?â€”?and unexpected?â€”?victory for the workingÂ class.Â
The secondary response was a collective ?â€śIn your face!â€ť to mega-billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who was shown that all the money in the world canâ€™t crush the will for a union.
Now, we can all move on to what should be the next response: Forcing the union establishment to take a long, hard look at what it needs to change.
The ALU?â€”?a project of current and former Amazon workers as well as committed volunteer organizers?â€”?succeeded in organizing Amazon before any big, well-funded union could. That fact has produced a million insta-analyses: ?â€śThey were in New York City, not Alabama?â€”?so they had the easiest target!â€ť ?â€śThe ALU was led by cool younger people?â€”?old union bureaucrats must be purged!â€ť Etc.
Rather than indulge in that particular argument, I propose an adjacent conclusion that I think will hold true no matter where anyone lands on the specific tactical questions about the ALU victory. This is the lesson the union world should take from the ALUâ€™s accomplishment: Jurisdiction is dead. By this I mean that all of the time unions spend arguing with one another over who has the right to organize which workers, in which industry, at which company is one gargantuan waste of time. Stop it. Itâ€™s useless. It is, in essence, a bunch of drivers arguing over a single parking space in one corner of a vast, empty parking lot. While an asteroid is approaching. It is not something that should be on the list of top 100 priorities for labor, given the current situation.
Who cares about jurisdiction in the first place? Well, many major unions consider this parochial concern to be the most important reason for the AFL-CIO to exist?â€”?to serve as a traffic cop, arbitrating petty arguments between unions that want to organize the same place. Inherent in this perspective is the belief that other things the central body of the labor movement could be doing?â€”?like, for example, building multi-union coalitions capable of organizing powerful employers like Amazon?â€”?are less important than this traffic cop role.
What has this approach gotten us?
It has gotten us a nation in which barely one in ten workers (including barely 6 percent of private sector workers) are union members, while economic inequality has been rising for decades. The idea that unions should have the right to lay claim to particular industries where 90 percent of workers are not union members is farcical. A perfect illustration of this absurdity is the fact that, in March, new Teamsters president Sean Oâ€™Brien told Bloomberg he ?â€śwants the Teamsters to be the only union that organizes workers at Amazonâ€™s fulfillment centers and sorting hubs.â€ť Less than two weeks later, the independent ALU had actually unionized an Amazon fulfillment center, which is one more Amazon fulfillment center than the Teamsters have unionized.
Unions serve workers. Not the opposite. What serves workers best is having a union now, not the abstract concept of a single union that owns their industry and may get around to organizing them years from now. Until union density in America reaches, say, 50 percent or more, we donâ€™t need to hear any more jurisdictional arguments from unions about whose territory is whose. Instead, we need to see successful union campaigns in which millions of new workers are unionized.
Want to claim ?â€śjurisdictionâ€ť in an industry? Then organize it. Otherwise, make way for those who will.
To the credit of Americaâ€™s union leaders, their public reaction to the ALU victory has uniformly been one of support. But that same victory throws into relief how pressing it is for those same unions to change the way theyâ€™ve been doing business for the past half century. No more individual fiefdoms jealously guarding their own shrinking islands of union territory, while the majority of working people flounder with no support from organized labor. The ALU inspired us all by unionizing the first 8,000 Amazon workers in the United States. Organizing the next 800,000 will require the combined efforts of many unions, and then some.
Rich, ruthless, and omniscient companies like Amazon will not be organized solely with GoFundMe donations, as the Staten Island warehouse was. Now is the time for the labor movement to start building multi-union coalitions capable of tackling employers on a national scale, and keeping up the fight long enough to win contracts in the face of endless litigation?â€”?think something like the Change to Win coalition, but more active, and aimed at individual companies.
Building multi-union coalitions requires unions to recognize the futility of arguing over jurisdiction, and instead do the opposite: Combine forces and organize without freaking out over who gets to put their label on the end product.
ALU leader Chris Smalls, whose vision made the Amazon union victory aÂ reality, has already become aÂ celebrated figure. In the end, his greatest contribution to the labor movement might be that heâ€™s served as aÂ blaring wake-up call. There is no room for egos or territorialism in aÂ country ofÂ 10Â percent union density. This fight is going to be expensive. Everyone, anteÂ up.
This post originally appeared at In These Times on May 18, 2022. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is aÂ labor writer forÂ In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere.
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