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Trump plan to politicize key civil service jobs has run out of time

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It looks like one of Team Trump’s last-minute efforts to destroy the civil service has fizzled. With less than a day to go, the plan to strip protections from tens of thousands of career federal employees hasn’t been put into effect at any federal agency. 

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Office of Personnel Management had rushed to list many of their jobs in the new Schedule F, a new classification for jobs involving policymaking. That means that career civil servants who have served under both presidents from both parties would be more like political appointees, vulnerable to being fired for insufficient loyalty. It’s a plan that would gut expertise in the federal government and remake it into Donald Trump’s loyalty-obsessed image.

But it’s a plan that, fingers crossed, isn’t going into effect anywhere. The Office of Personnel Management’s list of positions to move into Schedule F didn’t move forward, The Washington Post reports, and Budget Director Russell Vought reportedly told staff that there wasn’t time to put the changes into place at the OMB.

“It logistically was never going to be possible for this to be put into effect,” a senior administration official told the Post. The prospect was scary enough, though, that a lawyer for a federal workers union said, “I’m holding my breath until we’re out of the woods”—as in, when Trump is officially and finally out of office.

lf workers aren’t shifted into Schedule F before noon on Wednesday, then President-elect Joe Biden inherits an executive order calling for those changes, but nothing concrete to undo or be stuck with. It’s just a really good thing that Team Trump hasn’t been as competent as they have been evil—they’ve done enough damage as it is.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on January 19, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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U.S. Chamber calls for governments to fund rapid training programs

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U.S. Chamber of Commerce CEO Tom Donohue said Tuesday that a broad-based economic recovery in 2021 depends on reskilling and supporting workers. The usually conservative Chamber is embracing a radical shift on skills policy. “Our lawmakers should fund rapid training programs to connect the unemployed with jobs in new sectors,” Donohue said in a State of American Business address. 

Employers should take a lead in designing these programs, Donohue said, but said the benefits to workers would be clear-cut: “If we do this right and do it quickly, we will improve the living standard for millions of Americans.”

Trade unions agree, but insist the federal government thinks big. “We can’t think about (it) employer by employer,” said Mary Kay Henry, international president of the Service Employees International Union. Six million fast food and care workers “are living in poverty and have irregular schedules,” leaving them without access to lifelong learning opportunities in the current system, she said. 

“Imagine a system where the company, the government and the workers together thought about how to unlock those four million people, and train them to do the work that’s emerging in the future,” Henry said. Singapore’s citizens don’t have to imagine it: that’s what SkillsFuture, the country’s adult education government agency, delivers. 

Ong Tze Ch’in, who leads the Singaporean program, told POLITICO’s Global Translations podcast that the Singaporean government has built “a national movement about the pursuit of skills mastery and allowing every individual to achieve the maximum potential.”

At the heart of Singapore’s training efforts is a credit offered to every adult in the country, of between $375 and $950, and “absentee payroll,” a system of government funding for up to 90 percent of a worker’s salary covering work-time missed attending training.

Singapore also subsidizes its education providers up to 90 percent of the cost of delivering a course. The courses range from two-day workshops to months-long programs. The original intent was ensuring Singapore’s quick transition to a digital economy. To cope with the additional disruption of Covid-19, the government increased subsidies for mid-career workers and for courses focused on job skills for workers and industries hit hardest by the pandemic such as accommodation and aviation. 

It takes a whole-of-government mindset to implement a comprehensive system like Singapore’s, and also a new outlook on education, Ong said. School and universities aren’t considered the sum of Singapore’s system, they’re “pre-employment training,” he said. It’s a necessary distinction in Ong’s view because working lives are getting longer, and “that education alone no longer sustains you for your entire career, simply because industry cycles are changing so much faster.”

The biggest winners in Singapore’s system are smaller businesses and their workers, which lack the “critical mass and the capacities” to match the training programs of multinational companies, he said. 

Ong, who was Singapore’s director of military intelligence before taking charge of SkillsFuture, advised American policymakers not to delay their efforts. “You don’t grow an army in a day. You grow it over years so that when you need it, you have it.” 

Can the Singapore model scale across the United States?

The key is re-imagining education as a broader set of services beyond school and college, say many labor experts. “Lots of skills workers have, or need, are not about getting more degrees,” said McKinsey Global Institute’s James Manyika.

Ravi Kumar, President of Infosys, the Indian company that became famous for encouraging the tech outsourcing boom, told POLITICO that Infosys now runs “the largest corporate training university in the world,” in Bangalore, India. 

Each market has to be treated differently, according to the local skills base, Kumar said. In the U.S. he said he hires based on a student’s capacity to learn, rather than the brand name of their degree. “We’re moving from degrees to skills with our digital apprenticeship program” — which includes “a finishing school infrastructure,” of eight to 10 weeks of tailored training, at a cost of around $20,000 per student.

“We’re hiring from community colleges, and putting them in the apprentice program, so they can move from operations to a data scientist, and from cyber operations to a cyber security consultant. You give them stackable credentials.” Over the next few decades, Kumar believes the changes will be so specific and frequent that individuals won’t be able to manage them on their own. 

P-TECH is a large-scale public-private partnership trying to take on this challenge. Started by IBM in Brooklyn a decade ago, the partnership now operates in 28 countries. 

Joel Duran was part of the first class to graduate from P-TECH’s six-year program in 2017, with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree. Duran, now 23, landed a technical consultant job working for IBM’s federal government clients, an outcome he said would have been harder to achieve without the structure and safety net provided by P-TECH. 

“From the first day that you started out at P-TECH in ninth grade, you are paired with a mentor,” he told the Global Translations podcast, and take part in regular work placements where “you are depended upon by the business.” With a salary of $14 an hour as a teenager in these work placements, Duran said he also had income to help support his wider family, some of whom immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic when Duran was in primary school, and some who remained behind. 

Duran said the skills he’s learned are portable in a fast-moving labor market. Some of his graduating class “took their two-year technical degree and they went on to med school, they went on to be lawyers. I know there was one student who went and studied wildlife.” For Duran, the lasting effect has been on his approach to work. “I’ve picked up the mindset to always keep learning, to show up in a room humble and be able to say, ‘I don’t know about this, but I can get back to you’ and I’m pretty confident that I can learn it.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on January 13, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Ryan Heath is the author of Global Translations, POLITICO’s global newsletter and podcast, and previously authored POLITICO’s U.N. Playbook, Brussels Playbook, and Davos Playbook. 


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Biden picks Boston Mayor Marty Walsh for labor secretary

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President-elect Joe Biden is nominating Boston Mayor Marty Walsh for labor secretary. Walsh’s history with labor goes back to his early 20s, when he joined Laborers’ Union Local 223 in Boston, a union to which his father had long belonged, and one later headed by his uncle and then by Marty himself, who went on to be the head of Boston’s Building and Construction Trades Council before becoming mayor in 2013.

Walsh was seen as a union favorite, with support from AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka as well as the American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. What he is not is an addition to the diversity of Biden’s Cabinet, as another top contender, California Labor and Workforce Development Agency Secretary Julie Su, would have been. (Su is also a rock star who would have done an amazing job.)

But Harold Meyerson recently made the case that Walsh is also not the your-grandfather’s-union throwback he might appear on the surface to be, coming from the very white, very very male, and comparatively conservative building trades unions. 

Walsh’s “own work in that movement,” Meyerson wrote, “has been to push the trades into the 21st century. As mayor, Walsh prodded the city council to approve his proposal requiring construction companies working on public projects or private projects exceeding 50,000 square feet to have 51 percent of their workers’ hours go to city residents, 40 percent to minorities, and 12 percent to women. He has also pushed the building trades into supporting a host of progressive causes.”

There is something to be said for a labor secretary who is of the white working class but has progressive priorities.

”He’s been at the forefront when it comes to promoting people of color, making sure people of color have a fair shake,” AFSCME’s Lee Saunders told Meyerson. The AFT’s Randi Weingarten also spoke highly of Walsh’s ability to get stuff done, another important qualification.

Will Marty Walsh be the most aggressive and effective labor secretary Biden could have chosen? Eh, probably not. But don’t write him off as just another Irish-American building trades guy.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on January 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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How Decades of Local Activism Led to the Biggest Dam Removal Deal In U.S. History

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“The Klamath River is the center of our traditions, culture and community, and has always been the centerpiece of our way of life,” says Frankie Myers, vice-chairperson for the Yurok Tribe. “We are connected to the salmon in a really deep way, and there is a belief that their existence is our existence.”

The Yurok people have lived in the 15,700 square miles Klamath River Basin, in what is now called Northern California, for millennia. They are among the key organizers in a coalition of Indigenous groups, environmentalists, concerned citizens and commercial fishers that have joined forces in a decades-long movement to Un-dam the Klamath.

The Klamath was once home to the third-largest upstream salmon migrations (or runs) in the United States. Due in large part to the eight dams that were built along the river between the early 1900s and 1962, in what was called the Klamath Project, fish populations have drastically decreased in recent years. In particular spring-run Chinook salmon, which historically showed up in the hundreds of thousands, is on the brink of extinction, with less than 700 fish counted in their 2019 run. An effort is currently underway to designate the fish “as a distinct population and protected under the [U.S.] Endangered Species Act,” according to a report by National Geographic after it was recently discovered that they are a genetically unique species of salmon.

After years of organizing on the part of tribes, environmental groups and other local activists, the states of California and Oregon announced a historic new agreement on November 17 to move forward with the removal of the four dams that block the lower Klamath River. The agreement is between the Yurok and Karuk tribes, as well the electric utility PacifiCorp, which currently owns the four dams, all of which are hydroelectric facilities built without fish passage.

Over the years the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has played a key role in making dam removal a viable reality, and in 2019, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and federal wildlife agencies reinitiated an ongoing process of ESA consultation for the Klamath Project. Because the dams were built without fish passage, they do not comply with the ESA’s requirements, and retrofitting them to comply with the act would not be cost-effective for the utility corporation.

In 2010, PacifiCorp and other stakeholders initially created and signed the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA) and the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA), which together pave a path for removal of the four dams along the lower Klamath River. In 2016, all parties had reached an agreement over dam removal, but that agreement was stalled in July due to a federal regulatory decision. Under the 2020 agreement, however, the states of Oregon and California will take over ownership of the dams during the removal process and are set to apply to remove PacifiCorp from the license in January 2021.

The new dam removal plan hinges on approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and may require a new Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Craig Tucker, a natural resources policy consultant who has worked on the Klamath Dam removal effort since 2003, says he is confident the current agreement will hold, and dam removal will be underway within a year or two.

Tucker says he anticipates FERC will issue a draft approval order in March 2021, which will then require an analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and an EIS. However, he hopes that since two EISs’ have already been published for this dam removal project and the utility corporation is on board with the removal agreement, the project could be fast-tracked with a supplemental EIS, and with the NEPA analysis being completed in 2021.

Meyers says he also expects the agreement to hold and dam removal to begin in the next couple of years.

“We have the utmost confidence that this was going to come to fruition,” he says. “I say that because of my personal experience working on all these campaigns, and my experience with protesting and activism, after seeing the other fights around this country… At the end of the day, this is still America, right? And in America corporations get what they want. And at this point what this [PacifiCorp] corporation wants is dam removal. We feel very confident it’s going to happen.”

PacifiCorp says in a November press release that it believes the “important agreement with the states of California and Oregon, and the Yurok and Karuk Tribes… will overcome the remaining obstacles to advance the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement and complete the largest dam removal and river restoration project in U.S. history.”

While more than 1,700 dams have been removed in the United States in recent years (90 of them in 2019), the removal of the four Klamath River dams will indeed be the largest dam removal effort in the U.S., as well as the largest salmon restoration project in U.S. history.

As detailed in a recent BBC article by Alexander Matthews, the dam removal and restoration efforts aim to restore 400 stream-miles of habitat for salmon, steelhead trout and other migratory fish. Michael Belchik, the Yurok tribe’s senior fisheries biologist, says in the BBC article that opening up spawning grounds that were previously inaccessible due to the dams will increase genetic diversity and reduce crowding for fish. He also tells BBC that elevated water temperatures—which are a major cause of fish declines—will be reduced as the restoration effort reconnects cold-water springs and tributaries to the larger Klamath River, improving water quality and reducing the risk of toxic algae blooms which have been a major cause for concern along the river. And, cooler water temperatures will help the fish to be resilient in the face of climate change, and free-flowing sediment will help to reduce the habitats for bristle worms that are secondary hosts for C Shasta parasites, which kill salmon, as Belchik explains in the BBC article.

The BBC article also quotes Yurok member Amy Cordalis, according to who the Klamath dam removal and restoration project will be a model for how to approach sustainable river restoration worldwide:

“I think the approach of working together with the company, with states, with tribes, with environmentalists, to reach an agreement that allows these dams to be removed for the tribes and for American citizens to benefit from the restoration of this river in a way that costs less money than it would be to relicense [the dams] – that’s really a model of how you might approach sustainable river restoration across the world,” she says.

Tucker, who has been working on the Klamath dam removal effort since 2003, says a unique set of factors make the restoration of the Klamath River uniquely viable.

“From a biodiversity perspective [the Klamath Basin] is an incredibly valuable place. And, it’s truly restorable in a way that some places aren’t. That’s to say that there are not that many people in the Klamath Basin, there are no real big cities [located there], most of the land is public land, and then you have these permanent stewards of the region that are the tribes, and for those reasons, I think the Klamath has a great chance to really being protected, preserved, restored.”

Guardians of the River

The environmental conservation organization American Rivers, which has been involved with the Klamath dam removal effort for years, recently released the short film “Guardians of the River,” produced by Swiftwater Films. It follows Yurok and Karuk people who live and fish in the Klamath Basin. The 15-minute film details the river’s dwindling health over the last several decades, the toll this has taken on the people who have called the river home for millennia, and their efforts toward renewed food sovereignty.

Dania Rose Colegrove, a member of the Klamath Justice Coalition and Hoopa Tribal member points out in the film that the state of California advises against drinking and swimming in the Klamath River due to the water’s toxicity levels. She says organizing for dam removal is not a choice and adds the 2002 fish kill was the “saddest part” of her life, in the film.

Talking about the obligation of her people to the river in the film, Colegrove says “It’s not because we want to, it’s because we have to.” “It’s an obligation for us to take care of this place, and take care of us.”

Samuel Gensaw, a 26-year-old traditional Yurok fisherman, narrates much of the film. In the film’s opening scene, Gensaw says his “grandpa thought he’d never see the day when he’d catch less than 50 fish when he went fishing.” Now, even with three teams, tribal fisher people are lucky to catch seven.

“Back in the day you did this all year round; you caught fish in the spring, there’s fish in the fall and there’s fish in the summer,” he says in the film. “Nowadays it’s just one time a year that we get a good fish run, and it’s really sad because this fish run is so small there’s not going to be enough fish pulled out of this river to give every tribal member one fish… Without these salmon our way of life is impossible.”

Gensaw is the founder and director of the Ancestral Guard, which is a community organizing network geared toward engaging youth with Yurok cultural values and ancestral knowledge. He has worked as an activist since he was a child, beginning in sixth grade after the local school district shut down the reservation school, forcing native students to travel 45 minutes on a crowded bus to Crescent city for school, where they endured racism from students and teachers. This situation garnered support from the ACLU.

“The ACLU came through and totally tore up that whole system to make the county act right when it comes to the education of Indigenous people,” he says. “They’re still fighting that battle, but it was really empowering to see that and I realized you can actually make a change.”

Gensaw began homeschooling, which provided the chance to connect with his grandmothers and tribal elders. By 10th grade, Gensaw became involved with the Undam the Klamath campaign after meeting Craig Tucker. Over the years he became increasingly interested in getting youth involved with preserving Yurok traditions, and helping them develop connections to the “old school rules” of being on the river and how to “think right” when fishing.

“I spent a lot of time with my grandmothers and luckily I’ve had a lot of elders [who are my] mentors like Archie Thompson, who was one of the last fluent speakers of our [Yurok] language,” he says.

The formation of the Ancestral Guard began with teaching youth about traditional fishing, from boating to treating the fish to making sure elders were fed.

“We did that for about three years until the salmon run population started dwindling,” he says, which was around 2010. “Then we started focusing on activism, asking ‘What can we really do to protect this river?’”

This led to getting more native youth involved with the Undam the Klamath campaign, among other movements to protect the river’s ecosystem as well as Indigenous rights to access the river.

“We fight so hard because we want a whole generation to grow up on a dam-free river,” he says. “We want them to not have to go through the same struggles and traumas that we have had, growing up on a sick river. It takes a lot out of you when you’re taught this place will take care of you for the rest of your life, and then all of a sudden it’s sick. Now it needs you to take care of it. [The river] is like a family member that we have, and the connection to the river is more than a connection. It’s a keystone piece of our existence.”

Gensaw says he never wanted to be an activist but has had to organize out of necessity.

“I never wanted to be involved in this process,” he says. “All I want to do is fish and feed my family. And that’s the same mentality of every fisherman out there. We just want to be able to fish or be able to provide for our families. And we want all the healthy opportunities that come along with living with a healthy river.”

Meyers, vice-chair of the Yurok, has been at the forefront of the effort organizing for dam removal for two decades. He points out that while the dams have destroyed aspects of the Indigenous way of life—contributing to gravely depleted fish populations and making it unsafe to bathe, drink and swim in a river that has been home since time immemorial—the Yurok haven’t even benefited from the electricity generated by the dams.

“For 50 years, the reservations here didn’t have electricity,” he says. “For the vast majority of the time the dams have been destroying our river and our way of life, but we haven’t even been able to get the luxury of electricity.”

He says his own parents, who live in a village along the river basin, just got electricity about five years ago, only because the tribe installed it.

Organizing ‘Undam the Klamath’

In 2002, a devastating event took place on the Klamath, known as the fish kill. Tens of thousands of dead salmon, steelhead and other migratory fish floated on the water. They were killed upon returning to the river to spawn, by disease related to high water temperatures that were likely caused by the culmination of steady habitat degradation created by the dams, water pulled from the river for upstream irrigation of farms and ranches during a drought year, timber sales along stream banks and groundwater withdrawals. The official estimate of mortality by the California Department of Fish and Game was around 34,000 fish, however, they have since reported that that number may have been significantly underestimated, and some estimates are upwards of 70,000.

Meyers says the fish kill took almost 80,000 of the 2002 fall salmon run—and the event likely could have been avoided had the regulators listened to the tribe.

“In 2001 we’d made a case to the Bureau of Reclamation about the importance of river flows to the river, and the importance of adequate flows to species viability,” he says. The bureau at first followed the tribe’s recommendations, releasing water back into the river, but the move caused economic distress for irrigators upstream. In 2002, the Bureau of Reclamation’s policy swung in the opposite direction.

“They augmented our river flows to beyond what we had told them would be catastrophic, and it was catastrophic in that year [2002].”

The fish kill was a call to action for many Indigenous groups in the Klamath Basin.

“It really became clear that we were never going to be able to get our salmon to return [to] any subsistent amount, as long as the dams were [there],” he says. “They cause too many negative impacts to water quality and there is no other way to mitigate that.”

Meyers notes that Indigenous people are not new to activism and organizing, as they’ve had to fight for centuries for most of the rights they have today.

“We had the fish wars in the 60s and 70s; we had the Red Cap War in the 1850s,” he says. “We’ve always been on the river and we’ve always fought for our way of life, we’ve always fought for our salmon and our ability to catch salmon, but it wasn’t until the 2002 fish kill that it became very, very apparent to us that dam removals would have to be necessary for us to continue our way of life. So we began the Undam the Klamath campaign soon after that.”

“We’ve been neighbors with Karuk and Hoopa people for millennia, since time immemorial, so there is some really deep-seated friction between the tribes that play out in all kinds of ways,” he says. “There was this animosity at times between the tribes, but that all was put aside after the fish kill. It was collectively decided… that our past fighting had to be put aside. Whatever problems we had with each other and our governments had to be put aside. This was about our survival as a species here on earth. That night at the river bar, it was all tribal people from the Klamath Basin, and regardless of tribal affiliation, we all started working together because we knew we were in a dire situation. We saw the terrible fish kill together.”

Meyers says the groups also realized the fight ahead would be a long one that would require a systematic shift involving massive hurdles, involving huge corporations and the overarching mentality of resource extraction and the industrial revolution.

“We knew this was going to take more than just consultation, this was going to take more than just government to government negotiations,” he says. “We knew the fight ahead of us was massive, but it was a decision that was made collectively, for the benefit of future generations. This was the fight we had to take up.”

Environmental groups as well as fisheries joined the effort, and over time the coalition-built momentum.

“The years after that really saw a collection of folks within the basin coming together and wanting to work on the solution for all of the communities in the basin,” Meyers says.

In 2006 PacifiCorp’s 50-year license to operate the dams expired, and since then the company has relied on annual licenses. Around 2008, the coalition began to restructure its efforts. They raised funds to hire a reputable firm to do a cost-benefit analysis of dam removal, with the aim to expand the narrative around dam removal from being centered solely on the tribes toward focusing on the financial, fiduciary responsibility of the corporation that owned the dams.

“We changed the message and we fine-tuned it,” Meyers says. “One of the big turning points for the campaign is when [the cost-benefit analysis] came out and we were actually able to show the corporation that at that point [dam removal] was in their financial interest. It sparked a whole other tone for the campaign, where this was not just about tribes, but now this was about the financial and the fiduciary responsibility of the corporation to make sure that their shareholders are getting their best possible return.”

As the Undam the Klamath coalition was able to push the conversation to include a financial and corporate structure debate, Meyers says they began to solidify partnerships and support from within the state governments of California and Oregon.

It has indeed been a long fight. In 2010, Klamath Basin stakeholders, including farmers from the upper basin and fishers from the lower basin, signed two agreements (KBRA and KHSA). In 2014, stakeholders signed the Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement(UKBCA). Members of the California and Oregon delegations introduced legislation to Congress hoping to advance the Klamath agreements, but the 2015 U.S. Congress closed without authorizing them. The involved parties amended the KHSA and the 2016 Klamath Power and Facilities Agreement was created. After a federal regulatory decision dismantled that agreement, the states of Oregon and California resolved to make dam removal happen, agreeing to take on liability for the removal process in what is the current dam removal agreement.

“Hats off to Oregon and California for showing some true leadership at a governmental level,” Meyers says.

Tucker says that a coalescence of factors was necessary in order for this campaign to succeed.

“The activism piece is my favorite piece, and it’s the most exciting, sexy piece, but it only works coupled with legal strategy and good science and good policy advocacy,” he says. “We had all of that together. I would make the case that you don’t win by grassroots alone; you don’t win by direct action alone. You have to have these other pieces running in parallel. And that’s something we’ve had, and we’ve managed that because, for one, the tribes have the capacity to bring all of those pieces to the table. And we [have been] very good at coalition-building.”

Tucker says that the partnership between the tribes with commercial salmon fishers and environmental groups has been key.

“That sort of enviro- tribal-labor trinity was one of the winning elements of the campaign,” he says. Tucker notes that it wasn’t so long ago that Indians and commercial fishers were engaged in gunfights along the Klamath over fishing rights at the mouth of the Klamath.

“Commercial salmon fishers were very powerful allies in this battle,” he says. “I was worried that it would be hard to get commercial salmon, fishers, and Indians to work together well but it worked out wonderfully.”

He says the environmental groups involved in the Klamath effort, like American Rivers, Trout Unlimited and California Trout, contributed their prior experience in dam removal as well as nationwide advocacy capabilities.

“These are groups that have a lot of experience removing dams all over the country,” he says. “They brought a lot of that FERC expertise to the table, and helped us raise money. And they have nationwide memberships that we could activate to write letters and petitions.”

Another ingredient in the recipe that has made the Klamath effort successful, he says, is strong leadership.

“We just had some individuals, Frankie Myers being one of them, whose leadership skills and charisma were able to develop meaningful relationships between individuals leading these organizations, and the different constituencies. You have to have some really capable leaders to make stuff happen, and we’ve been blessed with very capable leaders.”

Meyers says the Klamath dam removal agreement marks a significant shift in policy and says the tribes alone could not have brought it about.

“I don’t think any one group or agency has the capacity to get something like this done,” he says. “It really did take a collaborative effort, working with some strategic partners in the NGO world, partners in the environmental conservation world, and also having really strong partners at the state level.”

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California’s weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.


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How to Keep On Keeping On

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Even asking the questions is exhausting.

Who’s making the Covid decisions, and why do they change every day? How has the workload doubled? What about the new extremes of micro-management? Which of my co-workers, or their families, or my customers or patients or students are going to get sick?

And why can’t we seem to do anything to stop all this suffering?

The pull to give up, to withdraw, to hunker down and “just survive” is almost irresistible—even for a committed activist like you. 

But here we are. We are connecting to one another at work, even if just through images on a screen. We know that others are in the same situation, and we remember that the fight we were already committed to—for decent, dignified work and the power needed to grab it—was always going to be a long and hard haul. 

So how do we make it through to the other side of this pandemic, with some semblance of solidarity and sanity?

COUNT ON YOUR VALUES

Check in with yourself, often. Remind yourself what you believe and what you want to do with your beliefs. Those have not changed just because our employers have found a new way to slap us around. Your deep values and beliefs can shape your response to any situation. 

Say the boss has abruptly and unilaterally implemented an awful new policy. You have a choice: shoulder it without question, complain bitterly, or think critically about a response.

If your values include self-respect and respect for your co-workers, then the first two options make no sense. Accepting abuse is incompatible with your values. Just complaining is an advertisement of powerlessness. Why not start with the intention to resist? Even as just an idea in your mind, the intention is necessary to push through hopelessness that nothing can be done.

BROADCAST DETERMINATION

Even if you can barely scrape yourself off the ground, don’t broadcast your despair to co-workers. The tendency towards hopeless dismay is very contagious, but so is determination to not give up. Commiseration and complaining are a waste of time; engaging your co-workers around productive ways to resist is gold.

Consider how often you’ve found yourself thinking that most of your co-workers are apathetic, or are frightened, or just go along to get along. It may seem true, but remember: these are the attitudes that people take on when they have given in to helplessness.

Your commitment to resisting oppression should help you reach past these defenses thrown up by your co-workers, simply by steadily asserting confidence that things can change through collective action. No need to be falsely optimistic, or to cheerlead; just be doggedly committed to your own—and their own—dignity.

SET A REAL GOAL

Some goal is better than no goal. It doesn’t help to be overly ambitious (we need to get rid of this guy, or let’s all walk out right now, or I’m refusing to follow that policy no matter what). Instead, simply start with a clear conviction that something can be done, that some action can be taken together with co-workers. 

Setting any goal that can be achieved is a far better use of your energy than setting a wildly unrealistic goal too soon. Is it a realistic goal to talk to colleagues and encourage them? Then that’s the goal to work toward.

Say your next goal is to get together with co-workers to ask the boss probing questions about the new policy. In lots of workplaces this itself will be seen as insurrection, and people will need coaching and encouragement to take such a step.

Again, it’s the attitude of collective noncompliance that matters. We should all be noncompliant with the fear that pervades the worksite, with the right of the employer to be unilateral and coercive, and with the “normal” subordinate behavior that’s expected of workers. Practicing noncompliance in small but purposeful ways builds the muscle of collective power, and pushes against helplessness.

For example: think of one totally useless form of record-keeping you’re required to do. Talk with co-workers who also despise this waste of time, and persistently reach out until you have a critical mass—it could be five people or 100, depending on your workplace—who are willing to just stop doing it.

Think through the arguments management will use to scare people, and how to respond. Think whether this particular form of noncompliance might affect anyone else’s work adversely. Consider what to do if management threatens discipline.

Always aim for a big enough group to call management’s bluff. If you win, even on something small, talk about it in the group and reflect on how it happened. Everyone’s confidence will increase for the next fight.

LOVE THOSE CO-WORKERS

Since our only path to power at work is through collective action, the need for connection to co-workers is beyond debate. But it’s quite possible that you don’t love your co-workers! Maybe your workplace is rife with gossip, cliques, racist hostility, competitive friction, or distrust.

Or maybe there’s so much turnover that you barely know your colleagues. Maybe Covid means you never get to see them, or only in Zoom meetings where the supervisor talks endlessly.

None of this is reason not to strive to love the people you work with. Yes, love—meaning a deep-down commitment to the idea that they are human beings capable of collective dignity.

As we know from lifetimes of loving family and friends, love can have infinite expressions: When a co-worker snaps at you, don’t snap back. If you admire the way a colleague has conducted herself, tell her. If someone in your workplace is driving himself beyond reason, support him to regain perspective and slow down.

And wherever despair and hopelessness rear up in a co-worker, find the way to quietly and confidently express your trust. (No one can love everyone they work with; set a reasonable goal of those with the best potential to be allies.)

STAY ON YOUR FEET

An amazing byproduct of the effort to love your co-workers is that it makes you feel less alone. Not only does it chip away at isolation—expressing your care and respect also builds out a productive network of people willing to trust one another. And when there is a network—even a small one—of co-workers in the habit of action, everyone’s confidence is built up.

If you happen to be brave enough to speak up to the boss individually, you may come to believe you’re the only one who will, or who can. Others will depend on your courage, rather than exercising their own; this actually reinforces isolation. 

But a network where you depend on each other can help you lift yourself back up at your own lowest moments. Trusting each other also means fostering debate, tolerating criticism, making apologies, and granting forgiveness. It can become a “righteous cycle” of mutual respect leading to critical reflection leading to purposeful action.

Whatever form your purposeful action eventually takes—bargaining a Covid Memorandum of Understanding, fighting for more staff, defending benefits, demanding safety, beating back a bullying boss—if it is grounded in relationships that sustain you, it will keep you on your feet for the many struggles still ahead.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on January 5, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Ellen David Friedman is a retired organizer for Vermont NEA and a member of the Labor Notes board.


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Georgia’s Working People Deserve Better: In the States Roundup

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It’s time once again to take a look at the ways working people are making progress in the states. Click on any of the links to follow the state federations on Twitter.

Arizona AFL-CIO:

California Labor Federation:

Colorado AFL-CIO:

Florida AFL-CIO:

Georgia State AFL-CIO:

Indiana State AFL-CIO:

Iowa Federation of Labor:

Massachusetts AFL-CIO:

Michigan State AFL-CIO:

Minnesota AFL-CIO:

Missouri AFL-CIO:

New Jersey State AFL-CIO:

New York State AFL-CIO:

Ohio AFL-CIO:

Oregon AFL-CIO:

Pennsylvania AFL-CIO:

Rhode Island AFL-CIO:

Tennessee AFL-CIO Labor Council:

Texas AFL-CIO:

Vermont State Labor Council:

Virginia AFL-CIO:

Washington State Labor Council:

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on January 4, 2021. 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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Top 10 AFL-CIO Blog Posts of 2020

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By any measure, 2020 has been one of the most historic years in recent memory. Working people across the country stepped up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, continued to organize their workplaces and came together to help elect a labor-friendly president and vice president in Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. We covered these stories and many others throughout the year and here are the top 10 most-read stories by you, our readers.

1. In Memoriam: Union Members Lost in COVID-19 Pandemic: “As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the United States, our sisters, brothers and friends in the labor movement are among the first casualties. It is important for us to work together during this crisis to prevent further deaths. It is important to thank those who are doing the work to keep us safe and fed. It is important to remember those who we lost because of the coronavirus.”

2. Working People Respond to the Killing of George Floyd with Nationwide Protests: “Racism plays an insidious role in the daily lives of all working people of color. This is a labor issue because it is a workplace issue. It is a community issue, and unions are the community. We must and will continue to fight for reforms in policing and to address issues of racial and economic inequality.”

3. Biden Taps Working People Champions to Transition Teams: “President-elect Joe Biden made sure that the voices of working people will be heard in the transition to his administration. He appointed more than two dozen leaders from the labor movement to the various agency review teams that will help make sure the Biden administration is ready to go on day one.”

4. Shame on Corporations Using COVID-19 Pandemic to Attack Workers: “Some greedy corporations are using this time to attack these working people, attempting to use a crisis to roll back the rights of the very people who are dying while keeping America running.”

5. Government Must Act to Stop Spread of Economic and Financial Consequences of Coronavirus: “We need government to act to stop financial and economic contagion until the worst of the coronavirus passes and, most importantly, until everyone has a better sense of the exact nature of the threat—that is, until the uncertainty diminishes. Working people must demand that government act, or we and our families will pay the price for others’ lack of action, as we so often have in the past.”

6. The Trump Budget: The Other Shoe Drops: “They keep running the same play because it keeps working. Since 2001, the wealthiest 1% of all taxpayers have gotten $2 trillion in tax cuts, and federal tax revenues have been reduced by $5.1 trillion. This is money that should have been used to make life better for working people?—for example, by rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, funding quality public education for every child and guaranteeing retirement security for our seniors?—rather than building up the fortunes of the 1%.”

7. 50 Reasons the Trump Administration Is Bad for Workers: “The Trump administration’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic marks the administration’s most glaring failure of leadership. However, the administration’s response to the pandemic is in no way distinct from its approach to governing since President Trump’s first day on the job. The administration has systematically promoted the interests of corporate executives and shareholders over those of working people and failed to protect workers’ safety, wages and rights.”

8. The Response to COVID-19: What Working People Are Doing This Week: “‘When things like these episodes break out, we’re on the front lines.’ – Leo Laffitte, a custodian for 18 years at the Hartford Public Library, a member of AFSCME Local 1716…”

9. The New Front-Line Workers: The Working People Weekly List: “Much of the American workplace has shut down, sending millions of employees home to wait out the coronavirus pandemic. Among those still on the job are grocery-store clerks, prison guards and delivery drivers. ‘Who would have ever thought that we would be on the front lines?’ said Joyce Babineau, a 67-year-old supermarket supervisor in Dartmouth, Mass., a coastal village 60 miles south of Boston.”

10. Breakthrough for Organized Labor and Clean Energy: “Her goal was to go beyond good intentions and rhetoric. So Liz Shuler, as secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, the second-highest position in the labor movement and, as it happens, highest-ranking woman in the federation’s history, went to Scandinavia in 2019. She leveraged AFL-CIO’s relationships with their sister union federations to talk directly with top management at some of the largest renewable energy companies in the world.”

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on December 18, 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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2020 in Review: Workers Struggle Under the Weight of the Pandemic

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Workers will feel the ramifications of this unprecedented year long into the future.

The coronavirus pandemic has claimed 300,000 lives, destroyed millions of jobs, busted gaping holes in public budgets, and magnified the myriad inequalities that have come to define life in the United States.

Notwithstanding a few bright spots, the labor movement struggled to find its footing in the biggest workplace health and safety crisis of our lifetimes.

The year started with 3.5 percent unemployment—the lowest in a half-century—and hopes that workers might be able to use the tight labor market to recover some of what had been lost over decades of concessions.

All that came to a crashing halt in March, though the U.S. was slow to impose dramatic shutdowns. Eventually it took a seesaw approach, alternating between periods of lockdown and opening in an attempt to keep the economy going while waiting for a vaccine.

That came at an enormous human cost. Health care workers sustained grueling shifts for months on end, witnessing the havoc this new virus wreaks on its victims while working desperately to connect patients with loved ones to say their final distanced goodbyes. Meanwhile they often had to fight for adequate protective gear.

“Most of us are going to get it and some of us are going to die,” said Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, president of the New York State Nurses, as the pandemic reached its early heights in New York City. Overall around 550,000 health care workers have contracted the virus, including 300,000 workers in nursing home, whose residents account for 40 percent of all Covid deaths. Sixteen hundred health care workers have died.

MOST UNEQUAL RECESSION

Unemployment peaked near 15 percent in April. By September a quarter of Americans would say that someone in their household had lost a job this year.

Even as unemployment dipped to 6.7 percent in November, there were still 9 million fewer workers on payrolls than a year ago, with 3.7 million having dropped out of the labor force. The real unemployment rate, which includes these workers as well as involuntary part-timers, stands at 12 percent. Among the unemployed, 3.9 million have been without a job for more than 27 weeks.

But even those figures understate the pandemic’s impact on workers. According to the Washington Post, this is “the most unequal recession in modern U.S. history, delivering a mild setback for those at or near the top and a depression-like blow for those at the bottom.”

Unemployment rates for Blacks and Latinos are 10.3 percent and 8.4 percent, respectively, compared to 5.9 percent for white workers. Retail has lost 550,000 jobs since February and leisure and hospitality 3.4 million.

While Americans got used to seeing cars lined up for miles at food banks—26 million adults reported not having enough food to eat in mid-November—those at the very top saw their fortunes grow astronomically. Since the start of lockdowns in March, 650 U.S. billionaires have tacked on an additional $1 trillion in wealth, led by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, now worth $70 billion more, and the Walton family, up a combined $48 billion.

AN UPSURGE?

Suddenly, just the act of going to work every day became a potential life-or-death question.

That spurred some workers to action. Detroit bus drivers were the first to strike, to force the city to sanitize buses and stop fare collection. Apple packers—working shoulder to shoulder in the county with the highest rate of Covid on the West Coast—walked out to demand safety and hazard pay. Workers in Amazon warehouses, grocery stores, and fast food fought for paid time off.

These were among the hundreds of actions that workers took to defend themselves, their co-workers, and their communities. But it was far from the mass strike wave that some anticipated, a reflection both of the disorienting impact of the pandemic and of how little real organization had been built up heading into it.

Meatpacking and poultry plants stayed open throughout the year, even as the workers, largely immigrants, contracted the coronavirus at alarming rates. A Tyson plant manager in Iowa set up a pool for supervisors to bet on how many workers in the plant would get the virus, according to a lawsuit; over a third caught it, and five died. Tyson’s billionaire owner, meanwhile, saw his fortune balloon by $600 million. OSHA was almost entirely AWOL as 225 meatpacking workers died of Covid. Poultry plants were even granted federal waivers to increase line speed.

None of this is to dismiss the valiant organizing in some workplaces.

In just the week before we went to print, 30 workers walked out at a George’s poultry plant in Springdale, Arkansas, to protest the end of staggered shifts (which mean fewer workers have to cram into crowded hallways) and push for wage increases. Teachers organized a sickout in Chandler, Arizona, over their district’s refusal to consider hybrid or remote schooling as cases surge. And dozens of fast food workers in Durham, North Carolina, struck after a worker at a McDonald’s tested positive and management withheld the news; they demanded better virus protections and $15 an hour.

SOCIALLY DISTANCED TACTICS

Many unions and worker centers did their best to adapt by organizing socially distanced rallies and car caravans, including some that jammed up fast food drive-thrus to back workers’ demands. A digital picket line by the New Yorker’s new union won just cause after a two-year push.

Some unions canceled meetings entirely. Others switched to Zoom and reported record attendance. Many negotiated one-year contract extensions, hoping for a better bargaining environment next year. At some big union employers, like Verizon and AT&T, strong unions won model leave policies. Others, like UPS, refused calls for hazard pay—and national union leaders did little to rock the boat.

Some workers frustrated with their union officials’ inaction voted in new ones. Complaining that the six-term incumbent hadn’t “shown his face” and was “totally absent,” members of AFSCME District Council 33 in Philadelphia backed a challenger slate—which included sanitation workers pushing for hazard pay and personal protective equipment—two to one.

No big wave of workers joined unions, though a handful did. National Nurses United had a breakthrough in North Carolina, the biggest hospital union victory in the South in 45 years. A promising collaboration between the United Electrical Workers and the Democratic Socialists of America trained hundreds of volunteers to advise workers looking for fight-back help, but has notched just a few small wins thus far.

Educators were forced to navigate constantly shifting conditions. They worried that open schools could spread the virus, and raged at a politics that placed the economy above their safety.

Some locals, like United Teachers Los Angeles, used the power they had built through years of organizing to quickly win remote schooling. But in many other districts, educators are back in buildings, or shifting back and forth between in-person and remote.

GOOD RIDDANCE

Averting a second term for Donald Trump was a major goal for many in labor.

An election that Joe Biden won by 7 million votes still managed to be a nail-biter, thanks to the archaic and undemocratic Electoral College. While the Biden campaign itself downplayed the importance of face-to-face organizing, a few unions thankfully ignored this advice. UNITE HERE sent 1,700 mostly Black and Latino canvassers—many of them laid-off hotel workers—whose work provided the critical margins in Arizona and Pennsylvania.

But the larger “blue wave” heralded by pre-election polling failed to materialize, dashing hopes for a good terrain on which to fight for labor law reform, a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, or a massive federal stimulus and jobs program. Absent changes that will actually improve voters’ lives over the next four years, the prospect looms of a swing back to a demagogic right-winger in 2024.

In an ominous development in California, Uber and other gig economy giants spent a record-breaking $200 million to buy a win on Proposition 22 so they could go on treating workers as disposable “independent contractors.”

LABOR FOR BLACK LIVES

The other major story of 2020 was the upsurge for racial justice that began with George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police. Millions took to the streets, including in small towns where demonstrations are a rarity. Many demanded to cut police funding and redirect it to social needs.

Labor played its part. Many Twin Cities unions supported the demonstrations. Bus drivers in Minneapolis and New York refused to transport arrested protesters. West Coast dockers shut down their ports twice.

Teachers in Minneapolis, Denver, Portland, Oregon, Rochester, New York, and Seattle forced their districts to cut contracts with the police. The King County labor council expelled the Seattle police union, and other labor bodies debated whether police unions belong within them.

Union leaders—often hesitant to weigh in on such issues—issued statements backing the protests. A Strike for Black Lives endorsed by eight national unions in July saw actions in 150 cities; many participants stopped work for eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence to honor Floyd.

As Tim Schermerhorn and Lee Sustar wrote in these pages, “The challenge now is to bring the militancy and energy of this year’s revived Black struggle into the workplace.”

WHERE NOW?

Where does all this leave us heading into 2021? We don’t know how many jobs the vaccine will bring back. In the public sector—a major employer of Black workers—decimated state and city budgets will fuel battles over employee pensions, health care, layoffs, and collective bargaining rights.

Over the past year, tens of millions of workers have been heralded as essential and praised as heroes. But they’ve also seen that they’re expendable—that their lives do not matter as much as ensuring the smooth flow of goods and production.

“We’re up here risking our life for chicken,” said Kendaliyn Granville, a Georgia poultry worker who walked out early in the pandemic.

“All they care about is picking up the garbage. They don’t even care about our health,” said Pittsburgh sanitation worker Fitzroy Moss at a rally demanding protective gear and hazard pay.

Many of these same workers hit the streets in the dramatic protests for racial justice this summer. How will these experiences translate to a post-pandemic world, where workers may have more breathing space to organize?

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on December 21, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Dan DiMaggio is an Assistant Editor of Labor Notes.

About the Author: Saurav Sarkar is an Assistant Editor of Labor Notes. Saurav covers worker centers, immigrant workers, LGBTQ workers, the Steelworkers, the Electrical Workers (UE), and the global labor movement.


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The Year That Labor Hung On By Its Fingertips

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A lot of things hap­pened for work­ing peo­ple this year, and most of them were bad. But even in a year as deranged as 2020, the broad­er themes that afflict and ener­gize the labor move­ment have car­ried on. If you are read­ing this, con­grat­u­la­tions: There is still time for you to do some­thing about all of these things. Here is a brief look at the Year in Labor, and may we nev­er have to live through some­thing like it again.

The pan­dem­ic

Broad­ly speak­ing, there have been two very large labor sto­ries this year. The first is, ?“I have been forced into unem­ploy­ment due to the pan­dem­ic, and I am scared.” And the sec­ond is, ?“I have been forced to con­tin­ue work­ing dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, and I am scared.” America’s labor reporters spent most of our year writ­ing vari­a­tions of these sto­ries, in each com­pa­ny and in each indus­try and in each city. Those sto­ries con­tin­ue to this day. 

The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment left work­ing peo­ple utter­ly for­sak­en. They did not cre­ate a nation­al wage replace­ment sys­tem to pay peo­ple to stay home, as many Euro­pean nations did. OSHA was asleep on the job, unin­ter­est­ed in work­place safe­ty relat­ed to coro­n­avirus. Repub­li­cans in Con­gress were more intent on get­ting lia­bil­i­ty pro­tec­tions for employ­ers than on doing any­thing, any­thing at all, that might help des­per­ate reg­u­lar peo­ple. And, of course, Trump and his allies unnec­es­sar­i­ly politi­cized pub­lic health, lead­ing direct­ly to hun­dreds of thou­sands of unnec­es­sary deaths and the eco­nom­ic destruc­tion that goes with that. It was a bad year. The larg­er polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions cre­at­ed to pro­tect work­ers did not do their jobs. The labor move­ment was left very much on its own. And its own track record was mixed. 

Front-line work­ers

The year of the hero! We love our heroes! Our front-line work­ers, our deliv­ery peo­ple and san­i­ta­tion work­ers and bus dri­vers, our para­medics and nurs­es, our cooks and clean­ers and gro­cery work­ers: We love you all! Sure, we will bang pots and pans to cel­e­brate reg­u­lar work­ers who had to push through dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, and we will write you nice notes and have school chil­dren draw signs cel­e­brat­ing you. But will you get paid for this?

How well have unions rep­re­sent­ing these front line work­ers done this year? In many cas­es, not well. I think first of the gro­cery work­ers, rep­re­sent­ed by UFCW, who were gen­er­al­ly award­ed with tem­po­rary ?“haz­ard pay” bonus­es rather than actu­al rais­es. Or of the UFCW’s meat­pack­ing work­ers, whose plants were encour­aged to stay open by an exec­u­tive order, and who suf­feredter­ri­bly from the coro­n­avirus and from management’s utter dis­dain for their wel­fare. These are work­ers who, par­tic­u­lar­ly dur­ing the ear­ly phase of the pan­dem­ic, had a ton of lever­age. Had they struck, or walked out, ask­ing for basic safe­ty and fair pay for risk­ing their lives, the pub­lic would have neared pan­ic, and their demands prob­a­bly would have been met. Their employ­ers would have had no choice. Instead, there was a great deal of out­cry from their unions, but no real labor actions at scale. Thus, the meat­pack­ing work­ers con­tin­ued to suf­fer, and the gro­cery work­ers saw their ?“haz­ard pay” bonus­es dis­ap­pear, and here we are. 

The point of this is not to be harsh. Faced with an unex­pect­ed dis­as­ter, most unions have spent this year scram­bling des­per­ate­ly to keep them­selves and their work­ers afloat, and have been flood­ed with the task of deal­ing with the cat­a­stro­phe that has cost mil­lions their jobs. But when this is all over, there should be a seri­ous post­mortem about what could and should have been done bet­ter. And that will include, right up top, the fail­ure of front line work­ers to turn their new­found hero sta­tus?—?and the tem­po­rary, absolute neces­si­ty that they con­tin­ue work­ing through life-threat­en­ing con­di­tions?—?into any last­ing gains. It is easy to sur­ren­der to the feel­ing of just being thank­ful to be employed while oth­ers sink into pover­ty. But we need to be ready with a bet­ter plan for next time. Bil­lions of dol­lars and a good deal of poten­tial pow­er that work­ing peo­ple could have had has evap­o­rat­ed because unions were not pre­pared to act to take it. 

Pub­lic workers

Teach­ers unions con­clu­sive­ly demon­strat­ed their val­ue this year. In gen­er­al, in cities with strong teach­ers unions, pub­lic schools did not reopen unless the teach­ers were sat­is­fied that ade­quate work­place safe­ty pro­ce­dures were in place. (In prac­tice this meant that many school dis­tricts sim­ply kept instruc­tion online.) While this earned the ire of some par­ents, they should think it through: Work­place safe­ty in Amer­i­ca only exist­ed where unions were strong enough to see to it that it hap­pened. Schools were the most promi­nent exam­ple of that. 

Else­where, the news for fed­er­al gov­ern­ment employ­ees was gloomy. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion waged a years-long war against the labor rights of fed­er­al work­ers, and it is fair to say that the unions lost that war. Fed­er­al employ­ee unions in par­tic­u­lar, and state employ­ee unions in Repub­li­can states, have become pathet­i­cal­ly weak. Much of their bar­gain­ing pow­er has been out­lawed by Repub­li­can politi­cians. The unions have been reduced to writ­ing polite­ly angry let­ters as their work­ers are abused while wait­ing for a new Demo­c­ra­t­ic admin­is­tra­tion that they can beg to restore their rights. It is not a work­able mod­el for a union. These unions must decide at some point that they are will­ing to break the law in order to assert the fun­da­men­tal rights of their mem­bers, or they will grow increas­ing­ly less able to demon­strate to mem­bers why they have any value. 

That may not be fair, but it’s the truth. 

Orga­niz­ing

The biggest issue for unions in Amer­i­ca?—?big­ger than any pan­dem­ic or pres­i­den­tial elec­tion cycle?—?is that there are sim­ply not enough union mem­bers. Only one in 10 work­ers is a union mem­ber. In the pri­vate sec­tor, that fig­ure is just over 6%. The decades-long decline of union den­si­ty is the under­ly­ing thing rob­bing the once-mighty labor move­ment (and by exten­sion, the work­ing class itself) of pow­er. If unions in Amer­i­ca are not grow­ing every year, they are dying. 

Dis­as­trous years like 2020 tend to put struc­tur­al issues on the back burn­er, but they can also serve as inspi­ra­tions for peo­ple to join unions to pro­tect them. The annu­al fig­ures for the year are not out yet, but anec­do­tal­ly, union lead­ers and orga­niz­ers are opti­mistic that the pandemic’s hav­oc will serve as fuel for future orga­niz­ing. Most unions man­aged to at least con­tin­ue major orga­niz­ing efforts that were already under­way this year, like SEIU’s suc­cess­ful con­clu­sion of a 17-year bat­tle to union­ize 45,000 child care providers in Cal­i­for­nia. Indus­tries that were already hotbeds of orga­niz­ing tend­ed to remain so. The safe­ty net of a union con­tract clear­ly demon­strat­ed its val­ue far and wide this year, at least in the abil­i­ty of union mem­bers to nego­ti­ate terms for fur­loughs and sev­er­ance and recall rights and all the oth­er things that mat­ter dur­ing dis­as­ters, as non-union work­ers were sim­ply cast out on their own. 

Still, it is up to unions them­selves to have a con­cert­ed plan to take advan­tage of the wide­spread nation­al suf­fer­ing and chan­nel it into new orga­niz­ing. Since unions have spent the year trans­fixed by the elec­tion and by try­ing to respond to the eco­nom­ic col­lapse, it is safe to say that such a con­cert­ed plan does not real­ly exist yet. That needs to be done, soon, or this moment will have been wasted. 

Strikes

Dur­ing the ear­ly months of the pan­dem­ic, a frag­ile sort of labor peace reigned. The grip of the cri­sis was such that most work­ers were sim­ply try­ing to hang on. As time went by, and the fail­ures of employ­ers became more clear, that peace began to evap­o­rate. Teach­ers unions around the coun­try used cred­i­ble strike threats to head off unsafe school open­ing plans. And in the health­care indus­try, unions have had mul­ti­ple strikes, as nurs­es and hos­pi­tal work­ers have passed their break­ing points.

Lever­age for work­ers varies wide­ly by indus­try right now, as cer­tain indus­tries are besieged with unem­ployed work­ers look­ing for any job they can get (restau­rants), and oth­ers are des­per­ate for skilled work­ers, who are extreme­ly vital (nurs­es). At min­i­mum, every union should look at its lever­age in the spe­cif­ic con­text of the pan­dem­ic and ask if they should act now, lest an oppor­tu­ni­ty be lost forever.

Gig work­ers

You can think of many enor­mous com­pa­nies as huge algo­rithms that are mak­ing their way through the Amer­i­can labor force, turn­ing employ­ees into inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors or free­lancers or part-timers. There is mon­ey to be made in free­ing busi­ness­es from the respon­si­bil­i­ty and cost of pro­vid­ing for employ­ees (a sta­tus that comes with ben­e­fits and a host of work­place rights, includ­ing the right to union­ize). The ?“gig econ­o­my” is not just Uber and Lyft and Instacart and oth­er com­pa­nies that exclu­sive­ly work in that space?—?it is an eco­nom­ic force of nature push­ing every com­pa­ny, includ­ing yours, to get your job off its books, and to turn you into some­thing less than a full employee. 

Coun­ter­ing this force is prob­a­bly the sin­gle most impor­tant legal and leg­isla­tive issue for labor as a whole, because this process inher­ent­ly acts to dis­solve labor pow­er. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the most impor­tant thing that hap­pened on the issue this year was the pas­sage of Prop 22 in Cal­i­for­nia, leg­is­la­tion specif­i­cal­ly designed to empow­er the gig econ­o­my com­pa­nies to the detri­ment of work­ers. Scari­er yet is the fact that the suc­cess­ful leg­is­la­tion in Cal­i­for­nia will now be used as a blue­print for state leg­is­la­tion around the coun­try. Com­pa­nies are pre­pared to spend hun­dreds of mil­lions or bil­lions of dol­lars on this issue, because they save far more mon­ey on the back end and pre­serve their busi­ness mod­el, which depends in large part in extract­ing wealth that once went to work­ers and redi­rect­ing it towards investors. Either Amer­i­ca will have a nation­al reck­on­ing with what the gig econ­o­my is doing to us, or we will con­tin­ue bar­rel­ing towards a dystopi­an future of the Uber-iza­tion of every last indus­try. Includ­ing yours. If ever there were a good time to launch a work­er coop, it is now. 

The elec­tion and Washington

After an ear­ly peri­od of hope for a Bernie-led insur­gency of the left, unions coa­lesced around Biden. They spent a ton of mon­ey on him, and indeed, his rhetoric and his plat­form are both more defin­i­tive­ly pro-union than any pres­i­dent in decades. Unions expect a lot of things from Biden, and expe­ri­ence tells us that they will not get many of them. 

What they will prob­a­bly get: a much bet­ter NLRB, a func­tion­ing OSHA, a pro-labor Labor Depart­ment rather than the oppo­site, and, par­tic­u­lar­ly for unions with long­stand­ing ties to Biden, rel­a­tive­ly good access to the White House. What they prob­a­bly won’t get: pas­sage of the PRO Act, a very good bill that would fix many of the worst prob­lems with U.S. labor law, but which has no hope in a divid­ed Con­gress. (And, I sus­pect, even with full Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­trol of Con­gress, many of the more cen­trist Democ­rats would sud­den­ly find a rea­son to oppose the act if the Cham­ber of Com­merce ever thought it might actu­al­ly pass). It is true that the cen­ter of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty is slow­ly mov­ing left, but Biden is a man who nat­u­ral­ly stays in the mid­dle of every­one, and he will be con­ser­v­a­tive in his will­ing­ness to burn polit­i­cal cap­i­tal by push­ing pro-labor poli­cies that don’t enjoy some amount of pub­lic bipar­ti­san sup­port. The polit­i­cal cli­mate for unions will be sim­i­lar to what it was under Oba­ma. The words will be nicer, but any action will have to be pro­pelled by peo­ple in the streets. 

The nine-month odyssey between the pas­sage of the CARES Act and the next relief bill that Con­gress actu­al­ly passed is a use­ful demon­stra­tion of the lim­its of labor’s lob­by­ing pow­er. While par­tic­u­lar unions, espe­cial­ly those in trans­porta­tion and the USPS, showed skill at get­ting con­crete mate­r­i­al gains for their mem­bers into bills, the inabil­i­ty to force any sort of time­ly action from Con­gress in the face of mas­sive human suf­fer­ing shows that labor as a spe­cial inter­est will nev­er have the polit­i­cal pow­er it craves. Until many, many more Amer­i­cans are union mem­bers, it will be impos­si­ble to break out of this trap.

The labor move­ment at its high­est lev­el must break itself of the addic­tion to the false belief that sal­va­tion will be found if only our Demo­c­rat can win the next elec­tion. It won’t. Orga­nize mil­lions of new work­ers and teach them to always be ready to strike. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty must be dragged towards progress by an army, and our army is weak. The AFL-CIO got burned in the protests this year. It remains to be seen if it learned any­thing from that. 

End­ing on a pos­i­tive note

It may be the per­pet­u­al nature of unions that the lead­er­ship is often dis­ap­point­ing, but the grass­roots are always inspir­ing. The big pic­ture for orga­nized labor in 2020 has been… close to okay, in some aspects, but cer­tain­ly not great. But when you pull out a mag­ni­fy­ing glass and look at what indi­vid­ual work­ers and work­places and units are doing, you will find thou­sands and thou­sands of inspir­ing things. And not even a pan­dem­ic has changed the basic fact that orga­niz­ing is the most pow­er­ful tool that reg­u­lar peo­ple have at their dis­pos­al in a sys­tem that val­ues cap­i­tal over humanity.

If you are an employ­ee, you can union­ize your work­place. If you are a gig or tem­po­rary work­er, you can orga­nize with your cowork­ers. If you are unem­ployed, you can march in the streets now, and union­ize your next job. All the labor move­ment is is all of us.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 23, 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. 


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Service + Solidarity Spotlight: The Season of Giving: IBEW Local 103 Holds Annual Christmas Toy Drive

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Working people across the United States have stepped up to help out our friends, neighbors and communities during these trying times. In our regular Service + Solidarity Spotlight series, we’ll showcase one of these stories every day. Here’s today’s story.

Members of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 103 in Boston came together over the weekend to hold their annual toy drive for kids and families in need. The union credited Mayor Martin Walsh (LIUNA) and all of the donors and volunteers who made the event possible. “Thank you so much, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, the IBEW Local 103 volunteers and everyone that donated to our annual Christmas toy drive! I’m so proud of Local 103,” said local Business Manager/Financial Secretary Louis Antonellis.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on December 18, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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