Workplace Fairness

Menu

Skip to main content

  • print
  • decrease text sizeincrease text size
    text

How Unions Can Lay the Ground for the Next Upsurge

Share this post

I started in the labor movement in the mid-90s, when the fall in union density from 23 percent of the workforce in 1980 to 15 percent in 1994 had created a crisis at the top. In response, the “New Voices” slate led by the Service Employees’ John Sweeney defeated heir apparent Thomas Donahue in the first contested election in AFL-CIO history.

The incoming team were evangelists for organizing. They argued for applying to the entire labor movement the militant tactics of campaigns like the Service Employees’ (SEIU’s) Justice for Janitors and the organizing methodology popularized by the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Institute.

The idea that unions needed to organize new shops in order to survive became universally accepted. Several large campaigns were launched; unions hired hundreds of recent college graduates to staff them, and codified a specific methodology for organizing.

Many of these tactics (and certainly their essence) had been around since the dawn of the labor movement, but in the 1990s they were polished, distilled, and disseminated widely among a growing corps of “professional” union organizers.

This detailed and methodical practice—the structured organizing conversation, house visits, hard inoculation, workplace mapping, careful assessments of support with numerical ranking of workers, building large and representative organizing committees—has proven incredibly effective (when properly applied) in uniting workplace majorities to win a union in the face of intense employer opposition.

UNIONS GROW IN SPURTS

It seemed to many (or at least to me) that training more people in good organizing tactics would only lead to positive outcomes for unions. And it did, to a degree. Membership has grown slightly in a few unions with more aggressive organizing programs, particularly in health care.

But we’ve seen no overall growth in union density, the percentage of the labor force that belongs to a union—today just one in 10 workers overall, and in the private sector, 6.2 percent.

The problem is that even great tactics can’t overcome the social, political, and economic forces of capitalism, which combine to make organizing a gigantic challenge. In a free-market system, employers are under intense competitive pressure to resist workers’ demands—there’s no generous “high road” for them to take; they won’t willingly give in to a union drive. And employers are compelled to come together as a class to exert power over the government, passing laws and using the courts to challenge unions on all fronts.

In addition, organizing tactics are labor-intensive. In a model where paid staff do the lion’s share, they are expensive. And they were crafted to do something that labor history shows has rarely if ever been done: grow unions incrementally, outside of an upsurge.

Rather, as shown by authors like Dan Clawson in his 2003 book The Next Upsurge, unions tend to grow in spurts, as part of working-class uprisings that pose a deep challenge to the powers that be.

The upsurges in the private sector from 1934 to 1939, when the CIO organized industry-wide, with sitdowns when necessary, and the AFL tried to catch up, and in the public sector from 1962 to 1972, when a wave of illegal strikes established the right to bargain, were rooted in militant worker action. The system began to lose legitimacy and workers got a sense of their collective power. Similar dynamics played out during the 1897-1904 upsurge in the U.S., 1910-1914 and 1933-1940 in the U.K., in France 1935-1937, in Italy in the early 1970s, in Brazil in 1978-1979, in South Africa 1982-1985, and in Korea in 1987.

During an upsurge, new possibilities emerge: what was inconceivable yesterday is suddenly possible today.

As the system seeks to stabilize in response, reforms become possible that allow unions to grow and consolidate. For a period after the upsurge, union membership may stay constant or even grow. Inevitably, though, at some point post-upsurge, membership begins to decline as employers resume their attacks.

Organizing between upsurges can produce incremental growth for some unions at some points, or at least slow the decline. But it doesn’t lead to substantial increases in overall union density.

SEIU, for example, grew by 183 percent during the 1934-1939 upsurge. In contrast, it grew by around 8 percent from 2009 to 2019 despite spending a large portion of its budget on organizing. The structural challenges facing unions are such that only the big numbers brought in through an upsurge can move density rates by double digits.

WHAT COULD’VE BEEN

What does this mean for our organizing strategy? While many strategists have studied the conditions leading to an upsurge, most would agree that they are difficult to predict and even more difficult to manufacture. However, it’s also true that before and during each upsurge, union militants took specific actions that helped to spark, build, and sustain it.

There are all kinds of moments in history where the right combination of forces could have moved in a way that caused an upsurge, but didn’t. Even in the past 20 years there have been such moments. On March 10, 2006, a half-million immigrants took to the streets of Chicago to protest a proposed anti-immigrant law, shutting down hundreds of workplaces. Soon millions of people across the country flowed into the streets too.

Like most protest movements, these so-called “mega-marches” eventually dissipated (though it took a few years). But what if a network of activists, rooted both in workplaces and in the struggle for immigrants’ rights, had been able to use the momentum of the walkouts to sustain those strikes for economic or political demands?

What if organizers in strategic workplaces throughout the country had started to spread the strike movement to other sections of the working class? What if the march participants had had a map of the logistics chokepoints in Chicago and decided to disrupt commerce? What if insurgent teacher unionists had joined the effort? Who knows what could have happened?

The financial crisis in 2008, Occupy and the mass worker pushback in Wisconsin in 2011, the Red for Ed strike wave in 2018-2019, and the uprisings for Black lives this year all presented similar opportunities. And the people in the streets during those events? Few of them got there because they’d had a structured conversation with an organizer.

The point is that moments like this come and go all the time, historically speaking—but they aren’t sustained and multiplied, because the forces aren’t aligned to make that happen.

SPARK INTO AN INFERNO

Working-class upsurges often happen in the context of deep changes in society as a whole, such as abrupt and widespread economic dislocation, a profound loss of legitimacy by ruling elites, or abnormal political instability. Many of the factors contributing to an upsurge are not under our control, but some are. If we’re ready at these moments, we can turn a dust-up into a strike, one strike into several, one plant occupation into five, into 10. And then maybe that spark turns into an inferno.

You never know when that moment will come. There’s no structure test for an upsurge.

What does being “ready” mean?

While upsurges look different across times and countries, certain common elements increase the possibility that an isolated labor struggle will spark the sort of upsurge where unions grow dramatically. Certain of these elements can be affected by union activists.

1. More strikes: Dramatic growth in unions is almost always linked to a strike spike, both before and during the upsurge.

The 1934-1939 upsurge was kicked off by several large and militant strikes, including by teamsters in Minneapolis, auto workers in Toledo, longshoremen in San Francisco, and textile workers throughout the South. These came after several years of bitter strikes, such as the 1931 miners’ strike throughout Appalachia and the 1933 strike at the Briggs auto parts plant in Detroit.

The public sector organizing wave of the 1970s included hundreds of illegal strikes, such as the postal workers’ national strike in 1970, and the routine defiance of injunctions.

The willingness of at least part of the labor movement to take risks in the form of sustained, militant, and sometimes illegal action appears to be a necessary component in turning a “moment” into an upsurge.

2. Large numbers of workplace leaders ready to move: An upsurge can’t be driven by union staff. You need politically conscious working-class leaders who have experience in militancy (see #1) and a view that the existing system is illegitimate.

We saw this in the 1960s and 1970s, when the civil rights, women’s, and anti-war movements were all challenging the core of the system. Much of this movement organizing was then reflected in the booming public sector as rank-and-file teachers, state employees, and municipal workers built unions.

3. Independence from the mainstream: It’s unlikely that large, established unions will support the type of militant, risky action that characterizes the beginning of an upsurge.

Many union officials simply aren’t willing to run open-ended, majority strikes, outside of rare circumstances. Others don’t want to risk legal sanctions.

So where does organizing capacity come from in an upsurge? Historically, three places: a) the minority of unions willing to take militant action, b) new formations that come together during the upsurge, such as the new CIO industrial unions in the 1930s, and c) people fighting for profound changes in society, such as the civil rights movement of the 1960s, socialists in the 1930s, or anarchists in earlier periods.

Waging more strikes and developing thousands of new workplace militants will take a lot of work, and at times will require exactly the type of sophisticated organizing methods discussed earlier. But it will also require something else: a labor movement with a class-struggle orientation.

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

What if the tactics needed to spark or fuel an upsurge aren’t the same as those needed to win a tough private sector union election during a low period in working-class consciousness? If they’re not, how many potential upsurges have passed us by while we were grinding it out in organizing efforts that only resulted in marginal gains?

What if the key to union growth isn’t simply more “smart organizing” but an entirely different strategic approach?

While some of the tactics honed in the 1990s and 2000s had their roots in earlier labor upsurges, they were largely divorced from a class-struggle strategy. A string of valiantly fought but ultimately losing strikes, running from PATCO in 1981 to the Detroit Newspapers in 1995, had convinced many unions that the strike tactic was futile.

So union campaigners often stressed “comprehensive” strategies that focused on developing pressure outside of the workplace: convincing supportive politicians to pressure an employer, media campaigns designed to impact a firm’s brand, or leveraging union pension funds to change a company’s behavior—rather than developing worker organization. If these strategies employed workplace militancy at all, it was often in the service of producing “content” to be used in media campaigns, rather than to actually affect the employer’s operations.

Within a few years, the early energy of the New Voices victory ran headfirst into the realities of business unionism. Affiliates were interested in growing their numbers, but less interested in taking risks. The most ardent apostles of organizing were marginalized and eventually cast aside, as the whole project devolved into meaningless goal-setting. The AFL-CIO announced a goal of 1,000,000 new members per year starting in 2000, a number that proved well beyond its reach.

The push to organize in the 1990s-2000s never seriously challenged the post-World War II status quo adhered to by most labor leaders, which was cemented by the purges of the left-leaning CIO unions in 1949-1950. Unions improved in other areas: race, gender, even foreign policy, but the core goal to rebuild the ranks of labor ultimately washed up on the rocks of business unionism.

Outside of the few unions with left histories, few in the labor movement at that time spoke of alternatives to capitalism. The Democratic Socialists of America, now at 70,000 members, was then a small organization with strong ties to mainstream labor leaders, and Bernie Sanders was not a name on the national scene.

Unions must do what’s necessary to survive. But we need to be doing a lot more to lay the groundwork for turning the next moment into an upsurge.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on October 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mark Meinster is an international representative with the United Electrical Workers (UE).


Share this post

East Bay Health Care Workers Strike Forces County to Disband the Boss

Share this post

On day two of their five-day strike, Alameda Health System workers in California’s East Bay won a landmark victory. After years of stalling, the elected Board of Supervisors of Alameda County suddenly announced they would disband the unelected Board of Trustees that has long mismanaged this public safety-net health care system.

In 1998, Alameda County supervisors decided to hand off administration of the county health care system to an unelected board, with an aim to cut spending. While the system remained public, it ceased to be directly funded by the county or under its jurisdiction; instead the county loaned AHS money and forced it to pay back any debts. This was part of a wave of privatization and outsourcing of public services across the county and the country.

The Board of Trustees soon turned to union-busting and dangerous cuts to care and staffing. According to health care workers, the COVID-19 pandemic made a bad situation into a nightmare, as AHS management responded to the pandemic by denying workers adequate PPE or training, laying off essential staff, and retaliating against workers who spoke up.

Yet even a month ago, Alameda County supervisors were unwilling to take AHS back under their direct control. Current County Supervisor Wilma Chan was also on the board in 1998, and voted then to give up democratic control of the health system. Chan, who chairs the Board of Supervisors’ health committee, until yesterday had been a skilled opponent of the county resuming responsibility. What forced the politicians to act was a strike with deep rank-and-file participation.

“When you have over 3,000 employees in a health care system, marching out and saying something is wrong, somebody has to listen to that,” said Sheleka Carter, a community health outreach worker and AHS chapter secretary in Service Employees (SEIU) Local 1021. “How can you ignore it?”

TURNING POINT

The strike has forced politicians to take responsibility for the system, but the move is only the start of a fight to determine how AHS will be run. Details of how county government will manage the system and handle AHS debts to the county have yet to be hammered out. Nonetheless, for East Bay health care workers and patients, this victory marks a turning point.

“The privatization is stopped,” said Carter. “It brings the system to a place where now the community has a say in how they get care and how the system is run. Employees have a voice about the changes that need to be made.”

In a rally Thursday at county headquarters, workers made clear they plan to strike until they win a fair contract for patients and workers alike.

“If it takes five strikes, we will strike five times,” said Mawata Kamara, an emergency nurse at San Leandro Hospital and member of the California Nurses Association, whose members are also on strike at San Leandro and Alameda Hospitals. “We are ready!”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on October 13, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Keith Brower Brown is a graduate student instructor and member of United Auto Workers Local 2865 at the University of California, Berkeley.


Share this post

How Unions Can Bridge the Gap Between Climate and Labor Movements

Share this post

While U.S. union den­si­ty hit an all-time low in 2019, the non­prof­it sec­tor appears to be one area where work­ers are union­iz­ing. The Non­prof­it Pro­fes­sion­al Employ­ees Union (NPEU) brought sev­en new work­places into their union dur­ing a 16-day peri­od in April, includ­ing the envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tion Friends of the Earth. And while there is no offi­cial data on non­prof­it unions yet (many of them are fair­ly new), cli­mate jus­tice orga­ni­za­tions are some of the many work­places that have scram­bled to union­ize both pri­or to and dur­ing the pan­dem­ic for the same rea­sons as oth­er work­ers: pay, ben­e­fits and job security. 

Cli­mate activists have often been denounced by trade union­ists who believe they are out to destroy work­ers’ well-pay­ing jobs. There’s an old joke that goes, “Are you an envi­ron­men­tal­ist, or do you work for a liv­ing?” But what hap­pens to the often fraught rela­tion­ship between unions and envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions when green staffers become union mem­bers too?

Unions’ pri­ma­ry pur­pose is to give work­ers the abil­i­ty to col­lec­tive­ly bar­gain around work­ing con­di­tions—so it’s not hard to under­stand why many work­ers would want to be union mem­bers. In fact, labor unions cur­rent­ly have a 65% approval rat­ing. As the econ­o­my is in sham­bles, labor’s sup­port has been steadi­ly increas­ing, per­haps because mil­lions have been laid off, many of whom lost their health insur­ance and received no sev­er­ance. Non­prof­its, which can be financed through a mix of fed­er­al and state fund­ing, pri­vate grants and indi­vid­ual dona­tions, are also in a Covid-induced pre­car­i­ous sit­u­a­tion. Work­ers who may have felt that their jobs were pre­vi­ous­ly secure thanks to an air of pres­tige have seen col­leagues fur­loughed or laid off—or have wit­nessed lead­er­ship make big changes in their orga­ni­za­tions with­out involv­ing staff. 

Char­lie Jiang, a cli­mate cam­paign­er at Green­peace USA, an envi­ron­men­tal non­prof­it, told In These Times that staff there “have been orga­niz­ing for quite some time, and the pan­dem­ic strength­ened our resolve. We’re fight­ing for more clear and con­sis­tent poli­cies and more orga­ni­za­tion­al trans­paren­cy.” The Green­peace USA Work­ers Union, affil­i­at­ed with Pro­gres­sive Work­ers Union (PWU), was vol­un­tar­i­ly rec­og­nized in August. Jiang said that union mem­bers “are look­ing ahead to meet­ing man­age­ment with good faith at the bar­gain­ing table… We formed a union to fight for fair and bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions, and for a cul­ture root­ed in justice.”

Unions do far more than allow work­ers to col­lec­tive­ly bar­gain. They give peo­ple the abil­i­ty to prac­tice democ­ra­cy in the work­place, they have the pow­er to change our polit­i­cal sys­tem, and they chal­lenge cor­po­rate prof­it and pow­er—mak­ing them poten­tial allies for envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions that do the same. Groups like Green­peace, the Sier­ra Club and 350.org often fight big cor­po­ra­tions over their dan­ger­ous dis­pos­al of chem­i­cal waste, fos­sil fuel emis­sions, fac­to­ry farm­ing and more. Work­ers for these cor­po­ra­tions are the ones who han­dle tox­ic waste, breathe dirty air and process chick­en at poul­try plants. 

Envi­ron­men­tal groups and work­er orga­ni­za­tions are aligned on many issues, and some do work close­ly togeth­er. Accord­ing to Rebec­ca Wolf, a senior orga­niz­er on the fac­to­ry farm team at Food and Water Watch and a mem­ber of NPEU, “Our true focus is cor­po­rate con­trol. Union­iz­ing work­ers inher­ent­ly beats back against cor­po­rate con­trol and con­trol of the food sys­tem. I see envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions all the time in cor­po­rate part­ner­ships, and we have a hard line against that.” 

While unions are fund­ed only by mem­bers’ dues mon­ey, many envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions take mon­ey from cor­po­rate donors—some of which face off against unions in their own work­places. This dynam­ic can cre­ate ten­sion between staff and lead­er­ship at envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions, which may have dif­fer­ent priorities.

Elon Musk, bil­lion­aire CEO of Tes­la, anony­mous­ly donat­ed over $6 mil­lion to the Sier­ra Club. But in the sum­mer of 2018, after com­ing under fire for a $40,000 dona­tion to a Repub­li­can-allied group, Musk asked Sier­ra Club exec­u­tive direc­tor Michael Brune for pub­lic sup­port. A stew­ard at PWU who asked to remain anony­mous for fear of retal­i­a­tion told In These Times that “PWU kicked that tough dis­cus­sion off. [We] help them stay ground­ed on work­er issues.” While Brune ini­tial­ly shared words of sup­port for Musk on his per­son­al Twit­ter account, lat­er that year, the Sier­ra Club released a state­ment in sup­port of work­ers orga­niz­ing at Tes­la—some­thing union mem­bers believe can be attrib­uted, at least in part, to the union. The anony­mous stew­ard told In These Times, “It’s impor­tant for unions that rep­re­sent work­ers at pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tions to hold those orga­ni­za­tions account­able.” With­out a union, it may have been more dif­fi­cult for Sier­ra Club staff to push back against lead­ers and ensure that they pub­licly sup­port­ed Tes­la work­ers instead of their CEO, that stew­ard underscores. 

And while unions are able to win impres­sive gains around wages, ben­e­fits and a voice at work, their true pow­er lies in their abil­i­ty to shut down the econ­o­my if nec­es­sary. On the whole, work­ers at non­prof­its and oth­er pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tions are not nec­es­sar­i­ly in a strate­gic posi­tion to exert lever­age to secure the biggest wins for the cli­mate—their going on strike would not have a sig­nif­i­cant impact on the broad­er econ­o­my. Work­ers in logis­tics, health­care and edu­ca­tion have far more pow­er to throw a wrench in how our econ­o­my and soci­ety func­tions. And build­ing trades work­ers, who are like­ly to have more work if leg­is­la­tion like the Green New Deal is passed, could be very influ­en­tial in cli­mate pol­i­cy. Their unions are large and pow­er­ful, and their mem­bers are con­struc­tion work­ers and elec­tri­cians, whose work will be direct­ly impact­ed by both cli­mate change and cli­mate leg­is­la­tion. While build­ing trades work­ers tend to be more con­ser­v­a­tive, the poten­tial for more work and larg­er mem­ber­ship rolls could make them the decid­ing fac­tor in the pas­sage of a Green New Deal.

But envi­ron­men­tal staffers’ iden­ti­ty with the broad­er labor move­ment and the sol­i­dar­i­ty that can be strate­gi­cal­ly expressed—such as in the case of the Sier­ra Club and Tes­la work­ers orga­niz­ing—could forge more ties between the work­ers’ move­ment and the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment as more of these work­ers orga­nize at their work­places. It’s also unde­ni­able that the expe­ri­ence of act­ing col­lec­tive­ly with cowork­ers can deep­en polit­i­cal con­scious­ness, no mat­ter one’s work­place or pri­or polit­i­cal commitments.

Wolf, who was on her union’s orga­niz­ing com­mit­tee, told In These Times that “even though we work to make people’s lives bet­ter every day at work, col­lec­tive action is the expe­ri­ence you need to tru­ly under­stand pow­er-build­ing. Form­ing a union takes all the messy and good bits of expe­ri­ence, val­ues, and polit­i­cal con­scious­ness and brings them togeth­er in a patch­work that moves every­one along.”

But a fac­tor that may dimin­ish the influ­ence of these envi­ron­men­tal staff unions is the unions they are tied to. NPEU is affil­i­at­ed with the Inter­na­tion­al Fed­er­a­tion of Pro­fes­sion­al and Tech­ni­cal Engi­neers (IFPTE), which is a mem­ber of the AFL-CIO, the largest labor fed­er­a­tion in the coun­try. In con­trast, NPEU is a fair­ly small union, with “rough­ly 250 to 300 dues-pay­ing mem­bers, about 500 work­ing on their first con­tract, and hun­dreds more that are in the process of orga­niz­ing,” accord­ing to Katie Bar­rows, vice pres­i­dent of com­mu­ni­ca­tions for the union.

In con­trast, PWU, which also orga­nizes envi­ron­men­tal non­prof­its, is an inde­pen­dent union, which means it’s not affil­i­at­ed with any oth­er union or any labor fed­er­a­tion. (PWU’s bar­gain­ing units include staffers at Sier­ra Club, 350.org, Green­peace USA and the Union of Con­cerned Sci­en­tists.) Accord­ing to the anony­mous Sier­ra Club stew­ard, this inde­pen­dence from the AFL-CIO has actu­al­ly helped the union: PWU is free to run its own pro­gram, which focus­es on anti-racism and social jus­tice. He told In These Times that “the mem­bers of PWU are first-time union mem­bers. They nev­er knew what was pos­si­ble in a union, so there are no lim­i­ta­tions. Our pow­er is in the involve­ment of our mem­bers and their creativity.”

How­ev­er, there are ben­e­fits to being part of a larg­er fed­er­a­tion. Only AFL-CIO affil­i­ates are able to shape the federation’s strat­e­gy and elect its lead­ers, which means that PWU won’t have a say in whether the AFL-CIO ever sup­ports the Green New Deal. Bar­rows believes that “if envi­ron­men­tal pro­fes­sion­als orga­nize, they’ll be a grow­ing part of the labor move­ment, and they’ll have a voice in deci­sions, espe­cial­ly if they’re in the AFL. Hav­ing envi­ron­men­tal work­ers orga­nize will be help­ful to bridg­ing that gap, and to unit­ing labor and envi­ron­men­tal groups.”

While envi­ron­men­tal staffers have formed unions for the same rea­sons most work­ers do, their unions may be a tool for some­thing greater. The anony­mous stew­ard told In These Times, “Our mem­bers are at the inter­sec­tion of labor and envi­ron­men­tal work. They work on behalf of envi­ron­men­tal caus­es, but they’re work­ers as well. They’re try­ing to weave their beliefs about the impor­tance of work­ers into cli­mate leg­is­la­tion and con­ver­sa­tions with politi­cians and union lead­ers.” The stew­ard point­ed to a pro-union video that PWU mem­bers made in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Sier­ra Club about the 2018 Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court deci­sion, which made it ille­gal for pub­lic sec­tor unions to col­lect fees from non-mem­bers. He also told In These Times that the Sier­ra Club and union also worked togeth­er to release a state­ment about the deci­sion, which quotes exec­u­tive direc­tor Brune as say­ing, “Today’s deci­sion does the bid­ding of the very same cor­po­ra­tions that have pol­lut­ed our com­mu­ni­ties, but we will march on.” 

While it is unde­ni­able that the rift between labor and envi­ron­men­tal orga­niz­ing runs deep, the staff at cli­mate orga­ni­za­tions join­ing the ranks of the labor move­ment could help bridge the divide between these two crit­i­cal move­ments. As Wolf at Food and Water Watch told In These Times, “We can always be doing bet­ter, and while greens in gen­er­al are doing bet­ter, we need to be much more pub­lic about our con­nec­tion to labor, and a broad­er con­nec­tion to and with all social movements.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 9, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.


Share this post

How America Continues to Fail the Health Care Workers Battling the Pandemic

Share this post

American Red Cross workers travel from one community to another conducting the blood drives that save countless lives in emergency departments and operating rooms.

But they struggle to perform that vital work while keeping themselves safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many health care employers, the Red Cross fails to consistently follow social distancing and other coronavirus safety guidelines.

“Safety shouldn’t be only if it’s feasible,” observed United Steelworkers (USW) Local 254 President Darryl Ford, who represents hundreds of Red Cross workers in Georgia and Alabama. “It should be all the time.”

Eight months after COVID-19 hit America, the nation continues to fail the thousands of health care workers who put their lives on the line each day to help others survive the pandemic.

They still face chronic shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) because the U.S. never fixed the broken supply chains that resulted in highly publicized scarcities of face masks, respirators and other crucial equipment last winter. Some employers refuse to take even common-sense measures to keep workers safe.

The Red Cross failed to provide face shields to protect Ford and his colleagues from blood spatter. And when a company that made the devices offered them for free, the Red Cross declined because of what it deemed the low quality.

“If it’s snowing outside and you don’t have a coat to give me, but you do have a sweater, give me the damn sweater,” fumed Ford, noting his members prefer some protection to none.

Employers’ shortsighted practices not only pose lethal risks to health care workers but ultimately will endanger the patients they serve, especially if a second wave of the virus strikes this winter.

Hospitals, nursing homes and other employers, for example, regularly work health care professionals to the bone despite the danger that understaffing poses both to workers and patients.

Across the country, tens of thousands of patients and workers died after contracting COVID-19 in nursing homes. And although employers had months to fill vacancies and resolve other problems affecting care during the pandemic, workers in these virus hotspots still face severe staffing shortages, lack of PPE or both.

“It’s challenging and it’s stressful,” explained Lynair Gardner, unit griever for USW Local 7898, which represents certified nursing assistants (CNAs), dietary and environmental services workers and other staff members at Prince George Healthcare Center in Georgetown, South Carolina. “But you’re there for people who can’t help themselves. Sometimes, you have to put that compassion first.”

CNAs at the facility took on extra responsibilities when the pandemic hit, such as distributing linens and cleaning up after meals to reduce residents’ contact with environmental services and dietary staff members.

Sometimes, Gardner said, she and her colleagues maintain such a grueling pace that they work through their scheduled breaks without even realizing it.

Instead of recognizing their sacrifices, however, the nursing home insists they work longer hours because of understaffing and give up the flexibility with shift scheduling they long had.

Gardner’s colleagues need to be protected from burnout. But they just as desperately want to be valued by a corporate employer that takes them for granted.

“Just show some respect,” Gardner said, “and treat the employees like you’re really thankful for us.”

Rather than fortify workers for the long fight against COVID-19 that remains ahead, employers flout coronavirus guidelines and retaliate against those who challenge safety lapses. And instead of using its power to safeguard the heroes on the front lines, the federal government helps facilities silence their voices.

Forced to share disposable gowns during the pandemic, three workers at a New York senior-living facility discussed the danger among themselves before one wrote a letter to management citing the infection risk that the requirement posed. The facility responded by firing them.

Donald Trump’s anti-worker National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)—acting through its general counsel, Peter Robb, who has pursued an agenda of undoing generations of cases favorable to workers—sided with the nursing home.

The NLRB dismissed the workers’ unfair labor practice charge after determining their efforts to safeguard their health failed to qualify as protected, concerted activity under federal labor law. The board strained to conclude there was no evidence of “group concern” in the workers’ actions. As a result of that case, health care workers across the country will be less likely to challenge safety risks even as the number of COVID-19 deaths continues to climb.

Since the pandemic began, the USW and other unions representing health care workers successfully forced many employers to adopt more stringent infection-control practices that protected staff and patients alike.

USW Local 9899 President Jackie Anklam pushed Ascension St. Mary’s Hospital in Saginaw, Michigan, to provide more respirators and gowns to workers caring for patients.

She also demanded better supplies for those cleaning the facility. When hospital managers tried to scale back the procedures for sanitizing rooms occupied by patients with infectious diseases, Anklam told them, “Then you go in there.”

Now, another NLRB case threatens that life-saving advocacy.

The agency dismissed another unfair labor practice charge after the general counsel’s office determined that a concrete company could refuse to bargain with union members over sick leave and hazard pay because the parties were in the middle of a contract.

To the NLRB, it didn’t matter that the pandemic had drastically changed working conditions, exposed workers to new risks requiring contract adjustments or created the need for their union to bargain about rights and benefits that couldn’t have been imagined months earlier. The decision potentially means employers in many industries, including health care, will refuse to bargain with workers on critical issues, such as COVID-19 safety practices, while contracts remain in place.

Anklam fears hospitals and nursing homes now will say, “It’s our way or no way,” when unions demand changes to protect staff and patients.

Already, far too many health care employers ignore workers’ concerns while exploiting their professionalism and compassion to keep them on the job.

Ford and his co-workers, for example, take great pride in collecting the blood that not only makes life-saving transfusions available virtually everywhere but also helps to advance research into public health dangers, like COVID-19.

He just wishes the wave of support Americans showed for health care workers at the beginning of the pandemic lasted as long as the health crisis itself and forced employers to make real, permanent changes in worksite safety.

Instead, health care workers perform ever more difficult jobs than they usually do—all without the proper equipment, support or attention they need to keep themselves and their patients safe. For too many Americans, health care workers are out of sight, out of mind.

“It’s back to business as usual,” Ford said.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute on September 8, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).


Share this post

Overturning Austerity 101: California’s Prop 15 Will Tax the Rich

Share this post

California’s November ballot will feature a challenge to the notorious Proposition 13, which in 1978 helped to inaugurate the decades-long neoliberal assault on labor.

Prop 13’s anti-tax, small government campaign, with a dog-whistle racist subtext, created a national template for conservatives to simultaneously attack public sector unions, public employees, and the people they served. For the right wing, this was the lab experiment for Austerity 101.

In a time of high inflation, Prop 13 exploited fear—older homeowners on fixed incomes were afraid that rising taxes would drive them out of their homes. It rolled back assessments to 1975 rates, set property taxes at 1 percent of value, and capped increases at 2 percent per year, no matter the inflation rate or the increase in market price of the property. When it passed, grandma breathed more easily.

But grandma was not the biggest beneficiary of Prop 13. The same rules applied to commercial property—including giant corporate-owned properties like Chevron and Disney. The consequent plunge in property tax revenues to local and state government forced enormous cuts to social programs and schools, led to layoffs of public employees, and established a new normal in the Golden State, described by former California Federation of Teachers president Raoul Teilhet as “poor services for poor people.”

ANSWER TO A DISASTER

Prop 15 is the long-awaited answer to this disaster. It’s the product of a 10-year-old coalition of unions and community groups, now known as Schools and Communities First, with a couple of previous progressive tax victories under its belt. Prop 15’s passage will mean commercial property is assessed at current market value, not purchase price, for tax purposes. In a non-COVID year that change will raise $10 to $12 billion for schools and local services. In the Pandemic Depression, it will mean a bulwark against soaring class sizes and public sector layoffs due to plunging tax revenues.

Carefully crafted after years of opinion research funded by public sector unions, it exempts commercial property below $3 million and all residential property, including rental units. It also eliminates a tax on business equipment that mostly affected small businesses.

The bulk of the campaign’s funding comes from two of the biggest unions in the state, the California Teachers Association (affiliated with the NEA) and the state council of the Service Employees (SEIU). But the backbone for the coalition over the years has been three organizations that spearheaded a Millionaires Tax ballot campaign in 2011: the California Federation of Teachers (the other statewide teacher union, affiliated with the AFT), California Calls, and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment.

They have been joined in the Schools and Communities First coalition by virtually the entire labor movement, as well as hundreds of community, civil, and immigrant rights organizations, and a seemingly odd bedfellow or two like the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife.

Although the measure is opposed by the usual suspects like the California Chamber of Commerce and the right-wing Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, some large commercial property owners like Facebook stand to gain from the measure: Prop 15 would level the playing field that currently gives an unfair tax advantage to older businesses that purchased their properties decades ago.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted signature gathering, initially causing worries whether the measure would qualify for the ballot, in fact the coalition had already pulled in a record-breaking 1.7 million signatures by the end of March. This was due to the scope of the coalition and a massive volunteer effort alongside paid signature collection.

EASY TO SELL

Until the coronavirus put a stop to it, I staffed a table on campus along with other members of my union, AFT 2121, which represents faculty at City College of San Francisco. One union sibling, Kathe Burick, a dance instructor, said, “I’ve never had such an easy time filling petitions. Students, staff, faculty, even administrators—as soon as they heard what Prop 15 would do, they signed.” Local 2121 contributed 1,600 signatures to the CFT’s 20,000. In all the campaign’s volunteers collected 225,000.

Passage of Prop 15 is not a slam dunk. By their nature progressive tax measures attract well-funded enemies who, in addition to their war chests, have few scruples about lying to the electorate. On August 6 a judge ruled that the election information guide mailed by the Secretary of State to every registered voter had to be changed to eliminate “false or misleading” arguments by opponents. One claimed Prop 15 would allow the legislature to raise taxes on homeowners.

Another common tactic is to muddy the waters by implying that the tax in question will affect everyone. Undaunted by the judge’s decision, a spokesperson for the opposition commented, “This one will be won once voters know that Prop 15 is a $12.5 billion tax increase they can’t afford.”

In fact Prop 15 will draw 92 percent of its revenues from just 10 percent of commercial property holders, a reflection of the concentration of wealth in a state that, if a country, would contain the world’s fifth-largest economy—yet can’t seem to find money to properly resource its schools and services.

In addition to the usual flood of misleading advertising, Yes on 15 activists face the challenges of a pandemic election. Without the ability to canvass in person, the campaign will have to rely on phone banking, text banking, virtual house meetings, and the like. It remains to be seen whether labor’s grassroots “people power” can be channeled as effectively as usual under such conditions. But the need and the momentum for progressive taxes are real.

The California Labor Federation emerged from its annual convention the first week in August—held on Zoom—with solid commitments on two November ballot initiatives: Yes on 15 and No on 22. The latter is an attempt by Uber and Lyft to reverse legislation passed earlier in the year that reclassified drivers from contractor status to employees.

Speaking at a recent Zoom rally for Prop 15 hosted by California chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America, United Teachers of Los Angeles President Cecily Myart-Cruz said, “We’ve got to be able to pass Schools and Communities First, as one measure, and then come back with another measure, and another, so that we make the rich pay their fair share.”

This blog originally appeared at LaborNotes on August 24, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Fred Glass is the retired communications director of the California Federation of Teachers, and the author of From Mission to Microchip: A History of the California Labor Movement (UC Press, 2016).


Share this post

San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council Launches Food Assistance Program

Share this post

Our Team — San Diego & Imperial Counties Labor Council

We are in an unforeseen crisis. Just a few weeks ago none of us could have predicted the economic impact created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our members and our neighbors are in a financial and food crisis. Our entire labor council operation has converted to an emergency team focused on securing member benefits and running a substantial food distribution operation. To date we’ve distributed more than 150,000 pounds of food and served over 5,000 families in need. In the coming days, our distribution will provide food to more than 2,000 families per week, as our operations continually expand. I wish to commend our staff team for the work they are doing to keep this operation running, in the face of the health crisis swirling around them.

Our ability to provide for our members would not be possible without the support of a number of our unions. A big thanks to Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 465, Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 122 and United Domestic Workers (UDW)/AFSCME Local 3930 for assigning staff to our labor council food distribution in the City Heights community in San Diego, including scheduling appointments. Our team is ordering food to support our City Heights food bank, for the Unions United-United Way of San Diego County food bank, and for UNITE HERE Local 30’s and IBEW Local 569’s distributions to their members. We have secured a steady stream of food product and have recently opened an Imperial Valley distribution site for our members.

Last week, for the fourth Saturday in a row a team of labor council volunteers joined in solidarity to provide food to more than 1,000 families in need. These distributions to the general public have been in partnership with Feeding San Diego and the San Diego Food Bank. A big shout out to the unions serving on our logistics committee—Ironworkers Local 229, the San Diego Education Association, UDW, Local 122, UFCW Local 135 and Local 569. They are leading this effort with our labor council staff to make sure our distributions run efficiently, and the safety of our volunteers is maintained. In addition, we have had a large turnout of over 100 volunteers each week willing to provide a helping hand, and we thank them all. 

I’d like to acknowledge both locals 30 and 122 for the effort they are making to support their impacted members. Both unions have essentially lost their entire memberships to layoffs. Many of these workers lost their jobs more than a month ago, due to conventions and major conferences canceling. They are hurting. Yet these two unions, with strong leadership and commitment, have assisted their members in filing unemployment claims, guiding them with utility and worker assistance processing, and making sure they are getting food for those most in need. This is a time that we all need to do our part to help these workers, and all of the other members who have lost their jobs and their paychecks!

FINANCIAL SUPPORT FOR UNION MEMBER FOOD:Providing food for our union members impacted by this health and economic crisis requires a constant purchase of food. You can support our efforts by sending union contributions to the labor council’s 501(c)(3) nonprofit fund that is certified to receive and distribute food with both the San Diego Food Bank and Feeding San Diego. All funds received will go to providing food for our union members in the coming days and weeks. A big shout out to Local 135, AFT Local 1931, OPEIU Local 30, California Teachers Association and San Diego Gas & Electric for their contributions to a Partnership for a Better San Diego. We’ve also secured more than 110 online donations from individuals. 

UNIONS: Make checks out to A Partnership for a Better San Diego and mail or deliver to our labor council office. If you have questions, please contact Sandra Williams: [email protected].

INDIVIDUAL DONORS: Send contributions by clicking: Union Member Relief Program.

FOOD DISTRIBUTION:All affiliated local unions have been provided a form to request assistance for their members. Please provide the labor council with names of those you wish to receive food. Once received, the labor council staff or staff from our member unions will call to set an appointment time. Food assistance is by appointment only. The Unions United food pantry is fully functional. You can contact its operation directly. You also will need to provide the information to schedule an appointment for food assistance.

This article was originally printed in AFL-CIO on April 20, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Keith Maddox is the executive secretary-treasurer of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council.


Share this post

How COVID-19 Showed America’s Dependence on Blue-Collar Workers

Share this post

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is conway1.png

At the start of each shift, Eric Jarvis takes a handful of anti-bacterial wipes and sanitizes the equipment he uses at the Packaging Corporation of America mill in Valdosta, Georgia.

He worries about getting the coronavirus every time he leaves for work, but knows the nation depends on paper workers like him to produce the linerboard that goes into the cardboard boxes used to ship millions of items to stores and homes each day.

Jarvis, president of USW Local 646, may not be on the front lines of the pandemic in the same way as nurses and first responders. But he and other manufacturing workers also fulfill a vital role on the nation’s production lines, ensuring that Americans still have the food, medicine, toiletries and other items crucial for everyday life.

“If we don’t make boxes, then the grocery stores don’t have groceries,” Jarvis said.

“We know our job is an essential job,” he said of the local’s 235 members. “You can see the pride in the workers doing their jobs out there.”

Truck drivers, bakers, transit operators, grocery store clerks, warehouse packers and manufacturing workers form the backbone of America’s economy.

They show up every day and get the job done, performing so reliably that the nation long took their work for granted. No one questioned, for example, whether stores would have toilet paper and cleaning products.

Then the pandemic struck, and surging demand for consumer goods exposed America’s dependence on the blue-collar workers who supply almost every need.

Life would grind to a halt without them.

Right now, these workers risk COVID-19 by laboring in groups at mills, factories, warehouses and stores while many other Americans do their jobs alone at home. It angers Jarvis to think that service workers put their lives on the line for the poverty-level wages common in their industry.

“I hope people never forget that,” Jarvis said.

Jarvis and his co-workers protect themselves as best they can.

Besides wiping down equipment, they stagger their starting times to reduce contact with one another. They wait in their cars and trucks before a shift instead of congregating at the time clock. Inside the mill, they remain at their work stations unless their presence elsewhere is a necessity.

Still, workers worry about bringing the coronavirus home to their families. Some shower, change clothes and even wash their eyeglasses the minute they get home to avoid spreading any germs they picked up during their shifts.

“It gets a little rough,” explained Colt Kovatch, vice president of USW Local 14693, which represents about 80 workers at the International Paper box shop in Eighty Four, Pennsylvania. “You have family at home. You want to be with them. But I understand what I’m doing, what I’m making, and how it helps. It keeps my blood pumping.”

The box shop makes packaging for food and drug companies, plastics manufacturers and online retailers.

“We might not be the frontline workers,” Kovatch said. “But we’re right there behind them.”

At Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, members of USW Local 8888 continue building nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines for the Navy even though 23 co-workers contracted COVID-19. Local President Charles Spivey said the workers who report each day “are making a great sacrifice.”

“We do unique work here,” Spivey observed. “We can’t just shut down. There’s pride here. We know that we’re the best shipbuilders in the world.”

Some of the workers at Morton Salt’s production facilities in Lyons and Hutchinson, Kansas, have worked together for years.

Now, that camaraderie helps the members of USW Local 12606 cope with the risks they face from the coronavirus.

“We recognize that there’s a danger, but we also recognize that there’s a job to do,” local President Jon Ahrens said. “We still have to provide not only for our families but for the whole United States.”

Table salt in blue containers may be the most recognizable product supplied by the local’s approximately 200 members. But their salt also is used as an additive in shampoos and water softeners; as a preservative in the chips, snack cakes and other comfort foods in high demand during the pandemic; and in the saline solutions that hospitals use to treat patients.

So far, at least 33,200 Americans have died from COVID-19, and more than 671,000 have been infected. An influx of patients overwhelmed some hospitals and ambulance crews.

Jay Wright, president of USW Local 188S, figures that many exhausted health care workers and first responders survive on caffeine these days. And he’s happy to do his part to keep them going.

Each day, Wright and about 140 co-workers at the Ardagh factory in Valparaiso, Indiana, make more than 40 million tops for aluminum cans.

When the pandemic began, manufacturers of sodas, energy drinks and other beverages experienced increased demand for their products—so they requested more lids.

The factory is so loud that workers often speak mouth to ear. Because social distancing is crucial to controlling the spread of COVID-19, Wright successfully pushed Ardagh to purchase radio sets so workers can communicate while standing several feet apart.

USW members say they’re proud to belong to a union that fights for fair wages and benefits and holds employers accountable for worker safety.

But they worry about the home health aides, food delivery drivers and other service workers who put their lives on the line while laboring for low pay and few, if any, benefits.

“That minimum wage is a joke,” said Jarvis, referring to the federal minimum wage stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009. “People should see that after this.”

Jarvis and other workers at Packaging Corporation make more than the minimum wage largely because they have the protection of a union contract. They recognize others aren’t as lucky.

For years, labor leaders and other advocates pushed for an increase in the minimum wage. Raising it to $15 an hour would help 33 million Americans, including many who live in poverty even though they juggle multiple part-time jobs.

The House last year passed a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025. However, Senate Republican leaders refuse even to consider it.

Working-class people make, package and ship just about everything Americans need. Although their work is essential, they believe consumers long showed little appreciation for it because much of what they do occurs behind the scenes.

COVID-19 shined a light on their role, and they hope people will remember it after life returns to normal.

These workers are the lifeblood of the nation. They step up every day and keep America running—even during a pandemic.

“I think this has really opened a lot of people’s eyes,” Wright said.

This article was originally printed the Independent Media Institute. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Tom Conway is international president of the United Steelworkers (USW).


Share this post

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

Share this post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•       Create new and robust structures for coordinating effective solidarity.

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

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

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

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


Share this post

Why COVID-19 Will Strain the Safety Net for Homeless Vets to the Breaking Point

Share this post

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is conway1.png

Under normal circumstances, Jerry Porter would be spending his time helping the veterans he finds in tent camps and run-down housing.

But the escalating threat of COVID-19 forces the community activist and retired Steelworker to remain at home for now, even though vulnerable vets need him more than ever.

As the coronavirus spreads across America, the poor bear the brunt of a pandemic that’s exposed the deep class lines in U.S. society.

The rich have big savings accounts and quality health care. They’ll emerge from the crisis just fine.

But Americans at the margins, including homeless vets who rely on a frayed safety net stretched to the breaking point by COVID-19, now face an even greater struggle to survive.

“I don’t know where they end up,” said Porter ruefully. Porter, 75, is a Vietnam veteran and longtime member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 105 who worked more than 40 years at the aluminum plant in Davenport, Iowa, now owned by Arconic.

Porter and a group of friends work together to help veterans in the Quad Cities area of Iowa and Illinois.

But now, they’re heeding the request of public health officials. They stay home to help their community slow the spread of COVID-19.

That prevents them from helping veterans like the one Porter found sleeping on a squalid mattress in a “junky” house. He got the man into a clean apartment and—thanks to a friend who owned a bedding store—a new mattress and box spring for just $180.

Just as alarming, COVID-19 halted the fund-raising supporting that kind of intervention. Local veterans groups just canceled a taco dinner and a poppy sale that together raise about $6,000 each year.

For some veterans, that money is the difference between sleeping indoors or on the street.

Porter and his friends use some of the funds to provide life’s basics to the homeless vets they move into government-subsidized housing with little but the clothes on their backs.

“There’s nothing,” Porter explained. “There’s no bedding, silverware, dishes, glassware, towels, sheets.”

Twice a year, advocates in the Quad Cities hold “stand down” events that serve as a one-stop shop for veterans needing anything from counseling to jobs.

Porter already worries that the three-day event planned for September will be canceled because of COVID-19, leaving veterans to face a long winter without important services.

Porter’s union job ensured good wages, a pension and affordable health care. He devotes his retirement to the less fortunate, feeling a duty to fellow vets with no one else to help them.

The federal government fails veterans who struggle to find adequate employment or wrestle with health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

For example, the nation hasn’t adequately addressed the challenges that doom many vets to unemployment or low-wage jobs. Among other problems, veterans have difficulty converting their skills to the private sectorfinding purpose in civilian work and obtaining occupational licenses enabling them to apply skills learned in the military.

Raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, up from the current $7.25, would benefit about 1.8 million vets, along with millions of other Americans, who barely scrape by. The House last year approved a bill to increase the minimum wage, but Senate Republicans refuse to act on it.

Although significant progress in combating veteran homelessness has been made in recent years, unemployment, low wages and health problems still force veterans onto the streets or into shelters. About 40,000 are homeless, and 1.4 million more are only a lost paycheck or other crisis away from losing the roof over their heads.

A collection of government agencies and nonprofits operates soup kitchens, shelters and other services to serve America’s homeless. But this underfunded system is strained to capacity even in ordinary times.

Volunteers like Porter provide crucial support, stepping in when government agencies don’t know who else to call for help.

A veterans hospital once contacted Porter and asked him to help a man who lived outdoors. His tent was broken, and rain kept getting inside.

Porter picked up the vet and drove him to see a friend who owned an awning company. The businessman fixed the tent for free.

In a crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic, this patchwork system is easily overwhelmed.

Some service providers already reduced services or limited new admissions to slow the spread of the disease.

Agencies closed drop-in centers where homeless veterans can get out of the elements. Some now want to counsel clients remotely, even though homeless people may not have cell phones.

And in the Quad Cities, Porter and his crew are sidelined, too.

Homeless vets face even greater odds during the COVID-19 crisis even though they have a higher risk of contracting the disease than other Americans.

Many live in cramped quarters without the social distancing and sanitary measures vital to controlling the virus. The closing of libraries, malls and coffee shops deprived them of places to wash their hands. They have nowhere to isolate themselves if they get sick.

Some cities are scrambling to place homeless people in places such as unused motel rooms, vacant houses and recreational vehicles on public streets. The goal is to disperse the population and keep the disease from spreading like wildfire if someone contracts it.

While the COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented, the slapdash response underscores how fragile the safety net for America’s homeless really is.

As cities struggle to adapt, the ranks of the homeless likely will grow because of the economic slowdown, putting more stress on the overtaxed system.

The government’s response to COVID-19 must include injecting funds into programs that support homeless veterans and keep other vets from losing their homes.

But federal officials also must think about what the economy and social-service network will look like after the pandemic.

That means better funding a system now overly reliant on fundraisers like taco dinners and poppy sales. It means comprehensively addressing the problems servicemen and servicewomen face when they leave the armed forces.

Thoughtful interventions will save lives, says Porter, who recently ran into the veteran he rescued from the “junky” house.

“I’m on my feet,” the man told him. “I’m doing OK.”

This article was originally printed the Independent Media Institute. on March 27, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Tom Conway is international president of the United Steelworkers (USW).


Share this post

Coronavirus is a huge labor issue, this week in the war on workers

Share this post

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is avatar_2563.jpg

Thanks largely to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats, workers’ issues are getting a lot of attention as the United States confronts coronavirus. We’ll see what Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell do with it, but Democrats (and COVID-19) have managed to get paid sick leave and paid family leave into the national conversation. Democrats are also pushing for emergency improvements to unemployment insurance and to food assistance, which is a workers’ issue when you consider how many working people rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Those aren’t the only concerns, though. Look below for a bunch of coronavirus-and-labor links, but also check out the Economic Policy Institute’s discussion of how to handle a coronavirus-related recession, which Josh Bivens warns could happen much more quickly than the 2008 Great Recession. He suggests “rapid direct payments to individuals,” similar to what President George W. Bush did in 2008, but with some improvements. State governments are also likely to be hit hard in ways that could be a strong anti-stimulus, so, Bivens suggests, the federal government could very quickly combat that: “A quick way to transfer resources to state governments is to pay states’ share of Medicaid for the next year. This was done as part of the Recovery Act in 2009, and it is possibly the single most-effective component of the Act (when combining scale and per-dollar impact).”

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on March 16, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


Share this post

Follow this Blog

Subscribe via RSS Subscribe via RSS

Or, enter your address to follow via email:

Recent Posts

Forbes Best of the Web, Summer 2004
A Forbes "Best of the Web" Blog

Archives

  • Tracking image for JustAnswer widget
  • Find an Employment Lawyer

  • Support Workplace Fairness

 
 

Find an Employment Attorney

The Workplace Fairness Attorney Directory features lawyers from across the United States who primarily represent workers in employment cases. Please note that Workplace Fairness does not operate a lawyer referral service and does not provide legal advice, and that Workplace Fairness is not responsible for any advice that you receive from anyone, attorney or non-attorney, you may contact from this site.