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New York City holds parade honoring essential workers—but many essential workers boycott

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Wage theft is a huge problem that requires a creative solution, this week  in the war on workers | Today's Workplace

Wednesday was “a day to celebrate and appreciate the heroes who often go unsung,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said last month in announcing a parade to honor the essential workers of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’re going to sing about them this day.” 

Many of the workers, though, feel so unappreciated that they boycotted the parade supposedly held in their honor, saying a better way to honor them would be with better pay and working conditions. One of the groups with the biggest complaint is emergency medical technicians and paramedics. Those workers, who are more than half people of color and more than a quarter women, are paid dramatically less than firefighters, three out of four of whom are white and 99% of whom are male—and the truly essential role they played in the pandemic response did not stop de Blasio from opposing a move toward pay parity.

“A parade does not bring this workforce out of the poverty wages they are now being paid,” Oren Barzilay, the president of a union that represents more than 4,000 first responders, told the New York Daily News, describing attendance at the parade as like crossing a picket line. “It is far past time that the city gives this workforce the respect they deserve in livable wages. If taxpayer dollars can be allocated to put on this parade, then Mayor de Blasio, you can easily find the means to financially support our FDNY EMT’s, Paramedics and Fire Inspectors.”

The union has been in contract negotiations with the city since before the pandemic, and the city appears to remain intent on treating these workers as second-class first responders.

Another union representing social workers, contact tracers, health inspectors, and other workers similarly boycotted the parade, citing struggles to get personal protective equipment during the pandemic and saying in a statement, “To participate in a parade is an injustice to how we have been treated and continue to be treated. The Early Retirement Incentive was not passed, and Essential Worker pay seems to have disappeared.”

The parade included 14 floats and 260 groups of essential workers, including first responders (some of them, anyway), child care workers, transit workers, delivery workers, and more. Funeral industry workers who had to deal with the many, many bodies the pandemic produced were initially left out, then included after protest.

Eric Adams, the newly announced winner of the Democratic mayoral primary, did attend the parade, telling reporters, “We need to honor them [essential workers] with pay equity … we need to show them the respect they deserve.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on July 7, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Steward’s Corner: How One Union Uses Kitchen Table Economics to Advance Medicare for All

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Kari Thompson (@UEKariT) | Twitter

Our union, the United Electrical Workers, represents a diverse range of workplaces. Our members manufacture locomotive engines in Erie, Pennsylvania, and soap in Orange County, California; provide social services from Connecticut to Iowa to Los Angeles; and work in grocery stores from Vermont to Wisconsin. They also have a wide spectrum of political opinions.

But wherever they work, and no matter their political views, chances are that they’re frustrated with the health care system.

Since the 1940s, UE has supported universal, single-payer health care, popularly known today as Medicare for All. Under this policy, everyone would have access to medically necessary care that is free at the point of service, and coordinated by the federal government instead of profiteering insurance companies.

We have found that education on this idea gives members an opportunity to see how their frustrations with the health care system, such as the expensive cost of care and confusion over what kinds of care are covered, are rooted in corporate control of society. It also creates a space to win back some workers who have been influenced by right-wing propaganda.

Our key vehicle for this conversation is an interactive workshop, “How to Fix Health Care.” The workshop succeeds because it gets members talking together about their own shared experiences and provides them with a tool to break down a complicated economic question.

DIAGNOSE THE PROBLEM

We start the workshop by asking members to talk about the problems they encounter in our current health care system. They know these issues well.

Even if they happen to be in a shop that has been able to retain a good, affordable plan, they still have complaints about all the hoops they have to jump through to see a doctor or to make sure their bill gets paid.

But far too many of our members have been forced into paying too much. And all of them know family and friends who lack affordable care.

Then we ask, “Why is the health care system like this?” and lead them through a discussion of for-profit health care. This includes looking at facts like the rate of premium increases over the last 20 years—consistently higher than wage increases—and that we spend more money per person on health care in the U.S. than in other countries, but have poorer health outcomes. Members have no problem understanding that the enemy is the insurance and pharmaceutical corporations that are trying to profit off of our illnesses. This activity gets everyone on the same page.

From there, we discuss how a single-payer system could fix the problems they’ve identified and describe the basic outlines of how it would work, including that the plan would be for everyone, be affordable, provide high-quality, comprehensive care, and create good jobs.

HOW WILL WE PAY FOR IT?

The kicker is always paying for it. Members assume this kind of system will cost too much, but that assumption comes from not fully understanding the costs of health care in our current system—and how much they’re already paying. We pay for our health care in premiums deducted from our paychecks, provider bills, and co-pays for prescriptions and office visits, but how often do we actually take the time to add up what we’re paying for our current ineffective system?

At this point, we pull out a helpful tool: our Health Care Cost Calculator (a simplified web version is available at healthcosts.ueunion.org). Members are given time to fill out a form where they write down how much they spend each year on premiums, deductibles, co-pays, prescriptions, and other medical, dental, and eye care costs. Then they tally these costs up and divide the total by their annual salary to calculate what percentage of their income they are already spending on health care.

The results are astounding. Sure, there are a handful of healthy folks with no dependents who are in shops with good plans. They find they’re only paying a small percentage of their income for health care. But it’s really only a handful.

Most of our members are paying between 10 and 20 percent of their incomes for health care, and it’s not uncommon for us to find members paying 20 to 30 percent or more.

Let’s take the example of a member with a good-paying factory job in Connecticut. Including overtime, he made about $85,000 last year. He paid $128 per week in premiums, or $6,656 per year. Additionally, he had a $2,500 up-front deductible, three office visit co-pays at $35 each, a prescription with a $25 monthly copay, and $670 in dental costs. This was a total of $3,575 in out-of-pocket costs. Combine those with his premium payments, and this member spent $10,231 on health care. Dividing his salary by this total means he spent 12 percent of his income on health care.

We even had one member in Wisconsin realize he was paying 60 percent of his income on health care for himself and his family! That realization moved him into action—he joined our lobbying efforts to get his member of Congress to sign on to Medicare for All.

SINGLE-PAYER SAVINGS

Once members see how much they’re paying now, it’s a simple task to swing the conversation back to what a payroll tax might cost them under single-payer—and how much less it would be. Using Senator Bernie Sanders’ projection of a 4 percent payroll tax for employees to pay for Medicare for All, this is a big savings for almost every worker.

We show how the employers would save too—meaning there would be more money available that we could demand back in wages or retirement benefits. We also talk about how Medicare for All would put to rest members’ fears of devastatingly big bills, medical debts or bankruptcy, losing their health insurance coverage altogether if they lose their job, or having to strike to maintain their benefits (or losing their benefits during a strike).

We also take a moment to answer questions and rebut criticisms that the members may have heard, similar to inoculating workers against the employer’s anti-union arguments during an organizing drive. When members raise concerns about long waiting lines or losing their doctors, we discuss what happens in the current system: people experience delays in care because of the need for pre-approval from insurance companies and restrictions on whom they can see because insurance companies don’t work with all providers. We explain that under Medicare for All, there will be fewer hurdles to jump through because all providers will be included in the plan.

SEE THE REAL VILLAIN

Using kitchen table economics is critical for winning workers over to Medicare for All. Before this training, members may be wary of trading something they’re familiar with for something that’s unknown. But in the workshop, they see for themselves that what they have now is robbing them blind—and that Medicare for All would bring them real economic gains.

What threads its way through much of our conversation is that the insurance companies are a big part of why we pay so much for health care. For example, a Center for American Progress study shows that more than 8 percent of U.S. health care spending goes to administrative costs. However, the study put out by the Congressional Budget Office last year indicated that administrative costs under a single-payer system would be 1.8 percent or even less.

Where does that money go right now? Insurance company bureaucrats: six health insurance CEOs made more than $15 million each in 2019, led by Larry Merlo of CVS Health, who made $36 million. We have not found much love out there for insurance companies.

This exercise is a good way to start to shift the views of those working-class folks who have been taken in by right-wing populism. Instead of identifying their enemy as the government, or people who aren’t like them, they start training their ire at huge corporations: the insurance companies.

This dovetails with our broader political education goals. We want our members to embrace their shared interests with other workers, not with wealthy elites. By grounding our workshop in our members’ shared negative experiences with our current system and the kitchen table economics of our cost calculator, we get more members on board with advocating for a health care system that benefits the whole working class.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on July 6, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kari Thompson is the UE Director of Education. 


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The Heat Wave Shows Climate Change Is a Workers’ Rights Issue

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Mindy Isser - In These Times

The workers laboring outside in this extraordinary heat are on the front lines of the climate crisis.

The end of June saw temperatures soar all around the United States, with historic heatwaves in the Pacific Northwest and excessive heat advisories, watches and warnings elsewhere. The heat is not just uncomfortable, it’s deadly, buckling roads and melting bridges, with temperatures climbing over 120 degrees in Death Valley, California and British Columbia.

While the 100 million computer workers in this country are more likely to be able to work safely indoors, other urgent and necessary work must continue outdoors, no matter the severity of the weather. The entirety of the working class is (or will be) affected by climate change, but it’s farm workers, letter carriers, construction workers, sanitation workers and other outdoor workers who are unable to escape to air conditioning, and are on the front lines of the environmental crisis. This clarifies the fight against climate change as one not just for environmentalists: Rising temperatures are a workplace safety issue. Relatedly, there is growing awareness among climate activists that workers’ rights and the future of the climate are inextricably linked. Continuing to connect these two existential issues is our best shot at a livable world in which we can all work safely and with dignity.

Between 1992 and 2017, at least 815 workers in the U.S. were killed and more than 70,000 were injured from heat stress injuries. It’s likely that the true number of workers hurt or killed due to extreme heat is much higher than reported to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Many workers who labor outside?—?particularly agricultural workers and construction workers?—?are undocumented or otherwise vulnerable and precarious, and may not know to report illnesses to OSHA. And of course, their employers are likely to misclassify a heat-related death. As temperatures continue to rise year after year, we can guess that the number of heat stress injuries and deaths will rise too.

On June 29, the United Farm Workers (UFW) slammed reports of heat-wave-related illnesses and deaths as ?“entirely preventable,” called on Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown to protect farm workers by issuing emergency heat standards. (At least 63 people have died in Washington and Oregon since the heatwave began.) Even in perfect weather, farm workers do physically demanding labor for very low wages and no benefits. And according to Centers for Disease Control data from 2008, farmworkers already were perishing from heat at a rate of 20 times other civilian workers. Now temperatures have climbed to well over 100 degrees in the Pacific Northwest, and a farmworker in Oregon was killed by the heat on June 26. UFW rightly calls heat protections for workers ?“a matter of life and death.” 

And while farm workers may be among those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, they are not the only workers organizing for safety in our changing environment. After a member of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) died after installing phone service for a customer in 100 degree heat in 2011, the union began negotiating over heat stress workplace standards. An International Union of Painters and Allied Trades local that represents political, nonprofit and campaign workers in the Pacific Northwest fought for heat and smoke safety to protect canvassers in their most recent collective bargaining agreement, which was signed in January 2021 after successive smoky summers due to multiple wildfires.

Even those who work primarily inside have started organizing around these issues. Library workers in New York City bargained for a clause in their 2015 to 2020 contract entitled ?“operation of the library in the event of extreme temperatures,” requiring a temperature and humidity indicator on each level of the buildings, and compensatory time for staff who continue working in weather above 85 degrees and 44 percent humidity. 

As buildings get older with no federal investment to retrofit them, and as summers get hotter and hotter, there will be more pressure on electrical grids, potentially resulting in power outages. We can expect that even computer workers will be expected to work without air conditioning and in dangerous conditions. Amazon, run by the richest man in the world, forced warehouse workers in Washington to work in near-90-degree heat, because the company wasn’t equipped to deal with the current heat wave. (This is not the first time Amazon has allowed their workers to suffer in the heat—multiple workers have collapsed from heat-related causes.)

Democrats in the House and Senate have introduced legislation to require OSHA to create and enforce standards to protect workers in extreme temperatures. (Currently OSHA has no specific standards around working in high-heat environments.) The legislation, entitled the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, is named for a 53-year-old farmworker who died after picking grapes for 10 hours straight in 105 degree heat in 2004. The act will require OSHA to establish measures like paid breaks in cool areas, access to water, limitations on time in the heat, and emergency response for illnesses caused by the heat. It will also ask that employers provide training for employees on how to recognize the potential risk factors of working in extreme heat, and ways to respond to symptoms if and when they arise.

While this legislation is important and timely, most workers in this country lack the true ability to safely advocate for themselves in the workplace. Thanks to our backwards labor laws, union density hovers around 11% nationwide, even though unions’ approval ratings are in the clear majority. If workers want to be in charge of their own health and safety, it’s imperative that we pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which will allow workers the ability to unionize without fear of retaliation. (Disclosure: This author has been involved in organizing to pass the PRO Act.) Unionized workplaces are safer than non-union workplaces: They are 30% more likely to face an inspection for a health and safety violation, because union members are more likely to know their rights and have the ability to fight for them. (Unionized workplaces are also much more likely to have health and safety committees, which exist for the sole purpose of ensuring the workplace is safe.) And of course, unions are why we even have OSHA, thanks to the leadership of beloved and dearly remembered labor leader Tony Mazzocchi.

Environmentalists, long seen as either opposed to workers or just apathetic to their plight, have begun to realize that without a strong working-class movement, there’s no real hope of fighting climate change. And with Biden’s deeply disappointing infrastructure legislation, we’re going to need a base of millions to push for a much more aggressive plan to fight climate change. That’s why the Green New Deal Campaign Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America went all in on pushing for the passage of the PRO Act. Unions don’t just protect members’ health and safety in the workplace, they have the ability to turn regular people into political actors with the skills and tools to fight for a dignified life both on and off the job. As workers feel the growing effects of climate change at work and at home, they’ll need to fight their employers for health and safety protections, and they’ll also need to go to battle with the politicians and fossil fuel executives who have allowed temperatures to rise so drastically.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 1, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Shrugging Off Anti-Union Campaign, New York Times Tech Workers See a Chance to Make History

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Hamilton Nolan - In These Times

Times workers plan to ride the media union wave right onto a bigger wave of tech organizing.

In April, more than 650 tech workers at the New York Times announced that they were unionizing with the NewsGuild, forming what would instantly become one of the biggest unions of tech workers in America. Times management refused to voluntarily recognize the union, a break that could be a harbinger of more hostile labor relations throughout the media industry. But the tech workers remain supremely confident that they will prevail?—?and they are already contemplating the start of a much bigger union wave in the broader tech industry. 

For the past six years, newsrooms have been unionizing at a rapid clip, making the media one of the labor movement’s bright spots. Most of those unions, though, consist solely of journalists and other workers on the editorial side of publications. It has not gone unnoticed that everywhere that has a media union also has a large group of tech workers who could potentially be organized as well. For unions, tech-side employees of media companies represent both an obvious way into the mostly non-union tech industry, and a chance to further consolidate power for workers inside of companies that are already partly unionized. In this context, the NYT Tech Guild marks an important strategic step for the labor movement in two powerful industries.

Organizing among Times tech workers began about two years ago, according to Goran Svorcan, a senior software engineer who was involved from its early stages. The pandemic delayed the effort, but the work continued with help from organizers at the NewsGuild, which has long represented the Times newsroom. Svorcan had never been in a union before, but says that it seemed like the ?“logical next step” in addressing employee concerns. Contrary to common stereotypes about why tech workers and engineers have not widely organized (because they are too libertarian-minded, or because they are an individualistic culture), Svorcan believes that unions are in line with the public-minded ideals of early internet pioneers?—?ideals that faded as the industry became rich and powerful. ?“It’s kind of a proto-organizing model in a way,” he says of the collaborative nature of much of software engineering. ?“Seeing other people as allies, not [being on] a remote island is something I think is core to the early tech visions.” 

Kathy Zhang, a senior manager of audience analytics at the Times who was also involved from the very beginning of the organizing campaign, says that she and her colleagues have always been conscious of playing a part in spreading unionization in tech, even listening to the oral history of the Kickstarer union drive for inspiration. ?“One amazing result of our union going public has been seeing other underground tech unions inviting us to their organizing meetings. Tech is an industry ripe for unionization,” Zhang says. ?“We’re excited to be the largest majority tech union in the country, but we’ll be even more ecstatic to pass that torch onto the next tech workers to unionize!” 

Indeed, the tantalizing possibility of organizing the tech workers at all of the media companies that were being swept up in their own modern union wave occurred to Nozlee Samadzadeh years ago, when she helped her then-colleagues at Vox Media unionize?—?an editorial union that she, as a tech worker, was not eligible for. When she joined the Times as a senior software engineer in 2020, she got her chance. ?“It was something I felt so strongly about. I wanted to believe that tech workers could unionize,” she says. ?“It was inspiring to people when they realized we could do something about our health insurance, or about diversity, that wasn’t just asking management for something, or being part of a management-sponsored committee.” 

As is often the case, tech workers at the Times found when they started speaking to coworkers that there were a remarkably common set of issues that people wanted to address: pay equity, improving diversity, better health insurance, improved career development, and the end of at-will employment. The company’s refusal to voluntarily recognize the union, and instead to demand a formal NLRB election?—?despite voluntarily recognizing a similar union at the company’s Wirecutter division in 2019, and despite the paper having editorialized in favor of voluntary recognition?—?caused surprise and disappointment among the workers themselves, who say that they expected better from the purportedly liberal institution. Instead of open arms, however, they have received an overt anti-union campaign from management, complete with mandatory ?“captive audience” meetings and insinuations that a union could cost employees the benefits they already have. 

New York Times Co. spokesperson Daniell Rhoades Ha says that contrary to the ?“overwhelming support” for a union at the Wirecutter, ?“In this case, we heard, and continue to hear, a significant amount of reservations and uncertainty among our technology and digital teams about what a union would mean for them. It is clear to us that our colleagues want more information in order to determine the best path for their future and want the opportunity to have a vote on the matter, rather than the company making the decision to recognize the proposed new unit.”

It is a familiar justification for an anti-union campaign, and one that Samadzadeh characterizes as ?“concern trolling… well-meaning, paternalistic, pretending that they have a care for our welfare.” She rejects the company’s overt nod to the idea that tech workers are somehow different from other employees who have unionized in the past. ?“We’re workers,” she says. ?“The problems we have are very similar to the ones in the newsroom.” 

As it stands, members of the NYT Tech Guild say they are continuing to organize and collect union cards as the polite-but-insistent anti-union campaign from management grinds on. (They will not disclose the number of union cards they have collected so far.) There is no date for the formal NLRB election yet, but if history is any guide, the company’s insistence on drawing out the process will not succeed?—?virtually all of the media union drives in recent years that have faced anti-union campaigns have succeeded anyhow. And the tech workers at the Times are propelled by an extra sense of historical importance. 

“Institutions like The Times are still figuring out how to support career pathways that don’t rely on elite universities. Our union can speed up that progress, benefitting my coworkers and the next generation of Times tech workers,” says Bön Champion, a senior product designer who is on the Tech Guild’s organizing committee. ?“If we make this the decade where laborers in this country organize and realize their collective power, I think there’s a lot to be hopeful about. In tech specifically, our pay and benefits are largely a reflection of a competitive workplace with Big Tech at the forefront. Which means the conditions of our work are largely trickling down from Silicon Valley. If tech organizing spreads, instead those conditions will be set by the workers themselves, in their own offices and communities.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 29, 2021. 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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Dispersed but Undaunted, Chicago Amazon Workers Help Win Megacycle Pay Nationwide

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BREAKING: Draft Legislation in New York Would Put Gig Workers into  Toothless 'Unions' | Today's Workplace

Chicago Amazon warehouse workers were put in a tough spot, and made the best of it.

In January, the company hit workers in Chicago’s DCH1 delivery station with a devastating one-two punch. First, Amazon was shutting down their workplace, so they would have to transfer to other facilities across the city. Second, workers at delivery stations nationwide were going to be forced onto a new shift called the “Megacycle,” where they would work four times a week from 1:20 to 11:50 a.m.

Delivery stations facilitate the “last mile” of delivery, sorting and handing off packages to delivery drivers. The Megacycle is designed to speed up the delivery process, allowing customers to order even later and still get their packages within one to two days.

HOME BASE OF SHOP FLOOR ACTION

DCH1 had been the base of the Chicago chapter of Amazonians United—the first chapter in the country. This network of worker committees at Amazon warehouses now reaches across the U.S., with ties with similar groups in other countries.

The Chicago chapter held its first public action in 2019 to demand access to drinking water on the job. Members quickly made connections with workers in other facilities to organize around issues ranging from health and safety to the lack of paid time off.

Over the next two years, workers at DCH1 organized petition campaigns, built community through social events, marched on the boss, and struck.

Amazonians United groups are not immediately oriented toward forming officially-recognized unions through the National Labor Relations Board process, instead focusing on building lasting worker committees that can operate like unions on the job.

WALKOUT AT TRANSFER FACILITY

Faced with the closure of their facility and the forced switch to the Megacycle, Chicago’s Amazonians United group moved quickly to gather petition signatures from their co-workers backing several demands:

  • Accommodations for workers who couldn’t make the change to the new shift
  • An added $2-per-hour differential for the less-desirable shifts
  • Lyft rides to and from work—since most of Chicago’s subway service and many bus lines don’t run overnight, or run on reduced schedules
  • Full 20-minute breaks, which is the policy but managers were enforcing 15-minute breaks

AU’s core organizers hit the ground running on these demands in other facilities in the Chicago area, too. At DIL3, one of the Chicago-area delivery stations to which DCH1 workers were transferred, workers held a one-day walkout in April. Most of the 50 workers on schedule that day walked out, left early, or stayed home. Most who took part hadn’t already been involved in the organizing at DCH1.

Managers, HR, and security guards were left to fill the gaps alongside the 10 workers who remained.

“Some managers had to do real work for the first time, as evidenced by their slowness and clumsiness in moving carts, picking bags and packages, [and] staging for delivery,” wrote AU Chicagoland organizers in a collective response to Labor Notes about the walkout.

Some deliveries to the areas served by DIL3 were delayed by one to two days—confirmed by notifications Amazon sent out to customers telling them their orders would be late.

VICTORY ON MEGACYCLE PAY

Last month, AU claimed victory. On their May 19 paycheck, workers on the Megacycle shift across the country received a shift-differential pay increase of $1.50-$2 per hour, depending on the day of the week. The workers in Chicago are confident they had something to do with it.

This isn’t the first time workers in a relatively small number of facilities were able to push Amazon to make changes nationwide. In the months before the pandemic, workers organizing under the banner of Amazonians United pushed for paid time off with petitions and walkouts in Chicago, New York City, and Sacramento. Workers in the latter city walked off mid-shift on December 23, 2019, after delivering a petition with 4,015 signatures. Amazon relented, and workers started receiving paid time off.

Even though they’ve been dispersed from their original facility, AU activists in Chicago plan to keep doing what they’ve been doing: “uniting with our co-workers, identifying the issues that are most popular, and taking action to address them.”

Do you work at Amazon? “If you know like we do that we all deserve better, talk with your co-workers, figure out what issues y’all care about, discuss and make a plan, and join the fight,” say organizers with Amazonians United Chicago. “We all have a part to play and it’s never too late to stand up for respect and dignity.” Reach them at AUChicagoland@gmail.comfacebook.com/AUChicacoland, or on Twitter/Instagram @AUChicagoland.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on June 15, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Joe-DeManuelle Hall is a staff writer and organizer at Labor Notes.


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Black-owned distillery embraces its workers’ union, this week in the war on workers

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Interview with Laura Clawson, Daily Kos Contributing Editor | Smart  Bitches, Trashy Books

When workers at Du Nord Craft Spirits decided to form a union, joining UNITE HERE Local 17, the company voluntarily recognized them without any delay and in fact publicized the occasion itself. Du Nord bills itself as the first Black-owned distillery in the United States.

“The production staff of Du Nord Craft Spirits chose to form a union because we enjoy and appreciate working here,” the workers said in a statement to the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal. “We have showed up for the company by working through a pandemic, the closure of the cocktail room, an uprising, and committing to work as timelines and job duties fluctuated. The company showed up for us, most recently, by voluntarily recognizing our unionizing effort.”

“The workers knew that I would recognize a union,” owner Chris Montana told the Business Journal. Referring to organizing efforts at several other Twin Cities hospitality businesses, he said, “We hadn’t had a direct conversation about this unionization effort, but as previous places were unionizing I made very clear that if they decided that that’s something they wanted to do, I would recognize it.” Du Nord said he was ready to negotiate.

It’s not exactly going to turn around decades of declining union density in the U.S., but good news is nice to have every now and then, right?

This blog originally appeared at Dailykos on June 19, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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There Is No Labor Shortage, Only Labor Exploitation

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Bio – Sonali Kolhatkar

Conservatives and corporate employers are weaving an insidious web of myths, lies and exaggerations to justify maintaining low-wage jobs.

For the past few months, Republicans have been waging a ferocious political battle to end federal unemployment benefits, based upon stated desires of saving the U.S. economy from a serious labor shortage. The logic, in the words of Republican politicians like Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, goes like this: “the government pays folks more to stay home than to go to work,” and therefore, “[p]aying people not to work is not helpful.” The conservative Wall Street Journal has been beating the drum for the same argument, saying recently that it was a “terrible blunder” to pay jobless benefits to unemployed workers.

If the hyperbolic claims are to be believed, one might imagine American workers are luxuriating in the largesse of taxpayer-funded payments, thumbing their noses at the earnest “job creators” who are taking far more seriously the importance of a post-pandemic economic growth spurt.

It is true that there are currently millions of jobs going unfilled. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics just released statistics showing that there were 9.3 million job openings in April and that the percentage of layoffs decreased while resignations increased. Taking these statistics at face value, one could conclude this means there is a labor shortage.

But, as economist Heidi Shierholz explained in a New York Times op-ed, there is only a labor shortage if employers raise wages to match worker demands and subsequently still face a shortage of workers. Shierholz wrote, “When those measures [of raising wages] don’t result in a substantial increase in workers, that’s a labor shortage. Absent that dynamic, you can rest easy.”

Remember the subprime mortgage housing crisis of 2008 when economists and pundits blamed low-income homeowners for wanting to purchase homes they could not afford? Perhaps this is the labor market’s way of saying, if you can’t afford higher salaries, you shouldn’t expect to fill jobs.

Or, to use the logic of another accepted capitalist argument, employers could liken the job market to the surge pricing practices of ride-share companies like Uber and Lyft. After consumers complained about hiked-up prices for rides during rush hour, Uber explained, “With surge pricing, Uber rates increase to get more cars on the road and ensure reliability during the busiest times. When enough cars are on the road, prices go back down to normal levels.” Applying this logic to the labor market, workers might be saying to employers: “When enough dollars are being offered in wages, the number of job openings will go back down to normal levels.” In other words, workers are surge-pricing the cost of their labor.

But corporate elites are loudly complaining that the sky is falling—not because of a real labor shortage, but because workers are less likely now to accept low-wage jobs. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce insists that “[t]he worker shortage is real,” and that it has risen to the level of a “national economic emergency” that “poses an imminent threat to our fragile recovery and America’s great resurgence.” In the Chamber’s worldview, workers, not corporate employers who refuse to pay better, are the main obstacle to the U.S.’s economic recovery.

Longtime labor organizer and senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies Bill Fletcher Jr. explained to me in an email interview that claims of a labor shortage are an exaggeration and that, actually, “we suffered a minor depression and not another great recession,” as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. In Fletcher’s view, “The so-called labor shortage needs to be understood as the result of tremendous employment reorganization, including the collapse of industries and companies.”

Furthermore, according to Fletcher, the purveyors of the “labor shortage” myth are not accounting for “the collapse of daycare and the impact on women and families, and a continued fear associated with the pandemic.”

He’s right. As one analyst put it, “The rotten seed of America’s disinvestment in child care has finally sprouted.” Such factors have received little attention by the purveyors of the labor shortage myth—perhaps because acknowledging real obstacles like care work requires thinking of workers as real human beings rather than cogs in a capitalist machine.

Indeed, economists and analysts have gotten used to presenting facts from the perspective of private employers and their lobbyists. The American public is expected to sympathize more with the plight of wealthy business owners who can’t find workers to fill their low-paid positions, instead of with unemployed workers who might be struggling to make ends meet.

Already, jobless benefits were slashed to appallingly low levels after Republicans reduced a $600-a-week payment authorized by the CARES Act to a mere $300 a week, which works out to $7.50 an hour for full-time work. If companies cannot compete with this exceedingly paltry sum, their position is akin to a customer demanding to a car salesperson that they have the right to buy a vehicle for a below-market-value sticker price (again, capitalist logic is a worthwhile exercise to showcase the ludicrousness of how lawmakers and their corporate beneficiaries are responding to the state of the labor market).

Remarkably, although federal jobless benefits are funded through September 2021, more than two dozen Republican-run states are choosing to end them earlier. Not only will this impact the bottom line for millions of people struggling to make ends meet, but it will also undermine the stimulus impact that this federal aid has on the economies of states when jobless workers spend their federal dollars on necessities. Conservatives are essentially engaged in an ideological battle over government benefits, which, in their view, are always wrong unless they are going to the already privileged (remember the GOP’s 2017 tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy?).

The GOP has thumbed its nose at federal benefits for residents before. In order to underscore their ideological opposition to the Affordable Care Act, recall how Republican governors eschewed billions of federal dollars to fund Medicaid expansion. These conservative ideologues chose to let their own voters suffer the consequences of turning down federal aid in service of their political opposition to Obamacare. And they’re doing the same thing now.

At the same time as headlines are screaming about a catastrophic worker shortage that could undermine the economy, stories abound of how American billionaires paid peanuts in income taxes according to newly released documents, even as their wealth multiplied to extraordinary levels. The obscenely wealthy are spending their mountains of cash on luxury goods and fulfilling childish fantasies of space travel. The juxtaposition of such a phenomenon alongside the conservative claim that jobless benefits are too generous is evidence that we are indeed in a “national economic emergency”—just not of the sort that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce wants us to believe.

West Virginia’s Republican Governor Jim Justice justified ending federal jobless benefits early in his state by lecturing his residents on how, “America is all about work. That’s what has made this great country.” Interestingly, Justice owns a resort that couldn’t find enough low-wage workers to fill jobs. Notwithstanding a clear conflict of interest in cutting jobless benefits, the Republican politician is now enjoying the fruits of his own political actions as his resort reports greater ease in filling positions with desperate workers whose lifeline he cut off.

When lawmakers earlier this year debated the Raise the Wage Act, which would have increased the federal minimum wage, Republicans wagged their fingers in warning, saying higher wages would put companies out of business. Opponents of that failed bill claimed that if forced to pay $15 an hour, employers would hire fewer people, close branches, or perhaps shut down altogether, which we were told would ultimately hurt workers.

Now, we are being told another story: that companies actually do need workers and won’t simply reduce jobs, close branches, or shut down and that the government therefore needs to stop competing with their ultra-low wages to save the economy. The claim that businesses would no longer be profitable if they are forced to increase wages is undermined by one multibillion-dollar fact: corporations are raking in record-high profits and doling them out to shareholders and executives. They can indeed afford to offer greater pay, and when they do, it turns out there is no labor shortage.

American workers are at a critically important juncture at this moment. Corporate employers seem to be approaching a limit of how far they can push workers to accept poverty-level jobs. According to Fletcher, “This moment provides opportunities to raise wage demands, but it must be a moment where workers organize in order to sustain and pursue demands for improvements in their living and working conditions.”

This blog originally appeared at Independent Media Institute on , June 11, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute.


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How Many Strikes Are There in the U.S.?

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Johnnie Kallas

How many strikes are there in the United States?

It’s a question with obvious importance to labor activists, yet there is no readily accessible answer.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) releases an annual work stoppage summary in February reporting the number of strikes and lockouts over the prior year—but only those that involved at least 1,000 workers and lasted an entire shift. This is especially problematic because nearly 60 percent of all private sector workers are employed by companies with fewer than 1,000 employees. Even many of those who work at big firms are in bargaining units or workplaces with under 1,000 workers.

The BLS kept track of all work stoppages involving six workers or more and lasting at least a full shift until 1982, when cuts by the Reagan administration diminished resources for labor research and statistics.

According to BLS data, strikes increased significantly in 2018 and 2019—after a long decline—before returning to historic lows in 2020. But we cannot know for certain how accurate a picture this is, since the BLS excludes a sizable amount of strike activity by only capturing big strikes. Even the ongoing strike by the Massachusetts Nurses Association at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester—owned by Tenet Healthcare, one of the country’s largest for-profit hospital chains—is left out of the BLS data, because the strike involves just 800 nurses.

NEW LABOR ACTION TRACKER

This gap in our understanding of strike activity is a serious limitation for our knowledge about the labor movement. To help fill this void, we have created the ILR Labor Action Tracker, housed at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, to more accurately track strikes and labor protests across the U.S. (Unlike the BLS, we are not currently collecting data on lockouts, though we hope to add that data in the future.)

One important advance is that our tracker also includes labor protests, such as rallies and informational pickets. That means it includes the recent rally by 2,000 food delivery drivers in New York City demanding better pay and improved health and safety. It also includes a multi-city action by Tribune Publishing employees—who work for newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and Baltimore Sun—to prevent the sale of the company to a hedge fund.

Considering the vast legal and economic obstacles to striking, we believe it is important to capture these types of events to show the wide range of tactics used by U.S. workers in the 21st century. Users are able to search our interactive map for strikes and labor protests separately or both types of actions together.

We distinguish between strikes and labor protests based on whether a temporary stoppage of work occurred as part of the action. This definition of a strike is relatively inclusive, covering actions like wildcats and sickouts.

In some cases, such as the national days of action associated with the Fight for 15 campaign, it can be particularly difficult to determine whether the action should be labeled a strike or labor protest. But if we can convincingly demonstrate, based on the sources we cite, that a collective stoppage of work occurred as part of the protest, we will add that event to our tracker as a strike. Full information about our methodology, including how we add actions to our tracker and the other variables we capture, can be found here.

A DIFFERENT PICTURE

We began tracking strikes in late 2020, though our database is most reliable beginning in March 2021. We have discovered a much different reality of strike and protest activity in the United States than existing sources indicate.

We found that 28 strikes occurred during the month of April alone. That includes all strikes that began after January 1, 2021, and were still ongoing at some point in April. This stands in stark contrast to recent annual data from the BLS, which identified just seven major work stoppages in all of 2017, 20 in 2018, 25 in 2019, and eight in 2020. The BLS documented just six strikes in April; among the strikes it excluded were the aforementioned walkout by 800 Massachusetts nurses at St. Vincent Hospital, a strike for a first contract by 200 faculty members at the Oregon Institute of Technology, and a strike by 24 distribution workers fighting for a pay increase after a four-year wage freeze at N.H. Scheppers Distributing in Missouri, among many others.

While we know that more strikes are occurring than existing data would indicate, we recognize that strike activity today is nowhere near the levels seen in the mid-20th century. For example, the BLS identified an average of 821 work stoppages (both strikes and lockouts, involving six workers or more and lasting at least a full shift) for the month of April during the 1970s, before the Reagan administration’s cuts forced the agency to only capture major events. Additional research is needed to generate more rigorous and informative historical comparisons.

Workers face immense obstacles to organizing and striking that have only become more pronounced over the past few decades. We hope that our project will amplify the voices of striking and protesting workers, as well as draw attention to these obstacles.

We welcome any feedback on how to make this tool more useful for workers and the labor movement. Our project aims to democratize data and inform labor activists about labor actions in their communities. Going forward, we hope to more accurately capture labor protests and pinpoint the location of ongoing strikes based on the address of a major picket line, which should help local activists support striking workers.

We are aiming to be as comprehensive as possible (especially on strikes)—so if you notice that we are missing a strike or labor protest, please use the report button on our website or fill out this Google form.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on May 26, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the authors: Johnnie Kallas, a former labor organizer, is a PhD student at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations and director of the ILR Labor Action Tracker. Eli Friedman is a professor and chair of the Department of International and Comparative Labor at the ILR School. He serves as faculty advisor of the Labor Action Tracker. Dana Trentalange, another former labor organizer, is a recent graduate student of the master’s program at the ILR School, and is the Labor Action Tracker’s coordinator and social media strategist.


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The Dream of a Unionized New Orleans Is Coming True

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Writers Guild of America Honors Hamilton Nolan for Digital Organizing -  Variety

The pandemic was the first big test for New Orleans’ hospitality unions. They passed with flying colors.

Drago’s, the sea food restaurant inside the over 1,600-room Hilton Riverside hotel, advertises itself as the inventor of charbroiled oysters, a claim too good to check. Trinice Dyer, a New Orleans native, has worked there as a server for 12 years. When Dyer and her colleagues lost their jobs at the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, Hilton let employees use up their banked paid time off; after that, they were on their own.

“When the days turned to weeks, and the weeks turned to months, I’m like, OMG,” Dyer remembers. Coworkers scrambled to apply for jobs at Walmart or Amazon. Dyer pulled from her savings to help pay her son’s college tuition. After a year out of work, she was finally recalled in March 2021. ?“It was just faith, grace and mercy that got me through it,” she says. 

Nationwide, the hospitality sector is the industry hardest hit by the pandemic.

Dyer and her colleagues got their jobs back because the New Orleans Hilton is unionized, affiliated with Unite Here Local 23 since 2017. The leap of faith required to unionize the hotel, Dyer says, was scary, but she decided to support it. ?“What do we have to lose?” she thought. ?“I want to be heard. Before the union they wasn’t hearing us. It’s ?‘do as I say, not as I do.’ We wanted to be valued. We wanted to be respected.” 

That risk paid off in raises, in protection from capricious firings and, now especially, in ?“recall rights”?—?the guarantee that laid-off workers will be offered their old jobs back if the jobs become available.

Dyer and her coworkers are part of what has quietly become one of the most noteworthy projects to build union power in the South: Unite Here’s ongoing work to unionize the famous New Orleans hospitality industry.

***
As Americans slowly emerge from the pandemic and begin to travel again, one of the most vital issues for hospitality workers nationwide has become recall rights. Without that guarantee, companies are able to staff back up with new, cheaper workers, leaving longtime employees behind.

Unite Here says those who lose their jobs without recall rights typically see their wages decline 12%. For older workers, that figure is more like 35%.

“A lot of our members have worked on their jobs 30-some years,” Marlene Patrick-Cooper says. ?“Recall is what really, truly matters.”

Patrick-Cooper is president of Unite Here Local 23, a gregarious woman who could have been designed in a lab to be perfectly suited for the job. Raised in the small city of Jeanerette in southwest Louisiana with a father who was a union shop steward, Patrick-Cooper followed an aunt to Las Vegas in the mid-1980s to go to school, and started looking for work. “[My aunt said] said, ?‘Make sure you march down to that union hall and get a union job, and you don’t look for work nowhere else.’ Because there was a standard that had been set.”

Patrick-Cooper learned her craft in the city that is the model for what a unionized New Orleans hospitality industry could one day look like: Las Vegas. She worked for Unite Here’s mighty affiliate, the Culinary Union, which has organized virtually the city’s entire casino industry. That union is the best example in America of successful wall-to-wall organizing to build economic and political power for working-class people in a tourist city. (That power, in fact, can reach across the country. Unite Here used its clout with gaming companies in Vegas to make them agree not to fight organizing efforts at the casinos in New Orleans and Biloxi.)

In 2014, after stints in other cities around the country, Patrick-Cooper got her chance to prove what could be done in New Orleans. She took over leadership of Local 23, which sprawls across much of the South, with chapters from Washington, D.C., to Texas. ?“The union was beginning to put resources into organizing the South,” Patrick-Cooper says. ?“And me being from the South, I wanted in.”

Thanks to the efforts of Local 23, New Orleans has become one of the most noteworthy enclaves of union power in the South.

As a city, New Orleans is sui generis, a more than 300-year mashup of African, European and Native American cultures that exists nowhere else in America. As a place where people wake up and go to work, it has more familiar characteristics. The city is situated in the deep South, in a so-called right-to-work state (less than 6% of working people are unionized) with a state legislature eager to squash anything that might be considered progressive. It is 60% Black, and the average Black household earns less than half as much as the average white household. It is a tourist economy, with nearly 20 million visitors a year fueling a $10 billion hospitality industry that touches every part of the city, directly or indirectly. And since the utter devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans has been spectacularly revived as a (wealthier, more unequal) tourist destination.

Local 23 has been quietly toiling for years to win the working people of New Orleans enough power to command a fair slice of that tourist economy. In a 20-minute stroll, a visitor can walk past the sprawling Ernest N. Morial Convention Center (which looms just off the Mississippi River), then by the cruise ship terminal, then past the nearby Hilton Riverside (one of the biggest hotels in town), hang a left on Poydras Street and pass Harrah’s (the city’s only non-riverboat casino) and end up at the Loews Hotel on the next block. Employees from all of these properties, more than 1,400 workers total,
have unionized with Local 23, the organized labor equivalent of capturing an entire corner on a Monopoly board.

The union, whose membership is 90% Black and 65% women, also represents about half of the food service workers at the New Orleans airport, and 1,700 workers in nearby Biloxi, Miss. It is now possible to fly into New Orleans, attend a convention, stay at a hotel and take a casino day trip without leaving Unite Here properties.

The Covid-19 pandemic?—?a disaster that is, at least in the short term, comparable to Katrina in economic effect?—?has put all of that work to the test.

***

Because Unite Here’s membership is concentrated in hotel, airport and casino workers, the union has been economically ravaged by the near total shutdown of travel and tourism during the pandemic. At the early peak of the lockdowns in April 2020, the union’s membership was 98% unemployed. Today, member unemployment is still 60?–?70%, according to Unite Here’s international president, D. Taylor. In New Orleans, the numbers have been similar.

With members laid off across the country, Unite Here had to adjust tactics by location to secure vital recall rights. In politically friendly areas, the union is pursuing state or local legislation guaranteeing recall rights for both union and nonunion hospitality workers. Unite Here won that legislative battle statewide in California and a host of major cities, including Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Providence, R.I. Unite Here is still fighting for legislation in Nevada, Minnesota and Connecticut, and a long list of other states.

In politically hostile areas like Louisiana?—?where the state legislature eagerly overrides worker-friendly legislation, such as minimum wage increases?—?Unite Here directly negotiated recall rights with employers, despite facing an existential threat. Though the Unite Here national office sent financial reserves to help tide over local chapters, union staffers themselves faced layoffs when member dues suddenly dried up. Before the pandemic, Local 23 had an organizing staff of eight; today, it is down to three.

The bulk of Unite Here’s organizing in New Orleans happened after the 2008 recession, meaning the pandemic has been the first major economic shock most members have lived through as union members. Even as it lost staff, Local 23 had to transform itself into what Patrick-Cooper describes as ?“a social service beacon.” The union turned its focus to helping newly laid off union members navigate the state’s broken unemployment system. It created a hotline for members to call for assistance, ran a food bank and searched everywhere for fundraising, all while marshaling support for Unite Here’s massive national door-knocking campaign in support of Joe Biden’s presidential run?—?and fighting for extended recall rights for workers.

Despite the obstacles, Local 23 reached agreements in New Orleans with all of its employers not covered by national contracts to recall workers for two years. Union officials say the negotiations were not especially contentious, a sign that, as in Las Vegas, major hospitality employers in New Orleans have come to accept Unite Here as an entity easier to work with than fight.

The union also renegotiated a contract with Harrah’s in late March that extended recall from 12 months to 24. The union says the casino was willing to grant the extension to preserve its experienced workforce, a crucial provision for the slice of employees who have yet to be called back?—?and have already been out of work for 14 months.

Dora Whitfield, a server in Harrah’s casino buffet, just celebrated (from home) her 20th anniversary as a Harrah’s employee. Whitfield has been on furlough since March 2020. Her income is $247 per week in unemployment money from the state of Louisiana. She used to be able to make almost that much on a single weekend day at work.

Though Whitfield had no union experience before Harrah’s organized in 2014, she was appointed as a shop steward three years ago because of her reputation for fearlessness in talking to everyone. ?“Down South, I feel like a lot of us should know about unions but [don’t],” Whitfield says. ?“I’m like, ?‘Why we never knew about this here?’ You have to learn how to get out and let people know there is a union in New Orleans in hospitality.”

The disdain for broad worker protections coming from conservatives in the Louisiana statehouse may, ironically, backfire on the legislators. Everyone in New Orleans can plainly see union members are the only working people who won guaranteed recall rights, which only increases the incentive for everyone else to unionize.

“In Southern states, sometimes the laws are not really on our side,” says Leah Bailey, a Local 23 research analyst. ?“So having that union contract is everything.”

***

The economic recovery in New Orleans has been as slow and painful as the national vaccine rollout. The city’s tourism bureau says that, from January to the end of March, hotel occupancy downtown ranged from 20% to 49%. Mardi Gras was canceled, though Jazz Fest, the city’s other major festival, has been rescheduled from spring to October. In late April, crowds in the French Quarter were less than half of the usual hordes. Tarot card readers sat bored at their folding tables in Jackson Square; the few jazz bands playing for tips on the street corners faced little competition in hearing distance.

Every hospitality worker who is called back to work this year will have suffered. But those who were in a union at least suffered less uncertainty.

For workers looking to have a surreptitious meeting with a union organizer, Ernst Café, a sprawling bar and grill that occupies a corner of the warehouse district just a few blocks from the Mississippi River in downtown New Orleans, is well known. The tables that line the outside are a convenient place for anyone who works at the nearby hotels, convention center and casino to sit and talk. From there, an entire city is slowly being transformed.

On a humid weekday morning in April, Willie Gordon rests an elbow on one of those tables an hour before his shift begins at the Loews Hotel a block away. He has the dapper look and unflappable demeanor one might expect of someone who spent 18 years as the hotel’s bell captain, leading all of the bellhops and valets (before the pandemic, there were 15; just four remain.) Before that, Gordon worked for 10 years as the bell captain at the nearby Westin Hotel. There, he says, ?“employees would run” when a union organizer came around, mostly out of fear of a general manager Gordon still recalls bitterly, 18 years later.

“He would talk about what he could do, [how] ?‘I can fire you on the spot,’ ” Gordon remembers. ?“He would say he was joking, but no one took it as a joke.”

The vast majority of hotels in New Orleans were nonunion until 2004, when?—?shortly after the Loews Hotel opened?—?Gordon and other employees unionized with Unite Here. Gordon is now a shop steward. When problems arise?—?like the time an overeager salesperson tried to hand out group discounts that cut into the bellhops’ pay?—?Gordon gets things straightened out in a single conversation. When the men he works with ask how he did it?—?he refers to the bellhops always as just ?“my guys”?—?he points across Poydras Street toward the still nonunion Westin, then says, ?“Here’s the difference between us being here, and us being over there.”

***

New Orleans is a city whose raffish charm is partially rooted in its chaos. Where Las Vegas has a single, gleaming strip of enormous properties that dominate its hospitality industry, New Orleans has fewer big players and far more small operators and hustlers. That makes the city ?“a hard nut to crack” for a union dreaming of an organized hospitality sector, according to local labor historian Thomas J. Adams. ?“Most people still work for relatively small shops, or work at the franchise level,” Adams says. ?“In that way, New Orleans looks more like a lot of the country.”

The fragmented nature of the New Orleans hospitality industry means that Local 23 takes on an enormous civic importance as one of the only institutions capable of raising standards across the industry. On the other hand, it also means the majority of people whose livelihoods depend somehow on the tourist trade will probably never be union members.

There will always be a role in the city for groups willing to organize in the space outside of traditional unions?—?and there is comradery and cross-pollination between union and nonunion spaces.

Gabby Bolden-Shaw moved to New Orleans in 2009 and got a job at the convention center. She got involved with the union and eventually became the lead shop steward. She was so good, in fact, that Unite Here offered her a job as an organizer in 2019?—?but she was furloughed only months later, after the pandemic drained the union’s finances. But she found another way to support workers.

In August 2020, Bolden-Shaw got a new job with Step Up Louisiana, an activist group focused on local labor and political organizing. Now, she does some of the same work the union does?—?such as helping people file for unemployment during the pandemic?—?but on behalf of people who aren’t union members (as well as some who are). Among the workers she helps now are some who were at the convention center as independent contractors, people who were working alongside Unite Here members but who were unable to join the union.

One of those contractors is Will Walker, who moved to New Orleans from California three years ago and worked as a bartender for splashy events at the convention center and the Superdome. Since facing abrupt unemployment in February, Walker has channeled much of his energy into organizing and attending rallies with Step Up?—?to the horror of some he used to work with.

“They were trying to explain to me that this wasn’t gonna get better, because … this is how they operate in Louisiana,” says Walker, who is Black. ?“You have no voice. Once you speak out like you do in California, you may come up dead, hurt or missing. People that I worked with actually thought I was crazy to put myself out there.”

***

The explanation most often given for the weakness of unions in the South is that the vast majority of the South is right-to-work, which makes it harder to build and maintain union membership. But Nevada is also a right-to-work state, which hasn’t stopped Unite Here yet. There is no reason the union’s model cannot translate to the South, and Unite Here’s international president, D. Taylor, says New Orleans can ?“absolutely” be transformed by the union in the same way Las Vegas has.

“I didn’t take this job to be satisfied with what we did in Las Vegas,” Taylor says. ?“New Orleans is a perfect example where the only difference in the living standards for workers in the industry is our union.”

“We’re very interested in organizing the South, period. You change the South, you change America.”

For Unite Here, the ironclad union power they have built in Las Vegas?—?a power that has given tens of thousands of service workers a middle-class life?—?is a tantalizing promise of what New Orleans might become. To dream, just cast your eyes skyward. Next to the unionized Hilton Riverside, a glimmering 34-story Four Seasons is nearing completion. Marriott and Sheraton towers loom large. The iconic Hotel Monteleone sign casts a shadow over the French Quarter. The wraparound porches of the Omni sprawl lasciviously off Bourbon Street. The road to union power in New Orleans runs through properties like these. Control the jewels of the hospitality industry, and you can pull up the standards for the entire city.

Marlene Patrick-Cooper agrees. ?“You want them all,” she says, smiling. ?“It’s like a snake eating his big apple. A snake’s gonna eat that apple. But he’s going to eat it one bite at a time.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 26, 2021. 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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BREAKING: Draft Legislation in New York Would Put Gig Workers into Toothless ‘Unions’

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Joe DeManuelle-Hall - The People's Summit The People's Summit

An effort backed by the New York State AFL-CIO would create a new bargaining scheme for app-based workers without addressing the question of whether or not these workers are legally “employees.”

Labor Notes obtained a draft version of the legislation that is being negotiated by unions and app employers.

Workers for apps like Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash are currently considered independent contractors; most in the labor movement consider them misclassified, a tactic the companies use to avoid paying the full cost of benefits. These workers are blocked from unionizing by antitrust laws, and don’t have the protection of the National Labor Relations Board (or many other protections).

To sidestep this, the draft legislation would enact a new process to recognize unions and bargain agreements—relying on the state government to enact the negotiated “recommendations” as regulations.

But the draft bill includes much to give labor activists pause, and marks a departure from the national push against misclassification.

“It’s about creating a distraction and a real carve-out from the PRO Act,” said Bhairavi Desai, director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance.

The federal PRO Act, which much of the labor movement is pushing for, would sidestep the question of misclassification but allow independent contractors to unionize under certain conditions using the National Labor Relations Act.

New York State Senator Jessica Ramos, chair of the Labor Committee, has just released a statement that she will not be backing the draft bill because “We will not legitimize any company union. We will not undermine the PRO Act.”

THE BIG UGLIES

We don’t know what would end up in the final legislation. But the biggest immediate concerns fall into two major categories: departures from existing labor law, and lessening local regulatory power over gig companies.

This legislation says that workers would be put into a union that they likely never voted for, and which would not be funded by workers, and barred from putting up any serious fight for an agreement—no strikes, no boycotts, no picketing. It would create a new type of legally recognized union which is not financially accountable to its members. This should be deeply concerning to those who care about building powerful, democratic unions.

This draft legislation would also take away local governments’ power to rein in gig employers—New York localities could no longer create specific minimum wages for app workers or rules about their working conditions. What’s more, cities would lose the ability to legislate about these companies at all. Local governments couldn’t create taxes or surcharges on the services, or rules for how they must operate. NYC already has a cap on the number of rideshare drivers; this would be thrown out. If a local government wanted to put a surcharge on rides or deliveries to fund infrastructure, or green jobs, or schools—it couldn’t. This power would rest solely with the state.

This type of legislation is not entirely new, but this may be the furthest it’s gotten. Two years ago, as California legislators were preparing Assembly Bill 5 to rein in misclassification, Uber and Lyft were approaching major unions, including SEIU and the Teamsters, in an attempt to preempt the legislation with a compromise. When that didn’t work, the companies spent hundreds of millions of dollars on last fall’s ballot measure, Proposition 22, to carve themselves out. They won, and they’ve made no secret of their intention to get the same deal in other states.

Now, up against the might of these incredibly powerful companies, some labor leaders are looking for compromise legislation of their own. What’s in it for the apps? Legislation like this could help siphon off labor organizing energy and undermine campaigns for tougher legislation.

TWO MASSIVE UNITS, ONE UNION EACH

The legislation covers app-based workers in two groups: rideshare drivers, who perform on-call taxi service for companies like Uber and Lyft; and delivery workers, who deliver packages, groceries, and restaurant orders for companies like Instacart, Amazon, DoorDash, and Seamless. Each of these two groups would become a massive, statewide unit. The draft bill sets up a process (detailed below) for one union to cover each group.

Rideshare companies employ around 80,000 drivers in New York City alone, a figure that is currently capped by local legislation. The number of delivery workers is less clear, but would include between 50,000 and 80,000 food delivery workers as well as Amazon “Flex” drivers and probably others.

The likely unions—based on who’s been pushing this legislation—would be the Machinists’ Independent Drivers Guild for the rideshare drivers, and the Transport Workers Union for delivery workers. The IDG already claims to represent the 80,000 app-based drivers in New York City, but this would formalize its role. The Machinists’ project has come under scrutiny for receiving money from Uber.

RECOGNITION

The recognition process relies in part on labor peace agreements—familiar in places like construction and the burgeoning cannabis industry. Here, the agreement requires companies to sign a peace deal with a union that meets certain requirements; the union is then restricted from encouraging any “picketing, strikes, slow downs, or boycotts” until a finalized deal has been ratified by the state.

The unions only have to show signed cards of support from 10 percent of the workers in the unit—there’s no election. (What if more than one union shows interest? It reads as an afterthought; the labor commissioner is supposed to come up with a process in that case.) Contrast that with the union authorization process run by the National Labor Relations Board, where 30 percent of workers must sign union cards to trigger an election, which can even include competing unions on the same ballot.

Under the draft law, the state ultimately gets to decide if the union should be recognized—because, in addition to the 10 percent show of support, the union must have “demonstrated experience in representing network workers or other related workers in reaching agreements with companies for at least five years.” (“Network” is being used here as a synonym for “app.”)

This puts significant power in the hands of the commissioner of the state’s Department of Labor, appointed by the governor, to determine whether or not a union is eligible to represent workers. This could lead to competing worker organizations being disqualified. The Taxi Workers Alliance, for example, is not a formal union in the legal sense, though it has members and strikes; it’s unclear whether it would meet the standard of “reaching agreements.”

“We read that as they want to make sure TWA is locked out,” Desai said. “It’s meant to favor—that’s not even strong enough—IDG and it’s meant to get rid of us.”

Service Employees Local 32BJ has been supporting the Worker’s Justice Project, a worker center, in its campaign to organize app-based delivery drivers—but will the state say that WJP or even SEIU has the requisite experience representing “network” workers?

Getting rid of or changing the union would require a much more significant lift, and an election. Thirty percent of workers would have to say they wanted a decertification election, and a majority of all workers (not just those voting) would have to vote to decertify. If they wanted a different union, workers would have to go through the process of showing 10 percent support again (after decertifying the existing union), and have the state “certify” their organization.

WHAT’S THE DEAL?

Once a union was certified, the rideshare companies would bargain together for one agreement, and the delivery companies would bargain a separate one, each across the table from the chosen union. The draft legislation demands that the negotiators bring state representatives a deal covering a handful of topics, including union access to workers and a minimum five-year agreement.

The two most remarkable topics they would negotiate are a “portable benefits fund” and the minimum wage for drivers. Portable benefits is a vague term that can mean a lot of different things that aren’t tied to a specific job—anything from Social Security to privatized unemployment insurance for misclassified workers. Here, the union and the employers are told to set up a nonprofit and negotiate how much money to send its way, though the legislation doesn’t say anything about what benefits this should cover. Unemployment? Workers compensation? Family leave? It would be up to them to figure that out. Many of these things are mandated for W-2 employees by laws that don’t cover independent contractors.

The wage negotiations are supposed to have a “floor,” consisting of a local minimum wage plus a mileage rate. The kicker, though, is that these only cover active time—that is, time the workers spend performing the job. App workers have long complained about unpaid idle time while they’re waiting for dispatch—this was a big push for California’s Assembly Bill 5, and NYC passed a driver minimum wage that covered inactive time (more on this later).

NO DUES, BUT LOTS OF CASH

The draft legislation provides a direct line of funding for the unions involved, in the form of surcharges. Each ride in an Uber or food delivery by an Instacart worker would have a 10-cent surcharge, paid by the customer, which companies would collect and then hand over to the unions.

This doesn’t necessarily preclude unions from setting up dues and membership structures, but it does provide them a huge pot of money without having to do that. Right before the pandemic, rideshare companies were hitting 750,000 rides a day in New York City. So the rideshare union would get $75,000 per day—almost $27.5 million per year—just from NYC, even before you figure in all the drivers in the rest of the state.

PROGNOSIS

The New York legislature is only in session for a little less than two weeks, leaving a small window for this to pass this year. The IDG has tried to pass similar legislation over the past several years, but this time it is opening the door to the support of another union by including a separate unit of delivery workers.

Similar legislation was floated recently in Connecticut, before it was allegedly shut down by the national AFL-CIO—in part because of its contradictions with the federal PRO Act, which would provide many misclassified “independent contractors” the right to organize and bargain under the National Labor Relations Act.

As app-based employers continue to grow in size and power, they will keep looking for creative new ways to undermine labor law. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy for them to find allies in labor who are willing to gamble away workers’ rights for the promise of quick, massive membership increases.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on May 21, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Joe DeManuelle-Hall is a staff writer and organizer at Labor Notes.


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