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Mississippi Believes It Can Be Organized. Does Anyone Else?

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Under-resourced and overlooked, the South is tired of waiting for organized labor.

Two blocks from the Mississippi State Capitol in downtown Jackson, Robert Shaffer, head of the state AFL-CIO, sits on a couch in his office trying to explain how unions could become more powerful in Mississippi. “It’s just,” he says, then pauses for an uncomfortably long time. “It’s difficult.” It’s not that Shaffer doesn’t know how to do it. His problem is getting anyone to believe him.

In 1946, full of vigor from the postwar boom of organized labor, the Congress of Industrial Organizations launched Operation Dixie, the most ambitious project to unionize the South ever undertaken. Hundreds of CIO organizers fanned out across the region. The challenges of Southern racism and the frenzied anti-Communism of the McCarthy era ultimately caused Operation Dixie to fail in its goal of ending the South’s status as a haven for cheap, nonunion labor, but the unions did notch some successes along the way. One of the places they were able to interest workers in organizing was in West Point, a small town in northeast Mississippi. There, employees at a Babcock & Wilcox boiler factory began holding union elections in 1952. They lost, but they continued calling elections almost yearly until 1967, when they were victorious by a single vote, joining the Boilermakers.

By the mid-1980s, the plant had 100 percent union membership—no easy task in a right-to-work state where anyone can opt out of paying union dues.

In 2016, the plant shut down. The last of its jobs were shipped to Mexico.

“NAFTA took care of Operation Dixie,” sighs Shaffer, who has a bristly white mustache and the philosophical air of a man who has seen a once-great thing taken away from him. He began working at that Babcock & Wilcox plant in 1969 and became head of the union local in 1984. Today, Shaffer is organized labor’s chief lobbyist in a state where barely 7 percent of working people are union members.

The ultra-Republican Mississippi legislature has made the laws so politically hostile to unions that it’s difficult to think of how it could get any worse. “It’s more defensive than anything else,” Shaffer grumbles about his dealings with state politicians. “Hell, I think they got everything. How do you get any lower than the bottom of the damn ocean?”

Every state in the South today has so-called right-to-work laws on the books—anti-union legislation that makes it harder to build and maintain strong unions. They serve to drive down already paltry union density and exacerbate the region’s high poverty rates.

Periodically (and with great regularity), the labor movement holds a fevered conversation with itself about “how to organize the South.” Implicit in these conversations is the greater question lurking just below the surface: Can the South even be organized?

Like all questions about the South, there is nowhere better to find the answer than Mississippi. Mississippi is the place most defined by the twin struggles of racial justice and labor rights that date back to slavery. Mississippi is also the most impoverished state in America. Nearly a fifth of all Mississippians live in poverty, including more than 30 percent of the state’s Black residents. Working in Mississippi is what inspired the invention of the blues. And the state still seems to live by the words of Delta musician Skip James: “Hard times is here, and everywhere you go, times are harder than ever been before.”

The most recent spasm of interest in the possibility of an organized South arose earlier this year, when the nation’s attention was momentarily drawn to the unsuccessful effort from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) to organize an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. Another recent major union vote in the South was August 2017, when the United Auto Workers (UAW) failed in their attempt to unionize thousands of Nissan workers at a plant in Canton, Miss. Both attempts included enormous campaigns targeting more than 5,000 workers in a single location.

The UAW spent more than a decade on the Nissan campaign, only to lose the vote by nearly 2–1. Those devastating figures in such a high-profile campaign (coming on the heels of a similar UAW loss at a factory in Tennessee in 2014) fed a grim narrative of skepticism about whether the South was simply a dark and impenetrable place that would never yield to organized labor. Many in the union world think the South’s difficult political atmosphere and its long history of union-busting make it too risky to spend large sums of money on big organizing drives.

Successful organizing in right-to-work states simply takes more ongoing work—and with limited resources, it is easy for unions to want to focus elsewhere.

The actual lessons of that Nissan campaign are far more nuanced, however, and somewhat hopeful. The UAW’s lead Nissan organizer was Sanchioni Butler, a long-time autoworker herself who went to Canton in 2003 to lay the groundwork for unionization. She is candid about the obstacles the union faced from the very beginning, ones that plague the South broadly: a workforce divided between full-time employees and a throng of temps doing the same job for lower pay; thinly veiled threats by management and state politicians to close the plant; and widespread lack of knowledge about unions among workers themselves. One of the reasons the Nissan campaign went on so long is that the union, recognizing what it was up against, was trying to organize not just a single workplace, but the surrounding community.

“It was a community campaign before it was an actual worker campaign,” says Butler, who is now a political campaign organizer for the Mississippi AFL-CIO. “Labor has had a bad rap of, ‘They come in, organize and leave the town in shambles.’ So that was something the UAW was trying hard not to [do].”

In Canton, that meant nurturing an entire parallel campaign to bring along clergy and community leaders to support the union drive—an attempt to build some friendly allies in a conservative, venomously anti-union state. One of the leaders of that effort was Frank Figgers, a bearded, owlish descendant of Mississippi sharecroppers. Figgers, a well-known civil rights activist in Jackson, was a co-chair of the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan, which pulled in clergy members and groups like the NAACP to try to make the soil more fertile for the union drive. 

First, the group educated church leaders about the benefits of collective bargaining. Then, workers from the plant spoke up in church to let the congregations know the troubles they had on the job. 

For Figgers, there is a straight line from the legacy of slavery to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s to the labor movement today.

“Black workers were the free workforce in this country,” Figgers says. “It took abolishing slavery for Black workers to get anything for their labor. When a union comes in, when collective bargaining comes in, that brings about equity in the workplace. That’s probably why Mississippi as a state has fought against unions for so long.”

Mississippi’s 1890 state constitution definitively snuffed out most Reconstruction-era gains for Black people, ushering in a regime of legalized white supremacy. With it came separate, unequal, racialized pay scales, the effects of which have never been mitigated. 

Though the civil rights movement is often misremembered as solely about voting rights, Figgers says, it was also about rights at work—in particular, winning pay equity in the racist South. There is only the barest sliver of daylight between what civil rights heroes Fannie Lou Hamer and Medgar Evers were fighting for in Mississippi a half century ago and the task of empowering Mississippi’s vast, low-paid, largely Black workforce today. After years fighting for voting rights, Hamer started a farmers’ co-op in Sunflower County in a bid for economic empowerment. Martin Luther King Jr. spent his later years focused on economic justice and was in Memphis supporting a sanitation workers’ strike when he was assassinated. 

While the civil rights movement has now been fully adopted as part of America’s mainstream mythology, the labor movement in Mississippi remains threadbare. Butler says the fear Nissan workers felt when signing union cards is the same fear their parents and grandparents felt registering to vote.

On the other hand, Butler also knows unions are one of the most effective ways to unite Black and white workers in Mississippi—not in a magical sense of making centuries of racism disappear, but in a practical sense of being virtually the only institution in the South capable of making white and Black people work for a shared purpose despite antiBlack racism. Butler says she saw suspicion and resentment between Nissan workers of different races melt away as she talked with them about their shared suffering due to high healthcare costs and job injuries. “At the end of the day, everybody was being mistreated,” Butler says. “They have their own ‘aha’ moment: ‘I didn’t know you went through that. I went through the exact same thing.’”

Despite the union’s loss, the decade-plus of community education work instilled a hunger for labor rights in thousands of people, priming the region for future campaigns. The union is still present in Canton, but has not filed for another union election. (The UAW did not respond to inquiries for this story.)

Mississippi is a state with an infinite capacity for not learning from its own history. Today, when you visit the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in downtown Jackson to learn about the bloody struggles for freedom, you can get a refreshment at the Nissan Cafe—courtesy of a $500,000 donation Nissan made while fighting the unionization campaign.

It is not impossible to build strong unions in Mississippi. Robert Shaffer will tell you it can be done the same way they did it at Babcock & Wilcox: Create a strong culture around being in the union. Stay in constant contact with members. Don’t take any shit from the boss. Be ready to strike.

And never, ever stop fighting.

What Shaffer cannot do is make unions flower across Mississippi; he does not have the resources. The AFL-CIO has no statewide army of staffers to put any organizing plans into action. Sometimes, even the AFL-CIO itself can’t get the attention of unions. Shaffer says that a few years ago, AFL-CIO independently organized a group of hotel workers in Jackson, only for the effort to die out because they couldn’t find a union to take the workers on as members. (The AFL-CIO is a federation of unions and typically does not do direct organizing; the workers needed a union to represent them in order to move ahead and get a contract.)

Offshoring pressures after NAFTA closed many of the state’s big factories, and today Mississippi is made up of relatively small workplaces. Shaffer says most unions don’t find it economically feasible to organize groups of less than 200 workers. The result is very few unionized workplaces for the hundreds of thousands of retail, healthcare, restaurant, warehouse and manufacturing workers in the state, despite the fact that everyone I spoke with firmly believes unionizing could be done if only they had the resources.

Shaffer dreams of another Operation Dixie to produce a new generation of believers. “You can take a group of 25 to start with, and you start building that, and you make them proud of their union,” he says. “It expands. Especially somewhere like Jackson, Mississippi, man. Damn!

“I just get so frustrated, because I don’t got the power to do that shit,” he says. “It’s a business decision now. A hundred years ago, it was a decision for the people.”

Even in Mississippi, there are some islands of union power. One is in Carthage, where the RWDSU represents a large Tyson poultry factory. Since the plant unionized in 1993, more than 1,100 of its current 1,800 workers have become union members. Latunya Love, a friendly, resolute woman from the nearby crossroads town of Sallis, has worked at the plant for 16 years. She spent 15 of them as a union rep.

A union is still not a panacea for a Mississippi poultry worker. Love, who works on the line, knife in hand, checking breast meat for bones, makes $15.05 an hour—if she hits her incentive pay. The biggest complaint among workers at the plant, she says, is the pay. The plant has stayed open through the entire pandemic, despite Covid-19 outbreaks and deaths. When the company hung up a wreath, Love knew another worker died.

Still, the union helps make the job of standing shoulder to shoulder all day slicing and dicing poultry more tolerable. Workers at the Carthage plant get more vacation days and better benefits than their nonunion counterparts, and Love’s position as a union rep gives her a direct line to management she didn’t have at other jobs at McDonald’s and AutoZone. Every week, Love talks to the plant’s orientation class, urging dozens of new workers to sign up and join the union. She has even traveled to Alabama to help RWDSU organize workers at a car rental chain.

Though Love is part of one of the state’s few large union companies, she knows working people in the South are a long way from the promised land. “It’s like they’re scared of the union in Mississippi,” Love says. “The South is very scared. They’re scared of change.

“If where I work at took that union away, everything that we have negotiated in this contract is gone. They can put you back to whatever they want to give you for money. They can take away your vacation. And you won’t have nothing.”

In the summer of 1965, farmworkers in the Mississippi Delta went on strike. With the help of civil rights organizers, more than 1,000 people formed the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union and launched a momentary wave of labor activism that saw poor agricultural workers walking off the job and building Strike City, an encampment where dozens lived in tents for months to protest low wages. Today, near a curve in the Bogue Phalia, a tributary of the Big Sunflower River outside of Leland, Miss., you can find the neatly mowed vacant field where those workers made their stand. The tiny street it sits on is called Strike City Road. Aside from that, all that is left is the memory of an extraordinary, quixotic stand for justice. In the end, the only thing they won was a footnote in history.

For poor Black farmworkers in the Mississippi Delta, some things have not changed in the past half century. Agricultural workers were excluded from the protections of the National Labor Relations Act when it was passed in 1935, and they still are. Traditional labor unions for Delta farmworkers are virtually nonexistent. As those who stubbornly held out at Strike City realized, the path to building power here must be conceived of very broadly (or not exist at all).

Mississippi’s agricultural economy remains one of large white (now corporate) landowners and poor Black workers. But there is a movement to turn that dynamic around. Down a long dirt driveway off a country road outside of Clarksdale is the lovely farm of Ernestine and Dorfus Young Sr. Along with vegetables, they grow their own grapes, sell their own wine and have an idyllic, enclosed space to host local events. There, I met a group of women who are part of Mississippi’s only Black women’s farming cooperative, a project of the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative (SRBWI) that aims to help the small farmers scattered across the Delta region turn their farms into viable businesses.

The women in the co-op each have their own reasons for becoming farmers. Ernestine Young left Mississippi as a child in 1965, part of the migration of Black people to the North in search of better opportunities. After 20 years in Minnesota, she was drawn home and bought a piece of land to grow almost everything you can think of.

Likewise, Nadean Randle grew up on a farm, left to have a career, then came home to take care of her sick mother and returned to farming, lured by love of the land. After 25 years of working for the Department of Veterans Affairs, “I bought a tractor, a pickup truck and a shotgun, and called myself a farmer,” Randle laughs.

Cora Burnside, mayor of itty-bitty Arcola, Miss., began growing veggies because her town is a food desert; she wanted fresh produce to hand out to local elderly people who have a hard time buying healthy groceries.

Patricia Porter and Lillie Melton, who each raise poultry on small farms near Lexington, share a lifelong love of chickens that is as strong as any career passion in the world. “I didn’t realize I cared so much about chickens until my father passed away,” says Melton, who grew up watching him tend to the birds when she was young. “I realized I enjoyed dealing with poultry!”

The SRBWI began nearly 20 years ago, funded by foundation grants and at times, the federal government, as a broad project to help Black women in the South improve their lives. The farmers’ co-op grew out of conversations with women about what they needed and has helped farms get state certifications, offered tech support and helped combine products for market. The group has a commercial kitchen in Clarksdale to help women turn their home cooking into food businesses. The co-op also has a goal of building enough capacity to sell produce to major grocery chains.

The SRBWI sewing collective, like the farming co-op, is another effort to turn the skills of women in the region into sustainable income. “Both of these organizations have been moving forward for laying the groundwork for potential ways for African American women in these communities, where so much has been [extracted], to make a living,” says Carol Blackmon, a consultant who helps run the SRBWI. “To make a way out of no way for themselves.”

Co-ops are one way Mississippi’s historically poor working people can build collective power in a land where unions are few and far between. Another is through a worker center, the catchall term for labor rights groups that aim to serve people unions don’t reach.

In 1995, Jaribu Hill, an attorney from New York, went to Mississippi on what she thought would be a two-year fellowship. She’s still there. Hill was so struck by the suffering of working people in the Delta that, in 1996, she founded the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights (MWCHR), an organization she still leads. It does organizing, advocacy and training work on human rights issues ranging from housing to healthcare to workplace safety to support for big union campaigns—whatever is most pressing for poor Black workers in what Hill calls “a really hellish region and a horrifically backwards state.”

Decades spent running the MWCHR have given Hill ample firsthand knowledge about why the labor movement in Mississippi can feel so anemic. The nonprofits and funders who pay attention to the deep South, she says, tend to focus on issues of race and economic development—important, but often lacking in a working-class and labor focus. Mississippi’s poverty and racism can, in a bit of bitter irony, suck up all of the attention and effort necessary to build the kind of worker power that could be the most effective tool for addressing Mississippi’s myriad inequalities.

Hill is passionate on the subject of organizing the South— its possibility and its absolute necessity. She wants Mississippi’s workers to be in unions. Until they are, she insists, the entire labor movement must devote itself to the task of changing the South in a way that it never has since Operation Dixie died an untimely death.

“If the South is not being organized, there is no real labor movement,” Hill says. “You cannot say with a straight face that you’re organizing workers, and you’re not organizing the South.

“You can’t call yourself a true revolutionary if you say the struggle is too hard. … If you think it’s hard for you, think about those who have to suffer through it!”

There is a widespread sentiment within organized labor—often spoken only in private—that investing a large amount of money in the South is irrational because there is more bang for the buck in less hostile regions. Proof of the ubiquity of this belief is in the fact that big union campaigns in the South are so rare that each one becomes major national news.

But not a single person I met in Mississippi thought workers there could not be organized. Again and again, those on the front lines said with absolute certainty that labor organizing in their state—where working people are intimately familiar with racism, poverty and political hostility—is an opportunity just waiting to happen. The project of organizing the South is not waiting for the South itself to change; it is waiting for the resources to make the change happen.

The labor movement in Mississippi does not need sympathy. It needs money. It needs organizers. And it needs a long-term commitment to stay until the work is done.

“There has to be some real investment here regarding bodies from unions,” says Sanchioni Butler, who dedicated so many years to the Nissan campaign.

“The bottom line is, somebody’s gotta believe in doing it from the ground up,” says Robert Shaffer, who leads the state AFL-CIO but lacks the resources to create the kind of strong working shop in which he spent most of his working life. “Until then, it ain’t gonna happen.”

“The minute you say, ‘I wanna build this for the union,’ the South is not gonna let you do it,” says Latunya Love, whose 15 years as a union rep have been a labor of love while working the poultry line. “They need some more resources.”

Mississippi is what 200 years without public investment looks like. It is a state in which the power relationship between enslaved people and slaveholders is replicated generation after generation by the descendants of each. It is a state of small towns that comes by its patina of decay honestly, where centuries’ worth of racist atrocities lie barely concealed beneath the rich black soil. The working people who remain in Mississippi, who have hung on after all of that, should rightly be seen as gold for the labor movement. If organizing the South is difficult, there is nobody more ready to do the difficult work than they are.

“Every day while our people were enslaved in this country, from 1619 to 1865, every day people resisted enslavement,” says Frank Figgers, for whom civil rights and labor rights are the same thing. “Every day, people woke up in the morning hoping that today would be the day when slavery would be abolished. Every day, people woke up and did what they could, with what they had, where they were.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 18, 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. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.



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A New Group to Organize College Football Players Just Launched. Incredible Timing.

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After last week’s NLRB memo made the unionization of college athletes a possibility, the CFBPA could become very important.

Last week, a memo from the top lawyer of the Biden administration’s National Labor Relations Board, Jennifer Abruzzo, asserted that certain college athletes should be legally considered employees. This decision took a wrecking ball to the myth of the “student athlete,” and opened the door for the unionization of players in big time college sports. For one recently launched group, the timing could not have been more fortuitous. 

The College Football Players Association (CFBPA) formally launched in July, with the goal of promoting labor organizing among college football players. Now, the nascent group finds itself presented with an unprecedented gift from the NLRB, few competitors in its newly energized space, and a clear path to becoming a leader in the drive to transform college sports forever. 

All they need now are the college football players. 

The CFBPA is the brainchild of Jason Stahl, a former professor at the University of Minnesota who became concerned about the exploitation of the school’s football players while he was teaching many of them in his classes. He left the school last year amid disputes over its treatment of players, and began working on a book about the topic. He put together the CFBPA with the belief that some kind of players association is necessary to enable players to begin organizing effectively. Stahl is the group’s executive director. Its advisory board includes current and former college players, ethics and labor law experts, and former University of Minnesota regent Michael Hsu, a longtime advocate of paying college athletes. 

In addition to fundraising (the group is seeking 1,000 recurring donors by the end of this month, a number that Stahl believes they will reach), the CFBPA’s biggest ongoing task is recruiting active college football players as members. That’s not an easy task, particularly because the fear of retaliation is high. For now, the group is allowing its current player members to remain anonymous, and is not releasing specific membership numbers. Players from at least three schools are already organizing with the group, according to Stahl. 

“Any workplace trying to unionize [can face retaliation], and this is the same thing. But within college football, it’s particularly pronounced,” Stahl says. If coaches or schools do retaliate with measures like withholding playing time from certain players, it can be virtually impossible to prove. “We’re trying to create an initial campaign that guys feel safe with.” 

The group’s goal is to unveil an organizing committee in December, made up of current players from a number of different schools, both big and small. By the end of the year, Stahl hopes to establish the first Players Association chapter at an individual school. 

The structure of college football poses some unique challenges for organizers. Though college football players as a group hold a great deal of leverage within a wealthy, powerful institution, individual players serve only brief careers—many may be on teams for only a year or two before leaving football and their schools entirely. And a good deal of uncertainty surrounds what the laws will ultimately be that govern the players’ labor rights, and whether collective bargaining would take place with individual schools, with athletic conferences, or with the NCAA itself. 

For its part, the NCAA issued a statement last week arguing forcefully against the NLRB’s memo, but politics and regulatory decisions could eventually make negotiating one big collective bargaining agreement covering all NCAA athletes a rational decision. Perhaps the only certainty is that if college athletes are to take advantage of their new labor rights, they will need to organize, and likely unionize, in order to create an entity capable of bargaining in the first place. 

Against this backdrop, the CFBPA aims to become a permanent institution, capable of serving the needs of players even after they have left college football altogether. That will require not just organizing the players of today, but building Players Association chapters durable enough to carry on for years. Structurally, such associations could be obvious launching pads for union campaigns, if the CFBPA is indeed able to attract large numbers of players at certain schools. 

Stahl says that most players, parents and associates of players that he speaks to have concrete concerns—chief among them, seeing to it that existing NCAA rules governing things like how many hours players can be asked to devote to “football activities” are actually enforced. He is not unaware of the obstacles. “There’s so much work to be done, with such a transient work force,” he says. 

But with the landmark NLRB memo coming just months after the June Supreme Court ruling that allows college athletes more avenues for compensation, 2021 is shaping up to be the year that the NCAA’s fantasy world of unpaid “student athletes” finally starts to crumble for good. The CFBPA is, quite literally, in the right place at the right time. Whether they are the seed that grows into a new branch of the labor movement remains to be seen.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 5, 2021. Reprinted with permission.


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Meet the Students Trying to Organize the First Campus-Wide Undergraduate Union

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Inside the groundbreaking student organizing drive at Kenyon College.

On August 31, stu­dents at Keny­on Col­lege, a pri­vate lib­er­al arts col­lege in Gam­bier, Ohio, announced their intent to union­ize with the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (UE) in an open let­ter to the school’s pres­i­dent and board of trustees. Stu­dents have request­ed vol­un­tary recog­ni­tion through a card-check neu­tral­i­ty agree­ment with the school’s admin­is­tra­tion. If suc­cess­ful, the Keny­on Stu­dent Work­er Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee (K?SWOC) will become the first union to orga­nize its entire under­grad­u­ate work­force, which will include all 800 stu­dent work­er posi­tions avail­able on campus.

“This is a his­to­ry mak­ing cam­paign,” says Dan Nap­sha, a senior major­ing in polit­i­cal sci­ence. ?“If we win, it real­ly does send a mes­sage that this is pos­si­ble and that stu­dent work­ers should be ask­ing for more.”

Labor Day wrapped up a week of action by stu­dent orga­niz­ers, which includ­ed tes­ti­mo­ni­als from stu­dent work­ers, pan­els on inter­na­tion­al labor and racial jus­tice and vir­tu­al socials and con­clud­ed with endorse­ments from Sens. Sher­rod Brown (D?Ohio) and Bernie Sanders (I?Vt.). In a let­ter of sup­port to Keny­on stu­dent work­ers, Sanders wrote, ?“When you and your col­leagues join togeth­er as a union, the admin­is­tra­tion will be required to bar­gain with you in good faith… I respect the crit­i­cal work you do and wish you the very best in your efforts to cre­ate a demo­c­ra­t­ic work­place where your voice has a seat at the table.”

Dis­rup­tion in cam­pus employ­ment due to the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic sparked new urgency for stu­dents’ abil­i­ty to bar­gain with the school. When Keny­on closed its cam­pus and switched to remote learn­ing in March, many stu­dents had their work hours cut or stopped work­ing entire­ly. Under­grad­u­ate jobs include work­ing in the din­ing hall, library, admis­sions office and as research assis­tants. Stu­dents say there was a lack of cer­tain­ty around their employ­ment sta­tus or work­ing con­di­tions that has car­ried over into the Fall semes­ter which start­ed August 31 and has about half of the stu­dent body on cam­pus and the oth­er half learn­ing remotely. 

“The pan­dem­ic real­ly served as the cat­a­lyst for us and basi­cal­ly was a sig­nal that enough is enough?—?that we’re fed up,” says Napsha.

In late March, apeti­tion signed by over 200 mem­bers of the col­lege com­mu­ni­ty and spon­sored by Keny­on Young Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (KYD­SA) to secure stu­dent pay for the rest of the school year proved suc­cess­ful. Though the admin­is­tra­tion did not acknowl­edge the peti­tion, stu­dents were paid for their aver­age week­ly hours regard­less of their abil­i­ty to work remote­ly. A few months lat­er, when the admin­is­tra­tion announced it would be sus­pend­ing retire­ment ben­e­fits for Keny­on staff due to a $19.3 mil­lion deficit in the school’s oper­at­ing bud­get,anoth­er peti­tion, again ini­ti­at­ed by KYD­SA, was cir­cu­lat­ed to ?“stop the cuts.” With the sup­port of stu­dents, UE, which rep­re­sents the main­te­nance work­ers on cam­pus, was able to come to an agree­ment with the admin­is­tra­tion that the major­i­ty of the missed retire­ment ben­e­fits be refund­ed to employ­ees over a peri­od of three years. 

“Both of those [peti­tions] prompt­ed more con­ver­sa­tions about some of the broad­er, more struc­tur­al issues with stu­dent employ­ment,” says Nathan Geesing, a senior major­ing in his­to­ry. ?“That was a sign to orga­niz­ers that col­lec­tive action real­ly had an impact.” 

See­ing the out­come of both peti­tions reaf­firmed to stu­dents that a union would be the best way to move for­ward. Geesing says a union is ?”a mech­a­nism to bar­gain with the admin­is­tra­tion, to not have to rely on the admin­is­tra­tion’s end­less slew of task forces and work­ing groups that con­stant­ly promise change, but rarely, if ever, deliv­er.” Right now, wages for stu­dent work­ers fall into a three-tier wage sys­tem start­ing at $8.70 an hour and capped at $11.17 an hour. Stu­dents say these rates are arbi­trary and do not reflect the nec­es­sary labor they per­form on cam­pus and instead reflect a desire to save the school mon­ey. The wage sys­tem was deter­mined joint­ly bya now dis­band­ed ?“Stu­dent Employ­ment Task Force.”

”The admin­is­tra­tion has nev­er real­ly tak­en stu­dent demands or stu­dent con­cerns seri­ous­ly,” says Geesing. K?SWOC’s demands include greater involve­ment in work­place deci­sion-mak­ing, greater pro­tec­tions and acces­si­bil­i­ty for work-study stu­dents, jus­tice for inter­na­tion­al stu­dent work­ers and a liv­ing wage, among oth­ers. Though stu­dents have not agreed on a dol­lar fig­ure, they say a liv­ing wage would be high enough that stu­dents don’t have to feel like they’re choos­ing between work and their aca­d­e­m­ic stud­ies. ?“The union could actu­al­ly give us the bar­gain­ing pow­er that we need, espe­cial­ly in a time like this, where not hav­ing a say in your reopen­ing plan can lit­er­al­ly be a mat­ter of life and death,” Geesing says. 

Keny­on stu­dents, who are both orga­niz­ing under unprece­dent­ed cir­cum­stances and break­ing new ground by orga­niz­ing their entire under­grad­u­ate work­force, have lim­it­ed exam­ples to point to as a mod­el. Most stu­dent work­er unions are con­cen­trat­ed among grad­u­ate stu­dents in pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties, though Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts Amherst and Grin­nell Col­lege, which man­aged to orga­nize indi­vid­ual shops among under­grad­u­ate res­i­dent advi­sors and din­ing work­ers, has served as a source of inspi­ra­tion for K?SWOC organizers. 

“I imag­ine that if we suc­ceed, you’ll be see­ing a lot more unions on col­lege cam­pus­es,” says Nap­sha. ?“Part­ly because we are build­ing off of the Grin­nell mod­el and we are build­ing off of the UMass Amherst model.” 

”In a larg­er sense,” Geesing says, ?“hav­ing a union at Keny­on could serve as a source of inspi­ra­tion for stu­dent work­ers in oth­ers places in the coun­try to say if they can do it, why can’t we.”

A major source of sup­port has come from the main­te­nance work­ers on cam­pus, a stu­dent-labor alliance that dates back to 2012 when the admin­is­tra­tion attempt­ed to out­source main­te­nance jobs to Sodexo, a food and facil­i­ties man­age­ment com­pa­ny with near­ly half a mil­lion employ­ees world­wide. ?”They’ve giv­en us a kind of men­tor­ship that’s real­ly valu­able,” says Dani Mar­tinez, a senior major­ing in Eng­lish. ?“They def­i­nite­ly want the best for us because they have sim­i­lar things that they have fought for in the past and can give us guid­ance on those things too.”

The main­te­nance work­ers, who are rep­re­sent­ed by UE Local 712, helped ini­ti­ate a rela­tion­ship between stu­dents on cam­pus and UE, with whom they are now orga­niz­ing with. The main­te­nance work­ers, Nap­sha says, have ?“been part­ners with us through this entire process. The rea­son why we have been so suc­cess­ful?—?get­ting close to 200 cards signed, hav­ing hun­dreds of peo­ple orga­nized and hav­ing a 60 per­son strong orga­niz­ing team is because of the strength of our rela­tion­ship with UE.”

As of Labor Day, K?SWOC has sent two requests for vol­un­tary recog­ni­tion of their union and the response from the admin­is­tra­tion has most­ly been silence. Mean­while, many stu­dents whose jobs can­not be per­formed remote­ly lack clar­i­ty around their employ­ment sta­tus for this semes­ter and next. Mar­tinez believes that stu­dents who can­not work remote­ly should be trans­ferred and trained in a dif­fer­ent depart­ment with pri­or­i­ty giv­en to stu­dents with work-study, a fed­er­al­ly-fund­ed pro­gram that is sup­posed to guar­an­tee cam­pus employ­ment as part of their finan­cial aid package. 

Mar­tinez, who has worked in library and infor­ma­tion ser­vices since she was a fresh­man, says her employ­ment sta­tus is still up in the air. With Kenyon’s admin­is­tra­tion ulti­mate­ly decid­ing on a sys­tem of teach­ing fresh­man and sopho­mores on cam­pus and teach­ing juniors and seniors remote­ly, many in-per­son jobs will not be avail­able this semes­ter and union orga­niz­ing con­tin­ues to be almost entire­ly remote?—?a strat­e­gy Nap­sha and Geesing say may be play­ing in their favor espe­cial­ly with many stu­dents now stuck at home with lim­it­ed in-per­son distractions. 

Those stu­dents who are work­ing remote­ly and are liv­ing out­side of Ohio are now being paid accord­ing to the state min­i­mum wage where stu­dents are based if it exceeds Keny­on wages. Geesing, who is liv­ing in Mary­land where the min­i­mum wage is high­er, says he got an email from the career devel­op­ment office over the sum­mer inform­ing him that he’d be paid a bonus to make up the wage dif­fer­ence. Geesing says it ?“just shows you how com­plete­ly arbi­trary the tiered sys­tem has been and how they could have paid us more the entire time.” 

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on September 14, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Indigo Olivier is a Goodman Investigative Fellow at In These Times. Follow her on Twitter: @IndigoOlivier.


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The Long-Neglected Online Labor Organizing Space Is Getting More Crowded

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A glance at the website of various unions will tell you that organized labor is not always the most tech-savvy field. It has been clear for years that organizing at scale in the modern world will require a lot of online organizing—it is, as they say, where the workers are. The coming launch of two new online organizing tools could signal a new age of healthy competition in a space that should be a hive of activity, but is not.

The internet has been America’s dominant communications medium for decades now. Despite this, the attitude of traditional unions towards using the internet as an organizing tool has been, very broadly speaking, disinterested. Union organizing is a field with a history stretching back more than a century, tightly constrained by labor laws, and always under attack from hostile forces; it is inherently suspicious of new methods. For that reason, unions and other labor groups are, for the most part, an afterthought in online culture. The AFL-CIO has fewer Twitter followers than Steak-Umm.

It is easy to see why this is a problem. Union membership has been declining for more than a half-century. The demographic most positively disposed to unions is younger people, who spend their lives online. Reaching the next generation of union members means online organizing. It also means taking a much more flexible approach to organizing—one that does not restrict itself to only traditional union campaigns. The raw materials are millions of hard working, younger people who are at ease online, and who have the general political and moral tilt that would make them prime candidates for organized labor, but who don’t know much about unions, or how to connect their day-to-day work issues with what organized labor does. The attitude of traditional unions has often been that these working people should beat a path to their door. Instead, the labor movement needs to bring its tools to the people.

The most well established online organizing platform is Coworker.org, a site that allows workers to start and run campaigns in their workplace—not union campaigns, but issue-based campaigns, which have won workers at a wide range of companies everything from wage increases to the right to wear beards. Founded in 2013, the site has hosted campaigns for a million workers, including more than 300,000 in the past month who have participated in a slew of workplace campaigns related to the coronavirus crisis, many of them seeking hazard pay and safer working conditions. Coworker has also been intimately involved in the organizing that led to the Google walkout and other prominent labor actions in the tech industry in recent years.

Michelle Miller, an SEIU veteran who is the cofounder of Coworker (and a friend of mine), says that the site’s value is not only in its ease of use, but also in the organizing expertise that its staff earned by working on hundreds of successful campaigns. “Historically, the labor movement has thrived when we were able to meet people in the spaces they were convening—in the early part of the last century those spaces were the backrooms of bars, churches and synagogues, parks and, eventually, we built union halls where people could gather for both meetings and celebrations,” Miller says. “Online spaces should be considered no different. They are places people gather to talk about what matters to them and a savvy, thoughtful labor movement is part of those conversations.”

Coworker, a 501(c)3 nonprofit funded by donations and foundations, does not run union campaigns per se. But a new site set to launch soon aims to do just that. Unit.work, formed as a benefit corporation to support worker rights, allows workers to make an account, sign union cards, and form an independent union at their workplace, which Unit staffers then help to administer. It is not allied with any existing unions; rather, it aims to make it easy for people who work in the nooks and crannies that organizers often don’t have the time or resources to reach—small companies, out-of-the-way locations, industries without strong union interest—to unionize and administer their own union with one set of centralized resources. It’s an intriguing model. And if it works, it could help solve the omnipresent problem of how to unionize workplaces that major unions don’t consider to be worth the effort.

Unit’s founder is James White, a self-described “tech guy” with an MIT degree, who found himself drawn to labor by witnessing campus union actions in Boston and the rise of Occupy, and by reading white papers about the need for more virtual organizing. White worked on the tech and business sides of a medical device company when he graduated, but left a year ago to dedicate himself to building Unit, which he hopes to formally roll out later this year.

On one hand, those who work in the labor movement may dismiss tech people like White as neophytes; on the other hand, the labor movement could certainly use as much tech competence as it can get. White notes that the weakness of organized labor is manifesting itself online every day. Since the coronavirus crisis began, he says, Google searches for “layoffs” have increased seven times over, but searches for “labor union” and “strike” have barely risen at all. That’s indicative of a problem. “Tech tools can lower the barriers,” White says, “but ultimately power comes from the worker led actions.” Though unions can often be territorial, he sees himself as filling a gap, rather than competing with existing unions. He grew up in a small town of 5,000 people in Texas, and dreams of helping people in places like his hometown unionize, even though there may not be any union locals for miles around.

Another new entrant into the field is GetFrank.com, which just launched in an early beta phase. The site, a for-profit company that aims to eventually support itself via subscription revenue, has a model similar to Coworker: Workers subscribe, organize and create campaigns privately, and then “Frank helps to privately send your campaigns to management and works to ensure you are heard.” The company is being built by a team of tech industry veterans, based in Chicago.

It remains to be seen whether the uneasy overlap of tech industry funding mechanisms and labor organizing cause any problems. The more products that launch in the online organizing space, the more we will be treated to a natural experiment of what works and what doesn’t. Coworker, the nonprofit, must raise its funding from the world of foundations; Unit, the benefit corporation, will operate essentially as a labor side labor consultant, seeking capital but also legally obligated to fulfill its pro-labor mission; and there’s Frank, the regular for-profit firm, which is hoping that there is a high, untapped demand for these services which the market has yet to fill. (There is also UnionBase, a free social network for union members run by Larry Williams, who is the head of the Progressive Workers Union, which qualifies as a fully pro-union project.)

In the big picture, 90% of American workers are not union members, and the vast majority of them are not even involved in workplace organizing in any form. Competition for primacy in online organizing, at this stage, is a good thing. It means that there are more chances for someone to stumble upon a way to organize and become inspired. As Michelle Miller says, “Workers need all the help they can get.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on May 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporting fellow at In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.


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Organizing Amidst The COVID-19 Crisis

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As the 2008 financial crisis unfolded, tens of millions of Americans were hurting and making meaning of what was happening. It was the first time in my life that suddenly, tens of millions of people were significantly more ready to be organized than in the weeks before. To meet the pressing needs of people in crisis, advance overdue structural reforms, and open up people’s sense of what was possible, we began to organize loads of new people. 

Crises expose the inequities and inadequacies of our systems – so they also create moments of incredible opportunity.  Everything is up for questioning. All of it is on the table.

Right now, we are in another moment of crisis – and potential insight – because of COVID-19. With the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe, more people are open to organizing than at any time in our lives. The gross inequalities and inadequacies of our systems are being seen in a new light by tens of millions of people. 

I remember during the 2008 financial crisis, people who had lost homes, jobs, and pensions were suddenly ready for action they had never imagined. With more than 25 million now unemployed, there are a lot of people looking for support, meaning, and action. This is a moment that requires organizing. 

But where to start?  We should start where people are at. That is the first organizing maxim I and many others were taught. It made total sense – meeting people where they are is a sign of respect, and respect is a foundation of trust. 

That’s why we have created this video – to meet people where they are, and help them make meaning in this new moment of crisis. Check it out – I think you’ll find it helpful.

This video comes from the political education program we built and run in partnership with Harmony Goldberg and the Grassroots Policy Project.  A big shoutout to Jenn Carrillo, Billie Kirkton, and Harmony for their work on this. 

Mobilizers – who have an important role to play right now – move people who are ready to be moved to action. Organizers build relationships and then move people who didn’t even know they wanted to move to action. It’s an important distinction.

During the financial crisis, people who had no connection to social movements came into organizing through direct service, specific issue campaigns like foreclosure prevention, or needing a place to express anger and simply take it to the banks. 

The COVID-19 context is dramatically more far-reaching in terms of loss of life, loss of livelihood, and loss of social connectivity and normalcy.  People react to things differently and as a result need different things from organizing – and that will certainly be the case now. Some will cope by moving to action, some by building community, and others by going internal and even shutting down. And therefore, what people are likely to join will vary.  The good news is that all of these pathways are valuable, and all can build power.  

As has been well exposed over the last couple of months, there are huge gaps in the left’s reach into working class communities. For all the talk of organizing the multi-racial working class, most are untouched by our organizations. It’s a brutal fact that we have to face. And it raises questions about how much time we spend speaking to the converted, engaging left twitter, or absorbing the existing choir. 

This is a moment that requires us to do better, and opens the possibility of doing just that. Some organizations will galvanize the already converted and that’s important work, and yet I hope most of us look at how we can connect with way more everyday folks who are currently untouched by organizing. 

 Starting where people are at will require us to think about the language we use. Most of the country supports what would have seemed a radical agenda. They support universal basic income, rent suspension, debt cancellation, guaranteed health care, and until now unheard of levels of stimulus investment. And yet, most people are not attracted to or are even alienated by the way the left talks about things that are otherwise wildly popular.  We can start where people are at by using language that people use vs. language designed to show bonafides to the already converted. This doesn’t mean we don’t move people along an analysis continuum, it just means we do it by talking like we did when we were organizers in the neighborhood. 

Tens of millions of people, maybe more, are significantly more ready for organizing than they were just weeks ago. To win the demands needed to sustain people in this period, and to advance big ideas to reorganize our systems for the long haul we will need so many more to join the fight. They are searching to find what they need, we just have to be thoughtful about where and how we engage them.

This blog was originally published at Our Future on April 29, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: George Goehl is the director of People’s Action, a national grassroots organization fighting for economic, racial, gender, and environmental justice. He is commonly credited with moving the field of community organizing to new levels, increasing emphasis on shaping worldview, building political power, and long-term vision and strategy.


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How To Protect The Right To Organize

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Abigail Disney, granddaughter of the co-founder of the Walt Disney Co., called out the family business’ current CEO last month for making what’s supposed to be the happiest place on earth pretty darn miserable for its workers.

All of the company profits shouldn’t be going into executives’ pockets, she said in a Washington Post column. The workers whose labor makes those profits should not live in abject poverty.

This is what labor leaders have said for two centuries. But Disney executives and bank executives and oil company executives don’t play well with others. They won’t give workers more unless workers force them to. And the only way to do that is with collective bargaining – that is, the power of concerted action.

The United States recognized this in the 1930s and gave Americans the right to organize labor unions under the National Labor Relations Act (NRLA). The increase in unionization encouraged by the law significantly diminished income inequality over the next forty years. American workers prospered as a result of having a voice in the workplace.

But right-wing politicians, at the beck and call of CEOs, have chiseled large chunks out of labor organizing rights, diminishing unions and breeding vast economic disparities.

The decline in union density accounts for one-third of the rise in income inequality among men and one-fifth among women, Economic Policy Institute researchers found.

The solution, of course, is the same as it was in 1935. In order to restore balance to an astronomically uneven economy, Congress must restore workers’ power to organize. Democrats took a first steptoward accomplishing that when they introduced the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act in the U.S. House and Senate. It would give back to workers the power they need to demand their fair share of the profits created by the sweat of their brows.

It’s great that some billionaires and millionaires like Abigail Disney want CEOs to give their workers raises. But workers need the PRO Act, the power of collective bargaining, to make them do it. Workers know this intrinsically and want union representation. A survey last year showed that nearly half of non-union workers would join a union if given the opportunity to do so. For that to happen, the law must change.

The PRO Act addresses several major problems with the current gutted NLRA that render too many workers powerless. Its intent is to give working people a fair shot when they try to form a union and bargain for a better life for themselves and their families.

The defects of the current law can be clearly seen in the case of Kumho Tire. In 2017, the union I lead, the United Steelworkers (USW), filed a petition to represent workers at the major international tire producer’s plant in Macon, Ga. The company ran a vicious $500,000 campaign against the union, including daily, mandatory captive audience meetings, designed to coerce workers into voting against union representation.

Kumho also fired the lead supporter of the organizing drive, Mario Smith, to intimidate his fellow workers. There are currently no penalties for employers who take such retaliatory actions. The best a wrongly fired worker can hope for is receiving back wages, but only once the case is settled, which can sometimes be years after the termination.

Meanwhile, corporations routinely forbid outside union organizers from entering the workplace, and workers are restricted from speaking about the organizing campaign while on the clock. Such limitations violate the intent of the NLRA, which was to encourage collective bargaining, not hinder it.

The USW filed more than 30 Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charges against Kumho Tire, including for the unjust termination of Mario Smith, but this process takes time, sometimes years. And time doesn’t pay unjustly fired workers’ bills.

Under the PRO Act, rather than making fired workers endure long periods of uncertainty while waiting for their ULP cases to be heard by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), unions would be able to immediately seek an injunction to reinstate employees like Smith while their cases are pending. The bill would also authorize the NLRB to assess monetary penalties for each violation in which a company wrongfully terminates a worker or causes serious economic harm.

And those mandatary captive audience meetings would be banned, giving workers the power and freedom to decide for themselves if union representation is right for them.

The PRO Act would also forbid freeriding, which is when workers who choose not to join the union but benefit from union representation don’t pay fair share fees to cover the cost of bargaining and administering the collective bargaining agreement. This would beat back one of the major assaults on labor rights—so-called “right to work” laws—by allowing unions to function fully for their members.

The bill proposes a system to ensure that workers who succeed in a union organizing drive actually obtain a first collective bargaining agreement, establishing terms for pay, benefits and working conditions. As it stands now, nearly half of newly formed unions are denied a first labor agreement as the result of companies’ refusal to negotiate in good faith.

Volkswagen, for example, has spent years and millions thwarting their employees’ attempts to unionize at the VW plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. Since 2015, when a group of 160 skilled-trades workers in the plant voted to join the United Autoworkers Union (UAW), the company has refused to negotiate and appealed to the NLRB and the courts to get the election overturned. With courts and the now Republican-dominated NLRB upending union-friendly Obama rulings, that looks likely.

Not to be defeated, however, the UAW has collected signatures from 65 percent of the plant’s 1,709 hourly workers, including the 160 skilled-trades workers. The cards say the workers want an election for union representation, and the UAW asked the NLRB to set a date. Instead, the GOP NLRB postponed the election indefinitely, giving VW all the time it wants to continue waging its aggressive anti-union campaign on their workers.

Newspaper columns and calls for compassion by Patriotic Millionaires like Abigail Disney can only do so much to convince CEOs to treat their workers fairly. Americans need more than nice rich people speaking up for them—they need the power to speak and stand up for themselves. An economy is only as healthy as its workers are empowered.

The PRO Act is the pathway to that power.

This article was originally published at Our Future on May 15, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Leo Gerard, is the International President of the United Steelworkers (USW) union and is the second Canadian to head the union. He is also a vice president of the AFL-CIO. Gerard is co-chairman of the BlueGreen Alliance and on the boards of Campaign for America’s Future and the Economic Policy Institute.


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Tribune Emerges Today from 4-year Bankruptcy, with Intent to Sell All Newspapers, TV Stations

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Warren Buffett or civic-minded local investors in L.A., Chicago, Baltimore or other Tribune cities might be unable to purchase the papers individually, unless or until they were broken up by a subsequent owner. 

The newspaper sale has been anticipated for months, but Tribune was expected to keep and grow its broadcast business, so the offloading of those properties.

 As the Tribune company ends a four-year period of bankruptcy today, it plans to sell all of its media properties, according to a report by Robert Channick.

Tribune Co. owns 23 television stations, including WGN-Ch. 9, WGN America, eight daily newspapers and other media assets, all of which the reorganization plan valued at $4.5 billion after cash distributions and new financing. Eventually, all the assets are expected to be sold, according to the new owners.

A financial analysis this year estimated the broadcast assets are worth $2.85 billion; a stake in the Food Network and Internet companies including CareerBuilder is worth $2.26 billion; and the company’s newspapers are worth $623 million.
Multiple newspaper owners have expressed interest in Tribune’s papers.

Kushner also told the AP, “he expects the Tribune’s new owners would sell the newspapers in a single package.” In that case, buyers like Ws would be a surprise.

The sale of the broadcast properties could make News Corp. a more likely buyer (it might even be an incentive for them to buy the less lucrative newspapers), as they already own TV stations in some of the same markets, and the FCC is moving toward relaxing cross-ownership rules.

Tribune CEO Eddy Hartenstein will remain in that role for the next few weeks until the new board appoints a new CEO, most likely former broadcast executive Peter Ligouri.

This post was originally posted by Broadcast Union News on December 31, 2012. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Robert Daraio is a Local Representative at The Newspaper Guild of New York, CWA Local 31003. He lives in New York.


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How “Right to Work Shirk” Laws Kill Jobs – and Hurt All of Us

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Michigan’s recent battle makes this a good time to explain the union movement’s important role in our economy’s overall health. We’re about to explain why today’s war on unions is bad for all of us, no matter what we do for a living, and we’ll do it in four steps.

But first a word about language: “Right to work” is a misnomer for laws which let employees enjoy the benefits of union membership – at least for a little while, until they’re stripped away – without joining or contributing.

So we’ll call them “right to shirk” laws instead. And we’ll call the people who back these laws Shirkers.

And while we’re at it, let’s stop calling the states that have adopted this legislation “right to work.” They don’t give people any new rights. They take rights away, by making it illegal for employees to organize and negotiate together. They even take away employers‘ rights – to sign a certain kind of contract.

So let’s give the other states a name instead: In a nod to the Jim Crow origin of these laws, let’s call the ones which don’t have these laws “free states.”

Free Ride

Right to Shirk laws allow freeloaders to profit from the efforts of others – without contributing to the effort, and in a way that harms the common good. The billionaires and corporations behind these laws wouldn’t deliberately do anything like that, would they? Why, that would be like letting people make billions from the works of government – things like roads, the Internet and publicly-educated customers – without paying their fair share of taxes.

Oh, wait.

Right to Shirk laws are job-killers. Here are four steps to understanding why:

1. Think nationally, not just locally.

Advocates say these laws create jobs. They don’t. Their “evidence” is based on studies which show modest job growth in Right to Shirk states when compared to free states.  But all that proves is that places that are politically hostile to organized labor also offer other types of corporate favoritism.

It also suggests that Right to Shirk states can steal jobs from free states — as long as the jobs last, anyway.

The Shirker movement was started in the late 1940s by a handful of Southern politicians who were in the palm of big textile mills. They were able to draw textile jobs away from free Northern cities like my hometown of Utica, NY – until those jobs left this country altogether.  That’s not “creating” jobs — that’s killing good jobs and replacing them with ones that don’t pay enough.

The concept of “solidarity” has been tarred with McCarthyite smears. But “solidarity” is just another way of saying “We’re all in this together.”  The Right to Shirk crowd wants to stop that kind of thinking so it can pit state against state and employee against employee, shredding our social fabric for personal gain.

It’s no accident that the Shirker movement was started by the reactionary white politicians of the Jim Crow South. Back then they were still pining for the days when they could offer some folks the “right to work” … for nothing.

2. We’re fighting over a shrinking pie instead of making the pie bigger.

Things are bad. We need millions of jobs – and the jobs we do have don’t pay enough.

The graphic which Business Insider likes to call “the scariest chart ever” shows how far we are from creating the number of jobs needed to make this country’s economy grow and thrive again.  Job growth like that we’ve seen recently is always welcome, but it’s not nearly enough to get us out of this ditch. How do we get moving again?

To answer that question we need to know what’s worked in the past.

3. The real “job creators” are people with jobs – good jobs.

How did this nation finally escape the after-effects of the Great Depression and begin its greatest decades of economic growth? Government spending  – on roads, bridges, schools, and other vitally needed services – played a key part.

Unions were a crucial part of this process, too. By fighting for higher wages and better benefits, unions ensure that working people have the means to purchase consumer items, housing, and other goods and services.  Companies have to hire more people to keep up with demand – and the good jobs keep coming.

That’s why the Republican Party platform of 1956 boasted that “unions have grown in strength and responsibility, and have increased their membership by 2 millions” during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first term. Back then Republicans understood that a growing middle class was good for the entire economy.  That party platform also said that “America does not prosper unless all Americans prosper.” Their rule: No shirkers.

But then in those days our economy wasn’t dominated by Wall Street megabanks – institutions that don’t build or sell anything. And politicians weren’t completely in bankers’ pockets back then, because the public wouldn’t have tolerated it.

We shouldn’t tolerate it now.

4. When you kill unions, that reduces consumer income – which kills jobs.

The Shirker assault on unions has taken its toll. Only 25 states remain free to unionize, and union membership has fallen dramatically:

 

Their logic would suggest that the plunge in union membership we’ve seen since 1960 must have led to a rise in good jobs.  Did it? Let’s take a look at manufacturing:

That’s my freehand drawing (and therefore not exact) of the trend line in union membership, superimposed by the number of manufacturing jobs in the United States.  Manufacturing jobs kept on increasing for more than twenty years, even as union membership increased. These jobs experienced periods of decline and stagnation as union membership fell, even before the devastating impact of NAFTA.

Consumer demand is vital to growth. That demand is tied to consumers’ income, and to their belief that life in the future will be as good or better than it is today.  Those are the two things we need to reinforce, and unions are crucial to that effort.

We need to get our economy growing again. Until then most Americans, unionized or not, will continue to struggle with stagnating wages and an ongoing economic drag that can feel a lot like a recession.  As Paul Krugman likes to say (he said it in our radio interview), This isn’t rocket science. We know how to do this.

Destroying unions is just another way for the Shirkers to make sure that we never do.

This post was originally posted on Our Future on December 13, 2012. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Richard Eskow is a well-known blogger and writer, a former Wall Street executive, an experienced consultant, and a former musician.  He has experience in health insurance and economics, occupational health, benefits, risk management, finance, and information technology.  He has a somewhat unique perspective on the current financial crisis, since he worked for AIG for a number of years (although not in its infamous Financial Products division). Richard has consulting experience in the US and over 20 countries. Past clients include USAID, the World Bank, the State Department, the Harvard School of International Public Health, the Government of Hungary, as well as corporations and investors. He has experience in financial and data analysis, systems design, operations, and management.


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“Wal-Mart is Not a Feudal Manor”

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The manager at the Southside Walmart in Paducah, Ky., might have figured he’d quashed the protest at his store.

After all, he made James Vetato and three other OUR Walmart picketers leave from near the front door.

The quartet retreated, but to regroup at the entrance road to the busy shopping center the Walmart store anchors.

They redeployed under a big blue and white Walmart sign and held up hand-lettered placards reading, “ON STRIKE FOR THE FREEDOM TO SPEAK OUT,” “RESPECT ASSOCIATES DON’T SILENCE ASSOCIATES,” “ULP [unfair labor practice] STRIKE” and “WALMART STOP BULLYING ASSOCIATES WHO SPEAK OUT.”

Vetato, his wife, Trina, Rick Thompson and Amber Frazee were among many members of Organization United For Respect at Walmart — “OUR Walmart” for short — who struck and walked picket lines at stores in a reported 100 cities and towns in 46 states on Thanksgiving night and on Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year.

The group, which numbers thousands of current and past Walmart employees across the country, wanted to focus national attention on Walmart’s abuse of its workers, Vetato said.

The world’s richest retailer, Walmart is known for paying low wages to its employees, called “associates.” In addition, Walmart is fiercely anti-union.

Said Trina Vetato:

“People honked and waved to show their support, and they slowed down to read the signs. Some people stopped and told us they supported what we were doing.”

Vetato works at the Southside store. Her husband did, too, until he said management drove him to quit.

Frazee is employed at another Walmart in historic Paducah, where the Tennessee and Ohio rivers merge. She and Vetato expect retaliation from Walmart management.

“They said that there will be consequences,” Vetato said. “I’ll probably get fired or put on suspension or something. But it’s well worth it to me.”

Frazee agreed. “All we want is respect,” she said.

The Vetatos, Frazee and Thompson handed out leaflets explaining, “We are the life-blood of Walmart, yet we are not always treated with respect.”

Some of the literature outlined a “Declaration of Respect,” which nearly 100 OUR Walmart members, including James Vetato, delivered to Walmart’s top management at company headquarters in Bentonville, Ark.

The declaration calls on Wal-Mart management to

— Listen to associates.

— Respect associates and recognize their right to free association and free speech.

— Allow associates to challenge working conditions without fear of retribution.

— Pay a minimum of $13 an hour and make full-time jobs available for associates who want them.

— Create dependable and predictable work schedules.

— Provide affordable health care.

— Furnish each associate a policy manual that ensures “equal enforcement of policy and no discrimination” and affords every employee an “equal opportunity to succeed and advance in his or her career.”

The four Paducah protestors brought a cardboard box filled with OUR Walmart literature. They said management tried to keep it out of the store. Shoppers helped get it in.

“On Thanksgiving night, a community member took one of the fliers and taped it to the front of his shirt and walked through the store to get the word out to everybody,” Trina Vetato said.

Thompson, a Pittsburgh union activist, came to Paducah to join the picket line. When a member of management tried to stop him from handing out leaflets, another customer came to his aid.

Explained Thompson, a member of Vacaville, Calif.-based International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245:

“The manager started bullying me for peacefully disseminating information, which I had the right to do. When the customer saw the manager walk away, she said ‘Give me a stack of those. I’ll take them in for you and pass them out.'”

Thompson said OUR Walmart is not trying to drive Walmart out of business. “We are not asking a single customer to turn away. We are fighting to win respect and improve working conditions for all associates.

“We want employees to have a chance to form their own association and have their own concerted actions without retaliation and unfair treatment. Walmart is not a feudal manor. The associates are not serfs. Walmart does not own every aspect of their lives.”

This post was originally posted on November 24, 2012 at Union Review. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Berry Craig is a recording secretary for the Paducah-based Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council and a professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College, is a former daily newspaper and Associated Press columnist and currently a member of AFT Local 1360. His articles can also be featured on AFL-CIO NOW.


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NLRB Issues Complaint Over Boeing’s Move to S.C.

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Image: James ParksA complaint issued on April 20th by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) against the Boeing Co. is a victory for all American workers—particularly aerospace workers in both Puget Sound and South Carolina, officials with the Machinists (IAM) said.

NLRB Acting General Counsel Lafe Solomon issued the complaint, which alleges that Boeing’s decision in 2009 to locate a Dreamliner 787 final assembly line in North Charleston, S.C., represented illegal retaliation against IAM members who work for the company. The NLRB is seeking a court order requiring Boeing to operate the second 787 line, including supply lines, with union workers in the Puget Sound

“Boeing’s decision to build a 787 assembly line in South Carolina sent a message that Boeing workers would suffer financial harm for exercising their collective bargaining rights,” said IAM Vice President Rich Michalski.

Federal labor law is clear: It’s illegal to threaten or penalize workers who engage in concerted activity.

The decision by Boeing to locate the assembly line in South Carolina followed years of 787 production delays and an extraordinary round of mid-contract talks in which the IAM proposed an 11-year agreement to provide Boeing with the labor stability it claimed was necessary to keep 787 production in the Puget Sound area.

The board’s action reinforces the fact that “workers have a right to join a union, and companies don’t have a right to punish them for engaging in legal union activities,” said Tom Wroblewski, president of Machinists District Lodge 751 in Seattle, which represents Boeing workers.

Taking work away from workers because they exercise their union rights is against the law, and it’s against the law in all 50 states.

The board’s complaint comes in response to an unfair labor practice charge filed in March 2010 by District 751. Wroblewski added:

Had we allowed Boeing to break the law and go unchecked in their actions, it would have given the green light for corporate America to discriminate against union members and would have become management’s new strategic template to attack employees.

“A worker’s right to strike is a fundamental right guaranteed by the National Labor Relations Act,” the NLRB’s Solomon said.

We also recognize the rights of employers to make business decisions based on their economic interests, but they must do so within the law.

About the Author: James Parks’ first encounter with unions was at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. He is a journalist by trade, and has worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. He also has been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO on April 20, 2011. Reprinted with permission.


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