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How to Keep America’s Public Workers Safe as We Emerge From the COVID-19 Lockdown

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When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Steve Scarpa began fishing antibacterial wipes, socks and even T-shirts out of the sewers in Groton, Connecticut.

Scarpa, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9411 and a member of the city’s wastewater treatment crew, said residents went into “mad hysteria cleaning mode” and simply flushed potentially contaminated objects down the toilet.

And so Scarpa and his co-workers risked COVID-19 themselves to remove items that kept jamming the sewer pumps crucial to the wastewater system’s operation.

While millions of Americans did their jobs remotely during the pandemic, public servants turned out in force every day to repair roads, collect trash, operate water systems and keep communities functioning.

They had America’s back. Now, the nation must have theirs as well.

Public workers will face additional exposure to COVID-19 as the lockdown ends and Americans return to government buildings, streets, parks and beaches in growing numbers.

Cities and counties have an obligation to provide personal protective equipment (PPE), enforce social distancing in public offices and implement other measures to protect road crews, water department personnel and code enforcement officers.

But it isn’t only the government’s responsibility to help public workers navigate the health risks that constitute the new normal.

Everyone has a role to play.

Residents can do their part by wearing masks when water department workers show up at the door to repair broken meters and by staying out of government buildings when they’re sick.

They can safeguard the health of crews repairing sidewalks, mowing parks and cleaning storm drains just by staying at least six feet away from work areas.

The public needs to pause and think about the people who perform these essential services—and about the impact careless actions have on them. It’s simply unacceptable for public workers to put themselves at risk because someone flushed a bulky item down a toilet.

“When they push the handle, no one really understands or cares what happens to it,” explained Scarpa, who believes people began flushing items because they feared leaving them inside the house until garbage day.

“We had to go and unplug pumps every day,” he said. “If you don’t unplug them, they’ll overheat, and they’ll burn out. And these things aren’t cheap.”

Public servants performed crucial roles during the pandemic. Many put in longer hours and took on additional responsibilities, such as tracking coronavirus cases or going door-to-door to warn citizens of COVID-19 hazards.

They paid a heavy price for keeping America’s cities and counties operating.

In New York alone, more than 100 transit workers died of COVID-19. Many other public servants have been infected nationwide.

Despite the risks they faced, these workers and their unions, including the USW, had to fight for commonsense safety measures.

Wanda Howard, president of USW Local 12160, battled the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority to provide PPE for frontline field representatives.

She demanded laptops for union members with health risks so they could do their jobs remotely. She argued for more sick leave so workers could stay home when they felt unwell instead of exposing others to illness on the job.

In recent months, field workers answered only emergency calls at customers’ homes. But as the lockdown ends, Howard worries that customers will deluge authority officials with routine service requests, increasing the chances that her members will encounter someone with COVID-19.

“People who want water service are not going to say they’re sick or somebody in the house is sick,” Howard explained. “They’re just not going to admit to that. My fear is that they’re going to open up appointments and want our servicemen to put themselves more in harm’s way.”

Already, she said, some customers greet union members at the door without masks. At one job site, a contractor helped himself to a worker’s wrench, even though COVID-19 can live on surfaces.

As local governments resume regular operations, it’s important for elected officials to stress the crucial work that public servants do and the collective effort needed to protect them.

That means insisting that customers report any illnesses in a home before crews arrive for service calls. It means demanding that homeowners wear masks and give workers plenty of space to make repairs or perform inspections.

And it means reminding residents to wash their hands frequently, maintain social distancing and take other steps to guard against COVID-19, even if infection rates continue to fall.

“If they stay safe, then we stay safe,” Howard said.

Workers’ lives are at stake. Essential services are as well.

In addition to handling service calls, the 125 members of Local 12160 monitor chemical levels in the drinking water and operate the authority’s offices. If COVID-19 swept through the workforce, Howard noted, more than 400,000 people in 15 communities could face service disruptions.

Workers know the hazards they face better than anyone else.

That is why they deserve extensive input into workplace safety plans.

When the pandemic hit, for example, the Niagara Falls Water Board asked Glenn Choolokian for help.

Choolokian, president of USW Local 9434, developed a safety plan with advice from labor and management that protected workers and kept the water flowing. He split the workforce into teams that rotated one week on the job and one week off so a surge in infections couldn’t devastate the entire operation.

Now, as the authority resumes more regular operations, he tells union members to contact him if they encounter hazardous conditions or other problems.

As Choolokian sees it, the pandemic requires an unprecedented level of cooperation—one that could make unions and employers partners in pushing for new workplace standards and other ways to enhance safety.

“It’s time to look at things differently,” he said. “I think we have to educate ourselves and see if there’s new equipment, new ideas, new ways of doing things.”

The local promoted public involvement in worker safety through social media posts, and it encouraged local businesses to make and donate PPE. In tight-knit Niagara Falls, Choolokian said, it’s been easy to get residents’ buy-in.

In coming months, that kind of support will become ever more important.

The COVID-19 economic slowdown caused many businesses to close or scale back operations, reducing the tax revenue collected by local governments.

At a time when communities must do more to protect public workers, some may try to cut corners instead. Scarpa fears that towns will cut jobs or slash budgets, straining already-vulnerable workforces.

In a crisis like that, public servants will rely on the public to stand with them in demanding that officials implement aggressive safety plans and provide the other resources that workers need.

“We can’t make these places run with bubble gum and paper clips,” Scarpa said.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute. Printed with permission.

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


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Public workers organize after Supreme Court attacked their unions

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The Supreme Court took a big swing at public worker unions in its Janus decision, which allows workers to demand the benefits of unions without contributing to the costs, essentially forcing their coworkers who are union members to subsidize them. But many unions are rising to the challenge.

In Connecticut at least, defections amount to a tiny trickle — just a fraction of 1 percent in most cases. […]

AFSCME Council 4 and other state employee unions are rapidly cutting into the ranks of non-members, restoring dues payments that were cut off from a total of about 7,100 people, depending on the month.

In Illinois, the Peoria Federation of Teachers is training teachers to be organizers, talking to other teachers about union issues:

We offer extremely good services for our members, but we realized if we don’t shift to an organizing model, we might get decimated,” said Jeff Adkins-Dutro, a Peoria English teacher who also serves as the local union president. “In my opinion, this is really going to strengthen our union.”

The transition requires a change in thinking and a lot of legwork. That’s why teachers like Innis and Grace gave up some of their summer break, taking part in an internship program organized by unions and a community group. They sat through seminars run at their local union hall across from the Illinois River, then hit the pavement to speak with teachers about school funding and whatever else they had on their minds.

Organize, organize, organize.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on October 6, 2018. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

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The Freedom to Join

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The U.S. Supreme Court will make a decision in the coming weeks whether or not to undermine the freedom of millions of teachers, nurses and other public workers to have strong unions. Today, the AFL-CIO has launched a new website, FreedomToJoin.org, that provides critical information about the Janus v. AFSCME case, counters misinformation, explains the value of union membership and draws attention to the wave of collective action in America.

Big-moneyed corporate interests have brought Janus v. AFSCME forward because they understand how working people in unions can negotiate a fair return on our work.

While its focused on public employees, Janus is part of a multipronged attack on our institutions and values we hold dear.

Right-wing corporations have tried to crush public unions for decades, and they’ve poured tens of millions of dollars into this case alone in an effort to slash pay and cut benefits for nurses, EMS workers, 911 dispatchers, security personnel and others who keep our communities clean and safe and provide other essential public services.

Yet even in the face of these attacks, all over the country workers are organizing and striking as we haven’t seen in years.

America is waking up to the benefits of unionism, and we’ll continue to organize and mobilize, no matter what the Supreme Court decides.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on May 15, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars


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I Work with Mark Janus. Here’s How He Benefits from a Strong Union.

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Like everyone else in the labor movement, I’m nervously awaiting the Supreme Court ruling in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, which would weaken public sector unions by letting workers receive the benefits of representation without contributing toward the cost.

But I’ve got a unique vantage point: I work in the same building as the plaintiff, Mark Janus.

We’re both child support specialists for the state of Illinois, where we do accounting on child support cases. I do this work because it’s fulfilling to help kids and single parents get the resources they need to support themselves.

What convinced Mr. Janus to join this destructive lawsuit? Your guess is as good as mine. I do know it’s much bigger than him. He’s the public face, but this case is backed by a network of billionaires and corporate front groups like the National Right-to-Work Foundation.

But the truth is, even Mark Janus himself benefits from union representation. Here are a few of the ways:

1. Without our union, Mr. Janus’s job would probably have been outsourced by now.

A drastic provision in the state’s “last, best, and final offer” in 2016 would have given Governor Rauner the right to outsource and privatize state employees’ jobs without accountability. Our union is all that’s preventing critical public services from being privatized.

Our agency would be at particular risk, because Illinois already has a longstanding contract with a scandal-ridden, for-profit corporation called Maximus to perform some of our agency’s functions. They modify child support orders and interact with employers about income withholding—pretty simple tasks, yet state employees regularly have to correct their work. If they were to take over more complex tasks, we can imagine how badly that would go! Their concern is for profit, not kids.

If the governor could get away with it, it’s very likely he would expand the Maximus contract to privatize jobs like mine and Mr. Janus’s. He already did something similar to nurses in the prison system. But our union has to be consulted before the state can outsource anything. And when they do outsource, we monitor the contract and discuss how long it will continue. I go to those meetings for our union. Right now, instead of letting management expand its deal with Maximus, we’ve been pressing to cut that contract.

2. Mr. Janus has received $17,000 in union-negotiated raises.

Over his years working for the state, Mr. Janus has earned general wage increases and steps that would not have been guaranteed if not for the union.

3. The public—including the parents and kids Mr. Janus serves—has access to resources like childcare that our union has fought to defend.

Our union allows us speak up together on matters far beyond money. When Governor Rauner tried to cut childcare benefits for low-income single parents, we teamed up with outraged community members and made him back off. And when the budget impasse was forcing domestic violence shelters to close their doors, we kept pushing for years until a veto-proof budget was passed.

4. Our union blocked the employer from doubling the cost of Mr. Janus’s health benefits.

 

In negotiations the state has pushed to double our health insurance costs and drastically reduce coverage. The employer declared impasse and walked away from the bargaining table. AFSCME took the matter to the Labor Relations Board and the courts—securing a temporary restraining order that prevents the governor from imposing his extreme demands.

5. We make sure Mr. Janus’s office is warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

As a union we deal with health safety issues large and small. In the department that rescues children from household abuse and neglect, we’re continually pushing for sufficient staffing. The stakes are high: one member was killed on the job after she went out on an urgent call alone.

Other matters are less dramatic. In state office buildings we solve problems like flooding, mold, leaky windows, and toxic pigeon feces. One building had someone creeping up on employees in the parking lot, so we worked with management to get better lighting and security patrols.

In the building where Mr. Janus and I work, the heating and cooling system is extremely old. Twice a year they bring in a computer from 1982 to switch from heat to air conditioning for the summer, and vice versa for the winter. So when the weather fluctuates, we work to get portable heating or cooling units deployed where they’re needed.

Many of these are ongoing issues, where our union acts as a watchdog. We have a health and safety chair on the union executive board. Any time a problem comes up, he starts by approaching management to resolve it. If that doesn’t work, he can file an OSHA complaint plus a high-level grievance.

6. Thanks to our union, Mr. Janus will retire with a pension.

Our union has fought to save the defined-pension that Mr. Janus will receive upon retirement. A coalition of unions including AFSCME took the issue to court—and won. The Illinois Supreme Court ruled that employees’ pension benefits cannot be cut.

7. Mr. Janus can get sick and still have a job when he comes back.

Before this job I worked without a union, in the retail industry, where I experienced what it means to be an at-will employee. Three absences would cost an employee their job—even if they called in sick and provided a doctor’s note.

8. Our union ensured that Mr. Janus could be fairly hired, regardless of his politics.

In public service our ultimate bosses are elected officials. There was a time in Illinois when to be hired or promoted, you were expected to make a contribution to the political party in power. But a 1990 Supreme Court case called Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois put an end to that. Today our union enforces a triple-blind system for fair treatment in hiring and promotions, making sure seniority is followed. It’s one more way that even Mr. Janus benefits from having a union on the job.

This blog was originally published at Labor Notes and In These Times. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Donnie Killen is a child support specialist for the state of Illinois and vice president/executive steward of AFSCME Local 2600.


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West Virginia Teachers Are Showing How Unions Can Win Power Even If They Lose Janus

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Today’s “Workers’ Day of Action,” organized by AFL-CIO affiliates and labor groups, aimed to show the labor movement’s opposition to a verdict for the plaintiffs in Janus v. AFSCME, which begins oral arguments before the Supreme Court on Monday. Unions fear their power will be diminished if the Court rules against AFSCME, as it is expected to do, and restricts public-sector unions from collecting fees from non-members to pay for collective bargaining. The Right intends to use Janus to gut public employee unions, weakening what is the strongest constituency in organized labor. This in turn will greatly diminish labor’s strength as a progressive force.

Public employee unions are right to be worried, and yet, as today’s demonstrations evidenced, on the eve of oral arguments labor is still grappling with how to protect workers’ rights. The protest’s slogan, “It’s about freedom,” mimics the Right’s own language when it argues that unions shouldn’t be able to collect fees from workers who don’t want to pay. In fact, it’s about social justice: The struggle to protect collective bargaining is a fight for the dignity of work and working people.

How then can public employee unions and the labor movement transition from defense to offense, winning economic and political demands? Must a defeat in Janusmean the end of public employee unions? A movement of school employees in West Virginia is providing answers to these questions, showing organized labor how workers can defend their rights without the legal protections that unions rely upon: the right to strike and the right to bargain collectively.

West Virginia bars strikes by public employees and, as a so-called “right to work” state, bans unions from requiring that everyone represented by a bargaining unit become a dues-paying member. Yet, despite this hostile legal environment, school employees, led primarily by teachers, organized walkouts that resulted in closure of schools in every county on Thursday and Friday. School districts could not remain open because school employees had shown they would not come to work. Although officers of the American Federation of Teachers –West Virginia (AFT-WV) and the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA), the state affiliates of the two major teachers unions, are quoted in the press and are widely seen as the movement’s leaders, they are not the force behind the job actions.

As when Detroit teachers organized “sick outs” about appalling conditions in their schools, the West Virginia teachers who took the lead in organizing this movement did so independent of the union apparatus. They invited teachers in both AFT-WV and WVEA, which many activists felt had wasted resources wrangling with one another. As one teacher-leader explained to In These Times, the strategy from the start was “keeping it open.” For this reason, teachers brought in other school employees in  planning actions and demands.

School workers were frustrated and angry about low wages, further diminished by growing health insurance costs. Within months, the movement mushroomed, with the closed Facebook page expanding to 17,000 members. (Although I am not a West Virginia school employee, I was invited to join the closed group because my writing about teacher unionism has informed the organizing. I have commented and posted, making clear that I am a visitor to their site.)

West Virginia is a red state, but one in which union pride and an attunement to class inequality still bubble up. Bernie Sanders won the Democratic primary, and memories of the state’s history of labor battles in the coal fields still resonate. Many teachers in the state identify as workers and with unions, not always the case among teachers.

Understanding this movement’s success requires seeing that the WVEA and AFT-WV, which ostensibly spoke for teachers and other school workers, failed to tap into or build this labor consciousness. Instead of mobilizing actions that addressed anger at poor wages, the unions’ strategy was to court state politicians with donations and votes. As I learned in conversations over the past several months, the activists who built the grassroots movement, many of them socialists, believed that traditional labor tactics, ranging from rallies to walkouts, were essential and that their colleagues throughout the state would respond.

They were right. The movement developed at breathtaking speed. Protests and local walkouts expanded to a state-wide strike and mass protests in the state Capitol. Teachers and school workers confronted legislators who had failed to raise wages while rising healthcare costs cut into teachers’ paychecks. At each step, the movement has made demands on the union and prepared to carry out actions without union endorsement or help. In the process they have gone far in making the union carry out its responsibilities to them—and to public education. A key concern of teachers is that by keeping wages so low, West Virginia has created a teacher “shortage” that it has “solved” by allowing people who have no preparation to teach to become teachers—a strategy being adopted in many other states.

The West Virginia struggle has mirrored the energy of the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike, which electrified teachers throughout the world and set a new standard for militant union action in the U.S. But it also resembles what occurred in Madison, Wisc., when public employees, with teachers in the forefront, took their defense of collective bargaining to the state legislature, occupying the seat of power. Labor was badly bruised in that battle because workers did what union officials instructed: They disbanded the protest and channeled power into recalling Gov. Scott Walker. The alternative would have been maintaining the strike while building more public support by expanding their political program beyond collective bargaining, to other economic and political rights that have been attacked.

This same choice confronts the movement in West Virginia. One logical expansion of their political struggle is to demand more progressive funding for schools and a statewide “single payer” health plan to cover medical care for everyone in the state. Public employees who face higher healthcare costs will find natural allies in parents who cannot afford insurance or are worried about cutbacks to Medicaid and Medicare because the fight will be to alleviate health care costs for everyone, rather than only protecting costs for public employees. Such an alliance would join the growing movement within labor for “Medicare for all,” a struggle that requires taking on Democrats who won’t break with their party leadership’s rejection of “single payer” as unrealistic. The demand can also weaken the grip of Republicans who won’t break with the GOP’s—and Trump‘s—refusal to fund healthcare as a human right.

Officers of large public employee unions say that Janus has caused deep introspection and change. While public employee unions are reaching out to “involve,” “engage” and “hear” members, the need for the self-organization of workers is seldom expressed in this narrative of change—except in unions in which reform caucuses have won leadership, like the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

The consciousness and capacity of workers to organize at the work site is what will save labor. West Virginia’s school employees have demonstrated what workers’ power looks like without collective bargaining or the right to strike. Their lesson is clear to the unions: Either fight for the dignity of work and workers or move over and let others show you how it’s done.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on February 24, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Lois Weiner is a professor of education at New Jersey City University who is on the editorial board of New Politics. Her newest book is The Future of Our Schools: Teachers Unions and Social Justice.


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How Business Unionism Got Us to Janus

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In September, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Janus vs. AFSCME, a case that has the potential to undermine public sector unions by curtailing unions’ right to charge non-members an “agency fee.” This fee covers the protection and services the union is obligated to provide all employees in the bargaining unit.

Many labor leaders and pundits have identified unions’ loss of revenue as the most dire consequence of an unfavorable ruling in the Janus case. Others have pointed out that the forces behind Janus don’t only aim to weaken public employee unions: they are seeking to destroy the public sector and public ownership of resources across the board.

However, the Right’s deeper, darker strategic purpose has been mostly ignored, even by unions: Janus fits in with a larger project, led by the State Policy Network—a network of right-wing think tanks—that aims not only to “defund and defang” unions but to “deliver the mortal blow to permanently break” the Left’s “stranglehold on our society.”

Anyone who cares about democracy and the social and economic well-being of workers has a stake in how unions will respond to the Court’s decision. And with Trump-appointee Neil Gorsuch now sitting on the bench, it appears likely that the ruling will not go in labor’s favor.

The real crisis at hand

The tacit assumption of Janus supporters and foes alike is that, when faced with a choice between being a union member and paying dues or not, significant numbers of members will bolt, and non-members who have been paying “agency fees” will not join. Because unions understand the danger posed by Janus as largely financial, they have focused on saving money, cutting staff and pursuing mergers. Some have also determined that they must be proactive to stave off mass desertions and are reaching out to members to solidify their support as dues payers.

Belt-tightening and talking to members may temporarily fortify union apparatus, but this approach ignores the question Janus demands we ask: Why is labor predicting members will desert their unions and that agency-fee payers will refuse to join?

These assumptions labor holds around Janus exemplify the real crisis unions confront—one not often discussed, even behind closed doors. In defining their purpose primarily as protecting members’ narrowly conceived economic interests and shaping the organization to function like a business, unions construct a very limited role for the workers they represent. Under this status quo, members are generally considered passive, with limited authority and voice. Their sole “power” is to pay dues and cast votes in what are generally uncontested elections for officers.

The right-wing forces behind Janus have used their frighteningly vast financial resources to exploit this weakness. The Janus brief, filed by the National Right to Work Foundation on behalf of Illinois public employee Mark Janus, articulates anti-union arguments familiar to any union activist who has tried to recruit skeptical co-workers. The plaintiff’s claims interrogate AFSCME’s purposes, its presence as a political force and whether it serves as a collective voice for working people on the job and in the larger society.

The brief reads:

Janus objects to many of the public-policy positions that AFSCME advocates, including the positions that AFSCME advocates for in collective bargaining. For example, he does not agree with what he views as the union’s one-sided politicking for only its point of view. Janus also believes that AFSCME’s behavior in bargaining does not appreciate the current fiscal crises in Illinois and does not reflect his best interests or the interests of Illinois citizens.

In building support for Janus, the Right has questioned the meaning of union membership while also criticizing public employee unions’ engagement in politics. Unions have frequently been ineffective in responding to the charge that they are just another special interest group, buying politicians for their members’ benefit. Unions have disarmed themselves in this assault by adopting the mentality and tactics of special interests. Labor has by and large accepted the Right’s definition of the contest (winning over “friendly” politicians in either party), the weapons (campaign donations), and the opponents (workers in other countries as our competitors). In doing so, labor has turned its back on its unique and most powerful resource—an informed, empowered and mobilized membership.

Instead, labor has countered the Right’s arguments on narrow grounds, railing against “free riders,” who they say will require unions “to represent non-members, who would be paying nothing at all, passing that burden off to dues-paying members.”

But this argument has little resonance to workers who already feel they are not well-represented. Like Mark Janus, they don’t feel their voices count. The “union” exists apart from them, with staff and officials insulated from even hearing, let alone responding to, members’ opinions and needs. The economic payoff from union dues can be hard to see when your paycheck hasn’t increased or in some cases, has decreased, despite your union having bargained in your name.

And this argument also avoids addressing the larger case made by the Right: that joining a union is not in workers’ best interest. The Right has confused workers by selling an individualistic, competitive ideology. And unions have been too slow to address why this ideology is harmful and antithetical to principles of collective action and solidarity. As others have observed, organized labor has by and large forgotten the grammar and vocabulary of class struggle.

From “it” to “we”

Though we shouldn’t adopt their methods or mentality, labor can learn a great deal from the Right’s victories. To move from defense to offense, labor needs to develop a new mindset. The strategies being discussed to avoid disaster post-Janus reflect many unions’ unwillingness to reimagine themselves.

One of these strategies is to eschew the legal responsibility to be “exclusive representative” of the bargaining unit, thereby creating competition between unions. Multiple unions representing workers for a single employer is the norm in other countries, where unions are allied with political parties. And some might consider it an idea worth pursuing. But encouraging competition among unions is a disaster, as Chris Brooks demonstrates in a close study of what occurred in Tennessee when an NEA affiliate lost exclusive representation. Workers turn against one another, viewing one another as rivals. Company unions, masquerading as professional groups that offer low insurance rates, compete, successfully, against traditional unions.

Is a “Workers’ Bill of Rights” an answer to Janus and the anticipated loss of collective bargaining in more states, as has been proposed in this publication? This is an interesting strategy but its limitation is that it’s a legalistic solution, not a political one. It doesn’t speak to the reasons workers choose not to join unions when they have that right, or to why they vote them down in elections.

Further, as Nelson Lichtenstein points out, the “rights discourse” is limited by being individual. What makes unions unique is that they represent members’ individual interests through struggle for their collective interests. Moreover, such a bill of rights ignores social oppression that workers experience on the job and separates their lives and rights outside the workplace from those they have inside. This strategy’s major flaw is not in what it tries to do but that it substitute for labor’s ability to critically analyze its losses.

One way to understand what adopting a new mindset would mean is looking to what occurred when the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), the reform caucus of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), won the union’s leadership. This caucus conceived of the CTU as a member-driven union that served members’ economic interests best when it supported social justice issues across the board. The newly elected leadership altered the way the union made its purpose evident and worked to make all the union’s operations support this new mindset.

CORE put the people it represented, employees of the Chicago Public Schools, at the center of its organizing, as Jane McAlevey puts it. A member-driven union gives people a reason to be union members and not agency fee payers. The goal? Shift the union from being an “it” to being “we.”

Democracy or bust

Putting workers at the center of organizing requires union democracy. It also demands moving towards international solidarity. What Kim Moody calls “labor nationalism” has weakened the unions by allowing workers to fall prey to Trump’s xenophobia. “’Buy American” is very close to “Make America Great Again.” Such slogans lead workers to become hostile to their counterparts in other countries rather than to the transnational corporations and elites that set economic policy.

Overcoming the fallout from Janus will require reimagining union membership by inverting hierarchical relations that replicate disempowerment on the job. To do this, unions need to grapple with a number of pressing questions:

Why have professional negotiators or paid staff sent to the bargaining table by national- or state-level unions rather than members who have been elected based on their leadership and ideas? Should union organizers be elected rather than being hired and appointed? Why aren’t members allowed to know how their representatives vote in the unions’ executive council meetings? Should endorsements for political office be made by the membership in a referendum? Should unions use “participatory budgeting” to have members decide priorities for where their dues are allocated? What is a member’s responsibility for recruiting and educating co-workers about the union?

Activists who have tried to recruit co-workers to their union know that changing people’s minds about joining can be slow and hard work. It requires listening and a deep commitment to union ideals because people often hold beliefs that are inimical to collective action. This work also requires having a union you trust will make a difference in the lives of its members. Like democracy anywhere, union democracy is difficult to obtain and fragile. It can be inefficient and it creates tensions. But it’s also the key to union power. Vibrant democracy and a mobilized membership are crucial to winning at the bargaining table and to enforcing any agreement in the workplace. Like all legal rights, the contract is only as strong as members’ knowledge of its provisions and willingness to protect it.

This is a moment of truth for unions and their supporters. We need to look in the mirror and see that Janus has two faces. The case could reduce organized labor to a shell, or it could be the start of a remarkable revitalization that draws strength from the widespread social movements that have emerged from both the Bernie Sanders campaign and Trump’s election. The latter is possible, but it will be up to all of us to make it a reality.

This article was originally published at In These Times on November 10, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Lois Weiner is a professor of education at New Jersey City University who is on the editorial board of New Politics. Her newest book is The Future of Our Schools: Teachers Unions and Social Justice.


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SCOTUS Is on the Verge of Decimating Public-Sector Unions—But Workers Can Still Fight Back

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On Thursday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Janus vs. AFSCME, the case that will likely turn the entire public sector labor movement into a “right-to-work” zone. Like a lazy Hollywood remake, the case has all the big money behind it that last year’s Friedrichs v. CTA did, with none of the creativity.

In Friedrichs, the plaintiffs argued that interactions between public sector unions and government employers are inherently political. Therefore, the argument went, mandatory agency fees to reimburse the union for the expenses of representation and bargaining were forced political speech, violating employees’ purported First Amendment right to not pay dues.

The case ended in a 4-4 deadlock in March 2016, following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, who had appeared poised to vote against the unions’ interests.

Much like Friedrichs, the Janus case has rocketed through the federal courts. The National Right to Work Foundation, which represents the plaintiffs, petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case in early June. All briefs will likely be submitted by mid-January 2018, meaning SCOTUS could hold hearings almost exactly a year to the date that the Court last heard the same arguments.

The defendants may argue for procedural delays, which could potentially kick the decision into the following court term in 2018-2019. And it’s possible that in the meantime Justice Anthony Kennedy could die of a heart attack, or Sam Alito could forget to look both ways while crossing First St. and get run over by a bus. And the Democrats might take back the Senate next year, preventing the Trump administration from naming any more conservatives to the Court.

That’s the kind of magical thinking we’re left with, because the conservative majority on the Supreme Court is clearly determined to tilt the power of the country in favor of big business and against unions for at least a generation, and they care little about how just or fair their decisions appear to the public.

“Right to work” laws, currently on the books in 27 states, strip the requirement that union members pay union dues. Unions claim this creates a “free rider” problem, allowing workers to enjoy the benefits of union membership without contributing a dime. This deprives unions of crucial funding, but also—and this is no small consideration for the right-wing—every union family that drops their membership becomes one less door that union members can knock come election season.

Most national unions have been preparing for this eventuality since the first time the Roberts court took up the issue of public sector union fees in 2014’s Harris Vs. Quinncase. (If you’re keeping score, yes, the conservative justices on the Supreme Court have spent three years in a row trying to break the backs of unions).

Much of this preparation has focused on making sure that unions have a shop steward in every department and that every new hire is asked by a living breathing human being to actually join the union. But, as I wrote earlier this month, the bigger threat once workers have the right to evade union fees is the direct mail and phone-banking campaign that is already being run by Koch Brother-funded “think tanks” to encourage workers to drop their union membership and “give yourself a raise.”

As I wrote then, “The slick ‘give yourself a raise’ pamphlets will do the most damage in places where members think of the union as simply a headquarters building downtown. … But where members are involved in formulating demands and participating in protest actions, they find the true value and power of being in a union. That power—the power of an active and involved membership—is what the right-wing most fears, and is doing everything in its power to stop.”

There is a certain irony in conservatives applying the First Amendment to collective bargaining, a principle that conservative jurists have studiously avoided for two centuries. If every interaction that a union has with the government is a matter of speech, then we have a stronger argument for instituting a Bill of Rights for labor to protect workers and their right to demand fair treatment on the job.

Unions are already oppressively regulated. They are told by the National Labor Relations Board whom they can picket, when they may march and what they might say on a flyer. And they face steep fines if they disobey. Workers are forced to attend endless hours of anti-union presentations before a union election with no right to respond or boycott.

If every interaction the government has with a union is a matter of political speech—as a ruling in favor of Janus would imply—unions must respond by forcefully arguing that the rules of the system have been unfairly holding workers back, violating of our rights to free speech, due process and equal protection.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on October 18, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Shaun Richman is a former organizing director for the American Federation of Teachers. His Twitter handle is @Ess_Dog.


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The Entire Public Sector Is About to Be Put on Trial

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Within the next year, the Supreme Court is likely to rule on the latest existential threat to workers and their unions: Janus v. AFSCME. Like last year’s Friedrichs v. CTA—a bullet dodged with Justice Antonin Scalia’s unexpected death—the Janus case is a blatant attack on working people by right-wing, moneyed special interests who want to take away workers’ freedom to come together and negotiate for a better life.

For years, the Right has been hammering through state-level “right-to-work” laws in an effort to kill public sector unionism; it would see victory in the Janus case as the coup de grace.

Right-to-work laws allow union “free riders,” or workers who refuse to pay union dues but still enjoy the wages, benefits and protections the union negotiates. Not only does this policy drain unions of resources to fight on behalf of workers, but having fewer dues-paying members also spells less clout at the bargaining table. It becomes much more difficult for workers to come together, speak up and get ahead. In the end, right-to-work hits workers squarely in the paycheck. Workers in right-to-work states earn less and are less likely to have employer-sponsored healthcare and pensions.

As a judge, Neil Gorsuch, Scalia’s replacement, sided with corporations 91 percent of the time in pension disputes and 66 percent of the time in employment and labor cases. If the court rules in favor of the Janus plaintiff—an Illinois public sector worker whose case not to pay union dues is being argued by the right-wing Liberty Justice Center and the National Right to Work Foundation—then right to work could become the law of the land in the public sector, weakening unions and dramatically reducing living standards for millions of workers across the country.

That’s the Right’s immediate goal with Janus. Then there are the more insidious effects. The case is the next step in the Right’s long and unrelenting campaign to, as Grover Norquist famously said, shrink government “to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” The Trump team has made no secret of this goal. Trump advisor Steve Bannon parrots Norquist, calling for the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” and Trump’s budget proposal cuts key federal and state programs to the quick. According to rabidly anti-worker Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), Vice President Mike Pence indicated in a February meeting with him that Pence was interested in a national version of Walker’s infamous Act 10, which eliminated public sector collective bargaining and gutted union membership.

An assault on public sector workers is ultimately an assault on the public sector itself. The Right can strike two blows at once: demonizing government and undermining the unions and workers who advocate for the robust public services that communities need to thrive. A ruling against AFSCME in Janus would decimate workers’ power to negotiate for vital staffing and funding for public services. Across the country, our loved ones will wait longer for essential care when they’re in the hospital, our kids will have more crowded classrooms and fewer after-school programs, and our roads and bridges will fall even deeper into disrepair. The progressive infrastructure in this country, from think tanks to advocacy organizations—which depends on the resources and engagement of workers and their unions—will crumble.

Public sector unions are working on building stronger unions, organizing new members and connecting more deeply with existing members to stave off the threat posed by Janus. AFSCME alone, where I serve as an assistant to the president, has a goal of having face-to-face conversations with one million of its members before the Supreme Court rules. So far, union leaders and activists have talked to more than 616,000 members about committing to be in the union no matter what the court decides. Even so, Janus will make it harder for public sector unions to lead, or even join, fights on social and economic issues that benefit all workers, union or not. And that’s just what the Right wants.

We need the entire labor and progressive movements to stand with us and fight for us. We may not survive without it—and nor, we fear, will they.

This blog was originally published at Inthesetimes.com on May 25, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Naomi Walker is the assistant to the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, writes the “9 to 5” column for In These Times.

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Should a firefighter or police officer be paid more than minimum wage?

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Mark E. AndersonI do not live in Scranton, Pennsylvania, nor do I know the political leanings of the mayor or the city council; however, I do know that their actions, cutting the wages of city employees to minimum wage, are shameful. By the way, that wage cut applies to firefighters and police officers as well as a myriad of other city employees.

The employee’s unions are fighting back and are taking the city to court:

The trio of unions – International Association of Firefighters Local 60, the Fraternal Order of Police E.B. Jermyn Lodge 2 and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local Lodge 2305 – expect to soon file several new legal actions, said their attorney, Thomas Jennings. Those actions would include:

  • A motion in Lackawanna County Court to hold the mayor in contempt, due to paying 398 city employees minimum wages in their paychecks Friday, even though a judge on Thursday and Friday ordered full wages.
  • A lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Scranton under the Fair Labor Standards Act alleging the city has failed to pay wages on time and failed to pay overtime.
  • Another federal complaint alleging violations of the Heart and Lung Act, because benefits of disabled police and firefighters also were cut to minimum wages without first having a required hearing.
  • A penalty petition with the state workers’ compensation commission over the minimum wages.

“Pick a law. They violated it,” Mr. Jennings said.

The city is claiming that it had no choice as it only has $133,000 in cash on hand as of Monday but owed $3.4 million dollars to vendors, not including employees:

A payroll every two weeks amounts to $1 million, officials said. To free up cash to pay overdue bills, particularly health coverage, the mayor on June 27 announced he was indefinitely cutting salaries of all non-federally funded employees to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. This way, the payroll every two weeks would amount to $300,000, though [the mayor] pledged to pay all back wages once the crisis is resolved.

Sure, he will pay the workers back once the crisis is resolved, and I bet while he is at it he will toss in some oceanfront property in Arizona and a bridge in Brooklyn.

Now, of course if you go through the comments sections on any news story about the goings on in Scranton you will find that they are, unfortunately, quite typical these days. Those fatcat public employees and their unions are all to blame for Scranton’s and the nation’s woes. Yep, that cop who at 3:00 am is chasing down a guy who just robbed someone’s house is the problem. The firefighter who pulled a sleeping child out of a burning home is the problem. That guy over there who tests the tap water to make sure it is clean and safe to drink; it is his fault that Scranton and the nation as a whole is broke.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on July 11, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mark Anderson, a Daily Kos Labor contributor, describes himself as a 44 year-old veteran, lifelong Progressive Democrat, Rabid Packer fan, Single Dad, Part-time Grad Student, and Full-time IS worker. You can learn more about him on his Facebook, “Kodiak54 (Mark Andersen)”


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Will Public Workers and Immigrants March Together on May Day?

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david baconOne sign carried in almost every May Day march of the last few years says it all: “We are Workers, not Criminals!” Often it was held in the calloused hands of men and women who looked as though they’d just come from work in a factory, cleaning an office building, or picking grapes.

The sign stated an obvious truth. Millions of people have come to the United States to work, not to break its laws. Some have come with visas, and others without them. But they are all contributors to the society they’ve found here.

This year, those marchers will be joined by the public workers we saw in the state capitol in Madison, whose message was the same: we all work, we all contribute to our communities and we all have the right to a job, a union and a decent life. Past May Day protests have responded to a wave of draconian proposals to criminalize immigration status, and work itself, for undocumented people. The defenders of these proposals have used a brutal logic: if people cannot legally work, they will leave.

But undocumented people are part of the communities they live in. They cannot simply go, nor should they. They seek the same goals of equality and opportunity that working people in the United States have historically fought to achieve.  In addition, for most immigrants, there are no jobs to return to in the countries from which they’ve come. The North American Free Trade Agreement alone deepened poverty in Mexico so greatly that, since it took effect, 6 million people came to the United States to work because they had no alternative.

Instead of recognizing this reality, the U.S. government has attempted to make holding a job a criminal act. Thousands of workers have already been fired, with many more to come. We have seen workers sent to prison for inventing a Social Security number just to get a job. Yet they stole nothing and the money they’ve paid into Social Security funds now subsidizes every Social Security pension or disability payment.

On May Day in 2007, immigrants and their supporters marched through the streets of Kennett Square, Pa., a small town where thousands of immigrant workers labor in sheds growing mushrooms. The march was organized by the Farm Worker Support Committee (CATA) and many workers came from the only union shed, Kaolin Farms.   (Photo copyright David Bacon)
On May Day in 2007, immigrants and their supporters marched through the streets of Kennett Square, Pa., a small town where thousands of immigrant workers labor in sheds growing mushrooms. The march was organized by the Farm Worker Support Committee (CATA) and many workers came from the only union shed, Kaolin Farms. (Photo copyright David Bacon)

Undocumented workers deserve legal status because of that labor—their inherent contribution to society. Past years’ marches have supported legalization for the 12 million undocumented people in the United States. In addition, immigrants, unions and community groups have called for repealing the law making work a crime, ending guest worker programs, and guaranteeing human rights in communities along the U.S./Mexico border.

The truth is that undocumented workers and public workers in Wisconsin have a lot in common. In this year’s May Day marches, they could all hold the same signs. With unemployment at almost 9%, all working families need the Federal government to set up jobs programs, like those Roosevelt pushed through Congress in the 1930s. If General Electric alone paid its fair share of taxes, and if the troops came home from Iraq and Afghanistan, we could put to work every person wanting a job. Our roads, schools, hospitals and communities would all benefit.

At the same time, immigrants and public workers need strong unions that can push wages up, and guarantee pensions for seniors and healthcare for the sick and disabled. A street cleaner whose job is outsourced, and an undocumented worker fired from a fast food restaurant both need protection for their right to work and support their families.

Instead, some states like Arizona, and now Georgia, have passed measures allowing police to stop any “foreign looking” person on the street, and question their immigration status. Arizona passed a law requiring employers to fire workers whose names are flagged by Social Security. In Mississippi an undocumented worker accused of holding a job can get jail time of 1-5 years, and fines of up to $10,000.

The states and politicians that go after immigrants are the same ones calling for firing public workers and eliminating their union rights. Now a teacher educating our children has no more secure future in her job than an immigrant cleaning an office building at night. The difference between their problems is just one of degree.

But going after workers has produced a huge popular response. We saw it in Madison in the capitol building. We saw it in the May Day marches when millions of immigrants walked peacefully through the streets. Working people are not asleep. Helped by networks like May Day United, they remember that this holiday itself was born in the fight for the 8-hour day in Chicago more than a century ago.

In those tumultuous events, immigrants and the native born saw they needed the same thing, and reached out to each other. This May Day, will we see them walking together in the streets again?

For information about where May Day marches are scheduled to take place this Sunday, visit the May Day United website.

About the Author: David Bacon is a writer, photographer and former union organizer. He is the author of Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (2008), Communities Without Borders (2006), and The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the US/Mexico Border (2004). His website is at dbacon.igc.org.

This blog originally appeared In These Times on April 28, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.


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