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How Can We Rebuild Working-Class Politics? Let’s Go to “Strike School.”

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Through­out Sep­tem­ber and Octo­ber, thou­sands of activists and union­ists from sev­en­ty coun­tries par­tic­i­pat­ed in the inter­na­tion­al ?“Strike School” orga­niz­ing train­ing led by Jane McAlevey and spon­sored by the Rosa Lux­em­burg Stiftung.

Jacobin?’s Eric Blanc spoke with McAlevey about the key lessons of the course, the rea­sons why this tra­di­tion has been mar­gin­al­ized with­in orga­nized labor, and the ways smart orga­niz­ing meth­ods can help rebuild work­ing-class pol­i­tics and trans­form unions today.

Can you talk about Strike School, who par­tic­i­pat­ed, and what its main pur­pose was?

JM: To be hon­est, we orga­nized Strike School part­ly in response to the increase of talk about strikes and gen­er­al strikes. A lot of peo­ple now are say­ing we need a gen­er­al strike, so it seemed like exact­ly the right time to dig into orga­niz­ing fun­da­men­tals and teach how to build to super­ma­jor­i­ty strikes?—?the kind that we need to stop the Right and turn things around for the work­ing class.

Strike School has turned into an impor­tant space for the past two months?—?it’s real­ly been some­thing to see this blos­som. There were thou­sands of par­tic­i­pants from sev­en­ty coun­tries, and all the train­ings and mate­ri­als are trans­lat­ed into Ara­bic, Span­ish, French, Por­tuguese, Hebrew, and Ger­man. It’s spon­sored by the Rosa Lux­em­burg Stiftung, which is beau­ti­ful?—?to be able to car­ry on Rosa’s name today and to keep the idea of strikes, big strikes, alive.

We designed the course to empha­size the fun­da­men­tals of orga­niz­ing?—?and linked these specif­i­cal­ly to how we devel­op strike-ready unions. But there are also a whole bunch of fan­tas­tic ten­ants’ rights and cli­mate orga­ni­za­tions involved, who are apply­ing these lessons to their work.

I get so many emails that I can’t keep up with, where peo­ple say, ?“I want to learn the stuff you write about.” I decid­ed one thing that I can do for those who can’t read the books?—?which is many peo­ple?—?is to part­ner with the Rosa Lux­em­burg Stiftung to get out there a cou­ple of times a year to teach like crazy. This time, for this Strike School, we required peo­ple to reg­is­ter as groups. Get­ting strike ready is not about indi­vid­u­als?—?it’s about peo­ple who can form orga­ni­za­tions togeth­er, even if they start small.

And if there’s one thing that unites Strike School, beyond its rad­i­cal pol­i­tics cen­tered around bot­tom-up change, it’s a com­mit­ment to build­ing a spe­cif­ic method of orga­niz­ing: struc­ture-based orga­niz­ing. Because it’s not just enough to fight. What our side needs is to fight back and win. And to do that, we need to learn and relearn the fun­da­men­tals of organizing.

One of the big argu­ments that ties togeth­er the spe­cif­ic train­ings taught in Strike School, and that you’ve writ­ten about in books like No Short­cuts, is the dif­fer­ence between ?“orga­niz­ing” and ?“mobi­liz­ing.” Can you spell out that dif­fer­ence and why you think it’s so important?

JM: It’s real­ly urgent that we under­stand this dif­fer­ence, par­tic­u­lar­ly for left­ists and pro­gres­sives. ?“Mobi­liz­ing” means we’re talk­ing to our already engaged base to take action. The act of mobi­liz­ing any­one into an elec­tion or into a strike or a protest by def­i­n­i­tion means you’re talk­ing with the peo­ple who already agree with you.

Mobi­liz­ing is not orga­niz­ing?—?it’s get­ting the folks who already agree with you to get off the couch and do some­thing. The Left spends a lot of time mobilizing.

Don’t get me wrong, we actu­al­ly also have to get bet­ter at mobi­liz­ing, too, by learn­ing to be more sys­tem­at­ic. But before we can have a strike mobi­liza­tion, the deep­er part of Strike School is how to get to the 90 per­cent of work­ers you need to be ready to be mobi­lized for the strike. A strike vote is the ulti­mate test of whether the nec­es­sary orga­niz­ing has been done.

The orga­niz­ing work is much hard­er, and it’s not very well under­stood and not as sexy. In the Unit­ed States, for exam­ple, to make a strike real and effec­tive?—?and to have the pow­er to deliv­er the kinds of demands work­ers are mak­ing?—?you need north of 90 per­cent to walk out.

That’s why what was won by teach­ers in Los Ange­les and Chica­go was so sub­stan­tial. To get to that point is real­ly hard work. And the broad­er and more diverse the work­force, the more com­plex the project of try­ing to build uni­ty and sol­i­dar­i­ty across races, gen­der, immi­gra­tion sta­tus, across shifts, across dif­fer­ent identities.

So the ques­tion ?“How do you move work­ers to a project that they believe they don’t agree with?” is fun­da­men­tal to the ques­tion of build­ing pow­er and get­ting strike ready. Most peo­ple, includ­ing most social­ists, don’t under­stand that we don’t just call for a strike. It’s about build­ing and expand­ing the uni­verse of peo­ple who are with us in this strug­gle for justice.

The cen­tral con­cept of the course is that, for orga­niz­ers, we wake up every morn­ing ask­ing how to engage the peo­ple who don’t agree with us?—?or who think they don’t agree with us. These folks are def­i­nite­ly not part of our social media feeds, and they’re not com­ing to our activist meet­ings, they’re not there.

In Strike School, we do a pow­er analy­sis of what it will take to get to some­thing like a 100 per­cent strike. This means you are tak­ing a lot of time engag­ing with those who don’t want to engage with us and for whom hav­ing some skills in your con­ver­sa­tions is actu­al­ly going to matter.

That’s why it’s so impor­tant to teach the dif­fer­ence between orga­niz­ing and mobi­liz­ing, and to focus on teach­ing the skills required to move the hard­est-to-move peo­ple in order to bring about the kind of sol­i­dar­i­ty and uni­ty required for a suc­cess­ful strike.

If this method of orga­niz­ing is so pow­er­ful, why do you think this tra­di­tion has got­ten lost not only in the Unit­ed States, but in so much of the world?

JM: It’s a good ques­tion, but I’d like to reframe it: I think the tra­di­tion was not ?“lost”?—?I think it was beat­en, jailed, and (depend­ing on the coun­try) mur­dered out of most of the movement.

In the Unit­ed States, you can real­ly look at [the 1947 anti-union leg­is­la­tion] Taft-Hart­ley and McCarthy­ism as a turn­ing point. This was a moment when cap­i­tal­ists under­stood the very real threat of work­ers build­ing class sol­i­dar­i­ty across race and gen­der. It was a peri­od, with the com­plic­i­ty of some trade union lead­ers, where there was a real effort to destroy the tra­di­tions that built the pow­er­ful unions formed in the 1930s.

For those union lead­ers who were will­ful­ly com­plic­it in going along with the purges of rad­i­cals at the time, it showed a real naïveté about the fact that, in the long term, their own unions and the lives of their mem­bers would even­tu­al­ly be destroyed or huge­ly under­mined by these same cap­i­tal­ist forces.

After, with the turn to busi­ness union­ism, many of these labor lead­ers thought work­ers would just stay put, that unions would have insti­tu­tion­al secu­ri­ty for life. That was a rad­i­cal mis­un­der­stand­ing of how pow­er works and how peo­ple work.

The skills we’re pass­ing on in Strike School are skills I learned from extra­or­di­nary men­tors in the real tra­di­tion from the old 1199 [health care work­ers’ union]. They’re skills that were beat­en out of the move­ment and worse. You can see that look­ing across the world: many of the same meth­ods of deep orga­niz­ing cross inter­na­tion­al bor­ders, and that’s why many polit­i­cal lead­ers in all sorts of coun­tries jail and mur­der and do every­thing pos­si­ble to beat the most effec­tive lead­ers out of the move­ment. So the more we can teach these skills today, the better.

What do you think the Left and social­ists can learn from this method of orga­niz­ing for class pol­i­tics more gen­er­al­ly, not only for union organizing?

JM: The meth­ods and the dis­ci­pline of struc­ture-based orga­niz­ing in the work­place apply gen­er­al­ly to build­ing a stronger Left. There’s a lot of those lessons.

The first is foun­da­tion­al: Do you spend most of your day talk­ing to peo­ple who don’t agree with you? If you’re seri­ous about build­ing class pol­i­tics, the answer is yes. That’s the first strate­gic choice.

Are you spend­ing all your time in the units in the hos­pi­tal or the schools in a dis­trict where peo­ple already agree with you and your num­bers are pret­ty good? The answer, if you’re build­ing a strike-ready union, is that you’re focused on the places where there’s real oppo­si­tion and where peo­ple think they don’t agree with you. The same goes for how we build a strong Left.

The sec­ond big les­son is that there’s actu­al­ly a method for how to do this. In the old days, the thing that real­ly turned me off from the orga­nized US left was that every time I would show up at a Left con­fer­ence, I’d be imme­di­ate­ly swarmed by white guys hawk­ing papers in four-point font with their polit­i­cal line. And that’s not going to build a class-based, effec­tive move­ment that’s tack­ling race and gender.

What you have to do is come to appre­ci­ate and under­stand the per­son you’re tak­ing with, and real­ly respect that they may have come to con­clu­sions dif­fer­ent from yours based on a set of social con­di­tions in their life that might be rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent from the organizer’s. That’s one of the things that sep­a­rates an orga­niz­er from an activist: we under­stand our job is to have patience and appre­ci­ate where the per­son we’re engag­ing with is com­ing from, why they might be that way, and how we can actu­al­ly work with that per­son to help them come to the con­clu­sion that they want a dif­fer­ent coun­try, that they want a dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal-eco­nom­ic sys­tem than the one we have.

That type of change does not come from lec­tur­ing peo­ple, from talk­ing at them, or from mak­ing judg­ments about them.

I’ve seen some peo­ple claim?—?and I think it’s unfair?—?that the meth­ods you teach are only rel­e­vant for union lead­ers and staffers, not for trans­form­ing the labor move­ment from the bot­tom up. How do you look at the rela­tion­ship between the meth­ods taught in Strike School and the ques­tion of how social­ists can most effec­tive­ly help build and trans­form the labor movement?

JM: First of all, whether you’re inside the rank and file strate­gi­cal­ly because you took a job there, or whether you’re out­side the rank and file because you mapped the entire nation­al health care indus­try and you under­stand which eight cities can col­lapse the sys­tem?—?both are good ideas in our country.

For me, the ques­tion is whether you under­stand your role as an orga­niz­er as fun­da­men­tal­ly doing rad­i­cal polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion. Are you skilling peo­ple up? And do you start by under­stand­ing that you respect the social con­di­tions that formed and framed dif­fer­ent peo­ple? That’s a respect, and a val­ue, and a method of work that you can do effec­tive­ly posi­tioned inside or outside.

I think it’s great, as you know, for peo­ple to take jobs in strate­gic indus­tries. But I think the over-roman­ti­ciza­tion of that can be dan­ger­ous. Part of why we’re doing Strike School is that there is a skill set to doing the hard­er work. It isn’t rock­et sci­ence, but it is a skill set, whether you’re going into the work­place or whether you’re approach­ing the work­place from the out­side. Win­ning mat­ters?—?and so hav­ing some appre­ci­a­tion of the method and the skill real­ly matters.

That’s why we’re doing Strike School, because peo­ple need to be exposed to the best meth­ods to move a real­ly hard con­ver­sa­tion and why you wake up focus­ing on the hard­est-to-move unit and not on the unit where all the work­ers want to talk to you.

We’re try­ing to stitch togeth­er the talk about a gen­er­al strike and the real­i­ty about how we get there. The same is true for class pol­i­tics more broad­ly. When peo­ple ask me, ?“Why don’t you teach a class on how to trans­form unions?”, my answer is that this is basi­cal­ly the same skill. Because if you can’t first build major­i­ty sup­port for chang­ing your local union, you need to stop call­ing for a gen­er­al strike.

How do you trans­form unions? It’s the same skill. You need to learn how to build major­i­ty and super­ma­jor­i­ty sup­port. That’s the real les­son from Chica­go and Los Ange­les. When you show you can win over a major­i­ty of your cowork­ers to a dif­fer­ent ver­sion of their own trade union, that’s step one.

Every­thing we dis­cussed in Strike School, start­ing with leader iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, how to have suc­cess­ful hard con­ver­sa­tions, under­stand­ing the issues that mat­ter most to each work­er you are engag­ing, to learn­ing how to make and move a major­i­ty peti­tion?—?all that trans­lates into learn­ing how to win. Real­ly good orga­niz­ing is real­ly good organizing.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Eric Blanc is the author of Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics.


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Nursing home workers strike over unfair labor practices

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Workers at the Four Seasons Rehabilitation and Nursing home on Monday walked off the job over what they called unfair labor practices during a pandemic. 

Essential workers at the home off Newburgh Road say they are working without a contract and without enough personal protective equipment to stay safe. They also want better staffing levels and higher wages.

Workers at Four Seasons Rehabilitation and Nursing walk off the job Monday morning, stating unfair labor practices, in Westland, Michigan on October 19, 2020.

After agreeing to hold off striking for 30 days in August, it’s now back on, they said. 

The home is part of a chain where workers represented by the SEIU Healthcare Michigan union are negotiating a contract. 

“Governor Whitmer said it best: ‘With COVID-19 cases in Michigan on the rise, we cannot allow our most vulnerable patients to lack vital care.’ But nursing home owners have refused to come to an agreement that would equip us to provide the care our residents deserve,” said Carolyn Cole, a worker at the home, in a statement released by the union.

“We’re going on strike because if our workplace isn’t up to standard, it’s the residents who suffer.”

The nursing homes involved in the effort include the  Charles Dunn chains. Calls to them were not returned Monday. 

Ciena Healthcare and Villa Healthcare facilities are not included in the strike and reached an agreement with union members last week, the facilities said on Monday. 

At 6 a.m., a group of workers gathered along Newburgh Road to march and chant. Workers inside the building walked off the job to join the picket line. A Facebook live video shows workers as they marched in the dark. 

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, showed her support for the workers by making an appearance at the strike, tweeting: “The intimidation & racially-charged bullying is disgusting & must stop. Workers deserve a contract.”https://platform.twitter.com/embed/index.html?creatorScreenName=detroitnews&dnt=false&embedId=twitter-widget-0&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1318206599610159105&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.detroitnews.com%2Fstory%2Fnews%2Flocal%2Fwayne-county%2F2020%2F10%2F19%2Fnursing-home-workers-strike-over-unfair-labor-practices%2F3706738001%2F&siteScreenName=detroitnews&theme=light&widgetsVersion=ed20a2b%3A1601588405575&width=550px

Workers protested in shifts, planning to stay outside of the nursing home until 6 p.m. Monday. Workers say they will continue to strike until a deal is made. 

“We’re here until it starts snowing if he doesn’t give us a deal,” said Ken Haney, the executive vice president of SEIU. 

Haney said the union and Dunn were in negotiations until 10 p.m. Sunday, but talks ended when Dunn refused to give in to the workers’ demands. 

Some of those demands include better health care and more premium coverage, and increased wages for the certified nursing assistants, who say they’ve had to do more work during the pandemic. 

“We’ve all just been working all over the place and we’re just tired. He can’t keep staff because of the pay … but you’ll have me as a CNA doing a two- to three-person job, and it’s not right,” said Iyone Pruiett, a CNA at Four Seasons Nursing Home. 

Haney said Dunn is violating the union contract by direct bargaining and offering members an extra $1.25 a day to not strike. 

“He’s creating violations against the National Labor Relations Act, against the contract by implementing wages without negotiating with the unions, changing working conditions without negotiating with the unions,” Haney said. “We’re still willing to go to the table, but it has to be on the terms and conditions that these employees, these members are saying they want.”

As the pandemic hit Michigan earlier this year, workers inside some of the state’s hardest hit nursing homes rationed protective gear, went without COVID-19 tests and struggled to care for seniors who carried a deadly virus.

Mashala Pate with SEIU,  Service Employees International Union, on the sidewalk in front of the Four Seasons Rehabilitation and Nursing where workers have walked out stating unfair labor practices in Westland, Michigan on October 19, 2020.

About a third of the 21 nursing homes that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration selected to care for elderly individuals with COVID-19 at the pandemic’s peak appear not to meet new quality standards under a revamped policy.

On Sept. 30, Whitmer announced an executive order to establish “care and recovery centers” to replace her “regional hubs,” existing nursing homes across the state tapped to care for people with the virus who are discharged from hospitals or reside in facilities that can’t properly isolate them.

The Legislature and Whitmer are still working out details and trying to come to an agreement. Whitmer’s handling of nursing homes has been a topic of heated debate for months. About 32% of Michigan’s 6,781 COVID-19 deaths have been nursing home residents, according to state data.

A sign on the side door of Four Season Rehabilitation and Nursing where workers have walked off the job, stating unfair labor practices in Westland, Michigan on October 19, 2020.

In Detroit, where the COVID-19 virus has devastated communities of color and the majority of nursing home workers are Black women, workers aim to draw attention to racial justice disparities inherent to their fight.

“COVID-19 just reinforced what the Black women who work in nursing homes have always known — these homes put profits over people,” said Izella Hayes, a worker at Imperial Nursing Home in Dearborn Heights, in a statement.

“As long as owners continue to treat us like we’re expendable instead of the heroes we are, we’ll continue to stand up for what’s right: a living wage so we can afford to get healthcare just like we provide it, and proper safety protocols and guaranteed PPE throughout the pandemic.”

This blog originally appeared at The Detroit News on October 19, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Ariana Taylor is a breaking news reporter with The Detroit News.


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

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

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

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

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

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

TURNING POINT

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Detroit Bus Drivers Strike over Violent Attacks

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Detroit bus drivers, the first essential workers in the country to strike for safety during the pandemic, pulled a wildcat work stoppage again Friday, angry over escalating violence against drivers. Often the attacks are triggered, they said, by a driver’s request that a passenger wear a mask.

Drivers returned to work this morning with a promise of physical barriers to be constructed between driver and passengers. The city will also hold de-escalation training for drivers and said it would decrease police response time and increase the visibility of law enforcement on buses.

The work stoppage was triggered by the suspension of a driver who was captured on video punching a passenger—though the video does not show the events leading up to the driver’s self-defense. The passenger had declined to wear a mask, then approached the seated driver, snatched away a barrier chain, and raised his fist.

“‘Do I have to wait for a punch and then react? What are the rules of engagement?’” Those are the questions Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26 President Glenn Tolbert said he asked in negotiations with the city. “I don’t know if they wanted him to wait till he stabbed him or hit him. If someone is breathing in my face from two feet with no mask on….”

After the drivers’ March 17 strike, they won rear boarding of passengers and a distance of at least 10 feet between them and drivers, with masks mandatory. “Once you break that barrier, you’re not coming up there to talk to me,” Tolbert said. “I’m telling you I’m waiting for you to comply, you should not be running up on me.”

Tolbert said drivers have seen “a rash of assaults, weapons being pulled, females being accosted, drivers being attacked and not being able to defend themselves. If I ask about a mask now I’m going to be abused verbally and sometimes physically.

“The membership just said they were tired. They keep in touch between the two terminals, west side and east side. Neither the department nor the city was protecting them. “

Tolbert called such incidents a “daily occurrence. Things the outside public would abhor, we think it’s just another day at DDOT. We can’t keep living in fear. The department should not want that.”

After weekend negotiations members voted by 89 percent to return with a new Memorandum of Understanding.

VIRUS IN THE AIR

More than 50 Detroit bus drivers have contracted the coronavirus; five have been ventilated and one, Jason Hargrove, died—a few days after posting complaints about a passenger who coughed on him. Tolbert himself had the virus early on, and two former Local 26 presidents also died from it.

Detroit bus drivers haven’t gotten hazard pay since June, while those in a different ATU local who operate lines that run to the suburbs (SMART buses) get an additional $7.50 per hour.

The drivers’ earlier strike won free rides for passengers, to minimize driver-passenger contact; cleaning protocols and hiring of cleaning staff; gloves, wipes, and masks; and available restrooms, given that restaurants were closed.

“We’re not satisfied till we can go to work and not be subject to that abuse,” Tolbert said. “We want to feel the same kind of safety on the bus as they feel sitting in their offices.

“I refuse to have another conversation like I had with Jason Hargrove’s wife.”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on October 5, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jane Slaughter is a former editor of Labor Notes and co-author of Secrets of a Successful Organizer.


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Lessons from the NBA Strike for Black Lives

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In their righteous wildcat strikes, professional athletes showed us both how collective action can directly challenge power but also how a workplace campaign can get cut short if we’re not prepared.

It’s an all-too-common experience in workplace organizing: you and your coworkers have been grumbling about injustices at work for a while but haven’t taken any action. Suddenly a crisis hits and there is a wave of enthusiasm for organizing. “We’ve gotta do something,” people say as they start rallying together. Even typically cautious workers are talking about something big, maybe a walkout.

You channel that energy into a confrontation with the boss, but then…it fizzles out. People aren’t so sure about taking risks anymore. The momentum is lost. Maybe you got a minor concession, but conditions remain pretty much the same.

We all witnessed this scenario unfold before us as NBA, WNBA, and MLB players bravely struck for racial justice after police shot and paralyzed Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August.

Players risked their careers and reputations by violating their contracts and refusing to play. In doing so, they used their platform to support Black liberation, and they leveraged their irreplaceable labor to seriously threaten the team owners’ and media corporations’ bottom lines.

But just days later, players returned to the courts and the fields with no clear victory. While we can’t know exactly what happened behind the scenes—and while any battle with employers is a major undertaking, particularly in the high-pressure spotlight of professional sports—we can see they encountered the same obstacles that any labor organizer could face, be they a bus driver, a bartender, or a basketball player.

Every workplace action benefits from:

  • Clear and specific demands. The Milwaukee Bucks, who kicked off the strike wave by refusing to play, urged the Wisconsin state legislature to “take up meaningful measures to address issues of police accountability, brutality and criminal justice reform.” They smartly identified their target—state legislators—but naming which meaningful measures could have set a concrete benchmark for determining whether their demands had been met or further escalation was needed.

    Specific policy changes described in #8toAbolition, for example, could serve as a model for changes that the legislature is empowered to make, such as removing police from schools and hospitals, withdrawing from police militarization contracts, and funding public housing.
  • A plan for escalation. LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers, one of the lead organizers of the strike, “viewed the Bucks’ initial move—while well-intentioned—as lacking a plan.” Sometimes workplace actions happen spontaneously, and when they do it’s on us to deepen that conflict and take advantage of that energy. Organizers should immediately ask: What is the deadline for our demands? If the target doesn’t comply, how can we up the ante? What will we leverage to put more pressure on the decision makers? How can we get more workers to participate? How should we ask the community to support us?
  • Inoculation to prevent defections. Barack Obama and Michael Jordan encouraged players to return to the game and instead establish a “social justice committee,” which cut into the momentum of the strike. It’s rarely the case that workers win their demands immediately, and it can be tough to maintain a fighting spirit until you do. That’s why it’s critical to prepare each other for possible obstacles.

    How will the boss try to convince us to back down? What about retaliation? When people know what to expect and trust that their coworkers have their back, they are much more likely to hold their ground.

The impact of the athletes’ strike shouldn’t be minimized: They touched millions of people with their commitment to freedom from police violence, likely inspiring many workers to take up demands for racial justice. It is only through multiracial solidarity and collective action such as theirs that we can win.

Labor organizers benefit from watching such a highly public campaign in action and learning from both successes and struggles. We can see that for a strike to succeed, workers need more than righteous anger—we need to be organized.

This blog originally appeared on Labor Notes on September 24, 2020. It is reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Wadlin is a member of Teachers (AFT) Local 2277 in Portland, Oregon, and has facilitated many “Secrets” trainings. She organizes with the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, where a version of this article originally appeared.


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Teachers have public support for COVID-19 safety strikes, this week in the war on workers

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Teachers in some areas have said they might go on strike rather than going back to in-person teaching if they felt it would be unsafe—and a majority of Americans would support them, a new HuffPost/YouGov poll found. A third of people said they would strongly support teachers, and another 22% said they would somewhat support teachers.

Just 21% of people said schools should completely reopen in person, with another 26% saying schools should partially reopen in person, and 38% saying schools should be closed or online-only. A 47% plurality said that the risks of reopening schools are greater than the consequences of keeping them closed, and 45% said teachers should not be required to teach in person. Regardless of what teachers or the public think, schools have already reopened in many places and teachers are dying.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on September 12, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.


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Professional athletes stage a historic wildcat strike, this week in the war on workers

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As strikes go, there weren’t a large number of workers involved in the most consequential work stoppages of the past week. And professional athletes are often framed as something other than real workers. But make no mistake, when the players on the Milwaukee Bucks said they weren’t playing their playoff game on Wednesday in protest over the police shooting of Jacob Blake, that was a wildcat strike, and it turned into a seriously successful one.

In the tradition of unions organizing for the broader public interest—as when teachers in Chicago and other cities negotiate for services that benefit their students outside of school as well as in class, for instance, or when unions pour money into raising the minimum wage for all workers—the players of the NBA and the MLB and the WNBA and other leagues made advances for everyone. Turning arenas into polling places could help with voting lines in key cities around the country. And the players—the workers—highlighted a major injustice in this country peacefully though not without disruption, again challenging the “I’m in favor of peaceful protest, just not riots, except oh, by the way, I was really really mad at Colin Kaepernick” crowd. As Hamilton Nolan writes, the athletes also reminded workers that they, too, have leverage.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on August 29, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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The Largest Private-Sector Strike of the Year Is Headed for Union Victory

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After nearly seven weeks on the picket line, Machinists union members will soon vote on a contract that includes everything they’re fighting for.

BATH, MAINE — It’s no coin­ci­dence that the first strike in 20 years at Bath Iron Works (BIW) began months into the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic. While Maine has one of the low­est Covid trans­mis­sion rates in the coun­try, the spread of the dead­ly virus helped spark the strike that has large­ly shut down the ship­yard at BIW — one of Maine’s largest employers. 

In June, when around 4,300 Machin­ists Local S6 union mem­bers at BIW vot­ed over­whelm­ing­ly to strike, many had already soured on man­age­ment over its han­dling of the pandemic.

The walk­out?—?which rep­re­sents the largest pri­vate-sec­tor strike of the year?—?has last­ed for near­ly sev­en weeks. But late last week, both sides saw a break­through as a ten­ta­tive agree­ment was reached that appears to hand the union a vic­to­ry on its demands. 

BIW, a Gen­er­al Dynam­ics sub­sidiary that builds bat­tle­ships for the U.S. Navy, nev­er shut down the pro­duc­tion facil­i­ty because it was deemed an ?“essen­tial busi­ness” by the U.S. gov­ern­ment. After a BIW work­er test­ed pos­i­tive for the virus in late March, the com­pa­ny encour­aged employ­ees not to report to work. Many did stay home for weeks?—?but they had to use paid vaca­tion or sick time, or work unpaid. Union lead­ers called for a shut­down with pay while also push­ing state law­mak­ers to pres­sure the Navy to allow the ship­yard to close.

“They said we’re essen­tial work­ers because we build bat­tle­ships, but how essen­tial are you if you get sick? It’s scary for a lot of peo­ple,” said John Louis Cabral III, a ship­yard work­er and Local S6 member. 

Cabral, 34, couldn’t afford to stay home long: He was hired last year and had lit­tle accrued paid time off. With three kids to sup­port and no access to pan­dem­ic-relat­ed unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits since he wasn’t fur­loughed, he went back to the yard.

With employ­ee atten­dance way below nor­mal for weeks, BIW fell fur­ther behind on pro­duc­tion of Navy guid­ed-mis­sile destroy­ers. As part of nego­ti­a­tions with Local S6 for a new three-year con­tract, the com­pa­ny pro­posed changes allow­ing it to hire nonunion sub­con­trac­tors more quick­ly. That and oth­er pro­posed changes to senior­i­ty and work rules in the company’s ?“last, best, and final offer” on June 13 did not go over well with Local S6. 

“It’s a pow­er strug­gle in the yard right now, and that’s facts,” said Cabral, who helps man­age inven­to­ry at the shipyard. 

On June 22, 87% of Local S6 mem­bers vot­ed in favor of strik­ing, even though they’d lose com­pa­ny-paid health insur­ance dur­ing a pan­dem­ic. Fed­er­al medi­a­tors were brought in to restart nego­ti­a­tions in July, around the same time BIW laid off mem­bers of anoth­er union local and brought in sub­con­trac­tors from out of state to avoid falling fur­ther behind on production. 

“We’re all stand­ing as one because we don’t want sub­con­tract­ing in here,” Chad Bam­ford, a 25-year-old crane rig­ger who’s worked at BIW since 2017, said on the pick­et line Fri­day. ?“They’re try­ing to sub­con­tract out our work. We don’t want out­siders. Give us more over­time. We build the best ships in the world.” 

The com­pa­ny has said it nev­er want­ed to per­ma­nent­ly out­source work away from the union through sub­con­trac­tors. ?“We seek only effi­cient access to all avail­able resources to improve our abil­i­ty to deliv­er to the US Navy on time,” BIW Pres­i­dent Dirk Lesko wrote
in June. The ship­yard was six months behind sched­ule at the start of the strike.

Both Bam­ford and Cabral blame pro­duc­tion delays on both the pan­dem­ic and mis­man­age­ment. A BIW spokesper­son did not respond to a request for comment.

Union vic­to­ry in hand?

After weeks of meet­ings that yield­ed lit­tle, union and BIW nego­tia­tors broke through to an agree­ment Fri­day, and it looks like the union got every­thing it wanted. 

In a ten­ta­tive agree­ment announced Sat­ur­day, Local S6 lead­ers trum­pet­ed the reten­tion of sta­tus quo con­tract lan­guage on sub­con­trac­tors and senior­i­ty and work rules. The agree­ment also retains 3% annu­al rais­es for work­ers. A ?“tem­po­rary catchup phase” will allow expand­ed sub­con­tract­ing through the end of this year, and a joint union-com­pa­ny com­mit­tee will begin meet­ing week­ly to ensure sched­ule gains.

The deal, unan­i­mous­ly approved by the union nego­ti­at­ing com­mit­tee, ?“pre­serves our sub­con­tract­ing process, pro­tects senior­i­ty pro­vi­sions and calls for a col­lab­o­ra­tive effort to get back on sched­ule,” Local S6 leader Jay Wadleigh told the Asso­ci­at­ed Press Sat­ur­day. The agree­ment also includes health­care ben­e­fit gains.

“We are pleased to have reached agree­ment with our union part­ners and look for­ward to get­ting back to the job of build­ing ships for the U.S. Navy,” Phebe Novakovic, chair­man and CEO of Gen­er­al Dynam­ics, said in a state­ment the same day.

Local S6 mem­bers will vote to rat­i­fy the pro­posed con­tract online and via phone lat­er this month. If it’s approved?—?which both Cabral and Bam­ford believe is like­ly?—?the lack of con­ces­sions will stand in con­trast to the last con­tract. Back in 2015, work­ers nar­row­ly vot­ed to give up sched­uled rais­es in favor of one-time bonus­es to pro­tect jobs and help BIW win a new U.S. Coast Guard con­tract (though the com­pa­ny end­ed up los­ing that con­tract to a competitor). 

Gen­er­al Dynam­ics, one of the largest defense con­trac­tors in the coun­try, made $3.5 bil­lion in prof­its last year. In 2018, tax cuts backed by the Trump admin­is­tra­tion helped cut the For­tune 500 company’s effec­tive tax rate almost in half, accord­ing to Labor Notes. That same year, the Maine leg­is­la­ture hand­ed BIW a $45 mil­lion tax break.

Bam­ford said he knows some peo­ple don’t agree with unions?—?but the strike has only deep­ened his pride in Local S6 and what it can achieve. The ten­ta­tive agree­ment, he said, sounds like a ?“big win.” 

“Until you’ve been a part of a union and you have 4,300 peo­ple stand­ing with you as one for one cause, it’s a feel­ing you can’t describe,” Bam­ford said. ?“It makes you proud to be with it.”

Cabral agrees: ?“Sol­i­dar­i­ty is awe­some. The strike has built camaraderie.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on August 12, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeremy Gantz is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at the mag­a­zine. He is the edi­tor of The Age of Inequal­i­ty: Cor­po­rate America’s War on Work­ing Peo­ple (2017, Ver­so), and was the Web/?Associate Edi­tor of In These Times from 2008 to 2012.


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California Hospital Workers Strike, Fracturing Pandemic’s Uneasy Labor Peace

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Despite nationwide shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and working conditions that have often been life-threatening, there have not been major strikes of hospital workers in America since the coronavirus pandemic struck. Until now.

More than 700 employees of Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, a regional trauma center in California’s Sonoma County, held a five-day strike that concluded on Friday. Foremost among the motivating issues were cuts in health care and paid sick leave that the hospital, owned by Providence St. Joseph Health, was pushing on employees during a contentious contract bargaining campaign. The employees are members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).

“The biggest reason is because we’ve been out of contract for over a year, and the hospital is trying to force us into a pretty bad contract,” said Steven Batson, an anesthesia tech and 10-year veteran of the hospital, speaking from the picket line last week, where he was joined by hundreds of his coworkers. The company wants to significantly increase health care premiums, Batson said, and to take paid time off away from senior workers and shift it to newer workers as a recruitment tool. Batson, a shop steward, said the contentious bargaining over this contract is “absolutely” the worst he has experienced in his ten years.

Chuck Desepte, an X-ray technician who has been at Santa Rosa for 13 years, agreed. “It’s the takeaways that I’m not accepting,” he said. “They can afford this. We don’t want to go backwards. We’ve been here for this community over and over again.”

In May, the New York Times reported that Providence Health, which received a bailout of more than $500 million from the federal government in the CARES Act, has a $12 billion cash pile and sizable investments in hedge funds and venture capital. “Last year, Providence’s portfolio of investments generated about $1.3 billion in profits, far exceeding the profits from its hospital operations,” the Times wrote.

Though the strike was not directly caused by the fallout of the coronavirus, the pandemic is playing an unavoidable role. Batson said that although the union held a strike authorization vote in February that passed overwhelmingly, it held off on taking action once the pandemic hit. He said that the hospital was slow to require universal masking, and that to this day, housekeeping staff and outpatient lab technicians who do coronavirus testing are not given adequate PPE, like N95 masks. “The hospital has definitely used this pandemic as a weapon against us,” he said, including by trying to portray the workers as irresponsible for going on strike.

In a statement on the first day of the strike, the hospital wrote that “we are deeply disappointed that NUHW has decided to hold a five-day strike given that the number of COVID-19 cases is on the rise in Sonoma County and the potential for a significant increase in hospitalizations remains.” The company also hastened to paint employees as selfishly exploiting current events. “The union has made clear in communications to our caregivers that this is not a strike about personal protective equipment (PPE) or workplace safety. Instead, this is an ordinary dispute over the terms of our labor contract,” the hospital wrote. “It is unfortunate and unfounded that the union is using COVID-19 as a platform for its negotiating tactics. We never deny a caregiver PPE.”

The company itself is playing hardball. It tried to dissuade the strike with preemptive economic threats, posting ominous fliers warning that, “If NUHW submits a strike notice, our current wage offer of an annual 3% increase will be lowered to 2%, to account for the significant expense of a disruptive strike, and the current offer will be pulled off the table.” (Time will tell whether that threat stands as negotiations continue.) As soon as the strike was called, the company stopped deducting union dues from workers’ paychecks, a move that serves to annoy and hassle the union, making it much more time-intensive to collect dues. Contracted replacement workers from an outside agency were brought in for the five-day duration of the strike.

Though every labor action is unique, the fact that NUHW was willing to go through with the strike in the face of the inevitable attacks about responsibility during the pandemic could signal that the fragile labor peace that has mostly reigned in the healthcare sector—an industry afflicted with more than its share of dissatisfied and endangered union workers—may be buckling. Unions that have been cautious about going on strike over contract issues during this crisis will sooner or later be forced to decide whether they will allow employers (who may have multi-billion-dollar investment portfolios) to make them swallow concessions they would not have otherwise accepted. The employees at Santa Rosa, who worked through major wildfires in their area in 2017 and 2019 before facing the Covid outbreak this year, will soon find out if their bold action pays off.

It was not an easy decision. “We’re health care workers,” said Desepte. “We want to take care of people.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 27, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Hundreds of Fruit Packing Workers Are On Strike

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Since this article was written, apple packinghouse workers at two more companies have joined the strike: at Hansen Fruit and Columbia Reach. Six worksites in Yakima County have now seen production shut down. The county has the highest rate of COVID-19 cases on the West Coast. The strikes are women-led, multigenerational, and multiracial, according to Edgar Franks of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, a local farmworkers’ union. —Editors

Last week the COVID-related strike in Washington state’s Yakima Valley quadrupled in size, as workers walked out at three more apple packinghouses. More than a hundred stopped work on May 7 at Allan Brothers Fruit, a large apple growing, packing and shipping company in Naches, in Central Washington. On May 12 they were joined by 200 more workers, who walked off the job at the Jack Frost Fruit Co. in Yakima, and at the Matson Fruit Co. in Selah. The next day another 100 workers walked out at the Monson Fruit packing shed, also in Selah.

At the center of the stoppages are two main demands for those who decide to continue working during the pandemic: safer working conditions and an extra $2 an hour in hazard pay.

Apple sheds line the industrial streets of Yakima Valley’s small towns. Inside these huge concrete buildings, hundreds of people labor shoulder-to-shoulder, sorting and packing fruit. If someone gets sick, it can potentially spread through the workers on the lines, and from them into the surrounding towns. Although packinghouse laborers are almost entirely immigrants from Mexico, their families comprise the stable heart of these areas. Most have lived here for years. Jobs in the sheds are a step up from the fields, with year-round work at 40 hours per week.

This part of agribusiness is by far Central Washington’s largest employer, and the industry has successfully fought off unions for many years. The virus may change that, however, if the strike wave becomes the spark for creating a permanent organization among these workers. It is undoubtedly what the companies fear when they see workers stop the lines, and even more so, when they see farmworker union organizers helping to sustain the walkouts.

Seeking Healthy Workplaces

“The most important demand for us is that we have a healthy workplace and protection from the virus,” said Agustin Lopez, one of the strike leaders at Allan Brothers. “Fourteen people have left work over the last month because they have the COVID-19. So far as we know, the company isn’t paying them. We need protections at work, like adequate masks, and we want tests. How do we even know if any of us have been infected if there are no tests?” (Allan Brothers Fruit did not respond to phone and email requests for comment for this story.)

He charges that Allan Brothers didn’t disinfect the plant and stop production when the workers got sick. One worker, Jennifer Garton, told the Yakima Herald, “They are not doing what they’re saying they’re doing,” and that workers only heard about the cases of COVID-19 in the plant through their own conversations.

According to Lopez, at the end of April the workers sent an email to company managers, asking for better conditions, extra pay, and the right to take off work. “People were taking their vacations or sick leave or anything they could to stay home. The company said that if we had worked for five weeks we could stay home, but they wouldn’t pay us. We’re only making minimum wage, so how could we do that? And we have no guarantee we would even have our jobs back if we don’t come in to work now.”

In response to the demands, he says the company offered to buy the workers lunch. Over a hundred workers rejected that and struck the company.

The shed of another Yakima packer, Roche Fruit Company, did stop work in April to disinfect the plant, after two workers had become infected. Roche employees then also demanded hazard pay in a message to managers. When the company offered an additional $200 per month, the laborers stopped work after lunch on May 11. After an hour of bargaining, the company offered them $100 per week instead, and they went back to work. Operations manager Alfonso Pineda said the company had already planned to give workers “gratitude pay” for working in difficult circumstances.

“At the heart of the dissatisfaction of all these workers is the fact they are essential workers, but their pay does not reflect that,” says Edgar Franks, the political director of the new union for Washington farm workers, Familias Unidas por la Justicia. He explains that workers from both Roche and Allan Brothers got in touch with them when they were getting ready to strike. “The walkouts then started after management refused to raise their wages. At Roche, when union organizers and leadership arrived, management quickly relented. This is the power of the presence of the union.”

Driven By Fear

But fear is driving the strikes, even more than wages. After walking out of the packing plant, workers at Jack Frost stood in a big circle six feet apart while Claudia, a striker, explained that they were fighting for the health of their whole community. “We want everyone to have a health examination, including our children and other people possibly affected,” she declared. “We want it for our whole family, because we know the virus doesn’t just stay in the plant. It’s outside too.”

At the rally in front of the Allan Brothers packinghouse, another woman said the same thing: that the biggest question was whether they could work without getting sick. “We have people who have been affected in this shed,” she told Yakima city councilwoman Dulce Gutierrez. “We want the company to guarantee that there are no more people who have the virus here at work, so that we can protect ourselves and our families.”

The working conditions themselves are responsible for much of the danger, and Franks says the companies have not been responsive. “Ever since the governor’s order [mandating physical distancing and safe conditions], a lot of the safety measures haven’t reached the workers inside. The workers are elbow-to-elbow on the line, packing the fruit going through there. Workers got sick, and they’re concerned that no one is looking after them or the wellbeing of their family and friends still inside.”

Agustin Lopez has lived in the Yakima Valley and worked in its sheds since 1985. His experience has made him cautious, therefore, about predicting whether workers will decide if a permanent union is the answer to their problems. But when he looks at the waves of people leaving the apple sheds, each company encouraging the next one, he thinks change is not just possible, but happening around him. “This connection between us is something new,” he says, “and there are people out here from lots of the plants. Maybe we are actually a federation.” The answer will be determined by the strike, he believes. “If the companies are willing to negotiate, we’ll listen to what they have to say. And if not, then we will continue with our strike.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 19, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: David Bacon is a former union organizer, photographer, and writer, covering labor, immigration, and the impact of the global economy on workers.


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