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On the Picket Line With Striking Miners

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Last Thursday, around 1,100 coal miners at Warrior Met Coal in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, went on strike. According to the union, the United Mine Workers of America, a tentative bargaining agreement has now been reached with the company, but workers must still vote on whether or not to ratify it. 

In order to cover this important strike and spread these workers’ stories, we’ve teamed up with our brothers-in-arms Jacob Morrison, a union organizer and cohost of the outstanding Valley Labor Report, Alabama’s only weekly labor radio talk show, and the incredible musician Lee Bains III of The Glory Fires. Jacob and Lee went down to the Warrior Met Coal picket line this weekend to talk with striking miners, play some music, and show solidarity. In this special episode, we’ve compiled clips from Lee’s live performance as well as Jacob’s interviews on the picket line and at the local UMWA union hall.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on April 8, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Maximillian Alvarez is a writer and editor based in Baltimore and the host of Working People, “a podcast by, for, and about the working class today.” His work has been featured in venues like In These Times, The Nation, The Baffler, Current Affairs, and The New Republic.


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Citing Unfair Labor Practices, 1,300 Steelworkers Strike in Five States

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At 7:00 AM on Tuesday, March 30, 1,300Steelworkers employed by Allegheny Technologies Incorporated (ATI) walked out in protest at facilities in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. The strike comes just over a year after United Steelworkers began negotiations with ATI. According to a statement released that day, the union is dissatisfied with company demands for ?“major economic and contract language concessions.”

United Steelworkers further claims that ATI has committed unfair labor practices. A charge filed with the National Labor Relations Board on March 9 alleges that the company is refusing to furnish the union with essential bargaining information. As USW International Vice President David McCall tells it, this withholding finally pushed the workers to strike.

“We are willing to meet with management all day, every day. But ATI needs to engage with us to resolve the outstanding issues,” McCall says. ?“We will continue to bargain in good faith, and we strongly urge ATI to start doing the same.

Healthcare is among the biggest points of contention in the negotiations. While the company maintains that their proposals continue a ?“premium-free plan,” a union bargaining update contends that out-of-pocket costs are up. Workers are also balking at a company plan to assign coverage to workers hired after 2024, which they say will give new employees inferior, more expensive coverage and thus introduce a ?“two-tiered system.”

Plant closures have been another topic of heated debate. Andy Artman, President of USW 1138?–?6 and an electrician at ATI’s Latrobe facility, says he had to relocate after ATI’s Bagdad plant in Gilpin, PA, shuttered in 2016. And he has company. Michael Barchesky, who has worked in electrical maintenance at the Latrobe facility since 2007, claims he knows people who have had to move two or three times because of facility closures. With the company pushing for more?—?including the Waterbury facility in Connecticut, the Louisville facility in Ohio, and a production line in Brackenridge?—?the union is fighting to ensure that workers forced into retirement will keep the pensions they’ve earned.

For rank-and-file workers like Joe Clark, an overhead crane operator at the Brackenridge facility, a work stoppage is his chance to draw a line in the sand after years of compromise.

“When we were first contracted to put this [hot rolling mill] in [at Brackenridge], they asked us for concessions because they wanted to create jobs that were going to be for us and for our families in the future,” says Clark. ?“It was supposed to guarantee more jobs for the community, so we sacrificed.”

The company spent $1.5 billion to expand and update the Brackenridge facility, aided by a controversial economic development strategy known as ?“Keystone Opportunity Zones.” The long-term tax abatements awarded to these zones were supposed to create jobs, but a 2015 piece written by then-President of the USW, Leo Gerard, argues they have never materially benefitted local residents. Bill Hrivnak, who Gerard quotes in the piece, says that “[Everyone] thought when they built a $1 billion plant here that it would be great for the community, and it hasn’t been.”

“They cut two thirds of the same department we work in now,” he continues. ?“The [new] jobs never appeared, the technology cut [existing] jobs, and we continued to work without raises, sacrificing. They’re always telling us the company is in a difficult position, and they’re not making money. But they’re paying out millions of dollars to their CEOs and their upper-level people.”

Workers are skeptical about the company’s claimed hardship. ?“You look at what we’re getting compensated and what the CEOs are getting compensated, it doesn’t really add up,” says Barchevsky.

Although it expects to rebound in 2021, recent filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission reveal ATI has lost money each of the last three quarters. The same report finds that the company has ?“reduced company-wide employment levels by approximately 1,400 people, or about 17% of our total workforce.”

Many of those layoffs have been union jobs. Before a 2015 labor dispute that led to a lockout, workers say there were approximately 2,200 bargaining unit employees. Now there are just 1300, with management proposing to close more plants and make further cuts. 

Artman puts things bluntly: ?“They’re trying to break the union.” Clark agrees, describing management as a ?“tyranny of evil men.” For its part, ATI released a statement on social media saying that it was ?“disappointed USW elected to strike.”

Fortunately for the USW, the Brackenridge community is on its side. 

“Everyone’s still supportive,” says Barchesky. ?“They still wave, they still come and talk to us. Nobody wants to go on strike. We didn’t get compensated for the last seven months we were locked out, but we can’t lay down and take another beating… we can’t let them just keep gutting us.”

This blog originally appeared atIn These Times on April 1, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: C.M. Lewis is an editor of Strikewave and a union activist in Pennsylvania. 


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Service + Solidarity Spotlight: UMWA Goes on Strike at Alabama’s Warrior Met Coal

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Working people across the United States have stepped up to help out our friends, neighbors and communities during these trying times. In our regular Service + Solidarity Spotlight series, we’ll showcase one of these stories every day. Here’s today’s story.

Unless the parties can reach a last-minute agreement, the Mine Workers (UMWA) union is launching its largest strike since the 1990s. UMWA President Cecil Roberts lambasted the company in a press release announcing the strike at Warrior Met Coal in Alabama. “[I]nstead of rewarding the sacrifices and work of the miners, Warrior Met is seeking even further sacrifices from them, while demonstrating perhaps some of the worst labor-management relations we’ve seen in this industry since the days of the company town and company store,” he said. The union explained that workers at Warrior have made significant concessions since 2016 to help bring the company out of bankruptcy.

Roberts said: “We have always been ready to reach a fair agreement that recognizes the sacrifices our members and their families made to keep this company alive. At this point, Warrior Met is not….Despite Warrior Met’s apparent appetite for this conflict, we will prevail.”


This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIOon April 1, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell  is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.


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Pathway to Progress: The Charleston Hospital Strike

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History has long been portrayed as a series of “great men” taking great action to shape the world we live in. In recent decades, however, social historians have focused more on looking at history “from the bottom up,” studying the vital role that working people played in our heritage. Working people built, and continue to build, the United States. In our new series, Pathway to Progress, we’ll take a look at various people, places and events where working people played a key role in the progress our country has made, including those who are making history right now. Today’s topic is the Charleston hospital strike.

In the late 1960s, Charleston, South Carolina, was NOT primed to be the next city to be a touchstone in either the civil rights movement or the labor movement. Much of the progress and activism seen elsewhere had passed Charleston by. And the White power structure was as equally entrenched against labor unionism as it was against the expansion of Black people’s rights. But the hospital strike of 1969 became as important to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) Poor People’s Campaign and the labor movement as the Montgomery bus boycott would be to the civil rights movement.

After dock workers were rejected in their bid for a union contract, everyone assumed Black hospital workers had absolutely no chance or successfully organizing. Workers at two hospitals, though, had other plans. One of the hospitals was run by the state and the other by the county. Management had reportedly engaged in racially biased behavior, notably preventing Black doctors from working at the hospital for many years.

Local 1199, then associated with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, had experience with organizing in hostile territory. After it organized 34,000 new members in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, it formed a national organizing committee for hospital workers. The local also reached out to the SCLC, one of the most important civil rights organizations, to coordinate on organizing efforts. Nearly 3 million hospital and nursing home employees throughout the country were without union representation, most were Black or Latinx and most were desperately poor. The SCLC launched the Poor People’s Campaign specifically to help out in such situations and so it joined with Local 1199 in forming the National Organizing Committee of Hospital and Nursing Home Employees. Coretta Scott King was named honorary chair and Ralph Abernathy and other SCLC leaders were members of the committee.

The SCLC and Local 1199 trained staff in union organizing methods that were successful in places like Memphis, Tennessee, Atlanta and St. Petersburg. The hospital workers in Charleston weren’t idle, either, as they began organizing meetings with help from the local Black community. Management was led by Dr. William McCord, president of the medical college, which ran the state hospital. After delaying meeting with organizers, McCord fired 12 of them. The reaction was immediate, when 400 workers, including nurses, nurse’s aides, kitchen helpers, laundry workers and orderlies, walked off the job. A week later, workers at the county-run hospital walked out in sympathy. The workers’ demands were clear, rehire the 12 fired workers, recognize the union, increase wages and institute grievance procedures.

McCord was contemptuous. He offered to give Black workers an additional holiday for the birthday of Robert E. Lee. McCord secured an injunction from a segregationist judge that effectively eliminated legal protests. The Black workers rejected the injunction’s validity and began picketing the hospital. Arrests immediately followed. Even worse, vigilantes began assaulting strikers, who had to establish security guards at the picket and around their union hall.

By now, SCLC and Local 1199 staff were on the ground to provide leadership and assistance. Abernathy and other prominent leaders like Andrew Young set up camp in Charleston and sought to bring national attention to the plight of the Black hospital workers. They quickly tied the hospital strike to the larger civil rights movement and connected the strike directly to Martin Luther King Jr., who had been slain in Memphis the previous year while supporting striking sanitation workers. Coretta Scott King said: “If my husband were alive today, he would be in Charleston, South Carolina.”

Charleston faced mass meetings, daily marches, evening rallies and boycotts of stores and schools that didn’t support the strike. The response included daily confrontations with police and local White citizens, and arrests were daily. The governor came out against the strike and sent state troopers and National Guardsman. Arrests were stepped up.

But the strikers didn’t back down and they weren’t intimidated. They showed up, day-after-day, regardless of what was thrown at them, which, by that point, included bayonets, tanks and National Guardsmen patrolling the city’s streets. Coretta Scott King spoke at two local churches and nearly 30% of the city’s Black population showed up. She not only championed the cause of the hospital workers, she appealed for financial assistance, as the union and SCLC were running out of money to sustain the strike. 

King’s request went national. The leaders of civil rights organizations and Black elected officials came together for the first time since Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. The appeal worked. With the help of national ads and television coverage, money began flowing in. Walter Reuther personally joined the demonstrations and donated $10,000. George Meaney and the national AFL-CIO gave another $25,000. Other unions, including White unions, joined the hospital workers on the picket lines. Abernathy was jailed, as were leaders of 1199B, the new designation for the local started by the Charleston hospital workers. 

The opposition to the strike started to fracture. Boycotts brought business activity to a standstill in the city. The business community began to fear a economic disaster and they called for a settlement. Others feared that a victory for Black hospital workers would lead to further organizing by civil rights organizations and labor unions in the city. In particular, they were afraid that union organizing would move into the textile industry, which was strong in the state. Further complicating the situation were federal contracts, with $12 million worth on the verge of being canceled if the hospital continued to discriminate against Black workers.

In this environment, the hospital administration agreed to rehire the strikers, including the original 12 fired workers. State government agreed to raise the minimum wage as well, potentially giving strikers several of their demands. With the agreement set to be finalized, Sen. Strom Thurmond stepped in and said that the federal aid would be delivered, regardless of the hospital’s actions. The hospital withdrew from the settlement and Local 1199 and the SCLC accused President Richard Nixon of “giving Senator Thurmond his political payoff for services rendered in the last election. A payoff whose real price is the suffering of Black hospital workers.”

Demonstrations started up again and they expanded to the textile companies and government buildings in the state and in Washington, D.C. More unions joined the protests and mass arrests continued. Attempts to solve the problem from the nation’s capitol were stalled by the Nixon administration until Secretary of Labor George Schultz took action. He sent a mediator to South Carolina and demanded that the strike be settled.

After 100 days, the strike was settled in favor of the Black hospital workers. They won wage increases of 30-70 cents an hour, the establishment of a credit union, a grievance procedure that allowed the union to represent employees and all fired and striking workers were reinstated. They didn’t win union recognition, but the wins they achieved addressed most of the problems the union would’ve taken on anyway.

At a victory rally at Zion Olivet Church, the Rev. Andrew Young summarized why the strike was successful: “We won this strike because of a wonderful marriage—the marriage of the SCLC and Local 1199. The first of many beautiful children of this marriage is Local 1199B here in Charleston, and there are going to be as many more children like 1199B as there are letters in the alphabet.”

The combined efforts didn’t stop in Charleston. The tactics used in South Carolina were quickly exported elsewhere. Within months, they had also secured collective bargaining rights for 1,500 mostly Black workers at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Within a year, the Baltimore local had added 6,000 more hospital and nursing home workers. In December, the National Union of Hospital and Nursing Home Employees was established with Coretta Scott King as honorary chairperson. While reflecting upon the success in Charleston, King said that right before his death, her husband had concluded that “the key to battling poverty is winning jobs for workers with decent pay through unionism.” Charleston was one of the first moments that proved King right.

Source: “Organized Labor and the Black Worker, 1619-1981” by Philip S. Foner, 1974.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on February 19, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell  is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.


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After Threatening Strike, Chicago Teachers Set “New Standard” With Safer School Reopening Plan

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After defying an order to return to school buildings they deemed unsafe, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has voted to approve a significantly revised plan to reopen elementary schools next month. On Tuesday, 13,681 CTU members (68% of those who participated) voted to approve the agreement, while 6,585 members voted against it. 

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) had attempted to unilaterally reopen K?8 schools on February 1 despite ongoing negotiations with the union over how to do so safely, leading CTU members to vote late last month to disregard that directive and continue remote instruction. 

The standoff soon became a focal point in the growing national debate over sending children and teachers back into schools, demonstrating the power of unions to fight for workers’ health and safety in the midst of a pandemic that has already killed nearly 470,000 people in the United States. 

As negotiations continued into the first week of February, Lightfoot accusedK?8 educators of making unreasonable demands while repeatedly threateningto lock them out of online learning platforms and dock their pay if they didn’t report in-person to school buildings. 

Facing the threat of a lock out, CTU promised to strike in response, and ultimately the mayor and CPS made multiple concessions. 

On February 7, Lightfoot and the union’s negotiating team reached a tentative framework for reopening elementary schools, which, on Tuesday, CTU membership voted to approve. There is still no plan on when to reopen high schools, but CPS has agreed to negotiate that question with the union. 

“Basic safety shouldn’t even be a negotiation, let alone a privilege?—?yet it is in Chicago, under this mayor,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said.

Under the new plan, in-person learning will now resume on March 1 for grades K?5 and on March 8 for grades 6?–?8?—?a full month later than what the mayor had originally demanded.

After the union called for a health metric to determine when in-person learning might have to be suspended again, CPS agreed to shut down school buildings in the event that citywide Covid cases increase for seven consecutive days at a rate one-fifth higher than the previous week.

The district also agreed not to force educators back into school buildings until after they have had an opportunity to be fully vaccinated, with a plan to vaccinate at least 1,500 CPS employees per week.

While CPS was originally planning only limited surveillance testing, it will now test 100% of in-person employees every week at schools in neighborhoods with the highest Covid rates, and 50% of employees at schools in all other neighborhoods.

In addition, after the school district arbitrarily denied telework accommodations to as many as 85% of teachers and staff who requested them because they live with a medically vulnerable person, CPS agreed to institute clear guidelines for determining when and how such accommodations will be granted.

Finally, the agreement immediately reinstates over 100 preschool and special education teachers and staff who had been docked salary and locked out of their virtual classrooms since early January after they defied a directive to return to school buildings. 

“No one sacrificed more in this struggle than our rank-and-file members who were locked out, docked pay or faced discipline, and we owe them our most profound thanks for making the impossible possible,” Sharkey said. ?“They made CPS finally negotiate. They delayed reopening. They cracked open the mayor’s hypocrisy.”

Lightfoot did not agree to provide backpay to the workers she locked out, something the CTU will continue pursuing through the grievance procedure. In the meantime, the union has established a GoFundMe campaign to financially support them.

While a majority of members accepted the negotiated reopening plan, the CTU made clear it does not endorse the way Lightfoot and CPS have handled the pandemic?—?with 90% of the union’s House of Delegates approving a rare vote of ?“no confidence” in the mayor and school district’s leadership.

“The work isn’t complete, and there are no victories in this moment. There is only surviving a pandemic,” the CTU tweeted.

Some of the teachers who opposed the plan said on social media that they do not believe it goes far enough on safety, nor do they believe it addresses the needs of the vast majority of CPS’s Black and Latino families who are optingto continue remote learning.

“I just voted no. I know a lot of people did amazing work to get CPS even to this point. We are talking about keeping people safe & alive. This plan does not do that. It doesn’t improve remote learning for parents either. I know that parents, teachers & students deserve better,” wrote high school teacher Dave Stieber.

“This plan is not what any of us deserve. Not us. Not our students. Not their families,” Sharkey said. ?“We got what we were able to take. CTU members fought hard and sacrificed for this, so we have to protect and use it.”

Though many in the union feel the plan is inadequate, education policy expert Brad Marianno told Chalkbeat Chicago that it’s the ?“most comprehensive agreement for reopening schools that we have seen around the country” and that it could set ?“a new standard for other districts.”

Teacher unions in other cities are already following the CTU’s example. Earlier this week, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers refused an order to return to school buildings, forcing the mayor to back off on reopening until an independent arbitrator reviews the situation. 

The agreement in Chicago comes the same week that retired CTU President Karen Lewis passed away after a long struggle with brain cancer. Lewis was instrumental in turning the union into a vehicle for social justice, leading a successful strike in 2012 that has since inspired numerous other teachers strikes, kicking off the Red for Ed movement and introducing a new generation of workers and activists to the power of unions.

“Karen would have been so proud of our rank and file: our unity, our democracy, our determination to fight for the common good, and the solidarity at the heart of our strength,” Sharkey said.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on February 10, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke has been a Working In These Times contributor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst.


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Ohio Auto Parts Workers Strike to Unionize

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Update, February 1: The workers ended their strike January 30, without having won union recognition. They plan to petition for a union authorization election with the National Labor Relations Board. —Editors

Workers at an auto parts factory in Norwalk, Ohio, are reviving a classic tactic—they’re eight days into a walkout to demand that their employer recognize their union.

The strikers work for Borgers, a German-owned Tier 1 auto parts supplier, meaning they supply parts directly to auto manufacturers. The factory produces wheel well and trunk liners for companies like General Motors, Ford, Volvo, BMW, and Tesla.

An overwhelming majority, 170 workers, signed union cards with the SEIU affiliate Workers United and demanded recognition—but the company ignored them. So on January 21, they walked out.

Norwalk, west of Cleveland and south of Detroit, has been hit hard by deindustrialization and plant closings. The Borgers facility sits across the street from a former Janesville Acoustics plant that closed in 2013, where hundreds of workers were members of Workers United.

‘I’VE NEVER BEEN TREATED SO BADLY’

The Borgers strikers describe a workplace rife with sexual harassment, racism, safety problems, and arbitrary management decisions.

Tiffany Slagle works as a quality technician, checking that parts are up to standard and that machines are operating properly. “I’ve never been treated so badly in my life,” Slagle said. “People grabbing at me, pulling my hair. Nothing happens to them because they’re close to management.”

Supervisors and those close to them also wield the power of job advancement. “If you’re a woman, your only shot for getting an improvement is to get involved with a supervisor,” said Joe Krout, a material handler and forklift driver. He said the “good old boys culture” allows endemic racism and sexual harassment to continue.

Jacob Gonzales works on Felt Line 1 as a forklift driver. His first day on the job, a supervisor asked if he should refer to Gonzales as one racial slur or another. “I was taken aback,” said Gonzales. “I was afraid for my job. Was this how it was going to be? This guy’s been there for five years.”

ARBITRARY WAGE RATES

Workers say that safety issues aren’t taken seriously in the facility. Gonzales talked about a time one of his co-workers lost the tip of his finger in an accident.

“In the immediate aftermath, management started making jokes, snickering,” said Gonzales. “This guy just lost a portion of his body, hadn’t even been taken to the hospital yet, and they were saying, ‘Well I guess he won’t be picking his nose with that finger.’”

The strikers say their wages are far too low for the work that they do, and are arbitrary. Wages and pay increases are merit-based, which in practice means they are inconsistent and based on favoritism. 

Krout makes $14.50 per hour—higher than most. Some workers get as little as $13. He previously earned $19 an hour as a forklift driver in a nearby unionized factory, and said he doesn’t know of anywhere else nearby that pays forklift drivers less than $15. “The biggest things I want to see would be a living wage, and a fair and transparent bidding process to move up,” said Krout.

Workers want a fair chance at advancement, and think that a big international company like Borgers can afford it. Said Slagle: “They can afford to pay rent-a-cops to sit out here and watch us on the picket line, but can’t give us a wage increase?”

Borgers workers in Germany are members of I.G. Metall. Ohio strikers have been in contact with their German counterparts. “In Germany, all their plants are unionized,” Gonzales said. “We don’t want to be considered second-class employees at Borgers.”

STRIKING JUST IN TIME

Striking for union recognition was a popular tactic during the U.S. labor movement’s growth spurt in the private sector during the 1930s-40s, and again in the public sector unionization wave of the 1970s. It’s far less common now. Most unions either use the National Labor Relations Board election process or find ways to put pressure—short of a strike—on an employer to voluntarily recognize the union.

Recognition strikes are most effective when workers have significant leverage over their employer. Much of the auto industry operates on a “just-in-time” model for parts delivery: big manufacturers get and make parts as they need them, rather than sitting on huge stockpiles. Workers at a Chrysler supplier in Toledo, Ohio, in 2014 used this leverage to win a recognition strike.

During the strike, the company has continued to operate at a reduced capacity, using a combination of workers who crossed the picket line and temps. But workers believe they’re affecting production.

“Since the strike, the quality of the parts has gone down,” said Slagle. “Their production is lower because they have people going back through parts [to check for mistakes].”

Krout expects the company to start incurring fines from automakers for falling behind on parts orders. “The impact on production has been significant,” he said. “Certain high-volume production cells are depleted entirely.” Much of what the Borgers workers produce goes to big General Motors facilities: Spring Hill in Tennessee; CAMI in Ontario, Canada; and Ramos Arizpe in Northern Mexico.

Strikers hope that the presence on the picket line of the high-skilled maintenance workers—responsible for keeping the finicky machines running—will slow down production even further.

“Our hopes are still high,” said Slagle. “The company is hard-headed and they’re not budging, but they’ve got some good workers out here who they can’t replace.”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on January 29, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Chicago Teachers Are Showing the Country How to Fight an Unsafe Reopening

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As Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot presses ahead with a controversialplan to reopen elementary schools next Monday, the 25,000-member Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) may be headed into its third strike since 2012.

Closed since March because of the coronavirus crisis, K?8 schools are set to resume in-person classes on February 1, with parents having the option of sending their children back or continuing remote learning. The decision was made unilaterally by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) despite ongoing negotiations with the union over how to reopen safely.

Elementary teachers and staff were ordered to return to school buildings this week to prepare for the reopening. But citing safety concerns, 71% of CTU members voted over the weekend to defy that order and continue teaching remotely until an agreement is reached. 

Lightfoot has warned that educators who don’t report in-person by Monday may be locked out of online learning systems and docked pay. If that happens, the union is promising to go on strike.

“We are willing to keep teaching, but CPS has said they will lock us out,” said CTU President Jesse Sharkey. ?“Is the mayor creating a crisis just to get her way on a reopening date that ignores the risks in our schools and our neighborhoods?”

Coming 15 months after the CTU went on strike to demand Lightfoot keep her campaign promise of putting a nurse and social worker in every school, the confrontation is demonstrating the power of unions to fight for workers’ health and safety amid a pandemic that has killed over 425,000 people in the United States. As the incoming Biden administration attempts to get a handle on the pandemic, the CTU’s struggle is shaping the national discourse around what constitutes a safe way to reopen schools.

Reopening

The union is asking for weekly testing for teachers and students inside school buildings, a public health metric for determining when schools reopen or close, and the flexibility to allow teachers to return to schools after they’ve been vaccinated

“I think our members have been beyond reasonable,” said CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates. ?“They are asking for a safe reopening. It’s not if we reopen, it’s how we reopen.”

Teachers just became eligible to receive Covid vaccinations this week. While educators in suburban Evanston and Skokie are already getting vaccinated, CTU members say CPS has not put forward a comprehensive plan to help them know when and where to receive vaccinations.

“This is the third largest school district in the United States, you would think they would have a real vaccination plan,” said Linda Perales, a special education teacher at Corkery Elementary in Little Village.

In contrast to CPS leaders, the head of the Los Angeles Unified School District?—?the nation’s second largest public school system?—?is insisting that in-person learning not resume until after teachers have been vaccinated.

When asked on Tuesday why she is refusing to wait until teachers can get vaccinated before reopening schools, Lightfoot appeared to pit teachers against frontline essential workers. ?“We also have others who have been out there every single day, working, putting themselves at risk,” she said. ?“How do we say to those folks, ?‘You have to go to the back of the line?’”

“We have been teaching effectively since March, almost one year, from the safety of our homes. We know that essential workers, mostly Black and Brown folks, have not had that privilege. They should be the ones that are prioritized for this vaccine,” said Perales. ?“But CPS: If you’re trying to force us back into the building, give us a real vaccination plan.”

The union is also demanding telework accommodations for teachers who live with medically vulnerable family members, but says CPS is nitpicking over what counts as a sufficiently serious underlying health condition.

“We’re literally going back and forth on if cancer is more serious than hypertension or diabetes in terms of granting accommodations,” Davis Gates said. ?“This shouldn’t be a fight.”

At Joliet Public Schools District 86, the school board recently voted unanimously to continue remote learning until the end of the school year. Notably, the members of the Joliet school board are elected to their positions, unlike the members of the Chicago Board of Education, who are handpicked by the mayor.

Equity

Lightfoot claims her reopening plan is a matter of equity for students of color, who she says are falling behind under remote learning. But only 31% of Latino families and 33.9% of Black families feel comfortable sending their children back to school. These are the same communities that have been hardest hitby Covid-19.

The mayor also says her rush to reopen is in response to the demands of parents, who have struggled to find childcare options during remote learning. Yet out of 191,000 K?8 students at CPS, the parents of only 71,000 plan to send their kids back to school next week.

Meanwhile, optional in-person learning already resumed for pre?K and special education students on January 11, but less than 19% of those students have returned, with the rest choosing to continue online instruction. 

“It’s obvious to everyone but CPS and the mayor that parents aren’t sending their children back because they do not believe schools are safe or that Covid is under control,” Davis Gates explained. ?“This is especially true for Black and Brown families.”

Pre?K and special education teachers and staff were ordered to reenter school buildings on January 4, but 40% refused to do so. Instead, many protested by setting up tables and laptops right outside their schools and holding remote learning sessions in frigid temperatures. CPS has moved to discipline over 100 of these teachers and staff, locking them out of their digital classrooms and docking their pay. 

“I have been ripped away from my students for practicing my right to work in a safe working environment,” said Perales, who is among those locked out. ?“My students have not had me there in front of them to teach them. That is infuriating and that is not equity.”

Safety

The controversy in Chicago was thrust into the national spotlight earlier this week when President Joe Biden?—?who wants to reopen most of the nation’s schools within his first 100 days in office?—?was asked his opinion about it.

“We should make school classrooms safe and secure for the students, for the teachers and for the help that’s in those schools maintaining the facilities,” Biden said. ?“The teachers, I know they want to work. They just want to work in a safe environment.”

The mayor argues her reopening plan meets suitable health and safety criteria, but the CTU notes that in the three weeks since some teachers and staff were ordered back into buildings, new Covid cases have already been reported at 64 CPS schools. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a study on Tuesday reporting that the risk of Covid transmission in schools appears to be low, but the study only looked at schools in rural areas, not in a major city like Chicago. 

Three CDC researchers also published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Tuesday with similar conclusions, but they warned that the reopening of schools must be paired with restrictions on indoor dining at restaurants and bars to prevent wider community spread. Lightfoot lifted a suspension on indoor dining in Chicago earlier this week.

Over 160 CPS nurses have signed a letter saying Lightfoot’s plan is unsafe. ?“Nurses who work in schools have not been asked to formulate CPS’s plan,” the letter states, ?“but we are expected to carry it out?—?despite our objections.” Although the union won a contract guarantee of eventually putting a nurse in every school following its strike in October 2019, the letter acknowledges that ?“CPS is still far away from having a nurse in every building every day.”

Meanwhile, 36 out of 50 elected alderpeople on the Chicago City Council have signed a letter of their own expressing concerns about the school reopening plan. Similarly, multiple local school councils?—?elected bodies of parents, students and teachers?—?have issued resolutions objecting to the plan.

“We want to return to safe, welcoming and thriving schools,” Davis Gates said. ?“That can’t happen until we put the health and safety precautions of our educators, our students and the larger community ahead of the unreasonable demand to return to school buildings that lack the necessary protocols to keep us safe.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 27, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke has been a Working In These Times contributor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst. 


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In a Six-Day Strike, Bronx Produce Workers Doubled Their Raise and Inspired New York

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Drivers and warehouse workers who feed New York City have won their strike. After six days off the job, the strikers at Hunts Point Produce Market in the Bronx ratified a contract that doubled management’s wage offer and defeated a health care cost increase.

The 1,400 workers at the world’s largest wholesale produce market, members of Teamsters Local 202, are responsible for packing and delivering 60 percent of the fruits and vegetables that go to restaurants and grocery stores in New York City.

The unit is comprised of 14 different companies that bargain a contract together. Before the strike, the employers were offering a raise of just 32 cents an hour, and wanted to pass on to workers an increase in health care costs.

The strikers demanded a $1-an-hour raise and no increased cost for health care. They pointed out that they have been working throughout the pandemic, putting their lives at risk. Ten workers have died of Covid since the pandemic began.

“The companies stopped providing PPE [personal protective equipment] months ago, back in September,” said Frankie, a Local 202 member I met on the picket line, who has been with his company for 28 years.

“They don’t even require workers to wear masks at work,” he said. “They also took the handwashing stations out back in September. It’s like they decided that Covid was over.

“Meanwhile the companies received $15 million in PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] loans each! I’m striking to show my daughters that just because we are poor does not mean we don’t stand up for what we deserve.”

ARRESTED ON MLK DAY

The workers called the strike on a Sunday night, January 17, after negotiations broke down. They started to picket both entrances to the Hunts Point Market.

The next evening, police showed up in riot gear and announced that any workers continuing to picket in the entrances would be arrested. The workers kept their picket lines moving until a group of around 50 police officers rushed them and arrested five people.

“It is outrageous that after being called essential heroes for months, several of our members were arrested while peacefully protesting for a raise today,” said Local 202 President Danny Kane in a statement. “These are the essential workers who went to work every day through the worst of the pandemic to feed New York. All they are asking for is a dollar-an-hour raise so they can feed their families too. The fact that they were arrested on Martin Luther King Day reminds us what side of history we are on.”

Videos of the police attacking the striking workers soon went viral, and the community responded with an outpouring of solidarity. Major support came from the NYC Democratic Socialists of America, which set up a table to keep the strikers fed and warm, and collected donations totaling more than $31,000 that went to things like firewood, hand warmers, and hot food.

The workers continued to picket behind the barricades that the police had set up on both sides of the entrance. They resorted to shouting down scabs and co-workers who were crossing the picket line. The police attempted to stop the strikers from trying to talk people out of crossing the line, in some cases physically escorting them back to the barricades.

The police continued to be a presence and were accused of targeting the night shift, where most workers were Black and Brown and the white leadership was visibly absent. Some workers were eager to continue to picket in the entrance, while some of the union leadership urged them to be patient and let leaders handle the situation.

The workers received a number of visits from local politicians, including Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who does not represent the district but lives nearby. Teamster leaders and rank and file were overwhelmed by the support; many visited the table to thank the supporters, and said things like, “We wouldn’t be able to still be out here if it wasn’t for you guys.”

The picket line ran 24/7; people took the same shifts they normally would work. Many of the workers mentioned that this was their first time striking—but that they felt it had been a long time coming.

“Every contract we talk about striking, but we never do,” said Jason, a packer who has been with his company for seven years. “This time was different. In 2021, in the middle of a pandemic and they’re saying we are essential and all of that, so why not pay us the dollar?”

‘WE KNOW THEY NEED US’

By Wednesday, union leaders announced that they were back at the negotiating table, and workers were anticipating a deal soon. “Yesterday, a whole train full of produce from Ohio turned around and refused to cross the line,” a driver named Jose told me that day. He has been with his company for 35 years.

“The guys that they are trying to bring in to do our jobs don’t know kale from spinach,” he said. “The food will go bad waiting for someone to unpack, and they can’t take those losses for too long. They think anyone can do this job, but we know that they need us.”

Spirits were high on the picket line, and on Friday, after another visit from Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, leaders announced they had a tentative agreement. Terms were to be announced the next morning on the picket line; supporters were invited to a victory brunch.

On Saturday morning, crowds gathered at the picket line; leaders led groups of workers a few at a time into the market to discuss the terms and vote on the contract. Supporters stood by waiting anxiously.

Soon the news was shared and celebrated by all: the deal had been ratified by 97 percent of the members voting.

HOPING TO INSPIRE

The new contract includes an immediate raise of 70 cents an hour, followed by a 50-cent raise in 2022. Warehouse workers who currently make $18.57 an hour, as well as all drivers, will see a 65-cents-an-hour raise in 2023. Warehouse workers currently earning $20.70 will receive a $1,300 bonus in 2023 instead of the 65 cents. The strike also stopped the company from increasing what workers pay for family health care benefits.

“It’s not the dollar we wanted, but it’s a win,” Jose said, “and next time we will fight even harder. I’m glad we did this, because before we felt like nobody cared about us, nobody knew us.

“Now we know that New York City supports Black and immigrant workers, some of us formerly incarcerated, many of us just trying to feed our kids and make a better life for them.

“Hopefully other workers will get inspired to fight for what they deserve, by seeing us do it.”

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

About the Author: Bianca Cunningham is a staff writer and organizer at Labor Notes.


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Essential food workers strike over $1 in New York City, this week in the war on workers

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Remember back in April when everyone suddenly realized that food chain workers are essential workers? A group of workers in the Bronx is trying to make good on that realization as they negotiate their next contract—and it’s led to a strike, as the bosses at the Hunts Point Produce Market refuse the workers’ call for a $1 an hour raise and added help with healthcare costs. Union representatives say that hundreds of workers have gotten COVID-19 and six have died, but New York City has gotten the food it needs—the 1,400 Teamsters workers at the market handle around 60% of the city’s produce.

“We’re working in a pandemic, now risking our life, every day, and you want to give us less than what you gave us the last time in a normal situation?” union trustee Charles Machadio told Gothamist. Pointing out that management rhetoric about the “continued uncertainty surrounding the pandemic” is in sharp contrast with the fact that the produce market has remained open throughout, Machadio thinks this is more than just a normal wage dispute: “I think they’re using the pandemic to try and get out of the contract.”  

The market is offering 32 cents in added pay and 60 additional cents toward healthcare coverage.

Rallying with the workers on Wednesday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said “Our entire city needs to stand by our essential workers. And it’s not enough for us to just say it and it’s not enough for, you know, we have to say thank you to all of our essential workers from our nurses to our food workers to the folks loading the trucks. But it’s not just enough to say thank you. We have to support them in their demands for a better life.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on January 23, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Chicago Teachers Are Considering a Strike Amid Pandemic Surge

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As the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic enters its dead­liest phase yet, the Chica­go Teach­ers Union (CTU) and its allies are resist­ing May­or Lori Lightfoot’s plan to reopen school build­ings and resume in-per­son learn­ing this month.

Over 10,000 CTU mem­bers have pledged their oppo­si­tion to the reopen­ing plan put for­ward by the may­or and Chica­go Pub­lic Schools (CPS), cit­ing seri­ous con­cerns over safe­ty and transparency. 

In-per­son learn­ing is set to resume for pre?K stu­dents on Jan­u­ary 11, and for ele­men­tary school stu­dents on Feb­ru­ary 1. May­or Light­foot and CPS have not yet indi­cat­ed when they plan to reopen high schools.

“Many of our mem­bers are not feel­ing safe at all, they’re feel­ing more anx­ious and scared than ever,” said CTU Pres­i­dent Jesse Sharkey. He added that union mem­bers will hold meet­ings in the com­ing days and weeks and may con­sid­er hold­ing a strike autho­riza­tion vote.

Light­foot and CPS claim their deter­mi­na­tion to reopen schools at this time is a mat­ter of equi­ty for stu­dents of col­or who they say are falling behind under remote learn­ing. But only 31 per­cent of Lati­no fam­i­lies and 33.9 per­cent of Black fam­i­lies feel com­fort­able send­ing their kids back to in-per­son learn­ing. These are the same com­mu­ni­ties that have been hard­est hit by Covid-19. Across the coun­try, oth­er teach­ers’ unions are sim­i­lar­ly protest­ing school reopen­ing plans that they deem unsafe. 

“The biggest obsta­cle to reopen­ing schools is the man­age­ment of CPS, because they’ve failed to reach the stan­dards set by teach­ers and prin­ci­pals for our sup­port of a reopen­ing plan,” said Troy LaR­aviere, pres­i­dent of the Chica­go Prin­ci­pals & Admin­is­tra­tors Asso­ci­a­tion, which also oppos­es the rush to reopen. ?“Con­trary to the words of our may­or and CEO, this reopen­ing plan does not seek to address inequity, it is pro­mot­ing inequity.”

With its mem­bers hand­picked by the may­or, the Chica­go Board of Edu­ca­tion is the only unelect­ed school board in Illi­nois. Mean­while, 36 out of 50 elect­ed alder­peo­ple on the City Coun­cil have signed onto a let­ter express­ing their con­cerns with the school reopen­ing plan. Sim­i­lar­ly, mul­ti­ple local school coun­cils?—?elect­ed bod­ies of par­ents, stu­dents and teach­ers?—?have issuedres­o­lu­tions object­ing to the plan.

“We believe the plan CPS has put for­ward is irre­spon­si­ble. We don’t think we are ready to send chil­dren back to the class­room, and nei­ther should we send teach­ers and staff,” said Alder­woman Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez. ?“It seems like every fail­ure of this sys­tem ends up being the respon­si­bil­i­ty of teach­ers and staff to fix and we are always offer­ing them in sac­ri­fice when we can’t make the sys­tems work.”

CTU Vice Pres­i­dent Sta­cy Davis Gates con­curs. ?“You have a sit­u­a­tion right now where prin­ci­pals, para­pro­fes­sion­als, clin­i­cians, class­room teach­ers, elect­ed offi­cials, stu­dents and their fam­i­lies are beg­ging, demand­ing, ask­ing for safe­ty in the mid­dle of a pan­dem­ic,” she said. ?“And then the ques­tion comes to the Chica­go Teach­ers Union, ?‘Are you all going on strike?’ I actu­al­ly think that’s the wrong ques­tion. The right ques­tion has to be, ?‘Why aren’t they?—?the may­or and her team at CPS?—?lis­ten­ing to every­one else?’”

On Mon­day, about 7,000 pre?K and spe­cial edu­ca­tion teach­ers and staff were expect­ed to return to school build­ings, with their stu­dents set to return next week. Although CPS is threat­en­ing to dis­ci­pline edu­ca­tors who refuse to return in-per­son, about 40 per­cent did not reen­ter school build­ings on Monday. 

At Brentano Math and Sci­ence Acad­e­my in Logan Square, teach­ers and staff who had been told to report inside the build­ing on Mon­day instead set up tables and lap­tops in the school’s out­door court­yard, where they held remote learn­ing ses­sions all day in below-freez­ing temperatures.

“One of our biggest respon­si­bil­i­ties is to pro­tect, to guide and to advo­cate for our stu­dents at all times. This means we need to work to ensure their safe­ty, the qual­i­ty of their edu­ca­tion and to set an exam­ple by stand­ing up for our own health and safe­ty too,” said Annie Kel­logg, a spe­cial edu­ca­tion preschool teacher at Brentano.

“We work hard to attain our stu­dents’ trust. This can take weeks and months,” Claire Colt, a social work­er at Brentano, explained. ?“Now because of the anx­i­ety and uncer­tain­ty caused by CPS reopen­ing schools to in-per­son instruc­tion at the height of the pan­dem­ic, there is a chance these rela­tion­ships may be disrupted…This means more loss­es for our stu­dents, pre­cise­ly at a time when they need as much sta­bil­i­ty as possible.”

Accord­ing to a CTU sur­vey, 69 per­cent of edu­ca­tors who chose to return to school build­ings on Mon­day report­ed poor con­di­tions, lack of PPE and inad­e­quate air fil­ters for class­rooms. Light­foot and CPS CEO Jan­ice K. Jack­son post­ed pho­tos on Twit­ter of their vis­it to two ele­men­tary schools?—?but reporters were not invit­ed to these events, nor were they on the mayor’s pub­lic schedule. 

The CTU is demand­ing clear pub­lic health cri­te­ria for reopen­ing schools, specif­i­cal­ly that in-per­son learn­ing only resume when Chicago’s test pos­i­tiv­i­ty rate is below 3 per­cent. The city’s cur­rent pos­i­tiv­i­ty rate is over 10per­cent and rising. 

“They didn’t go by any met­rics or any data, they went by a date,” Alder­man Car­los Ramirez-Rosa said of CPS’s reopen­ing plan. ?“And they picked a date that comes right after a peri­od of time when peo­ple were gath­er­ing indoors and spread­ing coro­n­avirus to each oth­er dur­ing Christ­mas and New Year’s.”

A major point of con­tention between the union and CPS has been the school district’s insis­tence that it can uni­lat­er­al­ly impose a reopen­ing plan with­out first reach­ing a nego­ti­at­ed agree­ment with the CTU. Last month, the Illi­nois Edu­ca­tion­al Labor Rela­tions Board denied the union’s motion for an injunc­tion on the cur­rent reopen­ing plan, but an admin­is­tra­tive judge will hear the case at the end of this month.

“It’s not going to work if the dis­trict sim­ply con­tin­ues dic­tat­ing to us and doesn’t sit at the table and lis­ten to the peo­ple who are most on the ground, who know most about what the spe­cif­ic con­di­tions are like in build­ings,” Sharkey explained.

“We need more than what we are receiv­ing in this moment,” Davis Gates said. ?“And it should not take a fight that shuts every­thing down to get those things.”

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

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke has been a Work­ing In These Times con­trib­u­tor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go and a Master’s in Labor Stud­ies from UMass Amherst.


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