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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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Cleveland Heights Teachers Strike in the Snow, Beating Austerity with Solidarity

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Teachers in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, walked out on strike December 2 for the first time since 1983.

Why now? The state was trying to privatize public education. The local school board was trying to balance the budget on our backs. Add to that a once-in-a-century pandemic.

A well-organized membership was determined not to bend to the pressure from all of the above.

PUSH TO PRIVATIZE

Ohio’s legislature, like others, enacted its own version of privatization with a piece of legislation passed in 2013 called Ed Choice.

This law uses a test-and-punish report card to label a school district as failing. Families living in that district can then take public money as a tuition voucher for a private or religious school of their choice.

The Cleveland Heights-University Heights district already had a high concentration of families sending their kids to private and religious schools. Now these families are draining the district of much-needed state funding—creating a budget crisis.

It’s all straight from the playbook of the privatization purveyors. First, starve public schools of funds. This erodes the quality of education, prompting an exodus of students out of the district. This brings pressure to lay off union teaching staff and demand pay cuts. The cycle repeats. 

LOCAL AGENTS OF AUSTERITY

Our union was well aware of the descending storm. That’s why, with the help of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, we led the efforts to change the Ed Choice law. We got no help from our elected school board, and so far our lobbying has yielded no results.

Then in the spring, the Board of Education dropped a hammer, demanding contract concessions unlike any our negotiators had ever seen.

Claiming poverty and citing an impending budget crisis, the board proposed to eliminate experience step increases, something we’ve always had. It demanded a 250 percent increase in what we pay for health insurance and a 1 percent reduction in the board’s share of our state pension. These concessions added up to a $3,000 to $5,000 annual cut in pay.

The board claimed the cuts would bring our health insurance “in line” with surrounding districts. But over the past decade, our union had made concession after concession on wages to keep our health care costs from spiraling. It was a point of pride that we had maintained a decent health care package over the years—even at the expense of a wage rate that fell behind the cost of living.

OUT FOR BLOOD

The extreme demands hit members like a bombshell. But most people thought the district would bargain down. Our negotiators got the district to back off the experience steps.

On our health care, though, it seemed to be out for blood. Apparently the board was listening to a small, vocal minority of anti-tax activists who were misleading the public into believing that our health plans were the reason the district was heading into fiscal crisis.

In June our union formed a strike committee and began organizing for a strike, though the possibility still seemed remote.

Throughout the summer we were also distracted by the global pandemic. The district was planning to start the new school year in person, even though the pandemic showed no signs of diminishing. Teachers lobbied, with community support, and convinced the district to go fully online. But still the impasse in bargaining was causing great consternation.

AT AN IMPASSE

In September the district announced its last, best contract offer. Our strike committee organized an in-person contract rejection vote. Members drove through in their cars; union volunteers handed them ballots. It was a way to bring people together while we couldn’t meet in large groups.

The final tally was 97.5 percent to reject the contract—more than enough to authorize the union to call a strike. We hoped this overwhelming rejection would bring the board to its senses. But instead it decided to impose its offer, an unprecedented step in our local’s history.

This blatant show of disrespect incensed our members, especially after the board told the press that the union was the one refusing to bargain in good faith. Soon after, the board agreed to another round of negotiations—but these were postponed when both sides agreed to wait until after the November 3 election, when a new local tax levy would be on the ballot.

In the meantime, the union strike committee continued to organize in earnest, meeting weekly via Zoom.

PREPARING TO STRIKE

The election came and went; the tax levy passed narrowly. Negotiations reopened—and still the board refused to budge from its final offer.

After a series of vociferous Zoom meetings with the membership, our union president filed a 10-day strike notice. A couple days later the school board president, with crocodile tears in her eyes, made the shocking announcement that the district would be suspending our health insurance on day one of the strike.

This move, though we discovered it was not unprecedented, was highly unusual for a public sector strike. Advisors from the Teachers (AFT) told us they had never seen this happen to one of their locals before. As it turned out, it was a terrible public relations move for the board. We got an outpouring of support from community members outraged at the cruelty of eliminating health insurance during a pandemic.

Meanwhile our organizing efforts had become urgent. Each school building had formed its own strike committee, taking direction from the union-wide committee.

The building where I work, the high school, has a relatively large membership of 140. We decided to divide into strike teams by department, each with a captain. Since we were doing distance learning, we couldn’t see members in person daily, so the strike captains set up text and email chains and made phone calls to keep members informed, organize picket-line shift schedules, cement members’ commitment to the strike, and identify possible scabs.

Well before the 10-day notice, the union-wide committee had strike captains distribute electronic pledge cards asking members where they stood on the impending strike—were they supportive, would they picket, and would they promise not to cross the picket line? We also sent out forms to select your preferred picketing shift.

STRIKING IN THE SNOW

Then complications arose. First, COVID-19 cases surged in Ohio, and the governor handed down new mandates closing public facilities and limiting assemblies to 10 people. We lost access to the library branches we had planned to use for restrooms and as warming stations. In the last week before the strike, our committees had to find new restrooms and revamp the picket schedules to shorten shifts.

The day before the strike, Northeast Ohio was blasted by a massive snowstorm. With some schools now off limits due to the snow and loss of parking spaces, we had to change plans again. We called for members to picket at two locations: the high school and the Board of Education. We also had to postpone a planned in-car rally, because the location was still buried in snow.

Nonetheless, as the sun rose on “D-Day,” our members came out in massive numbers in the bitter cold and snow. Teachers started the first day of picketing with snow shovels and blowers to clear the sidewalks.

After three and a half hours, word reached the lines that that a settlement had been reached, one that our executive board could recommend. We went home for Zoom meetings to debate the merits of the offer. Two days later, members voted it up by more than 90 percent.

THEY FOUND THE MONEY

The contract is decent. Although it has us paying more for our premiums and opens the door to co-pays, these concessions are much less than the ones in the board’s egregious “final” offer. They are concessions we can live with, and they are partly offset by a modest raise and additional days off. 

We got a two-year contract instead of one year, so we don’t have to fight this battle again in a few months. And in a huge win, we safeguarded tenure for five more years—staving off the arbitrary and punitive evaluation system the district was pushing.

Somehow, at the end, the school board had found the money to offer a dignified contract.

It showed that a well-organized group of workers can reject austerity. One member put it well when she said the so-called final offer was nothing less than a “race to the bottom and we weren’t having it.” Our unity proved unshakeable—even when we were confronted with having our health care cut off, a move designed to scare members into crossing the picket lines.

Walking off the picket lines one fellow strike captain, a music teacher, told me that we need to maintain what we built. We need to develop a union culture where we have one another’s backs and band together to protect ourselves in the workplace—even in between contract negotiations.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on December 11, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tony Bifulco is a history teacher and was the lead strike captain for Cleveland Heights High School.


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‘Nurses Over Billboards’: Two-Day Strike Hits Site of New York’s First COVID Outbreak

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Nurses at Montefiore New Rochelle Hospital struck this week over safety and staffing. 

“We’re petrified of a resurgence of COVID,” said registered nurse Kathy Santoiemma, a 43-year veteran of the hospital. “We lived through it. We were ground zero of the COVID pandemic. We had the first case in New Rochelle actually—we became a totally COVID hospital. And that’s what we did for months.” 

The city of New Rochelle, in Westchester County, was the site of New York’s first COVID-19 outbreak. Nurses at Montefiore New Rochelle worked through one of the most difficult periods of the pandemic thus far.

The recent rise in COVID-19 cases, both in New York City and throughout the United States, has nurses worried that the winter will bring a similar crisis—a situation they desperately want to avoid.

‘WE NEED MORE STAFFING’

The two-day strike on December 1-2 comes after contract negotiations between the New York State Nurses (NYSNA) and Montefiore management failed to reach an agreement. 

Nurses authorized it on November 20, with 98.4 percent voting in favor, and NYSNA issued the legally required 10-day notice to strike. Rather than meet the nurses’ demands to address a staffing shortage, increase wages, and offer health care upon retirement, Montefiore management chose to endure the strike. 

“We haven’t had a contract for two years,” said Santoiemma. “We don’t want to strike, but it’s our last resort. And the basic ask that we have is for staffing.

“We lost a lot of staff, we had staff go out because of illness. We had a nurse pass away. We had a lot of nurses leave the Montefiore New Rochelle and they have not rehired them. We don’t know what to do to get prep staff, and now nurses are leaving because our contract is so awful.” 

During the initial wave of the pandemic in the spring, the ranks of nurses at Montefiore New Rochelle were supplemented with travel nurses from around the country. Now those same nurses are needed in their home states as infection numbers reach record highs nationwide. The lack of available nurses undermines both patient and staff safety, as nurses are expected to provide the same care and attention to an ever-increasing number of patients. 

“The bottom line is we need more staffing, and we need it before everything starts to get bad, before it gets more dangerous for staff and for the patients,” said Shalon Matthews, a registered nurse in the emergency room. “It comes down to a safety issue. The hospitals are not prepared. Right now, we’re in the same position we were in, and actually we have even less staff now than we had in March and April because we’ve lost several nurses.”

There was 100 percent strike compliance among nurses. Night nurses walked out of the hospital together at 7 a.m. on December 1. Nurses from other Montefiore facilities, members of other unions, community members, and elected officials showed up in support. A urologist’s office one block away opened its bathroom to strikers. Supporters brought coffee and cookies.

NURSES OVER BILLBOARDS

Despite reporting $29.1 million in profits during the first nine months of 2020 and receiving $768.3 million in federal stimulus funds, of which $172.4 million has yet to be allocated, Montefiore management has refused to hire more nurses.

The health system recently announced a $272 million expansion at its White Plains hospital and finalized its purchase of St. John’s Hospital in Yonkers. It also spent $3.4 million on billboards thanking its staff for working during COVID-19. This contradiction has not gone unnoticed; several weeks ago nurses launched a sticker campaign, “Nurses Over Billboards.”

“Our hospital is not in a very affluent area,” said Santoiemma. “Our patients are mainly Medicare, Medicaid patients, and they don’t make a lot of money on these patients like they make in White Plains or other places that have insured patients. So of course they’re not going to invest the money in us. And they’ve even told us we have to be careful where we invest our money. So, this is a problem because our patients deserve the same care that everybody else deserves.”

In a press release before the strike, Montefiore dismissed the nurses’ concerns, claiming that “NYSNA is striking because they want the power to dictate staffing assignments and hand out plum positions to their friends, while Montefiore believes the decisions on how to treat patients and make these assignments rests not with any one group alone, but with the entire team caring for the patient.”

The hospital chose to start transferring patients to other sites even before the strike, forcing very sick patients and families to have to travel to other hospitals that were already overflowing, like Montefiore Moses in the Bronx. Nurses estimate that patient capacity was decreased by at least 30 percent. They’re worried about their patients and know that the hospital could have chosen to hire agency nurses for two days.

‘WE WERE THE ONES IN THERE’

For veteran nurses, the obstinance of Montefiore management reveals an embarrassing lack of integrity and concern for those the hospital supposedly exists to serve. 

“We were the ones in there during COVID,” Santoiemma said. “Everybody else was in their locked offices or wherever they were. And we were the only ones there. We were the ones that were the patient’s families, we were the ones that were the patient’s priests, we were the ones that did everything for the patients, and it’s pathetic that this is how they would treat us.”

NYSNA nurses in Albany also struck on December 1. Two thousand nurses there are fighting for a first contract at Albany Medical Center over similar issues: staffing concerns during the pandemic and management’s disregard of personal protective equipment standards to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among nurses and patients.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on December 3, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kris Parker is a Brooklyn-based writer and photographer.


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Students at the Most Expensive University in America Are Going on Tuition Strike

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At the end of Novem­ber, mem­bers of the Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty-Barnard Col­lege chap­ter of Young Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (YDSA) launched a tuition strike cam­paign against ?“exor­bi­tant tuition rates” which, they say, ?“con­sti­tute a sig­nif­i­cant source of finan­cial hard­ship” dur­ing the pan­dem­ic. Stu­dent demands are wide-rang­ing and include a 10% reduc­tion in the cost of atten­dance, 10% increase in finan­cial aid, and an amal­ga­ma­tion of demands from dis­parate stu­dent cam­paigns, many of which were set in motion long before the pan­dem­ic began. So far over 1,700 stu­dents have signed a peti­tionto with­hold tuition for the Spring 2021 semes­ter and any future dona­tions to the uni­ver­si­ty after graduating. 

Colum­bia has con­sis­tent­ly topped charts as the most expen­sive pri­vate uni­ver­si­ty in the coun­try, charg­ing over $61,000 a year in tuition and fees, which accounts for near­ly a quar­ter of the school’s rev­enue. ?”We just felt like the only way to pres­sure a uni­ver­si­ty that is struc­tured around the prof­it motive would be to direct­ly impact their bot­tom line,” says Emma­line Ben­nett, a stu­dent at Columbia’s Teach­ers Col­lege and one of the found­ing mem­bers of Colum­bia-Barnard YDSA, which she co-chairs.

Since the pan­dem­ic began, the university’s $11 bil­lion endow­ment has seen a $310 mil­lion increase while the response from admin­is­tra­tion, Ben­nett says, ?“has been most­ly emp­ty rhetoric around shared sacrifice.”

In These Times reached out to the uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tion and did not hear back by the time of pub­li­ca­tion. In a Decem­ber 1 arti­cle in Patch, a uni­ver­si­ty spokesper­son said, ?“Through­out this dif­fi­cult year, Colum­bia has remained focused on pre­serv­ing the health and safe­ty of our com­mu­ni­ty, ful­fill­ing our com­mit­ment to anti-racism, pro­vid­ing the edu­ca­tion sought by our stu­dents, and con­tin­u­ing the sci­en­tif­ic and oth­er research need­ed to over­come soci­ety’s seri­ous challenges.” 

Bec­ca Roskill, a junior in Columbia’s school of engi­neer­ing and sec­re­tary of Colum­bia-Barnard YDSA, says that the cam­paign has been care­ful to frame the tuition strike as a means of address­ing the ongo­ing stu­dent debt cri­sis and not just wors­en­ing con­di­tions under Covid-19. ?“We want­ed to shift the con­ver­sa­tion away from pay­ing less because of online class­es and shift the con­ver­sa­tion toward a cri­sis that’s emerged from the fact that we’re treat­ing edu­ca­tion as a com­mod­i­ty in the first place.”

Lead­ing up to the strike’s announce­ment, stu­dents orga­nized a peti­tion for par­tial tuition reim­burse­ment (dif­fer­ent from the one list­ed above), an email cam­paign and phone zaps, a pres­sure tac­tic used to flood office lines, to impress upon admin­is­tra­tors the bur­dens of the university’s exces­sive costs. Before the start of the Fall semes­ter, a tuition freeze was issued for the university’s two main under­grad­u­ate schools, Colum­bia Col­lege and the Fu Foun­da­tion School of Engi­neer­ing and Applied Sci­ence?—?con­ces­sions that Ben­nett believes were a direct response to stu­dent orga­niz­ing over the sum­mer. But sup­port for stu­dents and work­ers across cam­pus, Ben­nett says, has been uneven, and the tuition strike is aimed at much more than just high tuition. 

In addi­tion to low­er­ing the cost of atten­dance and increas­ing finan­cial aid, the tuition strike has includ­ed demands to put an end to cam­pus expan­sion, invest in the sur­round­ing West Harlem com­mu­ni­ty, defund the university’s Depart­ment of Pub­lic Safe­ty (the cam­pus law enforce­ment body), com­mit to trans­paren­cy around the university’s finan­cial invest­ments, and bar­gain in good faith with unions on campus.

“We just felt like the only way to pressure a university that is structured around the profit motive would be to directly impact their bottom line,” —Emmaline Bennett, student at Columbia’s Teachers College.

“The stu­dents orga­niz­ing the tuition strike view it as a last-resort tac­tic to com­pel the uni­ver­si­ty to lis­ten to demands that stu­dents have been orga­niz­ing around for the past few years,” reads a state­ment released Mon­day. The tuition strike has received wide sup­port in part by build­ing coali­tions with oth­er groups on cam­pus that have put for­ward their own demands in the past. This includes ref­er­en­dums vot­ed on by the stu­dent body, which the demands let­ter says should be respect­ed and enforced.

A ref­er­en­dum that was passed in Sep­tem­ber demand­ing the uni­ver­si­ty divest from com­pa­nies that prof­it from or sup­port Israel’s human rights abus­es against Pales­tini­ans was the cul­mi­na­tion of years of orga­niz­ing from mem­bers of Stu­dents for Jus­tice in Pales­tine and Jew­ish Voice for Peace. The ref­er­en­dum has been all but dis­missed by the admin­is­tra­tion despite being passed by the stu­dent body. Sim­i­lar­ly, admin­is­tra­tors have been slow to respond to stu­dent demands to divest the school’s endow­ment from fos­sil fuels, a cam­paign that has been waged on cam­pus since 2015. YDSA has been busy build­ing ties with the cam­pus chap­ters of Extinc­tion Rebel­lion and the Sun­rise Movement.

The tuition strike has also includ­ed demands from Mobi­lized African Dias­po­ra (MAD), a coali­tion of Black stu­dent activists on cam­pus that sent its own detailed list of demands to Colum­bia Pres­i­dent Lee Bollinger. After spend­ing the sum­mer mobi­liz­ing against police vio­lence, MAD called for the uni­ver­si­ty to com­mit to anti-racism and pro­vide employ­ment and afford­able hous­ing to the sur­round­ing Harlem com­mu­ni­ty, end the university’s rela­tion­ship with the New York Police Depart­ment, cut fund­ing from the university’s Depart­ment of Pub­lic Safe­ty and increase sup­port for Black students.

On Decem­ber 3, mere days after the strike’s announce­ment, Barnard Col­lege can­celed its search for a new exec­u­tive direc­tor of Pub­lic Safe­ty and announced it would restruc­ture the office to focus on com­mu­ni­ty safe­ty under the new Com­mu­ni­ty Account­abil­i­ty, Response, and Emer­gency Ser­vices office. Ben­nett says MAD has been a major coali­tion part­ner, and the group’s demands to repair harm to the sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ty and invest in com­mu­ni­ty safe­ty solu­tions are reflect­ed in the tuition strike.

YDSA’s let­ter to the admin­is­tra­tion also includes a demand to bar­gain in good faith with unions on cam­pus for increased ben­e­fits and com­pen­sa­tion in addi­tion to pro­tec­tions for inter­na­tion­al stu­dents. State­ments from the tuition strike cam­paign have empha­sized that cuts to cost of atten­dance ?“should not come at the expense of instruc­tor or work­er pay, but rather at the expense of bloat­ed admin­is­tra­tive salaries, expan­sion projects, and oth­er expens­es that don’t ben­e­fit stu­dents and workers.”

The Grad­u­ate Work­ers of Colum­bia-Unit­ed Auto Work­ers Local 2110(GWC-UAW), which has been the recip­i­ent of strike sup­port and sol­i­dar­i­ty from YDSA, will be ask­ing its mem­ber­ship to pledge their sup­port for the strike. This would include dis­trib­ut­ing tuition strike mate­ri­als to stu­dents and con­tin­u­ing to teach stu­dents who plan on with­hold­ing tuition even if told not to by uni­ver­si­ty officials.

Susan­nah Glick­man, a fifth year PhD stu­dent in his­to­ry at Columbia’s Grad­u­ate School of Arts and Sci­ences and a mem­ber of GWC’s bar­gain­ing com­mit­tee, says YDSA and the union have been work­ing close­ly to sup­port each oth­er. ?“It’s good that stu­dents rec­og­nize that they have some pow­er to influ­ence the con­ver­sa­tion [around cor­po­rate gov­er­nance], even if they’re not employ­ees,” Glick­man said. ?“They prob­a­bly have more [pow­er] because they’re the finan­cial base of the university.”

Tuition strike orga­niz­ers say the idea for a tuition strike pre­ced­ed the pan­dem­ic, but was in part inspired by the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go where 200stu­dents with­held pay­ments in late April with a num­ber of demands, includ­ing a 50% reduc­tion in tuition. By the end of their tuition strike in mid-May, Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go stu­dents had won a freeze on tuition, which is now over $57,000 a year?–??–?sec­ond only to Colum­bia. Today, the total cost of atten­dance at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go is esti­mat­ed to be upwards of $80,000 a year when includ­ing fees, room and board, per­son­al expens­es and books.

With over 1,700 stu­dents signed on, Columbia’s tuition strike next spring could rep­re­sent the largest tuition strike since 1973, when stu­dents at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan with­held pay­ments in oppo­si­tion to a 24% increase in tuition from the year before. About 2,500 signed up for a tuition strike which coin­cid­ed with a wave of labor orga­niz­ing on the part of teach­ing fel­lows and oth­er grad­u­ate employ­ees. While the stu­dent tuition strike alone was not enough to win con­ces­sions from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michigan’s admin­is­tra­tion, the Grad­u­ate Employ­ees’ Orga­ni­za­tion (GEO), which rep­re­sents grad­u­ate work­ers on cam­pus, was ulti­mate­ly able to win a tuition reduc­tion and increased pay and ben­e­fits through con­tract nego­ti­a­tions after more than half of under­grad­u­ate stu­dents joined GEO mem­bers in a pick­et line in Feb­ru­ary 1975.

As stu­dents con­tin­ue to mobi­lize toward next semester’s tuition strike, YDSA orga­niz­ers report an increase in mem­ber­ship and par­tic­i­pa­tion with­in their chap­ter, which some believe has been strength­ened by their abil­i­ty to orga­nize digitally.

“I think we’ve seen a strength­en­ing in our com­mu­ni­ty that we did­n’t expect to be able to cater to over Zoom,” says Roskill. ?”And we’re real­ly hope­ful that social­ist pol­i­tics will pro­vide an answer to the polit­i­cal ques­tions that weren’t being answered by Biden or Trump, par­tic­u­lar­ly on stu­dent debt advocacy.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 4, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Indigo Olivier is an In These Times Good­man Inves­tiga­tive Fellow.


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“This Strike Is a Fight for Our Lives”: Healthcare Workers Are Walking Off the Job to Demand Pandemic Protections

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As a strike wave sweeps the U.S. health­care indus­try amid the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic, 700 front­line work­ers at 11 Chica­go-area nurs­ing homes have been on the pick­et lines since Novem­ber 23. 

Pri­mar­i­ly Black and Lati­na women, the strik­ing work­ers are mem­bers of SEIU Health­care Illi­nois & Indi­ana and include cer­ti­fied nurs­ing assis­tants (CNAs), dietary aides, house­keep­ers and laun­dry work­ers. They are fight­ing for at least $15 an hour, haz­ard pay and ade­quate per­son­al pro­tec­tive equip­ment (PPE).

Their employ­er, Infin­i­ty Health­care Man­age­ment?—?a for-prof­it chain oper­at­ing sev­er­al nurs­ing homes across Illi­nois and four oth­er states?—?recent­ly received $12.7 mil­lion in fed­er­al Covid-19 relief, but has so far refused to meet the work­ers’ demands after near­ly six months of con­tract negotiations. 

The strike is coin­cid­ing with oth­er health­care-relat­ed work stop­pages around the coun­try, sig­nal­ing grow­ing work­er unrest as the twin pub­lic health and eco­nom­ic crises con­tin­ue to wreak hav­oc on work­ing-class Amer­i­cans?—?par­tic­u­lar­ly Black and Brown communities.

In New York, over 1,000 nurs­es with the New York State Nurs­es Asso­ci­a­tion (NYS­NA) held a one-day strike at Albany Med­ical Cen­ter Hos­pi­tal on Decem­ber 1, while 200 oth­er NYS­NA nurs­es at Mon­te­fiore Hos­pi­tal in New Rochelle orga­nized a two-day strike on Decem­ber 1 and 2. At both loca­tions, nurs­es are demand­ing improved safe­ty pre­cau­tions and bet­ter pay.

Mean­while, in Wash­ing­ton state, over 100 doc­tors, physi­cian assis­tants and nurse prac­ti­tion­ers with the Union of Amer­i­can Physi­cians and Den­tists staged a two-day strike last week at 20 urgent care facil­i­ties run by Mul­ti­Care Health Sys­tems after being forced to work 12-hour shifts with­out breaks.

The strik­ing SEIU work­ers at the 11 Infin­i­ty-run nurs­ing homes in Chica­go and sur­round­ing sub­urbs plan to stay out indef­i­nite­ly until a con­tract set­tle­ment is reached.

Long-term care facil­i­ties have been at the epi­cen­ter of the pan­dem­ic in the Unit­ed States, account­ing for an esti­mat­ed 40 per­cent of coro­n­avirus deaths in the coun­try. In Illi­nois, a stag­ger­ing 52.1 per­cent of all Covid-19 deaths have been tied to nurs­ing homes. 

The Infin­i­ty-run facil­i­ties have seen some of the high­est Covid infec­tion and death rates in the state. At Infinity’s City View Mul­ti­Care Cen­ter in Cicero, there have been 249 cas­es, while the company’s Niles Nurs­ing and Reha­bil­i­ta­tion facil­i­ty has had 54 deaths. In May, City View under­went a court-ordered inspec­tion after the city of Cicero sued the facil­i­ty for fail­ing to abide by health guidelines.

“I’ve seen sev­er­al res­i­dents that I was very close to pass away because of lack of staffing,” a res­i­dent of an Infin­i­ty nurs­ing home said on a recent SEIU-host­ed livestream. The res­i­dent, who chose to remain anony­mous, said she has also wit­nessed the work­ers at her nurs­ing home get coro­n­avirus because they were giv­en inad­e­quate PPE.

“If I could phys­i­cal­ly take my [Social Secu­ri­ty] check out of the own­ers’ hands and put it in the arms of the CNAs, the nurs­es, I so would, because they deserve it,” the res­i­dent tear­ful­ly said.

Shan­to­nia Jack­son, a CNA at City View, told In These Times that one of her cowork­ers?—?a friend of hers who was set to retire in June after work­ing 24 years at the facil­i­ty?—?con­tract­ed the virus and passed away in March.

“This strike is a fight for our lives, and espe­cial­ly for our res­i­dents’ lives,” Jack­son explained. ?“The nurs­ing home indus­try is set up like a ware­house. Nobody wants to live in a ware­house. It’s their home, so it should be treat­ed as their home.”

A union stew­ard, Jack­son has worked at City View for five years and is respon­si­ble for as many as 70 res­i­dents per shift, but only makes $14.30 per hour. Some employ­ees at Infin­i­ty-run facil­i­ties make as lit­tle as $11.50 an hour despite being clas­si­fied as essen­tial workers.

“They call us heroes, but they don’t treat us like heroes,” she said, adding that the strike isn’t ?“just about a buck, it’s about the dig­ni­ty and respect of the work­ers that come every day” despite the risk of coronavirus.

The nurs­ing home work­ers have the over­whelm­ing sup­port of the com­mu­ni­ty. Sev­er­al social­ist and pro­gres­sive mem­bers of the Chica­go City Coun­cil, as well as activists and lead­ers from oth­er local unions, have joined them on the pick­et lines, while the work­ers’ strike fund has raised over $10,000 from pub­lic donations.

Illi­nois Gov. J.B. Pritzk­er has also come out in sup­port of the strik­ers. ?“Giv­en the sig­nif­i­cant fed­er­al and state finan­cial sup­port for nurs­ing homes dur­ing this pan­dem­ic, it’s impor­tant that work­ers see that fund­ing reflect­ed in their work­place, in their safe­ty and their pay,” Pritzk­er said.

“This is the first time I’ve been on strike,” said Jack­son. ?“It’s rough, but if you want some­thing and you believe in it, you got­ta do it. Now I know the pow­er of strik­ing, of hav­ing a union.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 2, 2020. 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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“We Won’t Let Him”: Unions Nationwide Are Planning a General Strike If Trump Tries to Steal the Election

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Amid wide­spread con­cerns that Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump will attempt to steal today’s elec­tion or refuse to leave office if he los­es, the lead­ers of mul­ti­ple Chica­go-area unions issued a joint state­ment on Mon­day com­mit­ting to take any non­vi­o­lent action nec­es­sary?—?up to and includ­ing a gen­er­al strike?—?to defend democracy.

“Every sin­gle vote has to be count­ed,” says Sta­cy Davis Gates, vice pres­i­dent of the Chica­go Teach­ers Union (CTU). ?“We are pre­pared to be in sol­i­dar­i­ty to ensure that our democ­ra­cy is pro­tect­ed in this moment.”

The CTU, Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal Work­ers (UE), SEIU Local 73, SEIU Health­care, Cook Coun­ty Col­lege Teach­ers Union, Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Gov­ern­ment Employ­ees Local 704 and Ware­house Work­ers Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee are call­ing on ?“all unions, com­mu­ni­ty, faith and civic orga­ni­za­tions, and pub­lic lead­ers to unite in vig­i­lance and readi­ness to defend our rights as the votes in the Novem­ber 3rd elec­tion are cast and counted.”

The Chica­go unions are part of Labor Action to Defend Democracy (LADD)?—?a recent­ly formed nation­al net­work of union mem­bers orga­niz­ing the labor movement’s response to the threat of a stolen election.

Alex Han, a Chica­go-based labor orga­niz­er help­ing coor­di­nate LADD, says the net­work seeks to tap into the unique pow­er of unions and work­ers to not only protest in the streets, but to cause seri­ous eco­nom­ic dis­rup­tion, if necessary. 

“One les­son we learned from the sum­mer is you can sus­tain street heat to some degree, but it’s going to dis­solve. We saw this dur­ing Occu­py, we’ve seen this many times,” Han tells In These Times. ?“There’s a per­spec­tive that would say the miss­ing ingre­di­ent is a direct link­age with work­place action, which is the kind of action that could be more sus­tain­ing and sharp­er, and not let street action devolve into a run­ning bat­tle with police.”

LADD has put togeth­er var­i­ous resources—includ­ing sam­ple res­o­lu­tions and a mod­el let­ter to politi­cians?—?that unions can use to ampli­fy calls to pro­tect the elec­toral process. In the past three weeks, over twen­ty cen­tral labor coun­cils, state labor fed­er­a­tions, nation­al and local unions have issued res­o­lu­tions express­ing firm oppo­si­tion to any efforts to sub­vert, dis­tort or dis­re­gard the final results of the pres­i­den­tial election.

The Rochester Labor Coun­cil is specif­i­cal­ly call­ing on the nation­al AFL-CIO to pre­pare for a gen­er­al strike, while the Ver­mont AFL-CIO plans to hold a gen­er­al strike vote on Novem­ber 21 should Trump lose and refuse to con­cede. The Seat­tle Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion will also con­vene an emer­gency meet­ing of its board of direc­tors with­in a week of the elec­tion to con­sid­er next steps for pos­si­ble action.

Mean­while, the Emer­gency Work­place Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee (EWOC)—a joint project of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca and UE formed ear­li­er this year in response to the pan­dem­ic?—?host­ed a livestream dis­cus­sion last week on how work­ers can take mass action to ensure a peace­ful tran­si­tion of pow­er. Fea­tur­ing Asso­ci­a­tion of Flight Atten­dants Pres­i­dent Sara Nel­son and EWOC orga­niz­ers Dawn Tefft and Zack Pat­tin, the livestream has near­ly 6,000 views.

“The labor move­ment knows how impor­tant it is to defend democ­ra­cy in this coun­try. We are demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions,” UE Pres­i­dent Carl Rosen explains. ?“We’re pre­pared to do what­ev­er it takes to make sure democ­ra­cy is sus­tained. We know what it’s tak­en in oth­er coun­tries that have faced tin­pot dic­ta­tors try­ing to stay in office after the peo­ple of their coun­try have vot­ed them out.”

As Rosen indi­cates, unions around the world are often the first line of defense against would-be dic­ta­tor­ships. For exam­ple, in the year since Bolivia’s demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly elect­ed pres­i­dent Evo Morales was oust­ed in a U.S.-backed mil­i­tary coup, the Cen­tral Obr­era Boli­viana?—?the nation’s largest labor fed­er­a­tion—led the fight to restore democ­ra­cy, cul­mi­nat­ing in the recent elec­toral vic­to­ry of Morales’s par­ty, the Movimien­to al Socialismo.

“The labor move­ment has a proud his­to­ry of stand­ing up for democ­ra­cy and fair elec­tions around the world,” says SEIU Local 73 Pres­i­dent Dian Palmer. ?“Cit­i­zens across the coun­try are vot­ing like nev­er before. We are uti­liz­ing the rights afford­ed to us to vote ear­ly, in per­son, and by mail. And those votes should be counted.”

“We believe in the pow­er of the peo­ple?—?the mul­ti-racial, work­ing-class major­i­ty,” the Chica­go unions’ state­ment reads. ?“Don­ald Trump wants to steal this elec­tion. We won’t let him.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on November 3, 2020. 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. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @JeffSchuhrke.


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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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