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Hundreds of Fruit Packing Workers Are On Strike

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

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

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

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

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

Seeking Healthy Workplaces

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

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

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

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

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

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

Driven By Fear

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Striking Bus Drivers Steer the Way to a Better World

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All eyes are on essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic, as individuals, companies and even the federal government make a point to thank them for their heroic action: working. Frontline workers have received plenty of symbolic accolades, but many are working without proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and hazard pay, and are scared for their health and safety. Public transit workers, who shuttle other essential workers to and from work, have been sounding the alarm about poor safety standards at their jobs since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), which represents 200,000 workers in the United States and Canada, told In These Times that nearly 1,000 of its members have been infected with coronavirus, and almost 40 have died. In response, the union has taken action by setting up coronavirus test sites, sharing information about safety gear, and lobbying both the federal and state governments to do more to protect transit workers. It has also partnered with the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU) to increase its strength.

But the best way for workers to show their strength is to withhold their labor, and ATU locals across the country are engaging in work stoppages to make sure transit agencies understand what’s at stake if they don’t take immediate action to protect workers and riders. Bus drivers in Detroit kicked off the wave of workplace actions on March 17, relatively early in the pandemic, by shutting down bus service throughout the city, leaving only 10% of buses running. They won all of their demands around health and safety, including suspension of fares, rear door entrance, and PPE for drivers—but unfortunately, at least one bus driver has died from coronavirus. (ATU International President John Costa says that transport workers “have been the biggest casualty from this pandemic.”)

Several Birmingham drivers took action next and refused to work on March 23, in order to make the transit authority increase safety. They went back to work the following day after having won multiple safety measures, including a mandate that  passengers only use the rear door when boarding and exiting buses, physical barriers around the  operator seating area to give drivers social distance from riders, and only allowing 15 to19 passengers on each bus, depending on size of the bus. Gregory Roddy, President of ATU Local 725 in Birmingham, told In These Times that bus drivers “are here ready to work. But we will not work in an unsafe environment.”

Drivers in Richmond, Virginia and Greensboro, North Carolina also took action for safety on the job the following month. On April 27, about 50 drivers in Richmond caused massive service delays by calling out of work to demand hazard pay, in addition to other safety precautions, like PPE, on-site testing, and furlough protections. Two days later, bus service was stopped in Greensboro as some drivers refused to show up at work after a fellow driver tested positive for Covid-19. The transit authority sanitized buses and workspaces, and drivers returned to work the following day. Roddy shared that the coronavirus pandemic has inspired Alabama bus drivers to take action, and that their next fight is for hazard pay. Roddy said that “one person can be broken, but all of us together, we can be strong.”

Layoffs have swept the nation and transit workers are not immune: They have also been laid off and furloughed. President Costa said that without federal intervention, layoffs and cuts to mass transit could continue, long after the pandemic. But he also said his members are ready to fight back: “If we can build ships and bombs, we can transfer money back into the public transit system to keep the cities alive.”

The coronavirus pandemic has opened up new conversations about the future of public transit—in mostly scary ways, unless workers organize to take more control. Because so many people are now either laid off or working from home, ridership is down by 75% nationwide, according to statistics from the Transit App company, so bus lines have been cut, and trains come less frequently. And because numerous cities like New York and Philadelphia are pushing austerity budgets in response to deficits caused by the pandemic, many workers, riders and transit and environmental advocates are concerned that public transportation won’t be restored to its previous level of service. This could leave thousands of union members out of work, and countless others struggling to get to work, school and appointments on time.

But there are also openings to create a better, healthier future, as the pandemic has forced many of us to reckon with the past and imagine a new world. And as the coronavirus crisis has rocked our society, carbon dioxide emissions are projected to drop by about 8% this year. Businesses are closed, air travel has decreased, and millions of people are stuck at home, limiting emissions—for now. Going back to business as usual is not an option for the climate—and it’s not an option for workers either. This is not to argue that the pandemic is in any way a good thing: There is no doubt that the pandemic has ravaged our society, and there’s no way to spin that positively.

The coronavirus crisis is a wakeup call for the climate crisis, which will be far worse. Our only choice is to reimagine our society—to make jobs safer, and to massively invest in public transit, in order to help workers through this crisis and mitigate the climate crisis, which is poised to be far worse. Because of coronavirus, the fossil fuel industry is in total disarray, with prices collapsing and demand falling. By increasing public transportation, we can continue decreasing carbon dioxide emissions, even when businesses begin to reopen and more people go back to work. This is also an opportunity to create more good, union jobs—especially when unemployment is at nearly 25%. Bus drivers have already proven that they’re willing to take action to fight for health and safety on the job—and win. But what else can transport workers struggle for?

ATU says its “members already know that public transit is far more environmentally sustainable.” The union obviously supports expanding public transit—that means more workers, and more members—but it also supports making it free and powering it by the wind, sun, and seas. A retiree from Local 732 in Georgia, Paul McLennan, agrees that “it’s a no brainer. We need more public transit to get people out of cars.” Building and using electric-powered buses and moving away from fossil fuels would of course be gigantic undertakings for the union, but there’s really no other choice if we have any hope of a real future for our climate. The union choosing to prioritize fighting for expanded public transit—and fighting against austerity—opens up doors to work with environmental groups and free transit advocates, and to build the coalition necessary to actually win these huge demands. We’ve already seen this coalition at work during coronavirus—350.org, Sierra Club, and Sunrise Movement joined with ATU and TWU to demand that Congress increase the allocation for emergency assistance to public transportation.

This work is no small feat, but President Costa said that “we’ve been shut down for six weeks. Oil is worthless, they’re giving it away. Now the air is better, the world is cleaner. It pays to have a good and safe transit system in our world, and the Green New Deal means creating better jobs.” If we want to transition to a more just society, transport workers’ jobs must be safe and dignified, and we have to create more of them by expanding public transit. In the words of McLennan, “when we see problems from all sides, it makes for better solutions.” 

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on May 5, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.


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Get Ready for Mass Strikes Across the U.S. This May Day

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Christopher D. Cook Progressive.org

Toiling amid a pandemic and a callous response from corporate America and the federal government that is exposing millions to deadly hazards and deepening poverty, workers across the country are rising up, planning hundreds of strikes and sickouts for International Workers’ Day on May 1.

At a time when worker organizing could be stifled by physical distancing rules and the Trump administration’s disabling of the National Labor Relations Board, workers are walking off the job in massive coordinated walk-outs and sick-outs targeting major employers such as Amazon, Whole Foods, Target, Walmart, FedEx, and Instacart, demanding hazard pay, personal protective equipment and other basic protections.

May Day actions throughout the United States will include worker strikes, car caravan protests, rent strikes, and a host of social media onslaughts urging work stoppages, and boycotts of major corporations that are failing to fairly pay and protect their workers amid the pandemic, activists say. Activists are also pressuring for rent and debt relief, and a “People’s Bailout” demanding a more equitable stimulus and economic recovery plan that prioritizes workers.

Long overworked and underpaid, warehouse and food industry workers (including grocery clerks, meatpackers, and farmworkers) are now deemed “essential”—responsible for hazardous jobs at the epicenter of the Covid-19 storm. Yet while some unionized workers have secured hazard pay and protective gear, millions of these workers on the pandemic’s front lines remain in or near poverty and without adequate healthcare or safety protections. Now they’re striking back, shining a spotlight on the struggles of low-wage workers laboring amid viral hazards while corporations like Amazon and Instacart report booming business and profits.

Even as unemployment skyrockets above 20% (with an astounding 30 million new claims since the beginning of March), Amazon alone is raking in $11,000 per second and its shares are rising, the Guardian reports. The company’s CEO Jeff Bezos, meanwhile, has seen his personal fortune bloat to $138 billion amid the pandemic.

Protesting unsafe conditions and lack of hazard pay for many employees, Target Workers Unite is waging a mass sickout of the retail chain’s workers, stating, “We want to shut down industry across the board and pushback with large numbers against the right-wing groups that want to risk our lives by reopening the economy.”

On its website, the group describes “atrocious” foot traffic in stores, “putting us at needless risk when greater safety measures are required to ensure social distancing. Workers nor guests have been required to wear masks…Our maximum capacity of guests have been set too high.”

Whole Worker, a movement of Whole Foods workers pushing for unionization, plans a mass “sickout” for what is also being called #EssentialWorkersDay. Workers at the non-union corporate chain, which is owned by billionaire Bezos, are demanding guaranteed paid leave for employees who self-quarantine, reinstating healthcare coverage for part-time and seasonal workers, and the immediate shutdown of any store where a worker tests positive for Covid-19. According to organizers, 254 Whole Foods workers have tested positive for the virus nationwide, and two have died.

Gig economy workers for Instacart, the app-propelled tech corporation that dispatches “shoppers” for customers, will wage their second work stoppage in a month, after a March 30 strike demanding hazard pay, paid sick leave and safety protections. Despite Instacart’s booming business amid the Covid-19 pandemic, “Most workers STILL haven’t been able to order, let alone receive, proper PPE,” according to the Gig Workers Collective.

This week, dozens of workers at an Amazon fulfillment center warehouse in Tracy, CA walked off the job after learning that a co-worker who had tested positive for Covid-19 had died. One employee told a local television station, “We are short handed now working extra hard, and I’m questioning what I’m still doing here honestly…I’m actually nervous now and wondering if it’s even worth coming.”

Citing a “lack of response from this government in terms of PPE and mandatory [safety] standards,” the AFL-CIO will be supporting and “uplifting” striking workers at Amazon, Target, Instacart and elsewhere who are “risking their lives every day on the job,” said spokesperson Kalina Newman. “While our affiliates who work with retail workers, UFCW and RWDSU, aren’t helping organize the May Day strikes, they may uplift them. At the end of the day, we support workers who are standing up for their rights.”

In an email, Newman elaborated that the AFL-CIO is encouraging union members “to contact their congressperson stressing that the coronavirus relief packages approved so far leave many working families behind, including hardworking immigrants who provide essential services.”

Since the pandemic began, union workers at Safeway, Stop & Shop and Kroger’s have won hazard pay and protective equipment guarantees, Newman added, following pressure from the United Food and Commercial Workers.

Other prominent labor groups are backing the May Day strike actions. Jobs With Justice “is supporting worker walkouts across the country, from Amazon workers to Instacart drivers,” and will be “standing in solidarity with workers who are walking off the job and demanding safer working conditions,” organizing director Nafisah Ula said in an email.

A range of other groups, including the Democratic Socialists of America and new grassroots initiatives like Coronastrike will also be backing up the workers on May Day. Launched by Occupy Wall Street alumni, Coronastrike aims to “amplify the efforts and voices of those striking,” says organizer Yolian Ogbu, a 20-year-old climate justice activist.

“We’re frustrated by the inaction by these corporations,” Ogbu adds. “There is all this pent-up energy, and we’re asking people to put it somewhere. People are desperate.”

According to Fight for 15, the nationwide coalition for a $15 federal minimum wage, fast food workers have already been striking for fair wages and safety protections as they attempt to survive low-wage work and exposure to Covid-19. Since the pandemic began, fast food workers have walked off the job in Los Angeles, Oakland, Chicago, Memphis, Miami, St. Louis and other major cities, demanding personal protective equipment, hazard pay and paid sick leave.

In early April, hundreds of workers from more than 50 fast-food restaurants across California—including McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Burger King and Domino’s—walked out of work to demand better pay and safety protections, Vice reported. This week, Arby’s workers in Morris, Illinois, walked out in the middle of their shift to protest conditions and climbed into their with windows festooned with big posters stating, “We don’t want to die for fries,” and “Hazard pay and PPE now!” They are demanding $3 per hour in added hazard pay and say the corporation has not provided masks or any other protective gear.

Since March, there have already reportedly been at least 140 documented wildcat strikes across the country.

As the Covid-19 pandemic intensifies and exposes America’s inequalities, workers, so long stifled and embattled, are showing renewed force.

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 30, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Christopher D. Cook is an award-winning journalist and author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis. His writing has appeared in Harper’sThe AtlanticThe Nation, the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere. You can reach him at http://www.christopherdcook.com/.


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Postal Workers Face the Pandemic as the Service Struggles Financially; Amazon Workers Protest

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Jonathan Tasini - Home | Facebook

Here’s a little riddle: What has 157 million daily delivery points, 35,000 offices and 500,000 workers? It’s your U.S. Postal Service, that would be the service that really is a democratic, small “d”, institution—it’s there for everyone at a reasonable cost, no matter where you live or who you are.

Putting it mildly, postal workers are frontline workers—and to pile the safety and health dangers on top of everything else, the service is facing a massive budget hole because of the collapse of the economy because, obviously, less commerce means a lot less stuff being sent via the postal service which relies on fees. I go in-depth on what’s happening to postal workers with the Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union.

And Jeff Bezos is up to his usual despicable behavior—the wealthiest human on the planet is piling up more money but at the expense of the safety and health of Amazon’s warehouse workers who are getting sick from COVID-19. Hundreds of Amazon workers stayed away from work yesterday to protest the dangerous conditions. Rachel Belz, an Amazon worker, joins me to discuss the uprising.

This article was originally published at WorkingLife on April 22, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jonathan Bernard Yoav Tasini is an American political strategist, organizer, activist, commentator and writer, primarily focusing his energies on the topics of work, labor and the economy.


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Is There Any Better Time Than Now For a General Strike?

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Bio – Sonali Kolhatkar

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into stark relief the inequalities baked into the U.S.’s capitalist system—one that deems nurses and grocery workers “essential,” but leaves them with just as few rights and privileges as they had before the crisis struck. The scenario before us, where society depends more than ever on the bottom rung of the working class, offers a perfect storm for these “essential workers” to use their leverage and demand better protections for themselves now and in the future. This perfect storm may well unfold on May 1—a day with historic roots in the U.S., marked by workers all around the world to demand their labor rights.

For those of us considered “non-essential workers,” May 1, 2020, also offers an opportunity to say a resounding “no” to President Donald Trump, who is desperate to salvage his flagging shot at reelection and demanding that people return to work at the beginning of May. Trump has made clear that his needs are more important than ours in defying health experts who agree that May 1 is far too early to return to “normal.” He has claimed “total” authority over lifting state and citywide quarantines during the pandemic. A general strike on May 1 would lay waste to his wishful thinking for totalitarianism.

Kali Akuno, the co-founder and co-director of Cooperation Jackson, laid out his organization’s call for a May Day strike this year and shared with me in an interview that, “we are calling on all workers to come as one, in particular the essential workers to strike for their lives.” He explained that, “If Trump is calling for businesses to return to normal, if that is allowed to proceed without the personal protective gear being in place for every single one of our essential workers, we’re just going to create a calamity and keep this crisis going further.”

Akuno also sees the pandemic as a turning point where workers can send a message of refusing to “go back to business-as-usual”—the status quo where a massive underclass of working people are living paycheck-to-paycheck without adequate health care, paid leave, childcare for their dependents, or decent wages is no longer acceptable. “It was business-as-usual that allowed this to roll out in the way that it has,” he said.

Workers deemed “essential” have been forced to work in order to keep their jobs but offered little recompense or even protection from the virus. A supermarket worker at Tem’s Food Market in Macon, Mississippi, found my personal mask-making project on social media and begged me to make 20 masks for her colleagues and her. In the early days of the crisis, not only were grocery workers like her not provided with protective gear, but many were also stunningly not allowed to wear their own safety equipment such as masks and gloves. My own cousin, a grocery store manager in Boston, Massachusetts, responded to my worried queries about his health and safety saying that upper management was not permitting him and others to wear masks at work until recently. This was corroborated by supermarket analyst Phil Lempert who told the Washington Post, “One of the biggest mistakes supermarkets made early on was not allowing employees to wear masks and gloves the way they wanted to.”

It is no wonder that the workers we rely on to feed and care for us are falling ill from the virus and dying. Thousands of grocery workers have already tested positive for COVID-19 and as of mid-April more than 40 have died. Although such “essential workers” are naturally terrified of catching the virus in their workplace, their vulnerable socioeconomic status also means they cannot afford to quit. The pressure to conform and fall in line with the demands of corporate America are all too real as workers face a choice between accepting their oppression or being fired. More than 16 million Americans have already lost their jobs, and beyond a $1,200 payout from the federal government and hard-to-access unemployment benefits, there is little else to compensate them.

Still, in the face of such an untenable situation, workers are already agitating for their rights with walkouts and protests. The New York Times’ labor writer Steven Greenhouse explained that, “Fearing retaliation, American workers are generally far more reluctant to stick their necks out and protest working conditions than are workers in other industrial countries.” However, now, “with greater fear of the disease than of their bosses, workers have set off a burst of walkouts, sickouts and wildcat strikes.” Whole Foods workers had planned an action for May Day but moved up their “sick out” to March 31 to demand better conditions and pay. Amazon workers at a warehouse in Staten Island, New York, organized a walkout, but the world’s largest retail giant simply fired the organizer. The person ultimately responsible for overseeing workers at Whole Foods and Amazon is Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man who personally racked up an extra $24 billion this year alone largely as a result of the pandemic. Bezos’s wealth and power, when contrasted with the harsh conditions under which his employees work, are an appropriate symbol for a general strike on May Day as the best chance for workers to demand their rights.

On its website, Akuno’s organization Cooperation Jackson spells out the demands it is making for May Day in encouraging workers to not show up for their jobs, and for all Americans to collectively refuse to shop for a day. These include not only short-term demands for personal protective equipment for all essential workers, but also long-term demands for a Universal Basic Income, health care for all, housing rights, and a Green New Deal.

Americans are perhaps more receptive to the idea of a general strike than they have been in a century. Alongside the hashtag #NotDying4WallStreet are calls on social media for a #GeneralStrike2020. High-profile left thinkers like Naomi Klein have already embraced the idea of a general strike. But Akuno admits that a strike will not work if only small numbers of Americans participate, saying, “we need to reach people in the hundreds of millions,” and “we have to organize in such a way where we change the fundamental dynamics of labor, how it’s valued, how it’s treated.” In other words, there is the potential for transformative change in this crisis—but only if we can seize the moment.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute on April 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations.


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Striking McDonald’s Workers Say Their Lives Are More Essential Than Fast Food

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The fast food industry has long insulated itself from organized labor by building a legal wall between the parent company and the individual franchised stores. That imaginary separation is being tested by the reality of the coronavirus pandemic, as McDonald’s workers across the country have held strikes and walked out, unwilling to risk their lives for fries with no safety net.

The Fight For $15 has found fertile new ground in helping to organize fast food strikes in recent days. McDonald’s workers in Los Angeles, San Jose, St. Louis, Tampa, Raleigh-Durham and elsewhere have staged job actions this week, in a coordinated push for safer working conditions, paid sick leave and hazard pay.

Maria Ruiz, who has spent 16 years at McDonald’s, was one of the workers who went on strike yesterday outside of her store in San Jose, California. Ruiz said that employees have been worried for their own health for the entire past month, watching the store’s dwindling supply of hand sanitizer, gloves and cleaning supplies. On some days, there was no hand sanitizer at all. Ruiz says employees were only recently granted permission to wear masks at work, despite the fact that there are often more than a dozen people crowded into the store’s lobby.

“We are tired of taking the risk,” said Ruiz, who earns $16.35 per hour in a city that has one of the highest costs of living in the United States. McDonald’s workers are asking for an extra $3 per hour hazard pay, along with adequate protective equipment, a guarantee of two weeks of paid sick leave for anyone who needs to quarantine, and a guarantee that the company will cover their health care costs if they get sick with COVID-19. Ruiz acknowledges that she needs to work in order to pay her bills, but said that she could no longer ignore the danger to her health. “I’m kind of afraid” to go on strike, she said, “but I’m more afraid to lose my life.”

The Fight For 15 said that the McDonald’s workers are expected to stay away from work until their demands for protective equipment on the job are met. It seems likely that the country will see a steady, rolling procession of fast food walkouts in coming weeks, part of a nationwide strike wave that has been gathering momentum over the past month. Grocery workers, warehouse workers, factory workers, construction workers, and others who are directly exposed to the danger of infection on the job have all walked out in protest, doubtful that their low wages make up for the risks they’re taking.

After a decade of organizing fast food workers, the Fight For 15 is well positioned to facilitate these types of job actions on short notice. One of the movement’s key wins—a step that promised to make it significantly easier for organized labor to exert influence on a national scale in the fast food industry—came in 2015, when the Obama administration’s National Labor Relations Board revised the “joint employer” standard to make it easier to hold fast food companies like McDonald’s responsible for the labor standards at their franchised stores. The Trump administration’s NLRB rolled back that rule change, meaning McDonald’s is once again able to keep a legal wall between the parent company and the behavior of its franchisees.

In response to questions about employee walkouts in California, McDonald’s referred to a letter from McDonald’s USA president Joe Erlinger, promising to provide gloves, increased store cleaning, “wellness checks” for employees, and to send “non-medical grade masks to the areas of greatest need.” The company also sent a statement from the owner-operator of the store in Los Angeles where employees walked out this weekend, saying the store underwent “thorough sanitization” after a worker tested positive for COVID-19, and that workers who were in contact with that person were offered two weeks of paid quarantine leave. (The fact that the statement from the store owner is being sent out by McDonald’s corporate PR team highlights how closely the parent company and store owners are intertwined, joint employer standard notwithstanding.)

Though more visible “essential” workers, like grocery store employees, have successfully won hazard pay from a number of companies, fast food workers face a steeper challenge: They are forced to continue working by employer mandate and by economic need, but still viewed as a nonessential by much of the public. Without intense public pressure or widespread work stoppages, it is easy for major fast food chains to continue with business as usual, offloading all of the risk onto those below them.

“We are essential workers,” said Maria Ruiz, “but my life is essential too.” 

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

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


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So You Want a General Strike? Here’s What It Would Take.

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You know that things are getting serious when #GeneralStrike starts trending on Twitter. It happened last week, when Donald Trump was publicly mulling the idea of sending Americans back to work by Easter, a move that would imperil countless lives. A general strike has long held a strong utopian allure. But what would it take to actually pull one off? We spoke to the experts about the reality behind the dream.

Amid a healthcare crisis intertwined with an economic crisis, with millions of people freshly unemployed and new wildcat strikes and work stoppages popping off daily, we are living through the most opportune environment for massive, radical labor actions in many decades. America has had great crises before, though—and it has never had a true, nationwide general strike.

Is it even possible?

The “general strikes” in American history have been confined to individual cities. The most famous was probably the Seattle general strike of 1919, when more than 60,000 (peaceful) striking union members induced a total shutdown of the city’s business. Periods of intense social upheaval sparked other citywide general strikes—most notably in 1934 in San Francisco, during the Great Depression, and in Oakland in 1946, just after World War Two. Joshua Freeman, a labor history professor at the City University of New York, notes that those successful strikes depended on the combination of established labor union coalitions and “a broad class anger, usually at what was seen as an attack by business or police on legitimate working-class activity.” A general strike today would probably require the same combination. And while the union establishment of 2020 is in some ways weaker than it was a century ago, the teachers’ strikes and other mass labor actions of recent years show how quickly that can change.

“That is a very tall order, and at the moment it seems to me quite unlikely,” Freeman says, “but we are living in a moment of hyperspeed change. So who knows.”

Who knows?

Saturate them with urgency

The general strike was catapulted into public consciousness as a legitimate possibility early last year, when flight attendant union leader Sara Nelson gave a speech (that went viral) calling on fellow union leaders to consider it as a way to end the ongoing government shutdown. Today, Nelson still believes a general strike should not be considered an impossibility. “Any labor leaders should be able to talk about this,” she says. “A general strike may seem overwhelming, but it has the same fundamentals as preparing for any strike.”

That means “you have to saturate the thinking of the general public” with the importance of the situation, says Nelson. In normal times that is incredibly difficult, in a nation as big as ours; but right now, the public’s thinking is already focused on the physical, economic, and moral dangers of this crisis. If a necessary condition is, as Nelson says, a widespread sense of urgency so intense that it feels “like if you don’t take action right now, you’re gonna die,” we’re in luck—millions of Americans are having that very thought already.

Like Freeman, Nelson believes any successful general strike would have to be powered at its core by unions. Not only do they have the expertise and infrastructure necessary for the large-scale communications, strategy, and logistical needs of such an undertaking, but they also have a key characteristic that other groups don’t: They are broad-based organizations of all types of working people—all races, locations, and political affiliations, united by their identity as workers—rather than affinity groups that include certain demographics, but exclude others. That is vital, when it comes to pulling off something that cuts across the lines that normally divide American society. “You can’t rely on self-selecting organizations to run something like this, because there are people who are going to feel that they’re not included,” she says.

Consider the alternatives

Randi Weingarten, the head of the 1.7-million-member American Federation of Teachers, thinks that pursuing a general strike today would be a mistake—the focus, she says, should remain on Donald Trump’s horrific and damaging mishandling of the coronavirus crisis and the ongoing relief effort. “I think we should not change the topic and let him have a fight about a national strike,” she says. “We should have the fight about his immorality.”

Weingarten worries about the ill effect a general strike could have on those who do need to continue working, for the common good. (Nobody I spoke with for this story advocated an indiscriminate general strike that would include health care or other truly essential workers.) Instead of pushing for a general strike, the union leader advocates using more established pathways like the courts. In the event that the government were to order her members back to work before the dangers crisis had abated, Weingarten says her union would approach it as a health and workplace safety issue, and seek assurances that members would not be at personal risk. “If we do not have that assurance, we would advise, at that moment in time, we’d go to court and try to stop the schools from reopening,” she said. “[Workers] have a moral right and legal right to withhold their services if their health and safety are not a priority.”

Energize the organizers

Still, veteran labor organizers say that conditions today may be more conducive to unprecedented labor actions than they have ever seen before. One little-noticed stumbling block, in fact, could be the established labor movement itself.

Lauren Jacobs, a longtime union organizer and staffer who now serves as the head of the Partnership for Working Families, sees two challenges. First, the challenge of building a sense of unity in a huge class of workers who are wedded to various identities other than “worker”—blue collar and white collar, lower class and middle class, and even the newly unemployed. All of them must be activated in the face of a common crisis, rather than seeing themselves in opposition to one another. “How does it start to get to the middle class, to professional and managerial workers?” Jacobs says. “You have to engage that strata of the workforce. They are workers too, even though we often don’t talk about them that way.”

Jacobs believes that a general strike would need the full power of the labor movement to help organize and take advantage of powerful but unfocused feelings of dissatisfaction and solidarity among the public. And while she fully believes the labor movement still has enough inherent power to do the job, convincing it that it is possible is the second challenge. She is unafraid to talk about a widespread but little-discussed issue: the fact that labor organizers and union leaders themselves, used to fighting losing battles and being brutalized in various ways by bosses, can become gun-shy about radical actions. Jacobs speaks of the importance of not becoming a “naysayer,” and being humble enough to recognize that major turning points are not always predictable in advance.

“One has to do the same resisting that we work with our members on—to overcome, not letting fear rule them,” she says. “How do you react when change is coming? Are we wedded to the institutions we’ve criticized and struggled against?”

Follow the Money

Boyd McCamish, the organizing director for the Midwestern board of Workers United, ticks off the harsh economic situation that millions are facing already: unemployed or in tenuous positions, with a paltry one-time $1,200 government stimulus payout and unemployment benefits that may or may not be enough to balance out the lack of a rent freeze, and existential concerns over health insurance. The entire situation, he says, will have the effect of allowing large numbers of working people to barely cling to their modest means of survival, as anger builds.

McCamish envisions one possible scenario for a general strike in the near future: If the coronavirus causes an economic crisis similar to (or worse than) the recession of 2008, many older workers could be extremely reluctant to return to work before they are absolutely sure it’s safe, given their higher vulnerability to the disease. “Boomers are one of the system’s greatest social stabilizers because they consent to almost anything going on in the economy these days,” he says, “but this might change that.”

If the natural reluctance that is already appearing among many workers to risk their health in order to work were shepherded along—not only by the labor movement, but by state and local politicians, with wall-to-wall media coverage—it is no stretch to imagine that most non-essential businesses would not be able to reopen until working people were good and ready. Though nurses and doctors are willing to risk their lives during this crisis, burrito-makers and factory workers very well may not be, especially if they feel supported in that decision by constant outside reinforcement. “That,” McCamish says, “is as close as we would get to a general strike.”

Care for each other

In any big labor action, the flashy parts can only exist with much work behind the scenes. “Beyond the visible things like popular will and communications infrastructure, there are quiet systems of care that are critical to pulling off a general strike,” says Michelle Miller, an SEIU veteran who runs Coworker.org, an online organizing platform. “People to acquire, prepare and deliver food. Maintain morale through things like music, counseling, and internal conflict resolution. Help with children. Tend to the sick. Deal with money, collecting it and allocating it in a way everyone trusts. These are the systems that sustain us over long periods of hardship (and strikes are hard), and they give us an opportunity to model the world we’re trying to create through our action.”

And remember…

“The strike is our tactic,” Sara Nelson says. “Solidarity is our power.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 1, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

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


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The Culinary Workers Run Vegas. The Politicians Are Just Visiting.

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It was the politicians that turned the picket line chaotic. Not the workers. The workers knew just what they were doing. Hundreds and hundreds of them, in their red Culinary Union T-shirts, stretched out down West Flamingo Road in front of the Palms Casino, just off the Vegas Strip last Wednesday. They marched a few hundred yards and back in an orderly if boisterous circle, guided by a battalion of bullhorn-wielding chant leaders. They’d done this before.

Then the presidential candidates showed up.

One by one, each taking their turn in the spotlight, and each accompanied by a seething scrum of press, they plowed their way down the the picket line like speedboats slicing through a river. Cameramen walking backwards tripped over curbs; microphone-waving reporters bumped into strikers; union staffers had to join arms and form human shields around the more popular candidates, just to keep the march moving. Some of the candidates, like Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, looked natural, familiar with the rhythm of pickets. Others, like Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden, looked awkward and nervous, pale, spectral wonks in white Oxford shirts dropped into a seething horde of humanity and forced to carry “No Justice, No Peace” signs, unable to quite pull off the angry working-class look. And some, like Tom Steyer, accompanied by a single staffer and ignored by most of the press, just looked happy to be invited. (Bernie Sanders was conspicuously absent.)

But all of them, one after the other, messed up the flow of the picket line. Their presence was something to be tolerated. This was all part of a system that has been perfected over decades. The reporters come to trail the politicians. The politicians come to pay homage to the Culinary Union. The Culinary Union puts them all to use by marching them up and down a picket line for a fight against Station Casinos, a grinding fight that has been dragging on for years and years.

For a few days, the national spotlight is here in Las Vegas, for the Nevada Caucus. But after the spotlight moves on, the Culinary Union and its 60,000 workers will still be here, trying to win contracts in the face of criminal intransigence, trying to pull thousands of working people into the middle class through sheer force of solidarity and stubbornness. It is this dynamic that always gets twisted in the whirlwind of the national media around a presidential election. The union does not exist to serve the politicians. The politicians exist to serve the union. The union has built a wondrous machine to ensure that it stays that way.

That machine is a simple virtuous circle. It begins and ends with organizing, which never stops. Organizing is propelled by the fact that the union demonstrably improves the lives of its members. Building that array of member benefits, from health care to pay to job protections to a training academy to discounts on rental cars, never stops either. These things provide a large number of extremely engaged people. The union can offer the support of this motivated and well-organized force to politicians who back the union’s goals. These union members can do everything from phone bank to flier to knock on doors to produce screaming rallies on short notice. Their support is highly prized, and their opposition is feared. The political allies they earn help to clear the omnipresent political obstacles to more organizing, and the cycle continues.

The Culinary Union has spent more than 80 years becoming what it is today, which is one of America’s most effective social and economic justice organizations. Its members are mostly women and mostly Latino. They work in casinos, making the food, cleaning the rooms, serving the drinks, doing the laundry, carrying the bags. They are the work force that makes Las Vegas run, and the members of that work force have middle class wages and health insurance and job protections and the backing of local and state and national elected officials as a direct result of the work of the union. The Culinary Union operates in the heart of the most gilded industry in an unnatural city built of money, and it is the one and only reason why the people who do the work of that industry are not exploited to the hilt.

They have pulled off this feat with their cycle of organizing, improving people’s lives and exercising political power. Never is this method more evident than during Nevada caucus week, when it is put on display for the entire world. This year, it came with more than a little extra drama.

The union’s headquarters is a squat, sprawling two-story white concrete building just north of the Vegas Strip, in the shadow of the Stratosphere spire, with “In Solidarity We Will Win!” emblazoned in red on its wall. The visitors who pass through the lobby on an average weekday morning provide a sampling of the union’s sprawling operations. A young woman dragging two wayward toddlers is checking on a grievance. Workers are here to sign up for job training. A team of Steyer staffers wants to know if Tom can come in and talk. Someone from the Mexican embassy would like to set up a meeting.

In back, a warren of cubicles had been cleared out for volunteer get-out-the-vote phone banking, which continued for a solid week before the February 21 caucuses. It was the least combative phone banking I’ve ever witnessed—not a grumble from anyone who picked up the phone, after they heard it was the union calling.

Marc Morgan, a middle-aged bellman at the D Hotel and six-year member of the union, sat patiently dialing from a list, telling callees the time of the caucus (Saturday at 10 a.m.) and the exact location of their caucus site at their workplace. He reminded them to get permission from their supervisors and to alert a shop steward if the supervisors illegally refused. Within an hour, at least a half dozen people who were not planning to caucus—including one who said, “Caucus? What does that mean?”—promised to turn out. Multiply that by many people calling for many hours for many days, and you start to get a sense of why the Culinary Union is a sought-after political ally for Democrats. Thousands more members voted early as well, another process the union encourages and supervises.

Morgan, a shop steward, is, like many union members, a practical man more than a fire-breathing ideologue. His attachment to the union was motivation enough for him to volunteer to spend hours calling fellow members, just out of a sense of duty. That attachment was rooted in personal experience. “I can see the necessity—the managers, oh my god,” he said. He had been through a bitter contract fight at his own casino in 2018, and had seen the petty retaliations that workers suffered. “Employers want to test the boundaries. They’ll continue to test those boundaries until you pull them back in. It’s like parents and children.”

Despite being coveted madly by everyone running for president, the Culinary Union did not issue an endorsement this year. The union endorsed Obama in 2008, but he lost to Hillary Clinton in Nevada anyhow. It didn’t endorse in the 2016 primaries. Much has been made in recent weeks of its spat with Bernie Sanders, which became a huge political news item after the union issued a purportedly educational flier to members warning them that Sanders, if elected, would “end Culinary healthcare”—a rather misleading characterization widely interpreted as a declaration of opposition to Medicare For All.

This mushroomed into an entire news cycle pitting the union against Sanders, and even drove a round of questioning in last week’s presidential debate. Moderate Democrats seized on the opportunity to frame their opposition to Medicare For All as a pro-union position, a development that certainly pleased the health insurance industry and drove progressives in the labor movement mad.

There was much speculation that the union decided not to endorse anyone because they were pretty sure Bernie was going to win, and they couldn’t endorse him because of the conflict they’d started, but didn’t want to endorse someone who would lose, and so decided to sit on their hands. But officially, they simply chose to endorse their own “goals.”

The conflict over this issue—within individual unions, and within organized labor as a whole—is very real. The Culinary Union runs its own healthcare center for members, and uses its healthcare benefits as a key recruiting tool in a “right to work” state. Major unions that are, in effect, in the health care business themselves have a natural level of conservatism towards change in the system. But there is also an influential portion of the labor movement that is strongly in favor of Medicare For All, not least because it would free up unions to spend their political capital on things other than health care, like better wages.

Larry Cohen, the former president of the Communications Workers of America who now leads the Sanders-affiliated group Our Revolution, says that Medicare For All would amount to a spectacular gain for unions in the long run. By bringing down administrative and pharmaceutical costs, he says, national health care would actually save employers money—money that would be funneled to workers in the form of better pay and other benefits. On top of that, there is the simple fact that freeing people from employer-based health care would allow them to be less enslaved to bad jobs.

“If you go do something else, you’re not covered!” Cohen exclaims. “Why would we possibly want to have a system where the job is what gives you the health care?”

Culinary Union members and staffers will remind you that their current health care system, which is free for members and provides care for more than 100,000 people, has been won at the cost of many years of great struggle and quite a few strikes, some of which dragged on for years. They consider it a crown jewel, and view it with pride. Yet the decision of union leadership to wade publicly and aggressively into the Medicare For All debate has put them in the position of becoming a useful talking point for for-profit health care interests. (It is much more politically palatable for conservatives to say “unions are against public health care” than “insurance companies want to maintain profits.”)

One union staffer told me, “The best way for any worker to be protected is a union contract.” That may be true, but all three million citizens of Nevada are unlikely to be in the union any time soon, and they still get sick. As Culinary Union member Marcie Wells wrote last December in a widely shared essay calling for Medicare For All, “We have to acknowledge the reality that for-profit insurance asserts that if you don’t work you deserve what you get: up to and including death. Also, sick people don’t deserve jobs.”

The other thing that should be said, however, is this: For the political left, or supporters of Bernie Sanders, to view the Culinary Union as some sort of enemy is utterly insane. The union has actually accomplished the things that the left says it wants to accomplish. There is no popular political movement that could not learn from its success. Ultimately it is incumbent on the left to bring along the Culinary and other unions on the path to Medicare For All, not vice versa. They are natural allies. Some people in the union world say privately that Bernie Sanders is on their side ideologically, but that he often fumbles or ignores the standard political business of pulling in stakeholders and listening to them before he plunges ahead on big issues that affect them. The differences between the two sides, in other words, are fixable. Fighting over such things is a waste of time, when there is still a working class that needs help.

***************

The general public typically hears about the Culinary Union in relation to electoral politics. But from the perspective of the union, electoral politics is just a means to an end. All of the famous politicians stumbling down the picket line think they are there for the sake of their own campaigns, but in fact they are there to help draw attention to a nearly decade-long union organizing campaign at Station Casinos, the company that owns the Palms and seven other casinos where workers have voted to unionize in recent years.

The company relentlessly fought the organizing campaigns. Once workers at individual Station Casinos began voting to unionize in 2016, they refused to recognize the unions, stalled on contract bargaining, and have dragged the entire mess into the bureaucratic mire of the National Labor Relations Board. Thousands of workers who should already have union contracts have been forced to continue their fight against the company for several years.

To heighten the contradictions to cartoonish levels, Station is owned by the billionaire Fertitta brothers, who got filthy rich when they sold the Ultimate Fighting Championship for $4 billion in 2016. The Fertittas have donated millions of dollars to the Trump campaign. In 2018, Frank Fertitta spent $25 million on his daughter’s wedding, complete with an appearance by Bruno Mars. Yet there seems to be no length to which they will not go to prevent their housekeepers from joining a union.

They are unsympathetic figures. A picket line feels almost polite, in relation to their conduct. At the rally at the Palms on Wednesday, flight attendant union leader Sara Nelson, who had come in support, called them “the frittata brothers.” D. Taylor, the hardboiled head of Unite Here—who, in shades, a ballcap and a faded t-shirt, resembled nothing so much as a high school baseball coach about to yell at everyone to run laps—was even more direct. “These guys are scumbag liars!” he shouted. “The only way we’re going to win is to kick the everloving crap out of them and beat the shit out of them.”

That is a colorful way of saying: “We recognize the value of continued organizing.” On Friday, the day before the caucuses, as the national press corps was still replaying two-day-old debate zingers, a group of 17 Culinary Union organizers involved in the Station Casinos campaign met at 9 a.m. in a second-floor conference room at the headquarters building. They were men and women, young and old, Latino and black and white, and almost all of them had been as casino workers and union members before they were organizers.

For an hour, they reviewed the past week’s work. Most important was the tally of how many union cards each person had gotten signed, with each card earning a round of applause inside the room. (One organizer who had pulled in five signed cards earned herself a day off, and the jealousy of everyone else.) Afterward, the organizers headed out for home visits. This is the true, sweaty, grinding substance of union organizing: a never-ending process of talking to people who are always busy doing other things. A never-ending process of refining and updating a master list of names. Without this work, unions don’t exist.

I set out with Oscar Diaz, a 35 year-old with a shaved head, glasses, and a goatee who had been with the Culinary Union for ten years. His father had been a Culinary Union shop steward at the Westgate, where he worked for more than 30 years. Diaz’s organizing work focuses on Boulder Station and Palace Station, two Station Casinos properties that, after years of organizing, held successful union elections in 2016.

The fact that he is still deeply engaged in organizing them four years later will give you an idea how hard the fight has been. Part of the slog is directly attributable to national politics. When the company breaks the law, the union files charges against them with the NLRB. But staffing numbers at the NLRB’s Las Vegas office, Diaz says, have been reduced under President Trump, meaning that cases take longer to work their way through the bureaucracy. The delays mean the union cards signed a year or two ago have expired; organizers must get workers to sign again.

Good organizers combine the talents of a salesperson, a private detective, a motivational speaker and a long-haul driver. With a printed list of workers’ names, Diaz drove around North Las Vegas, seeking out addresses in the expanse of identical sand-colored housing developments. The workers do not know that organizers are coming, meaning that they may be gone, or asleep, or suspicious about opening the door. But Diaz is used to navigating logistical hurdles. We reached one apartment complex only to find that we didn’t have an access code to open the front gate. Diaz hopped out of the car, peered on top of the keypad box, and found the code. “The FedEx guys will scratch it on top of the box sometimes,” he said, shrugging.

An organizer may knock on dozens of doors in a day and have only a few truly productive conversations. The ability to navigate unknown neighborhoods with little information and track down security codes and slip seamlessly between Spanish and English and read each person for signs of bias or dishonesty or confusion are all just inherent in the job. And things used to be even harder. At the beginning of the campaign, Diaz recalls, organizers got referrals with no names or addresses, just vague descriptions: “Go up Tropicana, you’ll see a house that has a statue of the Virgin Mary, knock on the back door.”

For the worker who signed a union card, Diaz will come back again another day with one of her coworkers, to recruit her to get more involved. For the workers who didn’t answer their doors, he will mark them down, and come back again, however many times are necessary to pull cohesion out of this huge group of tired, busy, far-flung people. He and his fellow organizers will do this tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day. They did this for years already to get an election, and years more to try to get that election affirmed, and may do it for years more to win a contract. This is what it takes.

“Busting unions is not hard,” Diaz says. “It’s playing with people’s fears.” During the long Station Casinos campaign, he has seen how much effort it takes to counteract intransigent bosses that possess enormous advantages in time and money. The people that they are up against have billions of dollars. The Culinary Union has Oscar Diaz, and all of the other organizers, who will find out where you live and convince you to stand up for yourself. With those tools, the Culinary Union has organized Las Vegas. Organizing beats money, even if it takes a very, very long time.

Saturday was caucus day. The caucus for workers at the Bellagio, one of the more opulent properties on the strip, was held in a ballroom, where 100 chairs were set out on garish paisley carpet under crystal chandeliers. Around 11 a.m., small groups of housekeepers wearing their dark blue uniforms began trickling in, taking seats and trying to ignore the mass of cameras at the back of the room, where every network and news outlet had gathered to witness this immodest open demonstration of democracy.

Most of the caucus-goers were women of color. A few shared their thoughts as they waited for the proceedings to begin. Laura Flores, a housekeeper and 20-year member of the Culinary Union, said she was supporting Bernie Sanders, because of his position on health insurance.

Morena Del Cid, another Culinary Union member, who worked in the poker room and had been with the company for 30 years, was participating in her first caucus. She was supporting Bernie Sanders. “People have to make a change,” she said. Asked about his stance on Medicare For All, she replied, “I love that.”

Of 123 eligible people in the room to caucus, 75 went for Bernie Sanders in the first round, and 39 went for Joe Biden. Warren got six and Steyer got three, meaning they were not viable. One supporter of each viable candidate then had a minute to make their case to the handful of voters whose candidates didn’t make the cut. A Bellagio worker wearing a red Culinary union t-shirt spoke for Bernie Sanders, declaring, “My children and future generations should all have health care!” Medicare For All was her pitch.

The final tally was 76 votes for Bernie, 45 for Biden, and two uncommitted. Bernie ran away with the Bellagio and almost all of the other casinos on the Vegas Strip, the very heart of the Culinary Union’s territory. This set up an easy narrative about a political victory over an entrenched union leadership.

But that narrative is misleading. A union is the people in the union. The members, collectively, are its heart, its mind and its voice. In a good union, its leaders and organizers and staffers do what they do in order to give power to its members. The Culinary Union is a good union. Its members won, so it won.

After the votes had all been counted, those who had caucused filed out of the room quickly, returning to work and trying to avoid the gauntlet of media that lined the exits, bombarding them for quotes. I didn’t have the heart to press them any more. They had already spoken.

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 24, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

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


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The Next Big Grocery Strike Is Knocking on Safeway and Giant’s Door

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Last April, more than 30,000 Stop & Shop grocery workers across the Northeast won a raucous 11-day strike against the company, beating back health care and pension cuts. Now, another major grocery strike has become a serious possibility, this time in and around the nation’s capital.

On Wednesday, UFCW Local 400 announced that it will be holding a strike vote early next month for more than 25,000 workers at hundreds of Giant Foods and Safeway stores across DC, Maryland, and Virginia. The union has separate contracts with Giant and Safeway, but both of those contracts have been expired since last October. Negotiations in the ensuing months proved fruitless, and now the union is preparing for what could become the first large strike of 2020.

Giant is owned by Ahold Delhaize, the same European conglomerate that owns Stop & Shop. Safeway is owned by Albertsons, the national grocery holding company controlled by the private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management. As is common in private equity deals, Cerberus is reportedly eyeing an IPO for Albertsons—placing great pressure on the company to spiff up its balance sheet, including labor and pension costs. Not coincidentally, those issues are now fueling the contract dispute that has brought these UFCW members to the point of a strike vote. In addition to pension cuts, the union says that the companies are pursuing cuts to health care funding, tight restrictions on benefit access for part time employees, and a plan to keep many new hires locked in a minimum wage salary for years.

Both Giant and Safeway workers are part of the same multi-employer pension, funded by the respective companies, meaning that they all have a direct financial interest in strong contracts at both stores. Albertsons and the UFCW are locked in a dispute over the size of the company’s pension obligations. Media representatives from the companies did not respond to requests for comment.

Michelle Lee, a cashier at Safeway in Alexandria, Virginia, has worked for the company for three decades, and now earns $21 an hour—which, she says, is “nowhere near where it needs to be, since I been there 32 years.” Despite her own seniority, Lee says that it’s important to her that the union contract look out for all employees, no matter how long they’ve been there. “Not just the old people, but we want to make sure new hires get the benefits and the hours they need to pay their bills and buy groceries,” she says. “A lot of workers are concerned… they’re not sure if they’re gonna get a pension. they’re scared their health care is gonna get cut.”

The same fears are present at Giant as well. Jeff Reid, a 12-year veteran in the Giant meat department in Silver Spring, Maryland who makes $16.75 an hour, says that pension security is the most important issue for him. “People work 20, 30 years for the company, you want to have something when you retire,” he says. “You don’t want to be choosing between prescriptions and food.” Lee says that his coworkers are aware of the Shop & Stop strike–and the success it had–but that he is “absolutely, unequivocally” ready for a strike himself.

Still, any strike would be a hardship on workers earning grocery store wages. The UFCW has spent recent weeks urging Giant and Safeway workers to prepare for the possibility by getting in as many work hours as they can and taking care of medical and dental needs now. Should next month’s strike vote succeed and a strike actually happen, it would become an attractive magnet for political support from prominent Democrats. Steven Feinberg, the billionaire cofounder of Cerberus, is close to the Trump White House, and was tapped by the president to lead his intelligence advisory board. Such a grand imperial position would provide a convenient contrast between the company’s owner and the thousands of workers on the picket line, many of whom would be fighting for the right merely to earn more than minimum wage.

“Most of the people I talk to are angry with the company. They make the company billions of dollars,” says Safeway’s Michelle Lee. “We gotta do what we gotta do. If we have to go on strike to have a better life in the long run, then that’s what we need to do.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 19, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

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


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2018 and 2019 hit a 35-year high for major strikes, this week in the war on workers

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Large work stoppages, aka large strikes, had been on the decline for years. That turned around in 2018—going from 25,300 workers involved in major strikes in 2017 to 485,200 in 2018—and stayed relatively high in 2019, the Economic Policy Institute reports.

“Through 2017, the general trend was downward, but there was a substantial upsurge in workers involved in major work stoppages in 2018,” Heidi Shierholz and Margaret Poydock write. “On average, in 2018 and 2019, 455,400 workers annually were involved in major work stoppages—the largest two-year pooled annual average in 35 yearssince 1983 and 1984.” A significant number of them—10 in 2019—were really large strikes, involving at least 20,000 workers.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on February 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

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Find an Employment Attorney

The Workplace Fairness Attorney Directory features lawyers from across the United States who primarily represent workers in employment cases. Please note that Workplace Fairness does not operate a lawyer referral service and does not provide legal advice, and that Workplace Fairness is not responsible for any advice that you receive from anyone, attorney or non-attorney, you may contact from this site.