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Empowering Workers: Worker Wins

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Despite the challenges of organizing during a deadly pandemic, working people across the country (and beyond) continue organizing, bargaining and mobilizing for a better life. This edition begins with:

Baltimore County Public Library Employees Vote Overwhelmingly to Join IAM: Workers at the Baltimore County Public Library (BCPL) had a special reason to celebrate this holiday season. It was announced last week that 460 full-time and part-time library workers voted 77% in favor of forming a union with the Machinists (IAM). The successful vote comes after years of organizing, which included the IAM winning a new state law allowing BCPL employees to collectively bargain. “This is so exciting for Baltimore County Public Library workers,” said Anita Bass, a BCPL circulation assistant III at the Essex branch. “This will empower the staff of BCPL to continue to do the important work of fulfilling BCPL’s mission and vision. We need a system in place to protect and support each other, and a legally binding contract will give us that. I believe in the BCPL mission, and I know the IAM will help us accomplish that mission.” “Baltimore County Public Library employees have always been a critical pillar to our community, and now especially during the pandemic,” said IAM Grand Lodge Representative Bridget Fitzgerald, lead organizer on the campaign. “I could not be more proud of these professionals for joining together and standing strong for what they deserve. This is a victory for them, their families and all of Baltimore County, which rightfully relies on a strong and inclusive library system.”

SHoP Architects Employees Vote to Join Machinists: Employees at SHoP Architects in New York are seeking to become the first private sector architectural workers to successfully organize since the 1940s. More than 130 eligible employees at the firm have signed cards in support of forming a union with the IAM. The firm is known for work on the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and the Steinway Tower south of Central Park, among others. Workers are seeking to reduce their workload and increase pay, after they reported working long hours for pay that doesn’t allow them to pay off the thousands of dollars of student debt those in their field often accumulate. The organizing committee has asked SHoP for voluntary recognition and wants to start a conversation with SHoP’s partners on how to address the challenges they face—and begin making positive changes. “Many of us feel pushed to the limits of our productivity and mental health,” the members of the committee said. “These conditions have become detrimental to our lives and in extension the lives of our families. These concerns are the product of larger systemic issues within the discipline of architecture and are in no way unique to SHoP. From the moment we begin studying architecture, we are taught that great design requires endless time and effort, and in turn demands the sacrifice of personal health and relationships. We are taught that architecture is a greater calling and regardless of how the client is willing to compensate us, we will perform our duty because it is critically important for the greater good.”

Air Line Pilots at Sun Country Ratify Tentative New Contract: Pilots who fly for Sun Country Airlines, members of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), voted 93% in favor of ratifying a new tentative four-year agreement. The pact brings the pilots’ salaries, retirement and other work rules in line with their peers in the industry. The agreement was reached after seven months of negotiations, and reflects the growth and modernization of Sun Country in recent years. “We are proud of this contract that reflects the work we’ve done and contributions we’ve made to help the airline grow,” said Capt. Brian Lethert, Sun Country Airlines ALPA Master Executive Council chair. “We are committed to helping the company continue growing and achieving its objectives through this modern contract, which will ensure the airline is able to retain and attract pilots.”

Kellogg Strike Ends as BCTGM Members Ratify New Contract: After a strike that began Oct. 5, Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTGM) members have approved a new five-year contract that includes “no take-aways; no concessions.” The workers at ready-to-eat cereal plants in Battle Creek, Michigan; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Omaha, Nebraska; and Memphis, Tennessee, voted in favor of the new agreement, which includes: no permanent two-tier system, a clear path to regular full-time employment, no plant shutdowns through October 2026, increases in pension payments and the maintenance of cost-of-living raises. “Our striking members at Kellogg’s ready-to-eat cereal production facilities courageously stood their ground and sacrificed so much in order to achieve a fair contract. This agreement makes gains and does not include any concessions,” said BCTGM International President Anthony Shelton. “Our entire Union commends and thanks Kellogg’s members. From picket line to picket line, Kellogg’s union members stood strong and undeterred in this fight, inspiring generations of workers across the globe, who were energized by their tremendous show of bravery as they stood up to fight and never once backed down….The BCTGM is grateful, as well, for the outpouring of fraternal support we received from across the labor movement for our striking members at Kellogg’s. Solidarity was critical to this great workers’ victory.”

Oregon Grocery Workers End Strike with Tentative Agreement: Grocery workers, members of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 555, at Fred Meyer and Quality Food Centers in Oregon ended a strike after reaching a tentative labor agreement. The new contract provides wage increases, improved workplace protections, new retirement and health care benefits. The stores are part of Kroger-owned supermarket chains.

WGAE Ratifies Landmark Contract with VICE: On Friday, the Writers Guild of America, East, (WGAE) announced that its 160 members at VICE Media have ratified a new three-year contract that sets an increased minimum salary of $63,000 and provides minimum yearly wage increases ranging from 3% to 3.75%. The WGAE previously had four contracts at VICE representing four main editorial verticals, but the new contract combines them all into one agreement. “Thanks to a unified and strong union, workers across VICE will now work under one collective bargaining agreement,” said WGAE Executive Director Lowell Peterson. “This new contract and its substantial gains are a testament to the VICE bargaining committee’s diligent efforts to address the concerns and aspirations of workers at a company that continues to grow within the ever-shifting media landscape.”

Ironworkers Emerge Victorious in Strike Against Erie Strayer: After nearly three months on strike, the members of Ironworkers Local 851 in Erie, Pennsylvania, have declared victory. Management at Erie Strayer came “to the table in good faith today to meet us in our demands,” the union announced on Friday. The members of Local 851 held the line, day and night, for months in their fight for a fair contract. “This win is a testament to the power of worker solidarity, and that the best protection and future for workers everywhere is with a union contract made for workers and by workers,” the Ironworkers said in a statement. Their grit and determination to win, together with the support of the local community and the labor movement, is an example to us all.

Vodeo Games Workers Form First Video Game Union in North America: The employees at Vodeo Games have come together to form Vodeo Workers United, the first certified union of video game workers in North America. The union was organized with the Campaign to Organize Digital Employees-CWA (CODE-CWA). Thirteen workers at the video game company, including independent contractors, received voluntary recognition of their new union from their employer. With this recognition, Vodeo Workers United is set to begin bargaining a first contract. “All workers deserve a union and a say in how their workplace is run, no matter where they work, what their employment status is or what kind of conditions they work under,” said Myriame Lachapelle, a producer at Vodeo Games. “We have been inspired by the growing worker organizing within the gaming industry and hope we can set a new precedent for industry-wide standards that will better our shared working conditions and inspire others to do the same.”

OPEIU Members at MOVE Texas Ratify First Contract: Members of MOVE Texas United (MTXU), an affiliate of the Office and Professional Employees (OPEIU) Local 277, unanimously ratified their first contract on Friday, having secured significant gains at the bargaining table. Highlights of the new contract include full benefits paid for by the employer, 40% employee representation on the board, a $50,000 wage floor for full-time employees and a 32-hour workweek. MOVE Texas is a statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering underrepresented youth communities. “To begin at the start of the new year, the 47-page contract will set an unprecedented example for the labor movement in the nonprofit sector,” MTXU said after the vote. “After almost a year of negotiations between the employer and the union, MOVE Texas United can celebrate an inspiring process and several innovative strides.”

Blue Skies Ahead: TWU Members at JetBlue Ratify First Contract: Members of the Transport Workers Union (TWU) who work as flight attendants, or “inflight crewmembers” (IFCs) as JetBlue calls them, decisively ratified their inaugural contract on Monday with the airline. The union said that while successfully negotiating a first contract is not an easy feat to accomplish under ordinary circumstances, it was made even more challenging because of the COVID-19 pandemic and a skyrocketing number of assaults against aviation workers. TWU members at JetBlue have been fighting for a fair contract since overwhelmingly voting to form a union in 2018. “This is a tremendous victory for our 5,500 IFCs at JetBlue. In this time of uncertainty and peril, there is no greater security for workers than a solid contract,” said TWU International President John Samuelsen. “Our JetBlue inflight crewmembers are no longer ‘at-will’ employees of the carrier, but union workers whose employment is secured by an enforceable collective bargaining agreement. What a huge difference it is.” The new contract includes a grievance and arbitration system, work rule improvements, health insurance and retirement benefits, and wage increases.

Big Cartel Workers Form First Tech Union in Right to Work State: Tech workers at Big Cartel received voluntary recognition of their new union, Big Cartel Workers Union, on Monday in a groundbreaking organizing victory. Staff at the e-commerce platform for creative businesses are the first tech workers to form a union in a “right to work” state as the company is based in Salt Lake City. The union members, who are affiliated with Office and Professional Employees (OPEIU) Tech Workers Union Local 1010, will begin bargaining their first contract with their employer next month. “Tech workers are becoming increasingly aware of the power a union brings them at work,” said OPEIU Organizing Director Brandon Nessen. “Unionizing gives working people agency to advance not only their own interests, but the mutual interests shared by both staff and management.”

Wirecutter Union Members Reach Tentative Agreement for Their First Contract: Members of the Wirecutter Union, part of The NewsGuild of New York/CWA Local 31003, announced on Tuesday that they have reached a tentative agreement with management. The workers at The New York Times’ product review site have been fighting for their first contract for two years. They went on a five-day strike during the recent Black Friday shopping season to pressure management to stop its union-busting practices and negotiate a fair agreement. Rallying together with 100% membership participation in the strike, and with the entire labor movement and our allies backing them up, these union members now get to vote on a groundbreaking new contract that includes significant wage increases, the elimination of nondisclosure agreements in cases of harassment, and strong diversity, equity and inclusion commitments. “We’ve fought to build our power over the last two years, despite continuous union-busting from The New York Times,” the Wirecutter Union tweeted. “The result is a bargaining agreement we’re proud of.”

VTDigger Newsroom Employees Secure First Collective Bargaining Agreement: Workers at VTDigger, members of the Providence Newspaper Guild (TNG-CWA Local 31041), ratified their first-ever collective bargaining agreement. The three-year deal “establishes consistent standards, rewards longevity, guarantees minimum salaries and overtime pay, and continues to solidify the organization’s commitment to improving diversity, equity and inclusion. It has been a long and at times difficult conversation, but we had it as equals, and the organization is much stronger for it,” said Lola Duffort, co-unit chair of the VTDigger Guild. “I am delighted we have arrived—unanimously—at such a robust agreement.” The new contract includes minimum salaries, cost-of-living increases, paid sick leave, paid parental leave, overtime pay, salary increases and other benefits.

Graduate Researchers Secure Union Recognition and University of California: More than 17,000 graduate student researchers across the University of California’s campuses have secured recognition from the university as members of Student Researchers United, an affiliate of the UAW. UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada said: “The UAW is proud to welcome UC Student Researchers into our union family. They have shown what is possible when workers stand together and refuse to be divided. We look forward to supporting them as they bargain a strong first contract.” Members of the union held a series of protests demanding representation, employment security, protection from harassment and other common workplace protections.

Workers at iHeart Podcast Network Join WGAE: The WGAE broke the news on Thursday that a clear majority of workers at the iHeart Podcast Network—the fastest-growing division of iHeartMedia—signed union cards to organize with the WGAE. The guild is calling on management to voluntarily recognize the union of about 125 producers, editors, researchers, writers and hosts. The iHeart Podcast Organizing Committee wrote a letter to management explaining their decision to form a union with WGAE and expressing their desire for appropriate compensation and benefits, accountability mechanisms regarding diversity and inclusion efforts, and clear paths for advancement and job security. WGAE Executive Director Lowell Peterson said: “We are pleased to welcome the storytellers at the iHeart Podcast Network to the guild. A union is vital to ensuring podcast workers are able to build sustainable careers in an industry where their contributions have been essential to the sector’s continued rapid growth.”

Chalkbeat Workers Unanimously Ratify First Union Contract: Writers at Chalkbeat, represented by the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE), voted unanimously to ratify their first collective bargaining agreement. The bargaining committee said: “Our members unanimously voted yes on our first contract because these issues were such a priority. We’re all excited to have better guidelines that we know will make Chalkbeat a better place to work. Organizing as a union has already helped our unit members feel more connected, sharing their various work experiences across the country, and working together to make sure we all have better working conditions. We’re excited that Chalkbeat ultimately heard our concerns, and we’re certain the new contract will lead to even more powerful journalism. Strong journalists make for a strong Chalkbeat.” The contract includes salary increases, minimum salary levels, paid parental leave, overtime compensation, improved health benefits, improved protections against sexual harassment, improved health benefits for transgender employees and other gains.

Actors’ Equity Secures Anti-Discrimination and Harassment Provisions in New Agreement with Purple Rose Theatre Company: Actors’ Equity Association announced on Tuesday that the union has reached a new agreement with the Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea, Michigan. Equity said the agreement reflects a shared commitment to creating a safe workplace, free from the discrimination and harassment the company experienced under its previous leadership. In addition to improved compensation and work hours, the two-year contract includes strong language prohibiting bullying, discrimination, harassment and retaliation. “This contract is now one of the strongest Equity contracts in the country in terms of protecting members from discrimination and harassment, and it will be a model for other theatres,” said Equity Assistant Executive Director and General Counsel Andrea Hoeschen. “Actors and stage managers will have a safer workplace because of the courage and efforts of those who revealed a range of working conditions at Purple Rose that were inconsistent with a safe, equitable, unionized workplace.”

SRU-UAW Wins Recognition from the University of California: In a massive victory for the UAW and the entire labor movement, Student Researchers United-UAW (SRU-UAW) announced Wednesday night that the University of California (UC) has recognized their union. SRU-UAW submitted union authorization cards in May after a months-long organizing campaign. Their recognition now means the union will represent 17,000 higher education workers at all 10 UC campuses and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. SRU-UAW members overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike in November over UC’s refusal to recognize their bargaining unit. “This historic victory was brought about by the tireless efforts of thousands of student researchers who organized to win a union and a direct response to our massive strike authorization vote,” the union tweeted on Wednesday. “Now let’s win a strong contract for all student researchers!”

Front-Line Grocery Workers Vote to Form a Union with UFCW Local 1439: United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1439 announced Monday that some 250 grocery workers at Fred Meyer in Richland, Washington, will join the union after a victorious election, marking the first time in recent history that an entire store of grocery workers in the state have done so. The organizing win now paves the way for these new union members to move forward in bargaining their first union contract to strengthen pay, benefits and working conditions. “This is an unprecedented victory, inspired by the sacrifices of essential grocery workers during the pandemic,” said Local 1439 Secretary-Treasurer Jeff Hofstader. “We hope this inspires other grocery workers to stand up and exercise their rights.”

Dancers at Ballet Idaho Vote to Join AGMA: The American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) and Ballet Idaho announced on Monday that the dancers of Ballet Idaho have voted to join AGMA. A vote was held on Tuesday, Nov. 30, based upon mutual agreement between the union and the performing arts company. Given the result in favor of forming a union, Ballet Idaho has recognized AGMA as the exclusive bargaining representative of the dancers. “AGMA is thrilled to welcome the dancers of Ballet Idaho into the union,” said Leonard Egert, national executive director of AGMA. “We look forward to a collaborative process with the management of Ballet Idaho, as the safety, well-being and long-term success of these artists remain a top priority for both parties.”

Carnegie Library Workers Reach Tentative Agreement on First Union Contract: After voting to join the United Steelworkers (USW) in 2019, approximately 300 workers at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh have reached a tentative agreement on their first union contract. The four-year contract covers eligible workers at 19 library branches and includes significant gains, including a voice in library decision-making, improved health and safety, pay equity for the lowest-paid workers and more affordable health care. Kira Yeversky, a clerk at the Homewood branch, said: “I’m so proud of every worker who shared their stories and fought for our first contract. They displayed true solidarity, and I can’t wait to see what this next chapter brings for all of us.”

PECSH-MNA Reaches Tentative Agreement at Sparrow Hospital: The bargaining team of the Professional Employees Council of Sparrow Hospital-Michigan Nurses Association (PECSH-MNA), an affiliate of National Nurses United (NNU), reached a tentative agreement with the hospital administration for a new three-year contract last Friday, averting a possible strike. The new agreement includes significant wage increases, no increases in health care premiums, a safe staffing process and contractually guaranteed access to personal protective equipment. “We truly believe that this contract will make a difference for caregivers working at our hospital, for the patients we serve and for our community as a whole,” said Katie Pontifex, RN, president of PECSH-MNA. “We are really proud of the solidarity shown by caregivers in advocating for our patients and our community.” In November, 96% of PECSH-MNA members voted to authorize a strike. Some 2,200 union members will cast their ballots in the coming days on whether to ratify the agreement.

MEBA Secures Pay Bonuses for Vaccinated Interlake Mariners: Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association (MEBA) President Adam Vokac announced last week that the union has agreed to a new pay policy to compensate fully vaccinated MEBA members sailing for Interlake Steamship Co. The policy doesn’t mandate vaccinations but provides a generous payment for those who are vaccinated or get inoculated against COVID-19, and sets up a system where an additional one-time payment is authorized for members if at least 85% of the fleet is certified to be fully vaccinated. The MEBA said it fully endorses this proactive and fair approach to motivate mariners to get vaccinated.

LIUNA Service Contract Workers Win Higher Wages: Hundreds of thousands of federal government contract workers will receive a pay raise as the Department of Labor’s Executive Order setting a $15 an hour minimum wage goes into effect in January. Thousands of Laborers (LIUNA) members working under service contracts for the federal government, including many supporting the U.S. military, also will benefit from this increase as well as the plan to index the minimum wage to an inflation measure, so that every year after 2022 wages will be automatically adjusted to reflect changes in the cost of living. “The Biden Administration should be commended for helping workers get ahead and ensuring that the workers who support the military and the federal government are able to support themselves and their families,” said LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “By setting a wage floor for federal contract workers with cost-of-living adjustments, many thousands of Laborers will earn higher wages now and in the future.”

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on January 4, 2022

About the Authors: Kenneth Quinell is a Senior Writer at the AFL-CIO.

Aaron Gallant is the Internal Communications Specialist at AFL-CIO


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The Top AFL-CIO Blog Posts of 2021

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By any measure, 2021 was another historic year. Working people across the country continued to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, engaged in an historic wave of strikes and worked to hold the administration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris true to their promise to be pro-worker. We covered these stories and many others throughout the year and here are the top 10 most-read stories by you, our readers.

Working People Respond to Attempted Coup at Nation’s Capitol (January 7): Yesterday saw an unprecedented attack on U.S. democratic institutions and working people across the country, and world, were shocked by what unfolded before us. Here are responses to Wednesday’s events from across the labor movement.

RWDSU-UFCW Leads Organizing Drive at Amazon Fulfillment Center in Alabama (January 26): The strongest effort to create a union at Amazon in many years is underway in Bessemer, Alabama. Organizers with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union-UFCW (RWDSU-UFCW) have been working with employees at the Amazon fulfillment center. By December, more than 2,000 workers had signed union cards, leading to an election set to begin in February. The company is engaging in union-busting activities in response, but the workers are not backing down. Many of the organizers and the employees at the fulfillment center are Black, and the organizers have focused on issues of racial equality and empowerment as a part of the drive.

John J. Sweeney, 1934-2021 (February 2): John Sweeney, who led an era of transformative change in America’s labor movement, passed away Feb. 1 at the age of 86. Sweeney was one of four children born to Irish immigrants in a working-class Bronx neighborhood shortly after the Great Depression. His parents, James and Agnes Sweeney, worked as a bus driver and a domestic worker, respectively. Sweeney always understood the struggles and the pride of working people.

20 Ways the American Rescue Plan Helps Working People (March 11): This week, Congress passed the American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion bill to help fight the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. President Biden signed the law, which will provide significant assistance to the American people during this unprecedented crisis. Here are 20 ways the American Rescue Plan will help working people.

Success in the Tech Industry: Worker Wins (March 25): Despite the challenges of organizing during a deadly pandemic, working people across the country (and beyond) continue organizing, bargaining and mobilizing for a better life. This edition begins with: “CODE-CWA’s Tech Industry Organizing Efforts Lead to Union Recognition at Mobilize….”

Profiles in Courage: Celebrating AAPI Labor Activists (March 31): In the wake of the rise of hate crimes and violence against the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, we take an important pause to voice our support of our brothers, sisters and friends in the AAPI community. The AAPI community has played an important and active role in the growth, expansion and unique diversity of this country and has given the labor movement many of its true heroes. This community is our community, and we are proud to celebrate these seven labor activists—all of whom have advanced the cause of worker justice.

13 Ways the PRO Act Helps Working People (April 26): The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act is a generational opportunity and the cornerstone of the AFL-CIO’s Workers First Agenda. It motivated working people this past election cycle to mobilize for a pro-worker trifecta in the U.S. House, Senate and White House. And working people won a mandate. The PRO Act was introduced by Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.) and Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (Va.), and it is landmark worker empowerment, civil rights and economic stimulus legislation, and an essential part of any plan to build back better from the COVID-19 pandemic and recession.

Richard L. Trumka’s Lifelong Devotion to Family and Democracy (August 13): Richard Louis Trumka dedicated his entire life to making sure every institution he touched—the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), the AFL-CIO, the U.S. government and the world community—served working people and the public interest, comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable.

Liz Shuler Elected President as Part of Most Diverse Leadership Team in AFL-CIO History (August 20): The AFL-CIO Executive Council today elected Liz Shuler, a visionary leader and longtime trade unionist, to serve as president of the federation of 56 unions and 12.5 million members. Shuler is the first woman to hold the office in the history of the labor federation. The Executive Council also elected United Steelworkers (USW) International Vice President Fred Redmond to succeed Shuler as secretary-treasurer, the first African American to hold the number two office. Tefere Gebre will continue as executive vice president, rounding out the most diverse team of officers ever to lead the AFL-CIO. 

Do You Know Where Your Nabisco Treats Are Made? (August 25): Members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTGM) working at Nabisco plants throughout the United States take great pride in producing the iconic products that have been a part of millions of Americans’ lives for more than 50 years. Workers at five Nabisco locations in the United States are currently on strike. 

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on December 16, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author is Kenneth Quinell. Kenneth Quinell is a Senior Writer at the AFL-CIO.


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No, Striketober Is Not About Vaccine Mandates

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The recent wave of militant labor action has been over workers demanding better pay and working conditions—not opposing Covid vaccine requirements.

This month, the United States has seen a noticeable uptick in the number of strikes by fed-up workers at companies like Kellogg’s and John Deere—a phenomenon many are calling “Striketober.” As a result, the U.S. labor movement is getting an unusual amount of attention. 

But because of the corporate media’s often spotty or ideologically slanted coverage of workers’ struggles, combined with the fact that only a small minority of Americans have any personal experience with unions, there appears to be some confusion among the general public over what Striketober is really about. 

A troubling number of Americans seem to have the false impression that tens of thousands of underpaid and overworked employees are going on strike in order to resist Covid-19 vaccine mandates—when they are actually walking off the job to win decent raises, equitable pay structures and relief from mandatory overtime.

Some of this confusion was on display last week as HuffPost labor reporter Dave Jamieson appeared on C-SPAN to discuss the current wave of strikes. When host John McArdle opened the phone lines for viewers to call up, the vaccine-specific questions started to roll in.

“I wanted to know how much the vaccine mandates are playing in these strikes? What is the role of the vaccine mandate?” asked the first caller, a woman from South Carolina. 

About fifteen minutes later, another caller from Kentucky asked, “Do you think this vaccine is causing most of the strikes?” 

In response, Jamieson patiently explained that, “the vaccine is essentially a non-issue in these strikes we are seeing.”

“As someone who’s been following these strikes closely, I was a little surprised by the assumption that vaccines might be at the center of this,” Jamieson told In These Times. “But I probably shouldn’t have been. There’s been outsized media coverage of workers defying vaccine requirements, even though they seem to be quite a small share of the workforce.”

Indeed, since this summer there have been numerous news reports about unions “opposing” vaccine mandates, and many similar stories about individual workers who would rather get fired than be vaccinated. But in reality, employers across the country are reporting that 90 to 100 percent of their workforces are complying with vaccine mandates. 

And then there’s media coverage that collapses the distinction between workers walking off the job to demand better working conditions and resistance to vaccine mandates, such as this CNN story titled, “Here comes the anti-vaccine requirement solidarity movement,” which spends dozens of paragraphs recounting opposition to mandates before stating that the recent strikes have actually not been over such objections. At the end of September, Fox News published a story falsely claiming that healthcare workers at Valley Health in Winchester, Va., went on strike over their employer’s vaccine mandate, when in fact only a small number of workers protested the requirement, rather than taking part in an official or large-scale walk out. 

Much of the media hype about supposed union opposition to the mandates stems from general misunderstandings about the nature of collective bargaining. Unions that have asserted their right to bargain with employers over the implementation of vaccine mandates have inaccurately been accused of opposing the mandates altogether.

Reacting to news that public sector unions in Portland, Oregon were demanding to negotiate implementation of the vaccine mandate, journalist James Surowiecki tweeted: “Organized labor has been on the wrong side of the vaccine issue almost across the board.”

“Maybe some unions have been captured by the cranks in their ranks,” Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell opined in response to unions wanting to negotiate vaccine mandates. “If ‘Big Labor’ obstructs this effort, it will fail not only its own members, but also the many admirers and political allies it worked so hard to win over,” she warned.

But as the Economic Policy Institute’s Dave Kamper explained, “Demanding to negotiate the impact of something isn’t the same as refusing to do it, or even being opposed to it.”

Unions seeking to bargain over vaccine mandates want to determine specific policies like whether workers can use paid sick time to get vaccinated, what they will be expected to show as proof of vaccination and whether those working remotely will also need to be vaccinated.

“Even when an employer offers something unmistakably good to employees…unions still can, will, and SHOULD demand to negotiate it, get it down in writing, formally agree to it,” Kamper wrote. “At its very heart, collective bargaining isn’t about money. It’s about power. It’s about WHO DECIDES. The principle of collective bargaining is the boss is not and should not be the unilateral decision maker. That’s what a demand to negotiate means.”

Indeed, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and Tyson Foods recently hammered out an agreement on implementation of the mandate, and now report that 96 percent of the company’s workers have been vaccinated, exemplifying that negotiating over vaccine mandates does not mean opposition to them.

“Working together, the UFCW and Tyson set a new standard with this vaccine mandate and have proved what’s possible when we listen to workers and negotiate the implementation of vaccination mandates fairly and responsibly,” said UFCW International President Marc Perrone.

Meanwhile, it is true that some unions have been extremely vocal and adamant in their total opposition to vaccine mandates—but these are almost entirely right-wing police unions like Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, which are already pariahs to many in the labor movement. Importantly, while these police unions may be holding protests and making noise, they are not on strike and are therefore completely unconnected to the current wave of work stoppages.

“I think people are conflating the labor strife they see with these highly politicized mandates,” Jamieson said. “Unfortunately, that can overshadow the important labor story that’s unfolding: workers finding their leverage and demanding a better deal.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 28, 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. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke


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Striking Alabama Coal Miners Want Their $1.1 Billion Back

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Luis Feliz Leon (@Lfelizleon) | Twitter

History repeated itself as hundreds of miners spilled out of buses in June and July to leaflet the Manhattan offices of asset manager BlackRock, the largest shareholder in the mining company Warrior Met Coal.

Some had traveled from the pine woods of Brookwood, Alabama, where 1,100 coal miners have been on strike against Warrior Met since April 1. Others came in solidarity from the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania and the hollows of West Virginia and Ohio.

Among them was 90-year-old retired Ohio miner Jay Kolenc, in a wheelchair at the picket line—retracing his own steps from five decades ago. It was 1974 when Kentucky miners and their supporters came to fight Wall Street in the strike behind the film Harlan County USA.

“Coal miners have always had to fight for everything they’ve ever had,” Kolenc said. “Since 1890, when we first started, nobody’s ever handed us anything. So we’re not about to lay our tools down now.”

The longest that miners ever went on strike was for 10 months in 1989 against the Pittston Coal Company in West Virginia, defending hard-won health care benefits and pension rights. Some 3,000 miners got arrested in that strike. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who passed away on August 5, was president of the Mine Workers (UMWA) at the time.

In Manhattan, mixed in the sea of camouflage T-shirts outside BlackRock was a smattering of red and blue shirts—retail, grocery, stage, and telecom workers. The miners and supporters circled the inner perimeter of four police barricades, chanting “Warrior Met Coal ain’t got no soul!” and whooping it up.

Postal and sanitation trucks honked in solidarity. “You’re in New York City,” Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts told the crowd. “When somebody comes by driving a trash truck, they’re in a union. Chances are, somebody comes along with a broom in their hand, they’re in a union.”

‘WHERE’S OUR MONEY?’

The strikers are fighting to reverse concessions that were foisted on them in 2016 when newly formed Warrior Met Coal bought two mines and one preparation plant from Jim Walter Resources during bankruptcy proceedings. BlackRock became one of the three majority shareholders in the new company.

Since then, the union calculates that workers have forked over $1.1 billion in pay, overtime, vacation, safety, health care, and other benefits to help the company regain solvency. Today 26 hedge funds have investments in Warrior Met stock, signaling their confidence in its profitability.

“We want everything back. And then some. That’s the message we’re trying to send to BlackRock,” said Michael Wright, a miner for 16 years.

Warrior Met produces coal used in steel production in Asia, Europe, and South America. In response to the strike it has scaled back production, left one mine idle, and stopped stock buybacks, Bloomberg reported. The strike has cost the company $17.9 million, according to its second-quarter earnings report.

Shortly after the miners walked out, management returned to the table with an offer that would have recouped just $1.50 of the $6 cut in wages from the 2016 contract and left intact punitive disciplinary policies and benefits concessions. The miners voted it down, 1,006 to 45.

“We come back to the table and they’re offering less what we were making originally,” said Brian Seabolt, another 16-year coal miner.

“We go underground to sacrifice our lives for our families,” said Wright. “They’re making billions of dollars. Where’s our money?”

BlackRock CEO Larry Fink has burnished his public image as a benevolent capitalist concerned about climate change and social justice. The strikers hope to gain leverage by tarnishing that image.

BlackRock has a shield that makes that harder: two-thirds of its investments are in index funds, passively managed portfolios that bundle together investments regardless of social impact.

But it’s even harder to hit it hard enough in the pocketbook to have an impact: Warrior Met makes up just a tiny fraction of BlackRock’s portfolio. The asset manager had a record $9.5 trillion in assets under management at the end of June.

Nonetheless, to hurt profits, strikers were blocking scabs from entering the mines—until the company obtained an injunction to stop them. Despite that, the mines produced only 1.2 million tons of coal during the second quarter—a million less than the same period last year.

A GRUELING JOB

Another striker on the Manhattan picket line was Tammy Owens, a former steelworker. She switched to mining because it had better pay and benefits, though the job was grueling. “And then a few years later, I ended up with worse benefits than what I had at the steel plant,” she said.

Since the strike, she has picked up a side job to provide for her family. The union has also distributed $4.3 million to miners to cover health care.

Besides pay and benefits, the 2016 concessions included a punitive attendance policy that one miner’s wife described to journalist Kim Kelly as “four strikes and you’re out.”

“If I had a heart attack, they can give me a strike,” Owens said. “They don’t accept a doctor’s excuse. Even if I have something contagious that I can give to other people—pneumonia, the flu, strep throat, you name it—you have to come to work.”

Excessive overtime is another flashpoint (shades of Frito-Lay and Amazon). Miners have been forced into 12-hour shifts stretching into weekends—without the double pay on Saturday and triple pay on Sunday that they used to get.

And health care looms large. Costs shot up; the company now covers only 80 percent of the premium. “We need 100 percent,” said miner Dedrick Gardner. “Considering the work conditions in a coal mine, health care is vital. You’re dealing with silicosis, black lung, diesel, smoke.”

Black lung is caused by breathing in coal dust. The dust silts up the lungs, scarring and destroying them.

“Health insurance went from $12 for seeing any doctor in the world to $1,500 family deductible and co-pays up to $250,” said Local 2245 President Brian Michael Kelly.

TOXIC AND DANGEROUS

Safety is a perennial concern. “I work 2,200 feet underground in one of the most gaseous mines in the world,” Owens said. “If something goes wrong, it could blow the top off the ground.”

In 2001, 13 workers died at one of the mines now owned by Warrior Met after a slab of rock fell and set off a methane gas explosion, burning and pounding miners to death with chunks of rock.

Despite that tragedy, the 2016 contract eroded safety standards. And the situation is presumably even worse for the scabs inside now.

“Nonunion mines are continuously known for cutting corners and creating unsafe working environments in order to increase production,” said union spokesperson Erin E. Bates via email. “Warrior Met Coal is currently mining and processing coal with unskilled workers. We are concerned it is only a matter of time until someone gets seriously hurt.”

Without the union watchdog, apparently the company’s environmental practices slipped too. Shortly after the strike began, wastewater from one of the mines suddenly turned local creeks black with pollution.

This post originally appeared at Labor Notes on August 10, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Luis Feliz Leon is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes.


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Viewpoint: We Must Prepare to Strike UPS in 2023

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The year 2023, when the UPS contract expires, seems like a long way off—but in the complex world of contract negotiation, it’s just around the corner.

In the 24 years since the 1997 strike, UPS has become the poster child for corporate greed—demanding more and more from its employees in a quest for profits. And rather than reward those employees, the gains go into the pockets of shareholders and management.

The company reported $4.79 billion in profit in just the last quarter. This has been accomplished by increasing productivity demands and hours of work to the detriment of our safety, health, and family life.

In the Teamsters, the regime change of 1998 gave us two decades of corporate appeasement. Contract after contract was negotiated with minuscule improvements or even givebacks, culminating in a 2018 contract featuring two-tier wages and subcontracting, which was implemented despite being voted down by the membership.

Meanwhile “right to work” (for less) continued its spread across the U.S.; so did the endless corporate campaign to convince the public that unions were a relic of the past. Amazon, Uber, and Lyft, along with the continued consolidation of retail under Walmart and Target, accelerated the decline of wages and working-class living standards generally.

Fortunately, there are glimmers of hope. Union teachers and nurses have taken to the streets. Activism has generally increased. Public opinion on unions is more and more favorable, especially as the pandemic demonstrated how we all rely on workers to survive.

SIGNS OF HOPE

In the Teamsters, signs of change have appeared. Regime change is coming in 2021. The “two-thirds rule” that was used to implement the 2018 contract is no more. Rank-and-file members will be on the 2023 UPS contract negotiating committee. Strike benefits will now begin on day one.

The advantages of social media and the gross failure of the 2018 UPS contract have combined to create a new generation of Teamster activists and leaders.

But to really accelerate that pushback, more is needed. What’s missing is a single galvanizing moment—a struggle that spans the nation and can serve as an example for all of labor to follow.

IT’S OUR MOMENT

That moment, brothers and sisters, should be the 2023 UPS contract fight. This struggle could engage the entire country, pit the greedy corporation against the abused worker, unite the membership, and provide the platform to reinvigorate the labor movement.

No one ever wants a strike. But given the frustration of UPS Teamsters after two decades of stalled progress, and amid signs of a broader labor pushback, a strike seems necessary for the good of the country.

So the time is now to prepare for what may be inevitable. Start saving your money. Start engaging in your local union. Start talking to your friends and neighbors about what life is like at UPS. Because the odds are good that we will have to take this fight to the streets.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on August 3, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Greg Kerwood is a UPS package car driver and member of Teamsters Local 25 in Boston. A version of this piece was originally published by The Teamster Rebel, teamsterrebel.com.


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We Need a Big National Strike Fund

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Hamilton Nolan - In These Times

More successful strikes help the entire labor movement. We should pay for them together.

On July 24, more than 600 Frito-Lay workers in Kansas who had been on strike for three weeks finally signed a new union contract. The contract, won at great personal cost for the striking factory workers, came with a modest 4 percent wage increase, and the right to at least one day off per week. 

It is absurd that these workers had to undertake a painful strike in order to win those things, and they deserve praise for being willing to fight so hard for their own rights. But after the congratulations, we should also be honest about another thing: The enormous amount of effort invested in the strike resulted in fairly paltry gains. This is sadly common, and it underscores the fact that employers often have a built-in advantage when their workers go on strike?—?namely, that low-wage workers can’t afford to go very long without getting paid. If the labor movement wants to take full advantage of the recent surge in worker militancy, it’s time that we build more than a piecemeal solution to this perpetual problem. 

The long decline in union density since the 1950s is well known, but the portion of workers who are union members is not the only way to measure the level of latent labor power in America. Strikes themselves are a meaningful metric as well. Having a lot of strikes happening shows that there are many strong, aggressive and confident unions at work. They also create a positive feedback mechanism for organized labor as a whole?—?strikes get attention, and successful strikes are a tangible demonstration of union power in action. Strikes keep unions in the news, and in the minds of the majority of working people who are not themselves union members. Every time someone sees striking workers win something, it may occur to them that unions have something to offer. In this way, strikes drive new organizing and the expansion of labor power nationwide. 

Data going back nearly 50 years shows strike activity in America peaking in 1974, when 1.8 million workers were involved in a work stoppage, and then fell steadily to a low of a mere 25,000 workers in 2017. In the past few years, however, strike activity has rebounded sharply, with more than 400,000 workers participating in 2018 and 2019. (In 2020, major strikes fell again, but that year of Covid-19 is hard to compare to previous ones.) 

The pandemic was a galvanizing event for the half or so of the working population who saw, in a very tangible way, that their lives are considered disposable. Right now, we can look across the country and see some of the upswells of worker anger that have burst forth into strikes: the nurses in Massachusetts, the miners in Alabama, the Spectrum workers in New York whose endless battle drags grimly on. These high profile strikes, to a large extent, define union power in the public mind. Winning them is important not just for the workers on the picket line, but for the entire labor movement. And, when strikes are very hard, their biggest vulnerability is the simple reality that workers on the picket line are not getting paid?—?the brutal economic calculus that ultimately defines how long and hard people can fight before they need to settle. 

Individual unions do have strike funds, but these are meager?—?often, union members can expect to get a few hundred bucks from a strike fund in the time they might have gotten a few thousand from work. Strike funds will always pay less than wages. (A little math can help demonstrate why: In Alabama, for example, 1,100 miners have been on strike for four months. If the United Mine Workers paid each of them even a thousand dollars a week, they would have already spent more than $50 million. To guarantee that rate of compensation for every strike would rapidly bankrupt most unions, and would create an incentive for unions to push hard against big strikes by members.) But the strength of the labor movement is about thinking collectively in the largest possible sense. If we want to encourage more big, high profile strikes that can carry on long enough to secure major gains, we have to have a big, national strike fund. 

To be perfectly clear, I’m not holding my breath for the creation of a centralized strike fund big enough to cover lost wages for anyone who goes on strike. The entities big enough to make those sorts of payouts are called ?“businesses.” What we can do is to build one central strike fund for the entire labor movement, that can jump in and boost the strike pay for workers engaged in strikes of major strategic value?—?and to issue hardship grants to striking workers with specific needs?—?so that those strikes can carry on long enough to be worthwhile. If the Frito-Lay workers in Kansas had had a little more money to carry them through, perhaps they could have won something better than, basically, the working conditions of a factory worker a century ago.

Every union could kick into a central strike fund that has the authority to bolster the benefits of workers engaged in strikes that have great importance for all of us. This is collective power in action. Once a fund like this is established, it can fundraise, to bring in private donations; it could also seek out government funds, the same way that unions should be doing for their new organizing efforts right now, while they have friends in Washington. (How to create new funding streams for organized labor is an exciting topic for another day.) The point is that a much larger pool of money can be put together collectively by the entire universe of unions and their political allies than can be compiled by any individual union. And that big pool of money can serve as a potent sort of insurance for workers who are considering a tough strike, but unsure of whether they can hold the line long enough. 

The labor movement would greatly benefit from a huge increase in big picture thinking. We do not want to just sit back and let things happen to us, and react as best we can. We want to have a plan and then make it a reality. We should not just want to wait for strikes to happen, then maybe throw a few bucks into a GoFundMe and hope for the best. We need to recognize some basic truths: More strikes are good for the growth of the labor movement as a whole. Each strike is a public test of union power. We all have an interest in making high profile strikes successful. And the strategic application of funding to help striking workers succeed benefits all of us by facilitating and encouraging the next strike, and the next organizing campaign, and a brighter future in which unions are strong and ubiquitous once again. 

Let’s get to work.

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

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere.


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Striking Alabama Miners Are Done Playing Nice

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Jacob Morrison | North Alabama Area Labor Council, AFL-CIO

Hundreds of UMWA miners remain on the picket line at the Warrior Met Coal mine.

BROOKWOOD, ALA.?—??“You ain’t working tonight!”

That was one of the picket line chants heard June 15 as several hundred members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and their allies attempted to block strikebreakers from entering the Warrior Met Coal mine.

With tank tops that read ?“scab bullies,” supporters stood shoulder to shoulder with the miners while police pleaded for protesters to move their trucks. No one would claim the vehicles.

“Who is in charge?” one of the officers asked.

“Everyone,” answered Haeden Wright, president of a local UMWA women’s auxiliary unit, a close-knit group of union members’ wives and supporters. ?“We are the UMWA.”

Police eventually towed the vehicles, but the standoff would last for hours. One miner offered a simple explanation: ?“This playing nice shit ain’t cutting it.”

The picket line had grown contentious before. In May, about two months after the strike began, Tuscaloosa police arrested 11 leaders of the UMWA and the Alabama AFL-CIO for blocking one of the mine’s 12 entrances. They all spent the night in jail and, according to the union, were given a warning: If they’re arrested again, they will be held until trial.

Along with threats from police, striking miners have faced other attacks?—?including three separate vehicular assaults in June, in which drivers plowed into UMWA picketers.

“Warrior Met personnel, either management or nonunion workers, have repeatedly struck our members, who were engaging in legal picket line activities, with their vehicles,” UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said in a June 7 statement. ?“We have members in casts, we have members in the hospital, we have members who are concerned about their families and potential of violence against them if they come to the picket line.”

The work stoppage, which follows the months-long campaign to unionize Amazon warehouse workers in nearby Bessemer, is one of the country’s most significant mining strikes in decades. On April 1, upward of 1,100 workers walked off the job as their contract with Warrior Met expired. The union reached a tentative agreement with management a week later, but rank-and-file members rejected it, claiming it failed to address demands for better hours and wages. The miners remained on strike.

When the UMWA signed its most recent contract in 2016, it agreed to significant concessions to save the jobs of workers laid off by the mine’s previous owners, Jim Walter Resources, with the understanding that new management would eventually reward workers for their sacrifice. Those concessions included an average wage cut of $6 (from $28 to $22), mandatory seven-day workweeks, loss of overtime pay and, perhaps most crucially, an end to full healthcare coverage.

“Our members are the reason Warrior Met even exists today,” Roberts said in a March 31 statement. ?“They made the sacrifices to bring this company out of the bankruptcy.”

While cheaper and greener alternatives threaten the coal industry, companies like Warrior Met, whose coal is used in the production of steel, enjoy a measure of security. Warrior Met reported a net loss of $21.4 million in the first quarter of 2021, but CEO Walter J. Scheller, III says the company is ?“strongly capitalized and well-positioned to restart our growth trajectory” after the pandemic and is negotiating in good faith.

Meanwhile, strikers are struggling. The UMWA has provided members with weekly payments of $350, but that’s a fraction of their lost salaries. Roberts estimates the strike costs the union more than $1 million per week. To supplement these payments, the UMWA created a strike fund that has directed hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from other unions and groups directly to the miners. (Full disclosure: the North Alabama Area Labor Council, of which the author is secretary-treasurer, has contributed to the fund.)

The women’s auxiliary pantry has collected tens of thousands of dollars more. Local markets have also allowed the unit to purchase bulk groceries at wholesale for miners and their families.

“Miners have always been their brother’s keeper,” says Braxton Wright, a long-time UMWA member and Haeden’s husband. ?“They’ve always stuck together as a group, even outside of work.”

Haeden sees the strike as part of a bigger struggle. ?“We know about Blair Mountain, we know about Mother Jones, we know Harlan, and we know what it takes to move a company,” she says. ?“That’s hard for people to understand if they have never been a part of [this].”

Fourteen miners clad in camo-print UMWA T?shirts took the fight to Wall Street on June 22 to protest three hedge funds with substantial stakes in Warrior Met?—?BlackRock Fund Advisors, State Street Global Advisors and Renaissance Technologies?—?that the union blames for stalled talks. Among others, labor leaders Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, and Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, marched alongside them.

Their battle cry remained the same: ?“No contract, no coal!”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 9, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Jacob Morrison is Secretary-Treasurer of the North Alabama Area Labor Council which represents thousands of union workers and co-hosts The Valley Labor Report, a union talk radio show on Saturday mornings from 9:30 to 11:00am on WVNNWGOL, and YouTube.


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‘We Want to See Our Families’: Frito-Lay Workers Strike Over 84-Hour Weeks, Meager Raises

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Dan DiMaggio | Labor Notes

Frito-Lay workers in Topeka, Kansas, have been on strike since Monday over low pay and forced overtime.

Some workers have been forced to work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, for weeks on end due to short staffing. They want to see that change.

“Nobody I know loves Frito-Lay enough that they want to live there,” said Monk Drapeaux-Stewart, a box drop technician, responsible for keeping the plant’s machines supplied with cardboard. “We want to go home and see our families. We want to have our weekends off. We want to work the time that we agreed to work—and hopefully not much more than that.”

‘BOTTOM OF THE LADDER’

The last several contracts have featured lump sum bonuses most years, leaving wage rates stagnant for most classifications. Drapeaux-Stewart said he’s only gotten a 77-cent increase over the last 12 years.

Meanwhile, the Topeka area has attracted several new manufacturing facilities and large warehouses over the past 20 years, taking advantage of its location smack in the center of the country, with access to a number of highway arteries. The Frito-Lay facility, which has been around for 50 years, now competes for workers with a Mars chocolate facility, a Bimbo bread bakery, and Home Depot and Target distribution centers, as well as a Goodyear tire plant that opened in 1945 (workers there are members of the Steelworkers). A Walmart distribution center is slated to open in September.

“Between all those industries, Frito-Lay sits at the bottom of the ladder as far as wage scales,” said Mark Benaka, business manager for Bakery Workers (BCTGM) Local 218, which represents workers at Frito-Lay and Bimbo. Other local facilities have offered significant wage increases in recent weeks, Benaka said, but Frito-Lay continues to offer pennies.

“Fifteen, 20 years ago Frito-Lay had a really good reputation—all you need is a high school diploma and you’ve got this job with good pay and benefits,” said Drapeaux-Stewart, who started working at the facility 16 years ago. “But slowly all of that has been whittled away.”

That’s made it difficult to maintain workers—and led to the mountains of forced overtime.

“Conditions are really just deteriorating as each contract rolls by,” said Cheri Renfro, an operator in the Geographic Enterprise Solutions department, where workers fulfill orders for smaller mom-and-pop shops and gas stations.

Renfro estimated that the company brought in more than 350 employees in the last year—and lost the same amount. “You have to wonder as a company why wouldn’t you question that—say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’”

CONTRACT VOTED DOWN

Last week, workers voted down the latest contract offer from the company, which included a 2 percent wage increase this year and a 60-hour-a-week cap on the amount of hours a worker can be forced to work. The wages weren’t enough and the overtime cap would have meant more senior workers being forced in on weekends, workers say.

Other issues fueling workers’ anger include safety, a punitive attendance policy, and pressure from inexperienced supervisors competing for promotions. “This storm has been brewing for years,” Renfro wrote in a letter to the Topeka Capital-Journal, in which she outlined examples of the plant’s “toxic work environment,” including management keeping the line going after a worker collapsed and died and refusing bereavement leave for a worker whose father passed away during the Covid lockdown, since there was no funeral.

In late June, Local 218 members voted 353 to 30 to approve a strike.

“In the past people were afraid to go on strike—you keep hoping every contract is gonna be better,” said Renfro. “But as time has gone on the company has proven they are not gonna get better and they are not gonna work with us.”

SNACK SURGE

Frito-Lay is a division of PepsiCo and has been a major contributor to the company’s bottom line, earning $1.2 billion in profits on $4.2 billion in revenue in the first quarter. Last year, the division was responsible for over half of PepsiCo’s operating profits, with profits of $5.3 billion on $18.2 billion in revenue. PepsiCo also owns brands including Mountain Dew, Quaker Oats, Gatorade, Tropicana, and Aquafina.

Topeka is one of the largest of Frito-Lay’s 30 U.S. manufacturing facilities; most are nonunion. The 850 workers there make, package, and ship nearly every type of Frito-Lay snack: Lays potato chips, Tostitos, Cheetos, Sun Chips, Fritos, every flavor of Dorito, and more. Six hundred are members of Local 218 (Kansas is a right-to-work state).

The plant never slowed down during the pandemic, workers said. Instead, production increased, as people ate at home more and bought more comfort foods like chips. “I’ve learned that when something’s hitting Americans beneath the belt, the two main items that never suffer are snack foods and alcohol,” said Benaka, who retired from the plant in 2017 after 37 years.

Workers were at one point given an extra $20 a day to work during the pandemic, up to $100 a week—but that only lasted a few weeks. “I don’t know if they were afraid we were gonna get used to the higher wage,” said Renfro.

Production at the plant fluctuates seasonally—it’s busier in the summer and around big holidays and the Super Bowl. Workers are used to overtime during those periods. But recently the overtime has become constant. “Now we’ve having overtime when we shouldn’t be,” said Renfro—and a lot more of it.

‘I’M DONE WITH GIVING EVERYTHING TO FRITO-LAY’

Renfro said she worked 73 hours during the week leading up the Fourth of July, and then worked from 3 a.m. until 3 p.m. on the holiday. “I went to sleep—I didn’t even hear the fireworks, I was so tired.”

“I’ve had to miss going to so many holidays because I’m getting forced,” said Renfro. “I’ve had to call my mom and tell her I couldn’t make it. I don’t want to miss those moments anymore. I’m done with giving everything to Frito-Lay—my time, my holidays.”

One of the most hated forms of forced overtime at the plant is being forced to work a “suicide.” That’s when the company makes a worker stay four hours on top of their eight-hour shift, and then forces them in four hours early before their next shift—leaving them only eight hours off.

Drapeaux-Stewart said these shifts have become increasingly common, especially in departments with the worst understaffing, like the warehouse. “It’s crazy that this has become the blue-collar everyday [worker’s] new normal.”

EMPTY SCAB BUSES

The company has set up a parking lot a mile from the plant. It’s running coach buses from the lot every 15 minutes to shuttle in temporary workers and out-of-state scabs.

But strikers suspect that the buses are a ruse. “Most of these buses are completely empty, or have one to three people, not counting the driver,” said Drapeaux-Stewart. “It’s psychological warfare—they’re trying to demoralize and dispirit the men and women of the union in the hopes we’ll come groveling back for whatever crumbs they offer us.”

Benaka said the company also appears to be pulling empty trailers in and out of the facility to intimidate workers. “You’re talking about folks who’ve worked at this facility 30 or 40 years—they know what an empty trailer looks like.”

Strikers are also monitoring the facility’s smokestacks to get a sense of the strike’s impact. “There’s been no smoke, no steam, no nothing, no sign of production at all,” said Drapeaux-Stewart.

“Usually there’s always an odor coming out of Frito-Lay, but it’s been smelling really good outside,” said Renfro.

Local supporters have been donating food and water to the picket line. Some local restaurants have said they will stop serving Pepsi products. A local magazine, 785, has set up a fund to help strikers pay their water bills.

“I’m really amazed at the community support,” said Renfro. “It makes you proud to be a part of this community.”

“It’s scary but it’s exciting,” said Drapeaux-Stewart. “I have so much hope for this strike that we will finally get what we’ve needed—the guarantee of getting to see our families, and earning a living wage to support those families.”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on July 10, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Dan Dimaggio is an assistant editor at Labor Notes.


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Portillo’s Food Chain Walk Out on Strike

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Jeff Schuhrke (@JeffSchuhrke) | ??????

A group of non-unionized workers at the Chicago-based chain staged a week-long walk out, part of a growing wave of strikes in the area.

Alleging unfairly low pay and employer mistreatment, a group of non-unionized workers at Portillo’s?—?a popular Chicago-based restaurant chain serving hot dogs, Italian beef and Polish sausages?—?staged a seven-day strike last week. 

“All we want is to be treated decently, to be treated fairly, to be paid fairly,” said striking worker Armando Huerta.

The strikers?—?all Latino?—?work at Portillo’s Food Service in suburban Addison, where the food served at the company’s nearly 50 Chicago area restaurants is prepared. They say that management has failed to replace their coworkers who left during the pandemic, instead expecting them to perform more labor while offering only a $0.35-per-hour raise.

“I was working before four days a week, and now I’m working six days a week,” explained Paty Córdova, another striker. ?“The company refuses to give us overtime. We are tired of the injustice of having us work double.”

Out of 25 employees at the Addison facility, 17 participated in the work stoppage, which lasted from June 28 to July 5. Most say they have been with Portillo’s for over a decade. According to Córdova, they have been trying to address workplace issues with management for the past four years.

“Thanks to the company for the good years, but enough is enough,” Huerta said last Friday at a rally outside Portillo’s flagship restaurant in Chicago’s River North neighborhood.

The strike was organized by the workers themselves with support from Arise Chicago, a 30-year-old worker center founded by diverse faith leaders. The employees, who don’t have a union, first reached out to Arise Chicago last November. They soon formed a workplace committee to collectively bring their concerns to management.

“We have tried to engage in talks with management at several levels?—?corporate, the plant manager, human resources?—?and none of them have responded to us,” Córdova said. ?“So we created this committee, this group, and we go by the motto: ?‘An injury to one is an injury to all.’”

On June 28, the committee attempted to deliver a set of demands around safe working conditions and higher wages to the company. Managers refused to meet with them and allegedly said, ?“if you don’t like it, go home.” The workers responded by hitting the picket lines.

“The Portillo’s leadership team is committed to hearing from each of our team members individually and will continue to do so,” the company said in a statement. 

But Córdova said that this approach isn’t good enough: ?“They keep insisting on meeting with them one-on-one, individually, but we are not going to allow that because we don’t want to be intimidated at those individual meetings.” 

Portillo’s management described the strikers as ?“a small group…[that] does not speak for our team members,” but was clearly shaken by the work stoppage. The company had to bring in temp workers to ensure food production continued, and allegedly resorted to intimidation by sending letters to some strikers threatening to fire them if they didn’t return to work. Arise Chicago says the latter is an Unfair Labor Practice and has filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

The company eventually agreed not to discipline any of the strikers, and they returned to work together on the morning of July 6. Concerned that management might attempt to lock them out, the workers were accompanied back into the Addison facility by faith leaders from Arise Chicago. 

“I have mixed emotions because we know the struggle isn’t over yet,” striker Jesus Victoria told In These Times. ?“But walking in after our strike, I felt capable and courageous demanding what is just.” Victoria and the other strikers report that they did not face any immediate discipline after going back to work, but they noted that the company held one-on-one meetings with each of them.

The non-unionized Portillo’s workers got the attention of Association of Flight Attendants International President Sara Nelson, who tweeted about the strike last week, saying: ?“Workers are the Labor Movement, the power and purpose. They don’t have time for leadership to catch up. They are showing us the way. We have to run hard to help them form their unions that will mean lasting change and sustainable rights.”

Meanwhile, at least two other groups of Chicago-area workers were also on strike over the Fourth of July weekend. 

At Dill Pickle Food Co-op?—?a member-owned grocery store in the Logan Square neighborhood?—?workers unionized with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) staged a two-day strike on Friday and Saturday. 

The IWW says Dill Pickle management has been violating the collective bargaining agreement that’s been in place since last November, and is refusing to settle over allegations of unfair discipline, retaliation and unilateral of implementation of new policies brought to the NLRB. 

I’Talia McCarthy, the co-op’s general manager, called the union’s allegations ?“unfounded” and said that eight cases with the NLRB have been closed ?“with no enforcement action or adjudication.” 

“Their distrust, and the repeated suggestion that the Co-op is violating its contract with the union, is not only a misrepresentation?—?it is damaging sales,” McCarthy said. ?“At this time, the Co-op could really use support, not suspicion.”

But according to the IWW, the labor board ?“found merit” in the workers’ complaints.

“Dill Pickle Worker’s Union is on strike to save the co-op,” the union said on Saturday. ?“They demand that management settle rather than fight the National Labor Relations Board and bankrupt the store in the process.”

At the same time, 2,500 Cook County workers with SEIU Local 73 kept up their indefinite strike that began on June 25. The strikers include frontline employees who continued coming into work throughout the pandemic, including technicians, medical assistants, custodians, clerks and others at the county’s hospitals, health clinics, offices, courthouses and jail.

The striking Local 73 members?—?primarily Black women?—?are some of the county’s lowest paid workers. Now on day 14 of their strike?—?and nearly nine months into contract negotiations?—?they say Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s bargaining team is pressuring them to accept minuscule raises while simultaneously increasing their health insurance costs by 70 to 80 percent.

The county workers have received widespread support from the local labor movement, community organizations, faith leaders, and socialist and progressive elected officials?—?and have received hundreds of individual donations to their strike solidarity fund.

On July 7, a group of Local 73 workers held a sit-in outside Preckwinkle’s office after neither she nor her staff accepted a letter from allies in the faith community.

Preckwinkle’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Cook County nurses with the National Nurses Organizing Committee also held a one-day walkout over staffing shortages on June 24. Afterward, they won a new contract that includes a commitment from management to hire 300 new registered nurses over the next 18 months, along with 12 to 31 percent pay raises.

For their part, the Portillo’s workers who were on the picket lines for a week plan to continue organizing now that they’ve returned to work.

“We are in this fight together and we will be fighting until the end,” Córdova said.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 8, 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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Engines Out and Pickets Up to Stop Health Plan Downgrade by Cummins

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East Bay Health Care Workers Strike Forces County to Disband the Boss |  Today's Workplace

Thirty-three heavy-duty engine mechanics have been on an open-ended strike since June 8 at the Cummins service shop in San Leandro, California.

These technicians service the engines and generators that power Silicon Valley tech giants and buses for the Bay Area’s local public transit agencies. They worked through the pandemic, without adequate personal protective equipment, sanitizing procedures, or hazard pay. The shop was busier than ever.

But as their reward for their hard work, dedication, and personal risk to keep the Bay Area running, Cummins kicked them off the health care plans they sorely need.

For 18 months after the Machinists (IAM) Local 1546 contract expired in 2020, management had refused to budge on its demand to strip workers of their union-negotiated Kaiser HMO plan.

This month, declaring an impasse, the company unilaterally forced workers off their plan and onto the kind of costly health savings account plan it had already pushed on the rest of its workers nationwide. Deductibles shot up to $8,000 for individuals and $11,000 for families.

The mechanics had had enough. With nearly every worker in the shop taking part, they walked off the job and went on strike for the first time in 20 years.

LAST ONE STANDING

Cummins is a multinational Fortune 500 company that manufactures, installs, and services engines in buses and other large vehicles and ships. The company’s mobile teams install and service generators at hospitals, stadiums, and data centers around the U.S.

The strike at the San Leandro shop is the final stand against a corporate behemoth that has won health care concessions at every other shop in the country. Cummins has forced not only its nonunion shops, mostly in the South and Midwest, but also its thousands of union workers in California and the Northeast onto expensive, low-quality plans.

Louis Huaman, a mechanic at the San Leandro shop for 40 years, said that he and his co-workers saw this fight coming. “We didn’t think we’d be the last one standing, but we’re drawing the line.”

Another longtime employee, who asked to remain anonymous, explained how management’s plan would leave him high and dry: “I’m a dialysis patient. Right now I have a $15 co-pay. On management’s plan, I’d pay $600 a visit. I’d probably spend the $8,000 deductible by May—and have to do it all over the next year.”

The surging health expenses would make it impossible for him to afford to continue to live in the costly Bay Area, he said. “I’ve got an elderly dad with health issues, and he lives here. The reason I stay at this job is so I can be close to him.”

Others emphasized the importance of having good health insurance in a physically taxing job. “This job will wear you down,” said Mike Nelson, shop steward and a technician in the shop for three decades. “Batteries go up in flames. Engines can drop on you if you’re not careful. You need good health care.”

PROFITS ARE SOARING

During its push to slash workers’ health care, the company has been extremely profitable lately.

Cummins has been picking up new business, according to Nelson, since the pandemic shut down in-house service crews at many transit agencies and other clients.

“The company made $6 billion [in revenue] in the first quarter this year, which is a billion over that quarter last year,” he said. Cummins bragged that it made $600 million in profit during the quarter.

Management has pushed through mergers and corporate takeovers of independent local distributors in the last few years. The 2013 corporate takeover of the San Leandro shop, formerly a distributor with a local owner, now looks to workers like a first step in management’s strategy to break a strong union shop and its hard-earned health care.

Aware of the company’s flush profits and high demand, these machinists have been emboldened to fight back. “When we’re out here, we’re costing them at least $100,000 a day,” Nelson estimated from the picket line, pointing to lost business due to the strike.

Google cancelled its Cummins service contract this week and switched to a competitor, which workers believe is also union. Machinists have parted the picket line almost daily for local transit agencies and a manufacturer to tow their unrepaired buses out of the service yard.

MAKING IT HARD FOR SCABS

Besides maintaining a picket line at the main gate of the Cummins yard, the Machinists are placing striking workers at sites where they perform generator work across the Bay Area. They’ve cultivated relationships with the workers in other union locals who staff these sites.

With this strategy, the mechanics and their allies have been slowing down work for the scabs that Cummins has sent in from its nonunion Arizona and Colorado shops.

On their last day working before the strike, some mechanics carefully took the engines out of vehicles, and removed oil pans or other parts that would make it very difficult for scabs to take over the work.

As the work piles up into a deep backlog, the workers hope that Cummins will have no other choice but to finally concede and restore the health care plan.

“We’ll be here as long as it takes,” said Huaman. “We know they can’t run these engines without us.”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on June 21, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Keith Brower Brown is a member of the East Bay Democratic Socialists of America and a steward in Auto Workers Local 2865.


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