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Watch for Employers Using Benefits as Bargaining Chips

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It’s never a bad idea to be suspicious of your boss, especially when they act like they’re doing you a favor. For workers at FrontLine Service, a Cleveland non-profit that serves the unsheltered, distrust of our employer is one of the critical sentiments that binds us.

FrontLine workers, members of Service Employees Local 1199, provide crucial services to some of the most marginalized and neglected people in Northeast Ohio. Every day, we assist folks struggling with mental health crises, substance abuse, lack of housing, and other hardships.

The work is arduous and the pay is low, but we do what we can to serve the communities in which we live and work.

Last June, our contract with FrontLine was ratified by a narrow margin. Throughout negotiations, there was a persistent sense shared by the bargaining committee that management wasn’t telling us the truth. We were continually given vague, cliché-ridden responses to our inquiries.

As the window for negotiations closed, it appeared that a strike was imminent. However, the minor contract gains we managed to achieve were enough to win the approval of a slim majority.

SUDDENLY THEY LIKE IT

Nearly all of our most ambitious demands were rejected. One such demand was for the implementation of a four-day workweek: 32 hours a week, an additional full day off, with benefits and wages reflecting whatever increases were won through bargaining.

As appealing as the idea of a shortened workweek was to us, none of us thought it had a snowball’s chance in hell of getting added to the contract. If anything, we thought that it could be a bargaining chip we’d give up in order to obtain something else.

So, we were surprised when a few months later management requested to meet with us to discuss how a four-day workweek pilot project could be implemented.

The first draft of management’s proposal included stipulations that would lengthen the workday, cut worker benefits by 15 percent, reduce sick, personal, and vacation leave, and increase the daily productivity standard by an hour.

The proposed pilot would involve 25 out of a workforce of 300 people. This small sample for the pilot is, we believe, inadequate for measuring the four-day workweek’s effectiveness and, more importantly, could undermine solidarity and divide workers.

DID OUR HOMEWORK

In our counterproposal submitted to management March 23, we made it clear that we will not accept any modifications or reductions to hard-won gains in our contract.

Members of our bargaining committee conducted extensive research and we had several illuminating meetings with employers who successfully implemented a four-day workweek, both non-profits and for-profits.

All this suggested that FrontLine’s proposed pilot would be a failure. Cutting benefits, lengthening the workday to 9 hours (a 36-hour workweek), and increasing productivity requirements would diminish any advantages a four-day workweek could offer workers.

When we pushed back in our meetings, management offered some version of the same answer we received during negotiations last summer: “We would if we could, but we can’t.” FrontLine’s revenue, which exceeded $28 million in 2022, is mostly acquired through government grants and Medicaid billing.

When we asked if they had made any good faith efforts to obtain increased funding to raise wages, retain staff, and attract new workers, management declined to respond.

DISTRACTION FROM WAGES

As the concept of a four-day workweek becomes more mainstream, we would be wise to consider how employers and their consultants are responding to the idea’s increased popularity.

In the case of FrontLine, it appears that management’s proposal for a four-day workweek pilot is a Trojan Horse.

Once implemented, management could, through a clause in their proposal giving them “unilateral authority” during the duration of the pilot, refuse to negotiate terms and conditions with our union.

FrontLine Service is severely understaffed, so much so that in February they formally asked Cuyahoga County to search for other non-profits that could replace workers in at least one FrontLine building.

According to management, understaffing is why they want to pilot a four-day workweek. If they can retain staff and attract new workers, they figure they might be able to keep their lights on a little longer. It also would allow FrontLine to appear ‘progressive,’ while they continue to neglect our real concerns.

Management’s proposal delivers a two-fold blow to workers: It allows them to manipulate our contract without negotiating with us, and it distracts from the question of higher wages.

Compared to other agencies offering similar services, FrontLine’s wages are deplorable, with some workers making as little as $15 an hour. Prior to the ratification of our most recent contract, the lowest-paid workers made $13 an hour.

During negotiations last summer, our committee repeatedly told management that if they want to retain and attract workers, they need to offer higher wages. “We would if we could,” management told us, “But we can’t.”

We are waiting for management’s response to our counterproposal. Whether the pilot will favor workers or management, or whether there will be a pilot at all, is yet to be determined.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on March 30, 2023. Republished with permission.

About the Author: Adam Barrington is a supportive housing case worker. He is a member of SEIU 1999 and the Industrial Workers of the World.


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Ramadan & the Workplace: Supporting Muslim Workers and Those Who Celebrate

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Shafuq Naseem, Author

Though Ramadan is coming to a close this week, we wanted to take the time to discuss ways that employers can support Muslim workers now and in the future. Ramadan is the fourth pillar of Islam and a period of time during the calendar year for around 30 days. During this time Muslims do not eat or drink. This year, Ramadan takes place starting on March 22nd and ends April 20th. Ramadan is more than abstaining from eating or drinking – it is a time of immense spiritual practice and reflection. 

Muslim employees can still do their jobs and they should not be excluded from tasks or assignments because of the assumption that they cannot due to fasting obligations. Some employers may not be aware of Ramadan or how to be supportive of employees during this time and in the future. Because of this, we’re sharing five ways to support Muslim employees during Ramadan:

  1. Don’t make assumptions on who is or isn’t fasting or why they aren’t fasting. There are many reasons why someone who identifies as Muslim may not be fasting. 
  2. Flexibility with meeting times. Many people may have more energy in different parts of the day. Employers should be empathetic and understanding of varying energy levels 
  3. Some employers may consider creating faith-based resource groups. 
  4. Encourage respectful celebration of the holiday with co-workers (e.g. iftar with co-workers). 
  5. More inclusive and open PTO policy. Following Ramadan is the celebration of Eid and many may make requests for time off. 

Additional Resources:

Author Bio: Shafuq Naseem is a Workplace Fairness intern and soon to be graduate of George Mason University with a degree in Government and International Politics. Her personal, professional, and academic experience with labor and employment issues fuels her passion for workers’ rights.


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Rail Workers of the World, Unite!

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Maximillian Alvrez

From unions in the United States fighting to save our supply chain from the destruction wrought by corporate tycoons, Wall Street vampires, and bought-off politicians, to the National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport Workers (RMT) leading the fight against austerity politics and ruling-class union busting in the United Kingdom, to rail workers with the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) in France joining their compatriots in the streets in a general strike against President Emmanuel Macron’s neoliberal attack on the country’s beloved pension system, rail workers around the world are fighting different battles in the same war: the class war. 

In this special international episode, we bring together a panel of rail workers from the US, UK, and France to talk about what they are up against, what the struggle looks like in their corners of the world, and what we can all do to connect those struggles and build international worker solidarity. 

Panelists include: Ross Grooters of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and Railroad Workers United in the US; Cat Cray and Clayton Clive of the RMT in the UK; Matthieu Bolle-Reddat of the CGT Cheminots Versailles in France.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on March 3, 2023 alongside a podcast recording and transcript.

About the Author: Maximillian Alvarez is editor-in-chief at the Real News Network and host of the podcast Working People, available at In These Times. He is also the author of The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke.


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Unions Secure Future Jobs by Pushing Investments

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Last year, Mark Glyptis and dozens of other union leaders went into contract negotiations with the Cleveland-Cliffs mining company. They were determined not only to win wage and benefit enhancements for their coworkers, but also to protect thousands of family-sustaining steel mill jobs for years to come.

The United Steelworkers (USW) negotiating team ultimately delivered a historic contract requiring the company to invest $4 billion in 13 union-represented facilities. This includes about $100 million at the Weirton, West Virginia mill where Glyptis and his colleagues rely on ever more sophisticated equipment to make precision tin plate.

Protecting Workers’ Sweat Equity

Unions fight for financial commitments like these to safeguard workers’ sweat equity.

The time and labor they invest in their workplaces for decades at a stretch. Capital upgrades keep employers accountable and plants viable, preserving family-sustaining jobs while also laying the groundwork for future growth.

“Steel mills are being built across the world, and we’re definitely competing on a worldwide basis,” observed Glyptis, president of USW Local 2911, noting the overseas facilities feature the “most modern technology.”

“We’re the best steelworkers in the world. We can compete. But we have to keep up with capital investments,” continued Glyptis, who helped to represent about 12,000 USW members from six states in the talks with Cleveland-Cliffs in 2022.

Glyptis and other Local 2911 members fought for new equipment that they need to produce “perfectly flat and flawless “tin plate for food containers.

Based on members’ input, other local unions — supplying the military, highway contractors, aerospace, and numerous other industries — went into negotiations with their own requirements for upgrades.

Members overwhelmingly ratified a new, four-year contract last fall. The vote reflected their satisfaction with the $4 billion in investments — to be allocated among the 13 worksites — as much as it did the 20% raises and benefit enhancements the agreement provides.

“You can have the best health care in the country or in the world, but if you can’t compete because of technological deficiencies, you’re going to be an also-ran,” Glyptis pointed out. “Maintaining a competitive facility is just as important.”

“It all goes into a decision about whether this is a fair contract. It would be difficult to have a contract passed if it didn’t have a commitment to capital investments attached,” he said. He added that the company continues hiring many younger workers who see the upgrades as crucial to raising families and putting down roots.

Infrastructure Investments

Unions also negotiate capital investments to protect workers from companies that might otherwise abandon plants on a whim or run them to failure while wringing out every last penny in profit.

“They don’t have to live with the long-term impact of what they do. We do. Union workers do,” declared Andrew Worby, president of USW Local 2-209. He was referring to “profit-taker” CEOs who line their pockets on workers’ backs before moving on to their next jobs.

Once a company commits resources to a location, it’s more likely to stick around, said Worby. He recalled that he and his coworkers at the Harley-Davidson plant in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin upped their demands for capital investments after a cavalier executive threatened to move the facility during a contract dispute.

Most recently, a contract requires Harley-Davidson to invest $65 million in the Menomonee Falls powertrain manufacturing site over five years. The company also has to invest another $10 million at a Tomahawk, Wisconsin, plant where workers are represented by USW Local 460.

The impact is already evident. Workers in Wisconsin are “tooling up and readying to produce” the powertrains for a new line of electric motorcycles, the company announced.

“There’s a much bigger and broader picture to the impact of a union contract,” said Worby. “It doesn’t just affect the union members. It affects the families. It affects the community. It affects the state we’re in.”

The security provided by union-won investments means that “a new worker, instead of renting, is willing to buy a house,” he explained. “Now he’s paying property taxes. He’s going to send his kids to the school district. He’s going to buy a refrigerator from the local appliance guy. It’s huge.”

Preserving Jobs, Protecting Communities

When companies do threaten to close worksites, unions step up to preserve jobs and protect communities.

The USW, for example, intervened when Domtar announced plans to close a Kingsport, Tennessee paper mill where union members made uncoated free sheet. Some workers, including USW Local 12943 President Keith Kiker, worked there for decades.

Union leaders knew Domtar wanted to enter the recycled containerboard market, so they successfully pushed the company to overhaul and reopen the Kingsport facility for that new product line.

The union’s advocacy resulted in a $350 million investment, saving about 150 jobs and ensuring a competitive facility for decades to come. Workers produced their first roll of recycled containerboard in January 2023.

“Everybody who wanted to come back got to come back,” said Kiker, noting company officials “knew what they had” in a skilled and dedicated workforce committed to ensuring a successful mill conversion.

“This has been a good place to work. It’s still the best insurance in the region,” he added, noting other companies in the Kingsport area must match USW-negotiated health benefits to retain their own workers.

Worby and his coworkers at Harley-Davidson see “a lot of new equipment coming in” right now, giving them the sense of security that they sought in the last round of contract talks. But they realize that the fight for facility investments, like the battle for fair wages and benefits, never ends.

“You want to keep the positive energy flowing,” Worby said.. “Longevity is very important to us.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on February 28, 2023.

About the Author: Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).

Visit Workplace Fairness’ page here to learn more about unions.


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How To Be an Ally in the Workplace

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Dakota Murphey

There can be no doubt that we are starting to get better at facing up to uncomfortable or awkward issues in the workplace.

The rise of the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements have taken topics that were once taboo and pushed them into the mainstream. In doing so, they have shown us how necessary it is to be allies to others at work. 

Promoting inclusivity and diversity in the workplace is a benefit not only to staff, but also the whole organization, as it can push forward new ideas and create a competitive edge for the company over competitors.

Ideas around this subject need to target everyone from the top level down the company, while understanding disability and the language of discrimination being key. Implementing diversity and inclusivity training can support everyone work at to be a better ally in the workplace.

Indeed, even if you feel like you are already doing a lot to be an ally, it is always a good idea to continue learning and re-learning these important lessons. 

In this article, we examine how anyone can be a better ally to underrepresented communities in the workplace. 

Educate yourself

The most crucial step to being an ally in the workplace is actually educating yourself. Learning – and in some cases unlearning – behaviors and mindsets is a crucial starting point, and there are many ways to do this.

It’s a great idea to start reading about ideas about systemic inequality, as well as finding ways to diversify the thoughts and ideas that you hear. It is too easy to go into the idea of being an ally with a fixed mentality – and actually, much of this way of thinking can be unhelpful, even if it comes from a good place. 

Promote creative expression

We can sometimes get stuck in the mindset that being an ally is all about political or economic matters in the workplace. In fact, there is a huge range of different ways to be authentically an ally to others in the workplace, in ways that you might not have considered. For example, promoting a colleague’s creative expression can be valuable.

“Creative support and encouragement is pivotal, especially from those who are in similar playing fields as you,” says Dondre Green, a photographer speaking to MPB. “This could look like sharing opportunities, advice, and budget negotiation numbers. I’ve seen even more Black creatives come together over the last few years and be put in positions to hire artists for assignments, too, which is a plus. In terms of representation, it matters.”

Listen to and lean on colleagues

It is important to resist the temptation to make assumptions about what is best for your colleagues. Even though your intentions may be good, you can end up putting your own presumptions forward and this might not end up being the best possible outcome from those you are trying to be an ally to. 

Remember that being an ally isn’t about doing what you think is right for an individual or community – rather it is about listening to what they need and putting that into action. And crucially, you need to think of listening as an act not only of understanding but also of empathizing.

It is therefore important to understand the nuances and language around racial issues and other issues that might affect minority groups  in the workplace by educating yourself, seeking professional guidance or finding support from colleagues.

The challenges that minorities and underrepresented groups face is often not the fault of the actions of individuals but rather systemic problems that won’t go away until they are acknowledged and faced.

Use your privilege 

Often misunderstood in the context of allyship, privilege is a key issue when it comes to providing support in the workplace. Some people take the concept of ‘privilege’ to be an insult or an attack on their personal character. This isn’t the case at all.

No one is saying that being privileged means that you have never faced any hardship of your own, or that you haven’t worked hard to get where you are.

Rather privilege should be seen as something that each of us generally has in one form or another.

Having a university education, for example, or facing no mental health issues, are forms of privilege that some people have. True allyship involves using the privileges that you have to defend or advocate for those who don’t have those same privileges. 

The first step in using privilege effectively is acknowledging it. From there it can be understood, and it can then be used to the advantage of those you are being an ally to. 

Many people are reluctant to be an ally in the workplace because they are worried that they might ‘say the wrong thing’ or act in a way that isn’t actually helpful. Don’t let this discourage you. Allyship exists in a sometimes awkward space and no one is expecting you to be perfect – it is all an opportunity for everyone to learn. 

Being an ally in the workplace is something that you can do that will make a genuine difference to colleagues’ lives and livelihoods.

Whether it is anything from ensuring that you are inclusive when listening to opinions in meetings, to implementing a diversity policy for future hiring; these are things that will benefit you and your business in the long-term. 

This blog was contributed to Workplace Fairness on January 4, 2023. Published with permission.

About the Author: Dakota Murphey is a contributor to Workplace Fairness.


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Think Twice Before Buying Holiday Gifts for Your Boss

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Miles Kampf-Lassin

It’s that time of year when entering most any department store or office waiting room means hearing the festive sounds of Mariah Carey pleading for her wish to come true.

That’s right, the holiday season has descended upon us, and with it all of the peculiar rituals that follow: Hams glazed with honey, toy elves mysteriously placed on shelves, inflated snowmen adorning front lawns and, of course, the tale of George Bailey’s class war against Mr. Potter broadcast across screens the nation over.

But while most of these customs range from vaguely problematic to politically benign to downright socialist, there’s one that clearly has to go: the practice of workers buying holiday gifts for their boss.

This bizarre tradition has become all too common in U.S. workplaces, with a full third of American employees now saying they regularly purchase a present for their manager. And even those who aren’t already planning to take part are being inundated with messages encouraging them to buy a special something for the person who signs their checks.

As Forbes implores its readers, “Here’s Why You Absolutely, Positively Must Buy Your Boss a Holiday Gift.” New York Magazine, meanwhile, just published its catalog of “36 Gifts for Every Type of Boss.”

This follows in a trend of such laundry-list-style articles, including Business Insider‘s “46 Work-Appropriate Gifts for Your Boss That’ll Make You Stand Out from the Team,” and Stylecaster’s wallet-friendly “13 Gifts for Your Boss That Don’t Cost Your Entire Paycheck.” Some companies are even specifically marketing products as good gifts for the boss.

The message from these enjoinders is clear: It’s your responsibility to recycle your hard-earned cash back to the very individual who granted it to you in the first place.

And even if you’ve tuned out these messages, there’s a high chance of feeling pressure from within your own workplace. Sites such as Reddit, Twitter and Ask a Manager are brimming with stories from workers who have been either asked directly or otherwise pressed to chip in to lavish a tribute on the boss.

There’s the part-time, low-wage worker who was called upon to send money to help pay for the CEO’s family to go on a ski trip. Or the hospital receptionist who was directed to send cash for four doctors in her office, despite not receiving a holiday bonus. And once the habit is formed, it can be difficult to stop — or even slow down.

One worker reported a 10-year-long tradition that ballooned into pooling money to send not just to their own boss, but also to their boss’s manager, as well as to that person’s assistant. Unless you have Bob Cratchit-levels of generosity, this type of servile expectation is enough to turn anyone into a Scrooge.

The solution? Just stop buying holiday gifts for the boss. And if you aren’t already doing so, don’t start. There’s no reason to feel guilt over not participating. All wealth is created by labor, and the fruits of that labor should flow back to workers, not the other way around.

As Karl Marx wrote back in 1867, “Capital is dead labor, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.”

The same principle holds true over 150 year later: Under capitalism, bosses are already sucking the living labor out of their workforces. Using the meager wages gained from that productive work to then heap more money onto owners in the form of gifts just increases employers’ effective profits while further impoverishing those responsible for generating the wealth in the first place.

Ultimately, it’s a trap that enshrines an exploitative power relationship. That’s no way to spread holiday joy and cheer.

What’s more, even those in the business of giving advice on such matters recommend workers avoid the practice.

Sherri Athay, author of Present Perfect: Unforgettable Gifts for Every Occasion, routinely tells employees not to get their bosses presents. And Alison Green, who runs the Ask a Manager site, says, “Etiquette is actually quite clear on this point: Gifts in a workplace should flow downward, not upward. In other words, it’s fine for your boss to give you a gift but you shouldn’t give gifts to your managers. “Certain workplaces, including some departments in the government and military, even ban outright such gift giving to superiors (good on them). 

After enduring a nightmarish pandemic that’s stretched on for nearly two years, U.S. workers are reporting a staggering level of burnout and emotional anguish.

Nearly 80% say they’re worried about their mental health, with 61% of women and 52% of men feeling stressed on a typical day, numbers that have increased since the Covid-19 crisis engulfed the country. And while supply chain issues and resulting price increases are hitting workers’ bank accounts, corporate profits are through the roof, reaching record rates this year.

Against this backdrop, the practice of giving gifts to the boss stands as woefully absurd. Sure, if you feel personally moved to get a present for someone up the ladder at your workplace, you have the freedom to do so (just so long as it’s not prohibited). But we should all remember that, on the whole, the act reinforces the very predatory dynamic at the heart of our economic system.

This year, take a page out of the playbook of George Bailey and the working people of Bedford Falls by giving gifts and sharing your bounty with friends and family, but not those who alienate you from the products of your own labor. After all, it could help finally make Comrade Carey’s wish come true.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 17, 2021; It was republished in December of 2022. Republished with permission.

About the Author: Miles Kampf-Lassin is a graduate of New York University’s Gallatin School in Deliberative Democracy and Globalization, is a Web Editor at In These Times.


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Monkeypox Is a Workers’ Rights Issue

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As of early last week, over 11,000 cases of monkeypox have been reported in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The virus that causes the disease, which many cities and towns have now declared a public health emergency, spreads through close personal contact. In certain cases it can reportedly also transmit through contact with surfaces infected people have touched. 

While there are still many unanswered questions regarding monkeypox, some troubling dynamics are already coming into clear view: The recommended quarantine period for those infected is far longer than that of Covid-19 cases. This means those who contract the virus will either have to take substantial time off the job — often not a viable option for those without paid sick leave — or risk going to work while infected.

The virus has been found to disproportionately impact members of the LBGTQ community, who are also disproportionately likely to be poor or working-class. The muddled rollout of the monkeypox vaccine has already created logjams in access, and, as a result, it appears poorer Americans are more likely to be unvaccinated, increasing the hazards to their health. 

Covid Set an Example

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the risks to workers from rapidly spreading communicable diseases became painfully obvious. In addition to contracting and dying from the virus at higher rates than the rest of the population, low-wage workers without union protections also often experienced employment consequences. Some reported that they were forced to work with active Covid infections, while others were fired for taking leave or expressing concern about Covid precautions.

If workers do contract monkeypox, according to CDC recommendations, they may need to isolate for as long as four weeks while waiting for rashes that result from the disease to resolve. But the reality is that many workers will not be able to take that time off of work. Only 56 percent of workers are eligible for Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) protections — and these do not require paid leave.

“If employers throughout the country were required, as a matter of law, to provide paid leave to every worker who contracts Covid, I believe we would have seen more of an emphasis on protecting workers by preventing transmission in the workplace,” Matthew Cortland, a senior fellow at Data for Progress, told In These Times.

In March 2020, Congress passed paid leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. However, it expired in December of that year, and was not universal. Many Democrats also advocated national paid leave in their campaigns, but have so far been unable to enact the policy. Congress could pass similar temporary leave legislation, or it could commit to investing in long-term paid leave — a policy originally included in the Build Back Better package but excluded from the Inflation Reduction Act which was signed by President Biden on Tuesday. 

In response to these developments, some states have proactively developed their own paid leave programs. And unions have pushed for them in contract negotiations as well. ?“A workforce that is constantly being reinfected with coronavirus, because of a lack of workplace mitigation measures, including, importantly, paid leave, is an unpredictable and unreliable workforce,” said Cortland.

The Issue of At-Will Employment

But paid leave isn’t the only problem. ?“The background rule of employment-at-will means that, even where these protections exist, workers feel vulnerable,” said Kate E. Andrias, Professor of Law at Columbia Law School. Andrias is a coauthor of a 2021 report on just cause reform.

At-will employment, where workers can be fired for any reason so long as it doesn’t break the law, drives extreme precarity, especially for low-wage workers. This is because the risks of requesting time off for illness, complaining about working conditions, or reporting employers for wage, hour and safety violations are much higher. And, while labor organizing is a protected activity, employers can still develop pretexts for firing workers. Recent examples include Starbucks closing stores that were in the process of unionizing over ?“safety reasons,” and Amazon firing union organizer Chris Smalls after he spoke out about safety on the job.

Unionized workers, however, generally enjoy the protections of just cause in their collective bargaining agreements. Under just cause, employers must document and demonstrate reasons for employment termination, and workers have access to protections throughout the process, including a union representative in any disciplinary meetings. Just cause offers greater cover to workers who want to advocate in the workplace, while collective bargaining agreements offer other critical protections and benefits, often including paid leave. 

The bubbling outbreak of monkeypox illustrates that both paid leave and just cause are public health issues for workers and the people they interact with. And, as with Covid-19, the risks are higher for some workers than others. ?“Being immunocompromised and working in a public facing role that requires interaction with fomites, for example, in food service, is not sufficient to qualify for vaccination against monkeypox,” said Cortland.

Minorities’ Jobs and Health are at Risk

Disability and health status are not the sole risk factors. Members of the LGBTQ community, who are more likely overall to work in low-wage jobs, are at greater risk of contracting monkeypox — especially gay men, who have been prioritized for vaccines in some cities due to high numbers of cases in their communities. For those who cannot get vaccinated, though, going to work can become extremely stressful and potentially dangerous, even more so when employers don’t provide paid leave. 

Gay or straight, disabled or not, without just cause protections and paid leave, those workers may not feel comfortable speaking out — and may not be able to take time off if they get sick. Other workers could then contract the virus and take it home to vulnerable family members and communities. 

In the short term, unions can help secure key protections for workers facing isolation after infection or exposure, including building just cause and paid leave into the bargaining process. And right now, economic conditions are ripe for more organizing. ?“Low unemployment rates give workers more bargaining power,” said Andrias. ?“The best way for workers to increase their bargaining power is to organize with their coworkers and form unions.” 

The high cost of Covid-19 to human health and society at large shows that all workers need protections including paid leave and just cause to ensure they are able to stay safe, just like their white-collar, desk-bound colleagues did for nearly two years. 

As the federal government struggles to respond to monkeypox, Cortland said, ?“workers have largely been abandoned. Even when infectious, many are forced to go into work, further degrading their health and imminently endangering others.”

This blog was originally posted to In These Times on August 16, 2022. Reposted with permission.

About the Author: S. E. Smith is an essayist, journalist, and activist is on social issues, with credits in publications like The Guardian, Nerve, and VICE. 


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Yes, Abortion Rights Are a Union Issue 

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Alexandra Bradbury

Abortion: it’s a topic unions shy away from. The logic is, why go there? You might alienate conservative workers who otherwise share your workplace concerns.
And it’s true, you might — though the issue is not as divisive as the GOP makes it out to be. A solid 61 percent of U.S. adults is pro-choice. Among those aged 18-29, it’s 74 percent.

It’s good to see unions begin to overcome this fear and take a stand — because, contrary to the narrative, abortion is a labor issue.

On-the-Job Impacts

How so? For one thing, workers who get pregnant are penalized at work.

Pregnancy discrimination is very real. Many jobs make it tough to get light duty or accommodations. And parenthood brings the “mommy tax” — a lifetime loss of income for women who have children, thanks to stingy parental leave and unaffordable childcare.

Missed opportunities, resume gaps, reduced work hours — all these impinge on women’s equality at work, not to mention their union participation.

Labor must fight to change all that; even a wanted parenthood shouldn’t carry such steep penalties. But the current reality is that forced pregnancy will absolutely harm workers at work.

Collective Muscle

Then there are members’ needs beyond the workplace. As Stacy Davis Gates reminded us in her talk at this year’s Labor Notes Conference, workers are not just workers — we are mothers, daughters, tenants, immigrants, and more.

Unions fight for our dignity and autonomy on the job, but those human needs don’t end when we clock out. Members need abortions; their friends, family, and neighbors need them too. About 1 in 4 women eventually gets one.

Unions at their best are a uniquely powerful fighting force for the whole working class. They’re organized, they have budgets and knowhow, and they have the leverage that can win big — the power to strike, a power that can take down governments and transform society.

Our sisters and siblings (trans people also get pregnant!) need us in this fight, not just as individuals, but as organized labor.

Common Enemies

The villains attacking our right to abortion care should look familiar to workplace activists, too. They’re the same ones pushing to lower our wages, weaken our unions, and speed up our work.

Even many of the corporations that leaped to announce new abortion travel benefits for employees were soon revealed as donors to the very groups that had pushed Dobbs v. Jackson to the Supreme Court. These were groups like the Republican Attorney Generals Association, the Federalist Society, and the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Most employers aren’t in it for the abortion restrictions; their goal is deregulation and union-busting. But the effect is the same.

The Right to Mom

There’s another side to the coin. Unions are also needed in the fight for the right to have children when we do want them.

A more expansive term than abortion rights is “reproductive justice.” The grassroots group SisterSong defines it as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.”

Unions can bargain for the things working parents need — like equitable wages, paid parental leave, and childcare benefits. The transit union in Portland, Oregon, just won a “lactation van”; when a bus driver needs to pump breastmilk, the van comes to meet her.

We can also fight for a stronger safety net that offers all parents and kids the resources they need — like Medicaid, welfare, food assistance, childcare, and affordable housing.

SisterSong’s vision evokes many labor demands past and present: the right to a living wage, to health and safety on the job, to gender-affirming health care benefits. At their core, the labor and reproductive rights movements are both fighting for the same thing: the right to control our own lives.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes. Posted with permission.

About the Author: Alexandra Bradbury is the editor of Labor Notes, and Sarah Hughes is a staff writer.


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Every Boss Has a Weak Spot. Find and Use It.

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Steel production in the late 1800s used to require one crucial step: a 20-minute process called the “blow” that removed impurities, strengthening the metal. It was not unheard of for union members to go to the supervisor at the start of the blow and demand that some important grievance be resolved.

According to old-timers, it was amazing what the company could accomplish in those 20 minutes. These workers had found their employer’s vulnerability — and they used it to make the workplace safer and more humane.

Think about where your employer is vulnerable. For some companies it might be their logo or their image, which they have spent millions of dollars cultivating. For others it might be a bottleneck in the production process, or a weakness in their just-in-time inventory system.

Whistle While You Work

At a Fortune 500 truck factory, supervisors were ruthless and degrading. Discipline was arbitrary and unjust. At the monthly union meeting one worker noted that they were all being “railroaded.”

A few weeks later, 2,000 plastic whistles shaped like locomotives arrived at the local. The instructions were simple: whenever you can see a supervisor on the shop floor, blow your whistle.

At first, whistles were going off all over. But by the morning break the plant floor was quiet. Not a single supervisor dared to show his face.

The next day in contract bargaining, the employer refused to bargain until the whistles were removed. The bargaining team noted the company’s statements on refusing to bargain, and asked for a break to go call the Labor Board.

Bargaining resumed immediately, with positive results.

Lunch to Rule

On a military base, aircraft maintenance workers would happily interrupt their lunch in order to deal with urgent problems. But in return they had an understanding that, once the problem was solved, they would go back to their sandwiches even though the lunch period had ended.

The situation was mutually acceptable for several years — until a new supervisor came along. We all know how that is. Had to prove himself. Show who’s boss. Etc.

Steve Eames, an international rep for the Boilermakers union, explained that the new supervisor insisted that workers take their lunch between 12:00 and 12:30, period.

“So the steward said, ‘Okay, we’ll play by the rules,’” Eames remembers. The maintenance workers had previously eaten at a lunch table in the work area. But now, when 12 o’clock came, they left and went to a fast-food restaurant on the base. For three or four days they all went as a group, leaving the shop unattended.

One day a plane came in during the half-hour lunch period. No one was there to help bring the plane in, or to check it out. The supervisor had to park the plane by himself.

“The boss went and talked to the steward, and the steward said, ‘That’s our time, we’re at lunch,’” said Eames. “‘You got what you wanted.’”

The workers went out for lunch for a couple more days, and then they ended what we might call “lunch to rule.” “They didn’t want to file a grievance,” says Eames, “because the company would have won on the basis of contract language.

“Without anything in writing, it went back to the way it had been before. It empowered the guys. It told the supervisor, we’ll be a little flexible if you’ll be flexible.”

Keep the Boss Off Balance

Managers like routine. They like to know that what happened yesterday will happen today and that no one is thinking too hard about it. You can make them nervous simply by doing something different, even something normal that would be unthreatening to the non-managerial mind. When they have to keep guessing where the next shot is coming from, you have the upper hand.

“The corporate culture is not a creative culture,” says Joe Fahey, a former Teamster leader, “and we need to look at that as an opportunity.

“I used to bargain with Smuckers,” Fahey recalls. “We decided to do things that would freak them out. Factory life is very predictable. The workers decided to take their breaks at the railroad tracks, instead of at the same table and the same bench that they did every day. It was easy for the workers to do, but it was scary for management. They are more easily scared than we realize.”

15-Minute Strike

Pennsylvania social workers figured out how to catch management off guard. During negotiations with the state, spokesman Ray Martinez said, “we wanted an activity that would irritate the boss, educate the public, and at the same time get the members psyched up. We decided that we would all take our 15-minute breaks at the same time.”

The union used its phone trees to call members at home. “At the agreed date and time,” Martinez says, “all of our members would get up and walk out of the office. This meant that clients in the office, phone calls, and so on would be placed on hold. In other words, all activity ceased.

“This served a couple of purposes. First, management and clients would get a feel for what it would be like without our services if we were to go on strike. Secondly, we, the members, would be outside of the worksite having outdoor shop meetings and updating the workers on the latest on the negotiations.

“While this was going on, we had picket signs asking drivers to honk their horns to show us their support. The beauty of it all was that this was perfectly legal, so there was nothing management could do.”

At the end of the 15-minute break, everybody went back inside and went back to work.

This blog originally appeared on July 28, 2022 at Labor Notes. Learn about workers’ rights and advocacy at Workplace Fairness.

About the Authors: Alexandra Bradbury, Jane Slaughter, and Mark Brenner are Labor Notes contributors. This article is excerpted from Labor Notes’ book, “Secrets of a Successful Organizer.”


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What Can Unions Do Now to Defend Abortion Rights?

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Sarah Hughes

The Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health on June 24 overturned the Roe v. Wade precedent, erasing the constitutional right to an abortion.

Already for years, large parts of the U.S. have severely restricted abortion—especially hurting those least likely to have resources to travel for care, including poor, Black, indigenous, undocumented, and disabled people.

The U.S. has the highest maternal mortality rate of any wealthy country, and Black women are three times more likely to die from childbirth-related causes than white women.

Many unions issued public statements condemning the Dobbs decision. A few turned out to protest. And we can expect many to emphasize voting for Democrats this fall.

What more can unions do?

There is a no clear pathway to winning national abortion and reproductive health access. It will surely be a long struggle, involving many organizations and strategies.

But there are specific interventions the labor movement can make, beyond turning out voters and joining rallies.

BARGAIN OVER BENEFITS

Here’s an immediate one: workers can demand to bargain over changes in benefits, which might now include abortion access.

A committee at the NewsGuild of New York has developed a bargaining framework for the questions this raises, including ensuring that your health insurance covers abortion, bargaining for travel funds to cover an abortion out of state if it is prohibited where you live, protecting your personal information, guaranteeing additional leave for travel, and securing non-discrimination language on the basis of gender and pregnancy.

The NewsGuild committee suggests that members look at current contract language where unions could demand to bargain over impacts, based on changes to their health coverage.

If your plan used to cover health care that is now prohibited in your state, that is a substantial change in your insurance, and your employer should have to work with the union to find alternatives. Perhaps employers could cover the difference in cost for an out-of-network, out-of-state provider, provide additional time off, and pay for the travel and associated costs.

DEFEND MEMBERS IN COURT

Unions can use their legal departments or hire lawyers to defend members who get sued or prosecuted for allegedly performing, getting, or helping someone get an abortion.

In the course of their jobs, this could involve health care workers, including mental health providers; people who deliver abortion medications, like postal workers or UPS drivers; and others. Unions should defend them just as they would defend members in other work-related disciplinary proceedings.

Last year Texas criminalized abortion after six weeks of pregnancy (about when fetal cardiac activity can be detected). The law allows private citizens to sue anyone they believe was involved in an abortion, including anyone who reimbursed travel or medical costs. Oklahoma has followed suit, and a similar law is pending in Idaho.

These laws will likely be argued in courts for months or years to determine exactly where and for what the states have jurisdiction to prosecute.

Some union contracts provide legal services to support members in housing, family, and civil courts. If a member were accused outside of work of obtaining or aiding and abetting an abortion, the member legal services could be expanded to cover this as well.

And unions should support workers in defying the laws. Abortion access was originally won through sustained, public civil disobedience.

“Most of the physicians I know and have been talking to are not interested in holding back,” says Paul Prater, chair of the Illinois Nurses Association political action committee. “They are going to provide the care people need and will deal with consequences after.”

DEFEND MEDICAL WORKERS

The risk is particularly dire for health care workers. While they can only be privately sued in the states mentioned above, in other states workers can be criminally prosecuted for providing abortion care.

In these states, if a pregnant person comes into a hospital for care and the appropriate treatment is to terminate the pregnancy, that is now a crime if there is still fetal cardiac activity or the person’s life is not immediately endangered.

Health care workers will be facing this dilemma routinely. For instance, about 2 percent of pregnancies are ectopic, where the fertilized egg has implanted somewhere outside the uterus, dooming the pregnancy and endangering the pregnant person; termination is the treatment.

In order to avoid potential legal problems, health care facilities are now avoiding or delaying these treatments, sometimes waiting on clearance from hospital lawyers. A 2022 study of two Texas hospitals found at least two dozen cases where a procedure was delayed longer than doctors wanted to, in one case until the patient required a hysterectomy.

In some states, if a health care provider suspects the pregnant person had an abortion, they are expected to report it to law enforcement. This reporting has already led to the prosecution of many people suspected of intentionally harming their fetuses, sometimes despite little evidence.

Women of color are more likely to be charged for suspected abortions. Union-led education on racial disparities could help workers not to stereotype their patients.

PROTECT MEDICAL JUDGMENT

All these laws will have a profound impact on health care workers. Not coincidentally, the states with such laws are also the states with the lowest union density—though there are exceptions, like union-dense Ohio, where abortion is illegal after six weeks, and Montana, with little union presence but no abortion restrictions.

The new risks could inspire more doctors and nurses to unionize.

What else should health care unions consider doing? They can demand to bargain, since the scope of work has changed for health care workers—they could face liability for using their medical judgment. Unions could bargain for employers to provide liability coverage against civil litigation, if possible, and to defend accused workers.

Unions should also bargain for clear policies about the treatment of pregnant people and who determines what is medically necessary when.

The laws are largely untested and have huge amounts of gray area, and health care professionals get little say in their employers’ interpretation. One Missouri hospital administration denied patients the contraceptive “morning-after pill” after the Dobbs decision, then reversed its decision within a day.

Union legal teams can do their own legal research, to educate members on what is clear and what is still contested. For instance, what would be the process for determining that a pregnant person’s life is at risk if a termination is not performed? Who would make that call, on what grounds, and how can they be protected in that decision?

Health care unions have fought hard to protect nurses’ and physicians’ judgment in patient care, and unions should bargain to push for the broadest possible reading of these policies.

EMBRACE ABORTION WORKERS

There has been a recent flood of unionizations in the “repro” movement, including at Planned Parenthood North Central States region (the Dakotas, Nebraska, Iowa, and Minnesota) and other states (SEIU); Preterm Clinic, the independent abortion provider in Ohio (SEIU); Feminist Majority Foundation (Nonprofit Professional Employees Union); and about two dozen others, according to Reprojobs.

Reprojobs, a website that began as a jobs posting site for repro workers, now features articles and networks to support repro workers unionizing, including a column called “Ask a Union Organizer.”

For abortion providers, many of their organizing issues echo those of other health care workers: low pay, critical staffing shortages, and frustration over management’s handling of Covid. They also face threats of violence from anti-abortion protestors.

Facing an uncertain future as parts of their jobs are criminalized state by state, workers are unionizing also partly to win some level of control in budgets and layoffs.

Workers at the at the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research center, won their election to unionize with OPEIU Local 153 on July 14. Less than an hour after the results were announced, one organizing committee leader was fired without cause; the union continues to fight for reinstatement. Planned Parenthood affiliates in Austin and Miami have also come under fire for laying off active members of union organizing committees.

Thishi Gangoda, on the organizing committee at the Preterm Union in Cleveland, Ohio, says workers there unionized because “abortion is health care and abortion workers are health care workers. We deserve power to decide our workplace conditions.”

Abortion after six weeks of pregnancy is now illegal in Ohio. Preterm is still open for some reproductive care, early abortions, and counseling to other states, but many workers have left for lack of work, or burned out by the stress of the last several months.

Labor can recognize these workers as siblings in our movement, and organize more of them. We can back their fights for strong contracts that will allow them to continue working in politically charged, changing, and occasionally violent workplaces.

ORGANIZE CATHOLIC HOSPITALS

Compounding the impact of the overturn of Roe, Catholic hospital chains are continuing to gobble up health care facilities around the country, posing a particular risk to access to reproductive care.

“Catholic hospitals in Illinois have never provided this care,” said Prater. “Companies like Ascension and Aurora Advocate have bought up several facilities and imposed their values on hospitals, sometimes the only ones available in a community.”

These institutions may refuse to provide even legal reproductive care, along with contraceptives and gender-affirming health care for trans people.

In 2020, four of the largest 10 hospital systems were owned by Catholic-affiliated corporations. These institutions already control 40 percent of hospital beds in some parts of the U.S., and they’ve been growing rapidly through mergers and acquisitions.

For Prater, the punchline is: unions must organize these health care workers, to defend themselves and their patients.

Meanwhile, where abortion access remains, workloads will snowball. Border states like Illinois will see a huge influx of abortions from surrounding states.

With staffing levels at a crisis point already, health care unions must fight for wages and conditions that can make these nursing and caregiving jobs sustainable and attractive, and union protections for workers to provide appropriate health care.

TALK ABOUT IT

One more thing that all unions can do is break their silence on reproductive rights. Unions may be cautious about taking a stance on a divisive issue, especially in open shop states and sectors.

But how divisive is it, really? We know the majority of the country supports the right for people to make decisions about their own bodies.

Members can engage in these conversations in good faith—particularly around issues of health, autonomy, and the ability to use your professional judgment at work.

This blog is printed with permission.

About the Author: Author’s name is Sarah Hughes. Sarah is a staff writer and organizer at Labor Notes.


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