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NATCA’s Disaster Response Committee Raises Funds for Union Relief Efforts

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

With so many severe storms and wildfires having struck parts of our country over the past several months, unions are stepping up to provide relief for our members and our communities that have been impacted. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) established a fund for disaster relief in 1992, in the wake of Hurricane Andrew in Florida and Louisiana. Following the devastating 2017 hurricane season, NATCA formed its own Disaster Response Committee to manage the union’s Disaster Relief Fund and organize the relief process for NATCA members affected by a disaster. Due to the generosity of its membership, NATCA’s Disaster Relief Fund has continued to grow.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on October 30, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Aaron Gallant is the Communications Director and Political Action Coordinator at AFSCME Council 66


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The Movement for Black Lives and Labor’s Revival

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The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis ignited the most widespread series of protests in U.S. history. Working people—not only Black, but people of all races—were the driving force. Even labor leaders who are usually reluctant to weigh in on hot social issues spoke out.

The challenge now is to bring the militancy and energy of this year’s revived Black struggle into the workplace—amid the coronavirus-driven economic crisis.

A deep look at U.S. labor history shows that labor can make big steps forward when Black workers are in motion in their communities. In our past, a mobilized Black community has brought the energy and self-confidence of powerful collective action in the streets into workplace organizing. It’s also brought a grassroots orientation that challenges top-down conservatism.

Will the same be true for unions today?

PANDEMIC POTENTIAL

The potential could be glimpsed in the early weeks of the pandemic, when union and non-union workers alike took action over unsafe working conditions, in worksites ranging from hospitals to Amazon warehouses to grocery stores. Because so many “essential workers” are Black and Latino, they were often at the center of the action, from Detroit bus drivers to Pittsburgh sanitation workers to Georgia poultry workers.

What makes the Black Lives Matter protests so important isn’t just their size. It’s the fact that demonstrators are linking the struggle against racist police violence to the whole racist system. The basketball players’ walkout in August highlighted the connection between racism in society and at the workplace.

Black workers have never drawn a line between civil rights in the community and worker rights on the job. That has everything to do with the central role Black labor has always played in the U.S. economy, from the unpaid labor of slavery to the low wages paid to Black workers by modern industrialists to boost profits.

STREETS TO WORKPLACE

Labor history shows that Black workers don’t protest in the streets while keeping quiet at work.

Black workers were key to labor’s 1930s upsurge in many industries, particularly in the South, even if many Southern struggles were ultimately unsuccessful. In the Midwest, the steel, auto, and meatpacking industries could not have been unionized had not rank-and-file organizers, including socialists of all currents, taken on the racism of the companies—and often of their white co-workers.

Many workplaces and unions at the time were Jim Crow—barred to Black workers. In New York City, a Black community boycott of two privately owned bus lines in 1941 forced the companies to hire Black workers.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Black workers were the driving force of the Southern civil rights movement. A key strategist of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56—the breakthrough struggle of the civil rights movement—was E.D. Nixon, the Alabama president of an all-Black railroad union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Nixon was among those who worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., then a dynamic but largely unknown 27-year-old preacher. The Brotherhood was a key connection between Black union members in Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland and mostly non-union Southern workers.

The Southern civil rights movement prodded the highly conservative AFL-CIO bureaucracy into supporting it, even as nearly all-white building trades unions kept fighting to maintain a color bar into the 1960s. More generally, the level of mobilization in the Black community and the confidence that came with winning the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 reinforced the desire to fight at work as well.

PUBLIC SECTOR STRIKE WAVE

The Southern Black struggle then came North in the form of the Black Power movement. By then Black workers represented big numbers in major industrial unions, such as auto and steel. Black workers were an essential part of—and often a leading force in—the strike wave that began in the mid-1960s.

That period saw a massive expansion of public sector unionism, with Black workers a key component. The welfare rights movement in New York City, with Black women at the center, is one example. That movement was linked to social workers’ unionization efforts in the Social Services Employees Union, an independent organization that struck in defiance of the law and got the support of King and other civil rights leaders as well as community groups. SSEU helped open the way for AFSCME’s recognition and formal public sector bargaining rights in New York.

The assassination of Dr. King led to street rebellions across the U.S. in 1968. Three months later, in auto, Black workers’ Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) led a 1968 wildcat over speedup and discrimination, which spurred similar organizations and strikes elsewhere in auto and in other industries. The workers also took on internal struggles in the United Auto Workers. The UAW had been willing to support the Southern civil rights movement and the 1963 March on Washington, but it sought to suppress Black members’ demands internally.

The 1970 national postal wildcat was strongest in the big cities of the Northeast and Midwest, strongholds for Black workers. Black workers were the absolute majority of postal workers in Chicago, Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Detroit. That job action was likely the largest-ever Black participation in a strike.

Labor struggles of the late 1960s and 1970s were widespread and certainly not limited to Black workers. But the militancy of Black workers was an essential ingredient. Could that same dynamic emerge today?

AN OUTSIZED ROLE

Potentially. But this time Black workers—and their Latino, Asian, and white co-workers—will have to undertake the basic task of union organization on a much greater scale. In 1970, more than 24 percent of workers belonged to unions. The Black Power movement could therefore find a connection in heavily Black unionized workplaces in auto and the post office. Today the path from protest to the workplace is more difficult.

But the same dynamic still exists. The Fight for 15 movement, even though it did not result in union contracts, won a $15 minimum wage through legislation in some states and cities in large part because of the participation of low-wage Black workers. And Black workers are more likely to be in unions than any other group.

Certainly, Black workers have lost important footholds in the unions over the last few decades, with plant closures and shifts of production to the largely non-union South. And now the pandemic economic shutdown has hammered the hospitality and service economy, leading to layoffs in union hotels that hit Black and Latino workers particularly hard.

But Black workers are still a strong component of labor’s remaining base in the private sector, such as auto and UPS, and in the public sector, where they are 20 percent of the total. That means Black workers have an outsized role to play in any resistance to pandemic-driven government budget cuts.

The Chicago Teachers Union’s strikes of 2012 and 2019 showed how a bold union can win public support for demands that address racist realities. The CTU fought for “The Schools Our Children Deserve,” for Black teachers facing job loss, for rent control and sustainable housing and services for homeless students, and against evictions. The potential for such connections is much wider after the anti-racism protests of 2020.

It’s a huge fight. But it always has been. The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 give labor activists the opportunity to revive that tradition.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on October 27, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tim Schermerhorn is a retired transit worker in New York City and a former vice president of Transport Workers Union Local 100. Lee Sustar is a journalist in Chicago and member of the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981.


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Overcoming Inequality in Unemployment Benefit Access and Utilization

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History may not repeat itself but it certainly rhymes. Today’s unemployed Black workers face a system of unequal state policies and practices that were created after the Civil War to maintain white supremacy and prevent Black Americans from obtaining wealth. These discriminatory policies drive enormous and persistent wage and wealth gaps, as well as the ongoing exclusion of Black workers from the benefits, rights, and protections we all deserve.

A reckoning is due.

Early in the pandemic, Working America — an organization that mobilizes working-class people to take action on pocketbook issues — partnered with policy experts at the National Employment Law Project, with the support of Open Society Foundations, to address a portion of this legacy: the unequal distribution of unemployment insurance (UI) benefits. Black workers are not only more likely to be unemployed during the pandemic but much less likely to receive UI. Law, policy, and practice may be the problems, but the solution begins with mobilization. 

Money Changes Everything

It’s no secret that the United States has a history of exploiting Black workers. But the extent to which one can draw a direct line between the current unemployment crisis and the history of enslavement is staggering. Throughout America’s history, Black Americans, especially in rural communities, have been subjected to discriminatory laws and policies aimed at keeping them from achieving economic parity with white workers.

Unemployment insurance is a good example. The program was designed so that not all workers would be eligible for benefits — including lower-paid workers, workers with short periods of employment, seasonal workers, and workers in industries that tend to be more highly populated by people of color, such as domestic and agricultural work. As a result, many Black workers don’t expect to be eligible for benefits and, therefore, never apply. Why apply just to be denied? 

The lowest UI benefit levels are in southern states with large Black populations. In states such as North Carolina and Florida, for example, fewer than 12 percent of jobless individuals received unemployment benefits last year. When workers in many southern states do get UI, the benefits are so low that they would barely cover the essentials. The maximum weekly benefit in Florida and Tennessee is $275; in Alabama, it’s $265; in Arizona, it’s $240; and in Mississippi, it’s $235. 

Black workers are far less likely to receive UI even when they apply for benefits. In a survey our organizations conducted in July, a majority of Black workers responded that they had exhausted their savings; nearly two-thirds admitted that they were now going without necessities. In comparison, only one in four white workers said they had exhausted their savings and only one in five admitted to skipping necessities.

A major reason for this disparity was workers’ ability to access UI. An analysis by Nyanya Browne and William Spriggs of Howard University and the AFL-CIO found that, “Just 13 percent of Black people out of work from April to June received unemployment benefits, compared with 24 percent of white workers, 22 percent of Latinx workers and 18 percent of workers of other races.” What’s more, 30 percent of Black adults who filed for unemployment benefits did not receive their payments. 

The difficulties people of color — and Black people in particular — have in accessing UI are systemic and ongoing. It isn’t only that most UI systems create barriers to access, including insufficient staffing, outdated web systems, and lack of adequate explainers for claimants. Individuals with uncommon or ethnic names were more likely to be denied benefits they were entitled to. This is not a function of law or policy but of individual people practicing discriminatory conduct. This practice robs individuals and their families of the meager economic safety net our society provides, putting them at a disadvantage that is hard to recover from. That is a lot of historical rhyming.

Changing the UI Experience

Working America and NELP partnered on this project to understand the problems with UI access and utilization for Black workers, use our available toolset to mitigate harm, and assist eligible workers in enrolling in UI. For this project, Working America is leveraging its digital organizing capacity and clinical testing know-how to boost UI utilization rates among Black workers using targeted text messages, email, and phone calls that can reach three million people a week.

Listening is the key to all good organizing, so we began our project by reaching out to 14,531 workers. Our goal was to document their experiences with the unemployment system, their attitudes toward the system, and their knowledge of the application process.

A full 53 percent of people told us that they or someone in their households had lost a job as a result of the pandemic. That number rose to 68 percent when we asked them about their friends.

Ayana, a 46-year-old Westland, Michigan, resident working in health care, said, “My friends, neighbors, and family members all have had to apply to UI … They all had technical difficulties [when applying]. It seemed like no one could ever talk to a live person.”

Keshia, a 44-year-old Greensboro, North Carolina, resident who works in human resources, said, “My sister lost her job in the medical field. She had to wake up very, very early, like 3:00 a.m., in order to apply through the online portal. Otherwise, it would be so slow it wouldn’t work. She was denied because there was some discrepancy with her name and had to keep going back and forth, but she eventually got it.”

Through conversations like these, we diagnosed several problems.

First, there was a clear geographic disparity. In southern states, problems were borne of deliberate policy choices that continue the long legacy of structural racism, including restrictive eligibility and low benefit levels. In addition, those living in rural counties faced greater difficulty accessing benefits than those living in urban areas. Even with Working America’s help, unemployed Black Americans in rural communities waited seven-to-eight days longer than unemployed white and Latinx Americans to receive benefits. 

Second, most people we spoke to were not aware of program eligibility rules and benefits. This was one of the primary reasons that they did not apply for benefits. Further, many saw their hours reduced rather than being laid off; these workers were often unaware that they were eligible for unemployment benefits.

In addition to these informal conversations, our large-scale survey of 14,135 workers found alarming but unsurprising conditions. Black and brown workers were the least likely to have savings, the most likely to have lost wages during the pandemic, and the most likely to be unable to pay for essentials such as groceries, medications, and rent. Across the board, there was little knowledge about the unemployment program’s eligibility criteria or benefit amounts, confirming what we heard in our informal conversations. 

There is reason to hope, however. A majority of people we talked with were willing to take action to help their friends and family access benefits. 

Our organizers provided Ayana, Keshia, and other similarly situated “peer organizers” with information about unemployment eligibility and how to access benefits in their state. We also followed up to make sure members of their communities were accessing benefits. 

We’ve been in back-and-forth communication with almost 7,540 Black workers who are sharing information about UI in their networks. By constantly testing our outreach through randomized control trials and making adjustments based on the evidence of what works, we are finding agents of change in the community. 

One UI recipient in Pennsylvania told us, “We’re never going to get out of this mess here in Philadelphia unless we start treating Blacks like everyone else … I can tell you care, and it sounds like you’ve been helping people here, so I’m going to share your stuff because I know a lot of people that sure can use it, and you’re right, I already know a few that might get evicted.” 

Another Pennsylvania resident told us he works as a manager for a construction company that had to lay off a lot of workers. He wanted information so he could help his employees file for unemployment benefits. Yet another man told us he was a landlord, and while he didn’t need help applying for benefits, he was interested in helping his unemployed tenants get the benefits they needed to stay afloat. 

Turning Enthusiasm into Action

We know we need to scale up this program to reach more affected workers. Our goal is to build an organizing formula that measurably increases the application and filing rates — and ultimately the level of income — in these communities.

Working with the Labor Lab at Columbia University, we are implementing randomized control trials to assess the effectiveness of campaign strategies in increasing awareness of unemployment benefits and action on UI claims in Black communities. We are focusing our efforts on the 42 counties across the country with the highest concentration of Black workers. In half the counties, we’ll saturate residents with calls, digital contacts, and grasstops organizing techniques. We will then track the change in claims at the county level to get hard data on the impact of our work.

We found that there is a lot of misinformation about unemployment benefits, so we developed quiz-style engagement actions. For example: “True or false? If you were out of work but found a new job, you can still get unemployment benefits for the time you were out of work.” These types of actions tend to have greater engagement.

In phone conversations, we have found that people are much less likely to agree to help with unemployment outreach if they have not been personally impacted by the unemployment crisis. However, upon learning that only one in four eligible Black workers applies for benefits, many wonder if people they know might be missing out. Overall, 70 percent of these people agreed to help others apply for unemployment benefits.

Our next step is to follow up with these peer organizers who have been sharing UI information in their communities to connect them with fellow activists, skilled organizers, and resources to help them become more effective at reaching those who need it most. By talking directly to workers and members of the community, we are able to help them navigate the complexities of accessing regular and expanded unemployment insurance benefits. By recruiting them as community organizers, we’re creating a movement that will help many more families who have lost wages gain financial ground.

Fixing Broken Policies

At the grasstops level, Working America and NELP are collaborating with other organizations to advocate for short- and long-term policy solutions to the unemployment crisis.

In the short term, we must meet the immediate needs of unemployed and underemployed workers. Congress must not only reinstate the $600 Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) benefit and other CARES Act provisions but also provide funding to state and local governments, ensure paid sick leave and child care for all working people, and deliver relief for workers ineligible for unemployment payments. USDOL’s Employment and Training Administration (ETA) must also make it clear that suitable work does not include unsafe work; if employers have not taken the minimum precautions set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 workplace guidelines, workers who quit their jobs should be eligible for unemployment benefits.

In the long term, Congress should consider federalizing UI — to operate similarly to Social Security — in order to address the wide disparity across states and populations. We should have permanent levers to automatically extend benefits during a recession, make worksharing available in every state, and provide dependent allowances for people who have children. Workers who are fleeing domestic violence, following a spouse whose job has moved, or leaving a job that jeopardizes their health and safety should be able to receive UI. And we should make sure that all workers, including those with erratic or part-time schedules and those whose job categories are currently excluded, are eligible to receive meaningful UI benefits. Finally, UI information technology (IT) systems must be easier for claimants to access. Individual states can take steps now to immediately address problems.

Ground-Up Systemic Change 

Many smart organizations and people have tried to increase UI access over the years, and a lot of work has gone into improving actualization of similar programs, such as Medicaid, EITC, and SNAP. What all these programs have in common is that they can change the dynamics of personal wealth and give working people what they need to gain some stability. We aren’t the first to tackle this issue, and we won’t be the last. 

The real power of this organizing project is the movement we’re creating to fix this rigged political economy and fight for the policy changes we desperately need. By arming people with the information they need to navigate the systems that have failed them for centuries, we can begin to break down some of the barriers that have kept wealth out of the hands of Black people. The key, we believe, is organizing communities not only to demand change of their elected officials but to make change themselves.

This blog originally appeared at The Forge on October 19, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Matt Morrison is the executive director of Working America, a three-million-member labor organization mobilizing working people who don’t have the benefit of a union at their jobs. He is a leading political practitioner with experience working in over 500 elections throughout his career.

Rebecca Dixon is executive director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP). NELP is a respected leader in federal workers’ rights advocacy and the go-to resource for state and local worker movements, providing unmatched policy, legal, and technical assistance.


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Prop 22 is Bad for Black Workers

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When the pandemic forced Cherri Murphy to stop driving for Lyft, she applied for unemployment benefits like millions of other workers. But because Lyft has refused to pay into California’s unemployment insurance fund, insisting that its workers are independent contractors rather than employees, Cherri received zero dollars in unemployment benefits.

By day, Ms. Murphy is a member of Gig Workers Rising and a volunteer social justice minister who helps people connect their faith to the fight for racial justice. By night, she is a Black working woman in America, completing more than 12,000 Lyft rides, forced to play by rules designed for her — and millions of Black workers — to lose.

“Uber and Lyft drivers are mostly folks who look like me,” said Ms. Murphy. “We’re African American and people of color. We’re on the frontlines and among the hardest hit financially. But our bosses have offered us no meaningful protections, treating us as expendable as ever.”

Now, in the midst of a pandemic that is disproportionately hurting Black Americans, Uber, Lyft and other gig companies like DoorDash and Instacart are trying to roll back labor rights for app-based workers through a ballot measure called Proposition 22. That’s bad news for Black workers.

Supporters of Proposition 22 talk about innovation and jobs of the future, but there is nothing new about bosses attacking labor rights. Don’t be fooled by the misinformation campaign these companies are running — saying drivers must choose between flexibility and employee rights. Flexibility has always been at the discretion of the employer.

As a report co-authored by the Partnership for Working Families and NELP shows, Proposition 22 would lock app-based workers out of minimum wage and overtime protections, unemployment insurance, the right to form a union, and critical health and safety protections.

Proposition 22 would effectively cancel local COVID-19 emergency sick leave laws, passed in cities like San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, and Los Angeles, that apply to app-based workers.

Bosses have always taken too much from Black workers. And U.S. labor laws have continuously failed Black workers, leaving them out of lifesaving labor protections. Economic inequality continues to this day, with Black women earning 62 cents on the dollar, and Black families having on average one-tenth of the wealth of white families. Union membership dramatically reduces that wealth gap.

The failed response to COVID-19 has only made life worse for Black people in the U.S. Racism in the labor market has forced Black workers onto the most dangerous frontlines of essential work. Yes, Trump is a threat to our safety. But Silicon Valley has done extensive damage as well, using sly legal moves and buying off politicians to steal the benefits workers have earned.

Proposition 22 is only the latest attempt by Silicon Valley bosses to rewrite state laws. It would roll back years of court rulings, agency policy, and statutory law in California, including Assembly Bill 5, which clarified that app-based workers are employees covered by the state’s wage-and-hour laws and eligible for unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation.

Proposition 22 is a step in the wrong direction that harkens back to a long and shameful history of denying Black workers their fundamental rights. The measure sets a dangerous precedent; one that the Trump administration and gig companies could use as fodder for their continued nationwide attack on workers’ rights.

Ms. Murphy was among hundreds of Black Uber and Lyft drivers who penned an open letter calling out gig employers for empty lip-service to the Black Lives Matter movement. The same companies running ad campaigns in support of Black Lives are bankrolling the most expensive ($184 million+) ballot measure in history to take protections away from Black workers.

California voters must vote no on Proposition 22, and say yes to a future with universal rights and good jobs for Black workers and for every worker in the state.

This blog originally appeared at National Employment Law Project on October 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rashad Robinson is an American civil rights leader. He is the president of Color of Change, having joined the organization in May 2011. He has served as a board member of RaceForwardDemosState Voices, and currently sits on the board of the Hazen Foundation.

Rebecca Dixon is executive director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP).


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Unions predict a Great Awakening during a Biden presidency

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Labor leaders are eyeing a Joe Biden victory in November as the start of a union revival, one with the potential to undo decades of policies that have diminished union influence, undermined the right to organize and exacerbated income inequality.

And they’re planning on playing a central role.

“It’s clear to me it’s going to be the most significant pro-labor, pro-worker administration in a long, long, long time,” said Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters — the first union to endorse Biden during the Democratic primary.

Reversing America’s decades-long decline in union membership, however, will be a difficult task for even the most labor-friendly administration. Just over 10 percent of workers were represented by unions last year, according to Labor Department data — a share that has been cut in half since 1983. And unless Democrats win the Senate as well as the White House, it will be an uphill battle for Biden to move any of the legislation union leaders are advocating for.

Labor officials have reason to be confident, though, that they’ll have a line into the Biden administration, should he win next month’s election. The former vice president and veteran senator has longstanding relationships with union leaders built over more than 40 years in politics.

He’s already named two union presidents — Teresa Romero of the United Farm Workers and Lonnie Stephenson of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers — to his transition team’s advisory board. At least five others served as members of the unity task forces Biden set up with Sen. Bernie Sanders over the summer, which published formal policy recommendations that helped shape the Democratic Party’s official platform.

Many expect Biden to appoint a union leader to his Cabinet — the Departments of Labor and Education are most often mentioned — or in senior positions throughout various agencies. And he has pledged to create a Cabinet-level working group comprised of labor representatives, “that will solely focus on promoting union organizing and collective bargaining.”

His policy plans across the board are peppered with references to expanding the right to join a union. And senior campaign officials, led by Biden’s longtime confidant and campaign aide Steve Ricchetti, have been holding a biweekly evening call with union leaders to keep them apprised of campaign developments and to allow them to offer their input.

“He’s doing more of this outreach than any other candidate that I’ve known on the Democratic side,” said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, who has been with his union since the late 1970s. “When he talks about organized labor, when he talks about the importance of unions, he really means it.”

Still, it’s an open question whether the labor movement can convince Biden and his team that it is worth spending the “political capital that will have to be spent in order to get major labor law reforms,” said Robert Reich, a former Labor secretary under Bill Clinton.

“It’s a chicken and egg problem,” Reich said. “Because right now, organized labor doesn’t have very much clout.”

And labor allies warn that Biden’s ability to enact changes will depend in large part on whether Democrats regain control of the Senate in November. Pushback from Biden supporters throughout corporate America, employers who might not want to see a resurgence of unions, could also hinder any effort.

That makes the Biden transition preparations, which involve vetting possible Cabinet appointees, plotting out policy priorities and strategizing on how to implement them, a crucial time period.

“I’m very confident that we’re being afforded and will be afforded an opportunity to offer our view and opinion on key positions and personnel that will become part of the administration,” Schaitberger said.

Saunders and other union leaders interviewed by POLITICO also said they have been engaged with senior members of Biden’s transition team, and many are preparing policy memos to share with the team if Biden wins. They emphasize their personal ties to the former vice president, and the interactions they’ve had with him, as evidence of how much he will do for them if he wins.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said Biden was her union’s “go-to person” in the Obama administration, and AFT members are currently engaged with members of his transition team.

Teachers are encouraged by Biden’s pledge to tap an educator to lead the Department of Education and feel connected to his wife, Jill Biden, a longtime community college professor, said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association. Construction workers are hopeful about Biden’s commitment to deliver an infrastructure plan — something President Donald Trump promised but failed to produce — and to create American jobs in the process, said Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Union.

From a labor perspective, Biden’s long record is not spotless. He voted in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement as a senator, a move some union members still hold against him. More recently, as a member of the Obama administration, he’s faced criticism for failing to push through the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made it easier for workers to form unions.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on October 9, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Megan Cassella is a trade reporter for POLITICO Pro. Before joining POLITICO in June 2016, Megan worked for Reuters based out of Washington, covering the economy, domestic politics and the 2016 presidential campaign.


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This Amazon Grocery Runner Has Risked Her Job to Fight for Better Safety Measures

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This arti­cle is part of a series on Ama­zon work­ers pro­duced in part­ner­ship with the Eco­nom­ic Hard­ship Report­ing Project.

Courte­nay Brown spends her day mak­ing gro­cery runs for oth­ers in a foot­ball-field-sized maze of nar­row aisles and refrig­er­at­ed enclaves. At the Ama­zon Fresh unit in a Newark, New Jer­sey ful­fill­ment cen­ter, she works on the out­bound ship dock, help­ing direct the load­ing of trucks and send them off on local deliv­ery routes. Brown says that after near­ly three years at the e-tail empire, her job has been “hell.”

“Imag­ine a real­ly intense work­out, like you just got off of the tread­mill, no cool down, no noth­ing,” she describes one espe­cial­ly gru­el­ing day with a resigned laugh. “That’s how my legs felt.”

Ama­zon Fresh employ­ees often have to comb through huge stocks of var­i­ous chilled and frozen items, which means they need to wear full win­ter clothes to work. The stress and phys­i­cal exhaus­tion of the job tends to wear out many new hires with­in their first few days. “You don’t have that many that have last­ed here,” she says. “It’s so hard.”

With the pan­dem­ic keep­ing con­sumers indoors, Ama­zon gro­cery sales have rough­ly tripled in the sec­ond quar­ter over last year. The num­ber of deliv­ery trucks mov­ing in and out of the Newark ful­fill­ment cen­ter has jumped accordingly.

“Every day I come in, it’s just more and more and more and more,” Brown says. “Lit­er­al­ly every day we break the pre­vi­ous day’s record for the total num­ber of routes that went out for the entire day.”

“Once we get home [from work], the only thing we can do is show­er and dis­in­fect,” she con­tin­ues. “A lot of us [are] too exhaust­ed to eat. We pass out. Then we repeat the process the fol­low­ing day.” Some cowork­ers have end­ed up over­sleep­ing, she adds, and “end up miss­ing the whole day.”

For its part, an Ama­zon spokesper­son wrote in an email that while some jobs at Ama­zon Fresh are phys­i­cal­ly tax­ing, work­ers can choose less stren­u­ous labor.

“Imag­ine your stan­dard nor­mal super­mar­ket aisle, [then] cut that in half,” she observes. “You’re expect­ed to go through that aisle with oth­er peo­ple stock­ing the shelves, or clean­ing… it’s real­ly, real­ly, real­ly cramped.”

Ama­zon boasts mak­ing 150 oper­a­tional changes dur­ing the pan­dem­ic that include dis­trib­ut­ing mil­lions of masks at work­sites, adding thou­sands of jan­i­to­r­i­al staff, and rede­ploy­ing some per­son­nel to help enforce social dis­tanc­ing rules. While it has imple­ment­ed social-dis­tanc­ing rules, and even pro­vides an elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing sys­tem to help keep work­ers sev­er­al feet apart on the ware­house floor, Brown says work spaces are still too crowd­ed: “It’s pret­ty much a show…Where I work on the ship dock, we’re all mashed up together.”

The tense atmos­phere has “def­i­nite­ly changed the rela­tion­ship” among work­ers, she con­tends. Her fel­low employ­ees were friend­lier before, but now “a lot of peo­ple snap at each oth­er a bit more.”

The threat of COVID-19 has only added to the psy­cho­log­i­cal bur­den. “When the pan­dem­ic first start­ed, I remem­ber a lot of us were watch­ing the news,” Brown reflects. “I was talk­ing to man­agers and try­ing to get them [to lis­ten]. ‘Hey, you know, this is going on and we might want to start prepar­ing.’ And they [were] just [act­ing] like it [was] not that big of a deal. Peo­ple are dying, and it’s not that big of a deal?”

Although Ama­zon even­tu­al­ly enact­ed safe­ty mea­sures, Brown says she and her col­leagues spent “months com­plain­ing” about what they saw as sub­stan­dard pro­tec­tions, includ­ing inad­e­quate safe­ty gear and social-dis­tanc­ing mea­sures. An Ama­zon spokesper­son main­tains the com­pa­ny moved to pro­tect its work­ers at the out­set of the pan­dem­ic, and that masks were dis­trib­uted in ear­ly April.

But Brown bris­tles at the com­pa­ny’s claims, say­ing the response was slow and devoid of trans­paren­cy. Work­ers were espe­cial­ly upset, she recalls, when they received news of a COVID-19 infec­tion at their site two weeks after the indi­vid­ual had report­ed­ly tak­en ill.

Even­tu­al­ly, Brown con­nect­ed with oth­er Ama­zon orga­niz­ers through an online peti­tion cir­cu­lat­ed by the advo­ca­cy net­work Unit­ed for Respect. Ear­li­er this year, she began work­ing with the Athena coali­tion to pres­sure Ama­zon to rein­state some work­er pro­tec­tions that were insti­tut­ed ear­li­er on in the pan­dem­ic and then dis­con­tin­ued. The work­ers are demand­ing the restora­tion of “haz­ard pay” for ful­fill­ment-cen­ter work­ers, as well as unlim­it­ed unpaid leave for those who opt to stay home to pro­tect their health. (Over the objec­tions of its work­force, Ama­zon end­ed unlim­it­ed unpaid leave and scrapped its $2 hourly “incen­tive” bonus in May.) The coali­tion is also push­ing for more trans­paren­cy in the report­ing of new cas­es, so man­age­ment will “actu­al­ly tell us the truth about the num­bers of peo­ple that are sick.”

In April, Brown par­tic­i­pat­ed in a media con­fer­ence call with Sen. Cory Book­er, D-N.J., to pro­mote an Essen­tial Work­ers Bill of Rights that would beef up health and safe­ty pro­tec­tions, pro­vide child­care sup­port and uni­ver­sal paid leave poli­cies, and pro­tect whistle­blow­ers. More recent­ly, she was fea­tured in a New York Times video about the work­ing con­di­tions at Ama­zon. She claims her pub­lic cam­paign­ing has drawn the ire of management.

“I’m harassed every day, all day,” she says. One safe­ty super­vi­sor in par­tic­u­lar is “just watch­ing” to see if she vio­lates the company’s social-dis­tanc­ing rules.

Brown recalls a recent inci­dent in which she was speak­ing casu­al­ly with some co-work­ers about safe­ty issues when the super­vi­sor inter­vened, shout­ing at them to keep six feet apart. Although they were all main­tain­ing their dis­tance, she says, “he [yelled], ‘you’re in a group!’” They answered, “Yeah, but we’re all six feet apart from each oth­er with our masks on.” But she says the man­ag­er nonethe­less threat­ened to write them up and warned they could be terminated.

Ama­zon has stat­ed that it oppos­es retal­i­a­tion against employ­ees who voice their con­cerns about work­ing con­di­tions. But like oth­er Ama­zon orga­niz­ers, Brown believes her treat­ment reflects a broad­er cam­paign aimed at dis­suad­ing employ­ees from organizing.

“What they’ll do is they’ll find an indi­vid­ual, and they’ll kind of make an exam­ple of you. And that scares every­body else,” she says. Her obser­va­tions are affirmed by a recent Open Mar­kets Insti­tute report that finds that Ama­zon has used sophis­ti­cat­ed work­place sur­veil­lance tac­tics to intim­i­date and sup­press work­ers who seek to union­ize or chal­lenge the company’s labor practices.

Brown, mean­while, is ded­i­cat­ed to improv­ing her work­place. This is not the first time she has faced hos­tile cir­cum­stances, both inside the Ama­zon ware­house and out. For a stretch in 2018, she had to live in a motel with her sis­ter, who also works at Ama­zon, because the two could not secure a rental apart­ment with the wages they were earn­ing deliv­er­ing food for the cor­po­rate behe­moth. “We were lit­er­al­ly starv­ing,” she says. “We weren’t mak­ing enough to be able to pay for the room, eat, and make it to and from work.”

Ama­zon has denied charges of employ­ee sur­veil­lance, dis­miss­ing the Open Mar­kets Insti­tute as “a peren­ni­al crit­ic that will­ful­ly ignores” the com­pa­ny’s record of cre­at­ing jobs with “indus­try lead­ing wages and ben­e­fits.” The com­pa­ny claims that it does eval­u­ate work­ers’ per­for­mance “over a long peri­od of time,” and pro­vides under-per­form­ing work­ers with “ded­i­cat­ed coach­ing to help them improve.”

Giv­en the dan­gers of speak­ing out, Brown some­times won­ders if she might end up home­less again. But she’s less fear­ful about los­ing her job than she is about the health haz­ards she faces every day as she fights to hold her employ­er account­able. “It’s real­ly ter­ri­fy­ing,” she says, “but if I don’t do this, then I could poten­tial­ly get sick and die.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the “Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

About the Author: Molly Crabapple is an artist and writer in New York, and is the author of, most recent­ly, Draw­ing Blood and Broth­ers of the Gun, (with Mar­wan Hisham). Her art is in the per­ma­nent col­lec­tions of the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art. Her ani­mat­ed short, A Mes­sage from the Future with Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, has been nom­i­nat­ed for a 2020 Emmy for Out­stand­ing News Analy­sis: Edi­to­r­i­al and Opinion.


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A Bunch of Union Organizers Explain What’s Wrong with Unions

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Here is the most fun­da­men­tal quandary of unions in Amer­i­ca: Polls show that 65% of Amer­i­cans approve of unions, and half of work­ers say they would join a union. But only about 10% of work­ers are actu­al­ly union mem­bers. In the yawn­ing gap between those num­bers lies the entire sto­ry of the Amer­i­can labor movement’s decline. 

The sys­tem­at­ic decades-long assault on labor pow­er by right-wing busi­ness inter­ests is the biggest con­trib­u­tor to union weak­ness, but by itself it is not a suf­fi­cient expla­na­tion. Why is there such an enor­mous dis­par­i­ty between the num­ber of peo­ple who want to be union mem­bers, and the num­ber who are union mem­bers? And how do unions close that divide? There is no short­age of opin­ions on these ques­tions, but we asked the one group of peo­ple who know the most and appear in the media the least: pro­fes­sion­al union organizers. 

A dozen orga­niz­ers respond­ed to our call and shared their thoughts about how unions got so deep in a hole, and how to get out. 

How did we get here?

Fear

“I do not hon­est­ly believe it is pos­si­ble to sep­a­rate ‘polit­i­cal issues’ from that gap between sup­port and mem­ber­ship. Yes, stuff like Right to Work and anti-work­er Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board appoint­ments harm work­ing peo­ple, but right-wing aus­ter­i­ty, gut­ting of the pub­lic safe­ty net, and lack of uni­ver­sal health cov­er­age is a huge fac­tor here as well. To me, the biggest rea­son peo­ple don’t join a union or orga­nize their work­place is because their boss has too much pow­er over their lives. When I worked on an exter­nal new orga­niz­ing cam­paign at Unit­ed Health­care Work­ers West I spent a ton of time talk­ing with work­ers who were ter­ri­fied of los­ing their job if they orga­nized or pub­licly sup­port­ed the union because it would mean los­ing health­care cov­er­age or finan­cial ruin for their fam­i­ly. A lot of peo­ple tru­ly just feel lucky to have a job. And while in the­o­ry, yes, they would love to have a union, they are more afraid of rock­ing the boat. I went to work on the Bernie cam­paign with the pur­pose of try­ing to change that. While card check or the Pro­tect­ing the Right to Orga­nize (PRO) Act would cer­tain­ly make it eas­i­er to win unions and first con­tracts, until los­ing your job does­n’t mean los­ing your health­care cov­er­age and abil­i­ty to cov­er rent, it is always going to be an uphill battle.”

— Dan­ny Keane, orga­niz­er-rep­re­sen­ta­tive with Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU) 221

Ser­vice unionism

“I’ve seen union-bust­ing both hard and soft, and these employ­ers have got­ten so good at nar­row­ing the focus of the union. Sure, peo­ple sup­port unions in broad strokes, but when it gets down to the pos­si­bil­i­ty of you form­ing a union, the boss is so good at either scar­ing peo­ple or con­vinc­ing peo­ple that union dues are not a worth­while ‘invest­ment.’

While right-wing forces have eager­ly tried to turn unions into irrel­e­vant third par­ties, unions have alien­at­ed them­selves from work­ers as well. I think that unions have sim­ply shift­ed away from empow­er­ing work­ers. Through an overzeal­ous focus on con­tract enforce­ment through griev­ances and through some anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic mea­sures, unions have, in effect, made them­selves a third par­ty to the work­ers. These shifts did­n’t hap­pen overnight, and I think inten­tions behind them were good, just misguided.

Take griev­ances, for instance, which appear to be a win-win: Work­ers get their issues heard with legal sup­port, and unions get to jus­ti­fy their increas­ing­ly bureau­crat­ic struc­tures by bog­ging them­selves down in the drawn-out griev­ance pro­ce­dure. But in the long-term, rely­ing too much on the griev­ance sys­tem hurts work­er pow­er. Griev­ance pro­ce­dures are pur­pose­ful­ly slow and bureau­crat­ic, and, by design, griev­ances are lim­it­ed sole­ly to nar­row con­tract enforce­ment. They take the pow­er out of the work­ers’ hands and put the deci­sions into the hands of lawyers and an osten­si­bly neu­tral arbi­tra­tor. They lim­it work­ers’ imag­i­na­tions from dream­ing of ways to improve and trans­form their work­places. And they turn the union into a third-par­ty ser­vice that tries to clean up mess­es for the price of biweek­ly dues.

Unions have also tak­en anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic mea­sures inter­nal­ly. I think that work­ers are large­ly shut out from the cam­paign deci­sion mak­ing that union staffers lead. As orga­niz­ers, we’re trained to fol­low the work­ers’ lead, but I see that teach­ing only goes so far. While I respect the per­spec­tive that trained orga­niz­ers know the best prac­tices for orga­niz­ing, I believe that work­ers know their employ­ers and their indus­tries best and need to be more includ­ed in the deci­sions that affect orga­niz­ing campaigns.”

— Daniel Luis Zager, Cam­paign Orga­niz­er at SEIU Health­care-Illi­nois Indi­ana Mis­souri Kansas

The nature of the mod­ern workplace

“Even before the pan­dem­ic length­ened aver­age hours worked by those still employed, work­ing an eight-hour work­day does­n’t leave much time for all else that needs to get done. Com­mit­ting to week­ly orga­niz­ing meet­ings and hours of one-to-one con­ver­sa­tions with cowork­ers—the back­bone of any union cam­paign—is daunt­ing, and for many, unten­able. The work­ers who have the most to gain from a union at their com­pa­ny—those who are over-worked, under­paid, and under-val­ued—are also the most like­ly to take on sec­ond or third jobs and man­age care-tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ties that make it hard­er to engage in a sus­tained union cam­paign. And unfor­tu­nate­ly, because of the nec­es­sary clan­des­tine nature of orga­niz­ing efforts, these meet­ings must take place out­side of the work­place, off work time, and through tedious (yet illu­mi­nat­ing) conversations.

Those who see issues in their work­place and would be most sup­port­ive of a union are often ones who are on their way out of a com­pa­ny. While there’s sim­i­lar­ly a con­tin­gent of work­ers who orga­nize because they love their com­pa­ny and want it to be a place they can remain employed long-term, there are always work­place lead­ers whose per­sis­tent griev­ances push them to sim­ply find a new job instead of com­mit­ting to a long campaign.

Along those same lines, the ‘career jobs’ of the past are large­ly lost in the 21st cen­tu­ry. Even those who are sat­is­fied with their jobs and enjoy the work are encour­aged to con­tin­ue gain­ing skills else­where for fear they’ll lose their edge, or miss out on oppor­tu­ni­ties else­where. The decline in long-term com­mit­ments to employ­ers pos­es chal­lenges for union cam­paigns, whose core philoso­phies rely on work­ers dig­ging into their own self inter­est and orga­niz­ing around the kind of work­place they desire. If employ­ees already see them­selves leav­ing with­in two to five years at any giv­en com­pa­ny, putting in the work it takes to build a union may not add up.

We are taught to see our­selves as mobile employ­ees who are poised to climb the lad­der in our work­place. Receiv­ing a pro­mo­tion to a man­age­ment posi­tion is aspi­ra­tional. And once in that man­age­ment or super­vi­so­ry posi­tion, employ­ees are no longer eli­gi­ble for a union. Even if a major­i­ty of work­ers sup­port unions and would like to see one in their own work­place, the dis­tance between see­ing them­selves as ‘work­ers’ who would be part of that, and their own endeav­ors to pro­mote out of the union-eli­gi­ble des­ig­na­tion, can be great.”

— Grace Reck­ers, north­east lead orga­niz­er, Office and Pro­fes­sion­al Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union

Polar­iza­tion

“Over 20 years of gen­er­a­tional change, [the old demo­graph­ics of affin­i­ty for unions] has fad­ed a lot, and atti­tudes to union­iza­tion break down much more clear­ly along con­ven­tion­al right to left lines. Younger peo­ple and non­white peo­ple and lib­er­als or Democ­rats—espe­cial­ly African Amer­i­cans—are the main sup­port­ers, and white, work­ing-class peo­ple—espe­cial­ly old­er ones—have as a group slot­ted unions in with the rest of right-left issues. The same polit­i­cal polar­iza­tion that exists in most oth­er issues, basically.

Addi­tion­al dynam­ics have been: The youngest gen­er­a­tion in the work­force now is the most left-wing and inter­est­ed in redis­tri­b­u­tion, but also has the least famil­iar­i­ty with any of the con­cepts of unions and is not nec­es­sar­i­ly strong like­ly union supporters.

There is an increas­ing­ly region­al back­ground to whether unions are a thing you see oper­ate. Blue states and red states have become much more polar­ized on labor stuff than the sim­ple Right to Work map indi­cates. Blue states like New Eng­land, the West Coast and the North­east have become much more proac­tive in work­ing with unions to union­ize more peo­ple and get them some stuff, and red or pur­ple states (espe­cial­ly the whole Mid­west) have got­ten much more hos­tile to that stuff.

The edu­ca­tion­al polar­iza­tion we see on right to left stuff has become a huge fac­tor in whether young, work­ing-class peo­ple want to union­ize. Indus­tries pop­u­lat­ed with poor, younger adults who are gen­er­al­ly overe­d­u­cat­ed like (ahem) dig­i­tal media or high­er edu­ca­tion, are super ripe slam dunks where you can trans­form an indus­try with hot-shop orga­niz­ing. Ones with most­ly poor­er, younger adults who are not edu­cat­ed, and are not most­ly based in urban areas, like retail and sup­ply chain logis­tics, have had cold work­ers that are not respon­sive enough to union dri­ves to make win­ning a pos­si­bil­i­ty. (Part of the equa­tion hold­ing them back, of course, is how that gen­er­a­tion of big-box retail and its sup­ply chain were built from scratch in such a way that unions could be kept out com­plete­ly and any rare com­po­nent that got infect­ed could be eas­i­ly shut down and dis­solved. But there’s an atti­tu­di­nal dif­fer­ence in the con­stituen­cies as well.)

A bright spot excep­tion to this has been fast food where, despite the work­force being young and not edu­cat­ed and rarely stay­ing long at par­tic­u­lar jobs, peo­ple just hate their job and boss so much they are eager to unionize. 

What I find myself want­i­ng to impress upon fel­low labor-fan left­ies is this: It is tru­ly not just the unfair play­ing field, or the pow­er of the boss’s fight to scare peo­ple, that pre­vents a major­i­ty of a work­place from vot­ing to union­ize. In many many work­places, skep­ti­cism and dis­in­ter­est in doing a col­lec­tive fight thing is wide­spread, organ­ic and real among the major­i­ty in the mid­dle. Not among social sci­ence adjuncts, or jour­nal­ists, or in large urban ser­vice job clus­ters where almost all the work­ers are poor and non­white. In those types of work­places, I think any com­pe­tent orga­niz­ing pro­gram should be able to grow the union. But in places that reflect the edu­ca­tion­al or polit­i­cal diver­si­ty of the coun­try as a whole, I think you’re work­ing with few­er total sup­port­ers and that’s why you wind up chas­ing stuff like card check neutrality.”

— Jim Straub, vet­er­an union organizer

The orga­niz­ing model

“The shop-by-shop mod­el of union­iz­ing in the Unit­ed States makes it real­ly hard to scale orga­niz­ing. It sad­dles both union orga­niz­ers and employ­ees who want a union with a ton of strate­gic, legal and bureau­crat­ic work just to orga­nize a work­place of even five or 10 peo­ple. It’s as if any work­er who want­ed health­care had to form their own insur­ance com­pa­ny before sign­ing up. We need to build a new mod­el—like sec­toral or mul­ti-employ­er bar­gain­ing—so we can orga­nize entire indus­tries together.

Often those most in need of unions have the least resources and band­width to form them. Staff work­ing long hours in dan­ger­ous or over­whelm­ing jobs just don’t have the band­width to sit on a bunch of evening Zoom calls to learn the ins and outs of deter­min­ing an appro­pri­ate bar­gain­ing unit under the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act (NLRA). The only way to bridge this gap would be if unions had the resources to offer more orga­niz­ing sup­port to work­places that need it.

A lot of work­ers ‘sup­port unions’ but think they are for oth­er work­ers. ‘White col­lar’ work­ers in par­tic­u­lar think unions are for work­ers in oth­er eras, in oth­er indus­tries, at oth­er work­places. Help­ing peo­ple under­stand that if they sell their labor then they are a part of the work­ing class and deserve a union is often the first hur­dle. More broad­ly, our coun­try doesn’t teach or cel­e­brate col­lec­tive action as some­thing peo­ple should aspire to par­tic­i­pate in. In fact, many peo­ple inter­nal­ize the idea that orga­niz­ing is incon­sis­tent with the idea of becom­ing a leader in their field.”

— Daniel Ess­row, orga­niz­er, Non­prof­it Pro­fes­sion­al Employ­ees Union

No pop­u­lar labor history

“I find that there is a huge gap between peo­ple’s gen­er­al sup­port for unions and hav­ing any idea of how they real­ly work, what it takes to start one, etc. I think there are two pri­ma­ry and relat­ed rea­sons for this. One is that labor process­es are com­plex and arcane to most peo­ple. Elec­tions, griev­ances, Wein­garten rights, just cause, right to work—all of these terms are either total­ly for­eign to or com­plete­ly mis­un­der­stood by most non-union work­ers. I’m cur­rent­ly work­ing on a cam­paign in a Right to Work state, and many of the work­ers there thought Right to Work means unions are for­bid­den! Oth­ers tend to think that unions are some­thing for just fac­to­ry work­ers and the like, even though the ser­vice indus­try is [a rapid­ly grow­ing union­ized sec­tor]. Relat­ed­ly, I think many who sup­port­ed unions in that poll might have answered dif­fer­ent­ly if asked, ‘Would form­ing a union improve work­ing con­di­tions at your job?’ I see a lot of folks who gen­er­al­ly sup­port unions, but don’t see their field or com­pa­ny as being a place to organize. 

The oth­er is that labor his­to­ry and process­es aren’t part of our basic edu­ca­tion, nor are they ever explained or even real­ly ref­er­enced in the media. I think it’s a big issue that our his­to­ry lessons don’t gen­er­al­ly address the role of labor in increas­ing liv­ing stan­dards for work­ers glob­al­ly, nor any of the big laws (NLRA, Taft-Hart­ley) and what they have done. Why don’t we learn about the NLRA in high school when we study the New Deal or McCarthy­ism? How come we don’t learn about the Con­gress of Indus­tri­al Orga­ni­za­tions and the Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World, and the gains made by the work­ing class in that era?”

— Steven More­lock, orga­niz­er, Nation­al Nurs­es United

Hold my jacket…

“There’s always going to be a gulf between sup­port­ing some­thing in the abstract and being will­ing to risk your ass to achieve it in a real way. This is a dynam­ic that plays out on the ground dur­ing orga­niz­ing con­stant­ly, as you have plen­ty of peo­ple who are will­ing to sup­port the union, but don’t want to actu­al­ly be pub­lic about it. The anal­o­gy I use is some­one offer­ing to hold your jack­et before you get into a fight. Get­ting work­ers to over­come that fear is a key part of orga­niz­ing, and it maps out to the broad­er trend. Insti­tu­tion­al­ly, the union move­ment has tried to nar­row this divide through pass­ing laws like the Employ­ee Free Choice Act or the PRO Act that reduce the risk of orga­niz­ing a union. I don’t think that approach is a viable or real­is­tic option: I severe­ly doubt Con­gress will pass a ver­sion of the PRO Act if by some mir­a­cle Biden wins and the Democ­rats have undi­vid­ed con­trol of the Congress.”

— Bryan Con­lon, union organizer

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 7, 2020. 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. You can reach him at [email protected]


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Amazon Expects Its Employees to Operate Like Fast-Moving Machines. This Amazon Picker Is Fighting Back.

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For Sean Carlisle (a pseu­do­nym) a 32-year-old grad­u­ate stu­dent and native of California’s Inland Empire, the last three years at his local Ama­zon ful­fill­ment cen­ter have been an edu­ca­tion. As a stu­dent of urban plan­ning, he stud­ies how built envi­ron­ments shape a community’s behav­ior. As a pick­er, he packs items at a break­neck pace amid stacks of inven­to­ry and snaking con­vey­or belts while del­i­cate­ly prac­tic­ing strate­gies to raise his cowork­ers’ polit­i­cal consciousness. 

Amazon’s logis­ti­cal infra­struc­ture is designed to make humans per­form with machine-like effi­cien­cy, but Sean is try­ing to make the work­place a bit more human, advo­cat­ing for stronger work­er pro­tec­tions and cor­po­rate account­abil­i­ty in his community.

When he first start­ed at Ama­zon, Sean enjoyed what he calls a “hon­ey­moon phase.” He liked that work­ers were pro­mot­ed read­i­ly to man­age­r­i­al posi­tions, espe­cial­ly peo­ple with a col­lege edu­ca­tion like him­self. “They ha[d] all these things that help their employ­ees advance. They have these school pro­grams,” he says, refer­ring to Ama­zon’s pro­fes­sion­al edu­ca­tion schemes. But about eight months in, he real­ized “there was some stuff going on here that real­ly could be improved. [I thought] ‘I don’t know if I like this com­pa­ny as much as I did before.’” 

“The cat­a­lyst was see­ing [so many] peo­ple get hurt,” he con­tin­ues. He says work­ers would tell him, “ ‘I got hurt, and they gave me phys­i­cal ther­a­py, and I got even more hurt because they didn’t real­ly assess me right and now I have this prob­lem.’ ” It was around the hol­i­day sea­son dur­ing his sec­ond year “when things hit a sig­nif­i­cant decline in terms of safe­ty, and there was more focus on pro­duc­tiv­i­ty.” He says that some­times work­ers would acci­den­tal­ly strike the shelves as they nav­i­gat­ed fork­lifts through the center’s aisles, caus­ing the vehi­cles to tip over. 

“The safe­ty prob­lems con­tin­ued to get worse, and my cowork­ers and I would say, ‘Hey, [the man­age­ment has] got to do some­thing about this,’” he recalls.

Sean believes the speed with which work­ers must process orders—some­times hun­dreds of items per hour—leads them to cut cor­ners or ignore prob­lems with their equip­ment. He says that one byprod­uct of the relent­less pres­sure to pack more items faster is a high turnover among those who “couldn’t keep up.” Burn­ing through new hires cre­ates a con­stant churn in the work­force, as tem­po­rary work­ers are cycled in and out dur­ing peak seasons.

Amazon’s offi­cial data on work­place injuries sug­gest that many of its ful­fill­ment cen­ters have rates that far exceed the aver­age ware­house. Yet the com­pa­ny claims these sta­tis­tics are pri­mar­i­ly a tes­ta­ment to its metic­u­lous report­ing rather than a reflec­tion of its shod­dy safe­ty stan­dards. “We ensure we are sup­port­ing the peo­ple who work at our sites by hav­ing first aid trained and cer­ti­fied pro­fes­sion­als onsite 24/7, and we pro­vide indus­try lead­ing health ben­e­fits on day one,” a spokesper­son said in an email.

Ama­zon also claims to have spent “over $1 bil­lion [on] new invest­ments in oper­a­tions safe­ty mea­sures” that include pro­tec­tive tech­nol­o­gy, san­i­ti­za­tion pro­ce­dures, and train­ing and edu­ca­tion pro­grams for work­ers. The com­pa­ny main­tains that it is “con­tin­u­ous­ly learn­ing and improv­ing our pro­grams to pre­vent future inci­dents. ”Sean con­tends that some man­agers have sim­ply failed to take work­place haz­ards seri­ous­ly. He recalled his sur­prise when a man­ag­er told him, “‘if peo­ple didn’t feel safe, they wouldn’t go to work.’” 

“That’s not how that works, dude,” he mus­es. “Peo­ple go to work because they need a pay­check, not because they feel safe.”

While work­ing as a pick­er, Sean’s aca­d­e­m­ic work led him to a cam­paign against the planned con­struc­tion of a huge car­go facil­i­ty for San Bernardi­no Inter­na­tion­al Air­port. Var­i­ous com­mu­ni­ty groups, includ­ing Team­sters local 1932 and envi­ron­men­tal activists, formed the San Bernardi­no Air­port Com­mu­ni­ties Coali­tion to oppose the project, which they warn will deep­en the eco­nom­ic and envi­ron­men­tal exploita­tion of the region by cor­po­ra­tions like Ama­zon—the area’s largest pri­vate employ­er. Despite a legal chal­lenge brought by the coali­tion’s lead­ing groups ear­li­er this year, the facility’s con­struc­tion is mov­ing for­ward, and Sean has now shift­ed his focus to help­ing pro­tect his cowork­ers from the pandemic.

One prac­ti­cal ben­e­fit that Sean and the oth­er orga­niz­ers aim to secure for work­ers in the short term is paid leave so that those affect­ed by the pan­dem­ic can stay home with­out sac­ri­fic­ing wages. The com­pa­ny ini­tial­ly pro­vid­ed unlim­it­ed unpaid leave for work­ers who self-iso­lat­ed due to COVID-19-relat­ed health con­cerns but end­ed the pol­i­cy in May. Now Sean is encour­ag­ing cowork­ers to seek ben­e­fits under a new state law for food-indus­try work­ers that pro­vides up to two weeks paid leave for work­ers who have been advised by a med­ical pro­fes­sion­al to self-iso­late or ordered not to work.

Ama­zon ini­tial­ly argued that it was exempt from the man­date. But as Vice report­ed in July, com­mu­ni­ty groups and labor activists, along with the state labor commissioner’s office, pres­sured the com­pa­ny to com­ply on the grounds that its ware­hous­es serve as major retail food dis­trib­u­tors. In June, approx­i­mate­ly two months after the order was enact­ed, Ama­zon final­ly agreed to fol­low the law.

With a poster detail­ing the state’s new paid-leave pol­i­cy now on dis­play in the break­room, Sean says he is advis­ing his cowork­ers to take advan­tage of what he calls a legal “loop­hole” that allows Ama­zon employ­ees to take paid time off out­side of the com­pa­ny’s more restric­tive allot­ment. The work­ers who qual­i­fy have man­aged to use the law “just to take a break, or reeval­u­ate their situation.”

Sean says that despite his advo­ca­cy on behalf of Ama­zon employ­ees, he has avoid­ed the kind of retal­i­a­tion from man­age­ment that oth­er work­er-activists have reported.

At the same time, he acknowl­edges, “I’m also not try­ing to [pro­voke] them direct­ly.” When it comes to engag­ing with his col­leagues on work­place jus­tice issues, he says, “Usu­al­ly, I’ll have a con­ver­sa­tion where it just kind of unfolds like, ‘Man, some­one in my fam­i­ly just recent­ly passed, and I can’t take time off work.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, you should check out the law that was just recent­ly passed and I think you can get time off for it.”

Sean is build­ing a safer work­place with­in Amazon’s e-commerce leviathan one con­ver­sa­tion at a time. The son of an iron­work­er and grand­son of a team­ster, his sense of mis­sion is informed by the fam­i­ly sto­ries he heard as a child about strikes and pick­et lines.

Ama­zon, which has man­aged to keep unions at bay for years, bears lit­tle resem­blance to the union shops of past gen­er­a­tions. But today’s Ama­zon ware­house work­ers and dri­vers are just as crit­i­cal to California’s econ­o­my as the long­shore­men, truck dri­vers and iron work­ers were a cen­tu­ry ago. “I see Ama­zon as some­thing that’s prob­a­bly here to stay and like­ly going to shape our future and our under­stand­ing of Amer­i­can cap­i­tal­ism and con­sump­tion,” he says.

Though yes­ter­day’s mil­i­tant shop-floor strug­gles have long fad­ed from Cal­i­for­ni­a’s indus­tri­al land­scape, the chal­lenges fac­ing the labor move­ment remain basi­cal­ly the same. When work­ers orga­nize, Sean says, they can “hold the com­pa­ny account­able and shape it to be the com­pa­ny it is. With­out the work­ers, the com­pa­ny would not be what it is.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the “Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

About the Author: Molly Crabapple is an artist and writer in New York, and is the author of, most recent­ly, Draw­ing Blood and Broth­ers of the Gun, (with Mar­wan Hisham). Her art is in the per­ma­nent col­lec­tions of the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art. Her ani­mat­ed short, A Mes­sage from the Future with Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, has been nom­i­nat­ed for a 2020 Emmy for Out­stand­ing News Analy­sis: Edi­to­r­i­al and Opinion.


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Study: Repeal Of Wisconsin’s Prevailing Wage Law Led To Drop In Wages For Construction Workers

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A new study from the Midwest Economic Policy Institute (MEPI) released exclusively to Wisconsin Public Radio finds the repeal of Wisconsin’s prevailing wage laws has resulted in lower wages for construction workers in Wisconsin, despite having no statistically significant impact on the cost of public construction projects.

Prevailing wage laws set minimum pay requirements for wages paid to workers on public construction projects, like school buildings or highway construction. 

Former Gov. Scott Walker along with GOP lawmakers in the state Legislature repealed Wisconsin’s prevailing wage law for local construction projects in 2015. Two years later, the GOP repealed Wisconsin’s prevailing wage law for state construction projects. 

Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the study shows that before the laws were repealed, the average annual income for full-time construction and extraction workers was close to $49,000. After the laws were repealed, average annual income was a little over $46,000, a drop of more than 5 percent. When the study removed factors such as education and age, the average annual income for workers was 6 percent less than income pre-repeal.

“Prevailing wage provided ladders of access into the middle class for Wisconsin construction workers,” Frank Manzo IV, policy director for the MEPI, said, adding that repealing it has had negative consequences for those same workers. 

Two of Wisconsin’s neighboring states with prevailing wage laws in place showed a smaller drop in annual average income between 2015 and 2018. In Illinois and Minnesota, annual incomes dropped by under 2 percent combined.

The study further found that at the same time, construction industry CEOs saw an increase in pay after the repeal of the prevailing wage, worsening economic inequality, according to the authors. Researchers estimate construction industry CEOs in Wisconsin saw slightly more than a 54 percent increase in inflation-adjusted total income after the laws were repealed.

The data also showed that, following repeal, there was a decrease in the likelihood that skilled construction workers had employer-sponsored health insurance. 

“Repeal has lowered wages and reduced health coverage for skilled construction workers, and resulted in less work for local contractors,” Manzo said. “At the same time, repeal has failed to deliver cost-savings on public projects and to increase bid competition — both of which were promised by politicians.”

Kevin Duncan, an economics professor at Colorado State University-Pueblo who was part of the study’s research team, said when construction workers have a lower income and less health insurance coverage, it has broader effects on local economies.

“When income goes down for construction workers they have less to spend in local retail and service industries,” Duncan said. “And then also with a decrease in health insurance … benefits, that results in greater reliance on public assistance. When construction workers are paid less they have to rely more on public assistance — (food stamps), that sort of thing — so that tends to increase the taxpayer burden.”

Fewer Wisconsin Contractors, No Effect On Construction Costs

At the time of the repeal on state construction projects, many Republicans criticized the law, saying itinflated the costs on public projects, and arguing that repealing the laws would save taxpayers money. 

But researchers with MEPI said the data shows repealing prevailing wage had no statistically significant effect on the costs for public construction projects.  

Researchers also found that the Wisconsin Department of Transportation saw fewer bids from Wisconsin-based contractors after the laws were repealed compared to before. Between January 2015 and September 2017, more than 2,600 bids for DOT projects came from Wisconsin contractors. But between October 2017 and December 2019, following the repeal of the laws, that number dropped to a little over 1,700 bids.

The drop meant the share of bids from out-of-state contractors increased from 9 percent to 13 percent in the same timeframe.  

“What that means is … Wisconsin tax dollars that previously went to Wisconsin contractors and construction workers, (are) now being used to pay workers from out of state,” said Duncan. “When that happens, Wisconsin tax money leaks out of Wisconsin and it stimulates economies in neighboring states instead of supporting the local economy.”

The MEPI study also found there was no statistically significant impact on the racial or ethnic diversity of construction workers before and after repeal. The study did find a drop in the share of women working in construction in Wisconsin after the repeal of prevailing wage, despite that number being extremely low prior to the repeal. 

This blog originally appeared at Wisconsin Public Radio on October 2, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rachel Vasquez is a producer at Wisconsin Public Radio.


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Employers Are Spying on Remote Workers in Their Homes

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The future of work is here, ush­ered in by a glob­al pan­dem­ic. But is it turn­ing employ­ment into a Work­ers’ Par­adise of work­ing at home? Or more of a Big Broth­er panopticon?

Dis­turb­ing increas­es in use of dig­i­tal sur­veil­lance tech­nolo­gies by employ­ers to mon­i­tor their remote work­ers is rais­ing alarm bells. With the num­ber of remote work­ers surg­ing as a result of the pan­dem­ic—42% of U.S. work­ers are now doing their jobs from their kitchens, liv­ing rooms and home offices—a num­ber of employ­ers have begun requir­ing their work­ers to down­load spy­ing soft­ware to their lap­tops and smart­phones. The goal is for busi­ness­es to mon­i­tor what their remote employ­ees do all day, and to track job per­for­mance and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and reduce so-called “cyber-slack­ing.”

Busi­ness soft­ware prod­ucts from Hub­staff, which tracks a worker’s mouse move­ments, key­board strokes, web­pages vis­it­ed, email, file trans­fers and appli­ca­tions used, are surg­ing in sales. So are sales for TSheets, which work­ers down­load to their smart­phones so that employ­ers can track their loca­tion. Anoth­er prod­uct, called Time Doc­tor, down­loads videos of employ­ees’ screens and uses a com­put­er’s web­cam, which can take a pic­ture of the employ­ee every 10 min­utes. As one work­er who was sub­ject­ed to Time Doc­tor told NPR, “If you’re idle for a few min­utes, if you go to the bath­room or to the kitchen, a pop-up comes up and says, ‘You have 60 sec­onds to start work­ing again or we’re going to pause your time.’” 

Anoth­er sys­tem, Inter­Guard, can be secret­ly installed on work­ers’ com­put­ers. As the Wash­ing­ton Post notes, it “cre­ates a minute-by-minute time­line of every app and web­site they view, cat­e­go­riz­ing each as ‘pro­duc­tive’ or ‘unpro­duc­tive’ and rank­ing work­ers by their ‘pro­duc­tiv­i­ty score.’” Oth­er employ­ers are using a low­er tech approach, requir­ing work­ers to stay on a tele­con­fer­ence like Zoom all day so they can be con­tin­u­al­ly watched.

Since the Covid-19 out­break, one sur­veil­lance com­pa­ny, Aware­ness Tech­nolo­gies, Inc., says it has seen its sales triple. Exec­u­tives at Hub­staff and Tera­mind also say demand for their com­pa­nies’ mon­i­tor­ing prod­ucts have tripled. One web­site show­ing “Employ­ee Mon­i­tor­ing Soft­ware in the USA” lists near­ly 70 com­pa­nies with prod­ucts for sale.

Out­dat­ed laws keep it legal

Online sur­veil­lance of employ­ees may seem inva­sive and creepy, but it is a legal prac­tice in the Unit­ed States. Indi­vid­ual state laws vary over whether com­pa­nies must inform work­ers that they’re using track­ing soft­ware, but in real­i­ty “when you’re on your office com­put­er, you have no pri­va­cy at all,” Lewis Malt­by, pres­i­dent of the Nation­al Workrights Insti­tute, told CNBC. “Any­thing and every­thing you do is prob­a­bly mon­i­tored by your boss.”

Cur­rent laws are vast­ly out­dat­ed, as they are based on the Elec­tron­ic Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Pri­va­cy Act of 1986, when the pri­ma­ry form of elec­tron­ic com­mu­ni­ca­tion was the tele­phone. That was a dis­tant time when desk­top com­put­ers were first becom­ing pop­u­lar, and smart phones were not yet a glint in Steve Jobs’ eye.

And now, in response to the coro­n­avirus out­break, com­pa­nies such as Price­wa­ter­house­C­oop­ers (PwC) and Sales­force have devel­oped intru­sive appli­ca­tions that enable com­pa­nies to con­tin­u­ous­ly track the health sta­tus of their employ­ees. Often they include a sys­tem for track­ing con­tacts between employ­ees with­in an office, and a mobile app for col­lect­ing infor­ma­tion about their health sta­tus. A num­ber of large U.S. employ­ers, includ­ing Ama­zonWal­mart, Home Depot and Star­bucks, are tak­ing the tem­per­a­tures of their employ­ees before they are allowed to work. Cer­tain­ly, employ­ers have a legit­i­mate need to col­lect the nec­es­sary data to safe­guard their work­places, espe­cial­ly in response to a pan­dem­ic. But what is the appro­pri­ate lev­el of “health intru­sion”? How vol­un­tary is the par­tic­i­pa­tion of work­ers, and who gets to decide? 

The real­i­ty of this con­stant Big Broth­er dig­i­tal spy­ing in people’s homes is that dozens of remote work­ers are start­ing to com­plain that they feel burned out by this pres­sure. A recent Fish­bowl sur­vey of major com­pa­nies’ employ­ees found that three-quar­ters of those polled were opposed to using an app or device that allows their com­pa­ny to trace their con­tacts with col­leagues. Yet many fear they will be brand­ed as trou­ble­mak­ers or lose their jobs if they speak out. And since remote work­ers hard­ly see each oth­er—and increas­ing­ly may not even know many of their cowork­ers—these fac­tors will make labor orga­niz­ing and col­lec­tive work­er empow­er­ment increas­ing­ly challenging.

U.S. labor unions have been slow to advo­cate for updat­ing these out­dat­ed laws. One union, the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio, and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca, has been work­ing to blunt the worst of the abus­es. Labor-friend­ly media have been miss­ing this sto­ry as well. Not only should unions advo­cate to update the laws and lim­it dig­i­tal spy­ing, but why not also demand that home-based work­ers be com­pen­sat­ed by employ­ers for use of their house, util­i­ties and the inter­net? And that the employ­er remains respon­si­ble to pro­vide equip­ment and a safe work­place, even in the home?

Remote work­force growth—the new normal?

As the num­ber of remote work­ers ris­es, con­cerns are grow­ing among labor advo­cates that this is quick­ly becom­ing the “new nor­mal.” One sur­vey found that 74% of com­pa­nies intend to keep some pro­por­tion of their work­force on a per­ma­nent remote sta­tus, with near­ly a quar­ter of respon­dents say­ing they will move at least 20% of their on-site employ­ees to per­ma­nent remote sta­tus. Google, whose par­ent com­pa­ny is Alpha­bet, recent­ly announced it will keep its 200,000 full-time and con­tract employ­ees home until at least July 2021, and Mark Zucker­berg pre­dicts half of Face­book employ­ees will work from home over the next decade. HUB Inter­na­tion­al, a glob­al insur­ance bro­ker­age, has shift­ed 90% of its 12,000-plus employ­ees to remote sta­tus. Teleper­for­mance, the world’s largest call-cen­ter com­pa­ny, esti­mates that near­ly 155,000 of its employ­ees—almost half its glob­al work­force—will not return to a phys­i­cal work­site. A sur­vey of firms bythe Sur­vey of Busi­ness Uncer­tain­ty found that the share of work­ing days spent at home is expect­ed to increase four­fold from a pre-Covid-19 lev­el of 5 per­cent to 20%. Post-pan­dem­ic, many employ­ees will work from home one to three days a week, and come into the office the rest of the time.

But not all at-home work­ers are cre­at­ed equal. Stan­ford econ­o­mist Nicholas Bloom says “This is gen­er­at­ing a time bomb for inequal­i­ty.” More edu­cat­ed, high­er-earn­ing employ­ees are far more like­ly to work from home, con­tin­u­ing to get paid and advance their careers. But many oth­ers are unable to work from home, often because they lack suit­able space or fast, afford­able inter­net con­nec­tions, and they are being left behind. “They face bleak prospects if their skills and work expe­ri­ence erode dur­ing an extend­ed shut­down and beyond,” says Bloom.

The future of work has become more uncer­tain than ever. In this “brave new world,” labor unions and advo­cates must ensure that the pan­dem­ic is not mis­used by busi­ness­es as an excuse to wors­en con­di­tions for employ­ees who work out of the office. It is easy to imag­ine how the lines between ‘remote’ work and ‘plat­form’ work could blur, lead­ing to more ‘Uber­iza­tion’ as work devolves into ‘inde­pen­dent’ con­tracts, bogus self-employ­ment and ‘pay-by-project’ arrange­ments that can be eas­i­ly out­sourced to remote (and low­er cost) destinations.

Work­er advo­cates must push for a strong and mod­ern legal data pro­tec­tion frame­work. And that should include an effec­tive enforce­ment sys­tem against pri­va­cy abuse that cre­ates a dis­in­cen­tive against ille­gal spy­ing behav­ior. Remote work should not become a down­ward slide toward a Big Broth­er panop­ti­con that pen­e­trates into soci­ety ever more deeply, includ­ing into our homes.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Steven Hill is the author of Raw Deal: How the “Uber Econ­o­my” and Run­away Cap­i­tal­ism Are Screw­ing Amer­i­can Work­ers and The Start­up Illu­sion: How the Inter­net Econ­o­my Threat­ens Our Wel­fare.


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