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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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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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Is the Conservative Case for Organized Labor an Oxymoron?

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Oren Cass—con­ser­v­a­tive pol­i­cy wonk, 2012 Mitt Rom­ney advi­sor and exec­u­tive direc­tor of the new think tank Amer­i­can Com­pass (which does not dis­close its donors)—is a sur­pris­ing can­di­date for labor law reformer. That is exact­ly why his recent­ly launched project to build and define a “Con­ser­v­a­tive Future for the Amer­i­can Labor Move­ment” is draw­ing so much attention. 

In a found­ing state­ment titled “Con­ser­v­a­tives Should Ensure Work­ers a Seat at the Table,” the group argues that orga­nized labor can improve eco­nom­ic pros­per­i­ty and strength­en com­mu­ni­ties, all while main­tain­ing lim­it­ed gov­ern­ment. The state­ment is signed by Cass, Mar­co Rubio, Jeff Ses­sions and oth­er fig­ures on the right. As you might imag­ine, the dev­il of this labor reform project is in the details. 

We spoke to Cass about sec­toral bar­gain­ing, labor mil­i­tan­cy, and the polit­i­cal real­i­ties of con­vinc­ing Repub­li­cans that unions deserve to exist. 

What made you decide that now was the time to launch this effort to save orga­nized labor? 

Oren Cass: It fits gen­er­al­ly with the broad­er focus of Amer­i­can Com­pass, which is to ask, “What has gone wrong in our econ­o­my which is lead­ing to poor out­comes for many peo­ple? And what would a gen­uine­ly con­ser­v­a­tive response look like?” My view is, what we call con­ser­v­a­tive eco­nom­ic pol­i­cy in Amer­i­ca is not con­ser­v­a­tive in any mean­ing­ful sense of the word, it’s lib­er­tar­i­an. It’s a func­tion of the Rea­gan coali­tion in which eco­nom­ic lib­er­tar­i­ans did the eco­nom­ic pol­i­cy, and social con­ser­v­a­tives did the social pol­i­cy. But if you think about the mar­ket fun­da­men­tal­ism that dom­i­nates right of cen­ter think­ing, it’s in many ways the antithe­sis of con­ser­vatism. It puts fair­ly blind faith in a mar­ket, with­out any ref­er­ence to the rules around the mar­ket, insti­tu­tions sup­port­ing the mar­ket, with­out con­cern for social struc­tures or the social fab­ric. We’ve real­ly been miss­ing a gen­uine­ly con­ser­v­a­tive per­spec­tive that asks, “How do we ensure that the mar­ket is one that is actu­al­ly deliv­er­ing the out­comes that we want for healthy fam­i­lies, and com­mu­ni­ties, and the strength and sol­i­dar­i­ty of the nation?” 

One of the places that strikes me as a huge oppor­tu­ni­ty that has been over­looked, if not out­right den­i­grat­ed, by the lib­er­tar­i­an per­spec­tive is this idea that, look, orga­nized labor is a great thing—that unions as they are oper­at­ing in Amer­i­ca today are dys­func­tion­al in many ways, but the idea that we should want work­ers to be able to act col­lec­tive­ly… is all to the good. That’s exact­ly the for­mu­la for a well func­tion­ing mar­ket economy. 

How do you dis­tin­guish what you call the con­ser­v­a­tive per­spec­tive on this issue from the lib­er­al (non-social­ist) perspective? 

Cass: If we talk about tra­di­tion­al lib­er­als, I think in many ways there’s a lot of shared ground with respect to the out­comes we want. The major point of depar­ture is on two ques­tions: One, how good are mar­kets at doing things rel­a­tive to how good is gov­ern­ment at doing them? My view at least is that mar­kets are quite effec­tive and pow­er­ful, and the role that we want for gov­ern­ment is in fig­ur­ing out what kind of con­di­tions we need to cre­ate to chan­nel that pow­er in the right direc­tion. Where­as the left of cen­ter view, I think, tends to be more, if we’re not hap­py with what a market’s doing, we will just tell it some­thing else. Sec­ond­ly and relat­ed­ly, I think there is a very dif­fer­ent view of the role that redis­tri­b­u­tion can play. I think the lib­er­al view tends to be, we can pro­vide to who­ev­er has been left behind, where­as the con­ser­v­a­tive view is that that’s actu­al­ly not a good answer—that a gov­ern­ment check is not a sub­sti­tute for a paycheck. 

You were a Mitt Rom­ney advi­sor in 2012. Have your views on these issues changed a lot since then? This doesn’t sound like the Rom­ney labor plat­form.

Cass: I don’t think my views have nec­es­sar­i­ly changed very much. If we were to talk about spe­cif­ic ques­tions like sec­toral bar­gain­ing, [that] is some­thing I’ve become much more inter­est­ed in over the past year or two, after writ­ing in my book that that was exact­ly the wrong way to do labor reform … But in terms of the big­ger pic­ture ques­tion of what should the goals of eco­nom­ic pol­i­cy be and what should the levers be, I would say my instincts have always been in this direc­tion, and as I’ve had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to do more research and work on it I’ve been able to flesh out more of the ratio­nale for that, and what it might mean to give it shape in the real world.

You talk in your state­ment about sub­sti­tut­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing for employ­ment reg­u­la­tions, rather than hav­ing both as we do now. How do you take away those work­place reg­u­la­tions with­out expos­ing work­ing peo­ple to per­ilous dan­ger in the process? 

Cass: I don’t think you take them away, I think you shift them from a base­line to a default. The way the sys­tem we have today works is that every­thing estab­lished in employ­ment law is a non-nego­tiable start­ing point, and if you union­ize or are oth­er­wise bar­gain­ing with employ­ers, the entire pur­pose of the exer­cise is to think of new things to add on top of that. But of course, the whole ratio­nale for need­ing such a robust régime of employ­ment reg­u­la­tion is that indi­vid­ual work­ers with­out col­lec­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tion don’t have the abil­i­ty to safe­guard their inter­ests very effec­tive­ly. So at the point where you do have work­ers orga­nized and bar­gain­ing col­lec­tive­ly, it seems to me they can just say, we’re adopt­ing as much of the employ­ment reg­u­la­tion as we want. They don’t have to agree to any­thing. When you think about the scope for bar­gain­ing an agree­ment that you could con­sid­er—hav­ing most, not all, of exist­ing reg­u­la­tion on the table I think is a real­ly attrac­tive arrange­ment. I think it’s attrac­tive for work­ers, because there’s no short­age of reg­u­la­tion that they don’t val­ue that highly …

And like­wise from the employ­er per­spec­tive, this changes the prospect of col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing from “the worst thing imag­in­able” to some­thing that could actu­al­ly have some upside. 

It seems to me that that arrange­ment would by neces­si­ty require work­ers to have a bal­ance of pow­er with employ­ers they’re bar­gain­ing with. Do you sup­port a robust right to strike as part of that? 

Cass: I do think there should be a right to strike, but I think if you shift to a sec­toral bar­gain­ing con­cept then that becomes a very dif­fer­ent ques­tion. Because this adver­sar­i­al bar­gain­ing isn’t going to be hap­pen­ing between the work­ers and employ­ers at a sin­gle firm, it’s going to be hap­pen­ing at the sec­toral lev­el. Do you get sec­tor-wide strikes in sec­toral bar­gain­ing? Yes, it does hap­pen, but I think you tend to see a lot less labor strife in that context. 

What is the work­ers’ lever­age, even in sec­toral bar­gain­ing, besides the right to with­hold their labor? Par­tic­u­lar­ly if you are sug­gest­ing that employ­ment reg­u­la­tions should be on the table.

Cass: That is one form of lever­age they have, but there are a bunch [of oth­ers] that I think are more close­ly con­nect­ed to the role that you have gov­ern­ment play­ing in a sec­toral bar­gain­ing sys­tem. If the fall­back if no agree­ment is reached is not “employ­er does what­ev­er it wants,” it’s essen­tial­ly bar­gain­ing is imposed, that’s obvi­ous­ly one fall­back… Anoth­er thing that tends to play a role is, par­tic­u­lar­ly when you have a sec­toral sys­tem, unions are actu­al­ly doing oth­er things that are con­struc­tive. For exam­ple, unions are typ­i­cal­ly play­ing a much more assertive role in train­ing. There are more facets to that part­ner­ship that are also at risk if no agree­ment is reached. 

I know some labor lead­ers who would say that the fact that a per­son like you is advo­cat­ing for sec­toral bar­gain­ing is proof of the draw­back of sec­toral bar­gain­ing—that it is a way to sap mil­i­tan­cy out of the labor move­ment. What do you say to that? 

Cass: I see that atti­tude as encap­su­lat­ing per­fect­ly how the Left has man­aged to total­ly sab­o­tage the labor move­ment in recent decades, which is to try to use it as a tool of par­ti­san or rad­i­cal left­ist pri­or­i­ties, rather than a tool that’s actu­al­ly going to improve things for work­ers. If you think we’re real­ly on the cusp of suc­cess for a mil­i­tant labor move­ment in this coun­try, then I don’t know where you’ve been, but that’s obvi­ous­ly not the direc­tion where this is head­ed. To the con­trary, the labor move­ment is slow­ly dying out of its own dys­func­tion inter­nal­ly, and its own poor design in the statu­to­ry frame­work it’s oper­at­ing under. Now, my equal frus­tra­tion is with those on the right of cen­ter who say “huz­zah,” and stand aside and shrug or grin as this hap­pens. To come from the right of cen­ter and say, let’s not have this thing die out, let’s find a way to have a labor move­ment that works, and achieves valu­able things for work­ers, is not a plot to defang a mil­i­tan­cy that does not exist and has no prospect. That would be a waste of effort. 

When you talk about the labor move­ment being too par­ti­san—what choice do they have? The plat­form of the Repub­li­can Par­ty is to wipe them off the face of the earth. 

Cass: If you go back and look at the his­to­ry, there’s plen­ty of blame to go around … Dwight Eisen­how­er went to the AFL to cam­paign for their votes in the 50s. Nixon fet­ed labor lead­ers at the White House. The AFL-CIO did not endorse McGov­ern in ’72. Samuel Gom­pers had polit­i­cal non­par­ti­san­ship as a core prin­ci­ple of orga­niz­ing. If you fast for­ward to the ’90s, when Newt Gin­grich was Speak­er, those more pro-labor rep­re­sen­ta­tives in the Repub­li­can Par­ty were ulti­mate­ly aban­doned by the unions, and in turn aban­doned the unions. So it seems to me that it’s sort of a piece of the broad­er sto­ry of polar­iza­tion in our pol­i­tics. I guess if you want­ed to have a strat­e­gy of reclaim­ing a strong and mil­i­tant labor move­ment under the Wag­n­er Act you would be wel­come to try, but I’m not aware of any­one oth­er than those whose job it is to say that’s a good idea who thinks that’s a good or plau­si­ble idea. 

Let me ask you about the polit­i­cal real­i­ty of these issues. I don’t see any space in the Repub­li­can Par­ty of today for what you’re advo­cat­ing. Am I wrong about that? 

Cass: I think you’re wrong. That’s part­ly why we start­ed with this state­ment, which I think showed an inter­est­ing range of rep­re­sen­ta­tives … What I found on the Hill in par­tic­u­lar, with folks in the House and the Sen­ate, is that the over­whelm­ing response was, “This is real­ly inter­est­ing, but not some­thing we’ve ever thought about enough.” There’s not a sin­gle per­son we talked to where the response was, “No, I don’t agree.” 

We’re at the point where there are a lot of peo­ple inter­est­ed in this dis­cus­sion. I can’t promise you we’re going to suc­ceed, but I think that a year from now we will have a much broad­er coali­tion that says, actu­al­ly now I under­stand this, and this is some­thing we should be push­ing for­ward on. 

What do you think the leg­isla­tive first step would be down this path? 

Cass: Prob­a­bly to find some par­tic­u­lar places where it would make sense to try some­thing like this. One would be to pick a top­ic, like min­i­mum wage, where I think all sides would be hap­pi­er than the sta­tus quo by say­ing, min­i­mum wage should real­ly be set through more of a sec­toral­ly bar­gained or wage board type mod­el. On a lot of these things the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment can’t do more than set up a frame­work, but here is a mod­el that states and local­i­ties and who­ev­er else could work from. 

Anoth­er pos­si­bil­i­ty is a par­tic­u­lar sec­tor. There obvi­ous­ly are a num­ber of sec­tors that are exclud­ed from the [Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act], part­ly for dis­crim­i­na­to­ry and part­ly for prac­ti­cal rea­sons. You could start in either the agri­cul­tur­al or domes­tic ser­vice or gig sec­tor and say hey, let’s actu­al­ly imple­ment this here. That’s an approach that could have promise. And a third one is to do it region­al­ly and say, we’re going to offer waivers from the NLRA to some state that wants to come for­ward and try a dif­fer­ent framework. 

What do you think will hap­pen if no agree­ment like this for the future of labor is reached, and cur­rent trends continue? 

Cass: Unfor­tu­nate­ly trends can con­tin­ue for a very long time. Every­thing has break­ing points even­tu­al­ly. I don’t think any­one can very effec­tive­ly pre­dict where any sort of mean­ing­ful break­ing point would occur. So I think the best bet in the absence of reform is that, dur­ing the near to medi­um terms, things just sort of con­tin­ue … to con­cen­trate the gains towards a small num­ber of win­ners, and then you have an awful lot of folks who don’t get to share in those gains, and who strug­gle in a lot of ways. 

This inter­view has been edit­ed for length and clarity. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 30, 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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Let’s set the record straight on unions this Labor Day

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If your stereotype of a union worker is a white guy in a hard hat, let’s take this Labor Day to change that in a big way. Here’s the reality: 46.2% of union workers are women, and 36.1% are people of color. Black workers are the most likely to be represented by a union. More than half of workers represented by unions have an associate degree or more, and 43.1% have a bachelor’s degree. 

A reality you may be somewhat more aware of is that unions benefit their members and other workers covered by union contracts. Which they do—to the tune of an 11.2% wage boost for a worker under a union contract as compared to an equivalent worker in a nonunion workplace. But it’s important to understand that unions help nonunion workers, too. “Research shows that deunionization accounts for a sizable share of the growth in inequality between typical (median) workers and workers at the high end of the wage distribution in recent decades—on the order of 13–20% for women and 33–37% for men,” the Economic Policy Institute reports.

Put together the union wage boost and the diversity of today’s union members and there’s something else: Unions help fight not just overall economic inequality—the gulf between the 1% and the rest of us—but racial and gender disparities.

This, again from the Economic Policy Institute, is staggering: “White workers represented by union are paid ‘just’ 8.7% more than their nonunionized peers who are white, but Black workers represented by union are paid 13.7% more than their nonunionized peers who are Black, and Hispanic workers represented by unions are paid 20.1% more than their nonunionized peers who are Hispanic.”

Union workers are more likely to have paid sick days and health insurance—and unions have fought for laws ensuring that everyone will have access to paid sick days and health insurance.

So this Labor Day, remember: Unions help reduce racial and gender disparities for those covered by union contracts, as well as reducing the distance between typical workers and those at the very top—an effect that goes well beyond union members. They promote benefits like paid sick leave and have been instrumental in state and local campaigns to raise the minimum wage. And their members are definitely not all white guys in hard hats. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on September 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.


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Why Every Job in the Renewable Energy Industry Must Be a Union Job

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We need millions of union jobs that are good for both workers and the climate.

The renew­able ener­gy indus­try in the Unit­ed States is boom­ing. Pri­or to the start of the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic, which has put mil­lions out of work, over 3 mil­lion peo­ple worked in clean ener­gy?—?far more than those who worked in the fos­sil fuel indus­try. And though the decline of fos­sil fuel jobs appears unstop­pable, the unions that rep­re­sent those work­ers are very pro­tec­tive of their mem­bers’ jobs. Sim­i­lar­ly, they’ve also been resis­tant to leg­is­la­tion like the Green New Deal, which would cre­ate more green jobs while also tran­si­tion­ing away from work in extrac­tive indus­tries. Envi­ron­men­tal activists believe that green jobs are the future?—?for both work­ers and our world?—?but union­iza­tion rates in the renew­able ener­gy indus­try are extreme­ly low. In order to get unions on board with green jobs, the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment will have to fight for those jobs to be union. And unions will have to loosen their grip on fos­sil fuels in an effort to embrace renewables.

Fos­sil fuel jobs can pay well (both oil rig and refin­ery work­ers can take home around $100,000 per year), but due to automa­tion and decreased demand, the num­ber of jobs is shrink­ing. And so are the unions that rep­re­sent them. At its peak, the Unit­ed Mine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca boast­ed 800,000 mem­bers, but hun­dreds of thou­sands of work­ers have been laid off in the last few decades. Now UMWA is most­ly a retirees’ orga­ni­za­tion and only orga­nizes a few thou­sand work­ers in the man­u­fac­tur­ing and health care indus­tries, as well as work­ers across the Nava­jo Nation. When a union like UMWA hem­or­rhages mem­bers, many see it as an insu­lar prob­lem that doesn’t con­cern any­body else?—?envi­ron­men­tal­ists may even cel­e­brate the clo­sure of mines and refiner­ies, poten­tial­ly pay­ing lip ser­vice to lost jobs, with­out doing much to cre­ate new ones.

“An injury to one is an injury to all” is not just a slo­gan in the labor move­ment because it sounds good, but because it’s true. When union den­si­ty is low and unions are weak, the jobs that are cre­at­ed are more like­ly to have low pay, lack ben­e­fits, and be unsafe. And because union den­si­ty in this coun­try is already so low (33.6% in the pub­lic sec­tor, 6.2% in the pri­vate), every time an employ­er of union labor out­sources or shuts down, it affects not only those new­ly unem­ployed work­ers, but all work­ers, union and not. When oil refiner­ies and oth­er fos­sil fuel employ­ers close their doors, union mem­bers and oth­er work­ers lose their jobs. And while that may feel like a win for envi­ron­men­tal­ists, it’s also a loss for all work­ing peo­ple, even those con­cerned about cli­mate change. Unions are one of the only ways work­ing peo­ple have pow­er in this coun­try?—?with­out them, there will be very few orga­ni­za­tions equipped to fight for the pro­grams and ser­vices we deserve, includ­ing ones that are tasked with fight­ing cli­mate change. These kinds of con­tra­dic­tions have caused ten­sion between both move­ments, and cor­rod­ed trust between them. And while there have been some inroads made in the last few years—includ­ing unions endors­ing the Green New Deal—there’s still a long way to go until unions eschew fos­sil fuels.

Upton Sin­clair once said that ?“it is dif­fi­cult to get a man to under­stand some­thing when his salary depends upon his not under­stand­ing it.” When you’re able to feed your fam­i­ly on wages paid for by fos­sil fuels, it’s hard to see those same fos­sil fuels as a direct threat to your life. Most of us can under­stand why fos­sil fuel work­ers want to hold onto their jobs. And we can also under­stand why a major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans want to sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduce the use of fos­sil fuels.

But between these two con­flict­ing needs is a real oppor­tu­ni­ty: green jobs. The Bureau of Labor Sta­tis­tics pre­dicts that the two fastest grow­ing jobs through 2028 will both be in the renew­able ener­gy sec­tor. While an eco­nom­ic down­turn due to Covid-19 could slow job growth, pre-pan­dem­ic reports showed that solar installers and wind tur­bine tech­ni­cians were set to grow by 63%. None of the 20 jobs pro­ject­ed to grow over 20% in the next eight years are in the fos­sil fuel indus­try. But the open­ing cre­at­ed by the renew­able indus­try for a part­ner­ship between the envi­ron­men­tal and labor move­ments is being squan­dered: Unions aren’t engag­ing in enough new orga­niz­ing, and envi­ron­men­tal­ists aren’t encour­ag­ing them. There are, of course, some heart­en­ing exam­ples of unions and greens work­ing togeth­er, like the Revers­ing Inequal­i­ty, Com­bat­ing Cli­mate Change report out of the Work­er Insti­tute at Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty, which con­vened unions and pol­i­cy experts to devel­op rec­om­men­da­tions for new union jobs which would also fight cli­mate change. But most of the green jobs being cre­at­ed are not union: Only 6% of work­ers in both wind pow­er gen­er­a­tion and solar pow­er con­cen­trat­ing sys­tem work are union­ized, and 4% of work­ers in pho­to­voltaics, which cre­ate solar cells to con­vert light to electricity.

There are cur­rent­ly near­ly 335,000 solar work­ers in the coun­try, rep­re­sent­ing a huge oppor­tu­ni­ty for the Inter­na­tion­al Broth­er­hood of Elec­tri­cal Work­ers (IBEW), which admits that ?“a dis­turbing­ly small per­cent­age of the elec­tri­cal work­ers who install res­i­den­tial solar pan­els in North Amer­i­ca belong to a union.” Work­ers on solar farms are more like­ly to be union­ized than rooftop solar installers, who can make as lit­tle as $12 per hour doing a dan­ger­ous job and risk­ing elec­tro­cu­tion or a dead­ly fall.

In These Times spoke with a for­mer solar installer, J., at Solar States, a solar installer and edu­ca­tor in Philadel­phia. Installers there start at $16 an hour and are offered paid time off, retire­ment and health care ben­e­fits. Most are Black and brown, and accord­ing to J., there’s a man­date for 50% of installers to live in the city lim­its. Lead installers can go up to $22 to $25, but that’s about the high­est they can make on res­i­den­tial jobs. This is why, accord­ing to J., solar installers try to get com­mer­cial work on large build­ings owned by the city, state or busi­ness­es, because it pays more and the jobs are longer—and they often work along­side union members.

On a recent instal­la­tion job on a city-owned build­ing, which trig­gered the pre­vail­ing wage pro­vi­sion, Solar States installers worked next to mem­bers of IBEW Local 98, lay­ing the solar pan­els while the union elec­tri­cians wired them. J. (who still works in the indus­try and wants to remain anony­mous) told In These Times that ?“there’s a lot of bad blood with the union, but I tried to tell my co-work­ers that the only rea­son we get pre­vail­ing wage is because of them.” Accord­ing to him, the ten­sion stems from inter­per­son­al issues when they work close­ly togeth­er, and the dif­fer­ences in their wages—IBEW can mem­bers make $72 an hour. Relat­ed­ly, the union is pre­dom­i­nate­ly white, and work­ers at Solar States are most­ly peo­ple of col­or, which has also caused ten­sion between the two groups.

Accord­ing to res­i­den­tial solar installers, Local 98 also hasn’t expressed any inter­est in bring­ing these work­ers into their union. (Local 98 didn’t return a request for com­ment.) J. told In These Times, ?“They don’t care about new orga­niz­ing. They want to make sure that all the white men that have been in IBEW for­ev­er con­tin­ue to com­mand a high wage. They have nev­er once tried to reach out to us, and we work side by side!” This may be because there is no cohe­sive man­date from the inter­na­tion­al union. In fact, dif­fer­ent IBEW locals in Cal­i­for­nia have had con­flict­ing opin­ions on green jobs: Local 18 has slammed the Green New Deal, while Local 428 has embraced job oppor­tu­ni­ties in the renew­able sec­tor. And while unions strug­gle inter­nal­ly over these issues, many envi­ron­men­tal­ists remain indif­fer­ent or unin­ter­est­ed in solar work­ers’ labor con­di­tions. J. said that ?“espe­cial­ly cus­tomers who are wealthy, they don’t real­ly think about it at all. Their ques­tion is not how much installers get paid, but how much is my car­bon foot­print offset.”

If envi­ron­men­tal­ists are tru­ly con­cerned about off­set­ting car­bon foot­prints and grow­ing the renew­able sec­tor, they’ll have to fight for gov­ern­ment inter­ven­tion—and to do so suc­cess­ful­ly, they’ll need unions on their side. In Philadel­phia, a Solar States cus­tomer can pay an aver­age of any­where between $21,000 and $26,000 for solar instal­la­tion on their home. With­out rebates, tax breaks and oth­er incen­tives, res­i­den­tial solar is finan­cial­ly out of reach for most peo­ple, mak­ing it seem more like a hob­by for the wealthy and less like an impor­tant step to fight cli­mate change. The Green New Deal, which calls for ?“meet­ing 100% of the pow­er demand in the Unit­ed States through clean, renew­able, and zero-emis­sion ener­gy sources,” could close this access gap. And with more than 12.5 mil­lion mem­bers, the AFL-CIO (the country’s largest labor fed­er­a­tion) is well poised to get more mod­er­ate Democ­rats on board with the leg­is­la­tion, which, if passed, would cre­ate mil­lions of jobs and expand unions’ ranks. But most unions see the Green New Deal as an attack on union jobs, rather than an oppor­tu­ni­ty to cre­ate more. And yet if renew­able ener­gy got the same kinds of sub­si­dies fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies have, mem­bers of build­ing trades unions would be clam­or­ing to install solar pan­els or wind turbines.

In the mean­time, if there’s a shared agree­ment between both the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment and the labor move­ment that cre­at­ing mil­lions of union jobs is a pri­or­i­ty, both need to actu­al­ly pri­or­i­tize it. Jobs that are good for the envi­ron­ment aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly good for work­ers, and jobs that are good for work­ers aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly good for the envi­ron­ment. We need jobs that are good for both, and to get there we need unions and envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions fight­ing for invest­ment, incen­tives and jobs—togeth­er. This could involve tying sub­si­dies to a cer­tain per­cent­age of union jobs, or fight­ing for project labor agree­ments at every poten­tial green job site. What­ev­er form it takes, this coali­tion must begin at the premise that a loss of union jobs is detri­men­tal to all work­ing peo­ple in this coun­try—and if we want to fight cli­mate change, the labor move­ment must take the lead, before it’s too late.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on August 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia. She is a frequent contributor to Working In These Times.


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Unions tap into burst of worker angst over coronavirus

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“Maybe these workers will start to understand the value they have for society, because for decades they’ve been told they have no value and that they’re replaceable,” one union official said.

CHICAGO — Amazon warehouse workers in New York walked off the job to demand protection against Covid-19. A county judge in Illinois ordered a McDonald’s franchise to work out an agreement with its employees to supply more masks and hand sanitizer. And grocery store workers at Publix and Trader Joe’s in Florida have haggled for hazard pay as they work public-facing jobs.

Across corners of the labor market traditionally without unions, the coronavirus is spurring new interest in organizing for safer workplaces and better pay as the nation embarks on a long economic recovery.

Most states have already crafted or kicked off plans to reopen their economies after shutting them down to curb the spread of Covid-19. Now, many among the millions of people who toiled away at invisible low-wage jobs stocking shelves or setting up medical equipment the whole time are looking to capitalize on how “essential” they’ve become.

“In literally a day, grocery store workers have gone from ‘just a job,’ to having a job that’s incredibly stressful, demanding and scary,” said Damon Silvers, the policy director and special counsel for the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C. “The nature of the job has been transformed. Employees are saying, ‘If I’m going to risk my life, how about paying me more?’”

“In literally a day, grocery store workers have gone from ‘just a job,’ to having a job that’s incredibly stressful, demanding and scary.”

 Damon Silvers, policy director and special counsel for the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C.

Union membership across the country has been on a steady decline since the early 1980s but organized labor has attracted the national spotlight in recent years thanks to series of teacher strikes, including in conservative states like West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona. Unions are happy to leverage the new angst brought on by the coronavirus. 

On Tuesday, the AFL-CIO’s Department for Professional Employees launched an initiative to educate nonunion workers about how organizing can protect their health and safety as Covid-19 persists. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters offers an online resource guide for nonunion workers. And the California Labor Federation has a team responding to nonunion workers trying to file for unemployment, spokesman Steve Smith said.

Despite the new energy, organizing efforts are slow and may ultimately falter. No one’s yet formed a union based on not being able to get PPE. If employees do try, they may face new hurdles enacted by the National Labor Relations Board under the Trump administration, which many labor officials interviewed for this report see as anti-union. The agency recently issued rules unions complain would prolong the election process. NLRB argues the changes will increase transparency.

Coronavirus hit the U.S. at a time when the labor market was tight — unemployment was low and employers were actively looking to hire. But in a matter of days, companies shut down and hundreds of thousands of people across the country were laid off. For those still on the job, it created fear and anxiety among low-wage workers, and raised questions about the value they provide in a crisis and the risks they’re forced to take on at a moment’s notice.

“There’s a disconnect in what people think of workers — they’re heroes — and what they’re being paid,” said Zach Koutsky, political director for Local 881, which represents retail food and drug store workers in Illinois as well as employees in the cannabis industry. Calls come in from frozen pizza plant workers, cannabis workers and nonunion grocery employees, he said. They say, “’Dear god, we need to meet with you.’ It’s always been there, but it’s definitely picked up.”

The uptick in union phone calls isn’t likely to translate into membership, labor experts say.

“It’s very hard for them to join because the laws are imbalanced, the NLRB is incredibly hostile right now and a good number of states have governors and legislative bodies that are very antagonistic toward labor,” said Robert Bruno, director of labor studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Employers “aren’t afraid to spend millions to keep their operations union free.”

Still, members of Congress have also taken note of this workforce in the Pandemic Heroes Compensation Act, legislation introduced last month to setup a victims fund for a wide range of essential workers. 

“On September 11, it was the heroic firefighters and officers who ran into the burning buildings to save lives,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), a co-sponsor, told reporters on a conference call hyping the bill. “Today, it is the hospital workers, nurses, doctors, EMS, janitorial staff, pharmacists, technicians and all essential workers.”

It’s a mishmash of industries. Steel mill workers in Gary, Ind., have called the AFL-CIO asking how to get more personal protective equipment because their bosses didn’t supply enough. Ride-hail drivers in California are asking union shops how to get gear too. Employees at the Pilgrim’s Pride chicken processing plant in central Minnesota have protested working conditions. And while larger grocery store chains like Kroger or Jewel-Osco have a unionized workforce, people employed at smaller stores in St. Louis and restaurant workers in Chicago want to know how to organize.

“I was just talking to a dental hygienist who wanted to know how she can get a union started,” said Bob Reiter of the Chicago Federation of Labor.

This wouldn’t be the first time safety issues would become a lightning rod for the labor movement, of course. Union organizers have leveraged the works of Upton Sinclair, the safety hazards of the mining industry in Appalachia and the difficult farming conditions in California to secure new worker rights and safer conditions. 

In Chicago, where hundreds of nursing home assistants are calling for pay increases to at least $15 an hour, the heart of their concerns was about safety.

“Workers are worried they could lose their house and their family’s health,” said Diana Tastad-Damer, director of organizing for UFCW Local 1189 in Minnesota. “So, it’s being put in a bigger picture than just wages or livelihood. Now it’s about their family’s livelihood and survival.”

Dave Cook, president UFCW 655 in St. Louis, Mo., hopes the pandemic will change the way the country looks at low-wage jobs and how low-wage workers look at themselves. 

“Without your Dollar General or your Amazon warehouse workers, Americans wouldn’t be fed,” he said. “Maybe these workers will start to understand the value they have for society, because for decades they’ve been told they have no value and that they’re replaceable.”

Greg Ferrara, CEO of the National Grocers Association, says the 1,600 independent grocers in his organization were attentive early on to safety issues and as a result haven’t heard calls for union representation. But he acknowledges employees have a renewed interest in safety. 

“When you’re working in a place where you have a shield in front of you or you’re wearing a mask and doing enhanced sanitizing procedures, employees are much more aware of the important role they’re playing,” he said. “Whether it ties to an interest in organized labor, I can’t say.” 

It’s too early to say whether Covid-19 concerns will lead to a rise in union membership, said Roberta Lynch, executive director of AFSCME Council in Chicago. 

“Our current history is providing a compelling picture of more and more workers who are not able to earn a decent living, whose jobs are fragile and in jeopardy and who don’t have retirement security, who have been turning to unions more and more with the pandemic,” Lynch said. “I think there’s every reason that that will intensify.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on June 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Shia Kapos is a reporter for POLITICO and author of POLITICO’s Illinois Playbook, the most indispensable morning newsletter for influencers in Illinois government and politics. Prior to joining POLITICO, she wrote the popular Taking Names column for the Chicago Sun-Times (and before that Crain’s Business). She’s also had stints at Dealreporter and the Salt Lake Tribune. Shia’s career has been built on breaking news and landing sit-down interviews with notable names and personalities. She’s covered billionaires on the rise and lawmakers’ precipitous falls—and all the terrain in between.


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Bernie Sanders will present proposal on behalf of Walmart workers at annual shareholders meeting

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Every year, Walmart stages a massive, multi-day meeting in Arkansas for the company’s shareholders, not far from the corporate headquarters of the world’s largest retail store. The company’s top executives deliver speeches, its board of directors hears various proposals regarding corporate behavior and governance, and special guests make surprise appearances to keep the masses entertained.

The shareholders’ meeting is also when the company’s 1.5 million U.S. workers — many of whom work for poverty-level wages with few benefits and employment safeguards — are given a chance to directly confront the billionaires whose fortunes they helped build.

This year, they’re bringing a megaphone with them to amplify their message: Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I).

For years, workers have appeared at the shareholders’ meeting to propose new corporate policies designed to help lift the retailer’s army of hourly workers out of poverty and provide them with greater protections on the job. Every single proposal they have put forward has been voted down and ignored by the Walton family, which controls the majority of votes on the board.

Sanders will appear on the workers’ behalf this year to present their latest proposal: give hourly workers one seat on the company’s board.

For years, Sanders has fought on behalf of the country’s 80 million hourly workers, pushing for increases to the minimum wage, strengthening unions, and capping executive salaries which have skyrocketed in the last 25 years. Walmart, by virtue of employing more of these hourly workers than any other company in the country by a wide margin, has been a specific target for Sanders.

Last year, he introduced the subtly-named “Stop Walmart Act” designed to pressure the company to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour. The bill would prohibit large corporations from buying back their own stock — a popular mechanism for boosting share prices — unless they introduce a series of benefits for hourly workers first, in addition to the wage hike.

For their part, Walmart executives appear less than thrilled that Sanders will be in attendance to directly criticize their corporate practices on the biggest day of the year.

“If Senator Sanders attends, we hope he will approach his visit not as a campaign stop, but as a constructive opportunity to learn about the many ways we’re working to provide increased economic opportunity, mobility and benefits to our associates — as well as our widely recognized leadership on environmental sustainability,” the company said in a statement.

The proposal Sanders will be introducing isn’t the only one shareholders are expected to vote on next month. Another one calls for the company to strengthen protections against workplace sexual harassment.

The company is advising shareholders to vote no.

This blog was originally published at ThinkProgress on May 21, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Adam Peck is a deputy editor at ThinkProgress who works with politics reporters.

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Labor Unions Champion More than Union Members

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berry craigLabor haters love to claim that unions only care about their own members.

The claims are baloney of course. Unions advocate for more than just men and women who pack union cards.

Unions champion the whole working class. No one understood that better than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said:

“The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, government relief for the destitute and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life. The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome. When in the thirties the wave of union organization crested over the nation, it carried to secure shores not only itself but the whole society.”

On March 5, 1964, Dr. King, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy and Jackie Robinson, the first African American Major League baseball player, helped lead more than 10,000 people – including several union members — in a march to the Kentucky state capitol in Frankfort. The march was in support of a bill introduced by State Rep. Norbert Blume of Louisville, a union-card carrying Democrat, that would outlaw racial discrimination in public places such as stores, restaurants, movie theatres and hotels.

Blume had been president of Teamsters Local 783 in the Falls City. Some of the union members who joined the procession were Sam Ezelle, secretary-treasurer of the Kentucky State AFL-CIO; Jimmy Stewart, business manager of Louisville Laborers Local 576; and union and civil rights activist W.C. Young of Paducah.

Blume’s bill didn’t pass, but the Louisville lawmaker didn’t give up. Too, the march helped provide important momentum for passage of the Blume-backed Civil Rights Act of 1966, the first such measure approved by a Southern state.
Union members, including Bill Londrigan, state AFL-CIO president, are expected to help swell the ranks of a 50th Anniversary Civil Rights March on the capitol on March 5. The special commemoration is sponsored by the Kentucky Human Rights Commission and the Allied Organizations for Civil Rights, a coalition that includes the state AFL-CIO, the A. Phillip Randolph Institute and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.

“The historic March on Washington for Jobs and Civil Rights where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his historic ‘I have a Dream’ speech included the input and close participation of trade unionists such as A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and Walter Reuther,” Londrigan said. “The participation and support of organized labor was also evident fifty years ago during the March on Frankfort when trade unionists such as Norbert Blume, W.C. Young, Sam Ezelle and Jimmy Stewart had significant roles in the march as well as strong support for passage of Kentucky’s historic Civil Rights Act of 1966.”

He added, “The upcoming March 5th march and rally in Frankfort represents another significant event when organized labor will again rise to the occasion to support and participate in this fifty-year commemoration of the 1964 March on Frankfort.  On March 5th, organized labor will again demonstrate our long and deep commitment to civil and workers’ rights, because organized labor knows that civil rights and workers’ rights cannot be separated and Kentucky’s labor movement is proud to stand for and struggle for both.”

I don’t know if union marchers in 1964 included Bill Sanders, Young’s good friend and union brother. Sanders headed the West Kentucky Building and Construction Trades Council in Paducah for many years.

Dubbed “Mr. Western Kentucky Labor,” Sanders once told me a story that’s another good example of how unions change “misery and despair into hope and progress.”

He recalled a Detroit woman, a stranger almost penniless and down on her luck, who got drunk in Paducah and ended up in jail. She had hurt her knee and needed medical attention.

Sanders’ office was close to the lockup. He remembered:

“The jailer came over to me and told me about her. He said, ‘Bill, you’ve got a union meeting this morning. Will you see what you can do?’ I said I would, and I asked him how much money she would need. The jailer said ‘$500 for her hospital bill and she’ll have to have some traveling money, too.’

“Well, we made up all that money. So I went down to the hospital and gave this money to that lady, and she said, ‘Mr. Sanders, when I get better, I’m going back to Detroit and go back to my husband and try to work things out.’ When she got well, she went back to Detroit, joined the church and got back with her husband. That’s the kind of things unions do that never get in the paper.”

Author: Berry Craig, AFT Local 1360


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IBEW Father and Daughter’s Long Journey to Sochi Short Track

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Image: Mike HallSpringfield, Mo., Electrical Workers (IBEWLocal 453 member Craig Scott is in Sochi, Russia, this week watching his daughter Emily compete for Olympic gold in several short track speed skating events.  But it wasn’t an easy journey for father or daughter

Emily, 25, was a world champion inline skater before taking up short track speed skating about five years ago. But with the U.S. Speedskating cutting her funding last year, a part-time job not bringing in enough to pay the bills or give her time to train and a crowdfunding effort falling short, Emily was on the verge of giving up her dream.

But a USA Today profile of her struggles sparked nearly $50,000 in donations and allowed her to quit her job and focus on training and making the Olympic team.

Now with Emily whose events run through this week, and with Scott in Sochi to cheer her on, he says:

It’s taken a little while to sink in. It’s 20 years of hard work, and finally everything has sort of come together.

Read more coverage from the News-Leader here and here, and check the paper’s website for updates.

See Six Fun Facts About Short Track Skater Emily Scott from NBCOlympics.com and more from U.S. Speedskating.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on February 17, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journaland managing editor of the Seafarers Log.  He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.


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No Fancy Commercials, but Super Bowl is Brought to You by Union Members

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Image: Mike HallSunday is the first outdoor, cold weather site Super Bowl in the game’s 48-year history. The frigid weather in the weeks leading up to the game and expected temps in the 20s and 30s won’t stop the thousands of union members who are bringing you the game. On the scene at MetLife Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands or behind the scenes at many facilities in the Metro New York-New Jersey area, union members are making the nation’s national party day possible.

So, as a preview before you sit back, open a beverage and eat far too many snacks that are far from healthy, we introduce Sunday’s starting union lineup.

Of course, on the field, the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos players are members of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), and the men in the striped shirts are members of the NFL Referees Association.

The announcers, camera operators, technicians, field workers and other hardworking folks bringing the game to your flat-screened football cave or favorite Broncos or Seahawks bar include members of SAG-AFTRA, Broadcast Employees and Technicians-CWA (NABET-CWA), Electrical Workers (IBEW) and Laborers (LIUNA).

The annual over-the-top halftime show is a down-to-the-second, choreographed, on-the-field, off-the-field 12-minute extravaganza made possible by the skills of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada (AFM) and other performing artists. Anyone who takes in a show in the city likely will enjoy the talents of Actors’ Equity (AEA).

For the fans who head for the concessions, their hot dogs will be served and their beer will be drawn by men and women from UNITE HERE Local 100.

Away from the stadium, union members are making an impact, too. Folks taking the area’s huge mass transit system are being safely delivered to their destinations by members of the Transport Workers (TWU), Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and United Transportation Union (UTU).

A large number of the area’s hotels are staffed by members of unions of the New York Hotel Trades Council. Many of the firefighters, emergency medical personnel and other public service workers who are ensuring a safe and efficient Super Bowl week are members of the Fire Fighters (IAFF) and AFSCME.

The first class work of members of the Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) Local 90 in Springfield, Ill., is on display on Broadway as part of Super Bowl Weekend. The IUPAT members at Ace Sign Co. crafted the 9-foot-tall, 38-feet wide aluminum and acrylic XLVIII (48) that spans one end of the legendary avenue, renamed Super Bowl Boulevard for the festivities. Click here to read more.

Of course, the fans who flew in for the big game got there safely, thanks to aviation workers from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), Air Line Pilots (ALPA), Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA), Transport Workers (TWU) and Machinists (IAM).

Also, a big thanks to AFT and NFLPA for raising awareness about human trafficking during large sports events such as the Super Bowl.

Finally, check out how one Seahawk fan and Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 191 member has transformed himself into to the large, green and angry SeaHulk—far more frightening than the Seattle secondary.  Our friend David Groves at the Washington State Labor Council’s The Stand has the story of how the local, area contractors and others came together and raised the funds to make sure the SeaHulk (aka Tim Froemke) and his crew of body painters made it to the Super Bowl. Groves also points out that the Seahawks players are affiliates of the WSCL.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on February 2, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journaland managing editor of the Seafarers Log.  He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.


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