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Google workers form union, not to bargain a contract but to press the company to stop being evil

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The tech industry’s overwhelmingly non-unionized status took a small but significant hit on Monday, with the announcement of the Alphabet Workers Union, a minority union at Google (the parent company of which is Alphabet). Their goal—at least in the short term—isn’t to win a union representation election and get the company to the bargaining table. It’s to create a platform to pressure the company on a range of issues as a group rather than as individuals. Google remains committed to keeping its workers isolated as individuals, with a spokesperson saying “as we’ve always done, we’ll continue engaging directly with all our employees.” That’s manager-speak for “divide and conquer.”

“Our bosses have collaborated with repressive governments around the world,” Parul Koul and Chewy Shaw, the union’s executive chair and vice chair wrote in a New York Times op-edintroducing the effort. “They have developed artificial intelligence technology for use by the Department of Defense and profited from ads by a hate group. They have failed to make the changes necessary to meaningfully address our retention issues with people of color.”

The Alphabet Workers Union intends to fight for Google to do better. And, significantly, the minority union structure allows participation by some of the workers most wronged under the company’s current system, workers who would be blocked from participating in a typical union bargaining unit. Koul and Shaw explain: “About half of the workers at Google are temps, vendors or contractors. They are paid lower salaries, receive fewer benefits, and have little job stability compared with full-time employees, even though they often do the exact same work. They are also more likely to be Black or brown—a segregated employment system that keeps half of the company’s work force in second-class roles. Our union will seek to undo this grave inequity.”

More than 225 workers have signed on—a fraction of Google’s workforce, but enough for a voice as they build on earlier activist efforts like the massive protests against the company’s sexual harassment policies, protests that won significant changes in 2018.

Google has shown its willingness to play dirty when it comes to worker protest, with the wrongful firing of two worker activists as well as the firing of artificial intelligence researcher Timnit Gebru after she criticized the company’s diversity and inclusion efforts and the biases in AI models. With the Alphabet Workers Union, workers will have a collective voice, and an affiliation with the Communications Workers of America.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on January 4, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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Google Workers Say the Endless Wait to Unionize Big Tech Is Over

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The five most valu­able com­pa­nies in Amer­i­ca are all big tech com­pa­nies, and none of them are union­ized. Com­pound­ing this exis­ten­tial chal­lenge for orga­nized labor is the fact that the huge work forces of the com­pa­nies make union­iz­ing them seem an impos­si­bly large task. Now, one union has solved that prob­lem with a rev­o­lu­tion­ary approach: Just start. 

This morn­ing, work­ers at Alpha­bet, the par­ent com­pa­ny of Google, announced the for­ma­tion of the Alpha­bet Work­ers Union (AWU), affil­i­at­ed with the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca, one of the few major unions that has ded­i­cat­ed resources to orga­niz­ing the tech indus­try. The AWU is start­ing with just over 200 mem­bers?—?a tiny frac­tion of the more than 200,000 total Google employ­ees, includ­ing full timers and con­trac­tors, that make up the $1.2 tril­lion com­pa­ny. But, after years of iso­lat­ed issue-based activism by employ­ees, they real­ized that if they ever want­ed a union, the only way to get it was to forge ahead. 

“A lot of us joined the com­pa­ny because we believed in the val­ues. That wasn’t a sec­ondary thing, that was why we joined,” says Chewy Shaw, a Google soft­ware engi­neer since 2013 who is now the vice chair of the AWU. Shaw describes a slow sour­ing of his rela­tion­ship with the com­pa­ny in recent years, as work­ers per­ceived as trou­ble­some were pushed out by hos­tile man­age­ment, and oth­ers chose to leave over sharp eth­i­cal dis­agree­ments about the company’s direc­tion. The inter­nal uproar last year over Google’s con­tracts with gov­ern­ment agen­cies like ICE was a clar­i­fy­ing moment for Shaw, who decid­ed that if he was going to stay at the com­pa­ny, he had to start organizing. 

Since the 2018 Google walk­outs protest­ing sex­u­al harass­ment (and the sub­se­quent retal­i­a­tion against its orga­niz­ers), Google has been the most high pro­file hotbed of work­er orga­niz­ing among the big tech com­pa­nies?—?though all of that orga­niz­ing focused on spe­cif­ic issues as they arose, rather than on form­ing a union. Shaw began attend­ing events that employ­ees set up relat­ed to orga­niz­ing: a lun­cheon, a book club, a lec­ture. Even­tu­al­ly, he con­nect­ed with CWA staff and began actu­al labor orga­niz­ing in earnest. Last June, a group called Googlers Against Racism got more than 1,000 employ­ee sig­na­tures on a Cowork?er?.org peti­tion urg­ing the com­pa­ny to take a num­ber of steps to pro­mote diver­si­ty and end con­tracts with police. That group pro­vid­ed a pool of inter­est­ed activist work­ers that led direct­ly to dis­cus­sions about union­iz­ing, and to recruits for the union. Shaw says that the fir­ing last month of Timnit Gebru, an inter­nal crit­ic of the com­pa­ny, was ?“a real­ly big ral­ly­ing moment.” 

(In response to today’s news, the com­pa­ny said in a state­ment: ?“We’ve always worked hard to cre­ate a sup­port­ive and reward­ing work­place for our work­force. Of course our employ­ees have pro­tect­ed labor rights that we sup­port. But as we’ve always done, we’ll con­tin­ue engag­ing direct­ly with all our employees.”)

Google is a com­pa­ny of engi­neers, and if there’s one thing engi­neers under­stand, it’s struc­tur­al issues. After the 2018 walk­out, ?“it became clear to me that it wasn’t enough. We weren’t able to move the com­pa­ny the way it need­ed to be moved,” says Auni Ahsan, a soft­ware engi­neer and one of the union’s found­ing mem­bers. ?“We need a struc­ture that we can devel­op that can be resilient.” 

Shaw scoffs at the long­stand­ing canard that engi­neers are con­sti­tu­tion­al­ly hos­tile to labor orga­niz­ing, an idea that has often been float­ed with­in both the labor and tech worlds to explain why the tech indus­try remains large­ly non-union. ?“Peo­ple are at a com­pa­ny that has orga­nized 250,000 peo­ple to work on sim­i­lar projects,” he notes dri­ly. As Google employ­ees have worked with CWA to build their union, they have also been study­ing labor his­to­ry and Amer­i­can labor law, and their diag­no­sis of the weak­ness­es in today’s labor move­ment has helped inform their path. ?“We’ve been think­ing some of [the decline of unions] is due to how peo­ple have been lean­ing on the legal struc­ture, and it does­n’t give enough pro­tec­tion unless you fit a spe­cif­ic sce­nario,” Shaw says. 

The AWU’s struc­ture could be a mod­el for future tech orga­niz­ing. It will be a dues-sup­port­ed orga­ni­za­tion, like a union, but it will be open to both full time employ­ees and con­trac­tors, who make up more than half of Google’s work force. The union has been orga­niz­ing in secret, mean­ing that much of its recruit­ment work was restrict­ed to the social net­works of its var­i­ous employ­ee orga­niz­ers. They decid­ed to go pub­lic after claim­ing 200 mem­bers, and they hope that the rush of pub­lic­i­ty will bring in thou­sands of more mem­bers in short order. AWU will not be able to engage in for­mal col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing like a union that rep­re­sents the entire staff, but it will be a per­ma­nent, grow­ing, and very vocal labor group posi­tioned square­ly inside one of the world’s most pow­er­ful com­pa­nies?—?some­thing that would have been vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble if CWA had tried to fol­low a tra­di­tion­al union orga­niz­ing route with­in Google. 

“Thou­sands or mil­lions of peo­ple will wake up and see this sto­ry and see that you don’t need to wait for the labor board to approve your union,” Ahsan says. ?“You have a union when you say you have a union.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 4, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Why Workers Fought and Died for Union Hiring Halls

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This is Part II of our spe­cial two-part episode with Taco­ma long­shore work­ers Zack Pat­tin and Bri­an ?“Skiff” Skiff­in­g­ton. Zack and Skiff are both mem­bers of the Inter­na­tion­al Long­shore and Ware­house Union (ILWU) Local 23 and orga­niz­ing lead­ers with the ILWU Young Work­ers Com­mit­tee. In Part I of our con­ver­sa­tion with Zack and Skiff, we talked about their wind­ing paths to work­ing on the water­front and about the beau­ty and mad­ness of long­shore work. In Part II, we take a deep­er dive into the pol­i­tics and his­to­ry of the ILWU. We talk about what being part of the union has meant to Zack and Skiff, their fam­i­lies, and their cowork­ers?—?and why fix­tures like union hir­ing halls are so impor­tant that work­ers fought and died for them.

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

About the Author: Maximillian Alvarez is a writer and editor based in Baltimore and the host of Working People, “a podcast by, for, and about the working class today.” His work has been featured in venues like In These Times, The Nation, The Baffler, Current Affairs, and The New Republic.


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BAmazon Union: Anticipating the Battle in Bessemer, Alabama

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Last Friday, representatives from the Retail Workers (RWDSU) went before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), Region 10, seeking a quick union certification election.

The election is to determine whether a majority of the employees at the newly opened Amazon Fulfillment Center (BHM1) in Bessemer—a small of suburb of Birmingham, Alabama—want union representation.

Amazon was represented at the hearing by the law firm Morgan Lewis—a firm that specializes in “union avoidance” strategies. In dispute was the size of the bargaining unit.

The union had petitioned the Labor Board on November 20 with the support of at least 30 percent of a workforce that it calculated at 1,500. Obviously seeking to invalidate the union’s petition, the company countered that the appropriate bargaining unit was more than 5,700! The hearing took evidence from both parties and the hearing officer will decide who is right.

If the hearing officer rules in favor of the union, a quick certification election could be forthcoming. It is far more likely, however, that Amazon will spend its millions on legal actions to thwart a quick election. The company will argue that it is protecting the franchise of thousands of workers from a predatory outside organization.

UPRISINGS AT AMAZON

RWDSU’s filing for an election at Amazon caught the business press and many labor activists by complete surprise. But as Alex Press pointed out in Jacobin, “With pandemic-fueled growth has come an uptick in organizing at Amazon warehouses. The global health crisis and increased demand for Amazon’s services have led to widespread worker complaints about unsafe working conditions, including quotas that preclude safety measures they see as necessary to protect themselves from the virus.”

The Bessemer facility opened in March, at the onset of the pandemic. It is an 885,000-square-foot, four-story facility in one of Alabama’s poorest communities. The Bessemer City Council welcomed the opening with great fanfare, seeing these $15-per-hour jobs as particularly attractive in a state with only a $7.25 minimum wage.

Nevertheless the conditions at Amazon that have provoked nationwide actions against inhumane speed-up, pandemic-related and other health and safety issues, and callous disrespect have provoked a reaction here too.

Union drives in the South have often suffered from a perception that the union is a bunch of outside carpetbaggers from the North. However, this drive could have real local legs. RWDSU represents poultry processing facilities throughout the Southeast and has 7,500 poultry members in Alabama. Workers at nearby Koch Foods held a public protest on June 3 to force their employer to provide protective gear and safer conditions during the pandemic.

That kind of visible public fight no doubt was an appeal to friends and family working at Amazon who are suffering from some of the same conditions, without an organization to fight back.

RWDSU previously announced a union drive at Amazon’s Staten Island, New York, fulfillment center in late 2018, during the battle over the company’s plans to open a new headquarters in New York City, though the union never filed for an NLRB election. In March, a small walkout at the same facility over the lack of protective gear resulted in a flurry of publicity, but management fired a key leader, Chris Smalls.

AMAZON WORKERS ORGANIZE

For two years now, a network organizing under the banner Amazonians United has waged high-profile battles with Amazon at delivery stations in Sacramento, Chicago, and Queens. Instead of filing petitions for union elections, these workers have focused on building workplace organizations to wage fights around the immediate needs and interests of employees.

For example, in 2019, Sandra, an employee at a Sacramento delivery station, was fired for exceeding her unpaid time off by one hour. For weeks the Human Resources department ignored her and strung her along without a paycheck. But Amazonians United Sacramentoswung into action—and within 24 hours of their submitting a petition, H.R. announced that Sandra would be rehired with back pay.

Victories like this are the reason that Amazonians United’s efforts have been celebrated worldwide. The group has also made links internationally with other rank-and-file Amazon workers, particularly in Europe.

Workers at an Amazon facility in Shakopee, Minnesota, have also won local demands. After public protests backed by the local labor movement, workers won Muslim prayer hours for a large group of Somali employees. In particular, their efforts have received crucial support from SEIU Local 26, which represents many Somali janitors in the Twin Cities area.

There is no better base for organizing than the commitment and grassroots support of existing unionized workers who have friends and family in non-union workplaces. Hopefully, the organizing taking place in Bessemer, Alabama, is similarly “organic.”

OBSTACLES AHEAD

No matter how deep or wide the organizing is, the workers’ road to victory is mined with heavy obstacles. 

First, they face obstruction and delay. The company originally sought to delay the NLRB hearing until January, arguing that its supervisors were too busy with “peak” season to supply the information on employment necessary to determine the size of the unit. The NLRB agreed to delay the hearing only from December 11 to the 18th. 

But without a doubt, Morgan Lewis’s attorneys will take advantage of every legal loophole to obfuscate and delay. That’s a big part of what the current round of hearings on the size of the unit is about—delaying an election as long as possible to weaken any momentum the union has built up.

Next, they can expect aggressive management interference. If and when the NLRB finally sets an election date, the company’s anti-union “persuasion” campaign will swing into high gear, utilizing a combination of promises and threats, carrots and sticks.

Amazon undoubtedly will try to enlist some city councilors or other elected officials who raved about landing the warehouse in Bessemer to assist its campaign to throttle the union. Remember how Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, the ex-mayor of Chattanooga, lambasted the UAW’s attempt in 2014 to organize the Volkswagen plant there. Corker threatened that the state would pull back on its tax breaks for VW if workers won their union. When the union tried again in 2019, VW brought the governor of Tennessee into the plant to lead mandatory all-employee anti-union meetings.

Under these conditions an election victory would be a moving and inspiring moment, a true David and Goliath story. But wait, there is more: If the company chooses not to make fraudulent claims to undermine election results, next the RWDSU must bargain with the company for a first contract. Amazon can be expected to thwart labor law by not bargaining in good faith. Here again Amazon will stall and try to demoralize the workers. 

SUPPORT FOR BAMAZON UNION

These are some of the grim caveats that confront this valiant and apparently community-rooted effort. However, as we recently wrote in The Cost of Free Shipping: Amazon in the Global Economy, workers in facilities like Bessemer are in a position to wield significant power. “Amazon’s vulnerability is its supply chain management… based on the sophisticated coordination of product inventory and transportation logistics. That makes it highly susceptible to strategic action by workers—whether in its vast warehouse and sortation centers, shipping its products, or on the technology side.”

The whole Amazon world, and especially its workforce, will be watching and rooting for success. A victory in Bessemer would be a victory for all Amazon workers and a credit to the RWDSU and its members. 

Bearing in mind the national and international reach of Amazon, its sophisticated logistics capacity, and its vast resources to oppose worker organization, building workers’ power and sustaining organization must ultimately be national and international in scope.

The flexibility built into the Amazon business model which enables same-day delivery and the efficiency of the last mile is also flexibility that can be used to thwart worker organization if it remains isolated at single facilities.

That is why ultimately the effort will require the dovetailing of internal worker organization at multiple facilities—like what Amazonians United is doing—with the power and resources of one or several national unions, like RWDSU or the Teamsters, for instance. There is no single model for success at Amazon. RWDSU has launched an important initiative in Bessemer.

Amazon’s business model fundamentally undermines wages and working conditions for the whole labor movement, including the more than 200,000 Teamsters employed at UPS and hundreds of thousands of grocery store members of the United Food and Commercial Workers. We all have a stake in supporting a victory for the workers in Bessemer and their new “BAmazon” union! Stay tuned to Labor Notes for updates on the NLRB election and further developments in organizing at Amazon.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on December 21, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director at the ILWU, currently working with a national network of Amazon employees and organizers. 

About the Author: Rand Wilson is chief of staff at SEIU Local 888. He was communications coordinator for the Teamsters’ 1997 UPS strike.


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The Stunning Workers’ Victory in New Mexico That You Haven’t Heard About

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On March 5, New Mex­i­co Gov­er­nor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed H.B. 364, a major over­haul of New Mexico’s sys­tem of pub­lic sec­tor labor rela­tions. Hailed by the Team­sters as a nec­es­sary mod­ern­iza­tion and the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers (AFT) as a ?“big step” in the fight for pub­lic employ­ees, many of the bill’s mar­quee reforms pro­vide pro­ce­dur­al over­hauls for New Mexico’s sys­tem of over 50 local labor boards, includ­ing a poten­tial greater cen­tral­iza­tion of labor rela­tions into the New Mex­i­co Pub­lic Employ­ee Labor Rela­tions Board. 

One stun­ning aspect of H.B. 364 went most­ly unmen­tioned in the pub­lic debate over its pas­sage: Sec­tion 7c of the bill made New Mex­i­co one of the few states to pro­vide pub­lic employ­ees the right to form a union through card check. That pro­vi­sion has already paid off: Orga­niz­ers with Uni­ver­si­ty of New Mex­i­co grad­u­ate assis­tants say they filed for union recog­ni­tion under the new law on Decem­ber 9.

Card check, some­times called major­i­ty sign-up, requires that employ­ees sub­mit cards signed by a major­i­ty of the pro­posed bar­gain­ing unit; after it’s con­firmed they have a major­i­ty, they have a rec­og­nized union. Nine states?—?Cal­i­for­nia, New York, New Jer­sey, Illi­nois, Mass­a­chu­setts, Ore­gon, Wash­ing­ton, Maine and New Mex­i­co?—?have strong mech­a­nisms for manda­to­ry recog­ni­tion using card check. A num­ber of addi­tion­al states?—?such as Kansas, North Dako­ta and Mary­land?—?have card check pro­vi­sions that apply to small­er groups of pub­lic employ­ees, and which may have weak­er pro­vi­sions. Two oth­ers, Okla­homa and New Hamp­shire, passed card check laws in 2004 and 2007, only to repeal them in 2011.

Card check was the major reform pro­posed by the failed Employ­ee Free Choice Act, which died in the Sen­ate dur­ing Barack Obama’s first term. Work­er advo­cates argue it makes it eas­i­er to form a union by elim­i­nat­ing the peri­od between work­ers show­ing inter­est in a union, and the actu­al elec­tion. Dur­ing that wait­ing peri­od, employ­ers often wage high­ly effec­tive and expen­sive cam­paigns to dis­suade work­ers from union­iz­ing using out­side pro­fes­sion­al ?“union avoid­ance” con­sul­tants?—?some­thing recent­ly cit­ed by the Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Institute as a major fac­tor in the decline of unions.

Although card check isn’t part of the Pro­tect­ing the Right to Orga­nize Act, the pack­age of union-backed labor reforms passed by the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Feb­ru­ary, it’s still a part of the labor reform dis­cus­sion. Evi­dence is mixed. Sta­tis­tics on pub­lic sec­tor union den­si­ty shows that states that passed it didn’t see major expan­sions of pub­lic sec­tor unions. That may be due, in part, to the fact that almost all of them had high pub­lic sec­tor union den­si­ty when card check laws were passed (with the excep­tion of New York, which includ­ed card check in the Tay­lor Law passed in 1967). 

But New Mex­i­co is dif­fer­ent: In 2019, only 22.8% of its pub­lic sec­tor work­erswere cov­ered by a union con­tract, plac­ing New Mex­i­co 36th in the nation. This puts New Mex­i­co well behind most oth­er states with wide-rang­ing card check laws, which tend to have high­er union den­si­ty. This means there’s unprece­dent­ed room for growth?—?room that will pro­vide insight into whether or not card check expands union pow­er like work­er advo­cates claim.

There are already signs that it does. The grad­u­ate assis­tants recent­ly filed for recog­ni­tion announced their orga­niz­ing dri­ve in Octo­ber, choos­ing to affil­i­ate with the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca. The cam­paign gained new urgency because of the pas­sage of card check and the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic. Accord­ing to Saman­tha Cooney, a grad­u­ate assis­tant in the Depart­ment of Polit­i­cal Sci­ence and a mem­ber of the Unit­ed Grad­u­ate Work­ers of Uni­ver­si­ty of New Mex­i­co orga­niz­ing com­mit­tee, grad­u­ates decid­ed they need­ed to ?“get down to it and get a super­ma­jor­i­ty by Decem­ber, and we end­ed up doing that.” Grad­u­ates had already begun orga­niz­ing pri­or to the law’s pas­sage, and they were ?“extreme­ly hap­py when [the bill was signed] because it made our jour­ney toward union­iza­tion that much eas­i­er,” says Cooney. 

With major employ­ee groups at the state’s largest employ­er orga­nized and the path cleared for union expan­sion, New Mex­i­co will be a test of whether labor law reform can help orga­nized labor claw back decades of lost ground. The signs look pos­i­tive?—?with grad­u­ate assis­tants lead­ing the way?—?that New Mex­i­co may expe­ri­ence a strong expan­sion of pub­lic sec­tor unions. If it does, it shows a road for­ward for labor else­where: Vir­ginia, Neva­da, Col­orado, Delaware, Con­necti­cut and Rhode Island all have Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty tri­fec­tas, with no card check process for pub­lic sec­tor workers. 

Orga­niz­ing may have helped deliv­er reforms, too. H.B. 364 was intro­duced four months after the con­clu­sion of major orga­niz­ing dri­ves for tenure-track and adjunct fac­ul­ty in the Uni­ver­si­ty of New Mex­i­co sys­tem, and new fac­ul­ty union lead­ers lob­bied along­side oth­er pub­lic sec­tor unions for the leg­is­la­tion. Their win was trail­blaz­ing in both the changes to New Mex­i­co law that fol­lowed, and in that they proved orga­niz­ing at Uni­ver­si­ty of New Mex­i­co could suc­ceed. Accord­ing to Cooney, the suc­cess of the fac­ul­ty dri­ve encour­aged grad­u­ate assis­tants to move for­ward, and the fac­ul­ty union and indi­vid­ual fac­ul­ty offered sup­port for grad­u­ate work­ers seek­ing to form their union.

The suc­cess of card check in New Mex­i­co may prove impor­tant for work­ers else­where. But for grad­u­ate assis­tants at Uni­ver­si­ty of New Mex­i­co, the changed process and what it helped deliv­er?—?a union?—?means some­thing more imme­di­ate and per­son­al: pow­er. That’s impor­tant for Cooney. ?“We feel strength­ened by the num­bers around us,” she says, adding, ?“for myself, this process has not only made me opti­mistic about what my raise will be.” She con­tin­ues, ?“But I know I have oth­er grad­u­ate assis­tants that under­stand my cir­cum­stances, and have my back.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 22, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: C.M. Lewis is an edi­tor of Strike­wave and a union activist in Penn­syl­va­nia. 


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Dear Mackenzie: There’s One More Donation You Owe to the World

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Dear Macken­zie Scott, 

This week, you announced that you’ve made $4.2 bil­lion in char­i­ta­ble dona­tions in the past four months. For that you deserve an extreme­ly mod­est amount of con­grat­u­la­tions! You are, no doubt, besieged at all times by peo­ple who come to kiss your ass and beg for mon­ey. We come to you today with some­thing dif­fer­ent: moral con­dem­na­tion leav­ened with only the faintest sense of praise?—?com­bined with an idea that offers redemp­tion for you and for the belea­guered reg­u­lar peo­ple of Amer­i­ca at the same time.

Your net worth, accord­ing to reports, stands at some­thing like $60 bil­lion. How did you get so rich? You got so rich by being mar­ried to Ama­zon CEO Jeff Bezos for 25 years. More specif­i­cal­ly, you got so rich by divorc­ing Jeff Bezos last year, and get­ting 4% of Amazon’s stock in the process. That stake in the com­pa­ny was worth $38 bil­lion when you got it. You have there­fore made more than $20 bil­lion in the past year, thanks to the company’s boom dur­ing the pandemic. 

Here is where we will say some­thing mild­ly nice about you: You seem to be on the good end of the bil­lion­aire class. Many of your wealthy peers view char­i­ta­ble giv­ing as a chance to see their name adorn­ing fan­cy build­ings, or to attend lav­ish social events while being insu­lat­ed from crit­i­cism for their lav­ish­ness. Oth­ers, like your ex-hus­band, view char­i­ty as an unim­por­tant after­thought, donat­ing an inde­fen­si­bly pal­try por­tion of their wealth to the needy, or leav­ing the task to a foun­da­tion after they’re dead. By giv­ing away bil­lions this year alone, you have demon­strat­ed that you grasp, to some extent, the moral urgency of help­ing peo­ple soon­er rather than lat­er. You have pledged to give away the major­i­ty of your wealth in your own life­time?—?not much of an eth­i­cal achieve­ment by Peter Singer stan­dards, but in the con­text of Amer­i­can bil­lion­aires, not bad. 

Fur­ther­more, your choic­es of where to give seem to show that you do care about impact, and not just grandeur and flash. You sought out small orga­ni­za­tions, from his­tor­i­cal­ly Black col­leges to local food banks, that can do a lot with your mon­ey, rather than lazi­ly writ­ing checks to big nation­al groups that will show­er you with good P.R. and then blow a lot of your mon­ey on mid­dle man­age­ment. You exhib­it a very basic sense of human decen­cy, and that alone puts you ahead of most of your peers. 

Of course, that is not enough to give you a pass. The very exis­tence of a $60bil­lion for­tune in the hands of one per­son is a crime, proof of the way that human soci­ety has evolved away from jus­tice. And your for­tune, in par­tic­u­lar, is not clean. Your mon­ey was earned on the backs of hun­dreds of thou­sands of reg­u­lar peo­ple who have done the work that makes Ama­zon run, and suf­fered as a result. They have suf­fered phys­i­cal­ly. They have suf­fered finan­cial­ly. And they have suf­fered exis­ten­tial­ly, by being treat­ed at every turn as cogs in a machine, rather than as human beings whose own hopes and dreams and auton­o­my should be allowed to flour­ish. Every Ama­zon ware­house work­er forced to pee in a bot­tle because they didn’t have suf­fi­cient breaks; every Ama­zon office work­er who slept in their car in order to keep their job; every Ama­zon deliv­ery dri­ver denied a chance at an actu­al career with a liv­ing wage and ben­e­fits because the com­pa­ny has seen to it they will nev­er be a full time employ­ee; all of these peo­ple put a dol­lar into your pock­et, Macken­zie Scott. Your for­tune came from them. Your mon­ey was earned by squeez­ing them into pover­ty. That is the plain truth. No mat­ter how nice of a per­son you may con­sid­er your­self to be, the fact is that you have a pro­found debt to all those people. 

You could, I guess, just write a check and give every Ama­zon work­er a few thou­sand bucks. That would be nice for a pass­ing moment, but noth­ing would real­ly change. You can­not fix a struc­tur­al debt with a trin­ket. In order to start cor­rect­ing the fun­da­men­tal injus­tices that have made you so rich, you must do some­thing that can give those work­ing peo­ple their own pow­er to take back con­trol of their lives. 

Ama­zon needs a union. And I am hap­py to say: Macken­zie Scott, you can help with that. It’s hard to orga­nize a com­pa­ny like Ama­zon, both because it is a larg­er beast than any indi­vid­ual union has resources for, and because it will spend a great deal of mon­ey on lies and intim­i­da­tion to pre­vent its work­ers from exer­cis­ing their fun­da­men­tal right to orga­nize. But mon­ey can help to even the play­ing field. For a small frac­tion of the mon­ey you just gave out?—?say, $100 mil­lion?—?it would be pos­si­ble to hire orga­niz­ers nation­wide with the express pur­pose of union­iz­ing Ama­zon. The com­pa­ny is cur­rent­ly fight­ing against one sin­gle union dri­ve at a ware­house in Alaba­ma; we need to have them fight­ing against par­al­lel union dri­ves at hun­dreds of ware­hous­es across the coun­try all at once. The labor move­ment knows how to orga­nize work­ing peo­ple, but its resources are sim­ply no match for a $1.6 tril­lion com­pa­ny that can stamp out iso­lat­ed dri­ves like a giant crush­ing an ant. To give Amazon’s work­ers a chance at real jus­tice, the com­pa­ny must be orga­nized. And to orga­nize a com­pa­ny like this, there must be ded­i­cat­ed nation­al infra­struc­ture work­ing on this, and only this. No labor union in the Unit­ed States has enough mon­ey to build this on the scale that’s nec­es­sary. But you do, Macken­zie Scott. 

With one check, you can make it pos­si­ble to start union­iz­ing the com­pa­ny that made you a mega-bil­lion­aire. This is the sin­gle best way to start pay­ing your moral debt to those whose lives have been treat­ed as dis­pos­able in ser­vice to Amazon’s growth. And, it will real­ly piss off Jeff Bezos. I think we would both like to see that, no? 

We’re going to have to con­fis­cate the rest of your mon­ey when the rev­o­lu­tion comes any­how. Might as well set your kar­ma right before then. 

Sin­cere­ly,

The unwashed masses

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 17, 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. 


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With Gigs Canceled and No Relief, Musicians Form a Nationwide Union

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Musi­cian Josephine Shet­ty, aka Kohi­noor­gasm, was prepar­ing for her West Coast spring tour in March when the pan­dem­ic-relat­ed can­cel­la­tions start­ed rolling in.

Like many musi­cians, Shetty’s liveli­hood is pieced togeth­er from part-time work. She per­forms at under­ground spaces and small clubs, releas­es her own music and teach­es mid­dle school music class­es. ?“When you’re a per­son who works so many jobs, that’s already a very unsta­ble sit­u­a­tion,” Shet­ty says. With live shows being can­celled, it became clear how dif­fi­cult the road ahead would be. The inde­pen­dent venues that most work­ing musi­cians rely on were some of the first to close (and will sure­ly be some of the last to reopen).UMAW differentiates itself from similar unions through its vast scope, seeking systemic shifts industry-wide, inclusive of various genres and practices.

When fel­low musi­cian and orga­niz­er Joey La Neve DeFrancesco reached out to Shet­ty, just a few weeks into the pan­dem­ic, about union­iz­ing musi­cians and relat­ed music work­ers, Shet­ty signed up. On April 22, a group of about 20 musi­cians met vir­tu­al­ly to dis­cuss sol­i­dar­i­ty and how to build a more just indus­try, inau­gu­rat­ing the Union of Musi­cians and Allied Work­ers (UMAW).

“Very quick­ly, every­one had all of these dif­fer­ent visions of what a dif­fer­ent music indus­try could look like when it was being built col­lec­tive­ly by the work­ers involved,” says DeFrancesco, who is based in Prov­i­dence, R.I. UMAW already boasts about 25 steer­ing com­mit­tee mem­bers and 80 sub­com­mit­tee mem­bers, with top­ics rang­ing from stream­ing and venue rela­tions to police abo­li­tion. More than 1,000 musi­cians have expressed inter­est through the group’s web­site and peti­tions. Mem­bers are locat­ed in Los Ange­les, Chica­go, New York, Port­land, Ore., Boston and beyond. So far, the orga­niz­ing has hap­pened entire­ly online.

On March 25, hun­dreds of musi­cians cir­cu­lat­ed a let­ter to Con­gress demand­ing the expan­sion of unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits under the CARES Act. The let­ter also demand­ed relief regard­less of immi­gra­tion sta­tus, nation­al rent and mort­gage can­cel­la­tion, Medicare for All and fund­ing for the Postal Ser­vice and the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Arts.

UMAW grew out of that momen­tum. For UMAW’s first orga­nized day of action, May 14, musi­cians across the coun­try made near­ly 1,000 calls to House Speak­er Nan­cy Pelosi (D?Calif.), Sen­ate Minor­i­ty Leader Chuck Schumer (D?N.Y.) and local representatives.

“That was how we start­ed?—?think­ing, ?‘How are music work­ers and gig work­ers going to be pro­tect­ed dur­ing this time?’” Shet­ty says.

But the very first seeds were plant­ed years ear­li­er. Some mem­bers were involved in the 2017 effort to force the South by South­west fes­ti­val to remove a ?“depor­ta­tion clause” from its artist con­tract. Oth­ers are asso­ci­at­ed with the No Music for ICE coali­tion, which encour­ages the indus­try to cut ties with Ama­zon unless it can­cels con­tracts with Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment. These cam­paigns cre­at­ed a blue­print for ?“how you could do actions col­lec­tive­ly as musi­cians,” DeFrancesco says, pro­vid­ing a foun­da­tion for UMAW to come togeth­er quickly.

UMAW dif­fer­en­ti­ates itself from sim­i­lar unions through its vast scope, seek­ing sys­temic shifts indus­try-wide, inclu­sive of var­i­ous gen­res and prac­tices. Tra­di­tion­al union orga­niz­ing would be dif­fi­cult for UMAW’s inde­pen­dent musi­cians because they often make a liv­ing through numer­ous con­tracts and employ­ers. In that sense, UMAW’s work is more com­pa­ra­ble to efforts by the Nation­al Writ­ers Union’s Free­lance Sol­i­dar­i­ty Project than, say, the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Musi­cians (AFM).

“We’re just try­ing to orga­nize the unor­ga­nized, which is the vast major­i­ty of musi­cians right now,” DeFrancesco says. ?“There [are] so many sim­i­lar­i­ties if you look at [efforts to] orga­nize Uber, free­lance writ­ers, adjuncts. …It’s the same prob­lem, where it’s so hard to orga­nize because you have so many employers.”

Shet­ty agrees. ?“If musi­cians are the orig­i­nal gig work­ers … we have a respon­si­bil­i­ty to orga­nize with­in that realm,” she says.

Cody Fitzger­ald, a film score com­pos­er and mem­ber of the Brook­lyn-based band Stolen Jars, says UMAW stands in sol­i­dar­i­ty with mem­bers of oth­er unions, such as the AFM. But, Fitzger­ald adds, those orga­ni­za­tions don’t ful­fill the needs of all work­ing musi­cians because they cater to ses­sion and orches­tra play­ers, not independents.

“UMAW rep­re­sents the musi­cians that the AFM just doesn’t care about,” says bas­soon­ist Patrick John­son-Whit­ty, a mem­ber of the AFM and of a UMAW clas­si­cal music sub­com­mit­tee focused on con­fronting the lega­cy of white suprema­cy in the genre. Vio­list Clara Takarabe, anoth­er AFM mem­ber, is par­tic­i­pat­ing in UMAW’s polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion com­mit­tee. It aims to help musi­cians devel­op a polit­i­cal con­text around the labor of music. ?“I want to be involved in those types of cen­tral­ly impor­tant ques­tions,” Takarabe says.

UMAW is cur­rent­ly plan­ning a cam­paign to pres­sure stream­ing giant Spo­ti­fyto treat artists more fair­ly. The pub­licly trad­ed com­pa­ny is val­ued at more than $40 bil­lion, but infa­mous­ly pays artists about half-a-cent per stream. UMAW mem­bers also hope to help democ­ra­tize infor­ma­tion relat­ed to music contracts.

“I’m excit­ed about the idea of a world where peo­ple come to this union to look for infor­ma­tion about how to not be exploit­ed as an artist,” Fitzger­ald says. For many, just hav­ing UMAW as a space for sol­i­dar­i­ty is a ben­e­fit. As Shet­ty puts it, ?“The exis­tence of our cam­paigns, and our union, feels like a huge win.”

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

About the Author: Liz Pelly is a music and cul­ture writer based in Brook­lyn, NY.


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Voluntary Recognition: Worker Wins

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Despite the challenges of organizing during a deadly pandemic, working people across the country (and beyond) continue organizing, bargaining and mobilizing for a better life. This edition begins with several groups of organizers who won voluntary recognition of their new unions.

Kentucky Democratic Party Staff Join IBEW: Staff at the Kentucky Democratic Party have joined Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 369, gained voluntary recognition from management and secured their first collective bargaining agreement. In a statement, the Kentucky Democratic Party staffers said, “We asked for support and recognition of our right to organize. Our leadership stepped up to bargain in good faith and ensure that, as Kentucky Democrats, we live up to our values. We believe deeply in the importance of building and maintaining long-term organizing infrastructure as a means for achieving an equitable and inclusive Kentucky Democratic Party. We came together and organized with a single, common purpose: to make the Kentucky Democratic Party the best possible workplace for everyone, now and in the future.”

WGAE Wins Voluntary Recognition for 200 New Members at Bustle Digital Group: Bustle Digital Group (BDG) today voluntarily recognized the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE) for the purpose of collective bargaining after an overwhelming majority of employees in that unit signed authorization cards. BDG’s bargaining unit will include some 200 editorial, video, design and social staffers from its various sites. Lowell Peterson, executive director of WGAE, said, “We welcome Bustle Digital Group employees to the Writers Guild of America, East. Like thousands of their colleagues in the industry, they recognize the value and power of collective bargaining. Together, we can ensure that their voices are heard about the vital issues affecting their work and their workplace.”

Fort Worth Star-Telegram Journalists Win Voluntary Recognition of Union: Management at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram voluntarily recognized a new union at the request of journalists who will be represented by the NewsGuild-CWA. The organizing committee said, “We look forward to the start of negotiations, and we hope to form a strong working relationship that will allow us to protect local journalism here in Fort Worth for years to come.”

Milwaukee Art Museum Workers Overwhelmingly Vote to Join Machinists: A group of more than 140 employees of the Milwaukee Art Museum voted by 72% to join the Machinists (IAM). The new IAM members work in every capacity at the Milwaukee Art Museum, including visitor services, food and beverage, education and programs, information systems, facilities, and more. “I want to welcome these members to the Machinists union family,” said IAM Midwest Territory General Vice President Steve Galloway. “I’m so proud of them for educating themselves about the benefits of the IAM and working so hard for union representation and a voice in their workplace. Unions aren’t just for manufacturing workers; they have a place in every working environment.”

L.A. Union Members Win the Right to Form Public Health Councils: Workers in the Los Angeles area have reason to be proud after the L.A. County Board of Supervisors passed its ordinance to establish labor-led public health councils at worksites. The new policy was pushed by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and allows workers to set up their own health and safety enforcement committees on the job. Labor Council President Ron Herrera (IBT) explained that the policy’s passage is an important step forward to stemming the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. “Public health councils address the problem at the source by utilizing our most powerful and extensive resource—our workers—as our eyes and ears in the workplace, ensuring that public health orders are followed to prevent new outbreaks,” he said. The county’s Department of Public Health also will be charged under the ordinance with educating front-line workers on their rights to report unsafe working conditions.

UFCW Members at Kroger Agree to Tentative Contract: After months of negotiations, workers represented by United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) at Kroger’s have reached a tentative deal on a new contract that will address pay raises, fully fund health care for associates and reduce drug costs for associates with diabetes. Carolyn Devitt, who has worked at Kroger’s for 42 years, said, “We stood up to corporate and won. After months on the front lines of a pandemic, after already taking away our hero pay, they wanted to gut our health care, too. We weren’t having any of it. We stuck together, and they knew they had to back down. I’m proud of my union.”

Massachusetts Cannabis Cultivation Employees in Massachusetts Join UFCW: Workers at Cresco Labs in Massachusetts have voted to be represented by UFCW Local 328. Timothy Melia, president of UFCW Local 328, said, “We applaud cannabis workers for forming unions to make sure that, as this industry grows, workers are able to share in the success. The cannabis industry should be a place where workers earn a living wage [and] have access to affordable health care and protection from unfair discipline and discrimination.” 

UFCW Local 152 Members Ratify New Contract at ShopRite: More than 2,100 members of UFCW Local 152 who are employed as retail clerks at ShopRite stores in New Jersey ratified a new contract on Oct. 20 that protects health care benefits and raises wages. The four-year contract maintains no cost sharing of medical benefits for the lifetime of the contract. The contract also establishes paid sick days for members, a new benefit made possible with the introduction of the New Jersey Earned Sick Leave Law.

SAG-AFTRA Agrees to Two-Year Extension to Video Game Contract: SAG-AFTRA reached an agreement with nine of the video game industry’s largest companies to extend their Interactive Media Agreement for two years. The deal covers voice-over and performance-capture performers and will provide increased wages and employer contributions to health care and retirement. About the new agreement, SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris said, “We are pleased to have reached this agreement with the employers. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the entertainment industry, but work on video games, much of which can be done remotely, has continued. This extension allows members to keep working and have some certainty during an uncertain time.”

Michigan Nurses Association Affiliates With NNU: Earlier this week, National Nurses United (NNU) announced that the Michigan Nurses Association (MNA) board of directors voted to join as an affiliate of NNU. “Solidarity is more important now than ever before,” explained Jamie Brown, RN, MNA president. “Health care executives and D.C. politicians continue to ignore the voice of those of us on the front lines while the pandemic only gets worse. It is time for nurses to unite and fight back.” The 13,000-member union of Michigan nurses will combine forces with more than 150,000 members of NNU nationwide. NNU leaders also highlighted the need for a strong federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been lacking up to now.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on November 20, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell  is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.

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


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California proves it’s not as liberal as you think

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OAKLAND, Calif. — The myth of lockstep liberal California took a hit this election.

Voters in the deep-blue state rejected a progressive push to reinstate affirmative action, sided with technology companies over organized labor and rejected rent control. They are poised to reject a business tax that had been a decadeslong priority for labor unions and Democratic leaders.

President Donald Trump regularly portrays California as a land of complete liberal excess, and Democrat Joe Biden currently has 65 percent of California’s vote. Yet decisions on ballot measures this week reflect a state that remains unpredictable, flashing a libertarian streak with a tinge of fiscal moderation within its Democratic moorings.https://e3b374dfacf220d92b4c6008a9eb8004.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

“We’re not going to go for everything that’s progressive,” said Mindy Romero, head of the University of Southern California’s Center for Inclusive Democracy. “We think of ourselves as such a progressive state, and I’ve always said we’re a blue state but really we’re many shades of blue.”

California has long been an incubator for policies that go national, so industries and labor unions know that winning a ballot fight here has much wider implications. Already, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said Thursday that he wants to build on his California success by pursuing the same law in other states and nations. And just as the state’s 1996 affirmative action ban touched off a similar set of laws across the nation, the California vote this week could deter other states from trying to reinstate racial or gender preferences.

The ballot outcomes underscore that California voters are not a liberal monolith even as Democrats enjoy unprecedented control in the state that produced Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon.

Liberals thought 2020 was their moment to secure long-desired changes: California’s electorate has steadily more diverse and Democratic in recent decades, relegating its once-mighty Republican Party to the political margins. A deeply galvanizing presidential election tantalized liberal groups as a potential high-water mark for turnout and a chance to enshrine ambitious ideas.

Decades after a more Republican California electorate curtailed property tax increases in 1978 and banned affirmative action in 1996, campaigns believed that demographic shifts would produce different outcomes a generation later.

But they seemingly miscalculated. There was no bigger example than voters’ decisive rejection of Proposition 16. The ballot measure would have reinstated affirmative action and directly repudiated what liberals consider a racist chapter of California’s recent past.

State lawmakers, inspired by a summer of racial justice activism, saw a rare window to repeal Proposition 209, the 1996 law backed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican widely blamed for turning Latino voters against the GOP for good in the state. The affirmative action ban passed when California still had a white majority population, and it was the second major wedge issue initiative that Wilson championed.

Many of the Democratic lawmakers of color who placed the repeal measure on this year’s ballot were inspired to enter politics during that divisive era. They saw Proposition 16 as not only a legal change but a moral imperative — and figured voters would as well.

The ballot measure had a clear cash advantage with $31 million from wealthy activist donors and foundations, compared to only $1.6 million raised by opponents. Yet it failed badly, securing only 44 percent support as of Thursday.

California is not uniformly liberal. It is still home to millions of Republicans, while the ever-larger Democratic tent includes plenty of moderates. And the state’s booming minority population still lags in voter participation.

“We have a history of being a more red state,” Romero said. “A big reason why California is blue is because of the growth of communities of color, most dominantly because of the growth of the Latino community,” but “it does matter the shape of the electorate. We still have a voting electorate that is white, wealthier, better educated than the rest of our population.”

Democrats saw a chance to go after another long-sought target: commercial property tax hikes.

Since its passage in 1978, Proposition 13 has been blamed for starving governments and schools of tax dollars by keeping property taxes low relative to the soaring value of housing and commercial real estate in California. Liberals acknowledge the political reality that they can’t convince homeowners to repeal Prop 13 provisions on residential property, often called the third rail of California politics. But they have long wanted to untether business property from the same protections.

Unions, education groups and the foundation started by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg were so convinced that November 2020 was their best opportunity that they gathered enough signatures for the ballot twice, the second one taking revisions they believed were an easier sell. It landed on the ballot as Proposition 15.

They presumed that high turnout from liberals and anti-Trump voters would translate into an anti-business vote; their ads regularly featured white businessmen in board rooms as a foil. Yet the initiative is poised to lose, trailing with only 48.3 percent of the vote.

Former Assemblymember Catharine Baker, a moderate Republican who was the last GOP lawmaker from the Bay Area, suggested Prop 15’s failure could “be an example of how a gigamajority Legislature might have not its finger on the pulse of the California electorate.”

The pandemic loomed inescapably over the election and reshaped campaigns’ appeals to voters. On Proposition 15, for example, backers argued they needed the money more than ever during a debilitating recession, while opponents countered that it would be foolish to further burden reeling businesses. The message of economic caution appeared to resonate, Baker said.

“There’s just no embrace right now for Californians, many of whom are suffering economically, for more taxes, the possible cost of that, and any closure of economic activity,” Baker said. “It’s made all the worse by the pandemic, in a time like this you want people to be able to make a living and be able to afford living here.”

Yet, the California electorate defies easy conclusions. The criminal justice landscape was a mixed bag after a year of surging activism. Voters handily rejected law enforcement’s effort to increase property crime sentences and limit early prison releases. They overwhelmingly voted to enfranchise felony parolees. Progressive Los Angeles district attorney candidate George Gascón built an early lead over incumbent District Attorney Jackie Lacey in a bellwether contest for criminal justice reform.

But Californians voted to keep cash bail, repudiating a 2019 law that sought to prohibit it and undercutting a state-by-state movement to eliminate the practice. In rejecting Proposition 25, the electorate sided with bail companies that spent millions to stay in business. They also vindicated civil libertarians and criminal justice advocates who warned a replacement system of predictive algorithms would perpetuate discrimination.

Those dynamics led the bail bonds industry to adopt the rhetoric of criminal justice reformers in warning about systemic bias — a tactic that reflected a calculation that progressive messages would resonate with voters.

“I think they knew they had to in order to win,” said Democratic strategist Katie Merrill. “You can’t win statewide in California on issues unless you are appealing to Democrats and progressives, and they knew they had to do it.”

Those licking their wounds this week pointed to one thing: money.

They said massive campaign spending can be a better predictor than partisan affiliation when it comes to ballot initiatives. Health care unions failed again to rein in kidney dialysis providers after they were outspent enormously by the dialysis industry’s $100 million counterattack. Real estate groups poured money into defeating a second consecutive rent control initiative.

But nowhere was cash clout more evident than in a battle over the tech industry’s employment practices. Homegrown Silicon Valley giants like Uber shattered state spending records by plowing more than $200 million into Proposition 22, which allows them to circumvent a state mandate to convert their independent contractor workers into employees. That massive outlay was enough to surmount unified labor opposition.

“I don’t know if we should be looking at this as progressive versus not progressive or if we should be looking at the overwhelming impact that money has in campaigns,” said Sandra Lowe, a Democratic consultant and former top California Democratic Party strategist. “It’s pretty hard to compete against $200 million of advertisements and most of the people that’s the only thing they know, is what they’re seeing on their television.”

Democratic strategist Michael Trujillo echoed that sentiment, noting that for all of organized labor’s political California clout, “labor’s money isn’t infinite.” Well-funded special interest groups were better able to sway critical Democrats, he said.

“California’s a liberal, Democratic state so if Democrats want to get an initiative passed it’s really on the backs of Democrats,” Trujillo said, and “for the most part, the folks that were able to get their message through in a very expensive state like California tended to do well.”

Some campaigns likely had a harder time breaking through airwave saturation and mailbox inundation of other big-money measures, said Public Policy Institute of California president Mark Baldassare. That may have been the case with affirmative action, which failed despite polls showing widespread support for racial equity measures. Though backers had $31 million, that was a fraction of the money other campaigns had to blitz voters.

“It was a very difficult landscape for other ballot initiatives to get attention and get support for voters,” which often means people default to voting no, Baldassare said. “The connecting of dots in some cases just didn’t take place.”

Still, Republican consultant Rob Stutzman pushed back on the notion that cash mismatches were the sole determining factor in organized labor getting “creamed at the ballot.”

If money exclusively swung elections, Stutzman argued on a post-election panel, “there would be 60 Democratic senators as well,” referring to cash-soaked challenges to GOP senators like Mitch McConnell, John Cornyn and Lindsey Graham, all of whom won.

This article was originally published by Politico on November 12, 2020 Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jeremy B. White co-writes the California Playbook and covers politics in the Golden State. He previously covered the California Legislature for the Sacramento Bee, where he reported on campaigns, myriad nationally significant policy clashes and multiple FBI investigations of sitting lawmakers.

He has a bachelor’s degree in English from Tufts University and a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. A native of Bethesda, Maryland, one of his life dreams is to throw out the first pitch at a Washington Nationals game — although he would settle for winning a playoff series. He lives in Oakland with his partner and his cat, Ziggy Pawdust.


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What the workplace will look like under a Biden White House

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The U.S. workplace will look much different with Joe Biden in the Oval Office — with some significant changes possible even if Republicans maintain a majority in the Senate.

“Biden, who won the endorsement of almost every major union in the country, has made labor reform a fundamental part of his program and is widely expected to name at least one union leader to his Cabinet,” your host reports. And “as the coronavirus pandemic continues to stoke permanent job losses and compromise worker safety, the case for structural change may be stronger than ever.”

What Biden can do will to some extent depend on which party controls the Senate, which won’t be determined until a pair of key Georgia runoffs in early January. “Still, the transition will be a sharp turn from the Trump White House, under which union membership has droppedpay inequity has widened and enforcement has dwindled.”

Here’s some of what you can expect:

— Heightened worker safety enforcement: One of the first things a Biden administration will likely do is instruct the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to step up worker safety enforcement by enacting an emergency temporary standard, or a set of guidelines governing how employers must protect their employees from Covid-19. He’s also likely to ramp up penalties for violators.

— A reversal of Trump executive orders: Biden will be able to immediately rescind some of President Donald Trump’s executive orders — including those restricting employment-based visasbanning diversity training in the federal government and peeling back civil service protections — as well as reinstate Obama-era executive orders that Trump had undone.

— A more labor-friendly NLRB: The former vice president is widely expected to appoint more Democrats to the National Labor Relations Board, the agency responsible for settling disputes between unions and employers. Right now, it’s three Republicans, one Democrat — and an empty seat.

— Pursuit of progressive labor policy: Biden campaigned heavily on enacting Democratic labor legislation similar to that passed out of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s House in 2020 and 2019, including a measure to hike the federal minimum wage to $15 and the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, which would strengthen workers’ ability to unionize. This, of course, will hinge on the balance of power in the upper chamber, as many of the provisions are opposed by Republicans.

Union leaders rejoice: “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ victory in this free and fair election is a win for America’s labor movement,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement. Said AFSCME President Lee Saunders: “[C]ome January 20, we will have a White House that honors our work, respects our sacrifice and fights for the aid to states, cities and towns that we need.”

WHO WILL BE BIDEN’S LABOR SECRETARY? There are already several names in rotation as Biden’s transition team gets to work, our Megan Cassella reports.

“Biden is widely expected to choose a more progressive candidate to lead the Labor Department, one that would help balance out more moderate nominees he’s expected to place at other agencies,” she writes.

“Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), a former union organizer who also has Labor Department experience, is high on the list of potential nominees, as is California Labor Secretary Julie Su. Levin comes from a potentially vulnerable district, however, and Democrats may be wary of a special election there, given their unexpectedly narrow control of the House.”

“Other possibilities for Biden’s Labor secretary include DNC Chairman and former Obama Labor Secretary Tom Perez, AFL-CIO Chief Economist Bill Spriggs and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who POLITICO reported is interested in the position.”

CALIFORNIA’S PROP 22 GIVES GIG COMPANIES A NEW ROAD MAP: The success of a California ballot measure allowing Uber, Lyft and other gig companies’ drivers to be independent contractors — while still enjoying a few employee-like perks — may provide employers with a model to use across the country, Bloomberg’s Josh Eidelson reports.

Proposition 22 promises drivers “a guaranteed minimum pay rate while they’re assigned a task; a review process for terminations; and health stipends if they work enough hours,” he writes. “A University of California at Berkeley analysis concluded that after accounting for full expenses and wait times, the proposition’s pay guarantee is worth less than $6 an hour. (The companies dispute this.)”

“The companies spent hundreds of millions of dollars on ads … [and] it was money well spent. Uber and Lyft alone gained more than $10 billion in market value after the vote, and defanged a recent state court injunction that would have required them to reclassify their drivers as employees.”

“The companies don’t plan to stop there,” Eidelson writes. “‘You’ll see us more loudly advocate for new laws like Prop 22,’ Uber Chief Executive Officer Dara Khosrowshahi said on a Nov. 5 earnings call. DoorDash CEO Tony Xu said in a statement: ‘We’re looking ahead and across the country, ready to champion new benefits structures that are portable, proportional, and flexible.’”

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

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.


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