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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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How Unions Can Bridge the Gap Between Climate and Labor Movements

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While U.S. union den­si­ty hit an all-time low in 2019, the non­prof­it sec­tor appears to be one area where work­ers are union­iz­ing. The Non­prof­it Pro­fes­sion­al Employ­ees Union (NPEU) brought sev­en new work­places into their union dur­ing a 16-day peri­od in April, includ­ing the envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tion Friends of the Earth. And while there is no offi­cial data on non­prof­it unions yet (many of them are fair­ly new), cli­mate jus­tice orga­ni­za­tions are some of the many work­places that have scram­bled to union­ize both pri­or to and dur­ing the pan­dem­ic for the same rea­sons as oth­er work­ers: pay, ben­e­fits and job security. 

Cli­mate activists have often been denounced by trade union­ists who believe they are out to destroy work­ers’ well-pay­ing jobs. There’s an old joke that goes, “Are you an envi­ron­men­tal­ist, or do you work for a liv­ing?” But what hap­pens to the often fraught rela­tion­ship between unions and envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions when green staffers become union mem­bers too?

Unions’ pri­ma­ry pur­pose is to give work­ers the abil­i­ty to col­lec­tive­ly bar­gain around work­ing con­di­tions—so it’s not hard to under­stand why many work­ers would want to be union mem­bers. In fact, labor unions cur­rent­ly have a 65% approval rat­ing. As the econ­o­my is in sham­bles, labor’s sup­port has been steadi­ly increas­ing, per­haps because mil­lions have been laid off, many of whom lost their health insur­ance and received no sev­er­ance. Non­prof­its, which can be financed through a mix of fed­er­al and state fund­ing, pri­vate grants and indi­vid­ual dona­tions, are also in a Covid-induced pre­car­i­ous sit­u­a­tion. Work­ers who may have felt that their jobs were pre­vi­ous­ly secure thanks to an air of pres­tige have seen col­leagues fur­loughed or laid off—or have wit­nessed lead­er­ship make big changes in their orga­ni­za­tions with­out involv­ing staff. 

Char­lie Jiang, a cli­mate cam­paign­er at Green­peace USA, an envi­ron­men­tal non­prof­it, told In These Times that staff there “have been orga­niz­ing for quite some time, and the pan­dem­ic strength­ened our resolve. We’re fight­ing for more clear and con­sis­tent poli­cies and more orga­ni­za­tion­al trans­paren­cy.” The Green­peace USA Work­ers Union, affil­i­at­ed with Pro­gres­sive Work­ers Union (PWU), was vol­un­tar­i­ly rec­og­nized in August. Jiang said that union mem­bers “are look­ing ahead to meet­ing man­age­ment with good faith at the bar­gain­ing table… We formed a union to fight for fair and bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions, and for a cul­ture root­ed in justice.”

Unions do far more than allow work­ers to col­lec­tive­ly bar­gain. They give peo­ple the abil­i­ty to prac­tice democ­ra­cy in the work­place, they have the pow­er to change our polit­i­cal sys­tem, and they chal­lenge cor­po­rate prof­it and pow­er—mak­ing them poten­tial allies for envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions that do the same. Groups like Green­peace, the Sier­ra Club and 350.org often fight big cor­po­ra­tions over their dan­ger­ous dis­pos­al of chem­i­cal waste, fos­sil fuel emis­sions, fac­to­ry farm­ing and more. Work­ers for these cor­po­ra­tions are the ones who han­dle tox­ic waste, breathe dirty air and process chick­en at poul­try plants. 

Envi­ron­men­tal groups and work­er orga­ni­za­tions are aligned on many issues, and some do work close­ly togeth­er. Accord­ing to Rebec­ca Wolf, a senior orga­niz­er on the fac­to­ry farm team at Food and Water Watch and a mem­ber of NPEU, “Our true focus is cor­po­rate con­trol. Union­iz­ing work­ers inher­ent­ly beats back against cor­po­rate con­trol and con­trol of the food sys­tem. I see envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions all the time in cor­po­rate part­ner­ships, and we have a hard line against that.” 

While unions are fund­ed only by mem­bers’ dues mon­ey, many envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions take mon­ey from cor­po­rate donors—some of which face off against unions in their own work­places. This dynam­ic can cre­ate ten­sion between staff and lead­er­ship at envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions, which may have dif­fer­ent priorities.

Elon Musk, bil­lion­aire CEO of Tes­la, anony­mous­ly donat­ed over $6 mil­lion to the Sier­ra Club. But in the sum­mer of 2018, after com­ing under fire for a $40,000 dona­tion to a Repub­li­can-allied group, Musk asked Sier­ra Club exec­u­tive direc­tor Michael Brune for pub­lic sup­port. A stew­ard at PWU who asked to remain anony­mous for fear of retal­i­a­tion told In These Times that “PWU kicked that tough dis­cus­sion off. [We] help them stay ground­ed on work­er issues.” While Brune ini­tial­ly shared words of sup­port for Musk on his per­son­al Twit­ter account, lat­er that year, the Sier­ra Club released a state­ment in sup­port of work­ers orga­niz­ing at Tes­la—some­thing union mem­bers believe can be attrib­uted, at least in part, to the union. The anony­mous stew­ard told In These Times, “It’s impor­tant for unions that rep­re­sent work­ers at pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tions to hold those orga­ni­za­tions account­able.” With­out a union, it may have been more dif­fi­cult for Sier­ra Club staff to push back against lead­ers and ensure that they pub­licly sup­port­ed Tes­la work­ers instead of their CEO, that stew­ard underscores. 

And while unions are able to win impres­sive gains around wages, ben­e­fits and a voice at work, their true pow­er lies in their abil­i­ty to shut down the econ­o­my if nec­es­sary. On the whole, work­ers at non­prof­its and oth­er pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tions are not nec­es­sar­i­ly in a strate­gic posi­tion to exert lever­age to secure the biggest wins for the cli­mate—their going on strike would not have a sig­nif­i­cant impact on the broad­er econ­o­my. Work­ers in logis­tics, health­care and edu­ca­tion have far more pow­er to throw a wrench in how our econ­o­my and soci­ety func­tions. And build­ing trades work­ers, who are like­ly to have more work if leg­is­la­tion like the Green New Deal is passed, could be very influ­en­tial in cli­mate pol­i­cy. Their unions are large and pow­er­ful, and their mem­bers are con­struc­tion work­ers and elec­tri­cians, whose work will be direct­ly impact­ed by both cli­mate change and cli­mate leg­is­la­tion. While build­ing trades work­ers tend to be more con­ser­v­a­tive, the poten­tial for more work and larg­er mem­ber­ship rolls could make them the decid­ing fac­tor in the pas­sage of a Green New Deal.

But envi­ron­men­tal staffers’ iden­ti­ty with the broad­er labor move­ment and the sol­i­dar­i­ty that can be strate­gi­cal­ly expressed—such as in the case of the Sier­ra Club and Tes­la work­ers orga­niz­ing—could forge more ties between the work­ers’ move­ment and the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment as more of these work­ers orga­nize at their work­places. It’s also unde­ni­able that the expe­ri­ence of act­ing col­lec­tive­ly with cowork­ers can deep­en polit­i­cal con­scious­ness, no mat­ter one’s work­place or pri­or polit­i­cal commitments.

Wolf, who was on her union’s orga­niz­ing com­mit­tee, told In These Times that “even though we work to make people’s lives bet­ter every day at work, col­lec­tive action is the expe­ri­ence you need to tru­ly under­stand pow­er-build­ing. Form­ing a union takes all the messy and good bits of expe­ri­ence, val­ues, and polit­i­cal con­scious­ness and brings them togeth­er in a patch­work that moves every­one along.”

But a fac­tor that may dimin­ish the influ­ence of these envi­ron­men­tal staff unions is the unions they are tied to. NPEU is affil­i­at­ed with the Inter­na­tion­al Fed­er­a­tion of Pro­fes­sion­al and Tech­ni­cal Engi­neers (IFPTE), which is a mem­ber of the AFL-CIO, the largest labor fed­er­a­tion in the coun­try. In con­trast, NPEU is a fair­ly small union, with “rough­ly 250 to 300 dues-pay­ing mem­bers, about 500 work­ing on their first con­tract, and hun­dreds more that are in the process of orga­niz­ing,” accord­ing to Katie Bar­rows, vice pres­i­dent of com­mu­ni­ca­tions for the union.

In con­trast, PWU, which also orga­nizes envi­ron­men­tal non­prof­its, is an inde­pen­dent union, which means it’s not affil­i­at­ed with any oth­er union or any labor fed­er­a­tion. (PWU’s bar­gain­ing units include staffers at Sier­ra Club, 350.org, Green­peace USA and the Union of Con­cerned Sci­en­tists.) Accord­ing to the anony­mous Sier­ra Club stew­ard, this inde­pen­dence from the AFL-CIO has actu­al­ly helped the union: PWU is free to run its own pro­gram, which focus­es on anti-racism and social jus­tice. He told In These Times that “the mem­bers of PWU are first-time union mem­bers. They nev­er knew what was pos­si­ble in a union, so there are no lim­i­ta­tions. Our pow­er is in the involve­ment of our mem­bers and their creativity.”

How­ev­er, there are ben­e­fits to being part of a larg­er fed­er­a­tion. Only AFL-CIO affil­i­ates are able to shape the federation’s strat­e­gy and elect its lead­ers, which means that PWU won’t have a say in whether the AFL-CIO ever sup­ports the Green New Deal. Bar­rows believes that “if envi­ron­men­tal pro­fes­sion­als orga­nize, they’ll be a grow­ing part of the labor move­ment, and they’ll have a voice in deci­sions, espe­cial­ly if they’re in the AFL. Hav­ing envi­ron­men­tal work­ers orga­nize will be help­ful to bridg­ing that gap, and to unit­ing labor and envi­ron­men­tal groups.”

While envi­ron­men­tal staffers have formed unions for the same rea­sons most work­ers do, their unions may be a tool for some­thing greater. The anony­mous stew­ard told In These Times, “Our mem­bers are at the inter­sec­tion of labor and envi­ron­men­tal work. They work on behalf of envi­ron­men­tal caus­es, but they’re work­ers as well. They’re try­ing to weave their beliefs about the impor­tance of work­ers into cli­mate leg­is­la­tion and con­ver­sa­tions with politi­cians and union lead­ers.” The stew­ard point­ed to a pro-union video that PWU mem­bers made in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Sier­ra Club about the 2018 Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court deci­sion, which made it ille­gal for pub­lic sec­tor unions to col­lect fees from non-mem­bers. He also told In These Times that the Sier­ra Club and union also worked togeth­er to release a state­ment about the deci­sion, which quotes exec­u­tive direc­tor Brune as say­ing, “Today’s deci­sion does the bid­ding of the very same cor­po­ra­tions that have pol­lut­ed our com­mu­ni­ties, but we will march on.” 

While it is unde­ni­able that the rift between labor and envi­ron­men­tal orga­niz­ing runs deep, the staff at cli­mate orga­ni­za­tions join­ing the ranks of the labor move­ment could help bridge the divide between these two crit­i­cal move­ments. As Wolf at Food and Water Watch told In These Times, “We can always be doing bet­ter, and while greens in gen­er­al are doing bet­ter, we need to be much more pub­lic about our con­nec­tion to labor, and a broad­er con­nec­tion to and with all social movements.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 9, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.


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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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Detroit Bus Drivers Strike over Violent Attacks

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Detroit bus drivers, the first essential workers in the country to strike for safety during the pandemic, pulled a wildcat work stoppage again Friday, angry over escalating violence against drivers. Often the attacks are triggered, they said, by a driver’s request that a passenger wear a mask.

Drivers returned to work this morning with a promise of physical barriers to be constructed between driver and passengers. The city will also hold de-escalation training for drivers and said it would decrease police response time and increase the visibility of law enforcement on buses.

The work stoppage was triggered by the suspension of a driver who was captured on video punching a passenger—though the video does not show the events leading up to the driver’s self-defense. The passenger had declined to wear a mask, then approached the seated driver, snatched away a barrier chain, and raised his fist.

“‘Do I have to wait for a punch and then react? What are the rules of engagement?’” Those are the questions Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26 President Glenn Tolbert said he asked in negotiations with the city. “I don’t know if they wanted him to wait till he stabbed him or hit him. If someone is breathing in my face from two feet with no mask on….”

After the drivers’ March 17 strike, they won rear boarding of passengers and a distance of at least 10 feet between them and drivers, with masks mandatory. “Once you break that barrier, you’re not coming up there to talk to me,” Tolbert said. “I’m telling you I’m waiting for you to comply, you should not be running up on me.”

Tolbert said drivers have seen “a rash of assaults, weapons being pulled, females being accosted, drivers being attacked and not being able to defend themselves. If I ask about a mask now I’m going to be abused verbally and sometimes physically.

“The membership just said they were tired. They keep in touch between the two terminals, west side and east side. Neither the department nor the city was protecting them. “

Tolbert called such incidents a “daily occurrence. Things the outside public would abhor, we think it’s just another day at DDOT. We can’t keep living in fear. The department should not want that.”

After weekend negotiations members voted by 89 percent to return with a new Memorandum of Understanding.

VIRUS IN THE AIR

More than 50 Detroit bus drivers have contracted the coronavirus; five have been ventilated and one, Jason Hargrove, died—a few days after posting complaints about a passenger who coughed on him. Tolbert himself had the virus early on, and two former Local 26 presidents also died from it.

Detroit bus drivers haven’t gotten hazard pay since June, while those in a different ATU local who operate lines that run to the suburbs (SMART buses) get an additional $7.50 per hour.

The drivers’ earlier strike won free rides for passengers, to minimize driver-passenger contact; cleaning protocols and hiring of cleaning staff; gloves, wipes, and masks; and available restrooms, given that restaurants were closed.

“We’re not satisfied till we can go to work and not be subject to that abuse,” Tolbert said. “We want to feel the same kind of safety on the bus as they feel sitting in their offices.

“I refuse to have another conversation like I had with Jason Hargrove’s wife.”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on October 5, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jane Slaughter is a former editor of Labor Notes and co-author of Secrets of a Successful Organizer.


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California Labor Federation Wins New Protections for Workers

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

Last Thursday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a package of bills to expand worker protections. The new state laws will provide a workers’ compensation presumption for front-line workers who are afflicted with infectious diseases on the job and a requirement for employers to give timely notification of COVID-19 cases in the workplace. The California Labor Federation, under the leadership of Executive Secretary-Treasurer Art Pulaski (IAM), took charge of the fight for these new policies. “Since the pandemic began, the California labor movement has strongly advocated for the most robust worker protection policies in the country. Today’s signing of a package of bills to bolster worker protections as the COVID-19 crisis continues shows our commitment as a state to policies that put the health and safety of workers first,” Pulaski said. “While more work must be done in 2021 to strengthen protections to ensure essential workers putting their lives at risk return home safely to their families after each shift, today the governor gave a much-needed boost to all workers across the state.”

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on September 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Aaron Gallant is a contributor for AFL-CIO.


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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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Unite Here Is 85% Unemployed and Still Fighting Like Hell

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No union in Amer­i­ca has been posi­tioned more direct­ly in the bulls­eye of this pandemic’s eco­nom­ic dev­as­ta­tion than Unite Here, the 300,000-member union of hotel, food ser­vice and casi­no work­ers. In April, its mem­bers were suf­fer­ing a stag­ger­ing 98% unem­ploy­ment rate. Almost six months lat­er, the union is stuck at about 85% unem­ploy­ment. Despite that, it is also the only group deter­mined enough to wage a large-scale door knock­ing cam­paign for the Joe Biden tick­et, at a time when the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty has com­plete­ly aban­doned its ground game. 

Even as Repub­li­cans push to reopen busi­ness­es and Wall Street con­tin­ues to boom, the sta­tus of Unite Here?—?known as an aggres­sive and polit­i­cal­ly active union that wields seri­ous pow­er with­in entire indus­tries?—?paints a pic­ture of a work­ing class still mired in an exis­ten­tial cri­sis of long term unem­ploy­ment. D. Tay­lor, Unite Here’s gruff inter­na­tion­al pres­i­dent, says that the col­lapse of the trav­el and tourism indus­try that dec­i­mat­ed the union’s jobs con­tin­ues to grind on. ?“There’s no busi­ness trav­el, there’s no con­ven­tions, there’s no for­eign trav­el. The hotel indus­try has real­ly nev­er reopened from the pan­dem­ic,” he says. Like­wise, the shut­down of major sport­ing events and of many col­lege and uni­ver­si­ty cam­pus­es has put many of the union’s indus­tri­al food ser­vice work­ers out of work. And the sched­uled Octo­ber 1 expi­ra­tion of the Con­gres­sion­al air­line res­cue pack­age in the CARES Act will almost cer­tain­ly mean lay­offs for many of the union’s air­port work­ers as well. Even in Las Vegas, a rel­a­tive bright spot that has seen some resump­tion in busi­ness, more than half of Unite Here’s mem­bers are still unem­ployed, accord­ing to Taylor. 

The loss of dues mon­ey from all of those unem­ployed mem­bers has been a large blow to Unite Here’s own inter­nal finances. But the union has not stopped work­ing. Besides help­ing mem­bers win exten­sions of health ben­e­fits and nav­i­gate bro­ken state unem­ploy­ment sys­tems (which Tay­lor calls ?“a joke”), most of the union’s bat­tles are now polit­i­cal. One of their top issues in cities across the nation now is try­ing to ensure that laid off mem­bers retain long term ?“recall rights” to get their old jobs back when busi­ness resumes, so that employ­ers can’t use the pan­dem­ic shut­down as an excuse to get rid of expe­ri­enced union work­ers in favor of new, low­er-priced replacements. 

On a nation­al lev­el, Tay­lor says Con­gress des­per­ate­ly needs to pass anoth­er stim­u­lus bill like the HEROES act to pre­vent more peo­ple from los­ing health care cov­er­age dur­ing this cri­sis, and that there must be a coor­di­nat­ed nation­al strat­e­gy to keep Covid in check. He is not opti­mistic about either. ?“I kind of think we’re back to the ?‘Oliv­er Twist’ days when you deal with this admin­is­tra­tion and Sen­ate Repub­li­cans,” he says. 
Joe Biden marches with Unite Here members in Las Vegas in February of 2020.

Unite Here, like most unions out­side of law enforce­ment, is back­ing the Biden-Har­ris tick­et. They held a vir­tu­al event with Kamala Har­ris this week. (A UH spokesper­son says the union is spend­ing ?“sev­er­al mil­lions” on the elec­tion, and is pulling in addi­tion­al fund­ing from out­side sources as well). At that event, Tay­lor urged Har­ris not to give up on old-fash­ioned door knock­ing?—?some­thing that Unite Here itself is pur­su­ing in the key swing states of Neva­da, Ari­zona, and Florida. 

In fact, the union’s com­mit­ment to knock­ing on doors despite the pan­dem­ic makes it unique in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. Politi­co report­ed last month that the Trump cam­paign is knock­ing on a mil­lion doors a week, and the Biden cam­paign is knock­ing on zero. Tay­lor says that the union has a strict set of safe­ty pro­to­cols, includ­ing social dis­tanc­ing and masks for their vol­un­teers, who car­ry extra masks to hand out to any­one who answers the door with­out one. Thus far, they have not had any cas­es of Covid as a result of the pro­gram. The union plans to knock on a half mil­lion doors in Neva­da, Ari­zona, and Flori­da by elec­tion day. 

“I don’t think there’s any replace­ment for it. I’ve been try­ing to urge every pro­gres­sive group” to start door knock­ing as well, Tay­lor says. ?“I think if they don’t, it’s at their own per­il. Door knock­ing has been a tra­di­tion for decades, and it works. You can’t talk to some­body in a TV screen. There’s a safe way to do it.” 

Despite Taylor’s urg­ing, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty itself seems to have made the deci­sion to for­sake door knock­ing entire­ly dur­ing the pan­dem­ic. (Biden’s cam­paign man­ag­er said ear­li­er this month that ?“those met­rics don’t have any impact on reach­ing vot­ers.) The Biden cam­paign, there­fore, finds itself in the odd posi­tion of rely­ing on a union made up almost entire­ly of peo­ple who are cur­rent­ly unem­ployed to knock on doors in swing states for them, shrug­ging off the union’s strate­gic advice, even as the cam­paign wel­comes its mate­r­i­al support. 

For D. Tay­lor, defeat­ing the ?“patho­log­i­cal liar” Don­ald Trump is a neces­si­ty?—?but get­ting Biden elect­ed is only the begin­ning of orga­nized labor’s work. He is adamant that unions must con­tin­ue to orga­nize, despite the fact that many are just try­ing to sur­vive, in order to avoid the long term fate of ?“try­ing to pro­tect a small­er and small­er piece of the work force.” He is equal­ly adamant that unions need to lean hard on Biden in order to make him do what must be done for work­ing peo­ple. ?“If we don’t put pres­sure on folks on an ongo­ing basis, they rarely do the hard things that need to be done,” Tay­lor says. 

“I think this [elec­tion] is gonna be a barn burn­er. If any­one assumes vic­to­ry, that’s a guar­an­teed defeat.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 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. You can reach him at [email protected]


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Meet the Students Trying to Organize the First Campus-Wide Undergraduate Union

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Inside the groundbreaking student organizing drive at Kenyon College.

On August 31, stu­dents at Keny­on Col­lege, a pri­vate lib­er­al arts col­lege in Gam­bier, Ohio, announced their intent to union­ize with the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (UE) in an open let­ter to the school’s pres­i­dent and board of trustees. Stu­dents have request­ed vol­un­tary recog­ni­tion through a card-check neu­tral­i­ty agree­ment with the school’s admin­is­tra­tion. If suc­cess­ful, the Keny­on Stu­dent Work­er Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee (K?SWOC) will become the first union to orga­nize its entire under­grad­u­ate work­force, which will include all 800 stu­dent work­er posi­tions avail­able on campus.

“This is a his­to­ry mak­ing cam­paign,” says Dan Nap­sha, a senior major­ing in polit­i­cal sci­ence. ?“If we win, it real­ly does send a mes­sage that this is pos­si­ble and that stu­dent work­ers should be ask­ing for more.”

Labor Day wrapped up a week of action by stu­dent orga­niz­ers, which includ­ed tes­ti­mo­ni­als from stu­dent work­ers, pan­els on inter­na­tion­al labor and racial jus­tice and vir­tu­al socials and con­clud­ed with endorse­ments from Sens. Sher­rod Brown (D?Ohio) and Bernie Sanders (I?Vt.). In a let­ter of sup­port to Keny­on stu­dent work­ers, Sanders wrote, ?“When you and your col­leagues join togeth­er as a union, the admin­is­tra­tion will be required to bar­gain with you in good faith… I respect the crit­i­cal work you do and wish you the very best in your efforts to cre­ate a demo­c­ra­t­ic work­place where your voice has a seat at the table.”

Dis­rup­tion in cam­pus employ­ment due to the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic sparked new urgency for stu­dents’ abil­i­ty to bar­gain with the school. When Keny­on closed its cam­pus and switched to remote learn­ing in March, many stu­dents had their work hours cut or stopped work­ing entire­ly. Under­grad­u­ate jobs include work­ing in the din­ing hall, library, admis­sions office and as research assis­tants. Stu­dents say there was a lack of cer­tain­ty around their employ­ment sta­tus or work­ing con­di­tions that has car­ried over into the Fall semes­ter which start­ed August 31 and has about half of the stu­dent body on cam­pus and the oth­er half learn­ing remotely. 

“The pan­dem­ic real­ly served as the cat­a­lyst for us and basi­cal­ly was a sig­nal that enough is enough?—?that we’re fed up,” says Napsha.

In late March, apeti­tion signed by over 200 mem­bers of the col­lege com­mu­ni­ty and spon­sored by Keny­on Young Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (KYD­SA) to secure stu­dent pay for the rest of the school year proved suc­cess­ful. Though the admin­is­tra­tion did not acknowl­edge the peti­tion, stu­dents were paid for their aver­age week­ly hours regard­less of their abil­i­ty to work remote­ly. A few months lat­er, when the admin­is­tra­tion announced it would be sus­pend­ing retire­ment ben­e­fits for Keny­on staff due to a $19.3 mil­lion deficit in the school’s oper­at­ing bud­get,anoth­er peti­tion, again ini­ti­at­ed by KYD­SA, was cir­cu­lat­ed to ?“stop the cuts.” With the sup­port of stu­dents, UE, which rep­re­sents the main­te­nance work­ers on cam­pus, was able to come to an agree­ment with the admin­is­tra­tion that the major­i­ty of the missed retire­ment ben­e­fits be refund­ed to employ­ees over a peri­od of three years. 

“Both of those [peti­tions] prompt­ed more con­ver­sa­tions about some of the broad­er, more struc­tur­al issues with stu­dent employ­ment,” says Nathan Geesing, a senior major­ing in his­to­ry. ?“That was a sign to orga­niz­ers that col­lec­tive action real­ly had an impact.” 

See­ing the out­come of both peti­tions reaf­firmed to stu­dents that a union would be the best way to move for­ward. Geesing says a union is ?”a mech­a­nism to bar­gain with the admin­is­tra­tion, to not have to rely on the admin­is­tra­tion’s end­less slew of task forces and work­ing groups that con­stant­ly promise change, but rarely, if ever, deliv­er.” Right now, wages for stu­dent work­ers fall into a three-tier wage sys­tem start­ing at $8.70 an hour and capped at $11.17 an hour. Stu­dents say these rates are arbi­trary and do not reflect the nec­es­sary labor they per­form on cam­pus and instead reflect a desire to save the school mon­ey. The wage sys­tem was deter­mined joint­ly bya now dis­band­ed ?“Stu­dent Employ­ment Task Force.”

”The admin­is­tra­tion has nev­er real­ly tak­en stu­dent demands or stu­dent con­cerns seri­ous­ly,” says Geesing. K?SWOC’s demands include greater involve­ment in work­place deci­sion-mak­ing, greater pro­tec­tions and acces­si­bil­i­ty for work-study stu­dents, jus­tice for inter­na­tion­al stu­dent work­ers and a liv­ing wage, among oth­ers. Though stu­dents have not agreed on a dol­lar fig­ure, they say a liv­ing wage would be high enough that stu­dents don’t have to feel like they’re choos­ing between work and their aca­d­e­m­ic stud­ies. ?“The union could actu­al­ly give us the bar­gain­ing pow­er that we need, espe­cial­ly in a time like this, where not hav­ing a say in your reopen­ing plan can lit­er­al­ly be a mat­ter of life and death,” Geesing says. 

Keny­on stu­dents, who are both orga­niz­ing under unprece­dent­ed cir­cum­stances and break­ing new ground by orga­niz­ing their entire under­grad­u­ate work­force, have lim­it­ed exam­ples to point to as a mod­el. Most stu­dent work­er unions are con­cen­trat­ed among grad­u­ate stu­dents in pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties, though Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts Amherst and Grin­nell Col­lege, which man­aged to orga­nize indi­vid­ual shops among under­grad­u­ate res­i­dent advi­sors and din­ing work­ers, has served as a source of inspi­ra­tion for K?SWOC organizers. 

“I imag­ine that if we suc­ceed, you’ll be see­ing a lot more unions on col­lege cam­pus­es,” says Nap­sha. ?“Part­ly because we are build­ing off of the Grin­nell mod­el and we are build­ing off of the UMass Amherst model.” 

”In a larg­er sense,” Geesing says, ?“hav­ing a union at Keny­on could serve as a source of inspi­ra­tion for stu­dent work­ers in oth­ers places in the coun­try to say if they can do it, why can’t we.”

A major source of sup­port has come from the main­te­nance work­ers on cam­pus, a stu­dent-labor alliance that dates back to 2012 when the admin­is­tra­tion attempt­ed to out­source main­te­nance jobs to Sodexo, a food and facil­i­ties man­age­ment com­pa­ny with near­ly half a mil­lion employ­ees world­wide. ?”They’ve giv­en us a kind of men­tor­ship that’s real­ly valu­able,” says Dani Mar­tinez, a senior major­ing in Eng­lish. ?“They def­i­nite­ly want the best for us because they have sim­i­lar things that they have fought for in the past and can give us guid­ance on those things too.”

The main­te­nance work­ers, who are rep­re­sent­ed by UE Local 712, helped ini­ti­ate a rela­tion­ship between stu­dents on cam­pus and UE, with whom they are now orga­niz­ing with. The main­te­nance work­ers, Nap­sha says, have ?“been part­ners with us through this entire process. The rea­son why we have been so suc­cess­ful?—?get­ting close to 200 cards signed, hav­ing hun­dreds of peo­ple orga­nized and hav­ing a 60 per­son strong orga­niz­ing team is because of the strength of our rela­tion­ship with UE.”

As of Labor Day, K?SWOC has sent two requests for vol­un­tary recog­ni­tion of their union and the response from the admin­is­tra­tion has most­ly been silence. Mean­while, many stu­dents whose jobs can­not be per­formed remote­ly lack clar­i­ty around their employ­ment sta­tus for this semes­ter and next. Mar­tinez believes that stu­dents who can­not work remote­ly should be trans­ferred and trained in a dif­fer­ent depart­ment with pri­or­i­ty giv­en to stu­dents with work-study, a fed­er­al­ly-fund­ed pro­gram that is sup­posed to guar­an­tee cam­pus employ­ment as part of their finan­cial aid package. 

Mar­tinez, who has worked in library and infor­ma­tion ser­vices since she was a fresh­man, says her employ­ment sta­tus is still up in the air. With Kenyon’s admin­is­tra­tion ulti­mate­ly decid­ing on a sys­tem of teach­ing fresh­man and sopho­mores on cam­pus and teach­ing juniors and seniors remote­ly, many in-per­son jobs will not be avail­able this semes­ter and union orga­niz­ing con­tin­ues to be almost entire­ly remote?—?a strat­e­gy Nap­sha and Geesing say may be play­ing in their favor espe­cial­ly with many stu­dents now stuck at home with lim­it­ed in-per­son distractions. 

Those stu­dents who are work­ing remote­ly and are liv­ing out­side of Ohio are now being paid accord­ing to the state min­i­mum wage where stu­dents are based if it exceeds Keny­on wages. Geesing, who is liv­ing in Mary­land where the min­i­mum wage is high­er, says he got an email from the career devel­op­ment office over the sum­mer inform­ing him that he’d be paid a bonus to make up the wage dif­fer­ence. Geesing says it ?“just shows you how com­plete­ly arbi­trary the tiered sys­tem has been and how they could have paid us more the entire time.” 

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on September 14, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Indigo Olivier is a Goodman Investigative Fellow at In These Times. Follow her on Twitter: @IndigoOlivier.


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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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A Quiet Frenzy of Union Organizing Has Gripped the Nonprofit World

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“The reason we all work at nonprofits is because we support the mission of the nonprofits,” says Kayla Blado, who works at the Economic Policy Institute. It makes sense. Like many fields that involve doing something good for the world, nonprofit work tends to come with low pay and long hours. But now, more than ever before, it comes with something else: a union drive. The nonprofit union wave is rising right along with the intensity of the crises that nonprofits are dealing with in our bad, bad world.

Over the past two years, there has been a legitimate boom in nonprofit union campaigns. All of those that have gone public have been successful. Alongside the recent rise in unionization at media outlets, museums and cultural institutions, nonprofit workers are part of an unprecedented uprising of labor organizing in white collar professions.

At the center of it all is the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union (NPEU), where Kayla Blado serves as president. The NPEU has been around since 1998, when EPI unionized, but two years ago it began aggressively attracting new nonprofits. Now—seemingly all of a sudden—it represents 27 different workplaces, including influential D.C. institutions like the Center for American Progress, Open Markets Institute and J Street. Though affiliated with the national union IFPTE, the NPEU is run as a volunteer operation (with a single quarter-time paid organizer), with an executive board made up of members and an organizing strategy driven by word of mouth in the tight-knit D.C. nonprofit world. The numbers tell the story of how dramatic and recent the surge in organizing has been: According to Blado, the NPEU has 250 dues-paying members, another 400 bargaining contracts now, and more than a thousand organizing at shops that are not public yet.

So far, the NPEU has won voluntary recognition in every single union campaign it has organized—a remarkable record that reflects skillful use of the fact that the management of most progressive nonprofits don’t want to be seen as anti-union (even if they wish that the union didn’t exist). The fact that in multiple recent campaigns management has taken weeks to voluntarily recognize the union hints at the grudging nature of their acceptance of the new, organized reality of their work force.

During a two-week period in the month of April, as the coronavirus crisis raged, the economy buckled, and office workers fled to their homes, the NPEU announced seven successful union drives, boosting their number of shops by a full third. That record is likely unmatched anywhere in the union world. Blado says that the organizing at all of them had begun before the crisis, but was accelerated by the urgency of the moment. It doesn’t hurt that all of those workers now have a vehicle to participate in the conversation about when it is safe to reopen their offices. “This is exactly why people have chosen to have a union,” Blado says, “because of situations like this where management could [otherwise] make a unilateral decision.”

At the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, staffers began discussing unionizing last fall. After a couple of months shopping around for various unions, they settled on NPEU. “We felt really connected to NPEU because they’re mission driven, and we’re similarly a very mission driven organization,” says Morgan Conley, a national election protection coordinator there. Employees saw their union drive, which management announced an “intent” to recognize in April, as perfectly aligned with the group’s civil rights purpose. “We wanted to make sure we were making the right decision for the Lawyers Committee,” she says. “We felt this would really ensure the success and viability of the organization.”

At progressive nonprofits, the decision of how intense and public to make any labor battle is a tricky one. Unlike at regular companies, many of the employees in the union may feel torn between protecting the organization’s reputation, which is valuable for serving a purpose they believe in, and protecting their own labor rights. The NPEU’s surge in organizing no doubt benefits from the increased militancy of a younger generation of workers—not just in nonprofits, but everywhere—who are already living through the second economic crisis of their careers. “Many non-profits expect that mission-driven work will keep workers, especially younger workers, satisfied with lower pay,” says Alyson Samach, a staffer at the liberal pro-Israel nonprofit J Street, which recognized its new union last week after a month of negotiations. “Our millennial staff have already struggled to launch careers through one recession, and our Gen-Z staff are now thrust into financial instability by another. As we are all faced with a dire economic outlook, we are banding together to ensure more protections for our staff.”

That commitment to “mission” is ubiquitous as a motivation to organize. Jessie Hahn and Trudy Rebert are attorneys at the National Immigration Law Center, which works to advance the rights of low-income immigrants in America. When staffers began talking to one another about organizing many months ago, they realized there was a shared desire for transparency and some system for joint decision making at work. A union seemed like a natural fit. “We are a mission driven organization,” Hahn says. “People come to work here because they align with those values. We saw starting a union as an important way to model those values.” Rebert echoes this, noting that she and other attorneys came to the organization specifically because they want to live out those values, “not because we want to be paid the big bucks.” Despite this, the NILC Union has now been negotiating for recognition from management for more than a month. The head of NILC, Marielena Hincapié, was recently announced as a member of the Biden-Sanders immigration task force, which will be closely scrutinized for progressive bona fides.

Rather quietly, and without a paid staff, the NPEU has taken serious strides toward unionizing an industry with a good deal of inherent political power and a high public profile. Many left-leaning media outlets and allegedly liberal cultural institutions have already been through full-scale battles against their own employees who painted them as hypocritical for fighting against unionization. The NPEU has not had to do that yet, but history tells us that that day will come. (In fact, an ongoing fight for union recognition at the ACLU in California may turn into such a battle.) Everyone at the union—whose members include many lawyers, researchers, and P.R. professionals that amount to the makings of a volunteer army—indicates they aren’t scared of the fight, though they are not seeking one.

In a big picture sense, the future of the labor movement needs blue collars and white collars, for-profit and nonprofit. Each staff union campaign that NPEU wins is one step towards a world in which progressive activist organizations will be able to say that they put their money where their mouths are. “Just because you have an advanced degree doesn’t make you immune from discrimination at work, or getting fired without having just cause,” Blado says. “I think we’re creating the labor movement that we want to see.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 19, 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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