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Starbucks broke the law more than 200 times in effort to squash union organizing, labor board says

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Laura Clawson

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is taking Starbucks’ union-busting campaign very seriously. The board’s regional director in Buffalo issued a complaint late Friday accusing the company of 29 unfair labor practices involving 200 violations of the law.

The complaint specifically names interim CEO Howard Schultz for dangling improved benefits if workers didn’t unionize, and calls on Schultz or Executive Vice President Rossann Williams to make clear to workers what their rights are—the very rights that Starbucks has so dramatically been trampling on—as well as calling for the company to provide “equal time to address employees if they are convened by [Starbucks] for ‘captive audience’ meetings.” The complaint also calls on Starbucks to reinstate seven fired workers, with back pay.

The NLRB complaint also points to Starbucks closing stores in Buffalo as workers started organizing, retaliatory discipline and firings of union supporters, and “unprecedented and repeated” visits by top national executives to the Buffalo stores.

”Starbucks has been saying that no union-busting ever occurred in Buffalo. Today, the NLRB sets the record straight. The complaint confirms the extent and depravity of Starbucks’ conduct in Western New York for the better part of a year,” Starbucks Workers United said in a statement. “Starbucks will be held accountable for the union-busting minefield they forced workers to walk through in fighting for their right to organize. This Complaint fully unmasks Starbucks’ façade as a ‘progressive company’ and exposes the truth of Howard Schultz’s anti-union war.”

“Starbucks is finally being held accountable for the union-busting rampage they went on.”

– Former Starbucks Employee, Danny Rojas.

”Starbucks is finally being held accountable for the union-busting rampage they went on,” said fired Buffalo Shift Supervisor Danny Rojas—one of the seven whose reinstatement the complaint calls for—in the statement. “It is disappointing that Starbucks has refused to work with their partners and instead chose to fire union leaders like myself. Today, the NLRB is validating that the psychological warfare and intimidation tactics that took place in Starbucks stores was unacceptable. Starbucks needs to understand that it is morally corrupt to retaliate against union leaders and I am looking forward to the NLRB forcing Starbucks to make this moment right.”

Despite this aggressive and often illegal anti-union campaign, Starbucks workers have voted to unionize at more than 50 stores so far.

If Starbucks doesn’t settle—which a statement from a company spokesman indicated would not happen—the complaint will go to trial.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on May 9, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor. 

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Amazon moves its army of union-busters to the next warehouse over, this week in the war on workers

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Following the Amazon Labor Union’s huge win in Staten Island, they’re going for it again. Workers at another, smaller warehouse—called LDJ5—will begin voting on April 25, and Amazon is once again going hard with its union-busting campaign. 

“All those union-busters that were there to union-bust 8,000 workers at JFK8 have walked across the street and are in our little building of 1,600 people,” LDJ5 worker Madeline Wesley told reporters at a press conference last week. “They’re really fighting us, and they’re playing really dirty.”

The union has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board over captive audience meetings being conducted by veteran union-buster Rebecca Smith. The workers at LDJ5 will face enormous intimidation in the coming 10 days, but they can also look at JFK8 and take their inspiration.

“I can’t believe the building across from us, JFK8, got a union,” 18-year-old Ursula Tomaszuk told Labor Notes. “I thought it wasn’t doable until now.”

This blog was originally posted at Daily Kos on April 16, 2022.

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

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Starbucks Workers Are Facing Down One of the Most Intense Union-Busting Campaigns in Decades

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Workers at more than 100 Starbucks stores in 27 states have filed union petitions for elections. In response, the company has launched a relentless anti-union effort.

In interviews, Starbucks workers tell In These Times that starting a union campaign is the first time they’ve felt hopeful in their adult lives. ?“A lot of us have gotten used to a sense of hopelessness and helplessness when it comes to our jobs,” says Rachel Ybarra, 22, an organizer at a Starbucks in Seattle. ?“But unionizing can give you a sense of agency,” Ybarra adds.

“If a union is involved, your coworkers have the power to go to bat for you.”

In Memphis, Tenn., Nikki Taylor, at age 32, is one of the oldest Starbucks baristas at the busy corner of Poplar Avenue and S. Highland Street. She says she feels like a mother figure to a ?“close-knit, regular barbecue-type family.” When she started as a shift supervisor two years ago, working in the café was a dream job?—?but this soon changed.

During the pandemic her store has faced chronic staffing shortages and baristas have been tasked with the work of three or four people. ?“You’re getting hundreds of drink orders, making them all yourself, still having to give that ultimate customer service,” Taylor says.

So workers began to talk. ?“When you’re working alongside people going through the same thing every day, you guys bond so much,” Taylor says.

One concern was pay. The starting wage at the store is about $12, and some workers take multiple jobs to make ends meet, Taylor says. According to MIT’s living wage calculator, the living wage in Memphis is $13.26 for a single adult, $18.02 for a family of four.

Another issue was Covid-19 policy. Vaccinated workers who were exposed to Covid-19 but had no symptoms were expected to work their shifts. During the highly contagious Omicron wave of the virus this winter, workers say they’d see people with known exposures come in for work, only to develop symptoms while on the clock.

Asked for comment, ?“Anthony D.,” a corporate Starbucks representative, told In These Times in an emailed statement, ?“Throughout the pandemic, we have met and exceeded the latest direction from the CDC. … Over and above that, all leaders are empowered to make any changes make sense [sic] for their neighborhood, which includes shortening store hours or moving to 100 percent take-out only.”

Taylor says the store’s policies still presented a dilemma: “[Do] I not get paid and be at home and try to be safe?—?and then not be paying my bills? Or go to work and continue to be exposed?”

In January, Taylor contracted the virus soon after working alongside someone with a known exposure. At home, Taylor exposed her fiancé and 8?year-old daughter, who developed a 102-degree fever days later. The previous month, a location in Buffalo, N.Y., had become the first unionized Starbucks café in the country. (Some smaller Starbucks ?“kiosks,” such as those inside grocery stores and airports, do run under union contracts with the larger venue.)

When Taylor heard that, she thought her Memphis store might have a real shot at a union, too. She contacted Starbucks Workers United, the Buffalo-based campaign assisted by Workers United, itself an independent affiliate of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

When they replied, Taylor says, she jumped and cried with excitement. 

The Starbucks union drive went public in Memphis on January 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day?—?a deeply personal event for many of the Memphis workers.

“We have [workers] here that were born and raised in Memphis, whose grandparents were in those same rallies and walks that Martin Luther King Jr. did,” says Beto Sanchez, 25, an R&B and jazz musician who began working at the Memphis café after the pandemic decimated the music industry. ?“We are practically 10 minutes away from Lorraine Motel [where King was assassinated]. Whether it was the Kellogg’s strike, whether it was the sanitation workers, there’s a lot of union history in this city.”

But immediately, workers say, they felt like they were under surveillance, with high-level managers frequenting the store, loitering in the café and watching the counter.

On February 8, Taylor, Sanchez and five other union supporters were fired without warning. The company cited minor policy violations that workers and a former store manager, Amy Holden, say were never enforced nor taught in training.

?“One of the employees literally walked in, signed her union card, took a sip of a drink and left?—?and she was fired,” Taylor says.

Starbucks rep Anthony D. claims the workers ?“violated several safety and security policies and protocols, including opening the store after hours, allowing unauthorized personnel inside, leaving the doors unlocked and opening the safe without permission.” Workers reply that, on the night being referenced, they did let a local news crew film in their lobby, all within 10 minutes of the store closing, which they say is company policy?—?but then they talked about the union campaign on camera.

“How we got fired is not why we got fired,” Sanchez tells In These Times. He notes he was the one fired for opening the safe while off-shift, though he generally had that authority as a shift supervisor. He also points out an irony: ?“Starbucks decided to tweet about Martin Luther King Jr. and then … decided to fire Black workers here in Memphis for unionizing.” Two of the seven fired workers, including Taylor, are Black.

“It’s union-busting, completely,” Taylor says. ?“We were loud, we were bold and the company tried to use us as examples. … That scare tactic wildly backfired.”

News of the firings spread rapidly, and the workers became known as ?“the Memphis 7.” Workers and community members gather outside the Poplar and Highland store early each morning to picket in solidarity. Within a week, rallies demanding their reinstatement sprang up in Boston, Chicago and on the doorstep of Starbucks headquarters in Seattle. Starbucks responded to the Memphis pickets by drastically reducing store hours in the name of ?“worker safety.” Sanchez says this shows they’re hitting the company ?“where it hurts … in the wallet.”

Since the first Starbucks union campaign succeeded in Buffalo, N.Y., in December 2021, more than 110 Starbucks stores in 27 states have filed union petitions for elections. That effort encompasses more than 2,000 workers, from Miami-Dade to Seattle.

Common goals include a living wage, access to benefits, adequate staffing, consistent scheduling, more hours, improved health and safety conditions, proper training?—?and for ?“partners,” the corporate lingo Starbucks uses to refer to employees, to actually be treated like ?“partners.”

For Ky Fireside, 31, who works at a Starbucks in Eugene, Ore., one driving force is a living wage. After nearly seven years at the store, Fireside makes $14.70 an hour. According to MIT’s living wage calculator, the living wage in Eugene is $15.58 for a single adult, $22.10 for a family of four.

“In my store, we’ve got three partners who have been with the company for over 15 years,” Fireside says. ?“These aren’t people working temporary jobs, these are people that are trying to support their family on this income. I’m in my 30s, this is my career. And we’re watching the prices of everything go up, including the coffee that we serve.”

Starbucks has touted itself as an industry leader in wages and benefits, pledging to raise wages nationwide to a range of $15 to $23 by this summer. Benefits include paid parental leave, healthcare plans that cover gender-affirming procedures, and tuition for an online degree at Arizona State University.

According to Fireside, however, less than half of the 30 workers at the Eugene location are scheduled enough hours to be eligible for benefits.

“I’m on state healthcare,” Fireside says. ?“Starbucks doesn’t pay me enough to buy health insurance and does not work me enough hours to qualify for Starbucks insurance.” Starbucks requires its workers to average 24 hours a week to qualify for the health insurance benefit, which, on the recommended plan, still costs workers a minimum of $84 each month.

Brick Zurek, 25, a Starbucks worker in downtown Chicago, says their store organized after management’s dismal response to workers receiving death threats in December 2021. When a customer threatened to shoot up the store one night, Zurek says, management refused to allow the store to close early. ?“Starbucks really laid the foundations [for organizing] themselves, on accident,” Zurek says. ?“When we were so understaffed, when we were threatened, and when we were scared?—?we were taking care of each other. … We were forming those bonds and connections.”

Meanwhile, as these small union campaigns await their election dates from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), they are facing a multimillion-dollar anti-union effort considered to be one of the most intense in decades.

In These Times spoke with more than a dozen Starbucks workers trying to unionize their shops. They say, within weeks of their filing for an election, corporate broke out the union-busting playbook. Common tactics include disciplining workers for infractions that were never a concern previously (such as wearing buttons on their aprons or even how they tie their aprons), hiring new workers en masse to dilute the union vote at the store, tense meetings with workers, and surveillance on the floor.

During Buffalo’s campaign, organizers from Workers United say corporate flew in more than 100 ?“support managers’’ from across the country, including such high-ranking corporate officials as former CEO Howard Schultz, to cafés throughout the district. They began hosting mandatory ?“listening sessions” between managers and workers. The sessions run under a pretext of addressing grievances, but management uses them to disseminate ?“facts” about unions. 

Workers at other stores with unionizing efforts say the listening sessions, once unheard of, are now routine. While it’s illegal for management to threaten to take away benefits in response to a union campaign, In These Times spoke with Starbucks workers who say managers imply their current benefits won’t be guaranteed with a union, claim that union dues are expensive and suggest that a ?“third party” (i.e., the union) ?“will get between” workers and management.

Fireside says listening sessions are a daily occurrence in Eugene and workers in a district-wide group chat alert each other when management is en route, so they can prepare. Fireside adds that, in addition to pulling workers off the floor during busy shifts, the sessions cause stress in other ways, like the anxiety that comes with being cornered. ?“They say things like, ?‘You never know what’s going to happen in a contract: You could lose your benefits, and then where would you be? Where would your kids be?’”

After some sessions, Fireside says, workers leave the floor to cry privately.

Starbucks Workers United has filed an NLRB complaint of unfair labor practices, alleging that the company waged a campaign of interference, intimidation and coercion during the Eugene union drive.

As of March 1, all eight Eugene cafés had filed for a union election.

“You wouldn’t expect us to be the first store, after Buffalo, to unionize?—?but we did,” says Tyler Ralston proudly. Ralston works at a small, ?“hole-in-the-wall” Starbucks ?“connected to a Smashburger” in Mesa, Ariz., a conservative community in a state not known for its union support. 

Workers felt compelled to unionize, Ralston says, when manager Brittany Harrison was fired after leaking a video she recorded of Starbucks corporate coaches warning Arizona managers against union organizing. Harrison shared the video with Starbucks Workers United and the New York Times, and “[corporate] started calling me, asking if I was the ?‘whistleblower,’” Harrison says in an interview with More Perfect Union. Harrison put in her notice to quit, but was fired instead.

In response, workers in Mesa filed for a union election Nov. 18, 2021. As one of the earliest stores to file, they have been subject to corporate’s full arsenal of anti-union tactics. Within weeks, three new managers were hired to oversee the store?—?who, according to workers, spent most of their days just sitting in the lobby on laptops or watching employees at the counter.

Starbucks began holding ?“captive audience meetings,” meetings in which management tries to dissuade workers from unionizing. (These types of meetings would be banned under the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, a pro-labor bill currently stalled in Congress.) Workers who had been outspoken about the union were taken to a meeting at an offsite hotel, while everyone else talked at the store.

Ralston was outraged at what he says were ?“intimidation tactics,” and printed out a 12-page document detailing workers’ allegations of mistreatment, passing it around at a captive audience meeting in December 2021.

“I thought it was time for [management] to feel intimidated,” Ralston says.

Ralston was then called into a meeting with two managers. ?“We sat down at a table and they called me a bully to my face,” Ralston says. ?“They said I needed to apologize [to the store managers] because of the union and everything that [the union] has done to them.”

Ralston, of course, did not.

Then, in advance of the February election, management began mass-hiring new workers, a tactic the union alleges is used to dilute the vote; staffing went from 25 to 40. According to Ralston, the in flux of hires caused chaos, at times doubling the number of workers necessary, reducing hours and diluting tips.

Starbucks has also contracted legal services from Littler Mendelson, one of the largest and most notorious union-busting law firms in the country, with hourly rates reportedly as high as $600 to $700. The firm worked with McDonald’s and Uber during two of the largest labor battles of the last decade: the national fight for a $15 minimum wage, and the corporate campaign to pass California’s Proposition 22, which classified app-based gig workers as contractors rather than employees.

Starbucks is not required to disclose how much they’re paying Littler Mendelson, though in a February review of NLRB filings, HuffPost found at least 30 Littler lawyers attached to Starbucks cases.

Starbucks does seem concerned that the company’s anti-union efforts are hurting its image as a forward-thinking corporate citizen, writing in a February 1 report to the SEC that ?“our responses to any union organizing efforts could negatively impact how our brand is perceived and have adverse effects on our business.”

Starbucks’ ?“Anthony D.” tells In These Times, ?“From the beginning, we have been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, without a union between us, and that conviction has not changed. Our position since the beginning is all of our partners in a market or district deserve the right to vote.”

But Workers United organizer Richard Bensinger, 71, former national organizing director of the AFL-CIO, sees no sign of Starbucks letting up on its anti-union efforts. ?“This has to be the most intense [anti-union] campaign in modern U.S. history, and there’s really nothing in second place,” Bensinger says.

On February 16, for example?—?the day the Mesa store’s votes were scheduled to be counted?—?corporate Starbucks lawyers appealed to the NLRB to delay the vote count, arguing that stores should vote district-wide rather than one by one. Organizers allege the goal of this tactic is to dilute the vote. Starbucks lost the appeal.

?“They’ve lost this case [for district-wide votes] [four] times now, and they’re going to lose it 100 times,” says Bensinger, who works with the Buffalo union campaigns. ?“This is 50 years of legal precedent.”

Starbucks also lost the union vote?—?with a landslide 25?–?3 win for the workers of the Mesa café, which became the third unionized Starbucks in the United States.

But for every successful union drive, Bensinger notes, countless stores silently buckle under immense corporate pressure before filing. Bensinger describes one failed effort at a store in Buffalo where 80 percent of workers signed union cards; Starbucks simply closed the store and converted it into a training center, relocating the workers to stores that were miles away. Most of them quit.

This store reopened after publishing and won their union election?—?by one vote?—?on March 9.

“We’ve passed 100 [organized] stores,” Bensinger says. ?“That’s great. But that’s in spite of what [corporate] is doing.”

Previously, the only union to try to organize Starbucks nationwide was the Industrial Workers of the World, with a campaign that started in 2004. They never won a union election, and the campaign was hindered by relentless corporate anti-union efforts and high worker turnover (often due to firings the union said were retaliatory); the effort died out by 2017. But by garnering free media attention, organizers did pressure image-conscious Starbucks into regional wage increases, fairer scheduling and one additional paid holiday?—?Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

When Workers United began organizing cafés in Buffalo in 2019, Starbucks was not a consideration.

While on the picket with striking Rainforest Cafe workers in Niagara Falls, Canada, Bensinger was approached by workers from SPoT Coffee, a Buffalo-based chain. Those initial organizers were fired in short order, but SPoT workers won a union that year.

Bensinger says that union election was a rallying cry for Buffalo’s labor and progressive community. After SPoT workers secured a strong contract (the median hourly pay rose $4), workers at the Starbucks across the street took notice. They soon reached out to Workers United.

“The partners really get the campaigns going,” Bensinger says. By 2021, Starbucks Workers United had formed an organizing committee with more than 100 workers from Starbucks across Buffalo, training them in union organizing.

“It’s all organic,” Bensinger says. ?“Any good organizing campaign is either run by the workers, or you lose.”

Workers United formed in 2009 (by splitting off from Unite Here) and operates as an ?“independent affiliate” of the SEIU. The Starbucks unionizing effort, however, bears little resemblance to the SEIU’s Fight for $15 campaign, which attempted to organize fast-food workers nationwide for “$15 and a union,” and for which the union hired dozens of organizers in 2011 and 2012, investing millions.

For starters, Fight for $15 was not focused on store-by-store organizing. Its primary strategies were to build momentum for a $15 minimum wage while pushing the NLRB to allow franchises (such as McDonald’s) to be unionized at the national level, rather than shop by shop. The SEIU lost its case under the Trump-era NLRB, then lost a final appeal in 2021.

Starbucks Workers United, however, is a worker-led campaign with support from Workers United. The union is primarily made up of volunteer organizers from around the country who continue to work at Starbucks and serve on their cafés’ organizing committees. Fewer than 20 paid organizers with Workers United nationwide help by facilitating communication between stores and filling support roles like printing and delivering union cards. The union is not planning new hires. Instead, at national trainings, workers at active campaigns learn to move other stores in their region through the process.

Casey Moore, 25, a Starbucks worker in Buffalo, runs communications for Starbucks Workers United as a volunteer. Moore had never been involved in a union campaign before joining her store’s organizing committee. Now, she helps new stores start organizing every day. 

“I joke now that I don’t have a life; this is my life,” says Moore. ?“But I think it’s the coolest thing ever to be a part of.”

Workers interested in learning more about unionizing often email Starbucks Workers United or reach out via Twitter and Instagram, accounts run entirely by Starbucks workers. Since the Memphis 7 firings, Moore says, there’s been a surge in organizing.

?“I’ve heard from a lot of partners that this just angered them and was the driving force telling them to message us,” Moore says.

“I’m on Zoom call after Zoom call, just listening,” Bensinger says. ?“On many of the calls, I never say a word?—?just marvel at it. It’s an honor just to listen to them. And everybody knows exactly what to do. The partners all are wired in through social media and they share everything. The second something new happened in a store, it’s all over social media. They’re wickedly, devastatingly funny and positive.”

Starbucks Workers United is also building a virtual network of organizers to share resources, answers to common questions, organizing strategies and updates on corporate tactics. If a new anti-union leaflet pops up in Seattle, for example, Moore says a worker in Knoxville or Cleveland can confirm they’ve seen identical material and share how they responded.

“A lot of the things that people are asking for,” Moore says, ?“are, ?‘What can I share with my coworkers to dispel these lies that Starbucks is telling to scare people?’ And answering questions like, ?‘What is a union? What do we fight for with the union? Why organize? What’s collective bargaining?’”

Labor historians are connecting the Starbucks Workers United momentum with the wave of labor militancy that began in 2018 when West Virginia public school teachers went on strike.

Importantly, “[the teachers] framed the strike as being about community, rather than about just being themselves,” says Erik Loomis, associate professor of history at the University of Rhode Island. ?“It’s about dignity. It’s about fairness.”

Christian Sweeney, deputy organizing director of the AFL-CIO, confirms the AFL-CIO has seen a significant increase in organizing interest since 2018. He notes, however, that larger labor unions have limited appetite for organizing a few dozen workers at a time, store by store, as the Starbucks campaign is doing. Though the campaign is growing rapidly, the number of stores that have organized for an election are a fraction of the 9,000 company-operated Starbucks in the United States. And across all sectors, U.S. union density has been on the decline for decades, bottoming out at about 10 percent within the past few years.

Instead, Sweeney says, unions have been looking for ways to work around a ?“terribly broken” NLRB process by putting resources into getting reform legislation, such as the PRO Act, passed.

The PRO Act, however, is likely stalled in the current Congress without filibuster reform. Sweeney sees in the Starbucks campaign one alternate way forward.

“Waves of labor movement growth [in the 1880s, 1910s, 1930s and 1950s] have been associated with different ways that workers figured out how to organize, reflective of both changes in the economy, but also changes in the ways that work is organized,” Sweeney says. ?“I think we’re on the verge of bigger things to come, and these Starbucks workers might just be the caffeine that we all need to figure out the next thing.”

“Maybe there are lessons to learn from this for established labor unions, that if you can get in the door, you can create this wave you’re seeing in Starbucks,” Loomis agrees. ?“There’s lots of other kinds of companies, both in fast food and other forms of service industries, that can easily build on this.” Loomis cautions that rebuilding a powerful labor movement will take decades, just as building one did.

On lunch breaks and after clocking out for the night, workers brush past management and head straight for the picket.

“It does give me hope every day knowing that people are starting to recognize the power that they have, as a collective force, as a workforce,” says Sanchez from the Memphis store. He adds that ?“there are always going to be more of us” and hopes the rest of the coffee industry will follow suit, ?“whether it’s the coffee farmers, whether it’s the suppliers, whether it’s the manufacturing area.” As of press time, two of the nation’s three flagship Starbucks roasteries have filed to hold union elections.

In the midst of a fierce corporate intimidation campaign, organizers say that public attention and community support are crucial. ?“Everybody’s rallied around the Starbucks workers, and that’s what it’s going to take to win, because you have to get [Starbucks] to stop their anti-unionism,” Bensinger says.

When captive audience meetings began at one of the first Starbucks to file for an election in Portland, Ore., members of the Democratic Socialists of America, the Teamsters and other union members occupied the café with a ?“solidarity sip-in” at a table adjacent to management. Management was eventually forced to conduct meetings outside.

When the first captive audience meeting hit the downtown Chicago store, a crowd of 50 from Workers United and the other two Chicago stores with unionizing efforts picketed directly outside.

Members of the Memphis 7 say workers there have since formed a new organizing committee and are going harder than ever. On lunch breaks and after clocking out for the night, workers brush past management and head straight for the picket.

“Like I said, we’re a family,” Taylor says. ?“You hurt one family member, you hurt them all.”

This blog post was originally printed at In These Times on March 21, 2022.

About the Author: Hannah Faris is associate editor at The Wisconsin Idea, an independent reporting project of People’s Action Institute, Citizen Action of Wisconsin Education Fund and In These Times.

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The ACLU of Illinois Seeks a Playbook for Acceptable Progressive Union Busting

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The staff union and management are locked in a battle over who can be included in the union.

Aunion fight that is playing out in Illinois highlights how progressive organizations can use technical objections to the scope of a proposed union to effectively pursue union-busting while maintaining plausible deniability that they are doing so. This effort to have it both ways makes sense when you consider where this labor battle is happening: at the ACLU. 

The past two years has been a landmark one for unionization at the ACLU, part of the broader, ongoing wave of nonprofit organizing. As the pandemic raged in 2020, workers at several ACLU state branches unionized–including in Kansas, where the staff faced a corporate-style anti-union campaign. In January of 2021 about 300 staffers nationwide formed the civil liberties group’s largest staff union, called ACLU Staff United. In subsequent months, more state ACLU staffs across the country have successfully unionized, and ACLU staff union drives are underway in other states, like Virginia and Illinois*. Workers have vowed to continue until they have successfully unionized every state office. 

Though common sense might tell you that an organization that proudly declares that it “has championed the right of workers to organize unions since its inception more than 90 years ago” would be an easy place to unionize, that has not been completely true. While most of the union drives at the ACLU have secured voluntary recognition from management—a necessary baseline for any employer to be considered pro-union—that has not been the case in Illinois. In late June, workers there asked management to recognize their staff union, part of the National Organization of Legal Services Workers. More than five months later, they are still waiting. 

An ACLU of Illinois employee who is a member of the proposed staff union, and who asked for anonymity in fear of workplace retaliation, said that organizing there started in late 2020, after internal efforts to improve the workplace fell short. Employees were particularly upset after an internal staff committee aimed at improving diversity, equity and inclusion was disbanded, even as the organization lost staff members of color year after year. In June, 20 staffers signed an open letter to management requesting recognition for a union covering 27 people. 

“We expected the ACLU to live up to their values” and voluntarily recognize the union, as other state ACLUs had done, the employee said. “But instead we had a strange reaction.” Middle managers were told to keep quiet about the union, and workers were told that they could not use a Zoom background that advertised their union, according to the employee. 

For months now, management and the union have been locked in a stalemate over the issue of how many workers will be allowed to be members of the unit. Restricting the size of a proposed unit is a common tactic by employers, who often seek to assert that as many employees as possible are managers or supervisors, and are therefore not eligible to be union members. These sorts of negotiations, though cloaked in legalistic language, are usually more about power than about law—how fiercely management chooses to argue over vague job descriptions comes down to whether they are comfortable working with a staff union, or whether they see it as a priority to make the union as small and weak as possible from the very beginning. 

Fed up with the delays, the ACLU of IL Staff United finally filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board in early October, seeking a resolution. The union had a two-day hearing at the NLRB that concluded on November 1. Though the timeline is not certain, the union expects to get a ruling on the size of its unit soon, and then it can proceed to a formal vote for certification.

“We were fed up, and decided if they weren’t going to be good faith partners,” going to the labor board was the only option, the employee says. “We’re deeply disappointed that the ACLU forced us to spend time and resources going before the NLRB. It’s not a good use of anyone’s time. We’d rather be doing the civil rights work everyone is here to do.”

The ACLU of Illinois said that executive director Colleen Connell was unavailable for an interview. Instead, the organization sent a statement attributed to Connell, which said that she has always been willing to extend voluntary recognition to “an appropriately defined bargaining unit of ACLU employees.” 

“To date, we have not been able to extend voluntary recognition because the Union’s proposed definition of the bargaining unit includes a number of positions that are supervisory, managerial, or confidential in nature and cannot, therefore, be lawfully included. We discussed these issues at length with the Union’s organizer prior to the Union filing its representation petition,” the statement says. It goes on to portray the dispute as one in which management is actually trying to protect employees, saying “our objections are not driven by a desire to defeat the Union’s representational objective. Just the opposite. NLRB law and policy makes clear that unionizing employees’ rights are frustrated by the inclusion in a bargaining unit of supervisors, managerial employees, and confidential employees.” 

That assertion of concern for “employees’ rights” is sharply at odds with what employees themselves say they want. Eleven positions in the proposed bargaining unit are in dispute, representing 40% of the total proposed union. The staff union filed a 50-page brief with the NLRB arguing that management has “taken dramatically expansive definitions” of who should be excluded from the unit, and that these “overbroad” arguments are inconsistent with labor law. 

The workers in Illinois are receiving vocal support from their colleagues across the country. “We’re disappointed that ACLU of Illinois leadership continues to drag out the union recognition process by failing to agree to a fair and inclusive unit,” said ACLU Staff United, the organization’s national union, in a statement. “It seems so easy for management to forget that the ACLU was founded over 100 years ago with a commitment to protecting workers’ rights. Staff at ACLU affiliates across the country and at the national organization have unionized to create a better ACLU and address pay inequities, lack of workplace diversity, remote work policies, and organizational transparency.”

There is no question that the ACLU of Illinois will eventually have some sort of staff union, covering at least some of its employees. But the outcome of its dispute will be significant. If successful in drastically restricting the size of the unit, management will have demonstrated a successful playbook for kneecapping a union’s power while insisting that you are pro-union, in line with your organization’s stated values. 

For workers at the ACLU of Illinois, the process has been eye opening—and has left them “surprised, disappointed, and disheartened.” 

“We came to work at the ACLU because we believe in civil rights,” the employee says. “And that includes labor rights.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on November 15, 2021. 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 Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.

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How Workers at Beverage Giant Refresco Defeated a “Notorious” Union Buster

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Refresco has waged a prolonged and costly fight to stop the workers from unionizing.

As the spread of Covid-19 forced millions of workplaces to close in March 2020, Cesar Moreira continued to report to a bottling plant in Wharton, N.J., where he works as a batching technician. During 12-hour shifts, Moreira mixes vats of powdered concentrate and sugar to churn out brand-name beverages like Gatorade and Arizona Iced Tea.

Management for Resfresco Beverages Inc., the owner of the plant and one of the largest bottling companies, told workers these operations fell under the umbrella of “essential services.” Moreira was incredulous.

That the company would risk the health of its employees to maintain the supply of sugary drinks angered him. In mid-March, as workers at the plant began to call in sick with coronavirus symptoms, Moreira says plant management ignored their concerns and refused to temporarily halt production. 

On March 21, 2020, Moreira and his coworkers walked off the job to demand adequate protections and contact tracing, part of a wave of safety-related stoppages in the first months of the pandemic. Workers at a Perdue chicken plant in Georgia and a meatpacking facility in Nebraska soon followed suit, the food production sector being a particular hotspot for Covid-19 cases and emergency organizing by a heavily immigrant workforce. 

But workers at the Wharton plant didn’t stop there. Their spontaneous protest quickly blossomed into a full-fledged union drive. In June, 15 months after the walkout, Refresco workers voted 114–101 to join the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). Their 250-person bargaining unit is one of the biggest victories of blue-collar organizing during the pandemic.

To win the election, Moreira and his co-workers also had to overcome an aggressive anti-union campaign targeting their predominantly Spanish-speaking workforce. The company pulled out all the stops, posting anti-union flyers and a fake UE contract—and hiring Lupe Cruz, a union avoidance expert who specializes in “bilingual consulting.” In These Times obtained more than eight hours of recordings from six weeks of mandatory anti-union meetings led by Cruz at the Refresco plant this spring. The recordings provide a window into an especially insidious union-busting strategy: exploiting ethnic and linguistic differences to sow doubt and confusion among immigrant workers.

The tactic is old, but it speaks to the increasing specialization of a multi-million-dollar union-busting industry. Labor activists say Cruz, himself a former union organizer, is infamous for his attempts to thwart organizing in industries with large numbers of immigrant workers.

Alejandro Coriat, who encountered Cruz in 2017 while organizing a union at his job at a Hilton Hotel in Stamford, Conn., even coined a term to describe this approach: “intersectional union-busting.” In a workplace dominated by Latino and Haitian immigrants, Cruz and his team “divided us according to two language groups, and with each group, they tried a different tack,” Coriat says. The workers ultimately won their union by a near-unanimous vote.

Cruz’s strategy also failed at Refresco, but the workers’ fight isn’t over. After the union won the election, Refresco moved rapidly to scrap the results on a technicality. While a representative for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recommended certification of the union in September, Refresco has signaled that it intends to appeal.

That leaves the Refresco workers in limbo, unable to start contract negotiations. At a time when essential workers are reporting more willingness to take collective action, the Refresco drive shows just how many hurdles they still face.

Licinia Ochoa has worked as a machine operator at the Wharton bottling plant for 22 years. It was her first job after she moved from Colombia to New Jersey in 1999. UE estimates that, of the 250-some workers who mix, bottle and pack beverages at the Refresco plant, more than 85 percent are Latin American immigrants.

Work at the plant, which opened in 1980, was never easy, Ochoa says. But until recently, it was dignified. Her schedule was regular, the hours weren’t too bad and she knew she would be covered if she got injured or sick.

Then, in 2016, the plant’s original owner sold it to Refresco.

The beverage giant has grown rapidly by gobbling up smaller companies in North America and Europe; its gross profit in 2020 was 1.9 billion euros, according to an annual report. Refresco operates more than 60 plants worldwide, including about 30 in the United States. The majority of workers in the U.S. facilities are not unionized.

“Many things changed since Refresco came,” Ochoa says.

Soon after acquiring the Wharton plant, Refresco switched the company’s healthcare plan to one with high deductibles and skimpier coverage. Later, the company replaced many 8-hour shifts with 12-hour shifts. For many workers, wages stagnated below $20 per hour.

Cesar Moreira immigrated to the United States from Ecuador and has worked at the plant for seven years. He suffers from sleep apnea. “I’m paying $750 [for treatment], plus $1,500 to the company that makes the mask that sends oxygen to my brain,” he says. “That’s $2,200.

“We are talking about a multinational corporation. So why couldn’t they keep our health insurance [from before]?”

Ochoa, 62, was among those assigned to 12-hour shifts. Ochoa makes $17 an hour and says her healthcare copays are so high she avoids seeing a doctor. But she had no choice after becoming seriously ill in March 2020, eventually requiring hospitalization for Covid-19. The virus put her out of work for two months.

Ochoa and several coworkers had reached out to UE in 2019, beginning talks over healthcare and scheduling concerns. But the drive didn’t kick into high gear until spring 2020.

Anthony Sanchez, an employee of 15 years, says when he tested positive for Covid-19 in March 2020, he tried to alert the company. “They didn’t talk to the coworkers I interact with all the time,” he says. “They didn’t give tests. They didn’t put anybody in quarantine.”

For months, workers kept their intentions to unionize quiet, while distributing and amassing signed union cards to demonstrate majority support.

“They never would have thought we would do this under their noses,” Ochoa says. “It was brutal when they found out.”

When workers attempt to organize a union, it’s almost a given they’ll face resistance. A 2019 report by the Economic Policy Institute reveals employers spend about $340 million on anti-union services annually. Hiring professional “union avoidance” consultants to interrogate workers and carry out so-called captive audience meetings is an especially common tactic.

As the union avoidance industry has grown, it’s also become increasingly sophisticated. Richard Rehberg, a researcher for the International Union of Operating Engineers, says he first encountered Cruz and his special brand of culturally competent union-busting while working for Food and Allied Service Trades, an AFL-CIO affiliate, in the early 2000s.

“It was a new thing,” Rehberg says. “Basically, the union-busters were pandering. You know, ‘OK, how are we going to deal with these Latino workers and Spanish speakers?’”

Now, says Rehberg, this kind of specialization is common. Employers can hire union-busters to appeal—sometimes crudely—to almost any demographic. On campaigns to organize construction and building trades, for example, Rehberg says he has repeatedly encountered one man with a “pseudo-biker look” apparently intended to help a well-paid consultant relate to blue-collar workers.

In 2020, employers gained another anti-union strategy: They could simply lay off workers attempting to organize and blame it on Covid-19. That appears to have successfully stalled active union drives among nurses in North Carolina, truck drivers in New Jersey and a host of others, according to an April 2020 New York Times investigation.

“This is a continuation of behavior that has become all too common, of employers being willing to use increasingly aggressive tactics to stop unionizing,” Sharon Block, a former NLRB board member, told the Times. “The pandemic has given them another tool.”

The situation creates a kind of paradox: While unions report workers increasingly want to organize (spurred by the pandemic), the number of actual union drives has declined.

The number of union representation elections fell by 30% from 2019 to 2020—partly due to a total stoppage of NLRB elections in March 2020 and the new challenges that in-person organizing faced. The Refresco workers’ campaign was a bright spot amid the lull.

Soon after Refresco workers submitted their union cards in May, management ushered them into the first of six weeks of mandatory meetings. In a recording of one of the first meetings, obtained by In These Times, Lupe Cruz introduces himself.

“Where are you from, sir?” Cruz asks employees in the audience in Spanish. One is from Ecuador. Another is from Peru. Venezuela, Colombia, El Salvador and Mexico are also represented.

“All different countries—six for six!” Cruz says. The workers’ immigration backgrounds will become an ongoing theme.

“One of the first things we’re going to teach you is, What is the process and the system here in the United States,’” Cruz says. “Because the way this works in Mexico, in Colombia, in Venezuela—it’s very different.”

Throughout the meetings, Cruz and the other consultants refer to the sessions as “classes,” saying they intend to provide the workers an education about U.S. labor law.

In one session, a worker chimes in with a story about how Refresco changed the plant. Cruz interrupts him: “I’m giving you a legal opinion, not an emotional one. There’s a difference. This is objective.” 

“They wanted to trick people with an image that they were neutral,” says Anthony Sanchez, who sat through multiple anti-union meetings.

In another session, Cruz presents a truncated history of UE, implying that thousands of workers jumped ship from the union after learning about U.S. labor.

“You know what the highest number of members this union has had?” Cruz says. “Six hundred thousand. What happened with those members? They left. Those who understood the system left.”

In fact, UE’s steep decline in membership, beginning in the 1950s, followed a wave of plant closures and vicious anti-Communist attacks, including by Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s notorious House Un-American Activities Committee.

In the same session, Cruz suggests UE is incapable of defending workers: “If this union isn’t one of the big ones, and Refresco is the biggest in the world, what kind of funds does this union have to help you in a fight?”

In an apparent attempt to cast doubt on the union, a document with the header “legal and binding contract between UE and the employees of Refresco” was posted at the plant. It contained a list of benefits and raises, as well as a blank signature line for the union—as if to say the union couldn’t actually guarantee improvements.

After casting the union as underfunded and impotent, Cruz describes a hypothetical scenario in which Refresco loses its big clients, like Pepsi, and workers are laid off.

“Who’s the real boss?” Cruz asks. “The real boss is Pepsi. If you’re Pepsi, you’re in the best position to negotiate [with bottling companies] because they all want your business. So if Pepsi looks into contracts with other businesses, what if they like them? They steal Refresco’s business. And then what happens to your jobs?” According to UE, the possibility of layoffs came up frequently in anti-union meetings.

The National Labor Relations Act prohibits employers from threatening workers with layoffs or reduced benefits if they join a union. Because of this, “employers are more likely to make implied rather than direct threats of job loss,” explains Kate Bronfenbrenner, labor scholar and director of labor education research at Cornell University. “They are much harder to prove [as legal violations], because so much is dependent on the culture and history of a particular workplace.”

In a statement emailed to In These Times, a spokesperson for Refresco says the company’s actions are entirely legal. “As it has done throughout this election process, Refresco has and will continue to follow all the legal rules governing its behavior in connection with and arising out of the union’s efforts to organize employees at its Wharton, New Jersey facility,” writes Antonella Sacconi, Refresco’s communications manager. “This includes, but is not limited to, neither retaliating against nor rewarding employees based on their union sympathies or support.”

Neither UE nor pro-union Refresco workers allege the company’s anti-union campaign broke any laws, just that Refresco and its hired consultants sought to confuse and manipulate workers—the legality of which, they say, serves as evidence of the weak labor protections for U.S. workers.

Cruz did not respond to multiple requests for commentBut to union organizers and labor activists, he is a familiar figure. Bronfenbrenner calls him “notorious.”

Cruz once worked as an organizer for the hospitality union Unite Here but has been battling the campaigns of his former union for more than a decade. In 2006, the owners of a Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles paid Cruz $480,000 during a particularly bruising anti-union fight, according to reporting by the Los Angeles TimesHilton fired an employee active in the union drive who had allegedly been caught stealing by a “mystery shopper” posing as a guest. When workers gathered in the cafeteria to protest the firing, management suspended more than 70 of them for a week.

Cruz has since gone on to consult for such employers as Trump Hotels, the auto club AAA and others. His involvement helped quash high-profile union campaigns at American Apparel in 2015 and a New Seasons Market grocery store in Oregon in 2019.

Cruz is associated with at least two firms that have filed disclosures with the Office of Labor Management Standards (OLMS), which requires third-party labor consultants to report income from employers. The firm Cruz & Associates reported more than $3.5 million in income in 2018 but has not filed additional reports since 2019. Quest Consulting, established in 2019 with Cruz as its president, reported $1.4 million in revenue for 2020, according to OLMS records.

Workers who have encountered Cruz on other union campaigns report seeing similar tactics to those at Refresco.

During a union drive at Tartine Bakery in 2020, workers say monolingual Spanish speakers were siloed for separate captive audience meetings. OLMS data shows Quest collected $243,363 from Tartine in 2020.

Refresco has since hired Seyfarth & Shaw, a prominent employer-side law firm, to appeal the union election results to the NLRB, which Bronfenbrenner says is an “extremely common” tactic. “It gives the employer more chances to raise questions about what the union really wants. And [make] the workers who voted for the union feel less secure,” she says.

For their part, workers on the organizing committee are preparing for steward elections and the eventuality of contract negotiations.

“I’m OK, but I’m uneasy,” Moreira says. “The only way to make a change is to pressure these people into understanding that we aren’t … animals to control at their will.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 19, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alice Herman is a 2020–2021 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting Fellow with In These Times.

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Joe Biden Says He Stands With Unions. This Is His Moment to Prove It.

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Mark Dudzic on Single Payer

The longest national nurses strike in over a decade could also be a “watershed moment” for Medicare for All.

Speaking on the recent National Solidarity Call in support of striking nurses at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, Our Revolution leader Joseph Geevarghese characterized the situation as ?“Biden’s PATCO Moment.” The call was convened by the Labor Campaign for Single Payer to help mobilize national support for the 800 nurses at the Tenet Healthcare-owned hospital who are now engaged in the longest nurses strike nationally in over a decade. Tenet has spent more than $75 million to date to prolong the strike. A fraction of those funds could have easily met the nurses demands for the staffing improvements that are the sole issue driving the strike.

Now Tenet is threatening to permanently replace the striking nurses who are represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA). This action, by a notorious healthcare profiteer (Tenet leveraged federal bailout funds intended to provide urgent relief to employees and patients to triple its profits at the height of the pandemic last summer), has transformed a hard fought strike battle into a red line issue for the entire labor movement.

For those of us old enough to remember, it evokes the rampage of union busting that followed the Reagan Administration’s mass firing of striking air traffic controllers in the notorious PATCO strike of 1981.

Busting the air traffic controllers’ union sent a signal to employers everywhere that it was acceptable for management to break strikes and bust unions. In quick order, striking workers from copper miners in Arizona to newspaper workers in Detroit found themselves permanently replaced. Even more significantly, it changed the balance of power in labor/?management relations as labor’s most powerful weapon was neutralized. This ushered in a devastating period of concessionary bargaining whose consequences are still being felt today.

Reagan’s decision to fire the striking PATCO members was not some isolated act of pique by an outraged president. In fact, his administration jumped at the opportunity to give teeth to its explicit policy to weaken and undermine the considerable power of the U.S. labor movement. And it was very successful.

The U.S. labor movement was slow to respond to this provocation. Both of us can remember standing on the National Mall on Solidarity Day in 1981 with half a million other union workers. It had taken the AFL-CIO more than six weeks after the initial firings to call the rally and they chose to hold it on a Saturday when Washington was shut down tight for the weekend. As we dozed in the sun listening to endless speeches, we could see the planes taking off and landing unimpeded just across the Potomac at National Airport. What should have been a forceful exhibition of labor power had been turned into a demonstration of our impotence. Like many others who were there that day, we vowed to never let another PATCO moment go unchallenged.

Tenet is a key player in a major strategic sector of the economy. If it is able to make the threat of permanent replacement an acceptable management tool in healthcare bargaining, it will weaken the entire labor movement for decades to come.

That’s why the Labor Campaign for Single Payer and other labor groups are stepping up to support the nurses and their union. They will be joining the MNA at a rally on July 7 in front of Tenet Headquarters in Dallas. They are also circulating a petition urging members of Congress to join Reps. Katie Porter (D?—?Calif.) and Rosa DeLaura (D?—?Conn.) in requesting an investigation into the use of taxpayer-financed Covid-19 relief funds by Tenet and other large hospital systems.

This strike could be a watershed moment for the Medicare for All movement by exposing the corrupt and anti-worker underpinnings of our for-profit healthcare system. ?“The simple fact is that, if we had Medicare for All, we wouldn’t even be in this fight,” said LCSP National Coordinator Rhiannon Duryea. ?“Nurse-to-patient ratios would be set by law, ensuring safe and effective staffing ratios across the country that protect nurses, patients, and the community. Hospitals would not be able to exploit nurses and patients to line shareholder pockets.”

This strike could also be a watershed moment for the Biden administration. Ronald Reagan reversed a 40-year policy to promote the right of workers to organize and to bargain collectively. Before Reagan, corporations feared using the permanent replacement option because the federal government had made it clear that it would not tolerate such brutal behavior in the course of labor relations. After Reagan, it was open season on workers and their unions. Inequality skyrocketed as wealth was massively redistributed upward.

President Biden, to his credit, has vowed to reverse these trends. He has made a number of statements explicitly supporting worker rights and has appointed a number of pro-union advocates to key policy positions.

This is his chance to send a message to Tenet and corporate America that there’s a new sheriff in town. We need to challenge the Biden administration to put its money where its mouth is and to intervene forcefully in this conflict. The president must make it clear that permanently replacing lawful strikers is contrary to the policy of the U.S. government.

Tenet is not alone in trying to pull the rug out from under an upsurge in labor militancy. There are a number of current and pending labor battles where management is engaging in overt union busting, including months-long strikes by coal miners in Alabama and steelworkers employed by Allegheny Industries as well as a nasty lockout of refinery workers at a giant Exxon/?Mobil facility in Beaumont, Texas.

You can be sure that employers everywhere are watching how the Biden Administration reacts to these crises. As Our Revolution’s Geevarghese told the participants on the Solidarity Call, ?“This strike creates the opportunity for President Biden to undo what President Reagan did.” It’s an opportunity that should not be squandered. 

This story was first posted at Common Dreams.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 6, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mark Dudzic is National Coordinator of the Labor Campaign for Single Payer.

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A Charter School Named For the Author of “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” Is Union Busting

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Writers Guild of America Honors Hamilton Nolan for Digital Organizing -  Variety

At Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Massachusetts, teachers say a hostile administration is trying to crush their union.

In 1968, Paulo Freire, a famous Brazilian philosopher, authored the book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a Marxist argument for using education to empower the downtrodden. In 2013, a charter school named in his honor was founded: the Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School (PFSJCS), located in Chicopee, Massachusetts. Now, in a display of the universe’s sense of humor, teachers at PFSJCS say that the school’s leadership is engaging in union busting.

In March 2020, the school’s professional staff of about 26 people?—?mostly teachers, along with a few other employees such as guidance counselors?—?unionized with UAW Local 2322 in Massachusetts. Zack Novak, one of the teachers who helped lead the union drive, said that several years of experience working in unionized public schools had led him to expect certain standards of treatment that he didn’t see at PFSJCS. ?“At charter schools in general, the climate is much different. I noticed people being treated unfairly by the administration,” Novak said. ?“The only way to get ahead was if the powers that be liked you. That’s not an equitable environment for teaching staff.” 

Novak sent out an email notifying everyone at the school that the staff had unionized in March of last year. The same day, he says, he was pulled into a meeting with administrators, which he interpreted as an assertion of their power. At the end of the school year, he said, he was offered a new contract to come back?—?but that contract was rescinded before the next school year began, for no apparent reason. He believes that his involvement in organizing the union was the motivating factor. 

In July 2020, the school hired Gil Traverso as its new executive director, to replace a retiring predecessor. Since then, union members say, labor relations have been awful. According to Carol Huben, a PFSJCS teacher, the first ominous sign was ?“a really strong pattern of not responding to union communications.” Next, she said, teachers were warned or disciplined after posting innocuous pro-union messages in their Zoom backgrounds at bargaining meetings. 

Then, Huben said, came the most serious blow to the union: a dozen teachers whose contracts were up last year were ordered to reapply for their own jobs?—?and none of them were rehired. The union said in a press release that ?“no explanation was offered for their non renewal of contracts.” Huben also said that management is warning newly hired teachers to beware of the union. The union has filed complaints over more than 20 incidents since Traverso’s hiring, teachers said. 

Gil Traverso did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Such aggressive hostility towards the union is puzzling for Novak, who points out that such high turnover among the teaching staff is correlated with worse learning outcomes for students. But he sees the administration’s anti-union behavior as a basic expression of pure power politics on the job. ?“People want to organize, and the bosses don’t want them to,” Novak said. ?“They enjoy disproportionate power over the workplace.”

On June 23, PFSJCS union members are planning an ?“informational picket” outside of the school, and the union plans to drum up public support in the community. Though similarly absurd situations have arisen before?—?in 2017, for instance, there was a union busting campaign at a charter school named for Cesar Chavez—the hypocrisy of the pressure they’re facing is not lost on the teachers. 

“It certainly is quite ironic,” Huben said, ?“that the school that uses Paulo Freire’s name, who was a labor activist, is choosing to use his name to union bust.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 22, 2021. 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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How Employers Punish Workers for Forming Unions

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Workers at Solvay’s Pasadena, Texas, plant voted overwhelmingly to join the United Steelworkers (USW) in 2017 and looked forward to sitting down with the company to quickly negotiate a fair contract.

Solvay decided to play games instead.

Company representatives canceled some bargaining sessions at the last minute, took two-hour lunches on days they did show up, dithered for weeks over the union’s proposals and pulled every stunt imaginable to drag out the talks and frustrate the workers into giving up.

“They were angry that we actually had the audacity—in their mind—to challenge them with a union. This was their way of getting back at us,” said USW Local 13-227 President Steve “Tote” Toto, noting the spiteful antics cost him precious time with his wife, Mary, who was dying of pancreatic cancer about 1,500 miles away.

The U.S. House just passed bipartisan legislation to end shenanigans like this and help ensure that workers achieve the fair contracts they earned.

The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which faces an uphill battle in the Senate because of a lack of Republican support, would better protect workers from illegal bullying and retaliation during the organizing process.

And once workers vote to form a union, the PRO Act would set timelines for progress toward a contract and impose mediation and binding arbitration when employers stall and delay.

Although Toto and his coworkers achieved an agreement in January 2019—after more than a year of fighting—corporate foot-dragging on contract talks continues to worsen nationwide.

Right now, companies resort to stall tactics so often that about half of all workers who organize still lack a contract one year later. Worse, 37 percent of workers in newly formed private-sector unions have no agreement after two years. And some continue fighting for a first agreement long after that.

The PRO Act, which President Joe Biden hails as essential for leveling the playing field for workers and rebuilding the middle class, will spur employers to show up at the bargaining table and reach agreements as expeditiously as possible.

That’s exactly what would have helped Toto and his colleagues four years ago.

The workers at Solvay organized to obtain safer working conditions and a voice at the chemical plant, recalled Toto, who relocated to Pasadena after the company closed the Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania, facility where he originally worked. His wife, already battling cancer, remained in the couple’s Philadelphia area home to be in comfortable surroundings and to stay close to her doctors.

Talks stretched out month after month as Solvay’s negotiators refused to schedule regular bargaining sessions, made onerous proposals solely intended to bog down the discussions and even balked at excusing workers for jury duty. But nothing infuriated union members as much as finding the company’s chief negotiator asleep one day in a room where he had ostensibly gone to study union proposals.

“It’s about discouraging you,” Toto said of the company’s ploys. “It’s about breaking you down. It was also frustrating for me because it was taking time away from the last year I had with my wife.”

Just like Toto and his colleagues, workers at the Bishop Noa Home in Escanaba, Michigan, made modest demands that they expected to speedily resolve at the bargaining table.

Yet more than three years after voting to join the USW, the 55 certified nursing assistants and dietary, environmental services and laundry workers continue fighting for a contract even as they put their lives on the line to care for the facility’s residents during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The home refuses to accept the workers’ choice to organize. It brought in a union-busting attorney who belittles workers at the bargaining table, makes unreasonable proposals, spurns efforts to bring the parties together and drags out talks to try to break the workers’ morale.

Marcia Hardy, a dietary worker who has dedicated 35 years to Bishop Noa, said she and other negotiating committee members repeatedly made good-faith compromises that they felt certain would speed talks along.

“That didn’t happen,” she said, noting the home not only rebuffed the workers’ goodwill but refused to budge from its own proposals.

“They don’t want to have to answer to anybody but themselves,” Hardy said of the facility’s efforts to silence workers. “They will not give that up for anything. It’s just so disheartening because you’ve put your heart and soul into the place.”

Throughout the pandemic, workers have been putting in extra hours, taking on additional responsibilities and serving as surrogate family members to residents cut off from loved ones, all so Bishop Noa can continue providing a top level of care. And although a contract would afford opportunities for building on that record of excellence, Hardy said, Bishop Noa prefers to wage war on workers instead.

She and her colleagues, who have widespread community support, will keep fighting for the agreement they earned. “If I give up,” Hardy said, “they win.”

Solvay, Bishop Noa and other employers that drag out negotiations squander resources that could be better used to provide safe working conditions, serve customers or otherwise improve operations.

Toto said workers want to put contract talks behind them and “live our lives.” And he predicted that the PRO Act would hold employers’ feet to the fire and finally force them to approach contract talks with the urgency the task requires.

“It puts accountability back at the bargaining table,” Toto said. “The job is to go in there and get it done in a timely fashion.”

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

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

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Tate’s Bake Shop threatens workers with deportation, this week in the war on workers

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Workers attempting to unionize at Tate’s Bake Shop are getting hit with an all-too-common, and totally vile, union-busting message: They say they’re being threatened with deportation

Yes, Tate’s—now owned by Mondelez International—hired an anti-union consultant, who apparently looked at the company’s many undocumented workers and went for the threat that would scare them the most. It’s an illegal threat—undocumented workers are explicitly allowed to unionize under the National Labor Relations Act—but a potent one.

“They began threatening people based on their immigration status, telling them that if their documents are not in order and they attempted to join the labor union they would get deported,” said Cosmo Lubrano, president of the Eastern States Joint Board of the International Union of Allied, Novelty and Production Workers.

”People are scared to talk,” a Tate’s sanitation worker told Gothamist. “They’re scared to express themselves.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on March 13, 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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Why Amazon Is Fighting So Hard to Stop Warehouse Workers From Unionizing

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Thousands of warehouse workers at an Amazon plant in Bessemer, Alabama, are at the center of a potentially game-changing union vote taking place right now. On February 8, the warehouse workers were sent ballots by mail to decide over the next seven weeks if they want to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Just getting to this point was a major victory considering the aggressive union busting by the world’s largest retailer and the fact that employees are working during a pandemic. If workers vote affirmatively, they would have the first unionized Amazon workplace in the United States.

Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the RWDSU, described to me in an interview the shocking details of what he calls “the most aggressive anti-union effort I’ve ever seen,” aimed at the 5,800-strong workforce. “They are doing everything they possibly can,” he said. The company has been “bombarding people with propaganda throughout the warehouse. There are signs and banners and posters everywhere, even in the bathroom stalls.”

According to Appelbaum, the company is also texting its workers throughout the course of the day urging a “no” vote and pulling people into “captive-audience” meetings. Unsurprisingly, Amazon is resorting to the most commonly told lie about unions: that it will cost workers more money to be in a union than not. One poster pasted on the wall of the warehouse claims, “you already know the union would charge you almost $500 a year in dues.” But Alabama is a “right-to-work” state where workers cannot be compelled to join a union if they are hired into a union shop, nor can they be required to pay dues.

Complementing its heavy-handed in-person union-busting efforts is a slick website that the company created, DoItWithoutDues.com, where photos of happy workers giving thumbs-up signs create a veneer of contentment at the company. On its site, Amazon innocently offers its version of “facts” about a union that include scare-mongering reminders of how joining a union would give no guarantee of job security or better wages and benefits—with no mention of how Amazon certainly does not guarantee those things either.

On the company’s own list of “Global Human Rights Principles,” Amazon states, “We respect freedom of association and our employees’ right to join, form, or not to join a labor union or other lawful organization of their own selection, without fear of reprisal, intimidation, or harassment.”

But in a page out of Donald Trump and the Republicans’ playbook, the company tried to insist that even in the middle of a deadly pandemic, the union vote must be “conducted manually, in-person, making it easy for associates to verify and cast their vote in close proximity to their workplace.” The National Labor Relations Board rejected Amazon’s appeal for a one-day physical election.

Ballots were mailed out to workers on February 8, and the union and its advocates are shrewdly using the seven-week-long voting period to campaign and encourage workers to vote “yes.” But Amazon is also continuing its efforts at countering the RWDSU. Organizers in Bessemer had taken to engaging the workers while they stopped at a red light upon leaving the Amazon warehouse. But the company, according to Appelbaum, “had the city change the traffic light so our organizers wouldn’t be able to speak to them.” (A statement from Bessemer city denies the claim.)

So aggressive are Amazon’s anti-union tactics that 50 members of Congress sent the company a warning letter saying, “We ask that you stop these strong-arm tactics immediately and allow your employees freely to exercise their right to organize a union.” Even the company’s own investors are so shocked by the tactics that more than 70 of them signed on to a letter urging Amazon to remain “neutral” in the vote.

The path to this union vote was paved by staggeringly high inequality that worsened during the pandemic as workers were stripped of their insultingly low hazard-bonus of $2 an hour while the company reaped massive gains over the past year. CEO and soon-to-be “Executive Chair” of Amazon, Jeff Bezos is the world’s second-richest man. He is now worth a mind-boggling $188 billion and saw his wealth increase by $75 billion, over the past year alone—the same time period that about 20,000 of his workers tested positive for the coronavirus.

Bezos’ announcement that he was moving into a new role at the company came on the same day that the Federal Trade Commission announced Amazon had stolen nearly $62 million in tips from drivers working for its “Flex” program. Appelbaum speculated that “what Bezos was trying to do was to create a distraction just like Trump would do,” and that “instead of focusing on the $62 million they stole from their drivers, people would talk about the fact that Bezos was getting a new title.”

Appelbaum sees the historic union vote in Bessemer as more than just a labor struggle. “Eighty-five percent of the people who work at the facility are African American. We see this being as much a civil rights struggle as a labor struggle,” he said. Indeed, conditions at the warehouse are so shocking that they sound like a modern-day, technologically enabled incarnation of slavery. “People were being dehumanized and mistreated by Amazon,” said the union president. He explained, “people get their assignments from a robot, they’re disciplined by an app on their phone, and they’re fired by text message. Every motion they make is being surveilled.”

Union advocates are countering Amazon’s combative anti-union efforts with their own information war. In addition to organizers talking to the warehouse workers in Bessemer every chance they get, an informational website Bamazonunion.org shares data from various studies about the dangerous working conditions in Amazon facilities. The site reminds workers that unions are able to win contracts where workers can only be fired for “just cause” and not on the whim of managers; that complaints against the company can be filed via formal grievances; and that wages and benefits are negotiated collectively.

As a proud union member of SAG-AFTRA, my colleagues and I at KPFK Pacifica Radio have benefited regularly from such protections even against a small nonprofit public radio station struggling to make ends meet. When faced with a ruthless for-profit corporation that has built its empire on the backs of a nonunionized workforce, Amazon’s workers are on the front lines of those who most need the protections a union can provide.

“This election is the most important union election in many, many years because it’s not just about this one Amazon facility in Alabama,” said Appelbaum. “This election is really about the future of work, what the world is going to look like going forward. Amazon is transforming industry after industry, and they’re also transforming the nature of work,” he said. Indeed, the level to which Amazon has fought against unionization at just one warehouse in Alabama is an indication of how important it is to the company that its workers remain powerless.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

About the Author: Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute.

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