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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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The Animal Legal Defense Fund Is Busting Its Union With a Smile

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The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) is a major nonprofit that boasts of its more than 40 years of ?“tireless pursuit of justice for animals.” When it comes to the pursuit of justice for working humans, however, its own employees say that it is badly failing the test. 

In mid-December, ALDF’s employees told the organization’s management that they intended to unionize with the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, a division of the IFPTE. They presented signed union cards representing a ?“super majority” of the 54-person staff, and asked for the ALDF to voluntarily recognize their union. Such voluntary recognition has become standard in the nonprofit world?—?the NPEU says that of the 35nonprofits it’s organized, only two have refused to recognize their unions. 

One of those two is the ALDF. According to employees and the NPEU, the ALDF responded to the news of the union drive by hiring the anti-union law firm Ogletree Deakins and embarking on a union-busting campaign that is now in full swing. That campaign has centered on an ongoing series of ?“captive audience meetings” in which managers gather employees in small groups to try to persuade them not to unionize, a tactic common among corporations intent on intimidating and misleading workers who seek to organize. 

An ALDF employee who supports the union, and who asked not to be identified due to fear of retaliation at work, said that the union drive came about because of the sort of disillusionment common in the nonprofit world, where people find that what they had seen as a ?“dream job” actually is nothing of the sort. After the killing of George Floyd, the staff’s dissatisfaction with what they saw as the organization’s ?“lukewarm, half-ass” response?—?as well as a perception of unfair pay rates, and inequitable treatment by managers?—?led directly to the desire to unionize in order to have a stronger voice in the workplace. ?“The people who control most of these [animal rights] organizations are largely white, and largely wealthy,” and uninterested in scrutinizing the flaws of ALDF itself, the employee said. ?“This is a huge problem for us. We’re a legal organization, so justice is paramount among our concerns… They think of us as being expendable because we have such coveted jobs.” 

The ALDF did not respond to a request for comment from its management. 

The organizing drive gathered steam through the summer, working in tandem with the NPEU, which has led an explosion of organizing among nonprofitsover the past two years. The employee says that it became clear that management knew about the drive by late October, so the unit made sure to present a large majority of signed union cards in December to make it ?“unambiguous that this is what people want.” Nevertheless, just before Christmas, management called a meeting and told everyone they would not be recognizing the union. 

Employees are upset that ALDF chose to hire Ogletree Deakins, the sameanti-union firm that the ACLU of Kansas hired last year to fight its own employee organizing drive?—?particularly because the firm works with clients in industrial agriculture, which employees see as being antithetical to ALDF’s mission. Though firms like Ogletree Deakins typically work to ensure that the employer’s anti-union campaign is as scary as possible while still following the letter of the law, they are not immune from comedy; ALDF employees found out about the firm’s involvement when a manager accidentally CC’d staffers on an email with an Ogletree attorney discussing details of an anti-union meeting.

“Anything short of recognizing your staff union in this political environment is union busting,” says Kayla Blado, the president of NPEU. ?“Management there doesn’t want to cede power to workers. They are using pretty infamous union busting tactics, the same things you see at big companies.” Blado says that the ALDF is not only forcing its employees to file for an NLRB election in order to certify their union?—?a process which will likely take months?—?it is also trying to challenge the size of the union, arguing to the NLRB that the number of eligible employees should be cut by a full two-thirds, which Blado calls ?“insulting.”

Employees at ALDF shared with In These Times notes that they took during three separate captive audience meetings with different managers. They paint a picture of a nonprofit using a standard anti-union playbook that would not be out of place at Walmart or an Amazon warehouse: a mix of encouraging comments about how management values employees’ opinions and that a union is not necessary to communicate with them directly, along with fearmongering statements painting the union as a predatory outside entity that is only out for dues money. Managers alternate between insisting that they want employees to speak up and change the organization from within, disparaging the NPEU, and warning that forcing the ALDF into bargaining with the union does not mean that employees will actually make any gains. One meeting even features the highest form of the anti-union meeting genre?—?the assurances that the people delivering the anti-union message are, in fact, strong believers in unions. 

At one point, a manager describes the ALDF’s outside attorney as ?“a really liberal blue guy,” adding, ?“He’s a management-side attorney, no doubt about it, but he’s just not a union-buster.” At another point, ALDF executive director Stephen Wells, who is leading the group’s decision to fight against the union, is described as ?“a really pro-union guy.” 

“It’s not like he’s an anti-union person,” the speaker says of Wells. ?“He’s really liberal, he’s really progressive.”

Depending on how long it takes to settle legal arguments at the NLRB and schedule a final vote, workers could be in for another two months or more of these sorts of meetings. Still, the ALDF employee says that the union-busting has not changed any minds, and is confident that the union will win. ?“It’s making people madder and more dedicated,” the employee says. ?“This is an act of love for this organization.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 13, 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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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 Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.


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When a Company Tries to Decertify Its Union

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Cable provider and mass media company Charter Communications, which offers its services under the Spectrum brand, is pushing to decertify the IBEW Local 3 union in New York City, whose workers have been on strike since March 28, 2017. Decertification votes are used by workers to get rid of a union or replace it with a different one, with the vote to get rid of IBEW Local 3 being pushed by replacement workers.

Roughly 1,800 workers represented by IBEW Local 3 went on strike over a contract dispute with Charter Communications, which bought out Time Warner Cable in May 2016. A majority of workers voted to authorize a strike in response to cuts to healthcare and pension benefits in the wake of the buy-out.

As the strike approaches two years, Charter Communications is advocating workers to vote to decertify the union with the National Labor Relations Board.

In an internal email from January 31, obtained by In These Times, Charter Communications Regional Vice President of New York City Operations, John Quigley, told workers, “In my opinion, Local 3 has not earned the right to represent you. Over the past several years they have mislead (sic.) their members, led them out on a strike without a clear plan, mishandled almost every aspect of the strike, made it very clear what they think of employees who are working with us today, and continue to make empty threats about harming our business.”

Quigley added, “we hope that you vote ‘no’ and give us a chance to continue to make Charter a great place to work-together.”

The email reveals that Spectrum encouraged its workers to get rid of the union. A Spectrum spokesperson told In These Times via email, “the vote is between our employees and IBEW Local 3. We have no further comment.”

“A standard tactic in a union-busting campaign is to be intransigent in bargaining and thereby provoke a strike, hire replacement workers who are eligible to vote, schedule a decertification election and hope the replacement workers vote in greater numbers than the strikers,” Catherine Fisk, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, told In These Times via email. “It illustrates the need for labor law reform that would permit workers to bargain and, if necessary, strike without losing their jobs and their rights to bargain collectively.”

The petition to decertify the union was filed with the National Labor Relations Board by Bruce Carberry, who the union alleges is a supervisor who transitioned to a survey technician role in order to file the petition and become a part of the bargaining unit represented by the union. Union members allege this individual was demoted for the purpose of undermining the union. Once a decertify petition is filed and approved with at least 30 percent of workers signing in favor, a vote is held where a majority determines the outcome. The vote went forward after negotiations to end the strike broke down in December 2018.

On his LinkedIn profile, Carberry lists his role as a supervisor until January 2018; the petition was initially filed in May 2018. Carberry began working for Charter Communications in May 2017, shortly after the union went on strike. Trump-appointed National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) regional director John Walsh approved Carberry’s petition to allow a decertification vote in June 2018 despite these allegations from the union that Carberry was ineligible to file the petition due to his supervisory position. The ruling explainedthe union did not prove Carberry was not in a supervisory role at the time of filing the petition, despite proving he served in a supervisory role prior to its filing.

If the vote passes to decertify the union, the outcome would essentially end the strike in Spectrum’s favor rather than continue to pressure Spectrum to make concessions in bargaining a new union contract. It’s unclear how many replacement workers, permanent and contracted employees have been hired by Spectrum during the strike. When the strike first began, Spectrum’s contingency plan included hiring contractors from out of state and the company has recently been scrutinized by city officials for not hiring enough local labor.

The attorney representing Carberry and his petition, Matthew Antonek, has previously represented union busting efforts at Verizon as the company’s Executive Director of Labor Relations.

“He’s a union buster,” said Tim Dubnau, an organizing coordinator for the Communications Workers of America which has led efforts to unionize Verizon employees, of the petitioner’s attorney. “The labor law is completely broken in this country. It’s amazing how coercive employers can be and are.”

Since the petition went through, a campaign that includes an anti-union blog surfaced to try to sway workers to vote in favor of decertifying the union. One blog post includes ten reasons to vote “No,” including claims the union hates current Spectrum employees, the union lies, and that workers would be better off without the union representing the workplace.

“Around the new year starting when the NLRB said the vote was going to go through, a charter tech blog showed up saying things like you can’t get anymore raises,” Chris Fasulo, a Spectrum worker on strike, told In These Times. “There are also a couple of Twitter accounts out there, all of a sudden they started trolling a lot of guys on strike like myself who are very outspoken on Twitter.” A Spectrum spokesperson denied the blog or accounts are affiliated with the company.

The NLRB sent out ballots to all eligible workers this month for the decertification election, which includes workers on strike and any hired before January 2019. Ballots were due February 22, and the outcome of the vote is not yet known.

“Even though none of these people are part of the union, the law seems to give them the ability to vote on whether or not a union should represent the workplace,” said Troy Walcott, a Spectrum worker on strike. “So while we’re out on strike all the people who are working in place of us who don’t have a union are now allowed to vote on whether a union gets to represent the workplace.”

He added a grassroots movement has started in the wake of the strike to create apublicly owned cable service in New York City. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and union leaders in New York have recently renewed calls to boycott Spectrum and its services over the company’s union busting. The company is currently in negotiations with the New York Public Service Commission to be able to continue providing cable services in New York State after the commission voted in July 2018 to revoke approval of Spectrum’s merger with Time Warner.

“The company is basically union busting in New York City, and they’ve come in, raised rates on people and set their own terms because they hold a monopoly right now and there’s really no one to stop them from doing what they’re doing,” added Walcott.

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 25, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Michael Sainato is a journalist based in Albany, NY. Follow him on Twitter @MSainat1

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