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Unions disagree over Biden’s Labor secretary pick

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Union leaders are hoping to influence Joe Biden’s pick for Labor secretary — but they’re increasingly at odds over who should get the job.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and some of his organization’s largest affiliate unions are singing the praises of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who previously led the city’s Building and Construction Trades Council and could appeal to construction workers who supported President Donald Trump. But other unions in the federation are publicly pushing Rep. Andy Levin, a Michigan Democrat who worked as a labor organizer and ran the state’s job training program before he was elected.

The federation, which spans 56 unions representing over 12 million of the more-than 14 million unionized workers in the U.S., was supposed to discuss the potential Labor secretary pick and a possible endorsement at a meeting of union presidents who serve on its political committee on Friday. But that didn’t happen and another meeting hasn’t been scheduled, according to four people familiar with the conversations.

The split over Walsh and Levin was the reason why, one of the people said. “A number of the presidents were sort of furious at the whole thing,” said the person, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive conversations.

Union leaders have long been expecting to hold sway in a Biden administration, given his support for workers’ right to organize — and the Labor Department will play the leading role in implementing Biden’s sweeping pro-worker agenda, making the role an obvious choice for organized labor to weigh in.Biden met on Monday with Trumka and the heads of Service Employees International Union, United Auto Workers, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and United Food and Commercial Workers.

But the early division over potential candidatescould make it difficult for Biden to choose someone who would win support from all sides of the labor movement. It’s also unclear whether any of the white male candidates whom unions are supporting would appeal to the Biden camp, which is trying to build a diverse Cabinet.

Also in the mix for the position is Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who’s been courting the Biden camp — and, according to CNN, the AFL-CIO — as he pushes himself for the job. California Labor Secretary Julie Su, who is well-regarded by unions in her state, is another contender.

Biden and his team have said they do not expect to make any Cabinet appointments until closer to Thanksgiving, and those close to the transition say announcements for leaders at higher-profile agencies such as the Treasury and State Departments are likely to come before the Labor Department.

Unions will unify behind whomever Biden chooses, Trumka said in an interview.

“Once the nomination is made, everyone will get on the same page,” he said. “Because I have no doubt that the person Joe Biden will name will be an effective friend of workers and do right by working people.”

Still, Trumka and others in the labor movement are trying to put their thumbs on the scale.

The AFL-CIO’s two largest affiliates, the American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, threw their weight last week behind Walsh. Trumka, while stopping short of endorsing Walsh, said he would be a “great choice.”

But not everyone has fallen in line: United Auto Workers and Utility Workers Unionof America sent letters to Biden’s transition team Tuesday backing Levin, who serves on the House Education and Labor Committee. National Nurses United and Communications Workers of America have thrown their weight behind Levin as well.

Levin has stronger ties to labor than some of the other names floated, with time spent as an SEIU organizer and more than a decade working for the AFL-CIO. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he also served in the Labor Department during the Clinton administration and as Michigan’s chief workforce officer under former Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

“Levin has both the knowledge and the expertise and the connections, both in the labor movement and in the broader progressive movement, including the environmental movement, to really be effective and a forceful advocate for families,” Economic Policy Institute President Thea Lee, who worked with Levin at the AFL-CIO, told POLITICO.

Levin was elected to represent Michigan in the House in 2018 after his father, longtime congressman Sander Levin, decided against running for reelection. So far, he’s not openly campaigning for the Labor Department job.

“The power behind this, if it’s happening, is not me,” Levin said in an interview. “I’m humbled to have people I’ve worked with shoulder to shoulder for decades saying they’d like for this to happen.”

Walsh, for his part, led Boston’s Building and Construction Trades Council before becoming mayor, credentials that may help a Biden administration draw in workers from the other side of the aisle: 75 percent of construction workers who made political donations gave them to Trump’s presidential campaign.

Walsh and Biden also have a well-documented personal relationship: Not only did Biden speak at the mayor’s 2017 inauguration, but the pair have been spotted together in Walsh’s city at the anniversary of the Marathon bombings, at a Stop & Shop workers rally and even on a dinner date.

“He’s a friend and knows Joe: They’ve worked together on numerous occasions,” Trumka said. “They have the relationship I think is necessary.”

Current and former union officials have raised concerns about revelations of corruption under Walsh’s watch as mayor, including one city employee who pled guilty in September 2019 to accepting a $50,000 bribe. But Trumka was quick to dismiss those: “It’s nonsense,” Trumka said. “It had nothing to do with him.”

Walsh, for his part, has stayed tight-lipped.

“I’m excited about what a Biden-Harris administration means for Boston,” he said in a statement. “While it’s an honor to be mentioned among the many highly qualified individuals being considered for a role in the Biden Administration, I am focused on my job as mayor of the City of Boston.”

This article originally appeared at Politico on November 16, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Megan Cassella is a trade reporter for POLITICO Pro. Before joining the trade team in June 2016, Megan worked for Reuters based out of Washington, covering the economy, domestic politics and the 2016 presidential campaign. It was in that role that she first began covering trade, including Donald Trump’s rise as the populist candidate vowing to renegotiate NAFTA and Hillary Clinton’s careful sidestep of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

A D.C.-area native, Megan headed south for a few years to earn her bachelor’s degree in business journalism and international politics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Now settled back inside the Beltway, Megan’s on the hunt for the city’s best Carolina BBQ — and still rooting for the Heels.


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California proves it’s not as liberal as you think

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Power Comes From Class War, Not Biden

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It may have been the biggest mis­la­beled cel­e­bra­tion in Amer­i­can his­to­ry. By mid­day Sat­ur­day, Novem­ber 7, when the elec­tion was final­ly called, hordes of ecsta­t­ic peo­ple poured into the streets across the coun­try, honk­ing and cheer­ing and weep­ing with joy. This was wide­ly referred to as a cel­e­bra­tion of Pres­i­dent-elect Joe Biden. But it real­ly wasn’t about Biden at all. 

I was in Philadel­phia when the news came, and a major Count Every Vote ral­ly host­ed by unions and com­mu­ni­ty groups instant­ly turned into a Thank God That’s Over ral­ly. There was a for­est of wav­ing signs pro­mot­ing unions, and the Green New Deal, and democ­ra­cy itself. Biden-Har­ris signs were rel­a­tive­ly hard to find. Because even Joe Biden’s own vic­to­ry par­ty was not about Joe Biden. 

It was, first, about the end of the Trump night­mare. And sec­ond, about the pos­si­bil­i­ty of some­thing good hap­pen­ing again, one day. Biden him­self had lit­tle to do with it. No one has ever been excit­ed enough about Joe Biden to par­ty in the streets.

In fact, Biden’s entire cam­paign rest­ed on the idea of him not so much as a vision­ary leader but as a ves­sel into which an incred­i­bly broad spec­trum of Amer­i­cans could pour their hopes. After a fren­zied ear­ly pri­ma­ry surge by Sen. Bernie Sanders, the entire Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty seemed to coa­lesce around Biden overnight, based on the the­o­ry that the most mediocre can­di­date would be the safest bet against Trump. That bet paid off?—?with the help of the party’s left wing, whose activists did as much as any­one to elect Biden. When the eupho­ria of Trump’s down­fall wears off, the Left must wake up to one thing that will not have changed: The pres­i­dent-elect, like the sit­ting pres­i­dent, won by explic­it­ly run­ning against progressives. 

For Trump, crazy car­i­ca­tures of social­ists and immi­grants served as his boo­gie man. For Biden, it was the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. Their styles are dif­fer­ent, but both men won by cast­ing them­selves as walls to stop the tide of wild-eyed left­ists rush­ing in to take away your fos­sil fuels and your pri­vate health­care. Trump’s pitch came with racism. Biden’s came with over­ween­ing empa­thy. But both came with implic­it assur­ance that the left­ies would remain locked out­side the White House gates. 

This real­i­ty is what the Left must face. Though infi­nite­ly bet­ter than the alter­na­tive of creep­ing fas­cism, the 2020 elec­tion?—?a close Biden vic­to­ry, like­ly with­out Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­trol of Con­gress?—?is a poi­so­nous polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion for pro­gres­sive activists. They now find them­selves with­out Trump’s rad­i­cal­iz­ing influ­ence on the pub­lic and frozen out by a Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment that will cite the need to mod­er­ate their posi­tions to get any­thing passed. 

When the Left shows up to be repaid for their work of get­ting Biden elect­ed, they will run into John Kasich and the dis­af­fect­ed Repub­li­cans who are there for the same rea­son. It is not hard to imag­ine that these groups will more or less can­cel each oth­er out, leav­ing the cen­trists to feast on their favorite food, the sta­tus quo. 

For the mil­lionth time, the Left will see its polit­i­cal util­i­ty to the Democ­rats evap­o­rate after Elec­tion Day. Hope springs eter­nal, but the raw log­ic of our two-par­ty sys­tem dev­as­tates us anew, again and again. The way out of this trap is to build a pow­er cen­ter that is not locked into the elec­toral sys­tem, where it is vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble for the Left to con­sis­tent­ly win.

Where can such pow­er be built? The rich build it on Wall Street and in the cor­po­rate world. For the Left, it is the labor move­ment, the sole insti­tu­tion that enables work­ing peo­ple to build and exer­cise real eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal pow­er not behold­en to the veto of big com­pa­nies or politicians. 

The arc of the moral uni­verse may bend toward jus­tice, but it is very, very long. Longer than a life­time. Pro­gres­sives?—?the class of peo­ple who are best able to diag­nose society’s prob­lems, but the least able to change them?—?will con­tin­ue to be dis­ap­point­ed until they turn the bulk of their atten­tion away from the inher­ent­ly hos­tile elec­toral sys­tem and toward build­ing unions, the only things able to make social­ism real with­out ask­ing for permission. 

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the estab­lish­ment of the union world has become just as mani­a­cal­ly focused on elec­toral pol­i­tics as the estab­lish­ment of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. It is not easy to orga­nize an enor­mous revi­tal­iza­tion of union pow­er when so many unions are them­selves more inter­est­ed in con­gres­sion­al cam­paigns than union campaigns.

But 2020 has brought us the most vital ingre­di­ent of all: an ener­gized and rad­i­cal­ized nation of work­ers in dire need, who are about to be dis­ap­point­ed by how the sys­tem deliv­ers on its big promises.

This elec­tion wasn’t about Joe Biden. It was about get­ting back to a base­line of nor­mal­cy. That nor­mal­cy means class war. If we focus on giv­ing the work­ing class an ade­quate weapon, we won’t be in for quite so much dis­ap­point­ment by 2024.

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

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at [email protected]


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“We Won’t Let Him”: Unions Nationwide Are Planning a General Strike If Trump Tries to Steal the Election

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Amid wide­spread con­cerns that Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump will attempt to steal today’s elec­tion or refuse to leave office if he los­es, the lead­ers of mul­ti­ple Chica­go-area unions issued a joint state­ment on Mon­day com­mit­ting to take any non­vi­o­lent action nec­es­sary?—?up to and includ­ing a gen­er­al strike?—?to defend democracy.

“Every sin­gle vote has to be count­ed,” says Sta­cy Davis Gates, vice pres­i­dent of the Chica­go Teach­ers Union (CTU). ?“We are pre­pared to be in sol­i­dar­i­ty to ensure that our democ­ra­cy is pro­tect­ed in this moment.”

The CTU, Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal Work­ers (UE), SEIU Local 73, SEIU Health­care, Cook Coun­ty Col­lege Teach­ers Union, Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Gov­ern­ment Employ­ees Local 704 and Ware­house Work­ers Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee are call­ing on ?“all unions, com­mu­ni­ty, faith and civic orga­ni­za­tions, and pub­lic lead­ers to unite in vig­i­lance and readi­ness to defend our rights as the votes in the Novem­ber 3rd elec­tion are cast and counted.”

The Chica­go unions are part of Labor Action to Defend Democracy (LADD)?—?a recent­ly formed nation­al net­work of union mem­bers orga­niz­ing the labor movement’s response to the threat of a stolen election.

Alex Han, a Chica­go-based labor orga­niz­er help­ing coor­di­nate LADD, says the net­work seeks to tap into the unique pow­er of unions and work­ers to not only protest in the streets, but to cause seri­ous eco­nom­ic dis­rup­tion, if necessary. 

“One les­son we learned from the sum­mer is you can sus­tain street heat to some degree, but it’s going to dis­solve. We saw this dur­ing Occu­py, we’ve seen this many times,” Han tells In These Times. ?“There’s a per­spec­tive that would say the miss­ing ingre­di­ent is a direct link­age with work­place action, which is the kind of action that could be more sus­tain­ing and sharp­er, and not let street action devolve into a run­ning bat­tle with police.”

LADD has put togeth­er var­i­ous resources—includ­ing sam­ple res­o­lu­tions and a mod­el let­ter to politi­cians?—?that unions can use to ampli­fy calls to pro­tect the elec­toral process. In the past three weeks, over twen­ty cen­tral labor coun­cils, state labor fed­er­a­tions, nation­al and local unions have issued res­o­lu­tions express­ing firm oppo­si­tion to any efforts to sub­vert, dis­tort or dis­re­gard the final results of the pres­i­den­tial election.

The Rochester Labor Coun­cil is specif­i­cal­ly call­ing on the nation­al AFL-CIO to pre­pare for a gen­er­al strike, while the Ver­mont AFL-CIO plans to hold a gen­er­al strike vote on Novem­ber 21 should Trump lose and refuse to con­cede. The Seat­tle Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion will also con­vene an emer­gency meet­ing of its board of direc­tors with­in a week of the elec­tion to con­sid­er next steps for pos­si­ble action.

Mean­while, the Emer­gency Work­place Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee (EWOC)—a joint project of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca and UE formed ear­li­er this year in response to the pan­dem­ic?—?host­ed a livestream dis­cus­sion last week on how work­ers can take mass action to ensure a peace­ful tran­si­tion of pow­er. Fea­tur­ing Asso­ci­a­tion of Flight Atten­dants Pres­i­dent Sara Nel­son and EWOC orga­niz­ers Dawn Tefft and Zack Pat­tin, the livestream has near­ly 6,000 views.

“The labor move­ment knows how impor­tant it is to defend democ­ra­cy in this coun­try. We are demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions,” UE Pres­i­dent Carl Rosen explains. ?“We’re pre­pared to do what­ev­er it takes to make sure democ­ra­cy is sus­tained. We know what it’s tak­en in oth­er coun­tries that have faced tin­pot dic­ta­tors try­ing to stay in office after the peo­ple of their coun­try have vot­ed them out.”

As Rosen indi­cates, unions around the world are often the first line of defense against would-be dic­ta­tor­ships. For exam­ple, in the year since Bolivia’s demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly elect­ed pres­i­dent Evo Morales was oust­ed in a U.S.-backed mil­i­tary coup, the Cen­tral Obr­era Boli­viana?—?the nation’s largest labor fed­er­a­tion—led the fight to restore democ­ra­cy, cul­mi­nat­ing in the recent elec­toral vic­to­ry of Morales’s par­ty, the Movimien­to al Socialismo.

“The labor move­ment has a proud his­to­ry of stand­ing up for democ­ra­cy and fair elec­tions around the world,” says SEIU Local 73 Pres­i­dent Dian Palmer. ?“Cit­i­zens across the coun­try are vot­ing like nev­er before. We are uti­liz­ing the rights afford­ed to us to vote ear­ly, in per­son, and by mail. And those votes should be counted.”

“We believe in the pow­er of the peo­ple?—?the mul­ti-racial, work­ing-class major­i­ty,” the Chica­go unions’ state­ment reads. ?“Don­ald Trump wants to steal this elec­tion. We won’t let him.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on November 3, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke has been a Work­ing In These Times con­trib­u­tor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go and a Master’s in Labor Stud­ies from UMass Amherst. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @JeffSchuhrke.


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NATCA’s Disaster Response Committee Raises Funds for Union Relief Efforts

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

With so many severe storms and wildfires having struck parts of our country over the past several months, unions are stepping up to provide relief for our members and our communities that have been impacted. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) established a fund for disaster relief in 1992, in the wake of Hurricane Andrew in Florida and Louisiana. Following the devastating 2017 hurricane season, NATCA formed its own Disaster Response Committee to manage the union’s Disaster Relief Fund and organize the relief process for NATCA members affected by a disaster. Due to the generosity of its membership, NATCA’s Disaster Relief Fund has continued to grow.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on October 30, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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The Movement for Black Lives and Labor’s Revival

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The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis ignited the most widespread series of protests in U.S. history. Working people—not only Black, but people of all races—were the driving force. Even labor leaders who are usually reluctant to weigh in on hot social issues spoke out.

The challenge now is to bring the militancy and energy of this year’s revived Black struggle into the workplace—amid the coronavirus-driven economic crisis.

A deep look at U.S. labor history shows that labor can make big steps forward when Black workers are in motion in their communities. In our past, a mobilized Black community has brought the energy and self-confidence of powerful collective action in the streets into workplace organizing. It’s also brought a grassroots orientation that challenges top-down conservatism.

Will the same be true for unions today?

PANDEMIC POTENTIAL

The potential could be glimpsed in the early weeks of the pandemic, when union and non-union workers alike took action over unsafe working conditions, in worksites ranging from hospitals to Amazon warehouses to grocery stores. Because so many “essential workers” are Black and Latino, they were often at the center of the action, from Detroit bus drivers to Pittsburgh sanitation workers to Georgia poultry workers.

What makes the Black Lives Matter protests so important isn’t just their size. It’s the fact that demonstrators are linking the struggle against racist police violence to the whole racist system. The basketball players’ walkout in August highlighted the connection between racism in society and at the workplace.

Black workers have never drawn a line between civil rights in the community and worker rights on the job. That has everything to do with the central role Black labor has always played in the U.S. economy, from the unpaid labor of slavery to the low wages paid to Black workers by modern industrialists to boost profits.

STREETS TO WORKPLACE

Labor history shows that Black workers don’t protest in the streets while keeping quiet at work.

Black workers were key to labor’s 1930s upsurge in many industries, particularly in the South, even if many Southern struggles were ultimately unsuccessful. In the Midwest, the steel, auto, and meatpacking industries could not have been unionized had not rank-and-file organizers, including socialists of all currents, taken on the racism of the companies—and often of their white co-workers.

Many workplaces and unions at the time were Jim Crow—barred to Black workers. In New York City, a Black community boycott of two privately owned bus lines in 1941 forced the companies to hire Black workers.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Black workers were the driving force of the Southern civil rights movement. A key strategist of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56—the breakthrough struggle of the civil rights movement—was E.D. Nixon, the Alabama president of an all-Black railroad union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Nixon was among those who worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., then a dynamic but largely unknown 27-year-old preacher. The Brotherhood was a key connection between Black union members in Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland and mostly non-union Southern workers.

The Southern civil rights movement prodded the highly conservative AFL-CIO bureaucracy into supporting it, even as nearly all-white building trades unions kept fighting to maintain a color bar into the 1960s. More generally, the level of mobilization in the Black community and the confidence that came with winning the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 reinforced the desire to fight at work as well.

PUBLIC SECTOR STRIKE WAVE

The Southern Black struggle then came North in the form of the Black Power movement. By then Black workers represented big numbers in major industrial unions, such as auto and steel. Black workers were an essential part of—and often a leading force in—the strike wave that began in the mid-1960s.

That period saw a massive expansion of public sector unionism, with Black workers a key component. The welfare rights movement in New York City, with Black women at the center, is one example. That movement was linked to social workers’ unionization efforts in the Social Services Employees Union, an independent organization that struck in defiance of the law and got the support of King and other civil rights leaders as well as community groups. SSEU helped open the way for AFSCME’s recognition and formal public sector bargaining rights in New York.

The assassination of Dr. King led to street rebellions across the U.S. in 1968. Three months later, in auto, Black workers’ Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) led a 1968 wildcat over speedup and discrimination, which spurred similar organizations and strikes elsewhere in auto and in other industries. The workers also took on internal struggles in the United Auto Workers. The UAW had been willing to support the Southern civil rights movement and the 1963 March on Washington, but it sought to suppress Black members’ demands internally.

The 1970 national postal wildcat was strongest in the big cities of the Northeast and Midwest, strongholds for Black workers. Black workers were the absolute majority of postal workers in Chicago, Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Detroit. That job action was likely the largest-ever Black participation in a strike.

Labor struggles of the late 1960s and 1970s were widespread and certainly not limited to Black workers. But the militancy of Black workers was an essential ingredient. Could that same dynamic emerge today?

AN OUTSIZED ROLE

Potentially. But this time Black workers—and their Latino, Asian, and white co-workers—will have to undertake the basic task of union organization on a much greater scale. In 1970, more than 24 percent of workers belonged to unions. The Black Power movement could therefore find a connection in heavily Black unionized workplaces in auto and the post office. Today the path from protest to the workplace is more difficult.

But the same dynamic still exists. The Fight for 15 movement, even though it did not result in union contracts, won a $15 minimum wage through legislation in some states and cities in large part because of the participation of low-wage Black workers. And Black workers are more likely to be in unions than any other group.

Certainly, Black workers have lost important footholds in the unions over the last few decades, with plant closures and shifts of production to the largely non-union South. And now the pandemic economic shutdown has hammered the hospitality and service economy, leading to layoffs in union hotels that hit Black and Latino workers particularly hard.

But Black workers are still a strong component of labor’s remaining base in the private sector, such as auto and UPS, and in the public sector, where they are 20 percent of the total. That means Black workers have an outsized role to play in any resistance to pandemic-driven government budget cuts.

The Chicago Teachers Union’s strikes of 2012 and 2019 showed how a bold union can win public support for demands that address racist realities. The CTU fought for “The Schools Our Children Deserve,” for Black teachers facing job loss, for rent control and sustainable housing and services for homeless students, and against evictions. The potential for such connections is much wider after the anti-racism protests of 2020.

It’s a huge fight. But it always has been. The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 give labor activists the opportunity to revive that tradition.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on October 27, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tim Schermerhorn is a retired transit worker in New York City and a former vice president of Transport Workers Union Local 100. Lee Sustar is a journalist in Chicago and member of the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981.


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How Unions Can Lay the Ground for the Next Upsurge

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I started in the labor movement in the mid-90s, when the fall in union density from 23 percent of the workforce in 1980 to 15 percent in 1994 had created a crisis at the top. In response, the “New Voices” slate led by the Service Employees’ John Sweeney defeated heir apparent Thomas Donahue in the first contested election in AFL-CIO history.

The incoming team were evangelists for organizing. They argued for applying to the entire labor movement the militant tactics of campaigns like the Service Employees’ (SEIU’s) Justice for Janitors and the organizing methodology popularized by the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Institute.

The idea that unions needed to organize new shops in order to survive became universally accepted. Several large campaigns were launched; unions hired hundreds of recent college graduates to staff them, and codified a specific methodology for organizing.

Many of these tactics (and certainly their essence) had been around since the dawn of the labor movement, but in the 1990s they were polished, distilled, and disseminated widely among a growing corps of “professional” union organizers.

This detailed and methodical practice—the structured organizing conversation, house visits, hard inoculation, workplace mapping, careful assessments of support with numerical ranking of workers, building large and representative organizing committees—has proven incredibly effective (when properly applied) in uniting workplace majorities to win a union in the face of intense employer opposition.

UNIONS GROW IN SPURTS

It seemed to many (or at least to me) that training more people in good organizing tactics would only lead to positive outcomes for unions. And it did, to a degree. Membership has grown slightly in a few unions with more aggressive organizing programs, particularly in health care.

But we’ve seen no overall growth in union density, the percentage of the labor force that belongs to a union—today just one in 10 workers overall, and in the private sector, 6.2 percent.

The problem is that even great tactics can’t overcome the social, political, and economic forces of capitalism, which combine to make organizing a gigantic challenge. In a free-market system, employers are under intense competitive pressure to resist workers’ demands—there’s no generous “high road” for them to take; they won’t willingly give in to a union drive. And employers are compelled to come together as a class to exert power over the government, passing laws and using the courts to challenge unions on all fronts.

In addition, organizing tactics are labor-intensive. In a model where paid staff do the lion’s share, they are expensive. And they were crafted to do something that labor history shows has rarely if ever been done: grow unions incrementally, outside of an upsurge.

Rather, as shown by authors like Dan Clawson in his 2003 book The Next Upsurge, unions tend to grow in spurts, as part of working-class uprisings that pose a deep challenge to the powers that be.

The upsurges in the private sector from 1934 to 1939, when the CIO organized industry-wide, with sitdowns when necessary, and the AFL tried to catch up, and in the public sector from 1962 to 1972, when a wave of illegal strikes established the right to bargain, were rooted in militant worker action. The system began to lose legitimacy and workers got a sense of their collective power. Similar dynamics played out during the 1897-1904 upsurge in the U.S., 1910-1914 and 1933-1940 in the U.K., in France 1935-1937, in Italy in the early 1970s, in Brazil in 1978-1979, in South Africa 1982-1985, and in Korea in 1987.

During an upsurge, new possibilities emerge: what was inconceivable yesterday is suddenly possible today.

As the system seeks to stabilize in response, reforms become possible that allow unions to grow and consolidate. For a period after the upsurge, union membership may stay constant or even grow. Inevitably, though, at some point post-upsurge, membership begins to decline as employers resume their attacks.

Organizing between upsurges can produce incremental growth for some unions at some points, or at least slow the decline. But it doesn’t lead to substantial increases in overall union density.

SEIU, for example, grew by 183 percent during the 1934-1939 upsurge. In contrast, it grew by around 8 percent from 2009 to 2019 despite spending a large portion of its budget on organizing. The structural challenges facing unions are such that only the big numbers brought in through an upsurge can move density rates by double digits.

WHAT COULD’VE BEEN

What does this mean for our organizing strategy? While many strategists have studied the conditions leading to an upsurge, most would agree that they are difficult to predict and even more difficult to manufacture. However, it’s also true that before and during each upsurge, union militants took specific actions that helped to spark, build, and sustain it.

There are all kinds of moments in history where the right combination of forces could have moved in a way that caused an upsurge, but didn’t. Even in the past 20 years there have been such moments. On March 10, 2006, a half-million immigrants took to the streets of Chicago to protest a proposed anti-immigrant law, shutting down hundreds of workplaces. Soon millions of people across the country flowed into the streets too.

Like most protest movements, these so-called “mega-marches” eventually dissipated (though it took a few years). But what if a network of activists, rooted both in workplaces and in the struggle for immigrants’ rights, had been able to use the momentum of the walkouts to sustain those strikes for economic or political demands?

What if organizers in strategic workplaces throughout the country had started to spread the strike movement to other sections of the working class? What if the march participants had had a map of the logistics chokepoints in Chicago and decided to disrupt commerce? What if insurgent teacher unionists had joined the effort? Who knows what could have happened?

The financial crisis in 2008, Occupy and the mass worker pushback in Wisconsin in 2011, the Red for Ed strike wave in 2018-2019, and the uprisings for Black lives this year all presented similar opportunities. And the people in the streets during those events? Few of them got there because they’d had a structured conversation with an organizer.

The point is that moments like this come and go all the time, historically speaking—but they aren’t sustained and multiplied, because the forces aren’t aligned to make that happen.

SPARK INTO AN INFERNO

Working-class upsurges often happen in the context of deep changes in society as a whole, such as abrupt and widespread economic dislocation, a profound loss of legitimacy by ruling elites, or abnormal political instability. Many of the factors contributing to an upsurge are not under our control, but some are. If we’re ready at these moments, we can turn a dust-up into a strike, one strike into several, one plant occupation into five, into 10. And then maybe that spark turns into an inferno.

You never know when that moment will come. There’s no structure test for an upsurge.

What does being “ready” mean?

While upsurges look different across times and countries, certain common elements increase the possibility that an isolated labor struggle will spark the sort of upsurge where unions grow dramatically. Certain of these elements can be affected by union activists.

1. More strikes: Dramatic growth in unions is almost always linked to a strike spike, both before and during the upsurge.

The 1934-1939 upsurge was kicked off by several large and militant strikes, including by teamsters in Minneapolis, auto workers in Toledo, longshoremen in San Francisco, and textile workers throughout the South. These came after several years of bitter strikes, such as the 1931 miners’ strike throughout Appalachia and the 1933 strike at the Briggs auto parts plant in Detroit.

The public sector organizing wave of the 1970s included hundreds of illegal strikes, such as the postal workers’ national strike in 1970, and the routine defiance of injunctions.

The willingness of at least part of the labor movement to take risks in the form of sustained, militant, and sometimes illegal action appears to be a necessary component in turning a “moment” into an upsurge.

2. Large numbers of workplace leaders ready to move: An upsurge can’t be driven by union staff. You need politically conscious working-class leaders who have experience in militancy (see #1) and a view that the existing system is illegitimate.

We saw this in the 1960s and 1970s, when the civil rights, women’s, and anti-war movements were all challenging the core of the system. Much of this movement organizing was then reflected in the booming public sector as rank-and-file teachers, state employees, and municipal workers built unions.

3. Independence from the mainstream: It’s unlikely that large, established unions will support the type of militant, risky action that characterizes the beginning of an upsurge.

Many union officials simply aren’t willing to run open-ended, majority strikes, outside of rare circumstances. Others don’t want to risk legal sanctions.

So where does organizing capacity come from in an upsurge? Historically, three places: a) the minority of unions willing to take militant action, b) new formations that come together during the upsurge, such as the new CIO industrial unions in the 1930s, and c) people fighting for profound changes in society, such as the civil rights movement of the 1960s, socialists in the 1930s, or anarchists in earlier periods.

Waging more strikes and developing thousands of new workplace militants will take a lot of work, and at times will require exactly the type of sophisticated organizing methods discussed earlier. But it will also require something else: a labor movement with a class-struggle orientation.

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

What if the tactics needed to spark or fuel an upsurge aren’t the same as those needed to win a tough private sector union election during a low period in working-class consciousness? If they’re not, how many potential upsurges have passed us by while we were grinding it out in organizing efforts that only resulted in marginal gains?

What if the key to union growth isn’t simply more “smart organizing” but an entirely different strategic approach?

While some of the tactics honed in the 1990s and 2000s had their roots in earlier labor upsurges, they were largely divorced from a class-struggle strategy. A string of valiantly fought but ultimately losing strikes, running from PATCO in 1981 to the Detroit Newspapers in 1995, had convinced many unions that the strike tactic was futile.

So union campaigners often stressed “comprehensive” strategies that focused on developing pressure outside of the workplace: convincing supportive politicians to pressure an employer, media campaigns designed to impact a firm’s brand, or leveraging union pension funds to change a company’s behavior—rather than developing worker organization. If these strategies employed workplace militancy at all, it was often in the service of producing “content” to be used in media campaigns, rather than to actually affect the employer’s operations.

Within a few years, the early energy of the New Voices victory ran headfirst into the realities of business unionism. Affiliates were interested in growing their numbers, but less interested in taking risks. The most ardent apostles of organizing were marginalized and eventually cast aside, as the whole project devolved into meaningless goal-setting. The AFL-CIO announced a goal of 1,000,000 new members per year starting in 2000, a number that proved well beyond its reach.

The push to organize in the 1990s-2000s never seriously challenged the post-World War II status quo adhered to by most labor leaders, which was cemented by the purges of the left-leaning CIO unions in 1949-1950. Unions improved in other areas: race, gender, even foreign policy, but the core goal to rebuild the ranks of labor ultimately washed up on the rocks of business unionism.

Outside of the few unions with left histories, few in the labor movement at that time spoke of alternatives to capitalism. The Democratic Socialists of America, now at 70,000 members, was then a small organization with strong ties to mainstream labor leaders, and Bernie Sanders was not a name on the national scene.

Unions must do what’s necessary to survive. But we need to be doing a lot more to lay the groundwork for turning the next moment into an upsurge.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on October 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mark Meinster is an international representative with the United Electrical Workers (UE).


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National Hispanic Heritage Month Profiles: Linda Chavez-Thompson

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Throughout National Hispanic Heritage Month, the AFL-CIO will be profiling labor leaders and activists to spotlight the diverse contributions Hispanics and Latinos have made to our movement. Today’s profile features Linda Chavez-Thompson.

A second-generation American of Mexican descent, Chavez-Thompson grew up in Lubbock, Texas. An oft-told anecdote from her childhood told the story of a young Chavez-Thompson convincing her father that her mother should stay home and care for the household rather than working in the fields. She and her siblings threatened to walk off the job in support of her mother. Her father agreed and Chavez-Thompson got her first organizing victory.

In 1967, she started working as a secretary at the Laborers (LIUNA) local in Lubbock. As the only bilingual staff member, she soon became the union representative for Spanish-speaking LIUNA members. Before long, she was drafting grievances for workers and representing them in administrative proceedings.

Later, she moved to San Antonio and began working with AFSCME. In 1986, she began serving as a national vice president for the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement. Her accomplishments and hard work helped her become an international vice president of AFSCME in 1988, and in 1993, she was elected to serve as a vice president on the AFL-CIO Executive Council. In 1995, she won her election to become the federation’s first elected executive vice president. She was the first person of color to hold one of the AFL-CIO’s top three positions.

During her time as an AFL-CIO officer, Chavez-Thompson focused heavily on recruitment, particularly trying to convince more women and people of color to join unions. She also focused on teaching the importance of unions to young people. Even more successful were her efforts to partner with community groups in recruiting members and fighting back against anti-union efforts. She represented the federation and working people in a variety of organizations, including the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, the United Way of America and the Democratic National Committee. She also was elected president of the Inter-American Regional Organization of Workers, a part of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.

Chavez-Thompson retired from the AFL-CIO in 2007.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on October 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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The Details of Worker Abuse at One of the World’s Largest Logistics Companies Are Appalling

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XPO Logistics flies under the radar. The company is one of the ten largest logistics companies in the world, with 97,000 employees and over 1,500 locations, operating in thirty countries. Last year, XPO, led by billionaire CEO Bradley Jacobs, reported over $16 billion in revenue. While you may never have heard of the company, the brands it services are more familiar: Amazon, Walmart, Home Depot, Starbucks, and Peloton, among others.

But according to a new report compiled by the XPO Global Union Family, a network of unions representing workers in countries where XPO Logistics has its largest operations, business as usual at XPO deserves more attention.

“Behind the glossy marketing,” write the report’s authors, “are supply chains mired in worker exploitation, a cavalier and even negligent approach to safety that has led to injury and death, and a company where workers who protest against pregnancy discrimination and harassment are met by retaliation.” The report, titled “XPO: Delivering Injustice,” compiles workers’ stories from around the globe, painting a picture of the logistics company’s flouting of the law and blasé attitude toward worker safety, even as the global coronavirus pandemic hit. (XPO has not responded to a request for comment, but told Motherboard, “The report repeats wholly inaccurate allegations that have been entirely debunked.”)

Even as Jacobs told shareholders in April 2020 that “We’ve deliberately built XPO like a bulletproof tank to surmount all kinds of challenges,” workers at the transportation and logistics giant, which specializes in last-mile delivery, were in crisis.https://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

As the report details, a March 2020 survey of XPO/ASOS workers at a 4,000-person warehouse in the United Kingdom found that 98 percent of respondents felt unsafe at work, emphasizing management’s failure to provide them with personal protective equipment (PPE), ensure social distancing, and provide handwashing facilities and sufficient supplies of soap. In July 2020, the company refused to shut down another distribution center in the country, even as sixty-four workers tested positive for COVID-19.

In the United States, a survey conducted by the Teamsters found similar concern and uncertainty among XPO’s workers. Asked to rate the company’s performance in addressing COVID-19 risks on a scale of 1 to 10, 24 percent of respondents gave XPO a 1.

The situation is, if anything, even more dire in Europe. According to the report, XPO’s use of Eastern European subcontractors leads to rampant labor-law violations, leaving workers stranded abroad with fake documentation. In interviews conducted in June 2020, Ukrainian drivers told Stichting VNB, the research and enforcement arm of Dutch union FNV, that they “live for months in the cabin of their trucks, do not get paid the agreed Lithuanian salary, and are even given false attestation de détachement documents in France stating that they get a much higher €10 hourly wage.” The report continues,

The drivers told VNB that they had begged their Lithuanian employer to allow them to go home but that the company ignored their requests. For their time on the road, the drivers only receive enough money for food — with too little to enable them to leave their trucks in France and go home of their own free will.

One Ukrainian driver employed in Lithuania told VNB in June 2020 that he had not been home since December 2019, despite begging his employer, the subcontractor, to send a replacement driver. “Luka was forced to live illegally in his truck the whole time, isolated and alone,” write the report’s authors.

These exploitative conditions didn’t begin during the pandemic either. A New York Times story from October 2018 revealed rampant pregnancy discrimination against workers in a Verizon warehouse operated by XPO in Memphis, Tennessee. There, working conditions led to several miscarriages. In response to the story, XPO established a new pregnancy policy. “While the new policy appears progressive on paper and seems to be a large improvement of the former policy,” write the report’s authors, it “lacks any oversight or enforcement mechanism.” Further, shortly after rolling out the new policy, XPO closed the Memphis facility, a move Senator Richard Blumenthal, who represents Connecticut, where XPO headquarters is located, said “reeked of retaliation.”

As the report notes, XPO workers in the United States have filed 120 unfair labor practice (ULP) charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) against XPO since 2014. As Lafe Solomon, a former acting general counsel of the NLRB, concluded in 2018:

The sheer number of unfair labor practice charges filed and complaints issued by NLRB regional directors against XPO, resulting in numerous board decisions and settlements, are extraordinary and outside the norm of employer opposition to its employees’ organizing efforts, and evidence XPO’s intent to flaunt its obligations under the NLRA to deny its employees their right and ability to form and join a union.

Despite this resistance, which includes the hiring of anti-union consultants, workers have unionized at seven XPO facilities in the United States. Not one of these, however, has ratified a union contract yet.

“Unions representing working people at XPO are greatly concerned that XPO’s business model is based on exploitation, illegal underpayments, and a callous approach to safety,” conclude the report’s authors. They have repeatedly demanded to meet with the company to discuss workers’ concerns, but so far, they say, XPO has refused.

This blog originally appeared at Jacobin on October 14, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alex Press is an assistant editor at Jacobin. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Vox, the Nation, and n+1, among other places.


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With City’s Economic Future in Doubt, Can New York Unions Stop the Cuts?

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The COVID-19 pandemic has killed nearly 25,000 New York City residents. The worst of the public health crisis may have passed, but its dire toll has triggered a second crisis. Shutting down huge swaths of the economy was necessary to save lives, but the deep freeze on economic activity has plunged the city into its worst fiscal crisis since the troubled 1970s.

Then as now, municipal workers and their unions are in the crosshairs. If the city’s economic and political elites have their way, labor will pay for the crisis againjust like it did in the 1970s.

A FRAGILE GIANT

New York City’s economy was particularly vulnerable to a deadly pandemic. COVID-19 thrives on close interaction, and so do many of the city’s leading industries: personal services, tourism, leisure and hospitality, food and drink, education, health care, entertainment. In normal times, millions of workers travel to and from the city daily to work in densely packed offices, ride crowded elevators, crush against each other in subways and buses, and pack bars and restaurants.

With New York’s contact-intensive economy suspended, hundreds of thousands of workers were unemployed or thrown into the uncertainty of indefinite furlough. While employment has begun to rebound, about 16 percent of the city’s workforce was still unemployed in late September, twice the national average.

Medicaid enrollment has increased nearly 10 percent since February and SNAP (food stamps) recipients increased by more than 12 percent. And of course the city is paying for a sharp increase in staffing in the public hospitals, personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators, testing, and other coronavirus needs.

Unemployment is up, tax revenues are down, and emergency expenses are still necessary. In June, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council passed a fiscal year 2021 budget that cut overall spending by $5 billion from the previous fiscal year. The city made immediate cuts to trash collection, composting, and the Staten Island Ferry, and it kept most public swimming pools closed for the summer. But this is only a small taste of what could come under a post-pandemic austerity program.

The FY 2021 budget’s $5 billion cut doesn’t even include the truly crucial number for New York’s 325,000 municipal workers—the additional $1 billion in labor savings the city says it must find in order to avert 22,000 municipal layoffs.

‘HARD CHOICES’ FOR WHOM?

The city needs to balance its budget if huge service cuts and layoffs are to be avoided. The question is which choices will be made, and who will pay for them?

For New York’s business elite and their mouthpieces, the answer is easy: unionized municipal workers and working people in general. The Citizens Budget Commission, an influential business-backed “fiscal watchdog” group whose “nonpartisan” budget analysis shapes public debate, called for “Hard Choices” to shore up the city’s finances. To anyone familiar with the CBC, its recommendations are hardly surprising: cuts to services, cuts to the unionized workforce, and shifting health care costs from the city to employees, among other measures.

While the CBC does not call for layoffs, it proposes a sharp pace of attrition, filling just one of every three vacancies over the next two years. It wants to eliminate the Absent Teacher Reserve, popularly known as the “rubber room” or “teacher jail,” which would permanently lay off hundreds of “excessed” union teachers. Since many teachers end up there without explanation or justification, this would amount to an unfair denial of their due process rights under the contract.

“Premium-sharing” for health insurance would save the city $700 million each year. Nearly all New York City employees and retirees currently do not pay premiums for health insurance, which also includes their dependents—a benefit that most American workers can only dream of.

The CBC wants retirees to pay 16 percent of their pre-Medicare insurance premiums and 25 percent of Medicare Part B and Supplemental Medicare coverage. This would cost pre-Medicare retirees $2,500 annually and Medicare recipients $800.

Current city employees with salaries below $65,000 would contribute 6 percent of premiums for single coverage ($575 per year) and 8 percent for family coverage ($2,000). Those with salaries above $65,000 would contribute 14 percent for single coverage ($1,350) and 16 percent for family coverage ($4,000). For years the unions have traded higher wage increases for maintaining the zero-premium health benefit, so any cost-shifting to employees has a real impact, particularly on the lowest-paid workers.

In 2014, Mayor de Blasio and the municipal unions struck the first “health savings agreement,” aimed at reducing insurance costs without implementing premiums. They struck a second such agreement in 2018, and these deals have allowed them to wring out billions in savings through measures like raising co-pays for emergency room visits and terminating coverage for ineligible dependents.

Since the low-hanging fruit was picked in 2014 and 2018, it’s possible that concessions on zero-premium insurance could actually be on the table this time around. That would be a major victory for the budget hawks at the CBC and in the business community, who have been pushing to shift the cost of health insurance on to labor for decades. They consider the zero-premium benefit an unjustifiable expense precisely because it’s so rare. In their view, since most other workers in the U.S. pay premiums, New York’s municipal workers should too.

WHAT’S THE ALTERNATIVE?

Mayor de Blasio, city council members, and the municipal unions have called for the governor to give the city long-term borrowing authority to plug budget gaps, something it hasn’t had since the imposition of financial controls by the State during the 1970s fiscal crisis. But business interests and budget hawks in both parties are strenuously opposed to taking on debt. For them, this would signal a return to the bad old days of the 1970s, when New York was supposedly led to ruin by runaway welfare spending and overpaid municipal workers.

In addition to borrowing authority, the union-backed Strong Economy for All Coalition is also calling for tax increases on billionaires and millionaires at the state level. Those increases would prevent the state from cutting billions of dollars in aid to schools and local governments, including New York City. The unions are also proposing an old standby for hard times, an early retirement incentive for state and local government workers, to reduce the workforce without layoffs. Along with Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio, they are also calling for federal aid to close budget gaps.

It’s clear, however, that Washington won’t be coming to New York’s rescue as long as Donald Trump is in the White House and Republicans control the Senate. Even if Joe Biden becomes president and the Democrats make gains in Congress, it’s not guaranteed that the city would receive enough federal aid to avert a deep austerity program. Biden’s closest advisors have already signaled that they think the federal “pantry is bare” because of the Trump tax cuts, and that a massive increase in federal spending is not forthcoming.

The force of events may change their perspective, but Biden’s long record as a fiscal moderate does not inspire confidence that he will spend what’s needed to keep state and local governments out of budget hell.

Unfortunately, the city is not the master of its own fate. That power lies, to a significant extent, in the hands of Governor Cuomo and the state legislature’s Democratic Party majority. If the city is to take on debt, raise taxes on the wealthy, and otherwise avoid an austerity program, it must get authorization and support from the state.

One might think this would be easily forthcoming, considering the fact that all the most important political figures here are Democrats. But Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio can’t agree on the time of day, much less the right fiscal policy, and the state is facing its own serious budget crunch. The governor and many of his closest allies have already announced their opposition to soaking the rich, on the false grounds that they will leave for greener pastures in other states.

For its part, the state legislature’s Democratic majority includes an exciting new crop of democratic socialists and other progressives, but also many suburban moderates who have ridden the wave of anti-Trump sentiment into office. They may not be willing to send enough help to a city that many of their constituents believe, against all evidence, is falling into violent chaos.

WHERE’S LABOR?

As the 2020 school year approached, it briefly looked like a previously unthinkable event might come to pass: a public schools strike. This was because of the dogged organizing of activists in the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators (MORE), the reform caucus in the giant city teachers union. The union’s Delegate Assembly scheduled but ultimately did not carry out a strike authorization vote because the leadership hammered out a reopening agreement with the mayor before the meeting. But rank-and-file members have continued to organize, and their organizing for a sickout and other actions showed their ability to mobilize members for worker and student safety.

Aside from these actions, and some public health worker demonstrations for increased funding and PPE, the municipal labor movement has been rather quiet. AFSCME District Council 37 and other unions held a rally against layoffs in September, but like most of the city unions’ labor rallies, it went largely unnoticed. Despite the scale of the crisis, it appears as if New York’s labor establishment is turning once again to its well-worn playbook of behind-the-scenes lobbying, politicking, and dealing.

The uncomfortable fact is that New York’s municipal labor movement is, with some notable exceptions, hidebound and risk-averse. Union membership in the public sector remains very high, and the collective bargaining system has not been dismantled. The city’s system of labor relations has largely been preserved: a labor-management partnership in which deals are hammered out at the top with little in the way membership participation or collective action. This has insulated the municipal unions from the worst effects of the national anti-union offensive, but has tended to make leaders inward-looking and resistant to change.

This situation stems, to a significant extent, from the resolution of the 1970s fiscal crisis. New York’s municipal union leaders still talk about how labor “saved the city” by buying municipal bonds with pension funds and accepting massive contract concessions: layoffs, wage freezes, benefit cuts, and, in future contracts, the linkage of wage increases to productivity gains. The unions eventually regained their membership numbers, supported by the passage of New York State’s 1976 agency shop law. But these measures and those that followed tended to draw union leaders closer to public officials and away from their own members and the people they serve.

NEW YORK IS NOT OVER

New York City is not “over,” as so many commentators have recently claimed. But it will probably be different, now that we know that many workers, particularly white-collar office workers, can work remotely and don’t need to fill Manhattan’s mammoth office buildings every day. If they don’t come back in big numbers, workers in retail, restaurants and bars, and other service industries will continue to suffer even after the public health crisis is resolved.

With the future of New York’s economy in doubt, the labor movement has an opportunity to articulate a different vision for the city as a whole—one that is less reliant on the consumption spending of office workers, tourists, and the wealthy. But doing so will require many of the city’s unions to adopt a different approach, one that is proactive instead of defensive, activates the dormant power of member action, and embraces the common good in addition to their own needs and interests

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on October 12, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Chris Maisano is a union staffer in New York City.

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