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Unite Here Is 85% Unemployed and Still Fighting Like Hell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 17, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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

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Inside the groundbreaking student organizing drive at Kenyon College.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Let’s set the record straight on unions this Labor Day

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If your stereotype of a union worker is a white guy in a hard hat, let’s take this Labor Day to change that in a big way. Here’s the reality: 46.2% of union workers are women, and 36.1% are people of color. Black workers are the most likely to be represented by a union. More than half of workers represented by unions have an associate degree or more, and 43.1% have a bachelor’s degree. 

A reality you may be somewhat more aware of is that unions benefit their members and other workers covered by union contracts. Which they do—to the tune of an 11.2% wage boost for a worker under a union contract as compared to an equivalent worker in a nonunion workplace. But it’s important to understand that unions help nonunion workers, too. “Research shows that deunionization accounts for a sizable share of the growth in inequality between typical (median) workers and workers at the high end of the wage distribution in recent decades—on the order of 13–20% for women and 33–37% for men,” the Economic Policy Institute reports.

Put together the union wage boost and the diversity of today’s union members and there’s something else: Unions help fight not just overall economic inequality—the gulf between the 1% and the rest of us—but racial and gender disparities.

This, again from the Economic Policy Institute, is staggering: “White workers represented by union are paid ‘just’ 8.7% more than their nonunionized peers who are white, but Black workers represented by union are paid 13.7% more than their nonunionized peers who are Black, and Hispanic workers represented by unions are paid 20.1% more than their nonunionized peers who are Hispanic.”

Union workers are more likely to have paid sick days and health insurance—and unions have fought for laws ensuring that everyone will have access to paid sick days and health insurance.

So this Labor Day, remember: Unions help reduce racial and gender disparities for those covered by union contracts, as well as reducing the distance between typical workers and those at the very top—an effect that goes well beyond union members. They promote benefits like paid sick leave and have been instrumental in state and local campaigns to raise the minimum wage. And their members are definitely not all white guys in hard hats. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on September 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.


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Why Every Job in the Renewable Energy Industry Must Be a Union Job

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We need millions of union jobs that are good for both workers and the climate.

The renew­able ener­gy indus­try in the Unit­ed States is boom­ing. Pri­or to the start of the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic, which has put mil­lions out of work, over 3 mil­lion peo­ple worked in clean ener­gy?—?far more than those who worked in the fos­sil fuel indus­try. And though the decline of fos­sil fuel jobs appears unstop­pable, the unions that rep­re­sent those work­ers are very pro­tec­tive of their mem­bers’ jobs. Sim­i­lar­ly, they’ve also been resis­tant to leg­is­la­tion like the Green New Deal, which would cre­ate more green jobs while also tran­si­tion­ing away from work in extrac­tive indus­tries. Envi­ron­men­tal activists believe that green jobs are the future?—?for both work­ers and our world?—?but union­iza­tion rates in the renew­able ener­gy indus­try are extreme­ly low. In order to get unions on board with green jobs, the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment will have to fight for those jobs to be union. And unions will have to loosen their grip on fos­sil fuels in an effort to embrace renewables.

Fos­sil fuel jobs can pay well (both oil rig and refin­ery work­ers can take home around $100,000 per year), but due to automa­tion and decreased demand, the num­ber of jobs is shrink­ing. And so are the unions that rep­re­sent them. At its peak, the Unit­ed Mine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca boast­ed 800,000 mem­bers, but hun­dreds of thou­sands of work­ers have been laid off in the last few decades. Now UMWA is most­ly a retirees’ orga­ni­za­tion and only orga­nizes a few thou­sand work­ers in the man­u­fac­tur­ing and health care indus­tries, as well as work­ers across the Nava­jo Nation. When a union like UMWA hem­or­rhages mem­bers, many see it as an insu­lar prob­lem that doesn’t con­cern any­body else?—?envi­ron­men­tal­ists may even cel­e­brate the clo­sure of mines and refiner­ies, poten­tial­ly pay­ing lip ser­vice to lost jobs, with­out doing much to cre­ate new ones.

“An injury to one is an injury to all” is not just a slo­gan in the labor move­ment because it sounds good, but because it’s true. When union den­si­ty is low and unions are weak, the jobs that are cre­at­ed are more like­ly to have low pay, lack ben­e­fits, and be unsafe. And because union den­si­ty in this coun­try is already so low (33.6% in the pub­lic sec­tor, 6.2% in the pri­vate), every time an employ­er of union labor out­sources or shuts down, it affects not only those new­ly unem­ployed work­ers, but all work­ers, union and not. When oil refiner­ies and oth­er fos­sil fuel employ­ers close their doors, union mem­bers and oth­er work­ers lose their jobs. And while that may feel like a win for envi­ron­men­tal­ists, it’s also a loss for all work­ing peo­ple, even those con­cerned about cli­mate change. Unions are one of the only ways work­ing peo­ple have pow­er in this coun­try?—?with­out them, there will be very few orga­ni­za­tions equipped to fight for the pro­grams and ser­vices we deserve, includ­ing ones that are tasked with fight­ing cli­mate change. These kinds of con­tra­dic­tions have caused ten­sion between both move­ments, and cor­rod­ed trust between them. And while there have been some inroads made in the last few years—includ­ing unions endors­ing the Green New Deal—there’s still a long way to go until unions eschew fos­sil fuels.

Upton Sin­clair once said that ?“it is dif­fi­cult to get a man to under­stand some­thing when his salary depends upon his not under­stand­ing it.” When you’re able to feed your fam­i­ly on wages paid for by fos­sil fuels, it’s hard to see those same fos­sil fuels as a direct threat to your life. Most of us can under­stand why fos­sil fuel work­ers want to hold onto their jobs. And we can also under­stand why a major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans want to sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduce the use of fos­sil fuels.

But between these two con­flict­ing needs is a real oppor­tu­ni­ty: green jobs. The Bureau of Labor Sta­tis­tics pre­dicts that the two fastest grow­ing jobs through 2028 will both be in the renew­able ener­gy sec­tor. While an eco­nom­ic down­turn due to Covid-19 could slow job growth, pre-pan­dem­ic reports showed that solar installers and wind tur­bine tech­ni­cians were set to grow by 63%. None of the 20 jobs pro­ject­ed to grow over 20% in the next eight years are in the fos­sil fuel indus­try. But the open­ing cre­at­ed by the renew­able indus­try for a part­ner­ship between the envi­ron­men­tal and labor move­ments is being squan­dered: Unions aren’t engag­ing in enough new orga­niz­ing, and envi­ron­men­tal­ists aren’t encour­ag­ing them. There are, of course, some heart­en­ing exam­ples of unions and greens work­ing togeth­er, like the Revers­ing Inequal­i­ty, Com­bat­ing Cli­mate Change report out of the Work­er Insti­tute at Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty, which con­vened unions and pol­i­cy experts to devel­op rec­om­men­da­tions for new union jobs which would also fight cli­mate change. But most of the green jobs being cre­at­ed are not union: Only 6% of work­ers in both wind pow­er gen­er­a­tion and solar pow­er con­cen­trat­ing sys­tem work are union­ized, and 4% of work­ers in pho­to­voltaics, which cre­ate solar cells to con­vert light to electricity.

There are cur­rent­ly near­ly 335,000 solar work­ers in the coun­try, rep­re­sent­ing a huge oppor­tu­ni­ty for the Inter­na­tion­al Broth­er­hood of Elec­tri­cal Work­ers (IBEW), which admits that ?“a dis­turbing­ly small per­cent­age of the elec­tri­cal work­ers who install res­i­den­tial solar pan­els in North Amer­i­ca belong to a union.” Work­ers on solar farms are more like­ly to be union­ized than rooftop solar installers, who can make as lit­tle as $12 per hour doing a dan­ger­ous job and risk­ing elec­tro­cu­tion or a dead­ly fall.

In These Times spoke with a for­mer solar installer, J., at Solar States, a solar installer and edu­ca­tor in Philadel­phia. Installers there start at $16 an hour and are offered paid time off, retire­ment and health care ben­e­fits. Most are Black and brown, and accord­ing to J., there’s a man­date for 50% of installers to live in the city lim­its. Lead installers can go up to $22 to $25, but that’s about the high­est they can make on res­i­den­tial jobs. This is why, accord­ing to J., solar installers try to get com­mer­cial work on large build­ings owned by the city, state or busi­ness­es, because it pays more and the jobs are longer—and they often work along­side union members.

On a recent instal­la­tion job on a city-owned build­ing, which trig­gered the pre­vail­ing wage pro­vi­sion, Solar States installers worked next to mem­bers of IBEW Local 98, lay­ing the solar pan­els while the union elec­tri­cians wired them. J. (who still works in the indus­try and wants to remain anony­mous) told In These Times that ?“there’s a lot of bad blood with the union, but I tried to tell my co-work­ers that the only rea­son we get pre­vail­ing wage is because of them.” Accord­ing to him, the ten­sion stems from inter­per­son­al issues when they work close­ly togeth­er, and the dif­fer­ences in their wages—IBEW can mem­bers make $72 an hour. Relat­ed­ly, the union is pre­dom­i­nate­ly white, and work­ers at Solar States are most­ly peo­ple of col­or, which has also caused ten­sion between the two groups.

Accord­ing to res­i­den­tial solar installers, Local 98 also hasn’t expressed any inter­est in bring­ing these work­ers into their union. (Local 98 didn’t return a request for com­ment.) J. told In These Times, ?“They don’t care about new orga­niz­ing. They want to make sure that all the white men that have been in IBEW for­ev­er con­tin­ue to com­mand a high wage. They have nev­er once tried to reach out to us, and we work side by side!” This may be because there is no cohe­sive man­date from the inter­na­tion­al union. In fact, dif­fer­ent IBEW locals in Cal­i­for­nia have had con­flict­ing opin­ions on green jobs: Local 18 has slammed the Green New Deal, while Local 428 has embraced job oppor­tu­ni­ties in the renew­able sec­tor. And while unions strug­gle inter­nal­ly over these issues, many envi­ron­men­tal­ists remain indif­fer­ent or unin­ter­est­ed in solar work­ers’ labor con­di­tions. J. said that ?“espe­cial­ly cus­tomers who are wealthy, they don’t real­ly think about it at all. Their ques­tion is not how much installers get paid, but how much is my car­bon foot­print offset.”

If envi­ron­men­tal­ists are tru­ly con­cerned about off­set­ting car­bon foot­prints and grow­ing the renew­able sec­tor, they’ll have to fight for gov­ern­ment inter­ven­tion—and to do so suc­cess­ful­ly, they’ll need unions on their side. In Philadel­phia, a Solar States cus­tomer can pay an aver­age of any­where between $21,000 and $26,000 for solar instal­la­tion on their home. With­out rebates, tax breaks and oth­er incen­tives, res­i­den­tial solar is finan­cial­ly out of reach for most peo­ple, mak­ing it seem more like a hob­by for the wealthy and less like an impor­tant step to fight cli­mate change. The Green New Deal, which calls for ?“meet­ing 100% of the pow­er demand in the Unit­ed States through clean, renew­able, and zero-emis­sion ener­gy sources,” could close this access gap. And with more than 12.5 mil­lion mem­bers, the AFL-CIO (the country’s largest labor fed­er­a­tion) is well poised to get more mod­er­ate Democ­rats on board with the leg­is­la­tion, which, if passed, would cre­ate mil­lions of jobs and expand unions’ ranks. But most unions see the Green New Deal as an attack on union jobs, rather than an oppor­tu­ni­ty to cre­ate more. And yet if renew­able ener­gy got the same kinds of sub­si­dies fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies have, mem­bers of build­ing trades unions would be clam­or­ing to install solar pan­els or wind turbines.

In the mean­time, if there’s a shared agree­ment between both the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment and the labor move­ment that cre­at­ing mil­lions of union jobs is a pri­or­i­ty, both need to actu­al­ly pri­or­i­tize it. Jobs that are good for the envi­ron­ment aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly good for work­ers, and jobs that are good for work­ers aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly good for the envi­ron­ment. We need jobs that are good for both, and to get there we need unions and envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions fight­ing for invest­ment, incen­tives and jobs—togeth­er. This could involve tying sub­si­dies to a cer­tain per­cent­age of union jobs, or fight­ing for project labor agree­ments at every poten­tial green job site. What­ev­er form it takes, this coali­tion must begin at the premise that a loss of union jobs is detri­men­tal to all work­ing peo­ple in this coun­try—and if we want to fight cli­mate change, the labor move­ment must take the lead, before it’s too late.

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

About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia. She is a frequent contributor to Working In These Times.


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In California, a “Labor Slate” Aims to Redefine the Relationship Between Unions and Politics

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From union jobs to Medicare for All, this new pro-worker slate is pushing a progressive platform—and could become a model for how organized labor approaches elections.

The political influence of organized labor usually involves jockeying with other interest groups that are trying to sway Democratic politicians. In recent decades, this dynamic has achieved mixedresults, at best. In California, one group of union activists is now trying to take a more direct approach: forming a “Labor Slate” of candidates, in what they hope will become a model for future election cycles.

Centered in the Bay Area, the idea for the Labor Slate effort began germinating last summer. Gaelan Ash, an AFSCME staffer and one of the Labor Slate’s organizers, said that even in progressive Northern California, “It’s a pain in the ass going up against so-called progressive politicians” who do not end up prioritizing the needs of the working class. “There are so many amazing labor leaders who would make better politicians,” he said. “[We realized] we need to make this much more about building an organization that’s membership based and rooted in labor.”

The project came together in full force earlier this year, taking advantage of the fact that everyone had more free time after the pandemic struck. Now, Labor Slate is an established organization with a full platform and a slate of six candidates—three of whom are running for City Council in the East Bay city of Hayward, and three who are running for various board positions in other Bay Area cities. Organizers say that they made the strategic choice to only back candidates who are running in nonpartisan races this November, in order to avoid an immediate clash with the established political parties. If all goes well, they hope to scale up to partisan races like those for California State Assembly in four to six years.

Labor Slate is funded by member dues of $5 a month. The group is not formally allied with any unions, but draws on the interest of true believers in the labor movement. All of the candidates the group nominates must agree to its platform, which was developed by an internal working group. The platform emphasizes union jobs, affordable housing, Medicare for All, public education and transportation, as well as increasing taxes on the rich. Jon Ezell, the group’s recording secretary and an ILWU member who works at San Francisco’s recently unionized Anchor Brewing Company, said that the platform committee had the advantage of having input from union members working directly on many of the issues—when discussing healthcare, for example, union nurses were in the room. The group’s platform, Ezell said, is intentionally broad, so that candidates can “fill in the gaps” based on local conditions.

Anchor Brewing’s union drive drew public support from elected officials in San Francisco. That opened Ezell’s eyes to the potential for building union power through electoral politics. “You can help people unionize,” he said, “or you can change the environment they unionize in.”

One of the Labor Slate’s candidates is Eduardo Torres, who is running for a board seat in the Ambrose Recreation and Park District in Bay Point, where he’s lived for 41 years. Torres is a longtime activist and organizer with Tenants Together, which promotes affordable housing and tenants’ rights in California. (The other five candidates are also members of unions or labor groups in the area). “I am part of the working class. We have elected officials that don’t look back at the community that helped get them elected,” Torres said. “We’re sick of our elected officials not doing what they should be doing, which is helping low income and working people.”

Though Labor Slate is a new and relatively small group, it has the advantage of being rich with trained organizers. Dozens of union locals are already represented in its membership. If it can find success with its first crop of candidates in November, it can lay claim to being a legitimate new model for union members to engage with local politics. Its promise is not just in who it gets elected, but in the potential for building a labor-centric approach to elections that sits outside of the Democratic Party—which has, on a national scale at least, largely come to take union support for granted.

For Torres, who grew up in a union household, the advantage of the Labor Slate is not just the phone banking and door-knocking it brings to his campaign, but also a sense of mutual accountability between candidate and cause. “It helps me see the bigger picture,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to be done. And it will be done by the working class.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 2, 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]es.com.


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The Failure to Unionize the Tech Industry Will Eat the Labor Movement Alive

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The pandemic has made tech stronger, but unions haven’t caught up.

Big tech is get­ting big­ger. The five biggest pub­lic com­pa­nies in Amer­i­ca are all tech com­pa­nies. Their stock prices have col­lec­tive­ly risen by more than a third this year. The coro­n­avirus has been a bless­ing for them. It has super­charged their growth, even as it’s dev­as­tat­ed many oth­er busi­ness­es. When this pan­dem­ic is over, the tech industry’s share of our econ­o­my?—?and all of the pow­er that comes with that?—?will be greater than ever.

The Gild­ed Age is here again. Not with rail­roads and steel com­pa­nies, but with tech com­pa­nies, which are tak­ing over old indus­tries and form­ing new ones, divert­ing enor­mous piles of wealth towards them­selves along the way. Gates and Bezos and Zucker­berg and Musk are the new Rock­e­feller and Carnegie and Mel­lon and Ford. The unique nature of this cri­sis, which has kept peo­ple inside and on screens, has only accel­er­at­ed the over­haul of the Amer­i­can econ­o­my. The indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion is long gone, and the tech rev­o­lu­tion can declare vic­to­ry. Ana­lysts say we are in a ?“bear mar­ket for humans,” as tech com­pa­nies are reward­ed for their abil­i­ty to squeeze human work­ers out of exis­tence. The cap­i­tal has shift­ed, and the labor is just being dragged along.

Ide­al­ly, orga­nized labor is an equal coun­ter­bal­ance to cor­po­rate pow­er. In Amer­i­ca in 2020, where only one in ten work­ers is a union mem­ber, that is obvi­ous­ly not the case. Cap­i­tal runs the show. The abil­i­ty of the work­ing class to exer­cise fun­da­men­tal pow­er over the terms and con­di­tions of our econ­o­my is extreme­ly lim­it­ed, exist­ing only in cer­tain pock­ets of cer­tain indus­tries. If we ever hope to reverse our 40-year climb in inequal­i­ty and re-cre­ate the mid­dle class and wrench our soci­ety back toward fair­ness, work­ing peo­ple need to be able to exer­cise pow­er in the con­text of the entire econ­o­my, not just in iso­lat­ed places. That is the scale of change that the labor move­ment needs to aim for. Unions need to be every­where cap­i­tal is, or cap­i­tal will win and labor will lose. Our exist­ing world proves that basic point. Right now, there is no more gap­ing hole for orga­nized labor than the tech indus­try. Unions have almost no pow­er there. And that’s where all the eco­nom­ic pow­er lies. This is not a small prob­lem for unions?—?it is an exis­ten­tial one.

Apple is not union. Microsoft is not union. Not Ama­zon, nor Alpha­bet, nor Face­book. Those five com­pa­nies alone are worth $7.3 tril­lion. Not only is all of that pow­er com­plete­ly untouched by the influ­ence of unions, but almost all small­er tech com­pa­nies are non-union as well. It is not hard to see that if our goal is to allow orga­nized labor to exert mean­ing­ful influ­ence over the entire econ­o­my, then it is a fair­ly major prob­lem that orga­nized labor is absent from the indus­try that exerts the most influ­ence over the entire econ­o­my. The tech indus­try is the biggest fail­ure of the union move­ment in the 21st cen­tu­ry.

Smart peo­ple in the labor move­ment have under­stood this fact for some time. Indeed, there has been a decent amount of non-union labor orga­niz­ing in the tech indus­try over the past five years or so, result­ing in some vis­i­ble actions like the 2018 Google walk­outs. Though that orga­niz­ing has val­ue, it does not pro­duce a last­ing inter­nal struc­ture that can col­lec­tive­ly bar­gain and per­ma­nent­ly change the bal­ance of pow­er between work­ers and man­age­ment and investors. That would require a union. When we gaze out across the land­scape of the mighty tech indus­try in search of suc­cess­ful union orga­niz­ing, there are decid­ed­ly slim pick­ings.

One bright spot is Kick­starter, where employ­ees won a bit­ter fight to union­ize ear­li­er this year. Pan­dem­ic-induced lay­offs have cut that unit from around 90 to 50 employ­ees in recent months, but the work­ers say the union has been a suc­cess­ful safe­ty net, allow­ing them to bar­gain for bet­ter sev­er­ance. In a col­lec­tive state­ment, the Kick­starter union says that ?“The pan­dem­ic has done away with the illu­sion that tech labor is excep­tion­al­ly secure,” and that they are a demon­stra­tion to oth­ers in their indus­try that a union can not only pro­tect work­ers, but also ?“ensure the soft­ware we pro­duce not be deployed in ways that con­tribute to the mad­ness around us.”

?“Our expe­ri­ence has giv­en us hope that the pro­gres­sive cul­ture of Amer­i­can tech will rapid­ly lead to the wide­spread under­stand­ing that 2020 is the time to orga­nize,” the Kick­starter union says. ?“It’s time for Amer­i­can tech to move past its ?‘move fast, break things’ phase into an era of solv­ing real prob­lems for real peo­ple. We believe it falls to us, the work­ers, to imple­ment this ethos.”

Grace Reck­ers, an orga­niz­er at the Office and Pro­fes­sion­al Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (OPEIU) who helped to orga­nize Kick­starter, says that there has been a sub­se­quent influx of inter­est from work­ers at oth­er tech com­pa­nies, and that there are sev­er­al new orga­niz­ing dri­ves in progress. She says that the stereo­type of tech employ­ees?—?indi­vid­u­al­is­tic engi­neers with lib­er­tar­i­an ideals and lit­tle inter­est in col­lec­tive action?—?is just not accu­rate. ?“In NYC, the oppo­site is true,” Reck­ers says. ?“A lot of peo­ple are dri­ven to work [at tech com­pa­nies] because of mis­sion-based val­ues of the com­pa­ny. They have pol­i­tics that align with some mis­sion of the com­pa­ny.”

Google famous­ly pro­claimed ?“Don’t Be Evil.” When such com­pa­nies are worth a tril­lion dol­lars, con­trol the media and exer­cise vast polit­i­cal pow­er, hold­ing them to their word can be a pow­er­ful moti­va­tion for employ­ees to orga­nize, even if those employ­ees are get­ting good salaries.

One of the only major unions that has launched a ded­i­cat­ed effort to orga­nize in tech is the Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (CWA), which hired two orga­niz­ers this year for a cam­paign called CODE. Its lead orga­niz­er is Emma Kine­ma, who co-found­ed the video game indus­try group Game Work­ers Unite. Kine­ma sees the tech indus­try as a sprawl­ing mon­ster with ten­ta­cles that reach from the media to enter­tain­ment to logis­tics to retail, touch­ing almost every­thing. She wor­ries not only about the direct employ­ees of tech com­pa­nies, but also about the cease­less ten­den­cy of tech to shunt more and more work­ers into a ?“gig econ­o­my” pur­ga­to­ry. And while she says that inter­est in orga­niz­ing is grow­ing con­stant­ly among work­ers, she is blunt about the lack of resources being devot­ed to the issue on a nation­al scale.

?“On the whole, the U.S. labor move­ment has com­plete­ly failed to rise to the chal­lenge of orga­niz­ing the tech indus­try,” she says. ?“If the move­ment under­stood just how essen­tial orga­niz­ing in tech was, we’d be set­ting up orga­niz­ing com­mit­tees like the CIO did,” seiz­ing the oppor­tu­ni­ty pre­sent­ed by the pandemic’s unrest to under­take a mas­sive and well-coor­di­nat­ed indus­tri­al orga­niz­ing effort.

Alas, that is not what’s hap­pen­ing. The fail­ure thus far to orga­nize tech is a direct result of the lack of any strong cen­tral lead­er­ship from the union move­ment. Even if the few union orga­niz­ers cur­rent­ly work­ing on tech are the best orga­niz­ers in the world, it’s laugh­able to think that a hand­ful of under­paid union staffers can rea­son­ably take on a mul­ti-tril­lion dol­lar indus­try. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of work­ers will need to be orga­nized, and, in all like­li­hood, a new union will have to be formed for that pur­pose, because no exist­ing union has the spare tens of mil­lions of dol­lars per year it will take to run such an orga­niz­ing cam­paign in any­thing close to an ade­quate way. Log­i­cal­ly, the AFL-CIO should coor­di­nate this kind of effort, pool­ing resources from many unions for the good of the move­ment. In real­i­ty, there is no evi­dence that any of the union world’s biggest pow­ers have even grasped how urgent this issue is.

Yes, it will be a long and very expen­sive process to union­ize tech. That is beside the point. In the long run, suc­cess­ful union­iza­tion of an indus­try cre­ates self-sus­tain­ing labor pow­er that can grow, as dues mon­ey from well-paid new union mem­bers is pooled and direct­ed to where it’s most need­ed. Besides, we have no choice. Ask some­one try­ing to cob­ble togeth­er a liv­ing as an Uber dri­ver or Instacart work­er how well the pow­er of a tech indus­try com­plete­ly unchecked by labor pow­er is serv­ing them. Either we orga­nize tech, or it will orga­nize the rest of us to serve it.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on August 26, 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 Organize Domestic Workers. Here’s Why We Decided We Need a Union, Too.

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We are in a moment of great uncer­tain­ty. The Covid-19 pan­dem­ic and sub­se­quent unem­ploy­ment crises are mak­ing all work­ers take a sec­ond look at their employ­ment sit­u­a­tion. As mil­lions of work­ers lose their jobs, oth­ers are fight­ing for pro­tec­tion, safe­ty and rights at work?—?and some are even union­iz­ing. That includes us, the staff at the Nation­al Domes­tic Work­ers Alliance (NDWA). We are orga­niz­ers, com­mu­ni­ca­tions spe­cial­ists, accoun­tants, fundrais­ers, lawyers, press strate­gists and more.

In March, long­time whis­pers about orga­niz­ing turned into sus­tained con­ver­sa­tions about how to form a union. As an orga­ni­za­tion that’s pri­mar­i­ly fund­ed by foun­da­tions, we didn’t know what would hap­pen if that fund­ing dried up in a reces­sion; we didn’t know if there would be lay­offs, and if there were, if there would be sev­er­ance pack­ages. NDWA pro­vides a com­pre­hen­sive ben­e­fits pack­age?—?yet we rec­og­nize that if times get tough, or if foun­da­tion fund­ing ends, these ben­e­fits could cease to exist. We’ve seen the dev­as­ta­tion the pan­dem­ic is inflict­ing and how ben­e­fits like employ­er-pro­vid­ed health insur­ance can be lost overnight. With­out a union and the abil­i­ty to nego­ti­ate a col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment, work­ers are that much more vul­ner­a­ble?—?and eco­nom­ic upheaval puts them in a place of even greater pre­car­i­ous­ness. These are the sce­nar­ios that were play­ing out en masse as the pan­dem­ic spread, and they were the spark that set in motion the first orga­niz­ing dri­ve in the his­to­ry of our orga­ni­za­tion.

For many of us, our work­loads sky­rock­et­ed dur­ing the pan­dem­ic. The scale of our work ramped up as the domes­tic work­ers we orga­nized were faced with mass job loss, unsafe con­di­tions at work, inad­e­quate pay to account for their risk, and the threat of catch­ing the dead­ly virus. We orga­nize and move­ment build in a sys­tem that already deval­ues work­ers and neces­si­tates work­er exploita­tion. Covid-19 cre­at­ed a height­ened need for our folks to orga­nize and be orga­nized, fight for our fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties, and demand more. This meant the orga­niz­ing nev­er stopped. We were work­ing inces­sant­ly to con­nect with and sup­port domes­tic work­ers, who were dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly impact­ed by Covid-19 and its eco­nom­ic reper­cus­sions. Many of us were also deal­ing with our own Covid-19 relat­ed prob­lems and try­ing to bal­ance work, child­care and the care of our fam­i­lies.

As we moved our work to the dig­i­tal sphere, we simul­ta­ne­ous­ly became more con­nect­ed to oth­er staff in our orga­ni­za­tion. Work areas that were pre­vi­ous­ly sep­a­rat­ed due to focus or geog­ra­phy became more inte­grat­ed, and new con­nec­tions were forged. Our con­ver­sa­tions about want­i­ng to mod­el our organization’s vision of ?“dig­ni­ty, uni­ty, and pow­er” for its own staff grew loud­er and more seri­ous. What were once off­hand remarks about the dual­i­ty of our labor orga­ni­za­tion not hav­ing its own union or inter­nal work­er bar­gain­ing unit turned into action and com­mit­ment. Our con­ver­sa­tions spoke to how much we appre­ci­at­ed our orga­ni­za­tion, and yet how we rec­og­nized that NDWA wasn’t above per­pet­u­at­ing com­mon pit­falls that all work­ers can expe­ri­ence in their work­place.

Dur­ing our orga­niz­ing process we learned of chal­lenges like salary dis­par­i­ties?—?due to what we believe are arbi­trary and unclear process­es for deter­min­ing and rene­go­ti­at­ing our pay. We engage our domes­tic work­er mem­bers often in skills build­ing to nego­ti­ate their salaries and know that indi­vid­ual advo­ca­cy absent of large-scale stan­dards set­ting can only go so far. With­out clear guide­lines and met­rics for salaries, favoritism and per­son­al rela­tion­ships can all affect pay. This also means that peo­ple who don’t have the nec­es­sary tools to advo­cate for them­selves can lose out on rais­es and pro­mo­tions. Because these tools are social­ly and cul­tur­al­ly imbued, this has a greater detri­men­tal impact on Black women and women of col­or, who make up the major­i­ty of our staff. As an orga­ni­za­tion that’s tasked with orga­niz­ing and ele­vat­ing the voic­es of a work­force that’s dom­i­nat­ed by women of col­or, we need to put our mon­ey where our mouth is.

Bar­gain­ing direct­ly with our employ­er as a group will help us bet­ter under­stand our organization’s finan­cial sit­u­a­tion and allow us to raise the salary floor so pay is trans­par­ent and fair. Col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments have been proven to help even the play­ing field for women work­ers and work­ers of col­or. Through our dis­cus­sions and con­ver­sa­tions, it became obvi­ous that we need­ed to unite togeth­er to form a union and exer­cise our col­lec­tive strength?—?which is why, after four months of orga­niz­ing, we approached our boss­es with near­ly 100% sup­port, demand­ing union recog­ni­tion.

We love where we work and what we do, and our union affords us the oppor­tu­ni­ty to con­nect, learn about each other’s work, and use our col­lec­tive voice for improve­ments at NDWA. Many of us worked remote­ly before the pan­dem­ic, and now it’s obvi­ous­ly unclear when or if some of us will go back to offices. We work on so many dif­fer­ent projects at NDWA?—?orga­niz­ing domes­tic work­ers to fight for respect and recog­ni­tion, win­ning poli­cies (includ­ing Domes­tic Work­ers Bill of Rights in two cities and 9 states), ele­vat­ing domes­tic work­ers’ voic­es, cre­at­ing tech­nol­o­gy to sup­port domes­tic work­ers, and more?—?that it’s some­times hard to keep up. Because of this lack of cohe­sion, we suf­fer from high turnover. Even in the best work­places, with­out a col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment, work­ers may feel afraid to speak up about things they want to change. We think our silence and inabil­i­ty to make real changes only hurts NDWA?—?and that’s why we orga­nized. Our union will help us cen­tral­ize our cam­paigns, improve com­mu­ni­ca­tion and retain work­ers. Our union will make NDWA stronger! A union will make your work­place stronger, too.

We want to have a voice at NDWA, and we want oth­er work­ers to have one too?—?whether they work at a non-prof­it, a union, or some­place else entire­ly. And in a soci­ety where work­ers are con­stant­ly under attack?—?espe­cial­ly women work­ers and Black work­ers and work­ers of col­or?—?we are proud to be part of a resur­gence of the labor move­ment. We fight hard for our mem­bers to have dig­ni­ty and respect, and we encour­age them to come togeth­er with oth­er work­ers to win the rights and recog­ni­tion that they deserve. We are fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of domes­tic work­er lead­ers like Dorothy Bold­en?—?and we encour­age you to do the same!

This blog originally appeared at InTheseTimes on August 24, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The NDWA Staff Union Organizing Committee


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Teachers unions test goodwill with strike threats, hardball negotiations

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In addition to safety measures, some unions are pressing for police-free schools, canceling rents and mortgages, and bans on new charter programs and standardized testing.

Teachers won newfound respect at the start of the pandemic as parents learned just how difficult it was to teach their kids at home.

But teachers unions now risk squandering the outpouring of goodwill by threatening strikes, suing state officials and playing hardball during negotiations with districts.

In California, unions fought Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom hard for teacher protections and job security as campuses were shuttered, and are demanding high-income tax hikes to fill education budget shortfalls. In New York City, a social justice caucus within the United Federation of Teachers called on the union to threaten “severe disruption” if the governor and the mayor implement what they describe as “reckless reopening plans.” The Florida Education Association is in a legal battle with state officials to try to overturn an order requiring schools to physically open five days a week or risk losing state funding.

“Let’s be honest: Teachers went from heroes in March when parents saw what we do everyday, and now we’ve become, in some people’s eyes, the villains because we are speaking up about the safety concerns we see,” said Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators.

Safety concerns have been at the heart of union objections to reopening as they confront teachers getting sick or even dying from Covid-19. Many union leaders have worked collaboratively with management on contracts and reopening plans, and they have spent months calling for additional federal money to secure personal protective equipment and allow for socially distanced instruction. But more recently, a coalition including some local unions has pushed further, laying out demands such as police-free schools, a cancellation of rents and mortgages, and moratoriums on both new charter programs and standardized testing.

The American Federation of Teachers, which has 1.7 million members, has called for “safety strikes” as a last resort if school reopening plans don’t protect the health of educators and the larger 3-million member National Education Association says nothing is off the table.

Those threats and demands have raised the ire of some lawmakers, school districts, parents and conservative groups who argue that teachers are taking advantage of the chaos the pandemic has caused to push policy changes the unions have wanted for years.

“No question, there’s a risk that some will use this moment to politicize these challenges in a way that simply is counterproductive,” said Shavar Jeffries, national president of Democrats for Education Reform, a progressive political organization that advocates for students and families. “I don’t think anything that’s not related to either the health or educational implications of Covid makes sense.”

Members of a coalition of activist parents called the National Parents Union largely agree with teachers unions over what reopening should look like, and their “Family Bill of Rights” emphasizes a need to implement safety measures like masks, temperature checks and updated ventilation systems, said Keri Rodrigues, the group’s president.

But Rodrigues, whose organization represents primarily minority and low-income parents, also criticized the unions for trying to “dominate the conversation” and promote a “long-standing political agenda,” which she called an “overreach.”

“I think that parents were willing to extend a lot of grace in March, in April, even into May,” she said, adding that feeling began to erode after a long summer with little guidance and few decisions made about how to move forward. “At this point, parents are very frustrated.”

Many union officials said they are aware of the need to balance their own demands with parents’ anxiety over their children falling behind — and they know the support they have so far enjoyed could slip.

In Ohio, local unions are focused on the “balancing act” of advocating for both quality learning and teacher and student safety, said Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association. The state union has called on Republican Gov. Mike DeWine to restrict any schools in counties with the highest levels of coronavirus cases to remote learning only, while requiring all others to follow the CDC’s safety guidelines for reopening.

“We’re very conscious of the need to be partners with parents, not to end up being in adversarial relationships,” DiMauro said. “But the longer this goes on, it’s just like everything about coronavirus — there are vulnerabilities in the system, and we can’t go on like this forever.”

Others have been more defiant. Stacy Davis Gates, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, defended the demands that critics have slammed as going too far, including a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures.

“How can you do remote learning from home if you don’t have a home?” she said. “This is fundamentally about a city, about a mayor who has failed to repair a safety net.”

In Chicago, the nation’s third-largest school district, Democratic Mayor Lori Lightfoot initially announced a hybrid reopening model before reversing course earlier this month and announcing that schools would open online-only. The decision came just days after news broke that the union, which has more than 25,000 members, was considering a potential strike vote if the district did not change its plans.

“A win for teachers, students and parents,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey posted on Twitter at the time. “It’s sad that we have to strike or threaten to strike to be heard, but when we fight we win!”

The pandemic has made some union leaders hopeful that it will strengthen their cause and influence for the foreseeable future, as teachers who feel forced into unsafe working conditions look for support and want to get involved.

“More of our members, and more educators in general, are questioning their beliefs on things like strikes. For the first time, they’re really seeing the depths and magnitude of what it actually takes to force change and are rethinking their beliefs on work stoppages,” said Zeph Capo, president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, which represents more than 65,000 of the nearly 365,000 teachers in the state. “I’ve never received as many unsolicited new memberships.”

Union strikes won’t “sit well” with those working parents who want their kids to return to the classroom, said Dan Domenech, who runs AASA, The School Superintendents Association. “That emerges as a major bone of contention, for example, with a lot of the red states that have been pushing for the kids being in the building physically,” he said.

But he said superintendents, generally, have described their negotiations with unions as a “fairly agreeable process,” and some superintendents see union pushback at the state level as an effort to prevent an “open-schools-at-all-costs attitude.”

“The unions, in a situation like this, where they have the support of the parents and the community because what they’re advocating for is the safety of the students and the staff — that’s a very powerful position,” Domenech said.

The debate over whether and how to reopen schools safely is about more than getting children back in classrooms. Proponents of fully reopening schools, including President Donald Trump, say doing so would help reopen the U.S. economy, allowing parents to get back to work, while helping more students access mental health services and meals from their schools. It would also represent a step toward normalcy, which Trump badly wants before voters head to the polls in November.

Asked about the threat of teacher strikes, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told Fox News recently that “parents and children can’t be held captive to others’ fears or agendas.”

In a June poll, 76 percent of AFT members surveyed indicated they were comfortable returning to school buildings with “proper safeguards,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said last month. That was before the virus started to spread more rapidly in the U.S. and Trump, as well as DeVos, began what Weingarten called “reckless ‘open or else’ threats.”

“Now they’re angry and afraid,” Weingarten said of her members. “Many are quitting, retiring or writing their wills. Parents are afraid and angry too.”

Cecily Myart-Cruz, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, which represents the country’s second-largest school district, urged union members to ramp up their demands in her inaugural speech. “We can’t count on the politicians, whether it’s the White House, Congress or the governor to open up the economy in a safe and equitable manner. We can’t count on them to fully fund public education,” she said.

Both NEA and AFT have issued their own guidance for reopening schools. And AFT recently adopted a resolution setting some specific parameters for reopening, including a daily community infection rate below 5 percent and a transmission rate below 1 percent.

But local unions’ work on reopening plans have been used against them, with critics alleging that teachers are putting themselves over the needs of students. Some parents who are essential workers argue that if they are reporting to their jobs, so should teachers.

The Center for Education Reform, an organization that advocates for school choice and charter schools, slammed unions in a policy brief this month, saying that union leaders are “only interested in strikes not solutions.”

“Unions are attacking states and locales that are trying to provide options for everyone, while demanding billions more,” CER said.

The open question is where parents themselves fall in this debate. National polls largely show a majority remain uneasy about reopening: Two-thirds of parents say they see sending their children to school as a large or moderate risk, according to an Axios-Ipsos survey released last week — and almost three in four of Americans surveyed said they are concerned about schools in their community reopening too soon.

Parents of color have also been more worried about reopening than white parents, surveys show. An earlier Axios-Ipsos poll from July found nearly 90 percent of Black parents and 80 percent of Hispanic parents viewed sending their children back to school as a large or moderate risk, compared to 64 percent of white parents.

Some outside groups and experts warn that those numbers could start to shift the longer the debate goes on and students remain out of the classroom.

“With the economy reopening, a lot of individuals are putting themselves in uncomfortable positions in terms of working in light of the pandemic, and might expect teachers to have some give there as well,” said Bradley Marianno, an assistant professor of educational policy and leadership at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, who has been tracking negotiations between teachers’ unions and school districts since the spring.

Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, said “parents rightly have given teachers and unions a lot of grace,” especially during the “chaotic” roll out of remote learning in the spring. But there’s “potential for increasing tension” between parents and unions as leaders negotiate with districts on issues such as how much live virtual instruction they will provide.

“They’re issues that parents have a vested interest in, but they’re not at the table, right? So that’s that’s where the potential tension comes in,” she said.

Some parents, frustrated with their experience in the spring, are already banding together to create private tutoring pods for small groups of students during the pandemic.

If they have to choose between the teachers and their own student’s welfare, Lake said, “they’ll choose their student.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on August 18, 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. 

About the Author: Nicole Gaudiano is an education reporter for POLITICO Pro. In more than two decades of reporting, she has covered crime, the military, Congress, presidential campaigns and, now, education. She is a reporter who cares deeply about accuracy, asks tough questions and loves learning. Along with reporting, she enjoys shooting videos and photos.

About the Author: Mackenzie Mays covers education in California. Prior to joining POLITICO in 2019, she was the investigative reporter at the Fresno Bee, where her political watchdog reporting received a National Press Club press freedom award.


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New Jersey Unions Distribute 2,000 Food Kits to Unemployed Workers During Heavy Rain

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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.

Driving rain and thunder couldn’t stop New Jersey’s working people from helping out Atlantic City families struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic. The New Jersey State AFL-CIO, in connection with the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority and the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, distributed more than 2,000 food kits to laid-off union members and their families. Volunteers from the Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), the Operating Engineers (IUOE) and UNITE HERE helped Operation Feed Atlantic City go smoothly. The state federation plans to continue similar food distribution events as long as there is a need and President Charles Wowkanech (IUOE) attributes the success of the program to the generosity of the affiliates and members throughout the state.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on August 12, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.


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The Largest Private-Sector Strike of the Year Is Headed for Union Victory

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After nearly seven weeks on the picket line, Machinists union members will soon vote on a contract that includes everything they’re fighting for.

BATH, MAINE — It’s no coin­ci­dence that the first strike in 20 years at Bath Iron Works (BIW) began months into the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic. While Maine has one of the low­est Covid trans­mis­sion rates in the coun­try, the spread of the dead­ly virus helped spark the strike that has large­ly shut down the ship­yard at BIW — one of Maine’s largest employers. 

In June, when around 4,300 Machin­ists Local S6 union mem­bers at BIW vot­ed over­whelm­ing­ly to strike, many had already soured on man­age­ment over its han­dling of the pandemic.

The walk­out?—?which rep­re­sents the largest pri­vate-sec­tor strike of the year?—?has last­ed for near­ly sev­en weeks. But late last week, both sides saw a break­through as a ten­ta­tive agree­ment was reached that appears to hand the union a vic­to­ry on its demands. 

BIW, a Gen­er­al Dynam­ics sub­sidiary that builds bat­tle­ships for the U.S. Navy, nev­er shut down the pro­duc­tion facil­i­ty because it was deemed an ?“essen­tial busi­ness” by the U.S. gov­ern­ment. After a BIW work­er test­ed pos­i­tive for the virus in late March, the com­pa­ny encour­aged employ­ees not to report to work. Many did stay home for weeks?—?but they had to use paid vaca­tion or sick time, or work unpaid. Union lead­ers called for a shut­down with pay while also push­ing state law­mak­ers to pres­sure the Navy to allow the ship­yard to close.

“They said we’re essen­tial work­ers because we build bat­tle­ships, but how essen­tial are you if you get sick? It’s scary for a lot of peo­ple,” said John Louis Cabral III, a ship­yard work­er and Local S6 member. 

Cabral, 34, couldn’t afford to stay home long: He was hired last year and had lit­tle accrued paid time off. With three kids to sup­port and no access to pan­dem­ic-relat­ed unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits since he wasn’t fur­loughed, he went back to the yard.

With employ­ee atten­dance way below nor­mal for weeks, BIW fell fur­ther behind on pro­duc­tion of Navy guid­ed-mis­sile destroy­ers. As part of nego­ti­a­tions with Local S6 for a new three-year con­tract, the com­pa­ny pro­posed changes allow­ing it to hire nonunion sub­con­trac­tors more quick­ly. That and oth­er pro­posed changes to senior­i­ty and work rules in the company’s ?“last, best, and final offer” on June 13 did not go over well with Local S6. 

“It’s a pow­er strug­gle in the yard right now, and that’s facts,” said Cabral, who helps man­age inven­to­ry at the shipyard. 

On June 22, 87% of Local S6 mem­bers vot­ed in favor of strik­ing, even though they’d lose com­pa­ny-paid health insur­ance dur­ing a pan­dem­ic. Fed­er­al medi­a­tors were brought in to restart nego­ti­a­tions in July, around the same time BIW laid off mem­bers of anoth­er union local and brought in sub­con­trac­tors from out of state to avoid falling fur­ther behind on production. 

“We’re all stand­ing as one because we don’t want sub­con­tract­ing in here,” Chad Bam­ford, a 25-year-old crane rig­ger who’s worked at BIW since 2017, said on the pick­et line Fri­day. ?“They’re try­ing to sub­con­tract out our work. We don’t want out­siders. Give us more over­time. We build the best ships in the world.” 

The com­pa­ny has said it nev­er want­ed to per­ma­nent­ly out­source work away from the union through sub­con­trac­tors. ?“We seek only effi­cient access to all avail­able resources to improve our abil­i­ty to deliv­er to the US Navy on time,” BIW Pres­i­dent Dirk Lesko wrote
in June. The ship­yard was six months behind sched­ule at the start of the strike.

Both Bam­ford and Cabral blame pro­duc­tion delays on both the pan­dem­ic and mis­man­age­ment. A BIW spokesper­son did not respond to a request for comment.

Union vic­to­ry in hand?

After weeks of meet­ings that yield­ed lit­tle, union and BIW nego­tia­tors broke through to an agree­ment Fri­day, and it looks like the union got every­thing it wanted. 

In a ten­ta­tive agree­ment announced Sat­ur­day, Local S6 lead­ers trum­pet­ed the reten­tion of sta­tus quo con­tract lan­guage on sub­con­trac­tors and senior­i­ty and work rules. The agree­ment also retains 3% annu­al rais­es for work­ers. A ?“tem­po­rary catchup phase” will allow expand­ed sub­con­tract­ing through the end of this year, and a joint union-com­pa­ny com­mit­tee will begin meet­ing week­ly to ensure sched­ule gains.

The deal, unan­i­mous­ly approved by the union nego­ti­at­ing com­mit­tee, ?“pre­serves our sub­con­tract­ing process, pro­tects senior­i­ty pro­vi­sions and calls for a col­lab­o­ra­tive effort to get back on sched­ule,” Local S6 leader Jay Wadleigh told the Asso­ci­at­ed Press Sat­ur­day. The agree­ment also includes health­care ben­e­fit gains.

“We are pleased to have reached agree­ment with our union part­ners and look for­ward to get­ting back to the job of build­ing ships for the U.S. Navy,” Phebe Novakovic, chair­man and CEO of Gen­er­al Dynam­ics, said in a state­ment the same day.

Local S6 mem­bers will vote to rat­i­fy the pro­posed con­tract online and via phone lat­er this month. If it’s approved?—?which both Cabral and Bam­ford believe is like­ly?—?the lack of con­ces­sions will stand in con­trast to the last con­tract. Back in 2015, work­ers nar­row­ly vot­ed to give up sched­uled rais­es in favor of one-time bonus­es to pro­tect jobs and help BIW win a new U.S. Coast Guard con­tract (though the com­pa­ny end­ed up los­ing that con­tract to a competitor). 

Gen­er­al Dynam­ics, one of the largest defense con­trac­tors in the coun­try, made $3.5 bil­lion in prof­its last year. In 2018, tax cuts backed by the Trump admin­is­tra­tion helped cut the For­tune 500 company’s effec­tive tax rate almost in half, accord­ing to Labor Notes. That same year, the Maine leg­is­la­ture hand­ed BIW a $45 mil­lion tax break.

Bam­ford said he knows some peo­ple don’t agree with unions?—?but the strike has only deep­ened his pride in Local S6 and what it can achieve. The ten­ta­tive agree­ment, he said, sounds like a ?“big win.” 

“Until you’ve been a part of a union and you have 4,300 peo­ple stand­ing with you as one for one cause, it’s a feel­ing you can’t describe,” Bam­ford said. ?“It makes you proud to be with it.”

Cabral agrees: ?“Sol­i­dar­i­ty is awe­some. The strike has built camaraderie.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on August 12, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeremy Gantz is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at the mag­a­zine. He is the edi­tor of The Age of Inequal­i­ty: Cor­po­rate America’s War on Work­ing Peo­ple (2017, Ver­so), and was the Web/?Associate Edi­tor of In These Times from 2008 to 2012.


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