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Local unions defy AFL-CIO in push to oust police unions

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Several local unions have moved to oust police unions, despite the federation’s approach that collective bargaining can be used for police reform.

The nation’s labor movement is splitting over police reform in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

Local unions are defying leaders of the AFL-CIO, who have rejected calls to cut ties with the labor federation’s law enforcement arm and stressed the importance of collective bargaining instead to counter the use of excessive force. Several local unions, including those affiliated with the AFL-CIO, have moved to oust police unions within their locals and remove officers from schools and other workplaces. They argue that police have used their bargaining power to resist reform and protect those who have killed unarmed African Americans.

The vastly different approaches to solving what has become a major election year issue have not only exposed the rift within the labor movement but also threaten to diminish law enforcement unions in liberal cities and could even affect the behind-the-scenes race to succeed AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

“There are a lot of unions that are very concerned about police brutality,” said Lowell Peterson, executive director of Writers Guild of America-East, which adopted a resolution calling on the AFL-CIO to disassociate itself from the International Union of Police Associations, the federation’s police union affiliate. “There’s definitely a lot of talk in the labor movement about, ‘Why is this happening and what can we as unions do about it?’”

The second-largest local teachers’ union in the nation, United Teachers Los Angeles, last week voted to eliminate police in Los Angeles public schools and “redirect funding to mental health and counseling” for students. The Chicago school board voted down a similar measure to cancel a $33 million contract with city police that was backed by the Chicago Teachers’ Union in protests and rallies throughout the week.

The Martin Luther King County Labor Council, a body of labor organizations representing more than 100,000 workers in the Seattle area, voted to expel the Seattle Police Officers Guild earlier this month. The Association of Flight Attendants, which sits on the AFL-CIO’s executive council, passed a resolution demanding that police unions embrace change “or be removed from the labor movement.”

Even the leader of the Service Employees International Union, the second largest union in the country, which itself represents some law enforcement employees, has expressed openness to the idea of ejecting police unions from the movement, though she has stopped short of endorsing the move.

“That’s an option,” said SEIU President Mary Kay Henry of the Seattle federation’s decision to oust the police union. “I think another option is to use the union structure and leadership to educate and engage every member” in “re-imagining policing and criminal justice.”

That would have been unheard of just months ago — and demonstrates how much has changed since Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis cop sparked nationwide protests against police brutality.

While labor activists say it is unlikely that Trumka would ever support efforts to expel law enforcement unions from the labor movement, the push from locals and some national unions to ostracize the police, as well as the larger Black Lives Matter movement, could drive more modest changes.

Police unions have fought back, saying that no one forced local governments to sign collective bargaining agreements that contain provisions protecting police and warning that attacks on law enforcement unions are part of a pattern of going after organized labor.

“No contract is rammed down the throat of a city or jurisdiction. They signed it, they negotiated it, they agreed to it,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police.

Sam Cabral, the president of the International Union of Police Associations, slammed Trumka’s response to the unrest, writing in a June 12 letter that the federation’s comments regarding America’s “history of racism and police violence against black people” were “inflammatory and patently false.” Cabral said he wouldn’t be willing to sit down with those who “have already indicted” law enforcement “based on one horrible incident.”

California’s largest police unions ran an ad in the Washington Post earlier this month calling for a national use of force standard, misconduct registry and “ongoing and frequent” training. Trumka also wrote in a recent op-ed that the labor movement is calling on Congress to adopt reforms including a chokehold ban and demilitarization.

Still, AFL-CIO leaders have maintained that the best way for the group to address the issue of police brutality is to “engage” its affiliates “rather than isolate them.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the federation, said many members of the movement believe it’s important to have a conversation with police unions, “to the extent that they were willing to have it, for them to change and for us to change the criminal justice system.”

At the same time, the AFT recently passed a resolution calling to remove police from schools and instead train security personnel as “peace officers.”

Part of the solution, SEIU’s Henry suggested, is changing police collective bargaining practices.

“The role of the labor movement is to be a vehicle for the structural change that the Movement for Black Lives is demanding in policing and criminal justice all over this country,” she said.

Some progressives say those collective bargaining agreements often help shield officers accused of misconduct.

Dozens of city police departments, including in Minneapolis, have added provisions to their contracts that delay officer interrogations after suspected misconduct, according to a 2017 study. Agreements with police agencies in Austin, Baltimore, Chicago and Washington, D.C., have included language that mandated the removal of disciplinary records from personnel files over time.

As more local unions choose to step away or distance themselves from the police, the pressure to break with law enforcement unions has generated an internal debate over the issue within the AFL-CIO executive council itself in recent weeks.

Color of Change, a racial justice organization, said it has discussed the possibility of ejecting police unions with at least five labor groups in the AFL-CIO.

Weingarten said “a couple members of the council raised it” during a three-day meeting in June. In a call earlier this month, American Postal Workers Union leader Mark Dimondstein brought up the matter, according to a person on the line.

The federation’s general board released several recommendations on June 9 for affiliate unions to address police violence but declined to drop the International Union of Police Associations as requested by the WGAE.

The debate could affect the quiet race to succeed Trumka, who is expected to step aside. The election won’t be held until the federation’s convention in October 2021, but Flight Attendants union president Sara Nelson, whose organization has taken one of the most progressive stands on the question, and AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Liz Shuler are both rumored to be interested in taking the role.

In June, Nelson publicly accused AFL-CIO leadership of misleadingly attributing a statement opposing the ouster of the IUPA to the entire general board.

“To be clear, this issue was not discussed by the General Board today and there was no vote on the resolution put forward by WGAE,” she tweeted. “Also, collective bargaining empowers workers; it is not a means to oppress workers’ rights.

Tim Schlittner, the AFL-CIO’s communications director, disputed the claim. He said Trumka referred to the WGA-East’s resolution but that no one offered a motion on it.

The labor movement has successfully ousted unions in the past that didn’t abide by its principles. The Congress of Industrial Organizations expelled 11 member unions around 1950 due to their alleged links to the Community Party. The AFL-CIO also cut ties with three unions in 1957 over corrupt behavior. And throughout the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s, the AFT moved to expel local unions that were racially segregated.

Police unions, meanwhile, insist that any efforts to oust them will blow back on all of labor.

“Those who are looking to kick police officers out of the union movement should be very careful,” said Patrick Lynch, president of the Police Benevolent Association of New York. “The rhetoric that they are using now is the same rhetoric that has been used to strip union protections from teachers, bus drivers, nurses and other civil servants across this country.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on June 30, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.

About the Author: Holly Otterbein is a reporter reporting on the 2020 race, PA’s Electoral College prize & the left.


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Union representing meatpacking workers pushes for more frequent COVID-19 testing

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News broke last week that meatpacking companies exported a record amount of pork to China after using warnings of shortages to get Donald Trump to order them to stay open despite massive coronavirus outbreaks in their plants. Sens. Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren are not letting that issue go, sending a letter to the CEOs of top meatpacking companies.

Warren and Booker have questions for those CEOs about exports and price increases. “These actions raise questions about the circumstances of the president’s executive order, your honesty with the American public about the reasons for higher food prices, and your commitment to providing a safe, affordable and abundant food supply for the nation,” they wrote in their letter.

Meatpacking plants remain a major concern for coronavirus outbreaks. The United Food and Commercial Workers union is calling for workers to be tested every day, saying workers would be less afraid to go to work if they could “look around the plant, or look around the locker room, or the break room, and … know that everybody inside these walls is COVID-free.” The director of health in Nashville, Tennessee, says that probably isn’t possible, but that workplaces—not just meatpacking plants but nursing homes, construction sites, and others—should conduct random tests so they could quickly get on top of new outbreaks.

That fear remains a serious issue for workers around the country, many of whom face the choice between going to workplaces they don’t consider safe and losing the wages they need to pay their bills. Many of Iowa’s 10,000 refugees from Myanmar work in meatpacking plants and are coming up against exactly that.

”If they don’t go to work, how they will survive? That is a big question,” Pastor Benjamin Sang Bawi told Iowa Public Radio. “And of course every, every family [is] concerned about that.”

Advocates for the refugees also point to racism, with refugees being told “we are the virus,” and to the need for social services and interpreters for a group that speaks 27 languages and dialects. “Families that are self-isolating in their homes need for food delivery. Not a phone number to the food pantry. They need food delivered to their door,” Abigail Sui, of the refugee advocacy group EMBARC, told officials in Waterloo, Iowa.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on June 24, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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AFL-CIO Leader Richard Trumka Defends Police Unions by Comparing Them to Employers

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As the AFL-CIO struggles with a growing debate over its alignment with police unions, the disagreement inside of the labor coalition itself is becoming more pointed. At an internal meeting of the Executive Council on Friday, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka spoke out against the idea of kicking police unions out of the coalition—confusingly, by comparing them to the employers that unions bargain against. 

In an exchange with a union president who spoke out forcefully against the historic role of police as foes of labor, Trumka defended the police as “community friendly,” and argued that if unions could learn to work with employers to handle contentious issues, they should be able to do the same with cops and their unions.

Since the beginning of the ongoing nationwide protests against police violence, there has been a heated discussion about what role police unions should play in the labor movement. Many progressives want to sever ties with police unions altogether, while others—particularly public-sector union leaders, who fear that any attacks on police unions will translate into attacks on all collective bargaining in the public sector—counsel moderation and “engagement” with police unions to push various reforms. 

The AFL-CIO, a coalition of 55 unions representing 12.5 million members, has found itself in the center of the controversy. On June 8—a week after the AFL-CIO’s Washington headquarters was burnedduring a protest—the Writers Guild of America, East, an AFL-CIO member union, passed a formal resolution calling on the AFL-CIO to disaffiliate from the International Union of Police Associations, the coalition’s police union member. (I am one of the 21 WGAE council members who voted on the resolution). 

The leadership of the AFL-CIO received the resolution unenthusiastically. They immediately put out a statement saying that they “take a different view when it comes to the call for the AFL-CIO to cut ties with IUPA. …We believe the best way to use our influence on the issue of police brutality is to engage our police affiliates rather than isolate them.” Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, Trumka’s second-in-command, advocated instead developing “codes of excellence” to encourage police unions to change from within.

But the issue has not disappeared. Union locals and progressive factions within larger unions have taken up the call. The King County Labor Council expelled the Seattle police union last week, and even SEIU leader Mary Kay Henry, the head of the most powerful union outside of the AFL-CIO, said that disaffiliation “must be considered” if police unions don’t reform. Last Friday, the proposal from the Writers Guild received its first serious and direct discussion at a meeting of the AFL-CIO’s executive council, the elected body that governs the group. 

According to a source who was on that call who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of internal deliberations, Mark Dimondstein, the head of the American Postal Workers Union, raised the issue, saying that the AFL-CIO would eventually have no choice but to deal with the issue head on. Citing the WGAE’s resolution, Dimondstein said that the AFL-CIO needed to grapple with “irreconcilable differences” between police unions and other union members, because the role of police is to protect corporate power, not the power of working people. He called for Trumka to distribute the resolution to the Executive Council for further discussion at a future meeting, and then voiced his own opinion that any police who beat union members could not be his “brother or sister.” 

In response, Trumka, who was leading the meeting, pushed back against some of Dimondstein’s points. Trumka, a former leader of the United Mine Workers, said that he had seen anti-worker police violence in the mining industry, but argued that many police officers today are “community friendly.” He also disagreed with Dimondstein’s characterization of labor’s differences with police as “irreconcilable.” 

“I’d just point out that we have irreconcilable differences with every employer we deal with, yet we deal with them,” Trumka said. He told Dimondstein that in the same way that unions use collective bargaining to deal with employers, so, too, could organized labor use the process to “narrow” differences with police unions. 

The disagreement shows that the dispute over the AFL-CIO’s affiliation with police is not going away, and that an internal battle may be looming. Also noteworthy is Trumka’s somewhat baffling comparison of police unions to employers, as an argument against disaffiliation—an argument that would seem to imply that police unions are an opponent to be bargained against.

Employers, of course, are not part of the AFL-CIO.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 22, 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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Teachers union weighs in on reopening schools safely

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Schools are a huge part of the economy—not just a place teachers and support staff and clerical workers and custodians work, but a place parents rely on to care for their kids so they can go to work. That means, as National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García said in a statement, “The American economy cannot recover if schools can’t reopen.” But reopening schools has to be done right, and without sacrificing students’ education, she continued, saying “we cannot properly reopen schools if funding is slashed and students don’t have what they need to be safe, learn and succeed.”

The NEA has offered its own guidance for reopening schools, calling for decisions rooted in science, with educators included in decision-making (they know their classrooms best, after all), access to personal protective equipment for students and school staff alike, and attention to equity in a pandemic that has hit Black and Latino communities especially hard. The union also calls for school systems to learn from the inequities exposed by the sudden move to remote learning, in which some students had computers and internet access and quiet places to learn while other students had none of those things. The NEA guidance is long, detailed, and thoughtful—and if you have many teacher friends, you may have heard that state reopening plans are … not necessarily those things. 

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on June 20, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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The Most Radical Union in the U.S. Is Shutting Down the Ports on Juneteenth

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Outrage over the police murder of George Floyd launched Black Lives Matter protests across the country and world. Most actions are being organized by young black people. While many are working-class and at least some are anti-capitalist, few protests are formally part of the labor movement.

That may change this Friday when the most radical union in the United States shuts down the country’s gateway to the world, West Coast ports, in solidarity with Black Lives Matter on the day commemorating the end of slavery. As Clarence Thomas, a long-time dockworker activist for black equality and socialism, noted recently, “It will be the first time that an international union has ever taken off from work for the purpose of commemorating Juneteenth.”

Thomas, an African American from Oakland, is a proud, third-generation member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). Arguably, no union has fought longer and harder for black equality. As Willie Adams, the union’s first black International President, recently declared: “Our union has a long history of confronting racism on the job, in our communities and around the world.”

By contrast, most unions—hypothetically, the collective voice of working people—seem hesitant to take action. While perhaps by mistake, the trashing of the AFL-CIO headquarters, located near the White House, exemplified the yawning divide separating black and youth protesters and “organized labor.” Yet, consider that the AFL-CIO, however weak it may seem, still represents 12,500,000 workers. There is no larger movement of ordinary people than unions. Despite their potential, unions are issuing nicely worded statements but providing little tangible support to the current protests, the largest working-class uprising in two generations.

Some unions, such as the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) are actively challenging racism, police brutality, and other reactionary policies with progressive, forward-thinking actions. Such militancy and radicalism, not coincidentally, have emerged in unions with larger numbers of black and brown, immigrant, and female members. Still, the ILWU’s Juneteenth action raises the bar for what worker solidarity with Black Lives Matter looks like.

The breadth and depth of this union’s radical commitment to equality may shock those who stereotype unions as liberal or even conservative. Harry Bridges, the ILWU’s first and long-time president, once declared in the 1940s, “If things reached a point where only two men were left on the waterfront, if he had anything to say about it, one would be a black man.” Himself an Australian immigrant and anti-capitalist, Bridges made this claim when this union was more than 90% white.

Zack Pattin, a white, rank-and-file activist in ILWU Local 23 (Tacoma), proudly recounted to this writer some of his union’s history: “We pass down stories about integrating the waterfront and our union in the 30s and 40s, opposition to Japanese internment, Harry’s deportation trials and the fight for immigrant rights, support for Dr. King and the civil rights movement, support for Cesar Chavez and the Delano Grape Strike, refusing to handle South African cargo to protest Apartheid, and resistance to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

ILWU members also understand the role of police in undermining social movements. Pattin made this connection by highlighting the Big Strike of 1934, out of which his union was born. “It’s not lost to us that the formative moment in our history—Bloody Thursday—was a police murder [of two strikers] right outside the San Francisco union hall on July 5, 1934,” he said.

That’s why Jack Heyman, a veteran Local 10 activist and white anti-racist, recently told The Nation, “if you look at ILWU locals’ bylaws, many of them explicitly ban police from membership. That’s because the police have been always been used as tools in the fight against the working people.”

Local 10, the only black-majority longshore branch, and its companion Local 34, have led the way in condemning racist, police brutality. In 2010, the unions shut down the Port of Oakland after local law enforcement killed Oscar Grant. They did so again on May Day, in 2015, to protest the police murder of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man in South Carolina.

After George Floyd’s murder, the country’s leading social justice union once more is playing a major role. Last Tuesday, the ILWU downed tools for nine minutes during Floyd’s funeral. This Friday, Juneteenth, the ILWU will shut down all twenty-nine ports it controls—from San Diego to Bellingham, Washington—for the entire, eight-hour day shift.

Dockworkers intend to use their labor power to send a message. As Local 10 President Trent Willis, an African American, declared at an SEIU-led protest in Berkeley on June 13, “We’re sending a clear statement to the powers that be, our government. We’re sending a clear statement to these corporate bosses that we intend to use our labor, put our labor where our mouth is. We intend to take economic action if our demands are not met.” Willis was referring to the demand to end racist policing.

When taking this political stand, dockworkers appreciate that their strategic locations at hubs of global transport give them tremendous power. The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping corporations, explained in a June 8 statement why that matters: “West Coast ports handle a majority of the maritime cargo that helps fuel the U.S. economy, brings vital goods and medical supplies to local communities, and supports millions of American jobs.” Clarence Thomas put itsuccinctly: “Longshore workers probably understand capitalism better than anyone else…If the cargo doesn’t come off the ship, that’s merchandise not sold. Stopping work…is not a symbol; it’s an act that demonstrates the leverage of the working class.”

Willis, Thomas, Gabriel Prawl (of Local 52, Seattle), Keith Shanklin (Local 34 president) and others organized this Juneteenth stop-work prior to Trump’s provocation to speak that day, in Tulsa of all places. An ILWU press release explainsthis day’s significance, past and present: “Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. On this date in 1865, Black Slaves in Texas were told of their emancipation from slavery two years after the Emancipation Proclamation became effective…our nation has made progress but the changes necessary to end systemic racism have come slowly or not at all, as the murder of Mr. Floyd on May 25, 2020 demonstrated.”

Shanklin, the first black person elected to head Local 34, summed up at the June 13 protest in Berkeley why the ILWU will conduct this Juneteenth stop-work: “to stand up against systemic police oppression and systemic police brutality. We need to understand one thing. We cannot survive in this world no more with police brutality. It’s time for it to end.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 16, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Peter Cole is a Professor of History at Western Illinois University and Research Associate in the Society, Work and Development Program at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is the author of Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia and the award-winning Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area. He also is the founder and co-director of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project (CRR19). He tweets from @ProfPeterCole.


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Assisted Living Facility Staffer Says He Was Fired for Organizing His Coworkers During the Pandemic

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In March of this year, Schuyler Stallcup was working as an “activities assistant” at an assisted living facility in Lincoln Park, Chicago, owned by Sunrise Senior Living. For the past year and a half, he had spent his days planning and leading recreational activities for the elderly residents, working to keep them entertained and engaged. When the coronavirus crisis hit, he decided that it was time to start organizing his coworkers. That’s when the trouble began.

By the middle of May, Stallcup was fired. He says that his employer fired him on a flimsy pretext, as retaliation for workplace organizing that started with a single petition, and grew into a union campaign. He has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board seeking to be reinstated. His is a disturbing story that illustrates the difficulties of trying to improve workplaces from the inside in the midst of a health crisis that has everyone on edge.

Sunrise Senior Living is a national chain of more than 300 assisted living facilities, employing thousands of non-union workers. Anti-union material is a standard part of employee training. Stallcup was making $15 an hour in March, watching with dread as Covid struck. Staffing levels began dropping as employees called in sick, or were forced to stay home to take care of their children. Family visits for residents were put on hold, which meant that the remaining Sunrise staffers, already overworked, were forced to spend more time interacting with residents to keep them from becoming isolated and agitated. On top of that, masks were in short supply—Stallcup said it was not until mid-April when Sunrise was able to issue fresh masks to everyone for their shift each day.

On March 17, Stallcup submitted a petition to his manager, signed by about 30 coworkers—roughly half of the total frontline staff. It called for two weeks of additional paid sick leave, increased staffing, a “clearly articulated plan” for how to stop Covid from spreading in the facility, and childcare subsidies and free meals for employees. Of these demands, the company only ended up granting free meals. Each free meal saved employees three dollars.

In a sworn affidavit filed with the National Labor Relations Board, Stallcup says that his supervisor warned him that he shouldn’t have circulated the petition, and then sent him back to work. But he could see that the issues he had raised were not being addressed. “There was so much fear and uncertainty,” he said. “We would have days when all the caregivers [who provide direct patient care] would call out and there would be no one there. Those of us in activities would be doing those tasks.”

By early April, Stallcup decided that Sunrise needed a union. He began talking to coworkers, during breaks, after work, and on social media. On April 7, he says, he began posting union fliers and informational material in the break room, and quickly garnered 15 to 20 verbal commitments of interest. Only a few days later, though, two coworkers who had been enthusiastic supporters of the idea began to say they wanted nothing to do with it. The chill of fear had begun to creep in to the nascent campaign.

In the first week of May, management came for Stallcup’s job. They accused him of disabling an alarm connected to a door leading to a second-floor patio area, where staff took residents outside to get fresh air. “I immediately recognized it was retaliatory,” Stallcup said. Not only does he say he didn’t do it during the shift in question, but also that turning off the alarm was a “common and approved practice” for the entire previous summer, because forgetful residents tended to accidentally set off the loud alarm, startling many other residents. He was also accused of “leaving residents unattended”—a charge, he says in his written statement to the NLRB, that is “a particularly and obviously frivolous allegation as Sunrise is an assisted-living community meaning residents are left unattended constantly and the staffing levels make it mathematically and functionally impossible for residents to never be unattended.”

Nevertheless, following an internal “investigation” by management, Stallcup was fired in mid-May. He believes it was direct retaliation for his petition and union organizing. (“They were always on the ball for union busting,” he said ruefully. “Not so much for a pandemic.”)

Asked about Stallcup’s allegations about Sunrise and the circumstances surrounding his firing, a Sunrise Senior Living spokesperson sent the following statement: “We do not comment on litigation matters or issues related to former team members. Sunrise is proud of its longstanding Open Door Policy, which demonstrates the Company’s commitment to hear, listen to, and support team members to be successful at Sunrise. Moreover, Sunrise of Lincoln Park has had a sufficient supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) consistently over the past several months and has been carefully following applicable guidance from the local department of health, CDC, and other government authorities. Team members have been trained and retrained regarding appropriate use of PPE including masks, googles, gowns, gloves and face shields.”

Another current employee at Sunrise, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation from management, corroborated much of Stallcup’s story. The employee said that in the early days of the coronavirus crisis, workers were given a single mask in a paper bag with their name on it, which they reused each day at work. After Stallcup began his organizing campaign, the employee said, “it became apparent that people were very scared”—fearing that they might lose their jobs if management came to know that they were associated with the union effort.

And in fact, it seems that Stallcup’s firing has successfully caused the organizing at the Lincoln Park Sunrise facility to grind to halt. Stallcup himself spoke to an attorney and to union organizers after he was fired, and is hoping to be reinstated after an NLRB ruling. But that process can be painfully slow. In the meantime, he says, the remaining employees have not continued to pursue the union drive after seeing him lose his job.

The staffing issues that he asked the company to address in his petition months ago still persist, according to the current Sunrise employee. Since Stallcup left, “his department is really bare,” his former coworker said. “He was so good with the residents.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 16, 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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Unions see big new worker interest amid coronavirus threats

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Coronavirus is exposing the inequities in the U.S. economy, posing incredible danger to the most vulnerable workers. Republicans and employers are eager to take advantage of this moment of high unemployment and risk, but workers are also ready to try to wring some added power out of the crisis.

“In literally a day, grocery store workers have gone from ‘just a job,’ to having a job that’s incredibly stressful, demanding and scary,” AFL-CIO policy director Damon Silvers told Politico. “The nature of the job has been transformed. Employees are saying, ‘If I’m going to risk my life, how about paying me more?’”

The attention to the importance of essential workers has helped those workers—many of them in low-wage jobs—see the importance they’ve had all along, and expect that other people will see it, too.

“Without your Dollar General or your Amazon warehouse workers, Americans wouldn’t be fed,” one local union leader said. “Maybe these workers will start to understand the value they have for society, because for decades they’ve been told they have no value and that they’re replaceable.”

That’s translating to a rush of calls to union locals from workers asking how they can join a union. “I was just talking to a dental hygienist who wanted to know how she can get a union started,” the Chicago Federation of Labor’s Bob Reiter said. 

Democrats are pushing to set up a victims’ fund for essential workers, but what workers need more than compensation for being victims is power in the workplace: unions, strong laws, workplace safety oversight, and did I mention unions? (Many of those being policies Democrats also support, but need to see as part of this moment as well, and fight for them.)

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on June 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Unions tap into burst of worker angst over coronavirus

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“Maybe these workers will start to understand the value they have for society, because for decades they’ve been told they have no value and that they’re replaceable,” one union official said.

CHICAGO — Amazon warehouse workers in New York walked off the job to demand protection against Covid-19. A county judge in Illinois ordered a McDonald’s franchise to work out an agreement with its employees to supply more masks and hand sanitizer. And grocery store workers at Publix and Trader Joe’s in Florida have haggled for hazard pay as they work public-facing jobs.

Across corners of the labor market traditionally without unions, the coronavirus is spurring new interest in organizing for safer workplaces and better pay as the nation embarks on a long economic recovery.

Most states have already crafted or kicked off plans to reopen their economies after shutting them down to curb the spread of Covid-19. Now, many among the millions of people who toiled away at invisible low-wage jobs stocking shelves or setting up medical equipment the whole time are looking to capitalize on how “essential” they’ve become.

“In literally a day, grocery store workers have gone from ‘just a job,’ to having a job that’s incredibly stressful, demanding and scary,” said Damon Silvers, the policy director and special counsel for the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C. “The nature of the job has been transformed. Employees are saying, ‘If I’m going to risk my life, how about paying me more?’”

“In literally a day, grocery store workers have gone from ‘just a job,’ to having a job that’s incredibly stressful, demanding and scary.”

 Damon Silvers, policy director and special counsel for the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C.

Union membership across the country has been on a steady decline since the early 1980s but organized labor has attracted the national spotlight in recent years thanks to series of teacher strikes, including in conservative states like West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona. Unions are happy to leverage the new angst brought on by the coronavirus. 

On Tuesday, the AFL-CIO’s Department for Professional Employees launched an initiative to educate nonunion workers about how organizing can protect their health and safety as Covid-19 persists. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters offers an online resource guide for nonunion workers. And the California Labor Federation has a team responding to nonunion workers trying to file for unemployment, spokesman Steve Smith said.

Despite the new energy, organizing efforts are slow and may ultimately falter. No one’s yet formed a union based on not being able to get PPE. If employees do try, they may face new hurdles enacted by the National Labor Relations Board under the Trump administration, which many labor officials interviewed for this report see as anti-union. The agency recently issued rules unions complain would prolong the election process. NLRB argues the changes will increase transparency.

Coronavirus hit the U.S. at a time when the labor market was tight — unemployment was low and employers were actively looking to hire. But in a matter of days, companies shut down and hundreds of thousands of people across the country were laid off. For those still on the job, it created fear and anxiety among low-wage workers, and raised questions about the value they provide in a crisis and the risks they’re forced to take on at a moment’s notice.

“There’s a disconnect in what people think of workers — they’re heroes — and what they’re being paid,” said Zach Koutsky, political director for Local 881, which represents retail food and drug store workers in Illinois as well as employees in the cannabis industry. Calls come in from frozen pizza plant workers, cannabis workers and nonunion grocery employees, he said. They say, “’Dear god, we need to meet with you.’ It’s always been there, but it’s definitely picked up.”

The uptick in union phone calls isn’t likely to translate into membership, labor experts say.

“It’s very hard for them to join because the laws are imbalanced, the NLRB is incredibly hostile right now and a good number of states have governors and legislative bodies that are very antagonistic toward labor,” said Robert Bruno, director of labor studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Employers “aren’t afraid to spend millions to keep their operations union free.”

Still, members of Congress have also taken note of this workforce in the Pandemic Heroes Compensation Act, legislation introduced last month to setup a victims fund for a wide range of essential workers. 

“On September 11, it was the heroic firefighters and officers who ran into the burning buildings to save lives,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), a co-sponsor, told reporters on a conference call hyping the bill. “Today, it is the hospital workers, nurses, doctors, EMS, janitorial staff, pharmacists, technicians and all essential workers.”

It’s a mishmash of industries. Steel mill workers in Gary, Ind., have called the AFL-CIO asking how to get more personal protective equipment because their bosses didn’t supply enough. Ride-hail drivers in California are asking union shops how to get gear too. Employees at the Pilgrim’s Pride chicken processing plant in central Minnesota have protested working conditions. And while larger grocery store chains like Kroger or Jewel-Osco have a unionized workforce, people employed at smaller stores in St. Louis and restaurant workers in Chicago want to know how to organize.

“I was just talking to a dental hygienist who wanted to know how she can get a union started,” said Bob Reiter of the Chicago Federation of Labor.

This wouldn’t be the first time safety issues would become a lightning rod for the labor movement, of course. Union organizers have leveraged the works of Upton Sinclair, the safety hazards of the mining industry in Appalachia and the difficult farming conditions in California to secure new worker rights and safer conditions. 

In Chicago, where hundreds of nursing home assistants are calling for pay increases to at least $15 an hour, the heart of their concerns was about safety.

“Workers are worried they could lose their house and their family’s health,” said Diana Tastad-Damer, director of organizing for UFCW Local 1189 in Minnesota. “So, it’s being put in a bigger picture than just wages or livelihood. Now it’s about their family’s livelihood and survival.”

Dave Cook, president UFCW 655 in St. Louis, Mo., hopes the pandemic will change the way the country looks at low-wage jobs and how low-wage workers look at themselves. 

“Without your Dollar General or your Amazon warehouse workers, Americans wouldn’t be fed,” he said. “Maybe these workers will start to understand the value they have for society, because for decades they’ve been told they have no value and that they’re replaceable.”

Greg Ferrara, CEO of the National Grocers Association, says the 1,600 independent grocers in his organization were attentive early on to safety issues and as a result haven’t heard calls for union representation. But he acknowledges employees have a renewed interest in safety. 

“When you’re working in a place where you have a shield in front of you or you’re wearing a mask and doing enhanced sanitizing procedures, employees are much more aware of the important role they’re playing,” he said. “Whether it ties to an interest in organized labor, I can’t say.” 

It’s too early to say whether Covid-19 concerns will lead to a rise in union membership, said Roberta Lynch, executive director of AFSCME Council in Chicago. 

“Our current history is providing a compelling picture of more and more workers who are not able to earn a decent living, whose jobs are fragile and in jeopardy and who don’t have retirement security, who have been turning to unions more and more with the pandemic,” Lynch said. “I think there’s every reason that that will intensify.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on June 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Shia Kapos is a reporter for POLITICO and author of POLITICO’s Illinois Playbook, the most indispensable morning newsletter for influencers in Illinois government and politics. Prior to joining POLITICO, she wrote the popular Taking Names column for the Chicago Sun-Times (and before that Crain’s Business). She’s also had stints at Dealreporter and the Salt Lake Tribune. Shia’s career has been built on breaking news and landing sit-down interviews with notable names and personalities. She’s covered billionaires on the rise and lawmakers’ precipitous falls—and all the terrain in between.


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Unions warn small business rescue changes will weaken paycheck protection

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Mnuchin touted the program during a congressional hearing as having kept “tens of millions of employees connected to their jobs.” 

Labor groups are warning that newly enacted changes to a popular small business lending program will make the $670 billion relief effort less about protecting workers’ paychecks than protecting businesses.

The bipartisan bill signed into law by President Donald Trump lowered to 60 percent the amount that participants in the program must spend on payroll to qualify for full loan forgiveness from 75 percent — a change that could shift billions of dollars away from workers’ pay. The new rules also give businesses until the end of the year to spend the money, when previously, they had to use up the funds in eight weeks.

The so-called Paycheck Protection Program, created as part of the record $2 trillion coronavirus relief package that Congress passed in March, was aimed at giving businesses an incentive to keep paying their workers during the pandemic by turning the loans into grants if they retained most of their staff.

Now, unions say, businesses have more of an incentive to use the money for non-payroll expenses like rent.

“This change represents a huge loophole in legislation that was meant to help workers keep their paychecks coming during the economic fallout from the pandemic,” United Steelworkers Legislative Director Roy Houseman told POLITICO. “Rather than keeping the focus on maintaining payroll, however, the new threshold for loan forgiveness seems as though it was developed more with an eye toward putting money into business owners’ pockets.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin touted the program during a congressional hearing Wednesday as having kept “tens of millions of employees connected to their jobs” and said it has saved 50 million jobs during the pandemic.

Many economists have also suggested that the unexpected job growth seen in the May unemployment report could be attributed to the program. The Labor Department reported last Friday that 2.5 million jobs were added to the economy during the month, upending predictions that payrolls would fall by 7 million.

While the number of workers who were rehired last month won’t be available until the Labor Department releases its monthly Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey on July 7, economic indicators suggest that a long recovery is still ahead.

Labor groups and some observers fear that the rule changes to the Paycheck Protection Program will lead to less rehiring and an increase in layoffs, potentially thwarting early signs of a recovery in the labor market.

“Changing PPP gives businesses more time to delay rehiring workers, resulting in fewer paychecks for workers,” according to Aaron Klein, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. He says the new law shifts $76.5 billion originally allocated for businesses to pay their employees during the pandemic to other costs, like overhead, and in turn, is “reducing the share that goes to workers.”

Klein said the rule changes provide “businesses the ability to use government grants to pay their creditors, not protecting the paychecks of their employees.”

Damon Silvers, director of policy and special counsel for the AFL-CIO, agreed. He said he’s concerned that the changes “are going to lead to employers pocketing the money and not hiring, and not protecting anybody’s paycheck.”

Business groups said the changes in the lending program were needed because the economic effects of the pandemic have lasted longer than Congress had expected, and the requirements for loan forgiveness were too burdensome. States have also instructed certain businesses, such as those in the restaurant and travel industries, to reopen in limited capacities, which businesses say prevent them from bringing back their full staff.

“Congress had to act quickly to provide flexibility to account for different business structures and operating expenses to make the program work,” Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), who co-sponsored the legislation, said in a statement after the bill passed.

Rachel Greszler, senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, disagrees that the changes to the program will lead to layoffs.

“Businesses need a little more flexibility,” said Greszler. “A lot of those businesses who were forced to shut down had to rehire and retain employees, or secure new inventory, or establish vendor relationships, or settle balances. There are a lot more costs involved with starting up than if this had been a very short shutdown.”

The changes to the payroll requirements of the program were originally proposed to be much broader until a pushback from organized labor. The bill by Roy and Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) would have eliminated the payroll spending requirement altogether, but that was scaled back after more than a dozen labor leaders warned that it would create “a disincentive for employers to retain or rehire workers.”

Neither Phillips nor Roy responded to a request for comment on this article.

While unions were able to convince Democrats to move the payroll spending threshold down to just 60 percent, many are still concerned the rule changes undermine the program’s goal of keeping workers.

The Small Business Administration and the Treasury on Monday said businesses would still qualify for partial loan forgiveness under the PPP, even if they fell short of the 60 percent requirement.

“Thank goodness the House didn’t pass its original bill which would have completely eliminated the paycheck protection part of the PPP,” said D. Taylor, president of UNITE HERE, which represents hotel, gaming, food service and other workers. “The fundamental problem is that the big corporations and private equity firms that own hotels are desperate for a government handout so they can postpone the day of reckoning with their lenders, but the last thing they want to do is provide laid-off workers with paychecks or health benefits.”

Mnuchin and SBA Administrator Jovita Carranza faced questions from the Senate Small Business Committee Wednesday on the implementation of the program, but not a single senator from either party raised concerns about layoffs.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on June 12, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter. Prior to joining POLITICO in August 2018, Rainey covered the Occupational Safety and Health administration and regulatory reform on Capitol Hill. Her work has been published by The Washington Post and the Associated Press, among other outlets.


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Union President Says Minneapolis Is Trying to Punish Transit Workers Who Wouldn’t Help the Police

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In late May, as Minneapolis and St. Paul erupted in protests against the police killing of 46-year-old Black man George Floyd, members of the Twin Cities’ Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1005 publicly refused to transport protesters to jail. “As a transit worker and union member, I refuse to transport my class and radical youth,” Minneapolis bus driver Adam Burch told the labor publication Payday Report, which first reported the refusals on May 28. “An injury to one is an injury to all,” said Burch.

ATU Local 1005 also issued a statement in solidarity with the protests on May 28. “This system has failed all of us in the working class from the Coronavirus to the economic crisis we are facing,” the union declared. “But this system has failed People of Color and Black Americans and black youth more than anyone else.”

The union’s public support for the uprisings, and some members’ public refusal to do work that helps the police, sparked praise and inspiration around the country. As the Black Lives Matter protests spread, so did transit workers’ refusal to assist in police crackdowns. In New York, bus drivers refused to transport people arrested at protests, as crowds cheered them on. “None of our bus ops should be used for that,” J.P. Patafio, vice president of New York’s Transport Workers Union Local 100, told Motherboard on May 29.

The impacts of the uprisings are already being felt, particularly in Minneapolis, where a veto-proof majority of city councilors pledged to disband the police department, under pressure from activists. In These Times spoke with Ryan Timlin, the president of ATU Local 1005, about the impact of the union’s actions on the lives of its members, and on the political climate. “It wasn’t just the bus drivers’ union, it was all the protests,” Timlin said. “Even though the military came in, the protesters kept marching forward.”

Sarah Lazare: Has your union faced retaliation for showing solidarity with the protests?

Ryan Timlin: We are working on a class-action grievance, because they cut the pay for those who refused to transport state troopers. MetroTransit said they’re not going to do mass-arrest bussing because of the petition we did, but they did do some transporting of state troopers. A lot of our low-seniority members got stuck doing that, and we reached out to them to make sure they understood the right to refuse. I don’t know an overall number, but some of them refused, mostly over the issue of safety. I’d put it at around a dozen who refused.

As a result of our petition, they stopped having bus drivers transport protesters. They went and got decommissioned metro and mobility buses, and some police ended up driving them.

Sarah: So the grievance was about being docked pay?

Ryan: Anybody who refused to do the work, they did not pay them. They paid them if they showed up and were there for three or four hours at the garage, they paid them for that work. But if they got called to do a run and they refused, their pay got cut: They used vacation time or sick time. The company said they weren’t going to pay people for not doing anything. Well they had sent 90% home and paid them to stay home. They forced the lower seniority transport state troopers. We filed the grievance and are going to collect the data about who is impacted. As soon as I got a phone call that someone got their pay cut, we got paperwork ready.

Sarah: Do you think your union’s actions had an impact?

Ryan: I hope it helped protesters. To be honest, I don’t know if it did. It clearly excited people, especially the letter of solidarity we wrote. We got so many phone calls, and we got a lot of thank yous. It was overwhelmingly supportive, just a few people called pissed off. We got lots of thank yous coming in—I wish we had kept a better list. I remember I saw an email from the RMT, the union of British railway workers, and a lot of other random people. There were a lot of individual letters.

It wasn’t just the bus drivers’ union, it was all the protests. Even though the military came in, the protesters kept marching forward. More and more unions came in and started to speak out, that movement led to the change of charges for the murder of George Floyd. It’s the movement that’s been keeping all these politicians accountable.

Sarah: How do your members feel about the Minneapolis City Council’s  pledge to disband the police?

Ryan: I can’t say our union has spoken specifically on disbanding, but I think there’s a strong feeling inside the union that too much money has gone into the police and more money needs to go to public services like education, transit itself, and even the postal service.

Sarah: Do you think having a union made you feel secure enough to take this action?

Ryan: They knew that they had some form of protection. If you don’t have a union, and you’re a workplace that is not organized in any way—no workers’ center or anything—the more you stick together, the more protection you have, the less isolated you are. the union is a legal body that gives you protection to exert your rights.

Sarah: Did you have discussions within your union about racism?

Ryan: Even before this, racism has been a discussion in the union anyway. I can’t really give details, because it hasn’t gone through arbirtration, but we have a case dealing with discrimination, where there was discrimination in the workplace. We recently had a meeting about discrimination, and there were people who didn’t support us, people who did. It became clear to them why the union had to take it forward and couldn’t walk away from it. This was going on against the backdrop of what’s happening in Minneapolis.

A lot of our members face racism on a daily basis. The workforce is diverse,especially if you get to operations, not just maintenance. We have Somali and Hmong, a lot of black drivers. Those members face racism on the bus, but also they come from the third precinct and have to deal with how police treat them. One coworker told me a story of how he had to have his paycheck in his glove box to be able to prove to police he could afford the car he was driving. i have heard so many stories over the years, that one’s the one that stuck out the most.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 11, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Intercept, The Nation, and Tom Dispatch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.


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