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She’s a 64-Year-Old Taxi Driver Drowning in Medallion Debt—And She’s Fighting Back

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Dorothy LeConte is part of a movement of taxi drivers demanding that the city of New York relieve their financial anguish.

NEW YORK CITY—Outside the gated entrance to City Hall, a dozen yellow taxi drivers huddle under the canopy of a tent to take shelter from the pelting rain. They sit alongside a line of their sunflower-yellow parked cars, next to a sidewalk makeshift memorial and protest shrine with a backdrop of signs that read: Respect the Drivers, No More Suicides; No More Bankruptcies, Debt Forgiveness Now! The rain has washed away the chalk spelling out the names of the deceased drivers etched against the cold pavement. The wicks on nine tall red candles are wet. On the previous rainless nights they burned bright, illuminating like a soundless incantation the names of nine taxi drivers who have committed suicide: Danilo Corporan Castillo, Alfredo Perez, Douglas Schifter, Nicanor Ochisor, Yu Mein Kenny Chow, Abdul Saleh, Fausto Luna, Roy Kim, and Driver Brother (unnamed to honor the wishes of the family that survived him). They were lost to the anguish of crushing debts and dissipated earnings.

Dorothy LeConte, 64, wasn’t there that October 4 night, but she feels the anguish of owing a medallion debt of $558,000 with monthly payments of $2,000. “Sometimes, I think about suicide,” she tells me one sunny Saturday afternoon as we sat in foldable chairs beside the protest shrine. “And then, when I come back, I think about my children, and I turn around and say, ‘Dorothy, don’t.’” She reaches for extreme examples of horrible incidents a person can endure to convey the deflated morale of drivers. “This is worse than if a man left me pregnant in the street… What the city did to us, and they don’t care.”

LeConte’s predicament is far from unique among thousands of driver-owners of yellow taxis who the city has left in a lurch as they scramble to piece together enough earnings to payoff insurmountable debts.

Yellow taxi driver-owners and their union, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA), representing approximately 21,000 for-hire and yellow cab drivers, have set up a 24/7 protest encampment. They are eyeing October 31, the deadline for when Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council must sign off on a budget modification, providing an opening for drivers to attain debt relief on their terms, not those of the banks. (Disclosure: This author worked for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Democracy NYC Initiative as a communications director from December 2020 to January 2021.) Survey estimates put the median yellow taxi driver-owner debts at $500,000, according to a January 2020 report published by the Taxi Medallion Task Force.

Individual driver-owners account for about 40 percent of the city’s 13,587 yellow cabs. These workers, mainly from countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Haiti and Ghana, purchased medallions from the city in order to operate a taxicab and pick up street hails in parts of Manhattan. The medallion originated in 1937 as a means to control the number of cabs on city streets. For nearly a century, their values were modest, but then a speculative bubble spiked their values to stratospheric heights, reaching above a vertiginous $1 million per medallion in 2014, plummeting to $100,000 in 2019 after the bubble burst, and hovering at approximately $100,000 today. Banks and the city pushed exploitative loan terms with inflated prices to immigrant drivers even as they knew the value of medallions was on a downward spiral.

After years of protest against predatory lenders who, abetted by city agencies, saddled immigrant driver-owners with insurmountable debts, Mayor de Blasio pledged in March to allocate $65 million. Under the mayor’s plan, lenders receive a $20,000 grant to go towards a down payment to restructure the debts of driver-owners. It also includes $9,000 for yellow taxi drivers to use for monthly debt payments. With the pressure mounting on Mayor Bill de Blasio, the union held a press conference on October 13 to announce the support of over 50 elected officials backing its debt relief proposal. Then, on Friday of that week, dozens of yellow taxi drivers snarled traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge in protest, demanding debt forgiveness. On Monday, the union announced plans to begin a hunger strike.

“First of all, the $65 million, just the $20,000 grant won’t even cover that many people,” according to Bhairavi Desai, Executive Director of the NYTWA. Desai estimates there are between four to six thousand driver-owners who drive for a living and those who may be retired. 

“If you go back to the record six months ago, they basically said everyone’s going to get $20,000 as a cash down payment to restructure the debt and then $9,000 to help you pay for your mortgage for up to six months,” she adds. “But now that the rules are out, the rules make it impossible for anybody to access that $9,000 because there’s a hardship requirement. If you’re out driving, you’re not going to be considered in hardship, no matter how much you’re struggling.”

The NYTWA has vetted a different proposal with the city’s comptroller’s office that is backed by New York City’s entire Congressional delegation in addition to state and local elected officials, as well as academic experts on banking and finance. That counter proposal calls for a debt restructuring plan of $90 million over 30 years, with the city providing a guarantee in the case of default and setting a limit of medallion debt loads to $145,000 with monthly payments capped at $800. Chief benefits of the NYTWA proposal would include more driver-owners and lower monthly payments to a manageable amount. The program, unlike the city’s proposal, would include driver-owners who are in foreclosure or undergoing bankruptcy proceedings, allowing drivers to negotiate favorable terms with lenders because the city would guarantee the restructured loans.

The city says that more than 1,000 people have signed up for its proposal. “It literally just means that people are calling them up to make an appointment,” says Desai. Asked to clarify what signing up for city’s proposal means, a spokesperson for the city Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) responded that “1,000 medallion owners have applied to the program.” The spokesperson also said the city is working with a “dozen lenders.” According to the city, 102 drivers have received concrete debt relief.

New York Legal Assistance Group attorney Randal Wilhite characterized as “patently false” the city’s claims of how many people have signed up for the debt relief program. (For speaking out, Wilhite was suspended from NYLAG and prevented from testifying at a TLC hearing.)

One person who won’t be taking the city’s offer as it stands is Dorothy LeConte. When she started driving a yellow taxi in 1987, she wasn’t venturing entirely into the unknown. Word on the street was upbeat about the financial possibilities owning a medallion conferred on women specifically, and immigrants more generally. The evidence of financial independence was self-evident. In those days, LeConte could walk up to a driver who’d happily report on favorable remuneration and confirm a medallion was truly all that it was cracked up to be, a lifelong investment with good returns. So, she did just that, striking up a conversation with a woman sitting in her cab in the shade on Lexington Avenue. 

Her years working housing keeping at the Waldorf Astoria ended with the promise of one day being the driver-owner of a medallion. At first, she leased a car. Then, LeConte, originally from the island nation of Haiti, drew on the time-honored tradition of mutual aid among the Black diaspora, called sou-sou, or an informal savings club, to pool together a pot of cash to purchase a medallion. People in a sou-sou contribute money to a collective fund that pays out a lump sum each month to a participant based on their number in a monthlong cycle, which can average from 18 months or less based on the payout amount for each member. In 1989, she took the $17,000 payout to put down as a deposit on a medallion costing $140,000.

A single mom raising two Black boys, LeConte saw the taxi industry and her possession of a medallion as a reliable way to earn enough money to keep her children off the streets and in school.

“I’m raising two Black kids,” she says. “I’m out from four o’clock in the morning, and I’m coming home the next morning at three o’clock. I don’t want my sons to be in the street. I decided to put them in a boarding school. This is the American dream.”

But it was more than a mere pursuit of an elusive American dream. She paid $43,000 a year to a boarding school in Pennsylvania for the assurance that it would provide safety.

“My 14 year old didn’t have to hang out in the street and get killed by the police, or by the gang, or involved in drugs, saving the Rikers Island money,” she adds. “That’s what I use my money for.”

To provide for her children, she put in grueling hours, pushing her body to the limit. The pain of sitting in a cab with no end in sight hobbles the body and curves the bones, but the spirit is more dogged.

The early signs of the taxi crisis began during former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s tenure at City Hall. Giuliani bragged about breaking the 1998 strike among drivers organized by the NYTWA and violated their constitutional rights. When LeConte got her first taxicab, she paid $9,000. Under Giuliani, yellow cabs had to change every five years as part of his efforts to give a Hollywood facelift to New York City and increase regulations on immigrant drivers.

To drive a cab today, “you need $45,000 to $50,000. [If] you don’t have the money, you got to [borrow] against the medallion,” says LeConte. That’s excluding medallion loan debt payments. To become a driver-owner was increasingly cost prohibitive. Last year, 4,500 taxis needed to be replaced after seven years on the road at a cost of $135 million, according to Crain’s New York.

Despite these financial hardships, yellow cab drivers continued to motor down New York City streets, taking pride in serving the public. LeConte runs through the times she’s come to the aid of the city’s residents and visitors, from September 11 to the 2003 blackout. “When I say we build the city, we do.”

She says yellow taxis are peripatetic ambassadors to countless tourists on their first visits to New York.

“People come for the first time to New York. They’re so happy to grab a camera,” she says, and take a photo of a yellow taxi. “I am in the movies.”

“I’m always there. In everything, I help the city.”

According to LeConte, this includes intervention in harrowing domestic violence incidents.

“Another time, another woman, a man was beating her up. I was right in the middle of the street. I just rolled down the window. I said, ‘Jump in.’ She jumped in the cab, locked the door, and I flew with her.”

LeConte weathered ups and downs in the industry, but she said nothing prepared her for the arrival of Uber and Lyft, inundating New York City streets. Her brother, with a job in the technology sector, saw the writing on the wall and warned her in 2015. But she refused to heed his warnings.

“This is a New York City franchise. New York City will never allow this medallion to go all the way down,” she reasoned with her brother.

City data showed a 10 percent drop in revenue per yellow cab after Uber’s debut in 2011, with yellow taxi ridership in shambles. Medallion values held steady for a few more years, but the industry was soon ravaged by the combined forces of the city allowing banks and hedge funds to aggressively push predatory loans. Banks targeted people who they knew couldn’t service the loans, according to a New York Times investigation. They took advantage of immigrants whose first language wasn’t English to sign turgid contract terms they could, at best, only puzzle through. And even as the city knew there was trouble in the medallion market, it continued to inflate the value. Experts deemed the speculative bubble the largest since the housing crash of 2007.

“I don’t think I could concoct a more predatory scheme if I tried,” Roger Bertling, the senior instructor at Harvard Law School’s clinic on predatory lending and consumer protection, told The New York Times. “This was modern-day indentured servitude.”

Drive-owners of yellow taxis are now trapped in Sisyphean ordeal, pushing a proverbial boulder up a mountaintop only to see it come crashing down, seemingly until the end of time, as many drivers like LeConte are in their 60s.

“We estimate between 4,000 to 6,000 thousand have underwater loans,” says Desai from the NYTWA.

LeConte describes going to her mailbox during the pre-Uber years of the early 2000s and finding five flyers promoting loans or refinance offers. “You open the taxi news, and you find people advertising” to borrow against the equity in the medallion, she explains. “Some people borrowed against it.”

“I did not expect what happened here to me today, and to us. The city will be responsible, because I know a government is there to protect the people,” she says. “I don’t think the government is there to sell us out.”

Without the city’s protection, the banks and tech companies have had free rein to extract the last cent from workers. Because the medallion after 2015 can no longer serve as collateral, she says, “you will be the collateral. If they can’t find anything on you, they’ll probably take you to a barber shop, they’ll shave your hair. If you have long hair, they’ll sell your hair for fake hair in the street. Whatever you have, they’ll take it away from you.”

She draws parallels to the financial ruin facing yellow taxi drivers today to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. In May 1921, a white mob went on a rampage in the economically thriving, predominantly Black Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The mob was incited by a false story of a Black man assaulting a white girl, fueling the already potent adrenaline of white supremacy through the veins of an armed white mob of looters and arsonists. All told, hundreds of African Americans residents were savagely killed, their 1,250 homes and assortment of businesses annihilated by racial terrorism. According to a 2001 state commission report, property loss claims reached about $27 million in today’s dollars.

“You remember that story?” she asks me. ”The government burned its Black people down, taking their wealth, killing them. They lost everything.”

“The whole world is looking, but they [are] using the technology,” she adds, referencing the city allowing Uber to break the law and flood New York’s streets with app-based drivers.

The feminist intellectual Jacqueline Rose has attributed the unseen violence of capitalism, or what Rosa Luxemburg once called the “quiet conditions,” to the “skill with which capital cloaks its crimes.”

The fire of righteous indignation that blazes from within LeConte refuses to be tamped down, but she has also reconciled herself to the realities of age and the unseen casualties of the spirit.

“I need the day off. I need to stay home. I’m 64-years-old. When I go to my doctor, I have pains in my fingers, sprain in my knee. I can’t get up, pain in my back.”

The toll of driving a cab all these years has finally begun to manifest in her body. But it’s also overtaken her mind.

The anguish of the banks coming for her to collect $558,000 has deprived her of the balm of a good night’s sleep. “I never get a good six hours, eight hours of sleep. Never. Because I’m dreaming. What is going to happen to me? What happens with my dignity?”

About her plight, she says, “it’s not because I’m sick. It’s not because of an accident that I’m paralyzed. [It’s] because of the government that I trust. We ask Mayor de Blasio only to guarantee the loan.”

About the Author: Luis Feliz Leon is a freelance journalist from New York City and an educator at Labor Notes.

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


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Jennifer Abruzzo, the NLRB’s General Counsel, Is Labor’s Best Legal Friend

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In an interview, Abruzzo discusses independent contractors, penalizing bad employers and what she might do to make good faith bargaining a reality in America.

Joe Biden has pledged to be the most pro-union president in recent memory. Whether that turns out to be true will depend in large part on the work of Jennifer Abruzzo. Since being confirmed as the National Labor Relations Board’s top lawyer two months ago, Abruzzo has wasted no time laying out a strong pro-worker agenda. A memo released in August outlining her priorities indicated her intent to revisit a number of policies in ways that could make them much friendlier to unions and to worker organizing. 

Among the most significant are the “Joy Silk” doctrine, which could require employers to demonstrate actual reasons for not voluntarily recognizing unions; Ex-Cello Corp, which could impose far more significant penalties on employers for bad faith bargaining; and other items touching on everything from independent contractor classification to the rules for employer handbooks.

Abruzzo, an NLRB veteran who last worked as a lawyer for the Communications Workers of America, is essentially the opposite of her predecessor, Peter Robb–a Trump appointee hostile to organized labor who was fired shortly after Biden took office. We interviewed Abruzzo via email about her priorities, keeping bad employers in line and the flaws inherent in American labor law. 

Your intent to revisit the Joy Silk doctrine has gotten a lot of attention. Can you explain your thinking behind that, and what you think the practical effects of a change in that policy might be for unions? You’ve said you also want to revisit Ex-Cello Corp, dealing with potential penalties for employers who refuse to bargain in good faith. Can you explain what you think might result from revisiting it? 

Jennifer Abruzzo: When Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), it said in Section One of the Act that it was the policy of the United States to “encourag[e] the practice and procedure of collective bargaining” and to do so “by protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment or other mutual aid or protection.” To effectuate this policy, there must be meaningful remedies when employers interfere with workers exercising their rights to organize and to bargain. 

Both the Joy Silk and Ex-Cell-O doctrines deal with remedies to employer interference in that initial, and often vulnerable moment, when workers first organize a union and request to bargain. Under the Joy Silk doctrine, from 1949 until about 1969, the Board would issue a bargaining order if an employer refused to bargain upon a request for recognition from a union that represents a majority of employees, if that refusal was in bad faith. 

The Ex-Cell-O case dealt with monetary remedies when an employer refused to bargain in good faith. In that case, the D.C. Circuit actually told the Board it had the power to order such a remedy and that such a remedy was necessary to effectively remedy the harm. So, I think that both doctrines have support in the Act’s purpose, history, and federal court precedent and are worth reexamining in order to more effectively fulfill the Act’s mission. 

There has been a long term trend of companies replacing full-time workers with “independent contractors.” What if anything do you anticipate doing during your tenure that might help give labor protections to independent contractors?

Abruzzo: Whether a worker is an employee or independent contractor is a question of law based on the actual employment relationship—it is not determined by an employer’s label or classification. In the Taft-Hartley amendments to the NLRA, Congress excluded independent contractors from the protections of the National Labor Relations Act. For this reason, whether a worker is an employee versus an independent contractor is crucial. If you are an employee, you have the full protections of the National Labor Relations Act in your workplace, such as the right to organize with your co-workers to improve health and safety, which is a critical right as the country is dealing with a pandemic. If you are an independent contractor, you have none of those legal protections. 

In 2019, in a case called Velox Express, the Board majority at that time rejected an argument that employer misclassification of an employee as an independent contractor was itself a violation of the Act. Chairman McFerran (then Member McFerran) wrote a dissent agreeing with the argument. She explained that when a worker is in fact an employee with NLRA rights but is being told by their employer that they are an independent contractor, it sends a clear message to the worker that, in the employer’s view, they have no rights under the Act. She further explained that this communication could unlawfully interfere with the exercise of an employee’s rights. 

In my first General Counsel Memorandum, I asked our Regional Offices to submit cases for my consideration as to whether and under what circumstances misclassification itself can violate the National Labor Relations Act, and as to the scope of the independent contractor exemption. With regard to the latter, I believe the statute should be broadly construed and the common law, which delineates a number of factors, provides a very good framework for determining employee status. In the SuperShuttle DFW case, the Board majority at the time put substantial emphasis on the significance of one factor—entrepreneurial opportunity—and that warrants further scrutiny. 

Under your existing power, what do you think the NLRB can do to create penalties for employers who violate labor law that are meaningful enough to reverse the current situation in which it makes good economic sense for employers to engage in illegal union busting tactics? 

Abruzzo: I will pursue the full breadth of possible remedies under the NLRA to deter violations and to protect and enforce the statutory rights of workers in this country. Full and effective remedies are so important to effectuating the NLRA. It is for that reason that one of my first priorities as General Counsel was to issue GC 21–06 on “Seeking Full Remedies” and GC 21–07 on “Full Remedies in Settlement Agreements,” memos in which I ask our Regional Offices to seek the full panoply of remedies available to ensure that victims of unlawful conduct are made whole for losses suffered as a result of unfair labor practices. 

Under the NLRA, the Agency cannot mete out fines or penalties to violators of our statute, but it does have the broad discretionary power to provide make-whole remedies to victims of those violators. A make-whole remedy is one that aims to restore the worker’s situation prior to being subject to the unlawful conduct. For example, if a worker was unlawfully fired, we ask what wages and benefits the worker lost as a result of the firing. But we also need to determine what other economic losses a worker suffered as a result of the unlawful firing. Did they lose their work visa, or their car because they were unable to keep up with their payments? Did they have to move to find another job? Did they need to obtain health insurance coverage or incur medical expenses due to the loss of coverage? Additionally, we must try to discern how the firing affected those in the worker’s workplace, in other words, the chilling effect it had on other workers’ ability to exercise their statutory rights, and how we can most fully remedy those detrimental effects. 

So, there is no question in my mind that we can and should do more pursuant to our Congressional mandate under the NLRA as it currently stands. 

What is your view on minority or “members only” unions, meaning unions representing less than 50 percent of a workplace? Some believe that employers should be obligated to at least bargain with the members of such a group, even if the entire workplace is not unionized. Is this an issue you anticipate addressing?

Abruzzo: What are sometimes called “members only” or “minority” unions have been present throughout U.S. history. These kinds of formations have often acted as precursors to exclusive majority representatives. The NLRA currently protects the rights of workers to act collectively and engage, through representatives if they so choose, with their employer to improve their working conditions. I encourage engagement between management and labor to ensure that workers’ voices are heard and workers’ concerns are elevated in order to reduce workplace conflict. 

As to requiring an employer to bargain or confer with a members only union on behalf of its members, this argument has previously been made by academics and practitioners through various submissions, cases, and a petition for rulemaking. If this issue is brought before me as General Counsel, I would carefully consider it as I do all matters brought to my attention. 

Is there any way for workers, unions, and America as a whole to break out of the sort of frantic pendulum of labor rules, as the NLRB swings back and forth between Democratic and Republican administrations? It feels like any gains workers make now will inevitably be rolled back by a future, more conservative board. How does the NLRB make progress that lasts? 

Abruzzo: My job as General Counsel of the NLRB is to fully effectuate the Act to the best of my ability, for as long as I have the honor to serve in this role. I am fortunate to have an excellent cadre of dedicated and talented board agents in the field offices and in headquarters to support my efforts to ensure that we are achieving our Congressional mandate to promote industrial stability and collective bargaining and to protect the rights of workers to act together to improve their wages and working conditions. 

It is worth noting that the vast majority of meritorious case resolutions occur without any Board intervention (through settlements), thus, the extent of “flip flopping” is minimized. Notably, it makes it that much more important to ensure that the Agency receives adequate budgets so that the Agency has the staffing and resources to educate employees, employers, labor organizations, and community advocates and members, about statutory rights and obligations, to deter violations, and to obtain full remedies during early enforcement to diminish workplace conflict and broader industrial strife. 

You’ve worked on the regulatory side of labor, and inside a union. When you think about the barriers to a true revival of union power—how much of that is regulatory, how much is legislative, and how much do you think are missteps of the labor movement itself?

Abruzzo: As an independent federal agency, the NLRB’s role is to vigorously effectuate the NLRA’s mission, which includes protecting workers’ rights to organize and collectively bargain. I have spent the vast majority of my career as a public servant at the NLRB enforcing the Act and so that is what I will speak to. As General Counsel, I can think of no better calling than to ensure that the rights of workers in this country are protected and that violations of these rights are swiftly and fully remedied. 

I enjoy good relationships with labor and management practitioners and worker and business advocates, and fully expect to continue to collaborate with them, as well as with Agency personnel, to ensure that we are doing our jobs as effectively and efficiently as possible. This includes having a robust outreach program, particularly reaching those in vulnerable and underserved populations. I certainly think that there needs to be a broader focus on these populations and on workers in general to ensure that more equitable workplace conditions and opportunities are afforded so that they and their families and their communities can not only survive but thrive, particularly during these challenging times. 

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

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 27, 2021. Reprinted with permission.


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At a Massive Union Rally, the Promise of a Better South

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A Year in the Life of Safeway 1048 | Today's Workplace

Striking mine workers in Alabama bring together the whole wide world.

To get to the big ballpark in Brookwood, Alabama, you drive down the Miners Memorial Parkway The road goes by the local headquarters of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), and close to the Miners Memorial monument, which remembers 13 miners killed in a 2001 explosion. A lot of coal miners work in Brookwood, and a lot have died here. Right now, more than a thousand are on strike there, at the Warrior Met Coal. It sits just off the same road. 

On Wednesday morning, a line of buses lumbered down the winding road through the woods, and a line of pickup trucks piled up behind them. All passed the ?“We Are One” UMWA signs lining the road for miles before turning into the ballpark, where the sprawling open grass was dotted with tents and a stage. Entire families, most of them in camouflage UMWA t?shirts, lugged their folding camping chairs and shade umbrellas out past the low white tornado shelters and down to the grass. The strike at Warrior Met has been going on for four months. But on this day, the rally was on. 

Several thousand people showed up for what was billed as the ?“Biggest labor rally in Alabama history,” a claim too good to check. What was certain was that this was not a single rally for a single local of a single union. This was the entire labor movement, showing up to say that they have not forgotten a long and grinding struggle. 

After the Pledge of Allegiance, the national anthem, and a reverend’s prayer to ?“change the mindset” of scabs and coal mining company owners?—?something even God might find difficult?—?the rally commenced. For hours, a procession of UMWA officials and leaders of other unions cycled across the stage, giving speeches that varied in inspirational quality. Attendees sought to maneuver their seats into the small patches of shadow that moved slowly across the scorching grass. Enormous quantities of bottled water, Krispy Kreme donuts, and popsicles were handed out from supply tents. People chatted, and prayed, and listened to various singers, and were together. 

Many unions had sent buses full of supporters from all across the South. There were more than a dozen CWA members from Atlanta who worked for AT&T, decked out in red shirts. There was a gaggle of UAW members. There were Teamsters, and teachers, and government workers, all proudly in their union t?shirts. There were union officials from Georgia and Kentucky and Tennessee and South Carolina. There were presidents of locals from other states, climbing the stage to present $500 checks to the strike fund. There was an entire tent full of longshoremen wearing custom-made white t?shirts that said ?“Port workers in solidarity with mine workers.” They had come from Charleston, Jacksonville, and Mobile, Alabama, on a single bus that stopped in each city, collecting the comrades. 

In addition to all the union member guests, at least half of the crowd was made up of retired UMWA members and their families, as if to demonstrate the ?“We Are Everywhere” slogan on all the camo shirts. These people also came from all across the country. One 76-year-old former coal miner nicknamed ?“Mouse” had taken a bus the week before from his West Virginia home up to New York City for a protest that the strikers held in front of the Blackrock headquarters in Manhattan; this week, he had taken another bus 18 hours to Brookwood for this rally. Asked why, he jabbed his finger forward and said, with force, ?“It helps my union brothers.” 

Brookwood, Alabama is not a convenient place to get to, even if you live in Birmingham. The fact that thousands of people from across the country had clambered into buses for interminable trips to sit at this rally under the sweltering sun, for people they did not know, was remarkable. I spoke to many of these attendees and, to a person, the question of why they had gone to all the trouble to show up was answered as if it didn’t require any explanation at all. ?“Solidarity,” they said. ?“They supported us, so we’re supporting them.” ?“This is what the union’s about.” To take a 30-hour round trip on a bus was, for them, a no-brainer. This is what the union’s about. For one day, this was just common sense. But in the context of the United States of America in 2021, this was a rare sight to behold. 

The crowd at the Brookwood rally was multiracial. Not multiracial like a fashion ad, or a painstakingly assembled corporate board, but a large group of Black and white people united for a common purpose. The UMWA miners who are on strike at Warrior Met now are an integrated group, and so their supporters in the community are integrated as well. There were both Black and white people serving as Marshals at the rally, and helping to run it, and speaking from the stage, and sitting in the crowd. The majority of the people from other unions who had shown up in support were Black. The longshoremen were almost all Black, the CWA workers from Atlanta were almost all Black, and on and on.

Many of the UMWA members in attendance, and certainly most of the older retirees, were white, religious, and Republican. The entertainment at the rally was almost all gospel and religious music. Singer after singer appeared between speeches to proclaim the glory of the Blood of Jesus. One retired miner made it a point to tell me, at the end of an interview, ?“I’m a Trump guy.” Across the grass, some of the Black CWA members from Atlanta toted ?“Strike for lack Lives” signs. At no point during the long, hot day did I see a bit of animosity?—?or, indeed, even a mention of political differences?—?between the members of the crowd. (The one exception was a single angry interloper who began pushing people and trying to start a fight before being hustled away by a large crowd of miners. I was told that he was a scab worker sent in to try to disrupt the rally. The fact that he walked out in one piece is a testament to the professionalism of the union.)

I am from the South. I was born in the South, I grew up in the South, and my entire family lives in the South. I have never in my life seen a racially and politically integrated crowd of people in the deep South, utterly united for a cause, as I did at this rally. The only things that come close are church events or football games, which I would argue lack the socially redeeming qualities of yesterday’s event. It is possible, down South, to get a racially integrated crowd where everyone agrees politically, but to get thousands of Black and white people whose politics range from strongly pro-Trump to strongly pro-Black Lives Matter together in a single place, in total unity of purpose, with virtually no conflict, and without being the explicit result of trying to assemble such a crowd to satisfy some sort of demographic diversity goals?—?well, that just doesn’t happen that much, ever.

This is the promise of unions. Not just better wages, or better working conditions, but a better society. Unions offer a frame for human interaction that does not otherwise exist. Our everyday experience in a society that is racially segregated, unequal, and politically polarized tells us that getting young and old and Black and white and left and right all together for something should be extraordinary or impossible; but at a union rally, where everyone’s common interest is plain to see, it becomes natural. It is only because the strength of unions within southern communities has become so rare that the sight of yesterday’s rally was so abnormal. Were there more strong unions, the South could be a very different place.

What the UMWA offers to the people of Brookwood is a vision of the world in which your enemy does not have to be someone of a different race or different political party. For those who believe in the union, there is a much more compelling enemy. It is an enemy they can see every day that they sit out on the picket line, watching cars drive by them, towards the mine. The back of the stage at the rally held a large banner with a picture of working people on it, and a header that read ?“Which Side Are You On?” One side of the banner said ?“UMWA,” and the other side said ?“Scabs.”

As the rally neared its end, a folk singer got up to perform a song he’d written to the tune of Woody Guthrie’s ?“All You Fascists Are Bound to Lose.”

“I’m gonna tell you scabs, we’re gonna win this strike,” he crooned. ?“And I’ll die a union miner, but you’ll be a scab for life.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on August 5, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. 


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As Devastating Plant Shutdown Looms in West Virginia, National Outrage Is Hard to Find

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Hamilton Nolan - In These Times

A union set to be wiped out by layoffs says politicians are missing in action.

Joe Gouzd is pissed. As the president of United Steelworkers Local 8?–?957 in Morgantown, West Virginia, he represents more than 800 of the 1,500 workers who are set to lose their jobs on July 31, when the Viatris pharmaceuticals plant in Morgantown shuts down for good. And though he is used to fights, he does not like feeling abandoned.

Ask Gouzd what he is hearing from his representatives in the federal government as the plant shutdown looms, and he’ll tell you, ?“Not a god damn thing.” 

“We’ve heard nothing,” he says. ?“We’ve heard all kinds of horse shit from A to Z.” 

This is a remarkable statement, when you consider that the closure of this one plant embodies an entire galaxy of issues that should make it a prime candidate for political intervention. It represents the often-lamented effect of offshoring: a decades-old factory whose jobs are being unceremoniously shipped overseas by the enormous conglomerate Viatris, which was formed in 2019 as the combination of Mylan and Upjohn and immediately set out to slash costs. 

It represents the human and economic toll of America’s industrial decline: Many of the union jobs at the plant pay $80,000 or more, more than twice what any of the workers who are laid off are likely to get if they stay in Morgantown and find a new job. An economic analysis by the Democracy Collaborative finds that the plant’s closure could cost the surrounding county more than 4,600 jobs in total and $400 million in wages in the coming year, in a county where the median income for individuals is less than $25,000 a year.

It represents the loss of America’s pharmaceutical manufacturing capability during a pandemic: Though the coronavirus made many politicians talk about the need for America to strengthen its own supply chain at home to avoid relying on foreign countries for medicines and pharmaceutical supplies, the union’s calls for the Biden administration to invoke the Defense Production Act to take over this plant that makes generic pharmaceuticals seem to have fallen on deaf ears. All indications are that the shutdown that has loomed for seven months will go forward as scheduled next week. 

And, on a raw political level, it would seem like the closure of a major factory in West Virginia?—?a state that has served as a political football for the past five years, and that is now the home to Joe Manchin, the Senate’s single most powerful member?—?would offer a prime opportunity for the Democratic-controlled federal government to score points in a red state, prove that Democrats can in fact deliver for the workers that Donald Trump paid lip service to, and throw a bone to Manchin all at once. 

But none of this has caused any concrete action from the federal government to save the plant. The story of the fate that awaits the hundreds of workers in Morgantown has not become a huge national story. A slow-motion disaster that could be the seed of a great bipartisan effort to save unionized American jobs in West Virginia is instead unfolding just as the company said it would when it announced the closure plans, when most of the country was distracted by the question of whether Donald Trump would actually leave office. Gouzd says that the politicians ?“are running away from us.” He dismisses West Virginia Republican Senator Shelly Moore Capito as an unresponsive ?“blowup doll.” Joe Manchin, he says, gave the union members ?“two minutes of his time” several months ago, and has not done anything meaningful on their behalf. 

“He asked us if we still make penicillin,” Gouz says. ?“We haven’t done that for 20 years.” 

In a statement, Joe Manchin said, ?“For months, I have engaged in conversations with Viatris, Monongalia County, the Morgantown Area Partnership, and local and state leaders to find a solution that protects every single job.” (Since the plant’s 1,500 jobs are set to be eliminated in a week, any conversations he had were apparently fruitless.) 

The perceived lack of help is particularly noticeable because Joe Manchin has a very personal connection to this issue: His daughter, Heather Bresch, was the CEO of Mylan, the company that owned the Morgantown plant prior to the rebranding as Viatris. Bresch came under fire in 2016 for her company’s egregious price increases of EpiPens, which prompted a recent $345 million settlement after several class action lawsuits. Bresch herself retired last year after her company’s merger with Upjohn, earning herself close to $20 million during her last year on the job. The 855 unionized Viatris workers in Morgantown who are losing their jobs will receive two weeks of severance pay for every year that they had on the job. 

Our Revolution, the progressive political group, has been working for the past six weeks to elevate the profile of the workers in Morgantown, and try to win them anything it can. That work has been led by Mike Oles, an organizer who has worked on a string of similar plant closures across the country, beginning with the Carrier factory in Indiana that became a national political issue in 2016. In that case, there was a cell phone video of the company’s brutal layoff announcement that went viral; now, Oles says, companies often send workers home before making the announcements, and work strategically to bury the news. 

“This plant seems more saveable than Carrier was, even,” says Oles. ?“This idea that we’re sending 1,500 jobs to India to produce lifesaving medicines, in areas where we have concerns about supply chains… We can support a state that’s transitioning from fossil fuels. Why wouldn’t we try to keep pharmaceuticals in the state?”

The West Virginia state legislature passed resolutions calling on state leaders to keep the plant open, but Governor Jim Justice’s efforts to find a savior do not seem to have succeeded. In June, the White House issued a report calling a robust domestic pharmaceutical supply chain ?“essential for the national security and economic prosperity of the United States,” but that has not prompted any concrete action to keep the Viatris plant open. 

“It’s heartbreaking,” Oles says. ?“These jobs just don’t come back. Communities don’t bounce back from plant closings like this. I’ve seen it in five different states.” 

Adding to the grim situation is the fact that not only will the factory be shutting down?—?the union will as well. United Steelworkers Local 8?–?957 represents only the Viatris workers. After more than 40 years of existence, Gouzd says, the local will be closing after the plant does. 

Viatris said in a statement that the shutdown in Morgantown is a result of the company’s efforts to ?“optimize its commercial capabilities and enabling functions, and close, downsize or divest manufacturing facilities globally that are deemed to be no longer viable.” They add that the decision ?“in no way reflects upon the company’s appreciation for the commitment, work ethic and valuable contributions of our employees.”

The feelings of appreciation are not mutual. The mood inside the factory is ?“toxic,” says Gouzd. ?“The place is caustic. They’re ready to string somebody up by a tree.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 22, 2021. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. 


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New York City holds parade honoring essential workers—but many essential workers boycott

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Wage theft is a huge problem that requires a creative solution, this week  in the war on workers | Today's Workplace

Wednesday was “a day to celebrate and appreciate the heroes who often go unsung,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said last month in announcing a parade to honor the essential workers of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’re going to sing about them this day.” 

Many of the workers, though, feel so unappreciated that they boycotted the parade supposedly held in their honor, saying a better way to honor them would be with better pay and working conditions. One of the groups with the biggest complaint is emergency medical technicians and paramedics. Those workers, who are more than half people of color and more than a quarter women, are paid dramatically less than firefighters, three out of four of whom are white and 99% of whom are male—and the truly essential role they played in the pandemic response did not stop de Blasio from opposing a move toward pay parity.

“A parade does not bring this workforce out of the poverty wages they are now being paid,” Oren Barzilay, the president of a union that represents more than 4,000 first responders, told the New York Daily News, describing attendance at the parade as like crossing a picket line. “It is far past time that the city gives this workforce the respect they deserve in livable wages. If taxpayer dollars can be allocated to put on this parade, then Mayor de Blasio, you can easily find the means to financially support our FDNY EMT’s, Paramedics and Fire Inspectors.”

The union has been in contract negotiations with the city since before the pandemic, and the city appears to remain intent on treating these workers as second-class first responders.

Another union representing social workers, contact tracers, health inspectors, and other workers similarly boycotted the parade, citing struggles to get personal protective equipment during the pandemic and saying in a statement, “To participate in a parade is an injustice to how we have been treated and continue to be treated. The Early Retirement Incentive was not passed, and Essential Worker pay seems to have disappeared.”

The parade included 14 floats and 260 groups of essential workers, including first responders (some of them, anyway), child care workers, transit workers, delivery workers, and more. Funeral industry workers who had to deal with the many, many bodies the pandemic produced were initially left out, then included after protest.

Eric Adams, the newly announced winner of the Democratic mayoral primary, did attend the parade, telling reporters, “We need to honor them [essential workers] with pay equity … we need to show them the respect they deserve.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on July 7, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Steward’s Corner: How One Union Uses Kitchen Table Economics to Advance Medicare for All

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Kari Thompson (@UEKariT) | Twitter

Our union, the United Electrical Workers, represents a diverse range of workplaces. Our members manufacture locomotive engines in Erie, Pennsylvania, and soap in Orange County, California; provide social services from Connecticut to Iowa to Los Angeles; and work in grocery stores from Vermont to Wisconsin. They also have a wide spectrum of political opinions.

But wherever they work, and no matter their political views, chances are that they’re frustrated with the health care system.

Since the 1940s, UE has supported universal, single-payer health care, popularly known today as Medicare for All. Under this policy, everyone would have access to medically necessary care that is free at the point of service, and coordinated by the federal government instead of profiteering insurance companies.

We have found that education on this idea gives members an opportunity to see how their frustrations with the health care system, such as the expensive cost of care and confusion over what kinds of care are covered, are rooted in corporate control of society. It also creates a space to win back some workers who have been influenced by right-wing propaganda.

Our key vehicle for this conversation is an interactive workshop, “How to Fix Health Care.” The workshop succeeds because it gets members talking together about their own shared experiences and provides them with a tool to break down a complicated economic question.

DIAGNOSE THE PROBLEM

We start the workshop by asking members to talk about the problems they encounter in our current health care system. They know these issues well.

Even if they happen to be in a shop that has been able to retain a good, affordable plan, they still have complaints about all the hoops they have to jump through to see a doctor or to make sure their bill gets paid.

But far too many of our members have been forced into paying too much. And all of them know family and friends who lack affordable care.

Then we ask, “Why is the health care system like this?” and lead them through a discussion of for-profit health care. This includes looking at facts like the rate of premium increases over the last 20 years—consistently higher than wage increases—and that we spend more money per person on health care in the U.S. than in other countries, but have poorer health outcomes. Members have no problem understanding that the enemy is the insurance and pharmaceutical corporations that are trying to profit off of our illnesses. This activity gets everyone on the same page.

From there, we discuss how a single-payer system could fix the problems they’ve identified and describe the basic outlines of how it would work, including that the plan would be for everyone, be affordable, provide high-quality, comprehensive care, and create good jobs.

HOW WILL WE PAY FOR IT?

The kicker is always paying for it. Members assume this kind of system will cost too much, but that assumption comes from not fully understanding the costs of health care in our current system—and how much they’re already paying. We pay for our health care in premiums deducted from our paychecks, provider bills, and co-pays for prescriptions and office visits, but how often do we actually take the time to add up what we’re paying for our current ineffective system?

At this point, we pull out a helpful tool: our Health Care Cost Calculator (a simplified web version is available at healthcosts.ueunion.org). Members are given time to fill out a form where they write down how much they spend each year on premiums, deductibles, co-pays, prescriptions, and other medical, dental, and eye care costs. Then they tally these costs up and divide the total by their annual salary to calculate what percentage of their income they are already spending on health care.

The results are astounding. Sure, there are a handful of healthy folks with no dependents who are in shops with good plans. They find they’re only paying a small percentage of their income for health care. But it’s really only a handful.

Most of our members are paying between 10 and 20 percent of their incomes for health care, and it’s not uncommon for us to find members paying 20 to 30 percent or more.

Let’s take the example of a member with a good-paying factory job in Connecticut. Including overtime, he made about $85,000 last year. He paid $128 per week in premiums, or $6,656 per year. Additionally, he had a $2,500 up-front deductible, three office visit co-pays at $35 each, a prescription with a $25 monthly copay, and $670 in dental costs. This was a total of $3,575 in out-of-pocket costs. Combine those with his premium payments, and this member spent $10,231 on health care. Dividing his salary by this total means he spent 12 percent of his income on health care.

We even had one member in Wisconsin realize he was paying 60 percent of his income on health care for himself and his family! That realization moved him into action—he joined our lobbying efforts to get his member of Congress to sign on to Medicare for All.

SINGLE-PAYER SAVINGS

Once members see how much they’re paying now, it’s a simple task to swing the conversation back to what a payroll tax might cost them under single-payer—and how much less it would be. Using Senator Bernie Sanders’ projection of a 4 percent payroll tax for employees to pay for Medicare for All, this is a big savings for almost every worker.

We show how the employers would save too—meaning there would be more money available that we could demand back in wages or retirement benefits. We also talk about how Medicare for All would put to rest members’ fears of devastatingly big bills, medical debts or bankruptcy, losing their health insurance coverage altogether if they lose their job, or having to strike to maintain their benefits (or losing their benefits during a strike).

We also take a moment to answer questions and rebut criticisms that the members may have heard, similar to inoculating workers against the employer’s anti-union arguments during an organizing drive. When members raise concerns about long waiting lines or losing their doctors, we discuss what happens in the current system: people experience delays in care because of the need for pre-approval from insurance companies and restrictions on whom they can see because insurance companies don’t work with all providers. We explain that under Medicare for All, there will be fewer hurdles to jump through because all providers will be included in the plan.

SEE THE REAL VILLAIN

Using kitchen table economics is critical for winning workers over to Medicare for All. Before this training, members may be wary of trading something they’re familiar with for something that’s unknown. But in the workshop, they see for themselves that what they have now is robbing them blind—and that Medicare for All would bring them real economic gains.

What threads its way through much of our conversation is that the insurance companies are a big part of why we pay so much for health care. For example, a Center for American Progress study shows that more than 8 percent of U.S. health care spending goes to administrative costs. However, the study put out by the Congressional Budget Office last year indicated that administrative costs under a single-payer system would be 1.8 percent or even less.

Where does that money go right now? Insurance company bureaucrats: six health insurance CEOs made more than $15 million each in 2019, led by Larry Merlo of CVS Health, who made $36 million. We have not found much love out there for insurance companies.

This exercise is a good way to start to shift the views of those working-class folks who have been taken in by right-wing populism. Instead of identifying their enemy as the government, or people who aren’t like them, they start training their ire at huge corporations: the insurance companies.

This dovetails with our broader political education goals. We want our members to embrace their shared interests with other workers, not with wealthy elites. By grounding our workshop in our members’ shared negative experiences with our current system and the kitchen table economics of our cost calculator, we get more members on board with advocating for a health care system that benefits the whole working class.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on July 6, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kari Thompson is the UE Director of Education. 


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Shrugging Off Anti-Union Campaign, New York Times Tech Workers See a Chance to Make History

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Hamilton Nolan - In These Times

Times workers plan to ride the media union wave right onto a bigger wave of tech organizing.

In April, more than 650 tech workers at the New York Times announced that they were unionizing with the NewsGuild, forming what would instantly become one of the biggest unions of tech workers in America. Times management refused to voluntarily recognize the union, a break that could be a harbinger of more hostile labor relations throughout the media industry. But the tech workers remain supremely confident that they will prevail?—?and they are already contemplating the start of a much bigger union wave in the broader tech industry. 

For the past six years, newsrooms have been unionizing at a rapid clip, making the media one of the labor movement’s bright spots. Most of those unions, though, consist solely of journalists and other workers on the editorial side of publications. It has not gone unnoticed that everywhere that has a media union also has a large group of tech workers who could potentially be organized as well. For unions, tech-side employees of media companies represent both an obvious way into the mostly non-union tech industry, and a chance to further consolidate power for workers inside of companies that are already partly unionized. In this context, the NYT Tech Guild marks an important strategic step for the labor movement in two powerful industries.

Organizing among Times tech workers began about two years ago, according to Goran Svorcan, a senior software engineer who was involved from its early stages. The pandemic delayed the effort, but the work continued with help from organizers at the NewsGuild, which has long represented the Times newsroom. Svorcan had never been in a union before, but says that it seemed like the ?“logical next step” in addressing employee concerns. Contrary to common stereotypes about why tech workers and engineers have not widely organized (because they are too libertarian-minded, or because they are an individualistic culture), Svorcan believes that unions are in line with the public-minded ideals of early internet pioneers?—?ideals that faded as the industry became rich and powerful. ?“It’s kind of a proto-organizing model in a way,” he says of the collaborative nature of much of software engineering. ?“Seeing other people as allies, not [being on] a remote island is something I think is core to the early tech visions.” 

Kathy Zhang, a senior manager of audience analytics at the Times who was also involved from the very beginning of the organizing campaign, says that she and her colleagues have always been conscious of playing a part in spreading unionization in tech, even listening to the oral history of the Kickstarer union drive for inspiration. ?“One amazing result of our union going public has been seeing other underground tech unions inviting us to their organizing meetings. Tech is an industry ripe for unionization,” Zhang says. ?“We’re excited to be the largest majority tech union in the country, but we’ll be even more ecstatic to pass that torch onto the next tech workers to unionize!” 

Indeed, the tantalizing possibility of organizing the tech workers at all of the media companies that were being swept up in their own modern union wave occurred to Nozlee Samadzadeh years ago, when she helped her then-colleagues at Vox Media unionize?—?an editorial union that she, as a tech worker, was not eligible for. When she joined the Times as a senior software engineer in 2020, she got her chance. ?“It was something I felt so strongly about. I wanted to believe that tech workers could unionize,” she says. ?“It was inspiring to people when they realized we could do something about our health insurance, or about diversity, that wasn’t just asking management for something, or being part of a management-sponsored committee.” 

As is often the case, tech workers at the Times found when they started speaking to coworkers that there were a remarkably common set of issues that people wanted to address: pay equity, improving diversity, better health insurance, improved career development, and the end of at-will employment. The company’s refusal to voluntarily recognize the union, and instead to demand a formal NLRB election?—?despite voluntarily recognizing a similar union at the company’s Wirecutter division in 2019, and despite the paper having editorialized in favor of voluntary recognition?—?caused surprise and disappointment among the workers themselves, who say that they expected better from the purportedly liberal institution. Instead of open arms, however, they have received an overt anti-union campaign from management, complete with mandatory ?“captive audience” meetings and insinuations that a union could cost employees the benefits they already have. 

New York Times Co. spokesperson Daniell Rhoades Ha says that contrary to the ?“overwhelming support” for a union at the Wirecutter, ?“In this case, we heard, and continue to hear, a significant amount of reservations and uncertainty among our technology and digital teams about what a union would mean for them. It is clear to us that our colleagues want more information in order to determine the best path for their future and want the opportunity to have a vote on the matter, rather than the company making the decision to recognize the proposed new unit.”

It is a familiar justification for an anti-union campaign, and one that Samadzadeh characterizes as ?“concern trolling… well-meaning, paternalistic, pretending that they have a care for our welfare.” She rejects the company’s overt nod to the idea that tech workers are somehow different from other employees who have unionized in the past. ?“We’re workers,” she says. ?“The problems we have are very similar to the ones in the newsroom.” 

As it stands, members of the NYT Tech Guild say they are continuing to organize and collect union cards as the polite-but-insistent anti-union campaign from management grinds on. (They will not disclose the number of union cards they have collected so far.) There is no date for the formal NLRB election yet, but if history is any guide, the company’s insistence on drawing out the process will not succeed?—?virtually all of the media union drives in recent years that have faced anti-union campaigns have succeeded anyhow. And the tech workers at the Times are propelled by an extra sense of historical importance. 

“Institutions like The Times are still figuring out how to support career pathways that don’t rely on elite universities. Our union can speed up that progress, benefitting my coworkers and the next generation of Times tech workers,” says Bön Champion, a senior product designer who is on the Tech Guild’s organizing committee. ?“If we make this the decade where laborers in this country organize and realize their collective power, I think there’s a lot to be hopeful about. In tech specifically, our pay and benefits are largely a reflection of a competitive workplace with Big Tech at the forefront. Which means the conditions of our work are largely trickling down from Silicon Valley. If tech organizing spreads, instead those conditions will be set by the workers themselves, in their own offices and communities.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 29, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere.


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Engines Out and Pickets Up to Stop Health Plan Downgrade by Cummins

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East Bay Health Care Workers Strike Forces County to Disband the Boss |  Today's Workplace

Thirty-three heavy-duty engine mechanics have been on an open-ended strike since June 8 at the Cummins service shop in San Leandro, California.

These technicians service the engines and generators that power Silicon Valley tech giants and buses for the Bay Area’s local public transit agencies. They worked through the pandemic, without adequate personal protective equipment, sanitizing procedures, or hazard pay. The shop was busier than ever.

But as their reward for their hard work, dedication, and personal risk to keep the Bay Area running, Cummins kicked them off the health care plans they sorely need.

For 18 months after the Machinists (IAM) Local 1546 contract expired in 2020, management had refused to budge on its demand to strip workers of their union-negotiated Kaiser HMO plan.

This month, declaring an impasse, the company unilaterally forced workers off their plan and onto the kind of costly health savings account plan it had already pushed on the rest of its workers nationwide. Deductibles shot up to $8,000 for individuals and $11,000 for families.

The mechanics had had enough. With nearly every worker in the shop taking part, they walked off the job and went on strike for the first time in 20 years.

LAST ONE STANDING

Cummins is a multinational Fortune 500 company that manufactures, installs, and services engines in buses and other large vehicles and ships. The company’s mobile teams install and service generators at hospitals, stadiums, and data centers around the U.S.

The strike at the San Leandro shop is the final stand against a corporate behemoth that has won health care concessions at every other shop in the country. Cummins has forced not only its nonunion shops, mostly in the South and Midwest, but also its thousands of union workers in California and the Northeast onto expensive, low-quality plans.

Louis Huaman, a mechanic at the San Leandro shop for 40 years, said that he and his co-workers saw this fight coming. “We didn’t think we’d be the last one standing, but we’re drawing the line.”

Another longtime employee, who asked to remain anonymous, explained how management’s plan would leave him high and dry: “I’m a dialysis patient. Right now I have a $15 co-pay. On management’s plan, I’d pay $600 a visit. I’d probably spend the $8,000 deductible by May—and have to do it all over the next year.”

The surging health expenses would make it impossible for him to afford to continue to live in the costly Bay Area, he said. “I’ve got an elderly dad with health issues, and he lives here. The reason I stay at this job is so I can be close to him.”

Others emphasized the importance of having good health insurance in a physically taxing job. “This job will wear you down,” said Mike Nelson, shop steward and a technician in the shop for three decades. “Batteries go up in flames. Engines can drop on you if you’re not careful. You need good health care.”

PROFITS ARE SOARING

During its push to slash workers’ health care, the company has been extremely profitable lately.

Cummins has been picking up new business, according to Nelson, since the pandemic shut down in-house service crews at many transit agencies and other clients.

“The company made $6 billion [in revenue] in the first quarter this year, which is a billion over that quarter last year,” he said. Cummins bragged that it made $600 million in profit during the quarter.

Management has pushed through mergers and corporate takeovers of independent local distributors in the last few years. The 2013 corporate takeover of the San Leandro shop, formerly a distributor with a local owner, now looks to workers like a first step in management’s strategy to break a strong union shop and its hard-earned health care.

Aware of the company’s flush profits and high demand, these machinists have been emboldened to fight back. “When we’re out here, we’re costing them at least $100,000 a day,” Nelson estimated from the picket line, pointing to lost business due to the strike.

Google cancelled its Cummins service contract this week and switched to a competitor, which workers believe is also union. Machinists have parted the picket line almost daily for local transit agencies and a manufacturer to tow their unrepaired buses out of the service yard.

MAKING IT HARD FOR SCABS

Besides maintaining a picket line at the main gate of the Cummins yard, the Machinists are placing striking workers at sites where they perform generator work across the Bay Area. They’ve cultivated relationships with the workers in other union locals who staff these sites.

With this strategy, the mechanics and their allies have been slowing down work for the scabs that Cummins has sent in from its nonunion Arizona and Colorado shops.

On their last day working before the strike, some mechanics carefully took the engines out of vehicles, and removed oil pans or other parts that would make it very difficult for scabs to take over the work.

As the work piles up into a deep backlog, the workers hope that Cummins will have no other choice but to finally concede and restore the health care plan.

“We’ll be here as long as it takes,” said Huaman. “We know they can’t run these engines without us.”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on June 21, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Keith Brower Brown is a member of the East Bay Democratic Socialists of America and a steward in Auto Workers Local 2865.


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Striking Alabama Miners Call Out NYC Hedge Funds for Bringing in Scabs

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Interview by Adam Johnson | Authors | The Indypendent

You take a six-dollar pay cut and what do you get? Five years older and no respect for the sacrifices you made to get your employer out of bankruptcy, say the striking Alabama coal miners who protested outside the Manhattan offices of three hedge funds on June 22.

“They told us, since we bailed them out, they would take care of us,” says Brian Kelly, president of United Mine Workers of America Local 2245, one of more than 1,000 miners who’ve been on strike at two mines in Brookwood, Alabama, since April 1. But instead, he says, “they’re bringing in scabs to work and trying to get rid of the older workforce.”

Warrior Met Coal, which operates the two mines, about 15 miles east of Tuscaloosa, was bought out by a consortium of 20 to 30 hedge funds in 2016 after its previous owner, Jim Walter Resources, filed for bankruptcy, says UMWA spokesperson Phil Smith.

Local 2245 then agreed to major concessions to help the company regain solvency: Along with the $6-per-hour pay cut, their health care costs were increased from a $12 co-pay to a $1,500 deductible; the union had to negotiate a $25 million Voluntary Employees’ Beneficiary Association plan to continue retirees’ health care; and extra overtime pay for Sundays and holidays was eliminated.

“They’re making us work seven days a week, up to 16 hours,” says Kelly, who has worked in the Brookwood mine for 25 years, following his father, uncles, and grandfather. “Now we’re forced to work every holiday except Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas.”

The company’s current contract offer, instead of restoring the $6 pay cut, is a five-year deal with a $1-an-hour increase, with another 50 cents coming in its fourth year, says Kelly.

“This company has prospered,” says Dedrick Gardner, who’s worked in the mine for 13 years. “We worked a whole year during the pandemic. The mine didn’t shut.”

ONE-SIDED SACRIFICE

That brought the miners to the offices of three of the hedge funds that own Warrior Met: In the morning, they protested outside BlackRock Fund Advisors, the largest stockholder, holding 13 percent of the company, according to Smith. In the afternoon, they split into two groups, one at State Street Global Advisors, which owns 11 percent, and the other at Renaissance Technologies, which owns 4 percent.

Outside State Street’s Sixth Avenue offices, about 25 miners and supporters from other unions—the International Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union Local 338—marched in an oval, chanting “No Contract, No Coal” and “Warrior Met Has No Soul.” Rain cut it short an hour early.

“These hedge funds are among several entities that invested in Warrior Met five years ago when the company emerged from bankruptcy,” UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said in a statement. “But they insisted on dramatic sacrifices from the workers, to the tune of $1.1 billion. The company has enjoyed revenues amounting to another $3.4 billion since then, much of which flowed into these funds’ accounts. It’s time to share that wealth with the people who created it—the workers.”

Company executives got bonuses of up to $35,000 early this year, according to the UMWA. The Brookwood miners now average about $22 an hour, the union says. Kelly says he makes about $60,000 a year.

Contract talks have made little progress since early April, when the miners rejected a proposed agreement drawn up a few days into the strike, 1,006 to 45. Smith says he doesn’t expect them to resume until after July 4.

“They really haven’t moved very far from the contract that got voted down,” says Smith. “I don’t think they got the message.”

EXPLOSIVE DANGER

Aside from pay, union officials say, a main dispute is that management is demanding the power to fire strikers and to give strikebreakers and new hires seniority. Earlier this month, there were at least two incidents where drivers entering the mine site in pickup trucks hit picketers. Warrior Met management responded that it has an injunction that “specifically prohibits picketers from interfering, hindering or obstructing ingress and egress.”

“They want to put the new hires and scab miners to the front of the seniority line,” says Kelly. “I’ve been there 25 years. That’s not going to happen.”

Safety has become a major concern. The foremen the new management brought in, Kelly says, came from West Virginia and Kentucky, and don’t understand the kind of mining they do at Brookwood.

The Alabama mine, which extracts a specialized variety of coal used in making steel, is much deeper than a typical Appalachian “drift mine,” he explains. Its shaft goes down 2,000 feet, and the miners have to travel as much as 10 miles to reach the coal face.

“You can’t walk out if something happens,” he says.

Mining coal at those depths also releases a lot of methane gas, which is toxic, inflammable, and explosive. In the last two years, Kelly says, there have been more “ignitions”—small fires starting from pockets of methane igniting—than he’s seen in his previous 20 years on the job.

“They are building a big potential to have something blow up,” he says.

It’s a peril he knows too well. On September 23, 2001, 13 miners at Brookwood were killed in a methane explosion.

“If you don’t run safe, you won’t run more coal,” Kelly says. “You’ve got to have air to push the dangerous gases out.”

This article first appeared at LaborPress. Steven Wishnia is a LaborPress reporter.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on June 24, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Steve Wishnia is a New York-based journalist, now a reporter for LaborPress and editor of Tenant/Inquilino


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One Way to Boost Workers and the Labor Movement? Give Unions Power Over Unemployment Insurance.

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Francisco Díez - Worker Justice Policy Advocate - Center for Popular  Democracy | LinkedIn

A reform from Belgium in the early 1900s would both increase unemployment insurance benefits and decrease the cost of labor organizing. It’s time for the U.S. to embrace it.

Despite keeping tens of millions of Americans afloat during the pandemic, expanded unemployment insurance (UI) only reached 41% of unemployed workers according to Professor Eliza Forsythe of the University of Illinois’ School of Labor and Employment Relations, and even among those who did receive it, many saw frequent delays and dangerous pauses in benefits. These issues underline the importance of addressing the program’s systemic flaws. 

“It took five weeks to get the next round of extended benefits. I was so behind on rent and basic bills, I had to pay late fees that accrued because it took so long. Now I can barely buy food,” said Sharon Corpening, an unemployed worker in Georgia and member of Unemployed Action, a grassroots campaign run through The Center for Popular Democracy (where I work). 

As pressure builds to reform the program for the first time in decades, one policy change could both dramatically improve benefit access for workers like Corpening and give a much-needed boost to the labor movement: Let unions help run the UI system. 

Unemployment insurance, if administered, managed or distributed by unions, could unleash a wave of union growth and dramatically improve access to benefits for millions of workers. Commonly called the ?“Ghent” system, after the city in Belgium where it was first developed as a form of union-led mutual aid in the early 1900s, these policies increase the expected benefits of unemployment insurance for workers and decrease the cost of organizing. The pandemic exposed the cracks in the U.S. unemployment system?—?and how desperately we need bold, new ideas like this. 

At least two legislative proposals to expand access to UI?—?one state-level effort in Maine and one coming out of the House of Representatives’ Ways and Means Committee?—?would, if enacted, begin to bring organized labor into the system and plant the seeds of an American Ghent system. 

UI currently leaves many workers uncovered, such as undocumented immigrants, unpaid caretakers and graduating students (re)entering the workforce. Most states’ weekly benefits are too low and the benefit periods too short to protect workers from crisis, whether it’s a financial downturn or a pandemic. The average benefit amount replaces about 40% of pre-layoff wages and some states like Florida provide just 12 weeks. Plus, benefits currently depend on ?“experience rating”: a funding mechanism that rewards employers who challenge employee unemployment claims with lower taxes. 

Meanwhile, the state-federal structure helps perpetuate racial disparities. States with higher relative Black populations have less generous benefits and more barriers to access those benefits, even though Black workers suffer twice the unemployment rate of their white counterparts. 

Those barriers, like limited benefits for low-wage workers and racist fraud detection systems, contribute to costly delays for countless workers of color, often leading to food insecurity and housing instability. 

The CARES Act and subsequent relief packages patched up some of the biggest holes in UI, supplementing and extending inadequate state benefit amounts, and covering independent contractors. Still, these patches did not address access limitations or the fundamental flaws of UI’s design. 

To increase access to unemployment benefits and build worker power, future reforms should include a benefits navigator program and government subsidized, union-led wage replacement funds. The federal government could implement these programs or states could lead on their own. Together, these programs would help establish an American Ghent system. 

The impacts of these programs?—?both the benefits navigators and the union-led funds?—?could transform labor relations in America. Union density in countries with Ghent programs, such as Finland and Belgium, hovers 20 percentage points higher on average above those without them. As Dylan Matthews writes at Vox, the Ghent system ?“is a key part of how Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Belgium have achieved the highest union membership rates in the developed world.”

Here’s what it would look like to receive unemployment benefits under a navigator system: If you were a non-union worker, you could head to an office led by a coalition of unions and community organizations where you would talk to a navigator about your case. They would help you file the paperwork, ensure you quickly received your benefits and help advocate on your behalf. They might connect you to job opportunities and provide support for you as you reentered employment. 

This may sound familiar. The Affordable Care Act set up a benefits navigator program that successfully increased health insurance enrollment. In 2015, the navigators helped increase enrollment from 84.9% to 93.1% among low-income Americans, with larger gains among low-income Blacks and Latinos.

In a UI benefits navigator program, federal or state governments would provide grants to unions and community organizations to hire navigators in order to help unemployed workers receive benefits. As a result, unions would meet and interact with workers right before they enter a new workplace, while helping secure them the benefits they deserve. In the process, it would help tie organized labor to non-unionized unemployed workers. 

Navigators can boost workers’ benefits by expanding access to UI. Union workers are more than twice as likely to apply and receive benefits than non-union workers. Moreover, gaps in unemployment benefit access across racial groups drop from 32 percent to 9 percent while disparities across education levels largely disappear among union workers. Navigator programs would help expand these advantages to nonunion workers as well. 

More expansive positive effects would come from instituting government-backed, union-led wage replacement funds in addition to a navigator program. 

Under a full Ghent system, here’s how it would work: If you’re a non-union worker, you would be provided the basics of the navigator system described above, but would also get an entirely new set of benefits. For example, the union could provide a benefit to supplement your regular government UI benefit so that your total benefits could equal 90%, for instance, of your pre-layoff earnings. Plus, the union office could connect you to job retraining programs to help keep your skills sharp or even shift your career. If you were a union member, you could pay to keep your membership and you might receive extra benefits or services. For example, your wage replacement benefit might be slightly higher if you were a union member. 

In the United States, some workplaces organized by the United Auto Workers have generous supplemental unemployment benefits that members pay into and use when they become unemployed so that their total UI benefits better match their pre-layoff wages. A Ghent system would make similar programs universal, and provide greater governmental support. In Denmark, for example, participating in union-run UI remains technically optional, but about 85% of unemployed workers receive benefits, which is among the highest in industrialized countries.

The wage replacement funds would be owned and administered by unions but heavily subsidized by the government, and would either supplement or replace the existing UI system to better match pre-existing wages. The funds wouldn’t discriminate, would be voluntary, and would likely lead to high rates of participation in the program. 

By providing wage replacement funds, unions could give non-union workers easier access to much-needed benefits in times of crisis. Additionally, they would provide a clear incentive for these workers to join a union. State governments could set up the funds through new taxes like small employee-side payroll tax. (Currently, almost all unemployment insurance benefits are financed by employer payroll taxes.) They could also allow labor organizations to use these funds to provide additional benefits like job training. 

Such programs would almost assuredly be very popular. One recent survey from the Washington Center for Equitable Growth showed that union-led benefit funds and job training opportunities were some of the most popular labor law reform proposals. The workers surveyed also indicated they would be more likely to join a union if the union provided those benefits. Another survey from Data for Progress showed overwhelming support for benefits navigators.

These policies are not a panacea. Wage replacement funds would pose an administrative challenge in states with low-union density. Moreover, they cannot replace the militant organizing needed to revive the labor movement in the United States. Labor membership matters, but so does using labor power effectively through tactics like striking. Ghent-style policies do not aim to replace organizing but rather facilitate it by decreasing some of the costs and increasing the immediate benefits of doing so. They increase the access and contacts workers have to labor organizations, and vice-versa. 

While unions, grassroots groups and advocacy organizations fight for continued unemployment relief, many of them are pushing for an overhaul of UI. In mid-April, Sens. Ron Wyden (D?Ore.) and Michael Bennet (D?Colo.) released a discussion draft of a bill that would begin to address many of the flaws in the current UI system through federal standards to expand coverage, minimum benefit standards, and automatic stabilizers. At the end of May, the Biden administration included similar reforms in its 2022 budget draft.

Although these proposals don’t include any Ghent-inspired policies, other officials have put forward plans that would expand UI program access and facilitate labor organizing. 

In late April, Rep. Richard Neal (D?Mass.), Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, unveiled legislation called the Worker Information Network that includes a benefits navigator program for UI as well as paid leave and childcare. However, the plan allows for a variety of non-profit organizations to receive funding, not just labor organizations. Due to their budgetary nature, federal UI reforms, including Ghent policies, could likely pass through the Senate’s reconciliation process which would require just 50 votes in the Democratic-controlled chamber. On the state level, a coalition of labor and community organizations, including the Maine AFL-CIO, is championing UI reform that includes UI benefit navigators that could be deployed by either community or labor organizations. 

The Center for Popular Democracy’s Unemployed Action project members and many of its local partners developed a federal #FixUI platform that includes not just navigators, but greater union and community organization involvement in training and boosting benefits. The Center for American Progress’ David Madland has proposed both UI navigators and a Ghent system. While no international or national labor union is currently campaigning for a full Ghent system, some labor leaders, like David Rolf, president of SEIU 775 in Seattle, have expressed support for Ghent-style policies. 

Sharon Corpening, the worker in Georgia, said, ?“This pandemic widened the fissures that were already there. To patch them, we’re missing the voice of workers who have to receive the benefits, who are really not making it, even in the best of economic circumstances. Unemployment is broken beyond repair without a serious overhaul.”

The UI system’s weaknesses are now more apparent than at any point since the Great Recession. The best chance to reform unemployment insurance in decades is here. And with it, we have the chance to implement policies that could help give both the labor movement and workers?—?organized and not yet organized?—?the boost they badly need. 

The ideas put forward in this article represent the views of the author alone and not their employer.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 23, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Francisco Diez is an organizer from Philadelphia and the Worker Justice Policy Advocate at The Center for Popular Democracy.


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