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The Culinary Workers Run Vegas. The Politicians Are Just Visiting.

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It was the politicians that turned the picket line chaotic. Not the workers. The workers knew just what they were doing. Hundreds and hundreds of them, in their red Culinary Union T-shirts, stretched out down West Flamingo Road in front of the Palms Casino, just off the Vegas Strip last Wednesday. They marched a few hundred yards and back in an orderly if boisterous circle, guided by a battalion of bullhorn-wielding chant leaders. They’d done this before.

Then the presidential candidates showed up.

One by one, each taking their turn in the spotlight, and each accompanied by a seething scrum of press, they plowed their way down the the picket line like speedboats slicing through a river. Cameramen walking backwards tripped over curbs; microphone-waving reporters bumped into strikers; union staffers had to join arms and form human shields around the more popular candidates, just to keep the march moving. Some of the candidates, like Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, looked natural, familiar with the rhythm of pickets. Others, like Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden, looked awkward and nervous, pale, spectral wonks in white Oxford shirts dropped into a seething horde of humanity and forced to carry “No Justice, No Peace” signs, unable to quite pull off the angry working-class look. And some, like Tom Steyer, accompanied by a single staffer and ignored by most of the press, just looked happy to be invited. (Bernie Sanders was conspicuously absent.)

But all of them, one after the other, messed up the flow of the picket line. Their presence was something to be tolerated. This was all part of a system that has been perfected over decades. The reporters come to trail the politicians. The politicians come to pay homage to the Culinary Union. The Culinary Union puts them all to use by marching them up and down a picket line for a fight against Station Casinos, a grinding fight that has been dragging on for years and years.

For a few days, the national spotlight is here in Las Vegas, for the Nevada Caucus. But after the spotlight moves on, the Culinary Union and its 60,000 workers will still be here, trying to win contracts in the face of criminal intransigence, trying to pull thousands of working people into the middle class through sheer force of solidarity and stubbornness. It is this dynamic that always gets twisted in the whirlwind of the national media around a presidential election. The union does not exist to serve the politicians. The politicians exist to serve the union. The union has built a wondrous machine to ensure that it stays that way.

That machine is a simple virtuous circle. It begins and ends with organizing, which never stops. Organizing is propelled by the fact that the union demonstrably improves the lives of its members. Building that array of member benefits, from health care to pay to job protections to a training academy to discounts on rental cars, never stops either. These things provide a large number of extremely engaged people. The union can offer the support of this motivated and well-organized force to politicians who back the union’s goals. These union members can do everything from phone bank to flier to knock on doors to produce screaming rallies on short notice. Their support is highly prized, and their opposition is feared. The political allies they earn help to clear the omnipresent political obstacles to more organizing, and the cycle continues.

The Culinary Union has spent more than 80 years becoming what it is today, which is one of America’s most effective social and economic justice organizations. Its members are mostly women and mostly Latino. They work in casinos, making the food, cleaning the rooms, serving the drinks, doing the laundry, carrying the bags. They are the work force that makes Las Vegas run, and the members of that work force have middle class wages and health insurance and job protections and the backing of local and state and national elected officials as a direct result of the work of the union. The Culinary Union operates in the heart of the most gilded industry in an unnatural city built of money, and it is the one and only reason why the people who do the work of that industry are not exploited to the hilt.

They have pulled off this feat with their cycle of organizing, improving people’s lives and exercising political power. Never is this method more evident than during Nevada caucus week, when it is put on display for the entire world. This year, it came with more than a little extra drama.

The union’s headquarters is a squat, sprawling two-story white concrete building just north of the Vegas Strip, in the shadow of the Stratosphere spire, with “In Solidarity We Will Win!” emblazoned in red on its wall. The visitors who pass through the lobby on an average weekday morning provide a sampling of the union’s sprawling operations. A young woman dragging two wayward toddlers is checking on a grievance. Workers are here to sign up for job training. A team of Steyer staffers wants to know if Tom can come in and talk. Someone from the Mexican embassy would like to set up a meeting.

In back, a warren of cubicles had been cleared out for volunteer get-out-the-vote phone banking, which continued for a solid week before the February 21 caucuses. It was the least combative phone banking I’ve ever witnessed—not a grumble from anyone who picked up the phone, after they heard it was the union calling.

Marc Morgan, a middle-aged bellman at the D Hotel and six-year member of the union, sat patiently dialing from a list, telling callees the time of the caucus (Saturday at 10 a.m.) and the exact location of their caucus site at their workplace. He reminded them to get permission from their supervisors and to alert a shop steward if the supervisors illegally refused. Within an hour, at least a half dozen people who were not planning to caucus—including one who said, “Caucus? What does that mean?”—promised to turn out. Multiply that by many people calling for many hours for many days, and you start to get a sense of why the Culinary Union is a sought-after political ally for Democrats. Thousands more members voted early as well, another process the union encourages and supervises.

Morgan, a shop steward, is, like many union members, a practical man more than a fire-breathing ideologue. His attachment to the union was motivation enough for him to volunteer to spend hours calling fellow members, just out of a sense of duty. That attachment was rooted in personal experience. “I can see the necessity—the managers, oh my god,” he said. He had been through a bitter contract fight at his own casino in 2018, and had seen the petty retaliations that workers suffered. “Employers want to test the boundaries. They’ll continue to test those boundaries until you pull them back in. It’s like parents and children.”

Despite being coveted madly by everyone running for president, the Culinary Union did not issue an endorsement this year. The union endorsed Obama in 2008, but he lost to Hillary Clinton in Nevada anyhow. It didn’t endorse in the 2016 primaries. Much has been made in recent weeks of its spat with Bernie Sanders, which became a huge political news item after the union issued a purportedly educational flier to members warning them that Sanders, if elected, would “end Culinary healthcare”—a rather misleading characterization widely interpreted as a declaration of opposition to Medicare For All.

This mushroomed into an entire news cycle pitting the union against Sanders, and even drove a round of questioning in last week’s presidential debate. Moderate Democrats seized on the opportunity to frame their opposition to Medicare For All as a pro-union position, a development that certainly pleased the health insurance industry and drove progressives in the labor movement mad.

There was much speculation that the union decided not to endorse anyone because they were pretty sure Bernie was going to win, and they couldn’t endorse him because of the conflict they’d started, but didn’t want to endorse someone who would lose, and so decided to sit on their hands. But officially, they simply chose to endorse their own “goals.”

The conflict over this issue—within individual unions, and within organized labor as a whole—is very real. The Culinary Union runs its own healthcare center for members, and uses its healthcare benefits as a key recruiting tool in a “right to work” state. Major unions that are, in effect, in the health care business themselves have a natural level of conservatism towards change in the system. But there is also an influential portion of the labor movement that is strongly in favor of Medicare For All, not least because it would free up unions to spend their political capital on things other than health care, like better wages.

Larry Cohen, the former president of the Communications Workers of America who now leads the Sanders-affiliated group Our Revolution, says that Medicare For All would amount to a spectacular gain for unions in the long run. By bringing down administrative and pharmaceutical costs, he says, national health care would actually save employers money—money that would be funneled to workers in the form of better pay and other benefits. On top of that, there is the simple fact that freeing people from employer-based health care would allow them to be less enslaved to bad jobs.

“If you go do something else, you’re not covered!” Cohen exclaims. “Why would we possibly want to have a system where the job is what gives you the health care?”

Culinary Union members and staffers will remind you that their current health care system, which is free for members and provides care for more than 100,000 people, has been won at the cost of many years of great struggle and quite a few strikes, some of which dragged on for years. They consider it a crown jewel, and view it with pride. Yet the decision of union leadership to wade publicly and aggressively into the Medicare For All debate has put them in the position of becoming a useful talking point for for-profit health care interests. (It is much more politically palatable for conservatives to say “unions are against public health care” than “insurance companies want to maintain profits.”)

One union staffer told me, “The best way for any worker to be protected is a union contract.” That may be true, but all three million citizens of Nevada are unlikely to be in the union any time soon, and they still get sick. As Culinary Union member Marcie Wells wrote last December in a widely shared essay calling for Medicare For All, “We have to acknowledge the reality that for-profit insurance asserts that if you don’t work you deserve what you get: up to and including death. Also, sick people don’t deserve jobs.”

The other thing that should be said, however, is this: For the political left, or supporters of Bernie Sanders, to view the Culinary Union as some sort of enemy is utterly insane. The union has actually accomplished the things that the left says it wants to accomplish. There is no popular political movement that could not learn from its success. Ultimately it is incumbent on the left to bring along the Culinary and other unions on the path to Medicare For All, not vice versa. They are natural allies. Some people in the union world say privately that Bernie Sanders is on their side ideologically, but that he often fumbles or ignores the standard political business of pulling in stakeholders and listening to them before he plunges ahead on big issues that affect them. The differences between the two sides, in other words, are fixable. Fighting over such things is a waste of time, when there is still a working class that needs help.

***************

The general public typically hears about the Culinary Union in relation to electoral politics. But from the perspective of the union, electoral politics is just a means to an end. All of the famous politicians stumbling down the picket line think they are there for the sake of their own campaigns, but in fact they are there to help draw attention to a nearly decade-long union organizing campaign at Station Casinos, the company that owns the Palms and seven other casinos where workers have voted to unionize in recent years.

The company relentlessly fought the organizing campaigns. Once workers at individual Station Casinos began voting to unionize in 2016, they refused to recognize the unions, stalled on contract bargaining, and have dragged the entire mess into the bureaucratic mire of the National Labor Relations Board. Thousands of workers who should already have union contracts have been forced to continue their fight against the company for several years.

To heighten the contradictions to cartoonish levels, Station is owned by the billionaire Fertitta brothers, who got filthy rich when they sold the Ultimate Fighting Championship for $4 billion in 2016. The Fertittas have donated millions of dollars to the Trump campaign. In 2018, Frank Fertitta spent $25 million on his daughter’s wedding, complete with an appearance by Bruno Mars. Yet there seems to be no length to which they will not go to prevent their housekeepers from joining a union.

They are unsympathetic figures. A picket line feels almost polite, in relation to their conduct. At the rally at the Palms on Wednesday, flight attendant union leader Sara Nelson, who had come in support, called them “the frittata brothers.” D. Taylor, the hardboiled head of Unite Here—who, in shades, a ballcap and a faded t-shirt, resembled nothing so much as a high school baseball coach about to yell at everyone to run laps—was even more direct. “These guys are scumbag liars!” he shouted. “The only way we’re going to win is to kick the everloving crap out of them and beat the shit out of them.”

That is a colorful way of saying: “We recognize the value of continued organizing.” On Friday, the day before the caucuses, as the national press corps was still replaying two-day-old debate zingers, a group of 17 Culinary Union organizers involved in the Station Casinos campaign met at 9 a.m. in a second-floor conference room at the headquarters building. They were men and women, young and old, Latino and black and white, and almost all of them had been as casino workers and union members before they were organizers.

For an hour, they reviewed the past week’s work. Most important was the tally of how many union cards each person had gotten signed, with each card earning a round of applause inside the room. (One organizer who had pulled in five signed cards earned herself a day off, and the jealousy of everyone else.) Afterward, the organizers headed out for home visits. This is the true, sweaty, grinding substance of union organizing: a never-ending process of talking to people who are always busy doing other things. A never-ending process of refining and updating a master list of names. Without this work, unions don’t exist.

I set out with Oscar Diaz, a 35 year-old with a shaved head, glasses, and a goatee who had been with the Culinary Union for ten years. His father had been a Culinary Union shop steward at the Westgate, where he worked for more than 30 years. Diaz’s organizing work focuses on Boulder Station and Palace Station, two Station Casinos properties that, after years of organizing, held successful union elections in 2016.

The fact that he is still deeply engaged in organizing them four years later will give you an idea how hard the fight has been. Part of the slog is directly attributable to national politics. When the company breaks the law, the union files charges against them with the NLRB. But staffing numbers at the NLRB’s Las Vegas office, Diaz says, have been reduced under President Trump, meaning that cases take longer to work their way through the bureaucracy. The delays mean the union cards signed a year or two ago have expired; organizers must get workers to sign again.

Good organizers combine the talents of a salesperson, a private detective, a motivational speaker and a long-haul driver. With a printed list of workers’ names, Diaz drove around North Las Vegas, seeking out addresses in the expanse of identical sand-colored housing developments. The workers do not know that organizers are coming, meaning that they may be gone, or asleep, or suspicious about opening the door. But Diaz is used to navigating logistical hurdles. We reached one apartment complex only to find that we didn’t have an access code to open the front gate. Diaz hopped out of the car, peered on top of the keypad box, and found the code. “The FedEx guys will scratch it on top of the box sometimes,” he said, shrugging.

An organizer may knock on dozens of doors in a day and have only a few truly productive conversations. The ability to navigate unknown neighborhoods with little information and track down security codes and slip seamlessly between Spanish and English and read each person for signs of bias or dishonesty or confusion are all just inherent in the job. And things used to be even harder. At the beginning of the campaign, Diaz recalls, organizers got referrals with no names or addresses, just vague descriptions: “Go up Tropicana, you’ll see a house that has a statue of the Virgin Mary, knock on the back door.”

For the worker who signed a union card, Diaz will come back again another day with one of her coworkers, to recruit her to get more involved. For the workers who didn’t answer their doors, he will mark them down, and come back again, however many times are necessary to pull cohesion out of this huge group of tired, busy, far-flung people. He and his fellow organizers will do this tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day. They did this for years already to get an election, and years more to try to get that election affirmed, and may do it for years more to win a contract. This is what it takes.

“Busting unions is not hard,” Diaz says. “It’s playing with people’s fears.” During the long Station Casinos campaign, he has seen how much effort it takes to counteract intransigent bosses that possess enormous advantages in time and money. The people that they are up against have billions of dollars. The Culinary Union has Oscar Diaz, and all of the other organizers, who will find out where you live and convince you to stand up for yourself. With those tools, the Culinary Union has organized Las Vegas. Organizing beats money, even if it takes a very, very long time.

Saturday was caucus day. The caucus for workers at the Bellagio, one of the more opulent properties on the strip, was held in a ballroom, where 100 chairs were set out on garish paisley carpet under crystal chandeliers. Around 11 a.m., small groups of housekeepers wearing their dark blue uniforms began trickling in, taking seats and trying to ignore the mass of cameras at the back of the room, where every network and news outlet had gathered to witness this immodest open demonstration of democracy.

Most of the caucus-goers were women of color. A few shared their thoughts as they waited for the proceedings to begin. Laura Flores, a housekeeper and 20-year member of the Culinary Union, said she was supporting Bernie Sanders, because of his position on health insurance.

Morena Del Cid, another Culinary Union member, who worked in the poker room and had been with the company for 30 years, was participating in her first caucus. She was supporting Bernie Sanders. “People have to make a change,” she said. Asked about his stance on Medicare For All, she replied, “I love that.”

Of 123 eligible people in the room to caucus, 75 went for Bernie Sanders in the first round, and 39 went for Joe Biden. Warren got six and Steyer got three, meaning they were not viable. One supporter of each viable candidate then had a minute to make their case to the handful of voters whose candidates didn’t make the cut. A Bellagio worker wearing a red Culinary union t-shirt spoke for Bernie Sanders, declaring, “My children and future generations should all have health care!” Medicare For All was her pitch.

The final tally was 76 votes for Bernie, 45 for Biden, and two uncommitted. Bernie ran away with the Bellagio and almost all of the other casinos on the Vegas Strip, the very heart of the Culinary Union’s territory. This set up an easy narrative about a political victory over an entrenched union leadership.

But that narrative is misleading. A union is the people in the union. The members, collectively, are its heart, its mind and its voice. In a good union, its leaders and organizers and staffers do what they do in order to give power to its members. The Culinary Union is a good union. Its members won, so it won.

After the votes had all been counted, those who had caucused filed out of the room quickly, returning to work and trying to avoid the gauntlet of media that lined the exits, bombarding them for quotes. I didn’t have the heart to press them any more. They had already spoken.

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 24, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporting fellow at 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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Kickstarter employees vote to unionize, this week in the war on workers

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The meteoric growth of the tech industry has, with few exceptions, created a new no-unions zone in the U.S. economy. Those exceptions, such as a group of Google contractors or Facebook’s bus drivers, have largely been contract workers rather than direct employees of tech companies. So the successful unionization vote at Kickstarter is something of a first.

During the organizing drive, Kickstarter fired two union supporters and hired an anti-union law firm. The workers and their union, the Office and Professional Employees International Union, have alleged retaliation and filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board. The vote was close—46 to 37—and Kickstarter is a comparatively small company. There remain big questions about whether tech can be unionized to any significant degree. But progress is progress, and wins are to be celebrated.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on February 22, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

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The Oreo Workers Trump Betrayed

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Some labor struggles can feel like long, dramatic sagas: unexpected twists, broken hopes, valiant attempts to overcome unyielding giants. Michael Smith knows this tale well as a member of the small, beleaguered Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, BCTGM.

Smith lost his delivery job of 15 years in the massive 2008 DHL Express layoff, then fell into debt, lost his house, and skimped by on unemployment checks and any work he could find. He finally landed a $25-an-hour job on Chicago’s South Side in 2010, with pension and healthcare benefits, on a factory line at snack-foods company Mondel?z International (known at the time as Kraft Foods). The job was a union one, with BCTGM.

But Smith again found himself in the crosshairs of a massive layoff six years later, as Mondel?z announced it was shifting 600 jobs to a new factory, with far lower wages, in Mexico. At 58, Smith had four children, bills for prostate cancer treatments, and slim prospects for finding another decent factory job in Chicago. So when BCTGM launched a public campaign to pressure Mondel?z into bringing the jobs back, Smith agreed to become a spokesperson, and the union offered him a modest stipend. Smith could have signed up for federally funded job training instead, but he wanted to fight the union fight.

Smith and BCTGM have now been battling the $26 billion global behemoth for nearly four years. Back in 2016, presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton both briefly took up the cause. Meanwhile, Mondel?z has sent hundreds of union bakery jobs to Mexico and dealt a blow to the union’s remaining 2,000 members by ending their guaranteed pension plan.

As a union, BCTGM has suffered. Automation, non-union shops, plant closures and offshoring in the bakery and confectionery industries have shrunk the union’s ranks from 115,000 members in 2002 to 66,000 in 2018.

Mondel?z, for its part, has been doing just fine. Most consumers know the company for its Nabisco products: Oreos, Ritz, Triscuits and more. After the snack giant spun off from Kraft Foods in 2012, it turned steady profits, returning $2.9 billion to its shareholders in 2014 as then-CEO Irene Rosenfeld took a 50% pay increase, to $21 million. To meet shareholder demand for continuing profits, Rosenfeld then embarked on an “aggressive cost-cutting plan.” Since 2015, the company has been shuttering plants and trimming labor costs.

In May 2015, BCTGM received a jolting offer from the company: Mondel?z would consider $130 million in equipment upgrades at the 62-year-old Chicago plant if the union accepted $46 million in annual wage and benefit cuts—a 60% cut in pay and benefits, the union calculated. If the union refused, the investment and jobs would go to a new multi-million-dollar plant in Mexico.

The union refused, hoping to deal with the issue when company-wide contract talks began in February 2016. Then, Mondel?z “stonewalled” on providing “cost comparisons” and information about the Mexico plant, says BCTGM International Strategic Campaign Coordinator Ron Baker. “There was no negotiation,” Baker recalls. (Mondel?z spokesperson Laurie Guzzinati says that all “valid requests for information” received a response “within a reasonable timeframe.”)

Mondel?z began layoffs in March 2016, saying the union hadn’t offered a proposal.

A veteran of United Mine Workers of America’s long battles with coal behemoths, Baker doubted that negotiations could convince Mondel?z to stay in Chicago—but he believed public pressure could draw sympathy over the loss suffered by workers at a plant that makes the Oreo, a truly iconic American snack.

Indeed, Trump had repeatedly brought up the Oreo saga as part of his campaign rhetoric about offshoring jobs. “I’m not eating Oreos anymore,” Trump said in New Hampshire in September 2015. “Nabisco is closing their plant, a big plant in Chicago, and they’re moving it to Mexico.” The plant remains open (it had never planned to close), but about half of its jobs were moved.

When Mondel?z began its first round of 277 layoffs in March 2016, BCTGM stepped up its boycott campaign against Mexican-made Mondel?z products, begun months earlier, and opened a makeshift office across from the factory. The union was counting on publicity from the 2016 presidential campaigns.

Clinton visited the union’s campaign office that March, meeting with Michael Smith and other workers, then with Rosenfeld, reportedly to urge a halt to the move. Nothing changed.

The union sent Smith and others across the United States to meetings, public rallies and media interviews to talk about the harm done by prosperous companies seeking cheaper labor overseas. At a June 2016 Democratic Party platform committee meeting in Washington, D.C., Smith appealed: “I am not a number, nor [is] my family, nor my neighbors, nor my coworkers … We are, however, victims of [the] global snatch-and-grab that has gutted our community.”

In visits to 25 college campuses, BCTGM reps urged students to boycott Mexican-made Mondel?z products and have their schools do the same (though the union is not sure whether any schools did). More than 280 U.S. religious leaders signed a letter asking Mondel?z to stop shipping jobs outside the United States. The boycott made headlines and the rounds on social media, though some critics pointed to the limited success of such efforts and the xenophobic potential of “buy American” rhetoric.

After Trump became president, the union was optimistic he would take up the fight from the White House. In 2017, BCTGM reached out to Trump directly but received no reply, not even a tweet. Ron Baker says Trump has done nothing to help the union since 2016.

The 2016 job loss landed like a hammer. By summer, 600 Mondel?z workers had been laid off—half the plant—though the company did begin callbacks to fill openings created by retirements, per the union contract, and kept the process in place after the contract expired, according to a company spokesperson.

According to the union, the majority of workers at the plant were over 40, and many came from families that had worked for generations at the massive Southwest Side Chicago factory, which was built in the 1950s and employed up to 4,000 workers in its heyday. In job-hungry Chicago neighborhoods, the union plant, with an average $27 wage, had been an oasis. Manufacturing, once a driver of Chicago’s economy, accounted for about 18% of the city’s jobs in 1994 and only 10% in 2017. Chicago’s Black communities were hit especially hard: The percentage of workers in factory jobs dropped from almost 30% in 1960 to 6.5% in 2017, while unemployment more than doubled, to 20%. Two-thirds of the laid-off Mondel?z workers were people of color.

Lisa Peatry landed a job at Mondel?z in 2013, after four different layoffs and closings, including the Kool-Aid plant that sent some work to Mexico in 2002. She was 50, living on her own after raising three children. She liked her job on the production lines because they were fast and she appreciated her coworkers. “There was a diversity of races and everyone got along,” she says. Peatry was laid off in March 2016. Unable to keep up with rent, she lost her home and has been staying with a relative.

Eventually, Peatry found a factory job at $14 an hour—a job that often left her crying nightly from its difficulty and the treatment she received from bosses—and then a better job at $18. She still wanted to return to her $25.43-an-hour job at Mondel?z, but the company stopped its recalls, stranding Peatry and about 100 others on the recall list.

After being laid off, former Mondel?z worker Salvador Ortiz, 49, signed up for English classes and hoped to do better than friends, who were finding $11-an-hour jobs. Talking about his future one day in May 2016, in the living room of a comfortable bungalow not far from the plant, his wife cried, saying their middle-class dream was over. Ortiz feared losing his house and car. More than a year later, Ortiz was recalled back to the plant, but had suffered financially, getting by on unemployment checks and $14-an-hour jobs.

When Michael Smith was called back to Mondel?z in March 2018, he found the working conditions had changed for the worse. Smith was on mandatory overtime almost daily, sometimes working a double shift, getting only four or five hours of sleep and never knowing when he could make a doctor’s appointment. Smith felt the company was in disarray. He was now running an oven, a new job for him that was uncomfortable because of the high temperatures. “It’s 120 degrees and it’s like I’m sitting in the oven,” he tells In These Times. (Guzzinati says mandatory overtime may be required more than once weekly, to accommodate workload.)

In May 2018, just over two years after the union contract expired, Mondel?z imposed part of its benefits cuts, switching Smith and his coworkers’ retirement benefits from a guaranteed pension to a 401(k) account. Mondel?z honored existing pensions but pulled its 2,000 remaining union bakery workers out of BCTGM’s multiemployer pension fund, committing to instead pay an early withdrawal fee of $560 million over 20 years. Mondel?z told workers it was thinking about their future: The multiemployer plan could collapse by 2030, the company warned.

But the union sees it as just another blow to one of the most troubled multiemployer pension plans, which has suffered since the 2008 recession. When Hostess Brands, once the fund’s largest contributor, closed and filed bankruptcy in 2012, the company left a $2 billion pension liability. By 2018, the fund had $7.9 billion in liabilities and only $4.1 billion in assets.

In 2018, Mondel?z CEO Dirk Van de Put earned $15 million. The median Mondel?z worker worldwide, meanwhile, is a part-time hourly employee earning $30,639, an income ratio of 489 to 1.

Preventing U.S. firms from outsourcing jobs was a drumbeat for the 2016 Trump campaign. “These companies aren’t going to be leaving anymore,” Trump declared in December 2016 in Indianapolis. “They’re not going to be taking people’s hearts out. They’re not going to be announcing, like they did at Carrier, that they’re closing up and they’re moving to Mexico.”

But Rosemary Coates, head of the Reshoring Institute, a California-based nonprofit, says that, rather than bringing jobs back to the United States, companies are increasingly looking for new places to send production. The latest reshoring survey by consulting company A.T. Kearney shows that imports of manufactured items to the United States from 14 low-cost countries have steadily grown for the past five years, indicating that offshoring continues.

The Trump administration has lauded tariffs and trade wars as a way to pressure companies into keeping jobs in the United States. Yet, as Tobita Chow, director of the Justice Is Global project at the People’s Action Institute (and member of In These Times’ board of directors), explains, this strategy has backfired. “Trump’s trade wars have raised costs, reduced demand, killed jobs in the United States and worsened working conditions across much of the Global South,” Chow says.

In Mexico, factory workers earn 40% less than those in China. Mondel?z’s new plant opened in Salinas Victoria, Mexico, in late 2014 and now has 1,800 workers, according to the company. But workers in Mexico have been pinned under a mountain of problems.

Most Mexican unions serve companies under “protection contracts,” in which the company actually picks the union and dictates contract terms, defanging worker movements before they begin. Protection contracts are often signed by unions when a factory has very few workers to actually negotiate. In October 2014, with just 20 workers at the new plant, Mondel?z signed a union contract that capped the top day rate at 200 pesos, about $14.90 per day. BCTGM eventually obtained a copy of the contract, which it called proof that the Mexican workers were victims of a protection contract.

According to an August 2017 ruling from the National Labor Relations Board, a Mondel?z official told an administrative law judge that its Mexican workers earned $7 an hour in wages and benefits. As for the union there, a Mondel?z official told In These Times that the 2014 contract was no longer in effect and disputed the “protection union” moniker.

Meanwhile, BCTGM continued pressuring Mondel?z to reshore its jobs. In May 2017, 17 Democrats in the U.S. Senate called on Mondel?z to hire back workers let go at its plants in Chicago and at its operations in Fairlawn, N.J., Richmond, Va., Portland, Ore., and Atlanta—but nothing happened.

In November 2017, BCTGM partnered with religious and union leaders to arrange a visit with Mexican union activists from different groups in Monterrey, Mexico. The union has since reached out to the independent Mexican Los Mineros union, which separates itself from Mexico’s more corrupt or compromised unions. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has pushed through stronger worker protections, but implementing them will be a challenge as longstanding protection unions fear losing control.

Importantly, the new trade agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada—passed in December 2019 with support from U.S. labor unions—is a blow to the protection contracts signed by corrupt unions, calling for union monitoring and access to bi-national panels for inspections triggered by worker complaints.

Mondelez and BCTGM remain in a stalemate over lost jobs and a lost pension plan. They have not talked in a year, each claiming the other has quit negotiations. Mondel?z’s stock is up more than 30% since May 2015.

BCTGM Strategic Campaign Coordinator Nate Zeff, who picked up the torch when Baker retired in 2018, says a new campaign will launch early this year and will involve mobilizing Mondel?z workers in Mexico.

“We are almost four years into this fight,” Zeff says. “Eventually, we are going to win.”

“The real solution to offshoring is not trade wars—it’s to raise standards for workers across borders,” says Justice Is Global’s Chow. “We can get there through international worker solidarity, not by pitting workers against each other across borders as Trump has done.”

Michael Smith, who now works at the Chicago plant, has his own strategy. Ever an optimist, he is writing to Trump to ask for his help saving pension plans like his.

“It’s an opportunity for him to own up to saying he would never eat Oreos again,” Smith says. “It’s only a hope. He is still my president.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on  February 18, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Stephen Franklin, former labor and workplace reporter for the Chicago Tribune, was until recently the ethnic media project director with Public Narrative in Chicago. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans (2002), and has reported throughout the United States and the Middle East.

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More Than 1,200 IBEW Members Call on Union Leadership to Retract Biden Endorsement

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On February 5, the 775,000-member International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers announced that it was endorsing Joe Biden for president. It was Biden’s biggest union endorsement campaign so far in his presidential campaign. This week, nearly 1,300 IBEW members who support Bernie Sanders sent a letter to union membership asking them to retract that decision.

The letter, from “IBEW Members For Bernie,” blasts the union’s leadership for endorsing Biden without a vote of members. “The leadership of the union had previously provided reassurance to the membership that they would trust the judgement of rank-and-file leaders and members to  represent their own interest in the 2020 presidential primary, and we are disappointed that the International has instead thrown their weight behind the Biden campaign without member consultation,” it reads. The letter says that those who sign it support Sanders’ “transformative vision for expanding the labor movement, as well as the democracy and the solidarity that his campaign embodies.” It concludes, “We are calling on the International Officers to immediately retract their endorsement and call for the rank-and-file to participate in a democratic endorsement process by participating in an in person vote at their March local union meeting.”

It is signed by more than 1,200 IBEW members from across the country, including dozens who identify themselves as officers or members of the executive boards of their locals. Signatures were still being added as of Monday night.

The existence of the letter is a result of the work of Sanders supporters within the IBEW, who began circulating it online and within local chapters shortly after the endorsement was announced. Mark Gardner, an engineer in Manchester, Connecticut and member of IBEW Local 457 who helped to organize the letter, said that it came in response to not just a disagreement over candidates, but also over the union’s undemocratic process. “I have been frustrated with the trend of union leadership’s endorsing the establishment candidates while rank and file votes generally go for Senator Sanders,” Gardner said. “We do not want IBEW leadership to switch their endorsement to Bernie, but to open the choice up to the rank-and-file and hold a vote during the local unions’ March meeting.”

Another Sanders supporter, Joe Ellerbroek, a member of IBEW Local 347 in Des Moines, Iowa, echoed those sentiments. “I was outraged when I learned what the international had done. I felt there was too much at stake to just ignore it and hope for the best, especially when we have this rare opportunity to transform the whole dynamic of the labor struggle. Turns out I wasn’t the only one,” he said.

For Biden, whose campaign is flagging after disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, union endorsements are a key firewall against charges that the platform of “Middle Class Joe” is not the most attractive for the working class. Biden has been endorsed by the firefighters union, the Iron Workers, and the Amalgamated Transit Union, but the 775,00-member IBEW is his biggest prize. The union did not endorse a candidate this early in the past two Democratic primaries. “It’s not typical for the IBEW to endorse this early in the primary process,” the union said in its endorsement, “but this year there’s an urgency we haven’t seen in a very long time. Energy policies made today will reverberate for decades, and it’s paramount that we have a candidate for president who supports IBEW jobs and IBEW values.” The IBEW has been publicly skeptical of the Green New Deal, the ambitious climate change plan that Sanders, but not Biden, has backed.

Neither the IBEW nor the Biden campaign responded to a request for comment on the letter.

In organized labor, as in society at large, the 2020 Democratic primary is exposing the deep, latent divide between the left and the establishment. The IBEW is not even the first union in the past week to experience an intra-union uproar pitting progressives against moderates—members of Unite Here who back Bernie Sanders circulated a similar internal letter for signatures last week after the Culinary Workers union in Las Vegas warned its members in ominous terms that Bernie Sanders wanted to “end” their health care plan. Already, both national and local unions are choosing sides in what amounts to a proxy war for the soul of the Democratic party. The ability of factions like the IBEW Members for Bernie to successfully exercise power against much more conservative union leadership will determine the posture of the entire labor movement long after the 2020 election is over.

Read the full letter here.

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 18, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporting fellow at 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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Labor Unions Were Crucial in Bernie Sanders’ New Hampshire Victory

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Sen. Bernie Sanders has emerged victorious following the nation’s first Democratic primary in New Hampshire on Tuesday. The win further solidifies Sanders’ position as the frontrunner in the race to take on President Trump in November’s general election.

Sanders was propelled to victory in the Granite State with help from a broad coalition of grassroots activist networks and community organizations, including Rights & Democracy New Hampshire, the New Hampshire Youth Movement and the Sunrise Movement. Campaign volunteers knocked on 150,000 doors across the state this past Saturday alone.

Another crucial player in Sanders’ New Hampshire coalition: organized labor. One of the state’s largest unions—the over 10,000-member State Employees’ Association of New Hampshire/SEIU Local 1984—endorsed the Vermont senator last month. Since then, the union’s members have been door-knocking and phone-banking for Sanders, and the local’s union hall in Concord has been used as a staging area for canvassers.

“Senator Sanders not only talks the talk about building a fair economy but has been walking the walk his whole career,” SEA/SEIU Local 1984 president Rich Gulla tells In These Times. “He’s somebody you can trust. He hasn’t just said, ‘ok, I’m running for president and this is what I think people want to hear.’ He believes in what he’s doing.”

Gulla explains that last September, Sanders joined a rally of nursing home workers in Brentwood, New Hampshire who were trying to unionize with SEA/SEIU Local 1984.

“What impressed me about him, he didn’t once talk about his run for president,” Gulla says. “He engaged the employees there and got them talking about why they wanted to unionize. Before he left, he pulled folks aside and kind of gave them a pep talk. He was speaking from the heart.”

A few days later, the nursing home workers successfully voted to join the union.

Another major New Hampshire union endorsement for Sanders came in December from the statewide organization of the American Postal Workers Union (APWU), as well as APWU Local 230 in Manchester.

“What I appreciate about Bernie more than anything is that he gets the interconnectivity between problems,” says Janice Kelble, legislative director of New Hampshire APWU. “He’s been a huge advocate of postal banking, which is a win-win. It helps people in communities that don’t have banking available and helps strengthen the Postal Service. It solves a number of problems at once and he seems really good at doing that with a lot of issues.”

Kelble says APWU members were canvassing and phone-banking across the state, as well as attending campaign rallies, debates and town halls to show their support for Sanders.

Nationally, Sanders has been endorsed by the United Electrical Workers, National Nurses United, the National Union of Healthcare Workers and the national APWU. He also has the backing of the Clark County Education Association—the largest teachers’ union in Nevada—along with United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), which went on strike last January with Sanders’s support.

Over the past year, Sanders has repeatedly used his platform to draw attention to union battles large and small across the country. Using its expansive contact lists, his campaign has called on supporters to join workers on picket lines and at rallies. Through his Workplace Democracy Plan, which would remove the many legal barriers to unionization, Sanders aims to double union membership if elected president.

Meanwhile, ahead of the February 22 Nevada caucus, the leadership of the influential Culinary Workers Union of Las Vegas Local 226, has begun flooding its membership with a flyer attacking Sanders’ Medicare for All plan. The union, which runs its own health insurance program, is warning members that Medicare for All would “end” their healthcare—parroting talking points that moderates such as Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg have employed in the Democratic race.

Labor leaders like Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, have come to the defense of Medicare for All, noting that by guaranteeing healthcare to everyone and removing it as a subject of contract negotiations, unions would be in a more advantageous position when bargaining over other issues like wages, paid leave and workplace safety.

“Bernie’s behind the labor movement. Not just when it’s popular. He’s marched on our picket lines, he’s helped us organize, he’s championed our legislation in Congress. He’s got a 30- or 40-year track record,” Rand Wilson, an organizer with SEIU Local 888, tells In These Times. “To ignore that and support other candidates that just mouth the words is almost disrespectful to a person who’s been that much of a friend to labor and who’s got that much to offer.”

Wilson is an activist with Labor for Bernie, a network of Sanders supporters in the labor movement. Started in 2015 during the senator’s last run for the presidency, Labor for Bernie’s mission is to educate workers about why Sanders is the best candidate—and to help rank-and-file union members encourage their unions to endorse him.

“He’s best positioned to energize a movement, particularly of millennials and the youth who are going to be key for the ground game, key for the door-knocking and phone-banking and texting and rallies that will shape this election,” Wilson explains, adding that Sanders is also “the only candidate to actually take votes away from Trump’s base.”

Kelble says she thinks a lot of people voted for Trump in 2016 “because they were looking for somebody who wasn’t going to do business as usual” and “decided to take a chance with somebody who was talking about how much he cared about their issues.”

“Well, they were dead wrong about Trump and we’ve suffered a lot of disasters because of it,” she continues. “Hopefully this time voters will have the opportunity to select somebody who’s really going to be there for us. I can’t remember ever having the opportunity to elect an advocate for working people like we do today.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 12, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke is a Working In These Times contributor based in Chicago. He has a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in labor history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was a summer 2013 editorial intern at In These Times. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke.


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The Time is NOW For The PRO Act To Protect Workers

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Jim Staus had one goal: To  make the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) a better place to work. Jim worked hard, he got stellar reviews and he was proud of his job as a supply technician. But his pay was so low that one winter, he and his wife had to melt snow to flush their toilets after their water was shut off. When Jim started talking to his coworkers about forming a union with SEIU, UPMC fired him illegally.  Losing his job and his paycheck upended his life. And despite winning at the National Labor Relations Board twice, Jim is still waiting for justice. Years later, his case is still under appeal, with UPMC’s corporate lawyers spending whatever it takes to bury him in paper.

Jim is not alone. Our labor laws do an abysmal job of protecting working men and women across the nation when they come together to stand up for themselves and their families. In more than 40 percent of union elections, employers are charged with breaking the law.  And union-busters face few repercussions. Now, we have a chance to change that when the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, H.R. 2474, comes to a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives on February 6.

As members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have made clear, if Congress is serious about supporting working families, labor law reform should be at the top of the agenda.  This matters a whole lot to unions, but it also matters to progressive organizations. That’s because unions build power for the rest of us.

Unions give us a say in our workplaces and in our democracy. From teachers demanding fair wages and better conditions for their students to McDonalds’ workers fighting for an end to sexual harassment to tech workers protesting their companies’ role in helping the Trump administration carry out its cruel family separation policy, unions are at the heart of the progressive movement.

Union membership is tied to higher wages, safer workplaces, better healthcare, lower pay gaps for women and people of color and more. Children who grow up in areas with high rates of union membership have better education and life outcomes, even if their families weren’t in a union.  That’s because unions fight for things that benefit everyone, like better schools and better healthcare.

Unions have been under an all-out attack from union-busting employers, aided and abetted by legislatures and the courts for decades. Chipping away at collective bargaining rights has real consequences.  As the number of people in unions has declined from nearly one in three workers in 1979 to just 10.5% of workers in 2019, more people struggle to make ends meet, while wealth is concentrated among a small group of millionaires and billionaires.  Real wages have fallen even as people work more than ever before.  Union members have higher wages, along with job benefits that allow them and their loved ones to go to the doctor when they are sick, to save for retirement and have paid leave.  Those benefits have historically grown a strong middle class that is now under attack as unions are gutted. All the while, reactionary, right-wing billionaires amass more wealth and power over our lives.

As leaders of some of the largest progressive organizations in the country, we demand that Congress take action to protect workers’ rights and fix our nation’s broken labor laws.

There are bills before Congress right now that would give working people the protection they deserve. The PRO Act, H.R. 2474, would make sure that when working people stand up for themselves, the law is on their side.

The PRO Act makes sure that employers who break the law actually pay the price.  Just like Jim’s story, there are countless examples of employers who brazenly ignore labor protections because they know they can get away with it.  The PRO Act provides meaningful penalties when employers engage in union-busting. It provides a path to reinstatement for fired employees while their cases are waiting to be heard, so they are not out of work for years. And it allows workers to pursue their claims in court, rather than only before the National Labor Relations Board.

H.R. 3463, the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act and H.R. 1154, the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act, protect the rights of public sector workers like teachers and firefighters to join unions and bargain collectively. In 25 states, there are no laws explicitly protecting the rights of all public employees sector workers to organize. North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia bar teachers, police, and firefighters from collective bargaining. Thirteen states leave the question of whether teachers can collectively bargain up to local school boards. In some of these states, a patchwork of laws permit only select groups of workers, such as police officers, have the right to bargain collectively or restrict the subjects of bargaining.

Passing this legislation will restore working people’s voice on the job and fulfill the promise of our democracy to benefit all of us, regardless of income, race or gender.  And it’s what the people want. More than half of non-union workers would vote to join a union if they could.

Despite shrinking protections, more and more workers are bravely standing up for their rights by joining strikes and work stoppages across the country. In 2018 alone, more than 485,000 took to the streets, the largest number of workers participating in labor actions since the mid-1980s. Thousands of United Auto Workers (UAW) members held the longest General Motors strike in decades to fight for healthcare, fair wages and a fair deal for contract workers even after General Motors threw strikers off their healthcare plans. Despite intense anti-union efforts, workers at conglomerates such as Amazon and Walmart have continued organizing.  The progressive movement stands shoulder to shoulder with these brave men and women.

In 2018, Democrats promised working people that they would take action to strengthen our democracy and boost our paychecks. Passing labor law reform is the surest way to deliver on that promise.  Working people have never stopped fighting for their rights. Now it’s time for Congress to join their fight.

This article was originally published at Our Future on February 11, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jennifer Epps-Addison is Co-Executive Director and Network President of the Center for Popular Democracy

About the Author: Rahna Epting is the Executive Director of MoveOn

About the Author: George Goehl is the Executive Director of People’s Action

About the Author: Leah Greenberg is the Co-Executive Director of Indivisible

About the Author: Yvette Simpson is the Chief Executive Officer of Democracy for America

About the Author: Dorian Warren is the Vice President of Community Change Action

About the Author: Liz Watson is the Executive Director of the Progressive Caucus Action Fund (PCAF)


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House Democrats pass pro-worker, pro-organizing labor bill, this week in the war on workers

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The House voted Thursday to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, a bill to protect workers trying to unionize, increase penalties on employers who break labor laws to prevent workers from unionizing, and weaken some state-level anti-union laws.

“Good labor laws do more than just right the wrongs waged against unions and their members. Good labor laws help ensure people are safe at work and have a shot at decent wages, health care, and a secure retirement,” wrote Sara Nelson and Randi Weingarten, presidents of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA and the American Federation of Teachers. “Good labor laws lift up every working person, even those not in a union, because when workers in unionized companies win better wages and working conditions than their peers in non-union companies, those peers may seek to unionize, too—and pressure employers to better their lot. Good labor laws set a standard for how working people should be treated in an economy where there are countless laws already on the books to protect the rich and powerful.” And, they say, the PRO Act is a good start at better labor law—even though it wouldn’t most directly affect their unions’ members.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on February 8, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

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House Passes Bill to Dramatically Strengthen the Power of Unions

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House Democrats just passed an important blueprint for strengthening unions and building worker power. If signed into law, the labor law reforms within the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act would amount to the biggest change to the rules governing employers and workers in generations. Among other major features, it would bolster workers’ ability to unionize, expand organizing rights to more workers and strengthen the right to strike.

Although flawed­, the legislation would go a long way toward reversing decades of GOP-backed efforts to grind unions into dust.

“This is about stemming the assault that the Republicans are making on the rights of working men and women in our country,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said during a press conference on Wednesday.

Bobby Scott (D-Va.), who sponsored the PRO Act along with 218 other House members, including three Republicans, called the legislation the “most significant update in U.S. labor laws in 80 years” and “a major step towards creating an economy where everyone can succeed.”

But the PRO Act, which the House approved Thursday evening with a 224-194 vote (mostly along party lines), has essentially no chance of becoming law anytime soon.  Although 40 Democratic senators do support the Senate version of the bill, it is unlikely to be passed by the Republican-controlled Senate and will not be taken up for consideration during the current legislative session by the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, The Washington Post reported Thursday.

So why did Speaker Pelosi bother bringing the bill to a floor vote this week? It’s an election year. The PRO Act strengthens Democrats’ claim to be the only party really fighting for the middle and working classes. And it hands organized labor a victory to point to, giving unions a rallying cry that could serve to solidify their members’ active support for whomever becomes the Democratic nominee later this year.

“Stand with us today and we’ll stand with you tomorrow,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said at the press conference alongside Democrats.

None of this is to argue the PRO Act’s passage is solely a ploy by Democrats to shore up labor’s support as the campaign season lifts off. It signals the Democratic Party’s leftward movement since the 2016 election cycle. We’ve seen a wave of labor actions among teachers, journalists and nonprofits; it is no coincidence that the party has embraced an ambitious labor law reform bill amid this new organizing momentum. Democrats are shifting left along with the party’s base.

While it’s true that voting for a bill you know will not become law anytime soon isn’t exactly an act of political courage, members of Congress deserve applause for passing a measure that would clearly add muscle to a flailing union movement.

What the PRO Act would change

For about the last 40 years, employers have whittled away at labor power and unions through a host of unionbusting tactics. Meanwhile, GOP-controlled state legislatures have passed so-called “right to work” laws that have kneecapped unions by allowing employees to opt out of paying dues even though unions that still must represent them.

To counter all of this, the PRO Act, would among other things:

  • Penalize employers who fire or retaliate against workers trying to form a union.
  • Streamline the union certification process.
  • Prohibit employers from forcing employees to attend anti-union meetings, often deployed during organizing drives.
  • Eliminate right-to-work laws, which exist in 27 states.
  • Ban the permanent replacement of striking workers
  • Legalize secondary boycotts and picketing.
  • Make it harder to classify workers as independent contractors (similar to California’s AB5 bill, which Uber and Lyft are fighting).

It all adds up to a potential power rebalance that could help to counter rampant inequality and generally stagnant wages across vast swaths of the U.S. economy. Various groups aligned with business—from The National Retail Federation to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—are, of course, apoplectic over the proposed legislation.

Major omission

The PRO Act does indeed include a “grab bag” of measures for which unions have long been pushed. But there’s one big thing missing in the bill when it’s placed in the context of the last few decades of labor law reform campaigns: a provision allowing any group of employees to organize through a majority sign-up process (“card check”), rather than through a voting process monitored by the National Labor Relations Board.

Remember the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), the reform law pushed by the labor movement during the 2008 election cycle that died in the U.S. Senate after passing through the House? Its centerpiece was card check, without conditions, making organizing much easier by circumventing the commonly drawn-out election process. The PRO Act only requires card check if an employer is found to have violated labor law during a failed union election.

It matters because card check alone could be as powerful as all of the PRO Act’s provisions for boosting union density and labor power. Strangely, the PRO Act, the biggest piece of labor law reform legislation in years, contains a watered-down version of EFCA’s centerpiece. Whether or not this signifies a strategic retreat on the part of Democratic leaders, who surely remember the battle over EFCA, is unclear. But it is puzzling, given that the PRO Act is—at least until the White House and the Senate flip to Democrats—mainly an aspirational statement of values and solidarity. Why not include card check as well, so there’s no daylight between the party and unions as the election approaches?

Card check is still an avowed goal of some legislators, namely, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who both laid out their plans for empowering workers and labor unions last year. (Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden and Andrew Yang also support card check.) The Sanders and Warren plans make the PRO Act seem relatively small bore, more tactical than structural in its approach to rewriting the rules workers must live by.

That does not mean the PRO Act is just window dressing; it would mark significant change if enacted. The House vote is notable, albeit essentially symbolic. A real victory must wait until Democrats win a Senate majority and the White House—and still prioritize rebuilding the labor movement as much as they did yesterday.

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on February 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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

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“Let’s Get This Bread”: Bay Area Tartine Bakery Workers Move to Unionize

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Image result for alex press“What if a bakery kept its heart and soul, but always remained open to new ideas?” asks the website for Tartine, the world-renowned Bay Area bakery. Elsewhere on the site, the bakery boasts of “Production at a human scale.” Today, the humans who produce Tartine’s award-winning bread and pastries have a new idea of their own: a union.

The workers at four Bay Area locations—three in San Francisco, one in Berkeley—have chosen to become members in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). In doing so, they join their counterparts at another iconic Bay Area institution, Anchor Brewing, one year after Anchor workers went public with their union.

“We’re proud to work at Tartine and want Tartine to be the best it possibly can be,” opens a letter delivered to management Thursday morning by members of the union’s organizing committee. Of the estimated 215 workers at the four locations, 146 signed their name to the letter, a public declaration of their support for the union. The letter requests Tartine voluntarily recognize the union, but notes that should the company refuse, the union will file for a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election. Agustin Ramirez, lead ILWU organizer for Northern California, says the union will file for the election on Friday morning, 24 hours after the letter’s delivery, should the company decline voluntary recognition.

Chad Robertson and Elisabeth Prueitt opened Tartine’s first location in 2002, and have expanded their operations in recent years. The company has opened two new locations in the Bay Area since 2016, and stores continue opening—and closing—in Los Angeles and Seoul, South Korea. Workers say this rapid growth is a key reason to unionize.

“As the company expanded, we were seeing a certain amount of neglect toward the workers—and not only the people, but operations too: money to pay invoices, for example, wasn’t there,” says Pat Thomas, 30, a server at the Tartine Manufactory. “We weren’t getting the attention we felt like we deserved because they were opening all these new locations, and it started feeling more corporate.” Thomas hopes unionization can rescue what was once a positive company environment, “before it’s too late.”

Tartine was “expanding like crazy, opening multiple restaurants in a short period of time, and then telling us that they don’t have the money to give us a $1 an hour raise,” says Emily Haddad, 31, a barista at the Manufactory. “It wasn’t really matching up,” she adds.

Indeed, workers feel management is “making it up as they go” when it comes to pay, says Mason Lopez, 36, a barista at the Berkeley location. Many spoke of their wages as nowhere near livable, with employees frequently having to take second and third jobs. Plus, back-of-the-house staff is largely excluded from the tip pool, say workers, an arrangement to which some object.

Tartine “can pay workers, the people who are making them the money—the cooks and the prep and the dishwashers and so on—a living wage,” says Hannah Gerard, 27, a server at the Manufactory.

In These Times was not able to reach any back-of-the-house employees for comment. Workers admit to the difficulties of coordinating the front of the house and the back of the house in the campaign, but describe support for the union as “widespread” across all positions and locations, with a worker at one location characterizing support as strongest among dishwashers and prep cooks.

“The dishwashers and prep cooks have been insanely proactive and have gotten a lot of people on board,” says Gerard.

“These are world-class bakers,” adds Lopez, listing off awards the bread has won over the years. “These bakers should be making at least $25 an hour, something that mirrors their experience and level of skill, and then you find out they’re making minimum wage and barely in the tip pool. Why?”

Throughout history, bakers have a storied record of organizing. One of the first acts proposed by the Executive Committee of the Paris Commune in 1871 was a ban on night-work, a response to bakery workers’ longstanding demands. In the United States, too, bakers’ unions have a long history. The Journeymen Bakers’ Union, founded in 1880, merged into what is now the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union (BCTGM), which still represents some 140,000 members, mostly in the food processing industry.

In addition to higher wages, Tartine workers speak of a desire for paid-time off, as well as a say in decisions relating to employee health insurance. While Tartine offers health insurance to anyone who works 25 or more hours per week, the company recently switched workers’ health insurance provider, causing several to lose their doctors. Additionally, several workers say they hope unionizing will bring greater transparency across the company, particularly when it comes to where Tartine’s money is going.

“If the company’s telling us that they’re broke because their projects are going out of business, we have the right to see for ourselves instead of taking their word for it,” says Thomas. “We’re just asking for a say.”

“Money has been funneling into San Francisco by the bucketload over the last five years, but there’s not a lot of follow-through when it comes to restaurant workers, or anyone in cafes, and those are the people that keep these cities running,” says Lopez. “Money changes hands, but we’re only getting the minimum that an employer is supposed to pay a person to avoid getting into legal trouble. Put that way, it’s hurtful.”

By announcing their union campaign, Tartine workers follow the lead of those at Anchor Brewing, a craft brewery that unionized last year, also with ILWU.

“When Anchor Steam went public with their unionization, that’s what motivated me to say, ‘Let’s actually do this instead of just talking about it,’” says Thomas. Following the launch of Anchor’s campaign, he met with people who had helped Anchor Steam workers organize. From there, he says, the process began in earnest.

“We had read that Anchor Steam became public with their union and we thought that was awesome,” says Matthew Torres, 23, a barista at Tartine’s Berkeley location. “We’d talked about it playfully, like ‘Oh, that’d be so cool.’”

Soon enough, a small group began meeting with Anchor Steam workers, an ILWU representative—and, as was true in the Anchor Steam campaign, collaborating with the San Francisco chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), who provided meeting space along with organizing support.

“The process of organizing can be very daunting, very scary, and kind of emotional at times,” says Torres, adding that having DSA present to facilitate space for Tartine workers to connect with other workers was “really, really helpful.” SF DSA plans to hold a rally with Tartine workers at 6pm at 24th Street Plaza Thursday. As with the Anchor campaign, workers hope to immediately build community support for their union.

Several workers stressed interest in working with the ILWU because of its radical history, and in particular, what Lopez describes as its “antiracist advocacy,” referring to ILWU’s willingness to shut down the Port of Oakland in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as its history of political boycotts on cargo.

Tartine workers will join the same ILWU local as Anchor Steam workers, Local 6, expanding the less-traditional shops represented in the local. San Francisco veterinary hospital workers have also organized as Local 6 members, a process that Anchor workers—and DSA San Francisco—have supported.

Local 6 has “pharmaceutical workers, workers at landfills, workers at recycling facilities, workers at chocolate manufactories, radiologist technicians at hospitals, warehouses, and now, workers in the beer industry,” says Ramirez, the ILWU organizer, adding “We believe that the workers have the right to choose their union. The ILWU will be with them until we reach the other side.”

As to how they expect management to respond to the union drive, workers are uncertain (In These Times reached out to Tartine’s Chief Operating Officer, Chris Jordan, for comment, and has yet to receive a response). “Tartine likes to be known as an inclusive and welcoming place,” says Gerard. “Hopefully they will take that reputation and do the right thing: Let us bargain a contract.”

Should unionization lead to an NLRB election, it’s possible the company will push for each Tartine location to hold a separate election, a possibility for which ILWU’s Ramirez says the union is prepared.

Tartine workers emphasize that just because the vast majority of food service work in the United States isn’t currently unionized, that doesn’t mean the industry can’t change its ways.

“I hope people can take inspiration from us, like we did from Anchor Steam,” says Torres. Food service workers “move through jobs every few months or year because these workplaces are bad or unaccountable and I really want to see other people be inspired by what we’re doing and do it themselves, and aid them in doing that.”

“A lot of people think restaurant work is not a skill, or not a career,” agrees Lopez, “but you can have a service job be your career. There are plenty of really talented, amazing people working in the service industry; the problem is they aren’t taken care of.” Lopez spoke of how “exhausting” it is “to go from restaurant to restaurant, from bar to bar, and it’s always the same song.”

“Why not make a difference,” asks Lopez. “Why not set an example for other restaurant workers, and maybe inspire them to do the same?”

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on February 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alex Press is an assistant editor at Jacobin. You can follow her on Twitter @alexnpress.

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Declining union strength means rising economic inequality, this week in the war on workers

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Union membership continuing to tick down year by year doesn’t just affect unions. It leads to rising economic inequality, the Economic Policy Institute reminds us. The share of workers covered by a union bargaining agreement is less than half of what it was in 1979, and “Research shows that this de-unionization accounts for a sizable share of the growth in inequality over that period—around 13–20 percent for women and 33–37 percent for men.”

That means a huge loss for working people: “Applying these shares to annual earnings data reveals that working people are now losing on the order of $200 billion per year as a result of the erosion of union coverage over the last four decades—with that money being redistributed upward, to the rich.”

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on February 1, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

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