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How Can We Rebuild Working-Class Politics? Let’s Go to “Strike School.”

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Through­out Sep­tem­ber and Octo­ber, thou­sands of activists and union­ists from sev­en­ty coun­tries par­tic­i­pat­ed in the inter­na­tion­al ?“Strike School” orga­niz­ing train­ing led by Jane McAlevey and spon­sored by the Rosa Lux­em­burg Stiftung.

Jacobin?’s Eric Blanc spoke with McAlevey about the key lessons of the course, the rea­sons why this tra­di­tion has been mar­gin­al­ized with­in orga­nized labor, and the ways smart orga­niz­ing meth­ods can help rebuild work­ing-class pol­i­tics and trans­form unions today.

Can you talk about Strike School, who par­tic­i­pat­ed, and what its main pur­pose was?

JM: To be hon­est, we orga­nized Strike School part­ly in response to the increase of talk about strikes and gen­er­al strikes. A lot of peo­ple now are say­ing we need a gen­er­al strike, so it seemed like exact­ly the right time to dig into orga­niz­ing fun­da­men­tals and teach how to build to super­ma­jor­i­ty strikes?—?the kind that we need to stop the Right and turn things around for the work­ing class.

Strike School has turned into an impor­tant space for the past two months?—?it’s real­ly been some­thing to see this blos­som. There were thou­sands of par­tic­i­pants from sev­en­ty coun­tries, and all the train­ings and mate­ri­als are trans­lat­ed into Ara­bic, Span­ish, French, Por­tuguese, Hebrew, and Ger­man. It’s spon­sored by the Rosa Lux­em­burg Stiftung, which is beau­ti­ful?—?to be able to car­ry on Rosa’s name today and to keep the idea of strikes, big strikes, alive.

We designed the course to empha­size the fun­da­men­tals of orga­niz­ing?—?and linked these specif­i­cal­ly to how we devel­op strike-ready unions. But there are also a whole bunch of fan­tas­tic ten­ants’ rights and cli­mate orga­ni­za­tions involved, who are apply­ing these lessons to their work.

I get so many emails that I can’t keep up with, where peo­ple say, ?“I want to learn the stuff you write about.” I decid­ed one thing that I can do for those who can’t read the books?—?which is many peo­ple?—?is to part­ner with the Rosa Lux­em­burg Stiftung to get out there a cou­ple of times a year to teach like crazy. This time, for this Strike School, we required peo­ple to reg­is­ter as groups. Get­ting strike ready is not about indi­vid­u­als?—?it’s about peo­ple who can form orga­ni­za­tions togeth­er, even if they start small.

And if there’s one thing that unites Strike School, beyond its rad­i­cal pol­i­tics cen­tered around bot­tom-up change, it’s a com­mit­ment to build­ing a spe­cif­ic method of orga­niz­ing: struc­ture-based orga­niz­ing. Because it’s not just enough to fight. What our side needs is to fight back and win. And to do that, we need to learn and relearn the fun­da­men­tals of organizing.

One of the big argu­ments that ties togeth­er the spe­cif­ic train­ings taught in Strike School, and that you’ve writ­ten about in books like No Short­cuts, is the dif­fer­ence between ?“orga­niz­ing” and ?“mobi­liz­ing.” Can you spell out that dif­fer­ence and why you think it’s so important?

JM: It’s real­ly urgent that we under­stand this dif­fer­ence, par­tic­u­lar­ly for left­ists and pro­gres­sives. ?“Mobi­liz­ing” means we’re talk­ing to our already engaged base to take action. The act of mobi­liz­ing any­one into an elec­tion or into a strike or a protest by def­i­n­i­tion means you’re talk­ing with the peo­ple who already agree with you.

Mobi­liz­ing is not orga­niz­ing?—?it’s get­ting the folks who already agree with you to get off the couch and do some­thing. The Left spends a lot of time mobilizing.

Don’t get me wrong, we actu­al­ly also have to get bet­ter at mobi­liz­ing, too, by learn­ing to be more sys­tem­at­ic. But before we can have a strike mobi­liza­tion, the deep­er part of Strike School is how to get to the 90 per­cent of work­ers you need to be ready to be mobi­lized for the strike. A strike vote is the ulti­mate test of whether the nec­es­sary orga­niz­ing has been done.

The orga­niz­ing work is much hard­er, and it’s not very well under­stood and not as sexy. In the Unit­ed States, for exam­ple, to make a strike real and effec­tive?—?and to have the pow­er to deliv­er the kinds of demands work­ers are mak­ing?—?you need north of 90 per­cent to walk out.

That’s why what was won by teach­ers in Los Ange­les and Chica­go was so sub­stan­tial. To get to that point is real­ly hard work. And the broad­er and more diverse the work­force, the more com­plex the project of try­ing to build uni­ty and sol­i­dar­i­ty across races, gen­der, immi­gra­tion sta­tus, across shifts, across dif­fer­ent identities.

So the ques­tion ?“How do you move work­ers to a project that they believe they don’t agree with?” is fun­da­men­tal to the ques­tion of build­ing pow­er and get­ting strike ready. Most peo­ple, includ­ing most social­ists, don’t under­stand that we don’t just call for a strike. It’s about build­ing and expand­ing the uni­verse of peo­ple who are with us in this strug­gle for justice.

The cen­tral con­cept of the course is that, for orga­niz­ers, we wake up every morn­ing ask­ing how to engage the peo­ple who don’t agree with us?—?or who think they don’t agree with us. These folks are def­i­nite­ly not part of our social media feeds, and they’re not com­ing to our activist meet­ings, they’re not there.

In Strike School, we do a pow­er analy­sis of what it will take to get to some­thing like a 100 per­cent strike. This means you are tak­ing a lot of time engag­ing with those who don’t want to engage with us and for whom hav­ing some skills in your con­ver­sa­tions is actu­al­ly going to matter.

That’s why it’s so impor­tant to teach the dif­fer­ence between orga­niz­ing and mobi­liz­ing, and to focus on teach­ing the skills required to move the hard­est-to-move peo­ple in order to bring about the kind of sol­i­dar­i­ty and uni­ty required for a suc­cess­ful strike.

If this method of orga­niz­ing is so pow­er­ful, why do you think this tra­di­tion has got­ten lost not only in the Unit­ed States, but in so much of the world?

JM: It’s a good ques­tion, but I’d like to reframe it: I think the tra­di­tion was not ?“lost”?—?I think it was beat­en, jailed, and (depend­ing on the coun­try) mur­dered out of most of the movement.

In the Unit­ed States, you can real­ly look at [the 1947 anti-union leg­is­la­tion] Taft-Hart­ley and McCarthy­ism as a turn­ing point. This was a moment when cap­i­tal­ists under­stood the very real threat of work­ers build­ing class sol­i­dar­i­ty across race and gen­der. It was a peri­od, with the com­plic­i­ty of some trade union lead­ers, where there was a real effort to destroy the tra­di­tions that built the pow­er­ful unions formed in the 1930s.

For those union lead­ers who were will­ful­ly com­plic­it in going along with the purges of rad­i­cals at the time, it showed a real naïveté about the fact that, in the long term, their own unions and the lives of their mem­bers would even­tu­al­ly be destroyed or huge­ly under­mined by these same cap­i­tal­ist forces.

After, with the turn to busi­ness union­ism, many of these labor lead­ers thought work­ers would just stay put, that unions would have insti­tu­tion­al secu­ri­ty for life. That was a rad­i­cal mis­un­der­stand­ing of how pow­er works and how peo­ple work.

The skills we’re pass­ing on in Strike School are skills I learned from extra­or­di­nary men­tors in the real tra­di­tion from the old 1199 [health care work­ers’ union]. They’re skills that were beat­en out of the move­ment and worse. You can see that look­ing across the world: many of the same meth­ods of deep orga­niz­ing cross inter­na­tion­al bor­ders, and that’s why many polit­i­cal lead­ers in all sorts of coun­tries jail and mur­der and do every­thing pos­si­ble to beat the most effec­tive lead­ers out of the move­ment. So the more we can teach these skills today, the better.

What do you think the Left and social­ists can learn from this method of orga­niz­ing for class pol­i­tics more gen­er­al­ly, not only for union organizing?

JM: The meth­ods and the dis­ci­pline of struc­ture-based orga­niz­ing in the work­place apply gen­er­al­ly to build­ing a stronger Left. There’s a lot of those lessons.

The first is foun­da­tion­al: Do you spend most of your day talk­ing to peo­ple who don’t agree with you? If you’re seri­ous about build­ing class pol­i­tics, the answer is yes. That’s the first strate­gic choice.

Are you spend­ing all your time in the units in the hos­pi­tal or the schools in a dis­trict where peo­ple already agree with you and your num­bers are pret­ty good? The answer, if you’re build­ing a strike-ready union, is that you’re focused on the places where there’s real oppo­si­tion and where peo­ple think they don’t agree with you. The same goes for how we build a strong Left.

The sec­ond big les­son is that there’s actu­al­ly a method for how to do this. In the old days, the thing that real­ly turned me off from the orga­nized US left was that every time I would show up at a Left con­fer­ence, I’d be imme­di­ate­ly swarmed by white guys hawk­ing papers in four-point font with their polit­i­cal line. And that’s not going to build a class-based, effec­tive move­ment that’s tack­ling race and gender.

What you have to do is come to appre­ci­ate and under­stand the per­son you’re tak­ing with, and real­ly respect that they may have come to con­clu­sions dif­fer­ent from yours based on a set of social con­di­tions in their life that might be rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent from the organizer’s. That’s one of the things that sep­a­rates an orga­niz­er from an activist: we under­stand our job is to have patience and appre­ci­ate where the per­son we’re engag­ing with is com­ing from, why they might be that way, and how we can actu­al­ly work with that per­son to help them come to the con­clu­sion that they want a dif­fer­ent coun­try, that they want a dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal-eco­nom­ic sys­tem than the one we have.

That type of change does not come from lec­tur­ing peo­ple, from talk­ing at them, or from mak­ing judg­ments about them.

I’ve seen some peo­ple claim?—?and I think it’s unfair?—?that the meth­ods you teach are only rel­e­vant for union lead­ers and staffers, not for trans­form­ing the labor move­ment from the bot­tom up. How do you look at the rela­tion­ship between the meth­ods taught in Strike School and the ques­tion of how social­ists can most effec­tive­ly help build and trans­form the labor movement?

JM: First of all, whether you’re inside the rank and file strate­gi­cal­ly because you took a job there, or whether you’re out­side the rank and file because you mapped the entire nation­al health care indus­try and you under­stand which eight cities can col­lapse the sys­tem?—?both are good ideas in our country.

For me, the ques­tion is whether you under­stand your role as an orga­niz­er as fun­da­men­tal­ly doing rad­i­cal polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion. Are you skilling peo­ple up? And do you start by under­stand­ing that you respect the social con­di­tions that formed and framed dif­fer­ent peo­ple? That’s a respect, and a val­ue, and a method of work that you can do effec­tive­ly posi­tioned inside or outside.

I think it’s great, as you know, for peo­ple to take jobs in strate­gic indus­tries. But I think the over-roman­ti­ciza­tion of that can be dan­ger­ous. Part of why we’re doing Strike School is that there is a skill set to doing the hard­er work. It isn’t rock­et sci­ence, but it is a skill set, whether you’re going into the work­place or whether you’re approach­ing the work­place from the out­side. Win­ning mat­ters?—?and so hav­ing some appre­ci­a­tion of the method and the skill real­ly matters.

That’s why we’re doing Strike School, because peo­ple need to be exposed to the best meth­ods to move a real­ly hard con­ver­sa­tion and why you wake up focus­ing on the hard­est-to-move unit and not on the unit where all the work­ers want to talk to you.

We’re try­ing to stitch togeth­er the talk about a gen­er­al strike and the real­i­ty about how we get there. The same is true for class pol­i­tics more broad­ly. When peo­ple ask me, ?“Why don’t you teach a class on how to trans­form unions?”, my answer is that this is basi­cal­ly the same skill. Because if you can’t first build major­i­ty sup­port for chang­ing your local union, you need to stop call­ing for a gen­er­al strike.

How do you trans­form unions? It’s the same skill. You need to learn how to build major­i­ty and super­ma­jor­i­ty sup­port. That’s the real les­son from Chica­go and Los Ange­les. When you show you can win over a major­i­ty of your cowork­ers to a dif­fer­ent ver­sion of their own trade union, that’s step one.

Every­thing we dis­cussed in Strike School, start­ing with leader iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, how to have suc­cess­ful hard con­ver­sa­tions, under­stand­ing the issues that mat­ter most to each work­er you are engag­ing, to learn­ing how to make and move a major­i­ty peti­tion?—?all that trans­lates into learn­ing how to win. Real­ly good orga­niz­ing is real­ly good organizing.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Eric Blanc is the author of Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics.


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This Crisis Makes Clear: We Need a Four-Day Work Week, Now

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The pan­dem­ic inspired politi­cians and coun­try lead­ers across the world to speak in favor of a reduced work week. New Zealand Prime Min­is­ter Jacin­da Ardern has brought it up, as has San­na Marin, the Prime Min­is­ter of Fin­land. Germany’s largest trade union, a met­al­work­ers’ union, is push­ing the idea hard, with sup­port from the country’s Fed­er­al Min­istry of Labor and Social Affairs. The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion is con­sid­er­ing a wage sub­sidy pro­gram to short­en work­ers’ hours.

Accord­ing to a study by the Cana­di­an Labor Eco­nom­ics Forum, low-income work­ers in Cana­da expe­ri­enced both the sharpest decrease in work­ing hours and the sharpest increase. That’s because the Cana­di­an Emer­gency Response Ben­e­fit (CERB), a month­ly stipend of 2,000 Cana­di­an dol­lars, was avail­able to any­one who lost work due to the pan­dem­ic, and whose month­ly earn­ings were now 1,000 Cana­di­an dol­lars or less. But it didn’t apply to any­one who vol­un­tar­i­ly left their job.

Among those who kept their jobs were essen­tial work­ers, most of whom are paid para­dox­i­cal­ly low wages—they saw their jobs become more demand­ing and more dan­ger­ous. For non-essen­tial work­ers whose work shift­ed online, where their work­ing hours did increase, this may have been mit­i­gat­ed by the decrease in com­mute time. Every­one in between—peo­ple whose pan­dem­ic-relat­ed job loss brought them under the $1,000 thresh­old—sud­den­ly had more income and more time. Some actu­al­ly saw an increase in income, as the CERB amounts to more than a month­ly wage at the fed­er­al min­i­mum wage. Leah Gazan, a Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment in the province of Man­i­to­ba, has put forth a motion to con­vert the CERB into a uni­ver­sal basic income with­out cut­ting oth­er social sup­port networks. 

Politi­cians aren’t alone in think­ing about the ben­e­fits of short­er hours. Among the loud­est pro­po­nents for cut­ting hours is a New Zealand hedge fund that tri­aled a four-day week and saw an increase in pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. Oth­er firms have seen sim­i­lar results, espe­cial­ly in office set­tings. Employ­ees work­ing exces­sive hours are tired, stressed and more vul­ner­a­ble to men­tal ill­ness or dis­eases. Work­ing exces­sive hours also means we strug­gle to meet our own needs—like social­iz­ing, exer­cis­ing, eat­ing prop­er­ly or even hav­ing hob­bies. As a result, work­ers com­mod­i­fy things they would oth­er­wise do for fun, like car­ing for chil­dren or cook­ing din­ner. They hire migrant work­ers for pal­try wages or buy ready-made din­ners assem­bled by under­paid fac­to­ry workers.

A rad­i­cal short­er work week goes fur­ther than ask­ing whether we can cut hours with­out cut­ting prof­its. It chal­lenges the cen­tral role of work in our lives and asks what life could look like if the ben­e­fits of indus­tri­al­iza­tion were redis­trib­uted rather than accu­mu­lat­ed at the top. 

When the pan­dem­ic hit, Erin Socall lost her job as a pri­vate chef in Toron­to. She gave her­self a day off, and then start­ed bak­ing full-time. She made bread for peo­ple whose liveli­hoods were affect­ed by the cri­sis, deliv­er­ing up to 20 loaves across the city sev­er­al times a week. This helped sup­port a heav­i­ly over­bur­dened food secu­ri­ty sys­tem, and also helped her escape the unat­tain­able stan­dards set by her indus­try that wore on her phys­i­cal and men­tal health. Astrid Mohr, a stu­dent at McGill Uni­ver­si­ty, also start­ed bak­ing: She learned how to make crois­sants, and start­ed sell­ing them to give the pro­ceeds to food banks in the city. Both Mohr and Socall found them­selves with time on their hands as the pan­dem­ic began. It’s that leisure time that allowed them to recon­sid­er the pur­pose of their work, and build work­ing habits that are health­i­er and more sus­tain­able for them.

Cook­ing at home is one exam­ple of what Auton­o­my, a U.K.-based think tank that stud­ies work, calls “low-car­bon soft” alter­na­tives to con­sumerist behav­ior. Its 2019 report on the short­er work week found that reduc­ing work­ing hours would reduce car­bon emis­sions and improve gen­er­al soci­etal wel­fare. It would reduce com­mute traf­fic and part­ly replace it with walk­ing or bik­ing—more low-car­bon soft activ­i­ties. Auton­o­my also lays out a tran­si­tion­al path that pro­pos­es a frame­work for com­pa­nies to ensure that increased prof­it leads to bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions for employ­ees. An exam­ple is the cre­ation of a gov­ern­ment orga­ni­za­tion that would ensure that tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion, like the cre­ation of new machin­ery that makes pro­duc­tion faster and eas­i­er, trans­lates to bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions instead of mass lay­offs and increased profit.

Could we replace the whole food sup­ply chain with home-baked bread? Unlike­ly. But we could reduce depen­den­cy on labor-inten­sive, high-ener­gy prod­ucts like microwave lasagna. Giv­en that Amer­i­cans waste up to 40% of food, we could fur­ther reduce indus­tri­al food pro­duc­tion. Our cities could pro­mote local food pro­duc­tion like com­mu­ni­ty-sup­port­ed agri­cul­ture and urban farm­ing.

We could imag­ine a food pro­duc­tion sys­tem that relies much less on indus­tri­al­ized agri­cul­ture. Fac­to­ry farms, whose work­ing con­di­tions and envi­ron­men­tal impact have been under increased scruti­ny dur­ing the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic, could be replaced with small­er alter­na­tives that are more friend­ly to work­ers and the envi­ron­ment. Food fac­to­ry work­ers who also ben­e­fit from the short­er work week could work less and in bet­ter con­di­tions to sup­ple­ment the local sup­ply chain as need­ed. That food sys­tem would also bet­ter resist crises like Covid-19, and improve food secu­ri­ty for peo­ple who, under the cur­rent econ­o­my, can’t always access food.

Food pro­duc­tion is the most tan­gi­ble exam­ple of the ben­e­fit of a short­er work week, but there are count­less oth­ers. By giv­ing peo­ple more time to care for them­selves and each oth­er, a short­er work week pol­i­cy would increase over­all health in soci­ety, and par­tial­ly reduce the bur­den of health­care work­ers. We’d need few­er desk work­out gad­gets, less cof­fee, and few­er med­ica­tions to treat sleep depri­va­tion. Once we start point­ing out indus­tries that prof­it off of the col­lec­tive exhaus­tion caused by over­work, it’s hard to stop.

But if our tran­si­tion to a short­er work week con­tin­ues to evolve with­out a social frame­work behind it, it will con­tin­ue to repro­duce the same inequal­i­ties we have seen dur­ing this cri­sis. Mohr, a stu­dent with a finan­cial­ly sta­ble fam­i­ly that housed and fed her dur­ing the cri­sis, was able to take this time to inten­sive­ly learn a new skill. Oth­ers with the same inter­ests, more needs, and per­haps more knowl­edge didn’t have that opportunity.

Cheyenne Sun­dance, who runs a social-jus­tice ori­ent­ed urban farm in Toron­to named “Sun­dance Har­vest,” spoke to this issue. “Some­one who has the priv­i­lege of being able to go to their par­ents’ land … can start a farm much, much soon­er than some­one who lives in a high-rise apart­ment,” she notes. Some­one with less income is more like­ly to live in a small apart­ment with­out access to land or space to grow food, and might have to wait years to access a plot.

The ben­e­fits of a short­er work week won’t reach those who need it the most: peo­ple with low­er incomes, who are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly Black, Indige­nous and peo­ple of col­or, unless it’s accom­pa­nied by social poli­cies that very inten­tion­al­ly include them. For instance, it’s impor­tant to con­sid­er poli­cies that would return land to Indige­nous peo­ple and sup­port tra­di­tion­al agriculture.

In order for a short­er work week to cre­ate struc­tur­al change, we have to under­stand it as nei­ther a panacea nor a reform, but rather a re-imag­in­ing of the pur­pose of work and leisure, and a re-envi­sion­ing of the role that pro­duc­tiv­i­ty plays in our lives.

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

About the Author: Anna Roach is a fel­low at the Toni Sta­bile Cen­ter for Inves­tiga­tive Jour­nal­ism at the Colum­bia School of Jour­nal­ism. She writes about top­ics includ­ing social move­ments, gen­der and labor. 


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How Unions Can Lay the Ground for the Next Upsurge

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

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

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

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

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

UNIONS GROW IN SPURTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT COULD’VE BEEN

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

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

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

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

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

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

SPARK INTO AN INFERNO

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

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

What does being “ready” mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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California Labor Federation Wins New Protections for Workers

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

Last Thursday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a package of bills to expand worker protections. The new state laws will provide a workers’ compensation presumption for front-line workers who are afflicted with infectious diseases on the job and a requirement for employers to give timely notification of COVID-19 cases in the workplace. The California Labor Federation, under the leadership of Executive Secretary-Treasurer Art Pulaski (IAM), took charge of the fight for these new policies. “Since the pandemic began, the California labor movement has strongly advocated for the most robust worker protection policies in the country. Today’s signing of a package of bills to bolster worker protections as the COVID-19 crisis continues shows our commitment as a state to policies that put the health and safety of workers first,” Pulaski said. “While more work must be done in 2021 to strengthen protections to ensure essential workers putting their lives at risk return home safely to their families after each shift, today the governor gave a much-needed boost to all workers across the state.”

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on September 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Aaron Gallant is a contributor for AFL-CIO.


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How Amy Coney Barrett’s Appointment Would Escalate the War on Workers

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The death of Supreme Court Jus­tice Ruth Bad­er Gins­berg has trig­gered a hasty search by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and Sen­ate Repub­li­cans for a jus­tice to fill the emp­ty seat before the Novem­ber pres­i­den­tial election. 

Now Trump has cho­sen Amy Coney Bar­rett, of the two women at the top of his short­list, as his Supreme Court nom­i­na­tion, but she has not yet been con­firmed. Bar­rett, a staunch con­ser­v­a­tive groomed by the Fed­er­al­ist Soci­ety, has been iden­ti­fied as a strong­ly anti-abor­tion nominee.

In employ­ment cas­es that Bar­rett has seen, she has adopt­ed large­ly anti-work­er—and on two occa­sions, racial­ly dis­crim­i­na­to­ry—posi­tions. In 2017, Bar­rett vot­ed not to re-hear U.S. Equal Employ­ment Oppor­tu­ni­ty Com­mis­sion v. Auto­zone, in which a three-judge pan­el ruled in favor of an Auto­zone which had seg­re­gat­ed its stores based on race. In a 2019 case, she ruled against a Black Illi­nois Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion work­er who had alleged that his fir­ing was racial­ly-moti­vat­ed, giv­en racist ver­bal harass­ment he expe­ri­enced on the job. And this year, Bar­rett ruled that Grub­Hub dri­vers could not file a class action law­suit against their employ­er—a blow to work­ers in the rapid­ly expand­ing gig economy. 

If appoint­ed, Bar­rett would cement the con­ser­v­a­tive major­i­ty on a court that has already demon­strat­ed a strong anti-work­er ten­den­cy. In two major labor cas­es in the last three years the Supreme Court ruled 5–4 to curb union and work­er pro­tec­tions. In Epic Sys­tem Corp. v. Lewis, the Supreme Court deter­mined that employ­ers could con­trac­tu­al­ly oblig­ate work­ers to for­go their right to col­lec­tive­ly sue the employ­er—before the deci­sion, class action law­suits were regard­ed as “pro­tect­ed con­cert­ed activ­i­ty” under Sec­tion 7 of the NLRA. And in Janus v. AFSCME, the court ruled that pub­lic-sec­tor unions could no longer require rep­re­sent­ed work­ers to pay union fees, again vot­ing along con­ser­v­a­tive-lib­er­al lines. 

In These Times spoke to James Gray Pope, a labor activist and legal schol­ar from Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty, about the con­ser­v­a­tive court and labor. 

In These Times: What kinds of labor lit­i­ga­tion do you antic­i­pate com­ing before the court? And what are the impli­ca­tions for labor when the court becomes so over­whelm­ing­ly conservative?

James Gray Pope: The big-pic­ture point here is that through­out the whole range of issues that affect the work­ing class, the Supreme Court is going to be in a fun­da­men­tal­ly reac­tionary pos­ture. And we’ve been through a peri­od like that, the so-called Lochn­er era, which refers to the late 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry Supreme Court trend of oppos­ing legal reg­u­la­tions around work­ing con­di­tions. The Lochn­er case itself involved a New York max­i­mum hours law that the court struck down because it vio­lat­ed the indi­vid­ual free­dom of con­tract of employ­ers and work­ers to agree that the work­er would work for any num­ber of hours that they want­ed. And the court said it was ille­git­i­mate for a leg­is­la­ture to take into account imbal­ances of pow­er in a con­trac­tu­al rela­tion­ship, unless the pro­tect­ed indi­vid­u­als were some­how inca­pable of tak­ing care of them­selves, like chil­dren. So, that being the basic ide­o­log­i­cal cen­ter-point for jurispru­dence dur­ing that peri­od, the court did a lot of inter­ven­tion in terms of strik­ing down work­er-pro­tec­tive leg­is­la­tion, max­i­mum-hours laws, min­i­mum wage laws, union-rights laws, and laws out­law­ing yel­low dog con­tracts.

And this peri­od today is sim­i­lar. The core ide­ol­o­gy is real­ly the same, but the court can’t imple­ment it with the kind of puri­ty that it could imple­ment it dur­ing the Lochn­er era, because labor stat­ues are sit­ting there. The state­ment of pur­pose of the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act (NLRA) talks about inequal­i­ty, bar­gain­ing pow­er, and the need for full free­dom of asso­ci­a­tion of work­ers. So they have to deal with that. 

But you can see it in Epic Sys­tems. You can see right from the begin­ning of the opin­ion, Jus­tice Neil Gor­such is irri­tat­ed at the work­ers there for bring­ing a suit against their employ­er after they had agreed not to. So the idea here is that an indi­vid­ual work­er, you know, sits down with an employ­er and is in an equal rela­tion­ship in nego­ti­at­ing some­thing. Where­as, of course, as Jus­tice Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg says, in foot­note two of her opin­ion, it did­n’t hap­pen that way. The com­pa­ny just sends out an edict say­ing, “You either agree to this or you lose your job.” That’s the present-day ver­sion of the Lochn­er era, indi­vid­ual lib­er­ty of contract. 

In These Times: Beyond cas­es that deal direct­ly with the NLRA, what is the kind of lit­i­ga­tion that could come before the Supreme Court that would affect workers?

James Gray Pope: I don’t think any­thing’s going to be so much dif­fer­ent from the recent direc­tion. It’s just that it’s going to be more intense and con­sis­tent. What’s going to be an issue here in terms of what the court does, I think, is the extent to which Supreme Court Jus­tice John Roberts, who has some sense of his­to­ry and some con­cern about what the his­tor­i­cal ver­dict on his chief jus­tice­ship is going to be, is going to con­strain the court in the labor law area. I think he under­stands the need to con­strain the court in the civ­il rights area, and even some of the oth­er con­ser­v­a­tive jus­tices have issued sur­pris­ing pro-civ­il rights opinions. 

The Supreme Court is like any polit­i­cal body in the sense that you spend polit­i­cal cap­i­tal, and there’s an assess­ment: “Well, do we want to spend our polit­i­cal cap­i­tal on this issue? Are we going to spend it on that issue?” And that’s going to be the big ques­tion now that they’re going to have. If this nom­i­nee gets con­firmed, con­ser­v­a­tives are going to have a very strong major­i­ty. And they’re going to have the pow­er to trans­form the law immense­ly. And so the ques­tion is, where are they going to put their ener­gy? And my fear is not so much for labor law, because labor laws are fun­da­men­tal­ly weak any­way, but more in the area of vot­ing rights and gerrymandering. 

In These Times: How does the Fed­er­al­ist Society’s tex­tu­al­ist or orig­i­nal­ist tra­di­tion affect rul­ings on labor-relat­ed cases? 

James Gray Pope: Orig­i­nal­ism ini­tial­ly was a pure­ly con­ser­v­a­tive phi­los­o­phy where basi­cal­ly you imag­ine set­ting a time machine back and ask­ing the peo­ple who enact­ed the 14th Amend­ment, for exam­ple, “Well, did you intend to give women equal rights to men?” And that was the kind of method­ol­o­gy that’s now referred to by more sophis­ti­cat­ed pro­po­nents of orig­i­nal mean­ing as “orig­i­nal expect­ed appli­ca­tion,” where instead of going after the orig­i­nal mean­ing you’re going back and you’re going after the ways in which peo­ple in that his­tor­i­cal era would have applied the provision. 

One of the big prob­lems with orig­i­nal­ism is, what hap­pens if a body of prece­dent builds up that seems to con­tra­dict your view? In a way, the most dra­mat­ic illus­tra­tion is Supreme Court Jus­tice Clarence Thomas on the scope of the Com­merce Clause. And this relates to labor. Thomas thinks that the word “com­merce” is the Con­gress’s pow­er to reg­u­late inter­state com­merce, the word com­merce just means the buy­ing and sell­ing of things. And so, in his view, the deci­sions that upheld the Wag­n­er Act and the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act are wrong from an orig­i­nal­ist point of view.

Well, the prob­lem is that stare deci­sis—a judi­cial pol­i­cy that courts gen­er­al­ly fol­low ear­li­er rul­ings (prece­dent), some­times even when the ear­li­er rul­ings were erro­neous—is total­ly manip­u­la­ble: It’s a mul­ti fac­tor analy­sis that’s eas­i­ly manipulable. 

In These Times: Con­sid­er­ing the fact that labor law in the Unit­ed States is real­ly weak, and work­ers’ pro­tec­tions will like­ly be fur­ther erod­ed in the com­ing years, what are the ways that you might antic­i­pate unions or work­ers orga­ni­za­tions respond­ing to that land­scape, through the law or not?

James Gray Pope: Broad­ly, I would say that pol­i­tics are key. And what’s real­ly cru­cial is to get strong pro­gres­sives into elect­ed office, from which point they can pack the court. So if you want it to go through for­mal legal method mech­a­nisms, that would be the way to do it. And obvi­ous­ly, that’s an area that’s fraught right now with the ger­ry­man­der­ing opin­ion, the vot­er ID rul­ings, and Cit­i­zens Unit­ed guar­an­tee­ing the right of mon­ey to skew the polit­i­cal process. All of those things are going to make it very dif­fi­cult to break through. 

The last time this was a prob­lem was around the Lochn­er era, dur­ing which a lot of peo­ple were denied the right to vote, includ­ing not only African Amer­i­cans in the South, but also poor whites in the South, and women. So the demo­c­ra­t­ic process was skewed then as well. Ulti­mate­ly, what was cru­cial was mass resistance. 

And the strikes in 1934—that was the peri­od where you had gen­er­al strikes and threat­ened gen­er­al strikes in a num­ber of cities, bring­ing about the per­ceived pos­si­bil­i­ty of, if not rev­o­lu­tion, some­thing at least threat­en­ing the order. And that got the NLRA passed. And in my opin­ion, that’s what got the NLRA upheld as con­sti­tu­tion­al along with Pres­i­dent Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s threat to pack the Supreme Court with jus­tices sym­pa­thet­ic to the New Deal.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 28, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alice Herman is an In These Times Good­man Inves­tiga­tive Fel­low, as well as a writer based in Madi­son, Wis­con­sin, where she works at a restau­rant. She con­tributes reg­u­lar­ly to Isth­mus, Madison’s alt-week­ly, and The Pro­gres­sive magazine.


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National Hispanic Heritage Month Profiles: Dora Cervantes

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Throughout National Hispanic Heritage Month, the AFL-CIO will be profiling labor leaders and activists to spotlight the diverse contributions Hispanics and Latinos have contributed to our movement. Today’s profile covers Dora Cervantes.

In nearly 30 years in the labor movement, Cervantes has participated in nearly every aspect of the fight for the rights of working people, and she has a distinguished career that is still going stronger than ever. Cervantes joined the labor movement in 1989, when she became a reservations agent for Southwest Airlines in Houston. Before long, she was an active member of Machinists (IAM) Local 2198, serving as an organizer, shop steward, recording secretary and then vice president.

After a decade of dedicated service, she was chosen to serve as an apprentice organizer for Air Transport District 142 and then became a general chairperson for the district the following year. Tom Buffenbarger, then-IAM international president, later appointed her to serve on IAM’s 2002 Blue Ribbon Commission. In the following years, she served as a special representative in the Transportation Department of the IAM Grand Lodge and then Grand Lodge representative.

In 2012, Cervantes was chosen to serve as assistant secretary to then-IAM General Secretary-Treasurer Robert Roach Jr. The next year, she became the first Hispanic woman to serve as a general vice president for IAM. In 2015, she became IAM’s 12th general secretary-treasurer, the first woman to direct the union’s finances. She continues in this capacity today.

She also serves as a national board member for the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, is an active member of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, is a member of United Against Human Trafficking and is a trustee for the National IAM Benefit Trust Fund and the IAM National 401(k) Plan.

Cervantes holds a bachelor of arts degree in labor studies from the National Labor College and helps teach the Spanish leadership series for the William W. Winpisinger Education and Technology Center and the IAM-Aviation High School Partnership Program.

This article originally appeared at AFL-CIO on September 25, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Restaurant Workers Are Building Solidarity Amid the Pandemic

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BOISE, IDA­HO—It was rain­ing light­ly June 29 when Geo Eng­ber­son, own­er of the Pie Hole pizze­ria, con­vened an emer­gency staff meet­ing. He had intend­ed a quick con­fer­ence in the park­ing lot behind the restau­rant, known for its steady stream of week­end bar-goers. Giv­en the weath­er, Eng­ber­son fer­ried the hand­ful of work­ers into his trailer. 

Ear­li­er that month, work­ers at the piz­za joint peti­tioned for an hourly wage bump. Wor­ried that Pie Hole was pre­pared to replace them, for­mer employ­ee Kiwi Palmer says, she and her cowork­ers refused to train new hires. This refusal trig­gered a conflict. 

In a record­ing of the trail­er meet­ing obtained by In These Times, Eng­ber­son says, “Kiwi, yes­ter­day you told [the man­ag­er] you wouldn’t train new hires, any scabs. That still how you feel?” 

When Palmer and fel­low work­er Mar­shall Har­ris reaf­firmed they would not train new hires, Eng­ber­son fired them. 

In the weeks since, the Pie Hole work­ers have orga­nized a series of pick­ets in front of the restau­rant. Call­ing them­selves the Pie Hole Work­ers Union, they filed a com­plaint with the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board alleg­ing the fir­ing was retal­ia­to­ry and vio­lat­ed their right to par­tic­i­pate in “con­cert­ed activ­i­ty” with­out reprisal. 

Eng­ber­son rejects the claim that Palmer and Har­ris were fired for orga­niz­ing and that the busi­ness planned to replace them. “We got busy, and we need­ed to hire more peo­ple,” Eng­ber­son tells In These Times. He adds, “I treat my employ­ees like fam­i­ly … and I don’t ever hear from them that they’re dis­grun­tled about their wages.” Eng­ber­son also says that, when he used the word “scabs,” he was quot­ing Palmer— not con­firm­ing the new work­ers were, in fact, scabs. 

The Pie Hole work­ers have found sup­port from the Boise chap­ter of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA), which has aid­ed in pick­ets and con­nect­ed them with DSA’s nation­al Restau­rant Orga­niz­ing Project. 

Beyond Boise, mul­ti­ple left-wing labor groups have tak­en on the cause of restau­rant orga­niz­ing. In addi­tion to its Restau­rant Orga­niz­ing Project, DSA has col­lab­o­rat­ed with the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (UE)—a demo­c­ra­t­ic, rank-and-file union—to advise work­ers on union dri­ves and work­place actions. Between the DSA projects and UE’s orga­niz­ing, the Left has tak­en a cen­tral role in pan­dem­ic-era organizing.

“We’ve seen a sig­nif­i­cant uptick in work­ers con­tact­ing us about orga­niz­ing from the restau­rant indus­try, and in the food ser­vice [and] hos­pi­tal­i­ty sec­tor more broad­ly,” UE orga­niz­er Mark Mein­ster says. “Work­ers are very con­cerned about the lack of safe­ty pro­tec­tions regard­ing Covid, the lack of paid sick leave and the drop in income many antic­i­pate as a result of serv­ing few­er customers.”

This wave of labor activism in hos­pi­tal­i­ty has already ush­ered in wins. In March, a coali­tion of New Orleans ser­vice and hos­pi­tal­i­ty work­ers cam­paigned to dis­burse reserves from the city’s con­ven­tion cen­ter direct­ly into the hands of work­ers; by April 22, the city agreed to pro­vide $1 mil­lion in grants to work­ers affect­ed by the pan­dem­ic. Some restau­rants in Philadel­phia, where hos­pi­tal­i­ty work­ers have orga­nized to end the sub­min­i­mum wage for servers and bar­tenders, have increased wages dur­ing the pandemic.

But the restau­rant indus­try remains dif­fi­cult to orga­nize, and union shops are still the extreme minor­i­ty, with union den­si­ty in accom­mo­da­tion and food ser­vice hov­er­ing around 2.1%.

At Augie’s Cof­fee, a chain in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, work­ers demon­strat­ed 70% sup­port for the Augie’s Union (rep­re­sent­ed by UE) and request­ed the com­pa­ny vol­un­tar­i­ly rec­og­nize their bar­gain­ing unit. The com­pa­ny then shut down oper­a­tions and laid off every­one in the cafés. Now, for­mer work­ers are cam­paign­ing for union recog­ni­tion and to be rehired.

“Peo­ple are so atom­ized, and the job they do is so tem­po­rary,” says Matthew Soliz, a barista orga­niz­ing with Augie’s Union. “I think for peo­ple my age and younger, unions aren’t real­ly a con­cept, right? Like, in talk­ing to my cowork­ers, the most com­mon response is, ‘I don’t real­ly know what that is.’ ”

Giv­en the chal­lenges, restau­rant work­ers are band­ing togeth­er across restau­rants and across cities. In Chica­go, New Orleans, Den­ver and Boise, restau­rant work­ers have formed city­wide sol­i­dar­i­ty orga­ni­za­tions. On July 24, work­ers around the coun­try marched to demand expand­ed ben­e­fits from unem­ploy­ment insurance.

“The fact that [DSA’s Restau­rant Orga­niz­ing Project] is grow­ing is evi­dence [that] A, we’re not crazy, and B, we’re not alone, and C, that there is sol­i­dar­i­ty that is grow­ing rapid­ly,” Har­ris says. “Inside of five weeks, I’ve gone from nev­er hav­ing done any of this to attempt­ing to orga­nize oth­er people.”

This article originally appeared at In These Times on September 29, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alice Herman is an In These Times Good­man Inves­tiga­tive Fel­low, as well as a writer based in Madi­son, Wis­con­sin, where she works at a restau­rant. She con­tributes reg­u­lar­ly to Isth­mus, Madison’s alt-week­ly, and The Pro­gres­sive magazine.


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What a Just Transition Would Actually Mean for Workers

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just tran•si•tion

noun

1. A frame­work to address the liveli­hoods and needs of the work­ers and com­mu­ni­ties most impact­ed by the switch to renew­able ener­gy

“We want [a plan to] mobi­lize the econ­o­my in a way that tran­si­tions us off of fos­sil fuels in 11 years, but also pro­tects every sin­gle work­er [and] their abil­i­ty to have a job and health­care.” —Nicole Karsch, Sun­rise Move­ment Organizer

Where does this idea come from? 

The super­fi­cial con­flict between sav­ing the plan­et and sav­ing the econ­o­my has long dogged envi­ron­men­tal­ists, but the “way out,” accord­ing to U.S. labor leader Tony Maz­zoc­chi back in 1993, is to “make pro­vi­sion for the work­ers who lose their jobs in the wake of the country’s dras­ti­cal­ly need­ed envi­ron­men­tal cleanup.” Maz­zoc­chi, once vice pres­i­dent of the Oil, Chem­i­cal and Atom­ic Work­ers Inter­na­tion­al Union (lat­er absorbed into the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers), was respond­ing to chem­i­cal plant clo­sures and then-new Super­fund envi­ron­men­tal cleanup pro­grams. If there can be Super­fund for tox­ic dirt, the think­ing went, there should be one for work­ers. That vision of labor and envi­ron­men­tal­ists work­ing togeth­er is at the cen­ter of a “just transition.” 

Is a just tran­si­tion part of the Green New Deal? 

It should be! While Alexan­dria Ocasio-Cortez’s land­mark 2019 res­o­lu­tion includ­ed such mea­sures as a fed­er­al jobs guar­an­tee, it did not specif­i­cal­ly address fos­sil-fuel work­ers, leav­ing it open to crit­i­cism by union lead­ers. Bernie Sanders’ ver­sion, released lat­er that year, includ­ed up to five years of income replace­ment and free edu­ca­tion for dis­placed work­ers. Cli­mate groups, includ­ing the Sun­rise Move­ment, also advo­cate income guar­an­tees. These pro­vi­sions, mod­eled after the GI Bill, are an impor­tant step toward win­ning sup­port from labor. 

Giv­en how 2020 has gone so far, what are the odds we’ll get any­where near this? 

It may not sur­prise you that, for all his talk about coal coun­try, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has not weighed in on what a just tran­si­tion would look like. The new Joe Biden cli­mate plan, more aggres­sive than his pri­ma­ry plat­form, at least leaves the con­ver­sa­tion open with the poten­tial to cre­ate mil­lions of new cli­mate jobs. States, too, can take action. Col­orado passed a ground­break­ing just tran­si­tion law in 2019 that guar­an­tees ben­e­fits and grants for for­mer coal work­ers and coal-depen­dent com­mu­ni­ties. It’s hard to imag­ine repli­cat­ing this vic­to­ry giv­en state bud­gets dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, but the pan­dem­ic also empha­sizes the impor­tance of a just tran­si­tion?—?as oil demand plum­mets and thou­sands of refin­ery work­ers may face immi­nent lay­offs nation­wide. The tran­si­tion is hap­pen­ing regard­less. The ques­tion is whether work­ers and com­mu­ni­ties will be left behind.

This is part of “The Big Idea,” a month­ly series offer­ing brief intro­duc­tions to pro­gres­sive the­o­ries, poli­cies, tools and strate­gies that can help us envi­sion a world beyond cap­i­tal­ism. For recent In These Times cov­er­age of a Just Tran­si­tion in action, see, “The Just Tran­si­tion for Coal Work­ers Can Start Now. Col­orado Is Show­ing How,” “Cli­mate Activists Can’t Afford to Ignore Labor. A Shut­tered Refin­ery in Philly Shows Why” and “This Cri­sis Can Be a Gate­way to Cli­mate Action. These Activists Are Show­ing How.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 25, 2020. Reprinted with permission.


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The Federal Agency Designed to Protect Workers Is Trying to Destroy Unions and Weaken Labor Rights

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When Dan Hoskins tried to organize colleagues at an Oregon plant in 2019, vindictive managers marched him past as many workers as possible en route to a disciplinary meeting in the human resources office.

The company wanted to create a climate of fear, Hoskins recalled, not only by threatening his job but ensuring others saw “Mr. Leader Pants getting written up.”

From trumped-up disciplinary charges to threats of layoffs and other scare tactics, corporations wage ferocious wars of intimidation to sabotage organizing campaigns and torment union supporters.

“You’re in a war zone,” explained Hoskins, who willingly shouldered the mistreatment because he understands the benefits unions bring to a workplace. “The tension is thick, and you know it’s going to be that way for months.”

Sadly, abused workers can expect no help from the Trump administration, which is busy trying to exterminatelabor unions.

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the urgent need for stronger workplace protections, Trump’s National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ramped up a scorched-earth campaign aimed at annihilating organized labor and subjugating American workers.

The string of NLRB rulings amounts to death by a thousand cuts, each one chipping away at the long-established rights and practices enabling working people to join together to build better lives.

For example, the NLRB—run by Trump’s handpicked corporate cronies—imposed additional, unnecessary steps to the union election procedure solely to drag out the process and give employers more time to thwart organizing efforts.

And the agency went further, empowering employers to begin withholding email addresses and other information unions need merely to contact prospective voters.

The board also ruled that employers may discipline a worker just for mentioning a union drive to a colleague during work hours. In a decision rooted in spite, rather than logic, it concluded the mere reference to an organizing effort—even an offhand remark—constituted an illegal solicitation of a colleague’s vote.

The NLRB is ostensibly responsible for protecting workers’ rights. But under Trump, it’s stacking the deck in favor of greedy corporations desperate to silence workers’ voices and bust unions at any cost.

Hoskins said the several organizing efforts he helped to lead all fell short amid unfair rules that restricted his activities yet gave his employers free rein to viciously bully workers and paper the plant—even the cupboards and tables in the cafeteria—with anti-union propaganda.

He likened the uneven playing field facing unions to a political campaign in which only one candidate gets to use social media or a fight in which one person gets only one punch to an opponent’s 10.

“Then we’re supposed to win the boxing match?” asked Hoskins, who supports unions because they give workers a voice in the workplace and force corporations to share more of their profits with the people who actually create them.

The Trump administration continually seeks new ways to rig the system against working people.

In one of its biggest gifts to corporations yet, the NLRB went to court to overturn an Oregon law that affords workers a degree of protection from the pernicious anti-union meetings that employers across the country regularly hold to belittle union supporters, lie about labor and kill organizing campaigns.

In Oregon, employers may hold anti-union meetings. But they cannot force workers to attend them. The NLRB filed suit to change that, arguing the law violates employers’ free-speech rights.

That’s right. The Trump administration wants to further free employers to lie, bully and fearmonger during organizing drives, even as it empowers the same companies to discipline workers for so much as mentioning a union.

Hoskins attended anti-union meetings over the years where managers falsely claimed that a union could undercut a company’s competitiveness and force it to cut jobs.

“The number one emotion they manipulate is fear,” Hoskins said, noting one panicked co-worker threatened him for leading the union drive.

If the NLRB overturns Oregon’s law, employers will ramp up the coercion and launch anti-union campaigns every bit as brutal as the one Kumho Tire waged against workers in Macon, Georgia, in 2016-2017.

After workers began an organizing drive with the United Steelworkers (USW), Kumho forced them into daily anti-union meetings—each lasting up to 90 minutes—in which the company repeatedly threatened to close the plant, haul away the equipment and eliminate their jobs.

Kumho augmented that torture with shop-floor conversations in which supervisors continually bullied workers and demanded to know how they planned to vote. The pressure tactics began the moment workers began their shifts each day, creating an atmosphere of pure hell inside the plant.

Yet workers are persevering in their efforts to organize—just like a growing number of other Americans.

The NLRB’s assault on organized labor and workers’ rights comes as more workers—at companies ranging from Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods to FedEx and multi-billionaire Warren Buffett’s Cort Furniture—seek the protection of unions.

The pandemic further widened America’s rampant income inequality and underscored corporations’ indifference to workplace safety, as workers at Cort Furniture and Orlando International Airport discovered when their bosses herded them into anti-union meetings despite the need for social distancing.

These and other exploited workers realize that only by organizing can they win family-sustaining wages, decent benefits and safe working conditions.

However, building better lives for millions of ordinary Americans will require an NLRB committed to vigorously enforcing labor rights.

The president nominates NLRB members as well as the agency’s powerful general counsel, and the Senate confirms them. So only the election of federal officials committed to workers’ rights can truly put the agency back on course.

Trump and his Senate allies not only installed corporate lawyer Peter Robb as general counsel but put former GOP congressional staffer Marvin Kaplan and corporate lawyers John Ring and William Emanuel on the five-person board—appointments that deliberately set in motion the war on unions and workers.

In a recent letter, the USW urged senators to reject Trump’s renomination of Kaplan, whose term expires in August, because of the unprecedented damage he helped inflict on Americans like Hoskins, who only want fair treatment on the job. The Senate voted to confirm him for another term anyway.

Hoskins first grasped the value of collective bargaining years ago after seeing a corporate executive pocket millions of dollars in a single quarter, while some of his co-workers struggled to make ends meet.

Ever since, he willingly endured managers’ harassment during organizing campaigns because he understands the life-changing differences a union would deliver.

Hoskins doesn’t mind fighting for a union. He only wishes the NLRB would finally give him a fair shot.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

About the Author: Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).


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Five Reasonable Accommodations at Work

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With workplaces reopening in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, people with all types of disabilities are wondering if they can ask their employer for what they need.  Here are five common ADA accommodations and how the law has treated them.

The good news is that, with some thought, many of these adjustments will benefit everyone—creating a safer and more productive work environment.  Workplaces, like architecture, can be designed to minimize barriers. 

UNIVERSAL DESIGN: The design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.

United States Access Board

1. Adjusted Work Times

Adjusting work hours can help people with many kinds of disabilities, and can cut down on workplace crowding.  If schedule adjustments are possible for the job, they are a reasonable accommodation. Even adjusting the schedule for a less crowded commute may be reasonable.[1] 

2. Adding Protective Equipment

Courts have said protective equipment—like masks and gloves—can be reasonable to keep people with disabilities on the job and safe, even if the employer generally does not provide or allow it.[2]  Many employees are asking to use their own equipment, and this is likely to be a reasonable request.  Indeed, usually the employer will have to provide reasonable protective equipment, or even modify the workspace. 

3. Fixing Mask Policies

On the other hand, some people with disabilities need adjustments to masks or other protective equipment that employers may want to mandate for all workers.  For deaf peoplepeople with sensory sensitivities or claustrophobia, and people with breathing impairments, for example, masks can be a problem. 

The key is to accomplish the goal of keeping everyone safe.  With some thought, that can be done in ways that work for everyone.

4. Work from Home

Many judges used to be skeptical when people with disabilities asked to work remotely.[3]  That law is changing fast.[4]  If the job can be done remotely, an employer should consider it. 

5. Temporary Leave

As a last resort, workers can simply ask to take time off.  Disability law usually doesn’t require pay during the leave, although other laws, insurance, or contracts may.   The key to a temporary leave request is to make it reasonable—clear communication and an expected time frame are important.  Employers have to be able to take care of business while the worker is out.

These are just a few examples—many other adjustments may be reasonable, depending on the situation. A couple more points:

Medical Documentation

Employers can ask for reasonable medical documentation.  Here is the EEOC’s guidance.

Interactive Process

The law calls for an “interactive process” when a worker requests an accommodation.  That means an employer must work with the employee to figure out what is possible.  It also means the employee must work with the employer—the law does not always require the employer to give the first accommodation requested. Now more than ever, let’s come together and find ways for all of us to get back to work.

Resources


[1] See, e.g., Lyons v. Legal Aid Soc‘y, 68 F.3d 1512, 1514 (2d Cir. 1995).

[2] See, e.g. Barry v. Illinois Dep’t of Corr., No. 114CV03199MMMTSH, 2019 WL 1083759, at *5 (C.D. Ill. Mar. 7, 2019).

[3] See, e.g. EEOC v. Ford Motor Co., 782 F.3d 753, 761 (6th Cir. 2015) (“[R]egularly attending work on-site is essential to most jobs.”).

[4] See, e.g. Masters v. Class Appraisal, Inc., No. 217CV11283LJMEAS, 2019 WL 4597365, at *8 (E.D. Mich. Sept. 23, 2019); Boltz v. United Process Controls, No. 1:16-CV-703, 2017 WL 2153921, at *10 (S.D. Ohio May 17, 2017).

This blog originally appeared at ADA Update on May 28, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Maia Goodell is a civil rights lawyer committed to community lawyering for people and organizations of people with disabilities.


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