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Top 10 AFL-CIO Blog Posts of 2020

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By any measure, 2020 has been one of the most historic years in recent memory. Working people across the country stepped up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, continued to organize their workplaces and came together to help elect a labor-friendly president and vice president in Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. We covered these stories and many others throughout the year and here are the top 10 most-read stories by you, our readers.

1. In Memoriam: Union Members Lost in COVID-19 Pandemic: “As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the United States, our sisters, brothers and friends in the labor movement are among the first casualties. It is important for us to work together during this crisis to prevent further deaths. It is important to thank those who are doing the work to keep us safe and fed. It is important to remember those who we lost because of the coronavirus.”

2. Working People Respond to the Killing of George Floyd with Nationwide Protests: “Racism plays an insidious role in the daily lives of all working people of color. This is a labor issue because it is a workplace issue. It is a community issue, and unions are the community. We must and will continue to fight for reforms in policing and to address issues of racial and economic inequality.”

3. Biden Taps Working People Champions to Transition Teams: “President-elect Joe Biden made sure that the voices of working people will be heard in the transition to his administration. He appointed more than two dozen leaders from the labor movement to the various agency review teams that will help make sure the Biden administration is ready to go on day one.”

4. Shame on Corporations Using COVID-19 Pandemic to Attack Workers: “Some greedy corporations are using this time to attack these working people, attempting to use a crisis to roll back the rights of the very people who are dying while keeping America running.”

5. Government Must Act to Stop Spread of Economic and Financial Consequences of Coronavirus: “We need government to act to stop financial and economic contagion until the worst of the coronavirus passes and, most importantly, until everyone has a better sense of the exact nature of the threat—that is, until the uncertainty diminishes. Working people must demand that government act, or we and our families will pay the price for others’ lack of action, as we so often have in the past.”

6. The Trump Budget: The Other Shoe Drops: “They keep running the same play because it keeps working. Since 2001, the wealthiest 1% of all taxpayers have gotten $2 trillion in tax cuts, and federal tax revenues have been reduced by $5.1 trillion. This is money that should have been used to make life better for working people?—for example, by rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, funding quality public education for every child and guaranteeing retirement security for our seniors?—rather than building up the fortunes of the 1%.”

7. 50 Reasons the Trump Administration Is Bad for Workers: “The Trump administration’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic marks the administration’s most glaring failure of leadership. However, the administration’s response to the pandemic is in no way distinct from its approach to governing since President Trump’s first day on the job. The administration has systematically promoted the interests of corporate executives and shareholders over those of working people and failed to protect workers’ safety, wages and rights.”

8. The Response to COVID-19: What Working People Are Doing This Week: “‘When things like these episodes break out, we’re on the front lines.’ – Leo Laffitte, a custodian for 18 years at the Hartford Public Library, a member of AFSCME Local 1716…”

9. The New Front-Line Workers: The Working People Weekly List: “Much of the American workplace has shut down, sending millions of employees home to wait out the coronavirus pandemic. Among those still on the job are grocery-store clerks, prison guards and delivery drivers. ‘Who would have ever thought that we would be on the front lines?’ said Joyce Babineau, a 67-year-old supermarket supervisor in Dartmouth, Mass., a coastal village 60 miles south of Boston.”

10. Breakthrough for Organized Labor and Clean Energy: “Her goal was to go beyond good intentions and rhetoric. So Liz Shuler, as secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, the second-highest position in the labor movement and, as it happens, highest-ranking woman in the federation’s history, went to Scandinavia in 2019. She leveraged AFL-CIO’s relationships with their sister union federations to talk directly with top management at some of the largest renewable energy companies in the world.”

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on December 18, 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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2020 in Review: Workers Struggle Under the Weight of the Pandemic

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Workers will feel the ramifications of this unprecedented year long into the future.

The coronavirus pandemic has claimed 300,000 lives, destroyed millions of jobs, busted gaping holes in public budgets, and magnified the myriad inequalities that have come to define life in the United States.

Notwithstanding a few bright spots, the labor movement struggled to find its footing in the biggest workplace health and safety crisis of our lifetimes.

The year started with 3.5 percent unemployment—the lowest in a half-century—and hopes that workers might be able to use the tight labor market to recover some of what had been lost over decades of concessions.

All that came to a crashing halt in March, though the U.S. was slow to impose dramatic shutdowns. Eventually it took a seesaw approach, alternating between periods of lockdown and opening in an attempt to keep the economy going while waiting for a vaccine.

That came at an enormous human cost. Health care workers sustained grueling shifts for months on end, witnessing the havoc this new virus wreaks on its victims while working desperately to connect patients with loved ones to say their final distanced goodbyes. Meanwhile they often had to fight for adequate protective gear.

“Most of us are going to get it and some of us are going to die,” said Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, president of the New York State Nurses, as the pandemic reached its early heights in New York City. Overall around 550,000 health care workers have contracted the virus, including 300,000 workers in nursing home, whose residents account for 40 percent of all Covid deaths. Sixteen hundred health care workers have died.

MOST UNEQUAL RECESSION

Unemployment peaked near 15 percent in April. By September a quarter of Americans would say that someone in their household had lost a job this year.

Even as unemployment dipped to 6.7 percent in November, there were still 9 million fewer workers on payrolls than a year ago, with 3.7 million having dropped out of the labor force. The real unemployment rate, which includes these workers as well as involuntary part-timers, stands at 12 percent. Among the unemployed, 3.9 million have been without a job for more than 27 weeks.

But even those figures understate the pandemic’s impact on workers. According to the Washington Post, this is “the most unequal recession in modern U.S. history, delivering a mild setback for those at or near the top and a depression-like blow for those at the bottom.”

Unemployment rates for Blacks and Latinos are 10.3 percent and 8.4 percent, respectively, compared to 5.9 percent for white workers. Retail has lost 550,000 jobs since February and leisure and hospitality 3.4 million.

While Americans got used to seeing cars lined up for miles at food banks—26 million adults reported not having enough food to eat in mid-November—those at the very top saw their fortunes grow astronomically. Since the start of lockdowns in March, 650 U.S. billionaires have tacked on an additional $1 trillion in wealth, led by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, now worth $70 billion more, and the Walton family, up a combined $48 billion.

AN UPSURGE?

Suddenly, just the act of going to work every day became a potential life-or-death question.

That spurred some workers to action. Detroit bus drivers were the first to strike, to force the city to sanitize buses and stop fare collection. Apple packers—working shoulder to shoulder in the county with the highest rate of Covid on the West Coast—walked out to demand safety and hazard pay. Workers in Amazon warehouses, grocery stores, and fast food fought for paid time off.

These were among the hundreds of actions that workers took to defend themselves, their co-workers, and their communities. But it was far from the mass strike wave that some anticipated, a reflection both of the disorienting impact of the pandemic and of how little real organization had been built up heading into it.

Meatpacking and poultry plants stayed open throughout the year, even as the workers, largely immigrants, contracted the coronavirus at alarming rates. A Tyson plant manager in Iowa set up a pool for supervisors to bet on how many workers in the plant would get the virus, according to a lawsuit; over a third caught it, and five died. Tyson’s billionaire owner, meanwhile, saw his fortune balloon by $600 million. OSHA was almost entirely AWOL as 225 meatpacking workers died of Covid. Poultry plants were even granted federal waivers to increase line speed.

None of this is to dismiss the valiant organizing in some workplaces.

In just the week before we went to print, 30 workers walked out at a George’s poultry plant in Springdale, Arkansas, to protest the end of staggered shifts (which mean fewer workers have to cram into crowded hallways) and push for wage increases. Teachers organized a sickout in Chandler, Arizona, over their district’s refusal to consider hybrid or remote schooling as cases surge. And dozens of fast food workers in Durham, North Carolina, struck after a worker at a McDonald’s tested positive and management withheld the news; they demanded better virus protections and $15 an hour.

SOCIALLY DISTANCED TACTICS

Many unions and worker centers did their best to adapt by organizing socially distanced rallies and car caravans, including some that jammed up fast food drive-thrus to back workers’ demands. A digital picket line by the New Yorker’s new union won just cause after a two-year push.

Some unions canceled meetings entirely. Others switched to Zoom and reported record attendance. Many negotiated one-year contract extensions, hoping for a better bargaining environment next year. At some big union employers, like Verizon and AT&T, strong unions won model leave policies. Others, like UPS, refused calls for hazard pay—and national union leaders did little to rock the boat.

Some workers frustrated with their union officials’ inaction voted in new ones. Complaining that the six-term incumbent hadn’t “shown his face” and was “totally absent,” members of AFSCME District Council 33 in Philadelphia backed a challenger slate—which included sanitation workers pushing for hazard pay and personal protective equipment—two to one.

No big wave of workers joined unions, though a handful did. National Nurses United had a breakthrough in North Carolina, the biggest hospital union victory in the South in 45 years. A promising collaboration between the United Electrical Workers and the Democratic Socialists of America trained hundreds of volunteers to advise workers looking for fight-back help, but has notched just a few small wins thus far.

Educators were forced to navigate constantly shifting conditions. They worried that open schools could spread the virus, and raged at a politics that placed the economy above their safety.

Some locals, like United Teachers Los Angeles, used the power they had built through years of organizing to quickly win remote schooling. But in many other districts, educators are back in buildings, or shifting back and forth between in-person and remote.

GOOD RIDDANCE

Averting a second term for Donald Trump was a major goal for many in labor.

An election that Joe Biden won by 7 million votes still managed to be a nail-biter, thanks to the archaic and undemocratic Electoral College. While the Biden campaign itself downplayed the importance of face-to-face organizing, a few unions thankfully ignored this advice. UNITE HERE sent 1,700 mostly Black and Latino canvassers—many of them laid-off hotel workers—whose work provided the critical margins in Arizona and Pennsylvania.

But the larger “blue wave” heralded by pre-election polling failed to materialize, dashing hopes for a good terrain on which to fight for labor law reform, a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, or a massive federal stimulus and jobs program. Absent changes that will actually improve voters’ lives over the next four years, the prospect looms of a swing back to a demagogic right-winger in 2024.

In an ominous development in California, Uber and other gig economy giants spent a record-breaking $200 million to buy a win on Proposition 22 so they could go on treating workers as disposable “independent contractors.”

LABOR FOR BLACK LIVES

The other major story of 2020 was the upsurge for racial justice that began with George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police. Millions took to the streets, including in small towns where demonstrations are a rarity. Many demanded to cut police funding and redirect it to social needs.

Labor played its part. Many Twin Cities unions supported the demonstrations. Bus drivers in Minneapolis and New York refused to transport arrested protesters. West Coast dockers shut down their ports twice.

Teachers in Minneapolis, Denver, Portland, Oregon, Rochester, New York, and Seattle forced their districts to cut contracts with the police. The King County labor council expelled the Seattle police union, and other labor bodies debated whether police unions belong within them.

Union leaders—often hesitant to weigh in on such issues—issued statements backing the protests. A Strike for Black Lives endorsed by eight national unions in July saw actions in 150 cities; many participants stopped work for eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence to honor Floyd.

As Tim Schermerhorn and Lee Sustar wrote in these pages, “The challenge now is to bring the militancy and energy of this year’s revived Black struggle into the workplace.”

WHERE NOW?

Where does all this leave us heading into 2021? We don’t know how many jobs the vaccine will bring back. In the public sector—a major employer of Black workers—decimated state and city budgets will fuel battles over employee pensions, health care, layoffs, and collective bargaining rights.

Over the past year, tens of millions of workers have been heralded as essential and praised as heroes. But they’ve also seen that they’re expendable—that their lives do not matter as much as ensuring the smooth flow of goods and production.

“We’re up here risking our life for chicken,” said Kendaliyn Granville, a Georgia poultry worker who walked out early in the pandemic.

“All they care about is picking up the garbage. They don’t even care about our health,” said Pittsburgh sanitation worker Fitzroy Moss at a rally demanding protective gear and hazard pay.

Many of these same workers hit the streets in the dramatic protests for racial justice this summer. How will these experiences translate to a post-pandemic world, where workers may have more breathing space to organize?

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on December 21, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Dan DiMaggio is an Assistant Editor of Labor Notes.

About the Author: Saurav Sarkar is an Assistant Editor of Labor Notes. Saurav covers worker centers, immigrant workers, LGBTQ workers, the Steelworkers, the Electrical Workers (UE), and the global labor movement.


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Will 2020 Be the Year Presidential Candidates Actually Take Labor Issues Seriously?

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Call it a sin of omission, but the historic decline of labor union power was on full display during recent CNN town hall meetings with 2020 Democratic presidential aspirants Sens. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar.

All three nationally televised forums featured questions on a range of issues from students, nonprofit directors, community leaders and other traditional Democratic constituencies (including undisclosed lobbying firms), but not a single question was asked about national labor law.

It’s not just CNN, either. By and large, the announced 2020 presidential candidates have not spoken at length on the stump about their agenda for labor, at least not yet, instead sticking to broader themes such as economic inequality and policies like raising the minimum wage, Medicare-for-All, free college tuition and universal child care.

“The candidates are making a distinction between labor policy and labor issues,” David Yepsen, the host of Iowa Press and a leading expert on presidential politics, told In These Times. “It’s politically safer to talk about health care, expanded Medicare, and a higher minimum wage than it is to talk about things like card check.”

Most voters don’t understand the latter, even though you’ve got to do things like the latter to get the former,” Yepsen added. “If you don’t find ways to strengthen the labor movement, there isn’t going to be the political support to do the things needed to rebuild the working class.”

The failure of the Obama administration and a filibuster-proof Democratic congress to pass the 2009 Employee Free Choice Act is a good example. The legislation would have made it easier for workers to form a union with a simple 50 percent majority. But there was little political will by the Democratic leadership at the time to get it done given other priorities such as an economic stimulus, Obamacare, reining in Wall Street and withdrawing troops from Iraq.

The issue agenda of the Obama White House was perhaps justifiable at the time, but it also came with a steep opportunity cost. The Democrats’ failure to strengthen union bargaining and consolidate a working-class base of political support when they had the chance helped lead to an eventual Republican takeover of government between 2010 and 2016, paving the way for future attacks on labor by right-wing governors and the Supreme Court.

Has the new crop of 2020 presidential candidates learned this lesson? All of the declared candidates who are considered front runners have strong ties to organized labor.

With the notable exception of Klobuchar, nearly all of the senators running for president— Gillibrand, Harris, Warren and Booker—co-sponsored Sanders’ 2018 Workplace Democracy Act, which would overhaul existing labor law and make it easier for workers to form and fund their own unions.

“The Workplace Democracy Act is Sen. Sanders’ key labor union legislation,” a spokesperson for Sanders told In These Times.

According to Sanders’ congressional office, the Workplace Democracy Act would enable unions to organize through a majority sign up process; enact ‘first contract’ provisions to ensure companies cannot prevent a union from forming by denying a first contract; eliminate “right to work” laws; end independent contractor and franchisee abuse; legalize secondary boycotts and picketing; and expand the ‘persuader rule’ to weaken union-busting efforts.

As Sanders explained when introducing the latest iteration of the bill last year, “Corporate America understands that when workers become organized, when workers are able to engage in collective bargaining, they end up with far better wages and benefits… and that is why, for decades now, there has been a concentrated well-organized attack on the ability of workers to organize.”

Sanders, Harris and Warren have all also taken symbolic actions since announcing their presidential runs in order to highlight their close relationship with unions and the working class.

Warren, for example, formally announced her candidacy for president in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the site of the 1912 strike by textile workers known as the “Bread and Roses Strike.”

“Supporting labor and making it easier for American workers to join a union is absolutely a priority for Sen. Warren,” Jason Noble, Warren’s communications director, told In These Times. “She is a co-sponsor of the 2018 Workplace Democracy Act, introduced a bill in 2017 to ban “right to work” laws, and has been very vocal about the need for stronger labor organization and wider access to unions.”

Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Actwould also allow workers at corporations with more than $1 billion in revenue to choose up to 40 percent of the company’s board of directors, shifting the balance of power toward the rank-and-file.

California is one of the last remaining union strongholds in the country, and Harris has hired the former president of the state’s largest and most diverse labor union, SEIU’s Laphonza Butler, to be her senior campaign advisor.

“Sen. Harris is a strong and passionate supporter of organized labor and workers’ rights,” the Harris campaign’s national press secretary, Ian Sams, told In These Times.

“She’s sponsored multiple bills in the Senate, including Workers’ Freedom to Negotiate Act, WAGE Act, Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, Workplace Democracy Act, and Protecting Workers and Improving Labor Standards Act.”

In February, Sanders publicly jumped in on the side of striking workers in Erie, Pennsylvania after announcing his own 2020 candidacy. Since 2016, he has also joined workers in fights against Amazonand McDonalds, helping them to win major wage increases.

“Many blue-collar workers supported Trump in the last election,” Yepsen, the Iowa-based national political analyst, said. “Both presidential candidates and labor leaders have to figure out ways and messages to move them back onto the progressive side if they hope to get 270 electoral votes for a presidential candidate. The phrases ‘labor policy,’ ‘labor movement’ and ‘organized labor’ aren’t well understood by voters. ‘Health care’ ‘minimum wage’ and ‘improved education’ are understood. So give the candidates some credit for talking about important issues in a way people can understand.”

As Yepsen previously noted, however, this kind of thinking may help win elections, but it can also lead to a paradox. Focusing on easily-understood, ‘bread and butter’ issues—talking about working families but not union power—and relying on congressional voting records and scorecards instead of stump speeches and bold new proclamations won’t build a popular mandate for labor law reform, or the long term working-class political power that comes with it.

“Most Americans take for granted the things the labor movement has done for them over the decades—child labor, minimum wage, a 40-hour work week, health care,” Yepsen said. “A lot of workers have forgotten that too. The good news for labor is that people seem to be waking up. The polls show support for unions increasing and look at the success teachers have been having.”

On another measure, worker militancy has been on the rise—a record number of workers engaged in strikes or work stoppages in 2018. This increased labor action will have to be harnessed by voters in order to push even the strongest candidates into elevating union rights as a priority issue on the campaign trail.

Workers in early voting states can help do so by attending campaign events and asking the candidates to publicly explain their support for the Workplace Democracy Act—or whether or not they back a national “right to strike” law for public sector unions.

The more explicit presidential politicians are about labor rights on the stump, the more likely union power will become a “day one” issue if a Democratic president takes power in 2020. In the long run, this may be one of the only effective ways to both win progressive social change and defend workers’ gains from the inevitable right-wing counterattack.

About the Author: David Goodner is a writer, organizer and Catholic Worker from Iowa City.
This blog was originally published at In These Times on March 6, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

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