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Teachers unions test goodwill with strike threats, hardball negotiations

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In addition to safety measures, some unions are pressing for police-free schools, canceling rents and mortgages, and bans on new charter programs and standardized testing.

Teachers won newfound respect at the start of the pandemic as parents learned just how difficult it was to teach their kids at home.

But teachers unions now risk squandering the outpouring of goodwill by threatening strikes, suing state officials and playing hardball during negotiations with districts.

In California, unions fought Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom hard for teacher protections and job security as campuses were shuttered, and are demanding high-income tax hikes to fill education budget shortfalls. In New York City, a social justice caucus within the United Federation of Teachers called on the union to threaten “severe disruption” if the governor and the mayor implement what they describe as “reckless reopening plans.” The Florida Education Association is in a legal battle with state officials to try to overturn an order requiring schools to physically open five days a week or risk losing state funding.

“Let’s be honest: Teachers went from heroes in March when parents saw what we do everyday, and now we’ve become, in some people’s eyes, the villains because we are speaking up about the safety concerns we see,” said Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators.

Safety concerns have been at the heart of union objections to reopening as they confront teachers getting sick or even dying from Covid-19. Many union leaders have worked collaboratively with management on contracts and reopening plans, and they have spent months calling for additional federal money to secure personal protective equipment and allow for socially distanced instruction. But more recently, a coalition including some local unions has pushed further, laying out demands such as police-free schools, a cancellation of rents and mortgages, and moratoriums on both new charter programs and standardized testing.

The American Federation of Teachers, which has 1.7 million members, has called for “safety strikes” as a last resort if school reopening plans don’t protect the health of educators and the larger 3-million member National Education Association says nothing is off the table.

Those threats and demands have raised the ire of some lawmakers, school districts, parents and conservative groups who argue that teachers are taking advantage of the chaos the pandemic has caused to push policy changes the unions have wanted for years.

“No question, there’s a risk that some will use this moment to politicize these challenges in a way that simply is counterproductive,” said Shavar Jeffries, national president of Democrats for Education Reform, a progressive political organization that advocates for students and families. “I don’t think anything that’s not related to either the health or educational implications of Covid makes sense.”

Members of a coalition of activist parents called the National Parents Union largely agree with teachers unions over what reopening should look like, and their “Family Bill of Rights” emphasizes a need to implement safety measures like masks, temperature checks and updated ventilation systems, said Keri Rodrigues, the group’s president.

But Rodrigues, whose organization represents primarily minority and low-income parents, also criticized the unions for trying to “dominate the conversation” and promote a “long-standing political agenda,” which she called an “overreach.”

“I think that parents were willing to extend a lot of grace in March, in April, even into May,” she said, adding that feeling began to erode after a long summer with little guidance and few decisions made about how to move forward. “At this point, parents are very frustrated.”

Many union officials said they are aware of the need to balance their own demands with parents’ anxiety over their children falling behind — and they know the support they have so far enjoyed could slip.

In Ohio, local unions are focused on the “balancing act” of advocating for both quality learning and teacher and student safety, said Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association. The state union has called on Republican Gov. Mike DeWine to restrict any schools in counties with the highest levels of coronavirus cases to remote learning only, while requiring all others to follow the CDC’s safety guidelines for reopening.

“We’re very conscious of the need to be partners with parents, not to end up being in adversarial relationships,” DiMauro said. “But the longer this goes on, it’s just like everything about coronavirus — there are vulnerabilities in the system, and we can’t go on like this forever.”

Others have been more defiant. Stacy Davis Gates, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, defended the demands that critics have slammed as going too far, including a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures.

“How can you do remote learning from home if you don’t have a home?” she said. “This is fundamentally about a city, about a mayor who has failed to repair a safety net.”

In Chicago, the nation’s third-largest school district, Democratic Mayor Lori Lightfoot initially announced a hybrid reopening model before reversing course earlier this month and announcing that schools would open online-only. The decision came just days after news broke that the union, which has more than 25,000 members, was considering a potential strike vote if the district did not change its plans.

“A win for teachers, students and parents,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey posted on Twitter at the time. “It’s sad that we have to strike or threaten to strike to be heard, but when we fight we win!”

The pandemic has made some union leaders hopeful that it will strengthen their cause and influence for the foreseeable future, as teachers who feel forced into unsafe working conditions look for support and want to get involved.

“More of our members, and more educators in general, are questioning their beliefs on things like strikes. For the first time, they’re really seeing the depths and magnitude of what it actually takes to force change and are rethinking their beliefs on work stoppages,” said Zeph Capo, president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, which represents more than 65,000 of the nearly 365,000 teachers in the state. “I’ve never received as many unsolicited new memberships.”

Union strikes won’t “sit well” with those working parents who want their kids to return to the classroom, said Dan Domenech, who runs AASA, The School Superintendents Association. “That emerges as a major bone of contention, for example, with a lot of the red states that have been pushing for the kids being in the building physically,” he said.

But he said superintendents, generally, have described their negotiations with unions as a “fairly agreeable process,” and some superintendents see union pushback at the state level as an effort to prevent an “open-schools-at-all-costs attitude.”

“The unions, in a situation like this, where they have the support of the parents and the community because what they’re advocating for is the safety of the students and the staff — that’s a very powerful position,” Domenech said.

The debate over whether and how to reopen schools safely is about more than getting children back in classrooms. Proponents of fully reopening schools, including President Donald Trump, say doing so would help reopen the U.S. economy, allowing parents to get back to work, while helping more students access mental health services and meals from their schools. It would also represent a step toward normalcy, which Trump badly wants before voters head to the polls in November.

Asked about the threat of teacher strikes, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told Fox News recently that “parents and children can’t be held captive to others’ fears or agendas.”

In a June poll, 76 percent of AFT members surveyed indicated they were comfortable returning to school buildings with “proper safeguards,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said last month. That was before the virus started to spread more rapidly in the U.S. and Trump, as well as DeVos, began what Weingarten called “reckless ‘open or else’ threats.”

“Now they’re angry and afraid,” Weingarten said of her members. “Many are quitting, retiring or writing their wills. Parents are afraid and angry too.”

Cecily Myart-Cruz, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, which represents the country’s second-largest school district, urged union members to ramp up their demands in her inaugural speech. “We can’t count on the politicians, whether it’s the White House, Congress or the governor to open up the economy in a safe and equitable manner. We can’t count on them to fully fund public education,” she said.

Both NEA and AFT have issued their own guidance for reopening schools. And AFT recently adopted a resolution setting some specific parameters for reopening, including a daily community infection rate below 5 percent and a transmission rate below 1 percent.

But local unions’ work on reopening plans have been used against them, with critics alleging that teachers are putting themselves over the needs of students. Some parents who are essential workers argue that if they are reporting to their jobs, so should teachers.

The Center for Education Reform, an organization that advocates for school choice and charter schools, slammed unions in a policy brief this month, saying that union leaders are “only interested in strikes not solutions.”

“Unions are attacking states and locales that are trying to provide options for everyone, while demanding billions more,” CER said.

The open question is where parents themselves fall in this debate. National polls largely show a majority remain uneasy about reopening: Two-thirds of parents say they see sending their children to school as a large or moderate risk, according to an Axios-Ipsos survey released last week — and almost three in four of Americans surveyed said they are concerned about schools in their community reopening too soon.

Parents of color have also been more worried about reopening than white parents, surveys show. An earlier Axios-Ipsos poll from July found nearly 90 percent of Black parents and 80 percent of Hispanic parents viewed sending their children back to school as a large or moderate risk, compared to 64 percent of white parents.

Some outside groups and experts warn that those numbers could start to shift the longer the debate goes on and students remain out of the classroom.

“With the economy reopening, a lot of individuals are putting themselves in uncomfortable positions in terms of working in light of the pandemic, and might expect teachers to have some give there as well,” said Bradley Marianno, an assistant professor of educational policy and leadership at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, who has been tracking negotiations between teachers’ unions and school districts since the spring.

Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, said “parents rightly have given teachers and unions a lot of grace,” especially during the “chaotic” roll out of remote learning in the spring. But there’s “potential for increasing tension” between parents and unions as leaders negotiate with districts on issues such as how much live virtual instruction they will provide.

“They’re issues that parents have a vested interest in, but they’re not at the table, right? So that’s that’s where the potential tension comes in,” she said.

Some parents, frustrated with their experience in the spring, are already banding together to create private tutoring pods for small groups of students during the pandemic.

If they have to choose between the teachers and their own student’s welfare, Lake said, “they’ll choose their student.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on August 18, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Megan Cassella is a trade reporter for POLITICO Pro. Before joining the trade team in June 2016, Megan worked for Reuters based out of Washington, covering the economy, domestic politics and the 2016 presidential campaign. 

About the Author: Nicole Gaudiano is an education reporter for POLITICO Pro. In more than two decades of reporting, she has covered crime, the military, Congress, presidential campaigns and, now, education. She is a reporter who cares deeply about accuracy, asks tough questions and loves learning. Along with reporting, she enjoys shooting videos and photos.

About the Author: Mackenzie Mays covers education in California. Prior to joining POLITICO in 2019, she was the investigative reporter at the Fresno Bee, where her political watchdog reporting received a National Press Club press freedom award.


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The Green New Deal Just Won a Major Union Endorsement. What’s Stopping the AFL-CIO?

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The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the second largest teachers’ union in the country, passed a resolution in support of the Green New Deal at its biennial convention at the end of July. The Green New Deal, federal legislation introduced in early 2019, would create a living-wage job for anyone who wants one and implement 100% clean and renewable energy by 2030. The endorsement is huge news for both Green New Deal advocates and the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the United States. The AFT’s endorsement could be a sign of environmental activists’ growing power, and it sends a message to the AFL-CIO that it, too, has an opportunity to get on board with the Green New Deal. But working people’s conditions are changing rapidly, and with nearly half of all workers in the country without a job, the leaders of the AFL-CIO and its member unions may choose to knuckle down on what they perceive to be bread-and-butter issues, instead of fighting more broadly and boldly beyond immediate workplace concerns.

The AFT endorsement follows that of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), National Nurses United (NNU) and the Maine AFL-CIO—all of which declared their support for the Green New Deal in 2019. And while local unions have passed resolutions in support of the Green New Deal, the AFT, NNU and AFA-CWA are the only national unions in the AFL-CIO to endorse the Green New Deal. (SEIU is affiliated with another labor federation, Change to Win.)

Yet the AFL-CIO has remained resistant. When Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) introduced the Green New Deal legislation in February 2019, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told reporters, “We need to address the environment. We need to do it quickly.” But he also noted that, “We need to do it in a way that doesn’t put these communities behind, and leave segments of the economy behind. So we’ll be working to make sure that we do two things: That by fixing one thing we don’t create a problem somewhere else.”

Where Trumka has been skeptical and resistant, some union leaders in the federation have been more forceful in their opposition; many unions with members who work in extractive industries, including the building trades, slammed the legislation. Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), and Lonnie Stephenson, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, wrote a letter to both Markey and Ocasio-Cortez on behalf of the AFL-CIO Energy Committee that said, “We will not accept proposals that could cause immediate harm to millions of our members and their families. We will not stand by and allow threats to our members’ jobs and their families’ standard of living go unanswered.”

But with 80,000 members today, UMWA is more of a retirees’ organization than a fighting union—and at roughly 1.6 million members, the AFT is one of the largest unions in the country. Its endorsement is “the most high-profile labor endorsement of the Green New Deal since SEIU last summer,” according to Will Lawrence, director of strategic partnerships at the Sunrise Movement. The AFT’s support for the Green New Deal, coupled with the writing on the wall for the fossil fuel industry, could mean a crisis for the AFL-CIO. Trumka has so far straddled the line between the federation’s conservative and progressive members, giving a nod to the importance of climate change while also affirming the importance of fossil fuel jobs. But Trumka plans to step down at the AFL’s convention in 2021, and whoever wins the election to be his successor will determine whether the largest federation in the labor movement goes all-in on the fight against climate change, or maintains one foot in the door and one foot out, balancing between the new world and the old.

This fork in the road is complicated by the fact that both the labor movement and the entire country are in crisis, with millions unemployed and all eyes on the presidential election in November. Trumka favors Liz Shuler, Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL (and his second in command) as his successor. But Sara Nelson, president of AFA-CWA and one of the early endorsers of the Green New Deal, also has her eyes on the leadership position. Although neither have officially announced their candidacy, it’s been reported that both have been privately vying for support.

Nelson’s support for the Green New Deal may hurt her if she decides to run. Sean McGarvey, the president of the North America’s Building Trades Unions, the labor federation of the building trades unions and a member of the AFL, said, “She’s aligned herself with a plan that would eliminate half of the AFL-CIO’s jobs. That’s not going to work real well.” But Nelson told In These Times, “Climate change is directly in our workplace. Turbulence is on the rise. Our schedules, our work, our lives are totally disrupted every time there’s a major weather event. Some have tried to have us believe that this is an attack on jobs and on our way of life, but we know that if we don’t get out in front of something, the crisis will become so great and people will be desperate for a resolution, and that resolution won’t be one that works for working people.”

Nelson believes deeply in a just transition for workers whose industries would be shuttered in an attempt to bring carbon emissions down. The term “just transition” is often used in conversations about climate change as a way to secure workers’ livelihoods if and when their industry is phased out. And while this term is more often heard in the environmental movement now, the idea was developed in the labor movement by Tony Mazzocchi, a lifelong trade unionist and an elected leader in the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW). In Mazzocchi’s words, a true just transition would give workers in extractive industries “a new start in life” by providing financial support and opportunities for education and re-training.

Many environmental groups like Sunrise Movement and Climate Justice Alliance have used the term in their literature and their campaign planning, but union workers have often expressed concern that their job security and livelihoods are not a true priority. After all, environmental groups often wage campaigns against pipelines or refineries without consulting the unions or their members first. While to environmentalists, union work has sometimes meant environmental destruction, to union members, environmentalism has meant financial destruction.

But according to David Hughes, treasurer of Rutgers AAUP-AFT and professor of Anthropology at Rutgers-New Brunswick, extractive industry workers’ standard of living is already threatened regardless of the proposed Green New Deal legislation. Hughes told In These Times that the country is already on the cusp of an energy transition away from fossil fuels. “We have an economic disaster and a complete collapse of the price of oil, coal has been collapsing, gas is not in good shape. So now solar and wind are competitive, even without subsidies. The economic case for fossil fuels has evaporated—those jobs are not going to be here for much longer.”

Although most union members have no interest in being re-trained for another career, fossil fuel workers and their unions are particularly protective of their jobs. Refinery workers can make up to six figures without a college degree, and there are very few jobs with comparable wages in non-extractive industries that these same workers could easily be hired for. Further, these workers have a right to be suspicious: Barack Obama campaigned on creating 5 million green jobs, but it’s unclear how many new green jobs were actually produced. There are some new green jobs, of course, but the vast majority are non-union, and the wages reflect that: Solar panel installers make between $30,000 and $50,000 per year.

Yet, numerous union members—workers in non-extractive industries—are serious about the Green New Deal, and AFT members who worked to pass the resolution are calling for more than tacit support: They intend for the endorsement to be a tool with which to organize their fellow members and to guide their work moving forward. This is precisely what the members of Rutgers AAUP-AFT have been trying to make happen. Hughes, who is also the chair of the Rutgers’ Climate Crisis Committee, raised the issue of supporting the Green New Deal at an AFT Executive Council meeting in 2019, before SEIU endorsed. No endorsement came out of it, but a committee, the Climate Task Force, was formed with the backing of the Executive Council. The task force has three main priorities: Form a relationship with Sunrise Movement and other environmental groups, create green schools campaigns, and organize with other unions to encourage them to support the Green New Deal. Hughes told In These Times, “What you do when you’re working in a sector that’s collapsing is you figure, what’s the strategic moment for my union to try to jump onto a ship that’s not sinking? If we get Biden elected, and we pass Green New Deal legislation, it will be the moment to jump. If we miss that moment, we’ve got nothing.”

But faculty like Hughes, along with teachers and nurses, already have green jobs—and will keep them, Green New Deal or not. While there have been hiring freezes at major universities, AFT members have been mostly unaffected by all of the job losses created by Covid-19. Construction workers, many of whom have just experienced a difficult few months without work, are understandably wary about potentially gambling with their jobs. But Keon Liberato, President of Local 3012 of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the International Brotherhood of the Teamsters, is looking forward to the passage of the Green New Deal. He’s a trackman who works on railroads in the Philadelphia area, and he told In These Times that “even if you don’t care about climate change, even if you have a more narrow interest, there’s a ton of money in the Green New Deal for the building trades, for infrastructure.” 

The Green New Deal’s focus on investing in high-speed rail could mean significant potential work for electricians and rail workers like Liberato. The legislation also calls for “repairing and upgrading the infrastructure in the United States,” which means fixing bridges and roads, retrofitting buildings, and updating sewage and water systems. And the AFT’s green school buildings campaign will need the support of building trades unions, like electricians, plumbers, roofers, and boilermakers. All of this infrastructure work means more union jobs—but only if the labor movement acknowledges the true magnitude of climate change and decides to play a leadership role in fighting it. John Braxton, Co-President Emeritus of AFT Local 2026, who contributed to AFT’s recent resolution, told In These Times that “unions don’t want to be told what to do, and they’d also like to believe it’s not going to be as big of a problem as it is. But we’ve got to make contingency plans that provide protections for every worker, and we need to do it now. Why would labor argue with that?”

Labor’s current focus is getting Joe Biden elected, who, according to his ads, has the “most ambitious” climate plan of any major party’s presidential nominee ever. His platform includes achieving net zero emissions no later than 2050, conserving 30% of the country’s lands and waters by 2030, and making a federal investment of $1.7 trillion in the fight against climate change. He promises to “fulfill our obligation to workers… who powered our industrial revolution and decades of economic growth” by securing coal miners’ pensions and benefits. And he also promises to “put people to work by enlisting them to help fight the pandemic, including through a Public Health Jobs Corps.” But unlike the Green New Deal legislation, his platform has no explicit promise of a job for all who want one. It also makes no mention of fracking or a drastic reduction in fossil fuels, perhaps because his climate advisors may support fracking. Braxton says, “What we need to do is pressure Biden into a Jobs for All program, and the green is not in the headline, but it’s incorporated into it. The environmentalists will read the fine print, and maybe labor can look at it and say, this is what we need.”

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the second largest teachers’ union in the country, passed a resolution in support of the Green New Deal at its biennial convention at the end of July. The Green New Deal, federal legislation introduced in early 2019, would create a living-wage job for anyone who wants one and implement 100% clean and renewable energy by 2030. The endorsement is huge news for both Green New Deal advocates and the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the United States. The AFT’s endorsement could be a sign of environmental activists’ growing power, and it sends a message to the AFL-CIO that it, too, has an opportunity to get on board with the Green New Deal. But working people’s conditions are changing rapidly, and with nearly half of all workers in the country without a job, the leaders of the AFL-CIO and its member unions may choose to knuckle down on what they perceive to be bread-and-butter issues, instead of fighting more broadly and boldly beyond immediate workplace concerns.

The AFT endorsement follows that of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), National Nurses United (NNU) and the Maine AFL-CIO—all of which declared their support for the Green New Deal in 2019. And while local unions have passed resolutions in support of the Green New Deal, the AFT, NNU and AFA-CWA are the only national unions in the AFL-CIO to endorse the Green New Deal. (SEIU is affiliated with another labor federation, Change to Win.)

Yet the AFL-CIO has remained resistant. When Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) introduced the Green New Deal legislation in February 2019, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told reporters, “We need to address the environment. We need to do it quickly.” But he also noted that, “We need to do it in a way that doesn’t put these communities behind, and leave segments of the economy behind. So we’ll be working to make sure that we do two things: That by fixing one thing we don’t create a problem somewhere else.”

Where Trumka has been skeptical and resistant, some union leaders in the federation have been more forceful in their opposition; many unions with members who work in extractive industries, including the building trades, slammed the legislation. Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), and Lonnie Stephenson, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, wrote a letter to both Markey and Ocasio-Cortez on behalf of the AFL-CIO Energy Committee that said, “We will not accept proposals that could cause immediate harm to millions of our members and their families. We will not stand by and allow threats to our members’ jobs and their families’ standard of living go unanswered.”

But with 80,000 members today, UMWA is more of a retirees’ organization than a fighting union—and at roughly 1.6 million members, the AFT is one of the largest unions in the country. Its endorsement is “the most high-profile labor endorsement of the Green New Deal since SEIU last summer,” according to Will Lawrence, director of strategic partnerships at the Sunrise Movement. The AFT’s support for the Green New Deal, coupled with the writing on the wall for the fossil fuel industry, could mean a crisis for the AFL-CIO. Trumka has so far straddled the line between the federation’s conservative and progressive members, giving a nod to the importance of climate change while also affirming the importance of fossil fuel jobs. But Trumka plans to step down at the AFL’s convention in 2021, and whoever wins the election to be his successor will determine whether the largest federation in the labor movement goes all-in on the fight against climate change, or maintains one foot in the door and one foot out, balancing between the new world and the old.

This fork in the road is complicated by the fact that both the labor movement and the entire country are in crisis, with millions unemployed and all eyes on the presidential election in November. Trumka favors Liz Shuler, Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL (and his second in command) as his successor. But Sara Nelson, president of AFA-CWA and one of the early endorsers of the Green New Deal, also has her eyes on the leadership position. Although neither have officially announced their candidacy, it’s been reported that both have been privately vying for support.

Nelson’s support for the Green New Deal may hurt her if she decides to run. Sean McGarvey, the president of the North America’s Building Trades Unions, the labor federation of the building trades unions and a member of the AFL, said, “She’s aligned herself with a plan that would eliminate half of the AFL-CIO’s jobs. That’s not going to work real well.” But Nelson told In These Times, “Climate change is directly in our workplace. Turbulence is on the rise. Our schedules, our work, our lives are totally disrupted every time there’s a major weather event. Some have tried to have us believe that this is an attack on jobs and on our way of life, but we know that if we don’t get out in front of something, the crisis will become so great and people will be desperate for a resolution, and that resolution won’t be one that works for working people.”

Nelson believes deeply in a just transition for workers whose industries would be shuttered in an attempt to bring carbon emissions down. The term “just transition” is often used in conversations about climate change as a way to secure workers’ livelihoods if and when their industry is phased out. And while this term is more often heard in the environmental movement now, the idea was developed in the labor movement by Tony Mazzocchi, a lifelong trade unionist and an elected leader in the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW). In Mazzocchi’s words, a true just transition would give workers in extractive industries “a new start in life” by providing financial support and opportunities for education and re-training.

Many environmental groups like Sunrise Movement and Climate Justice Alliance have used the term in their literature and their campaign planning, but union workers have often expressed concern that their job security and livelihoods are not a true priority. After all, environmental groups often wage campaigns against pipelines or refineries without consulting the unions or their members first. While to environmentalists, union work has sometimes meant environmental destruction, to union members, environmentalism has meant financial destruction.

But according to David Hughes, treasurer of Rutgers AAUP-AFT and professor of Anthropology at Rutgers-New Brunswick, extractive industry workers’ standard of living is already threatened regardless of the proposed Green New Deal legislation. Hughes told In These Times that the country is already on the cusp of an energy transition away from fossil fuels. “We have an economic disaster and a complete collapse of the price of oil, coal has been collapsing, gas is not in good shape. So now solar and wind are competitive, even without subsidies. The economic case for fossil fuels has evaporated—those jobs are not going to be here for much longer.”

Although most union members have no interest in being re-trained for another career, fossil fuel workers and their unions are particularly protective of their jobs. Refinery workers can make up to six figures without a college degree, and there are very few jobs with comparable wages in non-extractive industries that these same workers could easily be hired for. Further, these workers have a right to be suspicious: Barack Obama campaigned on creating 5 million green jobs, but it’s unclear how many new green jobs were actually produced. There are some new green jobs, of course, but the vast majority are non-union, and the wages reflect that: Solar panel installers make between $30,000 and $50,000 per year.

Yet, numerous union members—workers in non-extractive industries—are serious about the Green New Deal, and AFT members who worked to pass the resolution are calling for more than tacit support: They intend for the endorsement to be a tool with which to organize their fellow members and to guide their work moving forward. This is precisely what the members of Rutgers AAUP-AFT have been trying to make happen. Hughes, who is also the chair of the Rutgers’ Climate Crisis Committee, raised the issue of supporting the Green New Deal at an AFT Executive Council meeting in 2019, before SEIU endorsed. No endorsement came out of it, but a committee, the Climate Task Force, was formed with the backing of the Executive Council. The task force has three main priorities: Form a relationship with Sunrise Movement and other environmental groups, create green schools campaigns, and organize with other unions to encourage them to support the Green New Deal. Hughes told In These Times, “What you do when you’re working in a sector that’s collapsing is you figure, what’s the strategic moment for my union to try to jump onto a ship that’s not sinking? If we get Biden elected, and we pass Green New Deal legislation, it will be the moment to jump. If we miss that moment, we’ve got nothing.”

But faculty like Hughes, along with teachers and nurses, already have green jobs—and will keep them, Green New Deal or not. While there have been hiring freezes at major universities, AFT members have been mostly unaffected by all of the job losses created by Covid-19. Construction workers, many of whom have just experienced a difficult few months without work, are understandably wary about potentially gambling with their jobs. But Keon Liberato, President of Local 3012 of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the International Brotherhood of the Teamsters, is looking forward to the passage of the Green New Deal. He’s a trackman who works on railroads in the Philadelphia area, and he told In These Times that “even if you don’t care about climate change, even if you have a more narrow interest, there’s a ton of money in the Green New Deal for the building trades, for infrastructure.” 

The Green New Deal’s focus on investing in high-speed rail could mean significant potential work for electricians and rail workers like Liberato. The legislation also calls for “repairing and upgrading the infrastructure in the United States,” which means fixing bridges and roads, retrofitting buildings, and updating sewage and water systems. And the AFT’s green school buildings campaign will need the support of building trades unions, like electricians, plumbers, roofers, and boilermakers. All of this infrastructure work means more union jobs—but only if the labor movement acknowledges the true magnitude of climate change and decides to play a leadership role in fighting it. John Braxton, Co-President Emeritus of AFT Local 2026, who contributed to AFT’s recent resolution, told In These Times that “unions don’t want to be told what to do, and they’d also like to believe it’s not going to be as big of a problem as it is. But we’ve got to make contingency plans that provide protections for every worker, and we need to do it now. Why would labor argue with that?”

Labor’s current focus is getting Joe Biden elected, who, according to his ads, has the “most ambitious” climate plan of any major party’s presidential nominee ever. His platform includes achieving net zero emissions no later than 2050, conserving 30% of the country’s lands and waters by 2030, and making a federal investment of $1.7 trillion in the fight against climate change. He promises to “fulfill our obligation to workers… who powered our industrial revolution and decades of economic growth” by securing coal miners’ pensions and benefits. And he also promises to “put people to work by enlisting them to help fight the pandemic, including through a Public Health Jobs Corps.” But unlike the Green New Deal legislation, his platform has no explicit promise of a job for all who want one. It also makes no mention of fracking or a drastic reduction in fossil fuels, perhaps because his climate advisors may support fracking. Braxton says, “What we need to do is pressure Biden into a Jobs for All program, and the green is not in the headline, but it’s incorporated into it. The environmentalists will read the fine print, and maybe labor can look at it and say, this is what we need.”

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the second largest teachers’ union in the country, passed a resolution in support of the Green New Deal at its biennial convention at the end of July. The Green New Deal, federal legislation introduced in early 2019, would create a living-wage job for anyone who wants one and implement 100% clean and renewable energy by 2030. The endorsement is huge news for both Green New Deal advocates and the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the United States. The AFT’s endorsement could be a sign of environmental activists’ growing power, and it sends a message to the AFL-CIO that it, too, has an opportunity to get on board with the Green New Deal. But working people’s conditions are changing rapidly, and with nearly half of all workers in the country without a job, the leaders of the AFL-CIO and its member unions may choose to knuckle down on what they perceive to be bread-and-butter issues, instead of fighting more broadly and boldly beyond immediate workplace concerns.

The AFT endorsement follows that of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), National Nurses United (NNU) and the Maine AFL-CIO—all of which declared their support for the Green New Deal in 2019. And while local unions have passed resolutions in support of the Green New Deal, the AFT, NNU and AFA-CWA are the only national unions in the AFL-CIO to endorse the Green New Deal. (SEIU is affiliated with another labor federation, Change to Win.)

Yet the AFL-CIO has remained resistant. When Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) introduced the Green New Deal legislation in February 2019, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told reporters, “We need to address the environment. We need to do it quickly.” But he also noted that, “We need to do it in a way that doesn’t put these communities behind, and leave segments of the economy behind. So we’ll be working to make sure that we do two things: That by fixing one thing we don’t create a problem somewhere else.”

Where Trumka has been skeptical and resistant, some union leaders in the federation have been more forceful in their opposition; many unions with members who work in extractive industries, including the building trades, slammed the legislation. Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), and Lonnie Stephenson, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, wrote a letter to both Markey and Ocasio-Cortez on behalf of the AFL-CIO Energy Committee that said, “We will not accept proposals that could cause immediate harm to millions of our members and their families. We will not stand by and allow threats to our members’ jobs and their families’ standard of living go unanswered.”

But with 80,000 members today, UMWA is more of a retirees’ organization than a fighting union—and at roughly 1.6 million members, the AFT is one of the largest unions in the country. Its endorsement is “the most high-profile labor endorsement of the Green New Deal since SEIU last summer,” according to Will Lawrence, director of strategic partnerships at the Sunrise Movement. The AFT’s support for the Green New Deal, coupled with the writing on the wall for the fossil fuel industry, could mean a crisis for the AFL-CIO. Trumka has so far straddled the line between the federation’s conservative and progressive members, giving a nod to the importance of climate change while also affirming the importance of fossil fuel jobs. But Trumka plans to step down at the AFL’s convention in 2021, and whoever wins the election to be his successor will determine whether the largest federation in the labor movement goes all-in on the fight against climate change, or maintains one foot in the door and one foot out, balancing between the new world and the old.

This fork in the road is complicated by the fact that both the labor movement and the entire country are in crisis, with millions unemployed and all eyes on the presidential election in November. Trumka favors Liz Shuler, Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL (and his second in command) as his successor. But Sara Nelson, president of AFA-CWA and one of the early endorsers of the Green New Deal, also has her eyes on the leadership position. Although neither have officially announced their candidacy, it’s been reported that both have been privately vying for support.

Nelson’s support for the Green New Deal may hurt her if she decides to run. Sean McGarvey, the president of the North America’s Building Trades Unions, the labor federation of the building trades unions and a member of the AFL, said, “She’s aligned herself with a plan that would eliminate half of the AFL-CIO’s jobs. That’s not going to work real well.” But Nelson told In These Times, “Climate change is directly in our workplace. Turbulence is on the rise. Our schedules, our work, our lives are totally disrupted every time there’s a major weather event. Some have tried to have us believe that this is an attack on jobs and on our way of life, but we know that if we don’t get out in front of something, the crisis will become so great and people will be desperate for a resolution, and that resolution won’t be one that works for working people.”

Nelson believes deeply in a just transition for workers whose industries would be shuttered in an attempt to bring carbon emissions down. The term “just transition” is often used in conversations about climate change as a way to secure workers’ livelihoods if and when their industry is phased out. And while this term is more often heard in the environmental movement now, the idea was developed in the labor movement by Tony Mazzocchi, a lifelong trade unionist and an elected leader in the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW). In Mazzocchi’s words, a true just transition would give workers in extractive industries “a new start in life” by providing financial support and opportunities for education and re-training.

Many environmental groups like Sunrise Movement and Climate Justice Alliance have used the term in their literature and their campaign planning, but union workers have often expressed concern that their job security and livelihoods are not a true priority. After all, environmental groups often wage campaigns against pipelines or refineries without consulting the unions or their members first. While to environmentalists, union work has sometimes meant environmental destruction, to union members, environmentalism has meant financial destruction.

But according to David Hughes, treasurer of Rutgers AAUP-AFT and professor of Anthropology at Rutgers-New Brunswick, extractive industry workers’ standard of living is already threatened regardless of the proposed Green New Deal legislation. Hughes told In These Times that the country is already on the cusp of an energy transition away from fossil fuels. “We have an economic disaster and a complete collapse of the price of oil, coal has been collapsing, gas is not in good shape. So now solar and wind are competitive, even without subsidies. The economic case for fossil fuels has evaporated—those jobs are not going to be here for much longer.”

Although most union members have no interest in being re-trained for another career, fossil fuel workers and their unions are particularly protective of their jobs. Refinery workers can make up to six figures without a college degree, and there are very few jobs with comparable wages in non-extractive industries that these same workers could easily be hired for. Further, these workers have a right to be suspicious: Barack Obama campaigned on creating 5 million green jobs, but it’s unclear how many new green jobs were actually produced. There are some new green jobs, of course, but the vast majority are non-union, and the wages reflect that: Solar panel installers make between $30,000 and $50,000 per year.

Yet, numerous union members—workers in non-extractive industries—are serious about the Green New Deal, and AFT members who worked to pass the resolution are calling for more than tacit support: They intend for the endorsement to be a tool with which to organize their fellow members and to guide their work moving forward. This is precisely what the members of Rutgers AAUP-AFT have been trying to make happen. Hughes, who is also the chair of the Rutgers’ Climate Crisis Committee, raised the issue of supporting the Green New Deal at an AFT Executive Council meeting in 2019, before SEIU endorsed. No endorsement came out of it, but a committee, the Climate Task Force, was formed with the backing of the Executive Council. The task force has three main priorities: Form a relationship with Sunrise Movement and other environmental groups, create green schools campaigns, and organize with other unions to encourage them to support the Green New Deal. Hughes told In These Times, “What you do when you’re working in a sector that’s collapsing is you figure, what’s the strategic moment for my union to try to jump onto a ship that’s not sinking? If we get Biden elected, and we pass Green New Deal legislation, it will be the moment to jump. If we miss that moment, we’ve got nothing.”

But faculty like Hughes, along with teachers and nurses, already have green jobs—and will keep them, Green New Deal or not. While there have been hiring freezes at major universities, AFT members have been mostly unaffected by all of the job losses created by Covid-19. Construction workers, many of whom have just experienced a difficult few months without work, are understandably wary about potentially gambling with their jobs. But Keon Liberato, President of Local 3012 of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the International Brotherhood of the Teamsters, is looking forward to the passage of the Green New Deal. He’s a trackman who works on railroads in the Philadelphia area, and he told In These Times that “even if you don’t care about climate change, even if you have a more narrow interest, there’s a ton of money in the Green New Deal for the building trades, for infrastructure.” 

The Green New Deal’s focus on investing in high-speed rail could mean significant potential work for electricians and rail workers like Liberato. The legislation also calls for “repairing and upgrading the infrastructure in the United States,” which means fixing bridges and roads, retrofitting buildings, and updating sewage and water systems. And the AFT’s green school buildings campaign will need the support of building trades unions, like electricians, plumbers, roofers, and boilermakers. All of this infrastructure work means more union jobs—but only if the labor movement acknowledges the true magnitude of climate change and decides to play a leadership role in fighting it. John Braxton, Co-President Emeritus of AFT Local 2026, who contributed to AFT’s recent resolution, told In These Times that “unions don’t want to be told what to do, and they’d also like to believe it’s not going to be as big of a problem as it is. But we’ve got to make contingency plans that provide protections for every worker, and we need to do it now. Why would labor argue with that?”

Labor’s current focus is getting Joe Biden elected, who, according to his ads, has the “most ambitious” climate plan of any major party’s presidential nominee ever. His platform includes achieving net zero emissions no later than 2050, conserving 30% of the country’s lands and waters by 2030, and making a federal investment of $1.7 trillion in the fight against climate change. He promises to “fulfill our obligation to workers… who powered our industrial revolution and decades of economic growth” by securing coal miners’ pensions and benefits. And he also promises to “put people to work by enlisting them to help fight the pandemic, including through a Public Health Jobs Corps.” But unlike the Green New Deal legislation, his platform has no explicit promise of a job for all who want one. It also makes no mention of fracking or a drastic reduction in fossil fuels, perhaps because his climate advisors may support fracking. Braxton says, “What we need to do is pressure Biden into a Jobs for All program, and the green is not in the headline, but it’s incorporated into it. The environmentalists will read the fine print, and maybe labor can look at it and say, this is what we need.”

Because of our current political climate—a pandemic that has already killed over 160,000 people in the United States, millions out of work, and a president and Senate that seem to despise working people —unions may be less willing to lead in the fight against climate change. After all, the climate crisis may feel less urgent than the unemployment crisis, or even contract negotiations over wages and benefits. But for the faculty, teachers and paraprofessionals who make up the AFT, leading in the fight against climate change is paramount. And to get the rest of the labor movement on board, Nelson has some advice: “If you believe in something, you gotta be willing to fight for it.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on August 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia. She is a frequent contributor to Working In These Times.


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Working People and Their Unions Rally to Support Members Affected by Travel Ban

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“I was fortunate enough to have the support of a union, and I was a member of a union. And I think in this situation, I’m convinced more than ever how important the unions are. And I just wanted to mention that I know here in New York there are so many students from private universities who have been trying to and fighting to get their right to have a union, and the administration of the universities are denying them this right.” – Saira Rafiee

Faculty, staff and students studying and teaching in the United States have been scrambling since Donald Trump barred entry into the country for foreign nationals from seven majority-Muslim countries. Although the executive order has been temporarily blocked by court order, the matter remains a moving target as the White House challenges the rulings — and the legitimacy — of the courts.

The AFT has many members who have been and could be shut out of the country or prevented from traveling under the Jan. 27 executive order. For example, Saira Rafiee (pictured), a doctoral student of political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York and member of the Professional Staff Congress/AFT Local 2334, was among those who were blocked from entry during the chaotic initial week of implementation. While attempting to return from vacation in Iran to visit her family during winter break, she was detained for 18 hours in Abu Dhabi before being sent back to Tehran.

Despite the uncertainty about her own future, Rafiee conveyed on Facebook that her main concern was for others, including a student in the United States who had to cancel a last visit with a sister who has cancer in Iran. Her sister has since died. There also are students doing fieldwork for dissertations that have taken years to research; whether they will be able to return to their work is undetermined. “These stories are not even close in painfulness and horror of those who are fleeing war and disastrous situations in their home countries,” wrote Rafiee, whose CUNY colleagues rallied to #GetSairaHome at the Brooklyn courthouse Jan. 30.

Read Rafiee’s Jan. 29 Facebook post:

Rafiee returned to the United States Feb. 4 to a rousing welcome from CUNY student activists, lawyers from CUNY’s Citizenship Now program, family members and others who had worked to make her return possible. “Union support matters,” said PSC President Barbara Bowen. “Hundreds of PSC members responded to the union’s call for messages urging action on Saira’s case, helping to focus public attention on her case. Collective action worked.”

If reinstated, the executive order would temporarily ban entry to the United States for all citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somali, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. The ban is widely seen as an attempt to ban Muslims from the U.S., a religious ban that would be constitutionally prohibited. Acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates was fired for refusing to enforce the ban, which she determined was illegal. Courts have challenged the new policy, but border agents reportedly ignored court orders. Details of enforcement have been confusing at best.

In addition to the turmoil academics and other travelers have experienced, another aspect of the order would suspend all refugee admittance for 120 days and turn away desperate families seeking safe haven from war and violence. These refugees already have gone through extensive, often years-long approval processes, yet these families risk being sent back to refugee camps.

The AFT is distributing information and resources on these executive orders and offering some legal advice for foreign nationals from the affected nations.

Rafiee wrote:

The first quote above from Saira Rafiee was provided via an interview with Democracy Now.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on February 10, 2017.  Reprinted with permission.

Virginia Myers is a writer/editor for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).


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Central Falls Superintendent Agrees to Resume Talks with Teachers

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Image: James ParksThe school superintendent who last week fired all teachers at Central Falls (R.I.) High School has agreed to resume bargaining and include the union in all discussions on a comprehensive education plan that will help students and teachers succeed. The move followed a nationwide public outcry, with thousands signing an online petition to tell school officials the students deserve better and they should work with teachers to build on improvements at the high school. (Keep the pressure on the Central Falls school administration. Sign a petition here.)

AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a statement that she was pleased the superintendent has agreed to resume talks:

The dedicated teachers and staff [of Central Falls High] want nothing more than to continue and improve upon the progress they have made. Real, sustainable change will only happen when all stakeholders work together.

The AFT is committed to supporting Central Falls Teachers Union President Jane Sessums, the students of Central Falls High School and our members, the educators of Central Falls, throughout the negotiations and process of transforming the school.

On Feb. 23, the Central Falls school trustees fired the entire teaching staff of the high school, which is located in Rhode Island’s smallest and poorest city.

In all, 93 got pink slips—74 classroom teachers, plus reading specialists, guidance counselors, physical education teachers, the school psychologist, the principal and three assistant principals. Negotiations over strategies to improve the school between teachers and the school superintendent broke down when the superintendent walked away from the table and fired the teachers.

*This article originally appeared in AFL-CIO blog on February 24, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: James Parks had his first encounter with unions at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. He is a journalist by trade, and worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. He has also been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections. Author photo by Joe Kekeris


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We Need to Combat Workplace Violence

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Image: Dick MeisterOrganized labor and its allies are rightly alarmed over the high incidence of on-the-job accidents that have killed or maimed many thousands of workers. But they haven’t forgotten – nor should we forget – the on-the-job violence that also afflicts many thousands.

Consider this: Every year, almost two million American men and women are the victims of violent crime at their workplaces. That often forces the victims to stay off work for a week or more and costs their employers more than $60 billion a year in lost productivity.

These crimes are the tenth leading cause of all workplace injuries. They range from murder to verbal or written abuse and threatening behavior and harassment, including bullying by employers and supervisors.

Women have been particularly victimized. At least 30,000 a year are raped or otherwise sexually assaulted while on the job. The actual total is undoubtedly much higher, since it’s estimated that only about one-fourth of such crimes are reported to the police.

Estimates are that more than 900,000 of all on-the-job crimes go unreported yearly, including a large percentage of what’s thought to be some 13,000 cases annually that involve boyfriends or husbands attacking women at their workplaces.

The Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union (RWDSU), which represents many of the victimized workers, cites that as an example of the job violence problem that is often distorted by media coverage that “would lead us to believe that most workplace violence involves worker against worker situations.”

The union says that has focused many employers “on identifying troubled employees or disgruntled workers who might turn into violent predators at a moment’s notice. But in fact, 62 percent of all violence at worksites is caused by outsiders.”

As you might expect, those most vulnerable to the violence are workers who exchange money with the public, deliver passengers, goods or services, work alone or in small groups during late night or early morning hours in high-crime areas or wherever they have extensive contact with the public.

That includes police, security guards, water meter readers and other utility workers, telephone and cable TV installers, letter carriers, taxi drivers, flight attendants, probation officers and teachers. Convenience store clerks and other retail workers account for fully one-fifth of the victims.

The American Federation of Teachers is so concerned that it has provided each of its 1.4 million members a $100,000 life insurance policy payable if the teacher dies as the result of workplace violence.

The major violence victims also include health care and social service workers such as visiting nurses, and employees of nursing homes, psychiatric facilities and prisons. They suffer two-thirds of all physical assaults. Many of the victims regularly deal with volatile, abusive and dangerous clients, often alone because of the understaffing that’s become all too common.

It could get even worse, at least for some workers. The RWDSU warns that today’s troubled economic times create additional threats. The danger is especially great for retail workers whose stores are likely to face increased incidents of theft, some involving gun-wielding robbers.

The RWDSU and other unions have been pushing for recognition of workplace violence as an occupational as well as criminal justice issue. That would put it under the purview of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and state job safety agencies.

The federal and state agencies could then issue enforceable regulations designed to lessen the on-the-job dangers of violence, as they do for other hazardous working conditions. A few states do that already, but only for a very limited number of industries.

OSHA has issued guidelines for workers in late-night retail jobs, cab drivers and some health care workers, but the guidelines are strictly voluntary. Although the unions’ top priority is for legally binding regulations, they also are pressing employers to meanwhile voluntarily implement violence-prevention programs.

Currently, only about one-fourth of them have such programs or any guidelines at all. The RWDSU’s Health and Safety Department is offering to help the other employers develop programs.

We have federal and state standards, laws and regulations designed to protect working Americans from many of the serious on-the-job hazards they face daily. Yet we have generally failed to lay down firm guidelines for protecting workers from the workplace violence that’s one of the most dangerous hazards of all.

*This post originally appeared in Truth Out on February 11, 2010. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Dick Meister is a former labor correspondent of the San Francisco Chronicle and has covered labor and politics for a half-century as a newspaper, radio, television and online reporter, editor and commentator.


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