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How COVID-19 Showed America’s Dependence on Blue-Collar Workers

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At the start of each shift, Eric Jarvis takes a handful of anti-bacterial wipes and sanitizes the equipment he uses at the Packaging Corporation of America mill in Valdosta, Georgia.

He worries about getting the coronavirus every time he leaves for work, but knows the nation depends on paper workers like him to produce the linerboard that goes into the cardboard boxes used to ship millions of items to stores and homes each day.

Jarvis, president of USW Local 646, may not be on the front lines of the pandemic in the same way as nurses and first responders. But he and other manufacturing workers also fulfill a vital role on the nation’s production lines, ensuring that Americans still have the food, medicine, toiletries and other items crucial for everyday life.

“If we don’t make boxes, then the grocery stores don’t have groceries,” Jarvis said.

“We know our job is an essential job,” he said of the local’s 235 members. “You can see the pride in the workers doing their jobs out there.”

Truck drivers, bakers, transit operators, grocery store clerks, warehouse packers and manufacturing workers form the backbone of America’s economy.

They show up every day and get the job done, performing so reliably that the nation long took their work for granted. No one questioned, for example, whether stores would have toilet paper and cleaning products.

Then the pandemic struck, and surging demand for consumer goods exposed America’s dependence on the blue-collar workers who supply almost every need.

Life would grind to a halt without them.

Right now, these workers risk COVID-19 by laboring in groups at mills, factories, warehouses and stores while many other Americans do their jobs alone at home. It angers Jarvis to think that service workers put their lives on the line for the poverty-level wages common in their industry.

“I hope people never forget that,” Jarvis said.

Jarvis and his co-workers protect themselves as best they can.

Besides wiping down equipment, they stagger their starting times to reduce contact with one another. They wait in their cars and trucks before a shift instead of congregating at the time clock. Inside the mill, they remain at their work stations unless their presence elsewhere is a necessity.

Still, workers worry about bringing the coronavirus home to their families. Some shower, change clothes and even wash their eyeglasses the minute they get home to avoid spreading any germs they picked up during their shifts.

“It gets a little rough,” explained Colt Kovatch, vice president of USW Local 14693, which represents about 80 workers at the International Paper box shop in Eighty Four, Pennsylvania. “You have family at home. You want to be with them. But I understand what I’m doing, what I’m making, and how it helps. It keeps my blood pumping.”

The box shop makes packaging for food and drug companies, plastics manufacturers and online retailers.

“We might not be the frontline workers,” Kovatch said. “But we’re right there behind them.”

At Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, members of USW Local 8888 continue building nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines for the Navy even though 23 co-workers contracted COVID-19. Local President Charles Spivey said the workers who report each day “are making a great sacrifice.”

“We do unique work here,” Spivey observed. “We can’t just shut down. There’s pride here. We know that we’re the best shipbuilders in the world.”

Some of the workers at Morton Salt’s production facilities in Lyons and Hutchinson, Kansas, have worked together for years.

Now, that camaraderie helps the members of USW Local 12606 cope with the risks they face from the coronavirus.

“We recognize that there’s a danger, but we also recognize that there’s a job to do,” local President Jon Ahrens said. “We still have to provide not only for our families but for the whole United States.”

Table salt in blue containers may be the most recognizable product supplied by the local’s approximately 200 members. But their salt also is used as an additive in shampoos and water softeners; as a preservative in the chips, snack cakes and other comfort foods in high demand during the pandemic; and in the saline solutions that hospitals use to treat patients.

So far, at least 33,200 Americans have died from COVID-19, and more than 671,000 have been infected. An influx of patients overwhelmed some hospitals and ambulance crews.

Jay Wright, president of USW Local 188S, figures that many exhausted health care workers and first responders survive on caffeine these days. And he’s happy to do his part to keep them going.

Each day, Wright and about 140 co-workers at the Ardagh factory in Valparaiso, Indiana, make more than 40 million tops for aluminum cans.

When the pandemic began, manufacturers of sodas, energy drinks and other beverages experienced increased demand for their products—so they requested more lids.

The factory is so loud that workers often speak mouth to ear. Because social distancing is crucial to controlling the spread of COVID-19, Wright successfully pushed Ardagh to purchase radio sets so workers can communicate while standing several feet apart.

USW members say they’re proud to belong to a union that fights for fair wages and benefits and holds employers accountable for worker safety.

But they worry about the home health aides, food delivery drivers and other service workers who put their lives on the line while laboring for low pay and few, if any, benefits.

“That minimum wage is a joke,” said Jarvis, referring to the federal minimum wage stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009. “People should see that after this.”

Jarvis and other workers at Packaging Corporation make more than the minimum wage largely because they have the protection of a union contract. They recognize others aren’t as lucky.

For years, labor leaders and other advocates pushed for an increase in the minimum wage. Raising it to $15 an hour would help 33 million Americans, including many who live in poverty even though they juggle multiple part-time jobs.

The House last year passed a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025. However, Senate Republican leaders refuse even to consider it.

Working-class people make, package and ship just about everything Americans need. Although their work is essential, they believe consumers long showed little appreciation for it because much of what they do occurs behind the scenes.

COVID-19 shined a light on their role, and they hope people will remember it after life returns to normal.

These workers are the lifeblood of the nation. They step up every day and keep America running—even during a pandemic.

“I think this has really opened a lot of people’s eyes,” Wright said.

This article was originally printed the Independent Media Institute. Reprinted with permission. 

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


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“Hardhats vs. Hippies”: How the Media Misrepresents the Debate Over the Green New Deal

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A recent Politico article about the Green New Deal resolution put forward in February by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) features many grumblings from blue-collar union members about the potential economic disruption and the loss of jobs—even though the resolution calls for union rights and a federal jobs guarantee for workers. The article opens with Robbie Hunter, the president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, which represents 450,000 construction workers and apprentices, who is leading a union-led advocacy campaign called #BlueCollarRevolution. A drastic shift away from oil industry jobs in California, Hunter contends, could “export our jobs, while doing nothing for the end game, which is the environmental.”

The Green New Deal resolution calls for an economy-wide mobilization to achieve a national transition to a zero-carbon future within a decade. The proposal has sparked a vibrant conversation in Congress and throughout the country, resonating with grassroots environmental groups and challenging lawmakers to start talking seriously about decarbonization. Yet despite massive public support, the resolution was predictably stymied in Congress, and has faced skepticism within the Democratic Party and labor movement. Nor has the resolution been greeted with universal praise by the Democratic Party or labor unions. But while some unions express reluctance to hop on the green bandwagon, there’s more to the story than “environmentalists versus blue-collar workers.” Organized labor does not speak with a single voice on climate policy, though the whole movement has deep stakes in the politics of decarbonization, as working-class people’s lives and livelihoods  are most vulnerable to climate change.

Jessica Levinson, a law professor who serves on the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, warns in the Politico piece that the Green New Deal “really divides the Democrats on a fault line, which is more of the elites against the working class Democrats who are concerned about losing their jobs.” The article suggests that 2020 presidential hopefuls should be wary of alienating the working-class base—a segment that lost many voters to Trump in 2016, particularly white, working-class voters—by pushing too hard for the Green New Deal.

So a policy agenda intended to address an existential crisis for the world’s environment is framed within the familiar dichotomy between burly blue-collar construction men and tree-hugging liberal elites. It’s a classic American trope that hearkens back to the faux populism of Nixon’s “hardhat” marches against “hippies” during the Vietnam War. Nevermind the fact that the labor movement today is driven by workers in the service industries, women, people of color and immigrants. The media regularly flattens the labor movement into a one-dimensional depiction of a Fordist industrial laborer, frozen in time.

The supposed blue-collar backlash campaign comes in the wake of signs of internecine friction between national labor leaders and pro-green lawmakers. In March, Cecil Roberts, the international president of the United Mine Workers of America, and Lonnie Stephenson, the international president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, wrote to Congress on behalf of the energy committee of the AFL-CIO, arguing that the Green New Deal was “far too short on specific solutions that speak to the jobs of our members,” and “ma[de] promises that are not achievable or realistic.” Around the same time, AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka—who briefly sat on Trump’s “business advisory council”alongside multinational CEOs before resigning in embarrassment—told reporters that although he acknowledged the urgency of tackling the impending climate crisis, lawmakers should not “leave segments of the economy behind.”

The Politico article follows a number of reports of labor groups chafing at the sweeping goals of the federal Green New Deal resolution, as well as the “Green New Deal Los Angeles,” lamenting the lack of detail about how fossil-fuel dependent industries and workers will be affected. The friction over the resolution does speak to an understandable wariness of the plan’s soaring ambitions. The expansive targets, along with a lack of concrete plans on how to achieve its benchmarks, have stirred fears of unrealistic expectations, and workers have reasonable concerns about whether promises of green jobs will really materialize. With so much at stake, organized labor has a reasonable interest in safeguarding members from potential economic turbulence.

But contrary to Politico‘s depiction, skeptics hardly amount to massive working-class opposition to the Green New Deal. The media coverage centers on labor’s fear that workers won’t be provided a fair share of the deal’s achievements. The same question of social equity can be applied to any number of progressive policy proposals that the 2020 presidential candidates have touted, such as Medicare for All or a federal jobs guarantee.

More importantly, though building-trades workers may fit Trump’s image of working-class America, they are not representative of labor or the working class as a whole when it comes to green issues. The future of labor will be helmed by service workers, women, immigrants and people of color. Accordingly, the Green New Deal or other strong climate change policies have won endorsements from SEIULos Angeles County Federation of Labor and National Nurses United, along with various locals like New York State Nurses Association and American Federation of Teachers – Oregon. A survey released by Data for Progress this month found that “union membership is one of the factors most highly correlated with support for Green New Deal policies as well as the Green New Deal framework as a whole.”

Backing the Green New Deal is a way to extend union support for working people beyond wages and benefits, because the Green New Deal is a social contract to form the foundation of a sustainable economy. From a practical standpoint, as a dwindling labor movement strives to remain relevant to the working masses, there simply is no bigger bread-and-butter issue than our land, air, water and health. Globally, affluent countries with higher union representation tend to have lower greenhouse gas emissions than less unionized countries.

Working-class migrant communities and communities of color may have a first-hand understanding of how climate volatility affects their work—be they an immigrant nurse whose hometown in the Philippines is facing intensifying typhoons, or a Los Angeles teacher whose students miss school when dirty local air leaves them struggling to breathe. As part of a global proletariat, their struggles reflect the even longer-term challenge of climate justice: seeding a carbon-free future for the global economy. The struggle for climate justice extends beyond the Green New Deal resolution; the ultimate goal is to link the entire world in a compact to decarbonize and to refocus development and industry on sustainability and social equity, rather than profit.

It is shortsighted for the media to present labor’s skepticism toward the Green New Deal as akin to the far-right’s climate skepticism. Globally, a consensus is crystallizing on the left: There is no future in which workers are not on the frontline of climate-driven social transformation, either as survivors, or as agents of change.

Putting the concept of climate justice into practice requires braiding environmental and labor agendas into a unified “just transition”—a comprehensive set of social welfare protections for the workers and communities most impacted by climate policy. As Sara Nelson,  president of the Association of Flight Attendants, has pointed out, “Labor has never seen an actual ‘just transition.’” To engage labor with the Green New Deal, Nelson told In These Times last month, policymakers and activists must “make labor central to the discussion, including labor rights, labor protections and labor expertise. … Let’s recognize and engage the infrastructure and experience of the labor movement to make this work.”

By listening to workers, we’d perhaps discover that even the #BlueCollarRevolution might be surprisingly amenable to a climate justice agenda. Robbie Hunter himself wrote in March about a green project he could get behind: He urged the state to invest in building clean mass transit, pointing out that, “Having built most of California’s utility-scale solar and wind generation, we who work in the building and construction trades think it’s time to get real about our ambitious climate goals.”

Despite the media’s insistence that environmentalism remains the province of the privileged, blue collars and green priorities may overlap more than they know. All we need to do is treat Green New Deal like any other labor contract: get everyone around the table and start talking.

This article was originally published at In These Times on June 18, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.


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The Blue-Collar Hellscape of the Startup Industry

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On November 13, Marcus Vaughn filed a class-action lawsuit against his former employer. Vaughn, who’d worked in the Fremont, California factory for electric automaker Tesla, alleged that the manufacturing plant had become a “hotbed for racist behavior.” Employees and supervisors, he asserted, had routinely lobbed racial epithets at him and his fellow Black colleagues. 

Vaughn said he complained in writing to the company’s human resources department and CEO Elon Musk, but Tesla neglected to investigate his claims. In true tech executive fashion, Musk deflected Vaughn’s misgivings, shifting the blame to the assailed worker. “In fairness, if someone is a jerk to you, but sincerely apologizes, it is important to be thick-skinned and accept that apology,” he wrote in a May email. In late October, according to Vaughn’s suit, he was fired for “not having a positive attitude.”

The news of rancorous working conditions for Tesla employees is merely the latest in a series. Vaughn’s case signals the broader social and physical perils of couching traditional factory models within the frenzied, breakneck tech-startup framework of high demand, long hours and antipathy toward regulation.

Tesla’s Fremont facility has bred a number of allegations of abuse, from discrimination to physical harm. Vaughn’s is at least the third discrimination suit filed this year by Black Tesla workers alleging racism. A former third-party contracted factory worker, Jorge Ferro, has taken legal action to combat alleged homophobic harassment. The cruelty wasn’t strictly verbal: Not long before, in an ostensibly unrelated but similarly alarming turn of events, reports surfaced that production-floor employees sustained such work-related maladies as loss of muscle strength, fainting and herniated discs.

In response to Ferro’s allegations, Tesla told In These Times that it “takes any and every form of discrimination or harassment extremely seriously.” But the company denied responsibility on the grounds that Ferro was contractor, not an employee.

Tesla’s factory conditions evoke those reported at another Silicon Valley darling: Blue Apron. In the fall of 2016, BuzzFeed detailed the consequences of the lax hiring practices and safety standards governing the food-delivery company’s Richmond, Calif. warehouse. Employees reported pain and numbness from the frigid indoor temperatures and injuries from warehouse equipment. Many filed police reports stating co-workers had punched, choked, bitten or groped them, amid threats of violence with knives, guns and bombs.

At the time of these complaints, both companies had fully ingratiated themselves to investors. Tesla’s reported worth is so astronomical even the most technocratic corporate mediaand Musk himselfquestion it. Blue Apron, which went public this year, snagged a $2 billion valuation in 2015. (Blue Apron has since seen a marked decline, a development that maybe have been spurred by BuzzFeed’s report.) As a result, both companies have habitually placed escalating pressure upon their employees to generate product, their executives eyeing the potential profits.

Predictably, these companies’ legal compliance appears to have fallen to the wayside in the name of expediency. Tesla and Blue Apron factory employees have found themselves working 12hour shifts, in some cases more than five days a week. Tesla employee Jose Moran wrote of “excessive mandatory overtime” and “a constant push to work faster to meet production goals.”

In 2015, Blue Apron appeared to violate a litany of OSHA regulations, ranging from wiring to chemical storage. It also hired local temporary workers via third-party staffing agencies—likely to circumvent the costs of such benefits as health insurance. As BuzzFeed noted, these staffing agencies independently screened candidates in lieu of internal background checks. Compounding the problem, the company expected temps to operate machinery they were unqualified to handle. (Blue Apron has since euphemized its OSHA violations and claimed to have axed these staffing agencies. The company has not responded to requests for comment.)

Aggravating an already fraught atmosphere, the companies appear to have used punitive tactics to coerce laborers into greater productivity. While some Tesla workers are placed in lower-paying “light duty” programs after reporting their injuries, others are chided for them. One production employee, Alan Ochoa, relayed to the Guardian a quote from his manager in response to his pain complaint: “We all hurt. You can’t man up?”

Equally culpable is e-commerce goliath Amazon. Bloomberg reported that the company mounts flat-screen televisions in its fulfillment centers to display anti-theft propaganda relating the stories of warehouse workers terminated for stealing on the job. (This offers a blue-collar complement to the 2016 New York Times exposé on its draconian treatment of office employees.) According to a former employee, managers upbraid workers who fail to pack 120 items per hour, heightening their quotas and, in some cases, requiring them to work an extra day. Those who don’t accept overtime shifts, meanwhile, lose vacation time.

Amazon told In These Times, “We support people who are not performing to the levels expected with dedicated coaching to help them improve.”

It’s no wonder, then, that Blue Apron and Amazon warehouses generate high turnover. In fact, this is likely by design. By creating working conditions that not only extract vast amounts of labor at low costs, but also drive workers away, tech companies can skirt the obligation to reward employees with raises and promotions. A companion to the profit-mongering schemes of Uber, Lyft and now Amazon (through its Amazon Flex delivery vertical) to classify workers as contractors, this form of labor arbitrage ensures that owners of capital avoid the risk of losing wealth to hourly workers—a class they deem thoroughly disposable.

Tesla has caused similar workforce tumult, firing employees for the foggy offense of underperformance. Of the hundreds of terminated employees from both its Palo Alto, Calif. headquarters and its Fremont facility, many were union sympathizers who’d been in talks with the United Auto Workers. The move has thus aroused suspicions that the company sought to purge dissidents—a reflection of the anti-union posture that has characterized Silicon Valley for decades.

If the near-ubiquity of factory and warehouse worker exploitation in the news cycle is any indication, tech capitalists—through their regulatory negligence and toothless “solutions”—have fostered a culture of barbarism. Low-wage laborers have little to no recourse: They’re either left to endure imminent social and physical harm, or, should they seek protections against the anguish they’ve borne, are stripped of their livelihood.

The blue-collar hellscape Tesla, Blue Apron and Amazon have wrought is what laissez-faire, startup-styled late capitalism looks like. At a time of such disregard for the fundamental health, safety and humanity of low-tier workers, the tech-executive class has proven nothing is sacred—except, of course, the urge to scale.

This article was originally published at In These Times on November 29, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

 About the Author: Julianne Tveten writes about the intersection of the technology industry and socioeconomic issues. Her work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Outline, Motherboard, and Hazlitt, among others.


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More Than a Number: Troubling Trends Behind the Dropping Unemployment Rateo

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Stephen FranklinSo the unemployment rate’s drop last month means we’re heading out of this tunnel, right? If only it were as simple as that.

There’s more to the nation’s unemployment situation than December’s decline to 8.5 percent joblessness. The fact is, the economy we live in today has become far too complex to be measured the same way we do when we step on a scale.

That’s because a number of forces have changed the workplace reality for American workers. Some of these are short-term changes, though even then, it’s not clear how their impact will play out in the long-term. And some are significant long-term changes that first began to take off and which are likely to affect workers for a long time to come.

Young vets’ job woes

Take the worsening job plight of veterans of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, something that deserves attention by policymakers. The jobless rate for these vets in December, according to government figures, was 13.1 percent, up from 11.7 percent a year ago.

But the real jobs problem is the one faced by young vets, the ones who have came home looking for new lives rather than staying on in the military. The unemployment rate for these veterans between 20 to 24 years old averaged 30 percent last year, up from 21 percent in July 2010, according to the New York Times.

This may seem to some as a short-term problem, but it has the marking of a dilemma that may linger on.

We have traditionally expected veterans to find their way back into the job market, after slogging through a bout of joblessness. That is not exactly what happened, however, after the Vietnam War, and the mark left from Iraq and Afghanistan may turn out to be an even far more difficult one to overcome.

That is because the physical and psychological scars left on so many who took part in fighting that lasted almost a decade. A large brunt of military service fell upon workers plucked out of their jobs because of their National Guard and Reserve obligations.

So, too, the long-term changes that have rippled across the job market continue to play and broaden in ways not seen a few years ago.

Public service workers lose their protections

The wind carrying blue-collar factory jobs away for unskilled workers blows as strong as ever. Not only have jobs vanished at stunning levels, but also the downward slide in wages and loss of benefits is a worrisome omen for those left behind in the factories.

But now we can begin charting the rapidly expanding downward slide of government jobs, a process that seems likely to roll on for some time from Washington to the state capitals and to local communities, spurred on by budget-minded Republicans and financially desperate Democrats.

One measure of the decline is the loss of state jobs across the U.S.

Employment levels among state workers dropped 1.2 percent in 2011, according to the New York Times. That, according to the newspaper, is the steepest drop since recordkeeping began over 55 years ago.

For a long time, public workers were immune from such severe job cuts as well as attacks on their security. But now that immunity has vanished, putting them in the same downward spin as workers in the private sector.

Many of these public service jobs are held by black and Latino workers and their foothold on the job market has only grown more tenuous lately.

Indeed, the construction industry bust, factory-shutdowns and shrinking wages for most workers have had disastrous results for black and Latino workers. As the Economic Policy Institute has pointed out, the jobless rate for black and Latino workers grew dramatically higher and dramatically apart, as well, from white workers during the last decade.

Combine these forces and you have a job market not only under terrible stress, but facing stresses not seen before. That’s why the good news concerning the joblessness rate leaves the nation only so much to cheer about.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on January 10, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About this Author: Stephen Franklin, former labor and workplace reporter for theChicago Tribune, is ethnic news director for the Community Media Workshop in Chicago. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans(2002), and has reported throughout the United States and the Middle East.  He can be reached via e-mail at[email protected].


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