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Los Deliveristas Speak: How Delivery Workers Are Organizing to Take On the Apps

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More than 2,000 food couriers snarled traffic in Times Square through pouring rain in protest April 21 demanding better working conditions and protection from violent assaults. The mass demonstration was organized by Los Deliveristas Unidos, a loose network of immigrant gig workers that was born in the strife of the pandemic last year through online chat groups on Facebook, WhatsApp, and Telegram. Since then, Los Deliveristas have coalesced into an organization with support from the Brooklyn-based Worker’s Justice Project (WJP), a worker center that organizes immigrants in construction and service sector jobs. WJP has received backing from Service Employees Local 32BJ. Learn more about Los Deliveristas in our June cover story, “Can a Driver Uprising Make Food Apps Deliver?”

No sooner had their rain-whipped faces dried than gig companies moved to thwart them through legislative maneuvering. Last month, a bill backed by the New York State AFL-CIO, the Transport Workers Union (TWU), and the Machinists’ Independent Drivers Guild attempted to kneecap the Deliveristas. TWU President John Samuelsen walked back his support for the bill after Los Deliveristas Unidos opposed the legislation.“If they don’t want this particular bill, we will support them and work with them to craft a bill [that] satisfies the workers,” Samuelsen told The City.

The draft bill would have established a legal scheme for app-based workers to exercise certain collective bargaining rights without the labor protections afforded to employees. In return workers would forgo the rights to “picketing, strikes, slowdowns, or boycotts,” as well as agreeing to “not disparage, defame, sully or compromise the goodwill, name, brand, or reputation of the network company.”

The bill would have all but banned the April demonstration. Opposition was vociferous and support has faltered—killing the bill at least for this legislative session. Read more about it in “Draft Legislation in New York Would Put Gig Workers into Toothless ‘Unions.’”

Shortly after the April mass demonstration, Labor Notes writer Luis Feliz Leon spoke to Deliverista worker leader Jonán Mancilla and WJP executive director Ligia Guallpa. The transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Part of the interview was conducted in Spanish and has been translated.—Editors

Labor Notes: Jonán, can you tell me a little bit about where you work? Who are the members of Deliveristas Unidos, and what do they do?

Jonán Mancilla: I am from Mexico City. I’ve been here for 15 years. I started working as a delivery boy in a laundry and then I started working in a restaurant. I left it because the work was too heavy. I worked as a barback and I had to carry the kegs and cases of beer. It was a lot of hours and little money. Four years ago I started with the platforms [food delivery apps], on the recommendation of a relative.

What is a typical day like for you?

I get up at seven in the morning. I drop my son off at school. I go back home to get my things ready. At nine in the morning I enter the platform, leave at one in the afternoon, come to have lunch, have a tortilla or something and go back to the platform again at two in the afternoon and finish at eight, nine in the evening.

How is it? Is there a lot of traffic? You have to, I imagine, take food up to different buildings where they don’t have working elevators. Tell me a little bit about that.

Yes, that’s an everyday thing. You can have a bad day when you have to use the stairs all day long, or you can have a day when you don’t use the stairs.

The problem is when you have to go to a building or to a public housing project where you know that your colleagues have already been assaulted and they send you there again.

How would you describe the work? Do you like it?

Yes, I like it, but with this pandemic, it is not as satisfactory as before. There is abuse from the companies in many aspects. One is the distances, another is the excess weight they make us carry, and another is the abuse with the payment. They demand things from you—for example, “put on gloves”, “put on masks”, “use antibacterial gel” [but they don’t pay for those supplies]. You have to buy the bicycle. Then it is stolen, and you have to buy another one. The company doesn’t take care of any of those things.

How did those experiences influence your decision to join Los Deliverista Unidos?

That caused us to unite. Thanks to the Worker’s Justice Project (Proyecto Justicia Laboral), I found out that this march was going to take place [on October 15].

After the march, our ethnic groups became more united. There is a big group of Latinos, but there is also a group of Africans, Bangladeshis, Chinese, other groups of people uniting in one voice and fighting for us to have rights at least. The fact that everybody was suffering from the same thing—the abuse and everything I was telling you about earlier—that was very influential.

What are the rights that you want to obtain as workers?

Prevention measures against bicycle thefts. Protections against assaults and accidents. Access to restaurants’ bathrooms, because that really sucks. A living wage besides the tips. Many people think that tips are a salary, and that is not a salary. [Income for food couriers averages between $300 to $800 weekly, according to The City.—Eds.]

The right to decent public places for protection from extreme weather. A lot of people have no idea what it’s like to wait for their bag of food when it is below 10 [degrees], or below 15. Protection against tip theft and retaliation from the apps. That’s pretty easy to explain: the apps put out messages warning, “Don’t ask about tips and if you ask you can be blocked.”

And the right to receive personal protective equipment. As I told you, they demand things from us, but they have never sent us anything. To receive compensation for accidents and to have paid sick days, which don’t exist either. The right to organize, and why not have representation? That is the Los Deliveristas Unidos movement. We are asking to be allowed to organize so that we have rights.

And when you talk about representation, what do you mean? Union representation?

Yes, I mean that a union be formed. So that there is a union group like the Taxi Workers Alliance or like the construction workers. In other words, a delivery workers union so you can count on that backup, and you don’t worry about anything happening to you. I am afraid that I will be assaulted, or that I will be robbed or something. But if there is a union—no, don’t worry. That would be very nice.

You mentioned to me some of the most important issues around which you are organizing. Any successes so far that you want to mention?

Well, right now, thank God, we have the [state] senator, Jessica Ramos, who was very influential in getting us vaccinated. [Los Deliveristas demanded to be put on the priority list for the vaccinations, and Governor Andrew Cuomo acceded to their demands in February—Eds.] There is also [New York City councilor] Carlos Menchaca and other elected representatives who have wanted to help us. They are writing legislation. [After the April demonstration, the New York City Council introduced a package of five bills to address some of the demands. One bill fines restaurants that deny drivers bathroom access. Another establishes minimum pay per trip (as Uber and Lyft drivers have). Another allows drivers to set their own routes. –Eds.] Thanks to this Deliveristas Unidos community we have made ourselves heard and that has caught their attention.

Ligia Guallpa: And can you mention DoorDash? After [Deliveristas] virtually meeting with DoorDash, the Restaurant Association sent out a press release asking restaurants to allow access to the restrooms, and DoorDash felt pressured also to ask. I think DoorDash said that they’ve gotten 200 restaurants [to agree].

Mancilla: DoorDash reached out to us, we did not look for them. DoorDash reached out to us for a meeting, to say, “I am concerned about this issue because I have many delivery drivers and I would like to know what their complaints are. What is bothering them? What do they need?” And then, the issue of the restrooms was addressed, wasn’t it? Because they had already sent a message to the restaurants. And they said that they had about 200 restaurants committed at that time, but I think there must have been more, thanks to that ruckus we made.

You protested and then DoorDash responded to your complaints? And said, “We hear you. We’re going to grant you access to the restrooms.” When did that happen?

In the first march [on October 15] there were over 800 delivery workers, I believe. I couldn’t count them either, it was impossible. But DoorDash noticed. I mean, DoorDash is not blind. DoorDash said, “They’re marching for a reason.” They noticed the signs, that it was not only Relay, but also DoorDash, Uber, Grubhub—all the platforms. They were the only ones that took notice and were concerned about their company and said: “We are going to have a meeting so that they tell us what is bothering them.”

So, basically you’re talking about power in numbers. Right? The last protest in April had 2,000 people. So, how did you guys build that organizational power? 2017 was the last time the immigrant community, in particular, mobilized in this way. There was a day without immigrants after Trump was elected, but other than that there hasn’t been such large mobilizations. So, can you talk to me a little bit about how you guys have built that collective power?

First of all, it is thanks to the Worker’s Justice Project. Because I can tell you, “I created the [Facebook] page for Los Deliveristas Unidos,” but without them we would not have done anything. They were the foundation—not only economically, but the support we receive from them is also moral: “Give it your best, guys! Let’s do it! Don’t let yourselves be defeated. These companies are nothing without you.” They tell us that a lot. “Imagine if you didn’t work there. Understand that without you, the companies wouldn’t exist.”

It is something that many people have understood, [but] many people are afraid to understand it. Or they are afraid to acknowledge it, because of retaliation.

First, we thought it would be easy with four of us [speaking about Worker’s Justice Project organizers—Eds.]. But we realized we need a bigger team, which joined us in this march. I saw many people that I didn’t know. We were thinking that there were going to be delivery workers, but we didn’t think that people who don’t deliver, but have a family member or an acquaintance who does, could march just to support the people. We didn’t expect that.

Guallpa: After October 15, Jonán and other leaders started to talk to other delivery workers on the streets, to connect with other groups and to tell them, “Hey guys, you’ve gotta join! Here are the [WhatsApp and Telegram] chats, like the [Facebook] page.” Going where they are working to talk to them every day, identifying the leaders. I hear Jonán say all the time—what’s the name of the one with the Dominicans there, the one from the tigers?

Mancilla: Henry. Right?

Guallpa: He says, “Henry is the leader of this group.” And he says, “Henry, you’re going to lead this group of 20.” It is something powerful. The organization supported by bringing resources [and] strategy, but I think the overall movement has been growing because of the leaders who are here now.

There are leaders in Queens. There is, for example, Isaias, who has a group of almost 80, 90 delivery workers who are everywhere mobilizing. Jonán created emergency chat groups, where they move quickly to assist each other. Either there’s a march, or there’s an action. And I think that the most powerful thing in this movement is that the network keeps growing every day. Right now, they are reaching out to Africans, to Bangladeshis.

They are asking us right now to have all the materials in [other languages]. [Many of the] Africans speak French. But the most powerful secret has been the leadership of leaders like Jonán, and they know that new leaders need to be groomed. They constantly say, “No. I’m not going be able to do this on my own.”

Mancilla: That forced us to be more leaders, because that is what I was telling Luis, that all of a sudden we were not enough. I was telling Ligia: “I can’t control this group, because there are so many of them.” “Ok. Well, let’s go talk to Henry. Let’s talk to Manolo, and let them help you… I know that Sergio is very intelligent and that he leads the group down there.”

This grew very fast. You can see that from October to February, not even a year. I never imagined that the page and the help groups would grow so fast. Well, I don’t like those to grow because it implies that the city is not safe, right? But it is something that we have to recognize, that they have grown because insecurity has grown.

So many people have the confidence to write to us for any kind of problem. Whether it is with their application, whether it is with their employer, or with some platform. In fact, they write to us for any nonsense. “Hey, do you know where there is a bike shop here in this area?” And I’m like, “A bike shop?!” So, it’s something that sometimes makes us laugh, but you know you’re doing something, and you know you’re doing good with the page.

I think you describe it in a way that might give the impression that it’s easy, but there are a lot of people who would like to be where you are—to be able to identify leaders and build the trust of those leaders. Could you share with me some lessons you’ve learned in organizing and what tools the Worker’s Justice Project has offered you to do the work?

Mancilla: Well, number one, the first thing I was taught in order to be a leader is not to say you can’t. Never say you can’t. And to have confidence in ourselves because if you don’t have confidence in yourself, you’re not going to get anywhere. That is something that maybe I had never told Ligia, but it is something that she has taught me a lot.

Her and Glendy [a lead organizer at Worker’s Justice Project—Eds.], they are always pushing me. Not in a bad way, but they tell me: “Yes you can, yes you can. Don’t tell me you can’t.” They go into the can-do mode and you can’t get out of it. There is no such thing as being afraid either—because many of the delivery workers are afraid to talk. You approach them, and they are afraid of you. We had to learn to talk, and I also learned a lot with her, because I think she is more used to talking to people on the street.

When I arrived and [Ligia] said: “Talk to him, talk to him,” I would say: “He won’t answer me, I know him.” “Talk to him, talk to him. You can do it, you can do it.” That helped me a lot to have self-confidence, to be sociable. Just by starting to go out with them, you realize how they act. You say: “I want to be like Ligia,” who has this leadership power, so natural that it doesn’t even show. I said, “I want to be just as natural.”

Guallpa: Also connecting with the groups, because there are different groups. The nice thing about this food delivery community is that, even if you see them alone, handling their food, they are always connected to a community. Even if it’s because they live in the same neighborhood, they are family. For example, downstairs there is a little group called the Garrafones and they are a group of 20 Mexicans. There are the Tigres [streetwise crew, in Dominican slang—Eds.], the Dominicans who are always there on the corner.

Something that didn’t happen is that they didn’t communicate among the networks. For example, the Tigres don’t talk to the Mexicans or the Garrafones. What separates the working community is always identity—where are you from? Ethnic groups.

But I think that in the delivery community everyone self-identifies, because everyone has had their bicycle stolen. Everybody has been denied the bathroom, so there’s an immediate sense of solidarity. Right? And something that Jonán and Sergio [another worker leader] have done a lot is to be quick to respond, and that helps to build trust quickly with the workers.

For example, if someone’s bicycle is stolen, they automatically post or send to the chats: “Can someone go to 112th Street right now, because there is an emergency?” Soon other workers show up to stand together against thieves. They’re the eyes, and they act fast. I think they’ve gained the trust of their peers. They are talking to the other compañeros, “You can do it and you are the leader. You are going to liberate this group.”

Mancilla: I think that these WhatsApp groups did something to break the ice between many ethnic groups. There was this saying, “Oh, he is from Guatemala, don’t talk to him.” Or “he’s from Ecuador.” And, “If he pretends he is Mexican, don’t talk to him. Don’t talk to those from Guatemala.” Those groups broke the ice a lot.

Do you remember at Thanksgiving when we went to play soccer? And we were there, the Guatemalans, the Mexicans, I think there were Ecuadorians there too. It was great to see that there is no longer that ice, thanks to the pages and the groups that were formed, thanks to the march.

Among the Latino community there are definitely divisions and you’ve talked a little bit about how you were able to create solidarity, but also, you’re working with other workers of different races and ethnic groups. Can you explain a little bit how you’re doing that work? And what are the working conditions and the racial inequalities that you share?

Guallpa: What we are doing with the delivery workers from Africa and the Bangladeshis is the same thing that we were doing with the Latinos, which is to gain the trust of the networks. Glendy and I don’t do food delivery, but the moment I feel that they give us the chance to open up, or they give us the chance to go visit them in their free time, then we go with Jonán, because we need them to see that he’s another delivery guy.

And it’s slowly building trust, because Africans have their networks as well. [But] when we go and talk and they listen to what the Latinos are doing, they identify automatically: “Well it’s about time someone fought for that, and I want to be part of it.” So, they started to give likes to the page.

We created fliers in French, so that’s been the tool, but we don’t speak French. So we are identifying partners who speak a little bit more English and who are the translators. There are some Africans who speak a little bit of Spanish because they are from a country in Africa where people speak Spanish [Equatorial Guinea].

So, that has been the way we have been growing. I’m the one doing the most outreach to the Bangladeshis in Brooklyn. I don’t speak Bangladeshi, but we have connected with some leaders and there is also a page of Bangladeshis, who communicate about robberies and all that.

It’s a process. It doesn’t mean it’s already perfect. I think that growing a more diverse movement takes time, and so does creating the foundation of values. Recently [we have talked about]—well, we have not talked about it constantly because everything has been going very fast—about inclusion, the language we use, how we make the [Los Deliveristas Unidos Facebook] page more inclusive because there are compañeros who speak [languages other than Spanish]…

Now, those who follow the site speak French. Some are already suggesting posting in English as well. So, little by little, for example, Jonán and others are trying to educate compañeros because sometimes it is talked about. When you talk about a problem, you talk based on color. How to remove the color as part of the problem, because in the end color does not matter. In the delivery industry people come in all colors and all flavors.

But it is a long process that is just beginning. As well as they have grown, they are in the first steps of building relationships with the new groups. And, for example, the most powerful thing that happened this time at the march [on April 21] was that one of the leaders of the West African networks wanted to speak.

He said, “I want to be there. You can’t leave me out of that program.” And I think the most beautiful thing about that day [was when] he talked about how “we are tired, we are essential, we are the ones who distribute, we are the ones who fed the doctors, the sick, and we are the most screwed. And here I am. I’m a deliverista.” And the fact that he said it in Spanish: “I am a deliverista. We are deliveristas.” It’s like acknowledgement, isn’t it? That this movement is his too.

And he says, “When is the next one? Because I have to bring my brothers.”

Mancilla: A lot of people got interested. They are like, “when is the next one? When is the next one? When is the next one?” I don’t know if you saw, Ligia, a guy said, “why they did only one, if when George Floyd was killed, there were marches every day?” “Well, you’re right. Why don’t we do another one?” But it’s not that easy.

Jonán, you mentioned the robberies. How are you all organizing around the security issues?

Mancilla: We have WhatsApp groups and other compañeros use Telegram, but there is also the Facebook page. Many people have come to trust it. Sometimes Ligia has to tell them, “You know what, call the police. [Oh,] you called the police already?” I don’t know what kind of page they think we are. They think we are from the police. They see it so big that they say, “I better tell them. Let’s see if somebody comes.” I feel that the page is something very important. The WhatsApp groups, the Telegram, and the page more than anything have made it into an emergency call, a solution for them.

Of course, they are not necessarily self-defense groups. What is it then?

Mancilla: I don’t know if I should call it that, but they do exist within the WhatsApp groups, because you send an emergency, as Ligia said today, “we need someone here. 148 and Amsterdam,” and all of a sudden you are going to see five or 10 people getting there and they help you.

You also mentioned George Floyd earlier and all the protests that have taken place through the summer and to this day. So, there’s a climate where a lot of people in the Latino community and the African-American community say that they fear police. How do you position yourselves in that debate? For example, street vendors often complain about how the police treat them. But then there are also other occasions where, if there is an attack, who do they call if the compañeros can’t come—who comes?

Mancilla: At the beginning it was as if many people understood that they had to call the police, but later they realized that the police don’t come. That led many to join the WhatsApp and Telegram groups, because they know they will come.

I don’t know if you saw the last video with the Queens compañeros. They sent a message to please let the groups know that they needed help. And if you look at the video, the last one shows how the [drivers] start to arrive, because the police don’t come—and if the [police] come they don’t do anything.

My friend says they were kids, teenagers, and they told him he was going to take the bicycle and then they started to fight. One of the bicycle thieves was caught and he was the one who got beaten badly. When the police arrived, they took the beaten teen away and my friend says that they saw him free later. So, it is a reality that the police don’t do anything. I don’t know if they don’t feel like it, if they don’t like the paperwork, or because they are minors they can’t do anything else. So, these self-defense groups, as you call them, emerged.

Guallpa: But what is funny is that the compañeros arrive faster than the police. For example, the chat messages, in less than five or 10 minutes, there are already five or 10, those who are nearby mobilize to get there faster. And they have helped compañeros when they have an accident to contact family members, or when a bicycle is stolen, if they are close by, they have rescued bicycles.

Mancilla: Yes, because the police do not come.

Guallpa: Or when they get stuck with a motorcycle. They’ve managed to react faster than the police. And the reason they are reacting like that is because, as Jonán said, the police are not doing anything. They are on their own, they only have themselves.

So, to wrap up the interview, Jonán, what are the next steps after last week’s protest?

Mancilla: Well, I don’t think we have finished the first steps yet. We have to keep on fighting because I don’t feel that they have listened to us yet. We have some legislation, don’t we, Ligia? We still have many things to do. If you notice, they tell us that we are essential, but they do not show it to us.

[Here the interview with Jonán Mancilla ends and the interview with Ligia Guallpa continues.]

Jonán mentioned all that you folks have done to support them. Can you take me back to where this campaign started and what kind of tools Worker’s Justice provided to the delivery drivers to help them get organized?

Guallpa: For him it started on October 15, but for WJP actually it started much earlier, in May of last year. When Covid happened, the Worker’s Justice Project became an emergency relief center for migrant workers and we had to turn our worker center serving Williamsburg, Sunset Park, and Bensonhurst into emergency relief centers where workers could pick up masks or ask for information. It was in April that we realized that Covid was going to be a long-term thing, and we saw many of our members going unemployed, being scared of Covid, not knowing if they should go back or not go back to work, also realizing that their co-workers were getting sick and they were not even notified whether they had Covid. We raised money to start doing cash relief, and we started seeing how most of our members started moving into food delivery work as an alternative.

In Bensonhurst we opened one of the worker centers to do food relief, and the people who were coming through our doors were actually the delivery workers. We started noticing that it was a whole different sector that nobody had been outreaching to, and in May, June, we started connecting with different networks.

We started connecting with different leaders that started telling us how they were doing this work and [about] access to bathrooms. They were sharing how they were carrying bottles of water to do their basic necessities, how they were treated by the restaurants, how they were pressured by the companies. I think one of the most important things for WJP is how fast and how quickly we started building trust with the different networks.

It was by May, June, July, September, we were having access to many of these networks; and also, understanding that this was not a specific issue workers were facing in Brooklyn, it was at a much bigger scale, and it was because most of these workers were not working as workers—they were treated as independent contractors. And doing this power analysis at the end of the day, it was because of these apps.

The apps were having full control of their lives. We’re talking to the leaders about understanding the power— many of them were blaming the restaurants, but we were trying to help them understand that it’s not just a restaurants’ responsibility, but the app has full control of this. The apps are the ones who negotiate these contracts in this partnership with the restaurants.

The apps could have easily said to the restaurants, “Hey, we’re going to enter into an agreement with you: we’re going to provide you the service, but you have to provide bathrooms,” and it was the apps who were actually not negotiating any conditions because they didn’t care. They just wanted to get restaurants to pay the 30 percent fee, and didn’t care about what conditions workers were facing.

One of the most powerful things was that in September, as we started connecting with different networks and talking through issues, every single worker was agitated. They were mad, they were angry, they were desperate because things were getting worse. I mean, if you think about September, it was already seven months of inhumanity; of so much unfair treatment that you have to go through that many said, “Enough.” They were like, “Somebody has to hear us.”

When we talked to the different networks and we were like, “We are ready, we’re going to march,” they initially thought, “We want to talk to the police, we’re going to march to the police,” and then we did a couple meetings.

We did something about strategy as well, like understanding who has the power to make things better, and we had conversations with the leaders that, you know, the company is responsible, has power to make changes, city council has power to make changes. The mayor of New York City has power, the restaurants have power; so, these are our main targets. The police is just one actor. They should do their jobs, but at the end of the day, they can’t give you what you need.

And there was the first time that I said, “We have to target our city council members,” and that’s when we started training our leaders, we started doing the framework of how to message. I think that’s something powerful, because they have the most powerful stories—they’re essential workers, they’re more like frontline workers. They’ve been delivering and keeping everybody fed and being treated without humanity.

Glendy and I will not only identify leaders and connect with the leaders in building trust but make sure that leaders really understand where their power is, and who has power to give them what they need, and that’s exactly what we did.

Yes, you should start targeting the restaurants who should give you access to the bathroom, but at the end of the day it’s the company who’s the target. Right? It is the mayor, it is city council who has the power to put legislation to regulate the apps.

We started doing informally this power mapping and making sure they understand the dynamics of that industry, who has the power to give it to them, and also making sure that they can tell the story of their own conditions. We started building with them what’s the narrative that they want to share, and building confidence. With Jonán, I feel like he’s a natural leader, but a lot of the leaders live with a lot of fear. “What about, if I say something, I get disconnected? or what about, if I talk to other leaders, they might not trust me.” So we’ve been helping Jonán build trust with other leaders and validating him in spaces that he’s a leader, and mentoring them.

There is so much power in the city, and they know it. But owning it has been a whole process for them, to own the power that they have, and that they could exercise. And also, building power takes time.

I remember when we did the first march. The leaders were pissed off. Not everybody came in. We only had I think between 700 and 800 people. Not all the leaders got into the buy-in of doing this march. There was a lot of criticism among them, like, “What do we want out of this march?” And I think what inspired and motivated them was DoorDash after the march. We were publicly shaming DoorDash and DoorDash was like, “Okay, we need to talk to them, because obviously they’re not talking good about the company and this is bad PR for us.” They reached out to Los Deliveristas: “We want to talk to the workers.”

Acknowledging these victories and how they’re escalating motivates them and inspires them to say, “we can do this.” Who brings a big powerful company to meet with a group of workers? That’s powerful. Or who expects the Restaurant Association to put out a press release asking the restaurants to open the bathrooms?

Acknowledging the power that they have, I think it has leveraged the movement to understand that this is their time, that this is their movement. I also see how they’re exhausted, of being like not only first responders as food delivery workers, but now also managing all these self-defense networks. I remember we were having a one-on-one meeting with Jonán, and he was like, “Ligia, I can only] manage so many people. Everybody’s expecting me, that as a leader, I should respond.” And that’s when we’d sit down with him, that part of the role of a leader is to develop other leaders, and what kind of leader you want to start identifying.

It is not just the person that talks the most—you know, Latinoamerica is like, the leader is the one who talks better, who talks the most and who’s louder. That is not a leader. You want to look for the one that has the followers, the one that is consistent, the one that you know is going to respond, the one that you know is committed to the movement.

The next phase is to diversify the movement. Bring more Africans, Bangladeshis. They took the first step by making sure that the agenda is open to other groups. Even though they have a struggle within, because they don’t speak English. So they have said, “we can distribute the flyers, but you guys have to help me follow up.” They might not talk but they go, “here’s a flyer, just read it. In your language.”

It sounds like a lot of the leadership development was done by modeling behavior through one-on-one conversations. Was there any curriculum that informed how you were power mapping, how you were helping Jonán and other leaders develop that credibility? Where do you get your lessons from?

To be honest, there is no formal training, A lot has been done one on one and with mentoring. Glendy talks to the leaders almost every single week, not only to check in with them, but we give them little homeworks. One of the most powerful things that I think organizers have to understand is that workers know the solutions better than the organizer. I talk every day to some of the leaders in Brooklyn, and they come up with these incredible ideas. Like, they came up with a sticker idea. They were saying that we had a need for something that self-identifies them as a group.

And he said, maybe stickers, to put on the bikes. And I said, how do you think the stickers will be used? And we started developing a strategy with them—like, maybe that’s a way to also talk to them about who we are and what we’re doing. They came up with the idea of giving out hardhats, because not all the delivery workers were wearing hard hats. And we consistently are asking, how do you think we can be building this strategy of hardhats?

What Glendy and I are doing is doing a lot of strategy, per borough and per neighborhood. What is needed for Harlem is not what sometimes is needed in Queens. The leaders know better what’s the dynamic in the neighborhood, so a lot of what we do is like holding open strategy sessions with leaders. We do a lot of listening; we ask a lot of questions. We also mentor them. For instance, Jonán, sometimes he’s afraid to go and talk to the bike shops, and we said, “Do you want us to go with you?” And he’s like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah because I don’t know.” And then we asked him to do it and then he’s like, “Okay.” So it’s like, “See, you can do it.”

One of the things we want to do is bring all the leaders into one room to debrief what has worked and what hasn’t worked. We’re having these one-on-one conversations about what inclusivity means. Not only gender, but with other communities. That’s a conversation we are having one on one, because sometimes workers themselves make comments that can be racist.

A lot of the work that we’re doing is trust building, identifying leaders, mapping different neighborhoods where there is a high density of food delivery sites. We’re mapping where workers congregate. We are doing a strategy-one-on-one as well with each of the leaders. We are helping them sustain a lot of these networks, helping them manage by including more people into it and helping them identify new leaders as well.

But I think one of the most powerful things is that this is a community that believe it or not has this natural level of solidarity. They’re there for each other. I think that one of the things that Glendy and I have been able to do, including with Jonán and others, is build trust with the different groups. But also, unfortunately, conditions have become these most deadly jobs, which agitate workers to unite.

Every time they post something, they use this phrase: “Unidos somos más fuertes.” [Together we are stronger.—Eds.] All the texts when they win something or they want to agitate others, they created a hashtag. And then Glendy and I thought, you know, every time they finish a sentence we are like, “Unidos somos más fuertes, chicos!

Glendy and I cannot act so fast the way they are, there’s no way. Yesterday, Gustavo [another worker leader] was like, “I’m going to need help, because there’s some member leaders who came, brought groups, and they didn’t get a T-shirt.” And we just need to make sure that we collect their names or phone numbers because they want to grow their database, they know how important phone numbers and access to that is. So, I went to help him to collect all the phone numbers, and I was shocked because they created these stickers of Los Deliveristas Unidos. They created their own logo, how they want it to be, which is like a delivery worker with a big fist. Everybody came in, I thought they were coming for the T-shirts, but no. They’re coming for the stickers. And when they took the stickers, they said give me three, no, no, no, give me four. I asked one of the workers, I said why do you guys want so many stickers? He’s like, “I have a friend.” And I said, “Yeah but, you know, it’s a sticker, why do you need…?” He is like, “Because when we see this sticker, we know that we belong to each other. But not only that, I think the thieves are seeing these stickers, so they’re getting scared. They think that we’re part of the mafia.” I was laughing. I was shocked, but at the same time I felt like, wow, people are acknowledging how powerful they are.

This is how they own their power. They want people to know, “We’re not alone anymore. Watch us. We’re coming after you.”

Where does Los Deliveristas Unidos fit in the broader debate within the labor movement around fighting misclassification? You know, especially in the wake of Prop 22 in California, this seems to be like a poster child case of rampant misclassification.

This is much more than just fighting for basic rights for food delivery workers. The way I see it is, this is about defending the rights of all workers, whether or not they are food delivery workers. Because what they’re fighting is not just the big multi billion-dollar companies like DoorDash, GrubHub. These companies are building a new economy where they’re trying to erase decades of labor protections that historically the labor movement has won. Like minimum wage or workers comp, all these things were won because workers fought so hard for decades.

Tech companies are looking to rewrite every single labor law and redefine who’s a worker and who’s not a worker. They’re building a whole new economy. They’re using their power to define who gets protections and who doesn’t. What happened in California, it showed how powerful these companies are, and they’re looking into doing it in every single state.

They were able to make progress under Trump because Trump was more flexible about giving more power to the companies to expand the definition of independent contracting.

In New York, we know DoorDash and other companies are looking to do the exact same thing that they did in California. [The proposed New York bill fell apart in late May, thanks in large part to opposition from the Deliveristas—Eds.] And I don’t think DoorDash and others are ready to confront Los Deliveristas Unidos. They were all profiting from the pandemic. They were making good money. Nobody was complaining, the city was happy; restaurants were complaining but they realized that, at the end of the day, they were also helping businesses, they were helping New Yorkers. And they weren’t ready for workers to start raising their voices and building up so much power.

As soon as the October 15 march happened and workers started being vocal, and shaming [companies] publicly, the public [began] to realize, “Oh my god, the delivery worker that brought my food you’re telling me that he couldn’t eat? Or you are telling me that he’s not paid? But I’m still paying this high fee to DoorDash?”

And also moving elected officials to start paying attention and making it public.

We are hoping that more labor unions will join this fight because Deliveristas Unidos are about to define the future of the labor movement. And you’ve heard it from Jonán, they want representation. And the fact that we see some—32BJ, one of the unions saying we’re going to support you—it’s huge! We’re hoping that other unions will follow. Because this is a big fight. It’s about protecting basic labor protections that the labor movement won for decades.

Amazon has its Delivery Service Providers network, which also hires subcontracted delivery drivers. They are opening up shop in Hell’s Kitchen to have folks on e-bikes make deliveries. Are any Deliveristas part of that subcontracting arrangement?

Yeah, they are. One of the things they’re doing is, whenever they give a sticker, to get the person’s name and the phone number and ask, what app do you work for? Where do you deliver? And they are looking into expanding their WhatsApp groups because they also realized there is Amazon Flex—it’s one of the, one of the most common things that workers are using, which is people with cars or bikes that pick-up food from grocery stores, Whole Foods, and others.

Have you folks done a breakdown of what apps most of the deliveristas work for?

We are working on the research now, doing a survey that hasn’t been completed yet. We’re working on that with Cornell. We’re hoping that it will be completed at the end of May. I think it will give a huge understanding about where the industry is and which apps are the big actors.

In response to Amazon entering the bike delivery space, any thoughts? Amazon has been in the headlines because of the warehouse worker organizing campaign in Bessemer, Alabama. I’m curious, what is the potential for these struggles coalescing into a movement?

The movement is interconnected. Because at the end of the day, Deliveristas, Amazon workers are all fighting against corporate greed. I think the point of connection is to make sure that workers who are working for Amazon are also talking to workers who are doing food delivery. I think the big step right now is how we bring these worker leaders who are leading this amazing fight to talk to each other in real solidarity.

It’s so critical to fight together, and it takes time. Unfortunately, time is what we don’t have, because these companies are moving so fast. But the big job for unions and worker centers is to come together to understand and fight together, strategize together. This is why I think naturally 32 BJ said “Yes, we’re fighting the big fast-food companies, you know, we’re never gonna say no to the Deliveristas.” We are asking for other unions to step it up as well.

I share your belief in the potential for the labor movement to unite as a social movement of working-class people, and a multiracial working-class movement that, no pun intended, delivers for working people.

This is something I think many people don’t understand. Worker’s Justice Project and other worker centers are part of a movement that truly understands that there is no labor movement without organizing the new workforce, which just happens to be immigrant in New York—which is the exact same way the labor unions got started back in the day, right? They got started by immigrants. Los Deliveristas were born by immigrants, and look, they organized a massive march! We believe it was more like 3,000 people, not 2,000 people, because we bought 2,000 T-shirts and all of them were gone.

What stands out to me about this is that that’s the type of mass grassroots working organizing that unfortunately is all too rare these days, and we have not seen many big demos by immigrant workers in a long time. This is one of those moments where immigrant workers flex their muscle. So I want to ask for your last thoughts on that. How did these workers build up that kind of organizational power, and what’s next?

That’s a hard question, because everything is changing so fast. One of the true things that we believe as a worker center is that there’s a lot of power when people organize. What Worker’s Justice Project is doing right now is validating that power everywhere we go. We need to make sure workers understand that they have the power, and they just need to use it, and that we’re going to be there to back them up all the way through.

And also, being honest that it’s not easy to exercise your power. There’s challenges. And it has to be diverse, not just led by one leader. Los Deliveristas Unidos has grown so fast because it is led by workers and leaders, and in every borough, in every corner, every neighborhood there is one. Our job is to build their trust, build their confidence, give them the tools and make sure that they understand that this is a much broader movement, that it takes time.

What’s next? Right now, what they’re looking for is to fight specific protections at the city level. They want the city to pass some local legislation that will make things better.

They’re talking about building a much broader organization that can scale up. That takes more organizing and more base-building work, as well as deeper understanding and a stronger strategy—because they are not confronting, you know, un empleador cualquiera [just any employer—Eds.]. They are confronting multibillion-dollar tech companies that have not only a lot of economic power, but a lot of political power too. This is not a fight that can be won alone. We need to bring other people to fight together.

This blog originally appeared at LaborNotes on June 7, 2021. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Luis Feliz Leon is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes.


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Unions eye Brookings, Urban Institute as push to organize think tanks grows

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Workers at two of the largest, most influential think tanks in Washington, D.C. are forming a union, adding to a growing trend in white-collar collective bargaining. 

Staff at the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute on Tuesday asked their employers to grant them voluntary recognition — which doesn’t require a secret ballot election — of their unions, which are affiliated with the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, IFPTE Local 70.

The labor movement’s efforts to organize think tanks — major players in influencing and informing the policy debate on Capitol Hill — is the latest white-collar sector to see a burst in collective bargaining. Labor efforts have poured into Silicon Valley and have expanded to groups of workers not typically protected under federal labor law, like independent contractors. 

“We believe Urban needs a nurturing workplace for all employees in order to bring rigorous research to advance equitable policy solutions,” the Organizing Committee of Urban Institute Employees Union said in a statement. “We believe that nobody can represent workers’ interests better than workers themselves and that our perspectives are vital to Urban’s longevity and its institutional ethics.”

The Brookings United Organizing Committee said in a statement that “Brookings is an intellectual home for policy ideas that empower working people. And Brookings United is excited for this new partnership so that together, we can create a more inclusive and sustainable environment in the post-COVID-19 world.” 

Brookings management said that it “will carefully review” and follow up on the staffers’ request that it remain neutral in the union drive

“We respect our employees’ right to organize, and we are committed to making certain Brookings continues to be a great place to work,” the organization said in a statement to POLITICO. 

A spokesperson for the Urban Institute was not immediately available for comment. 

The NPEU has successfully organized several other prominent think tanks in the D.C. area, including The Center for American Progress, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Economic Policy Institute, National Immigration Law Center, and the National Women’s Law Center, among others. 

While many of those institutions are considered left-leaning or progressive, Brookings tends to fall more politically in the center, and the union says it’s prepared to file for a ballot election with the National Labor Relations Board if not granted voluntary recognition. 

“It can sometimes really surprise us which organizations crack down most aggressively on their staff,” said Daniel Essrow, an organizer with the NPEU. “Ideology definitely comes into play, but organizational culture is often a bigger factor.” 

“In the case of Brookings and Urban, they are certainly slightly more centrist than some of the nonprofits where we have received voluntary recognition,” he added. “But the breadth of research they have produced on the benefits of collective bargaining is unmatched — we are hopeful they will follow their own research and recognize their staffs’ unions.”

The nearly 200 employees forming a union at Brookings say they want to improve diversity, retention, and paid family and parental leave, among other issues, NPEU says. 

Similarly, The Urban Institute Employees’ Union, which would represent nearly 250 workers, says it’s looking to ensure that the think tank supports its diverse staff through “equitable pay, treatment, promotion processes, access to leadership positions, and mental health resources.” 

Rachel Greszler, a research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative thinktank, said that the growth in nonprofit unions “will be an interesting story to follow,” given the nature of the work and nonprofit employees’ relationship to their organization’s message. 

“Traditional unions are not well-suited for industries like non-profits and think tanks where job duties often vary significantly within the same job title, and where organizations’ missions rely on both flexibility and accountability,” she wrote via email. “Most people who work at non-profits and think tanks do it because they are passionate about their organization’s mission and they want to help build their organization up.”

Greszler argues that unions “typically rely on strong-armed tactics and adversarial relationships.” She says that often leaves “workers feeling like their employer is their adversary instead of their ally.” 

The growth in organizing inside some of the most influential institutions in Washington follows efforts by the labor movement to organize in new sectors beyond the traditional trades.

The Communications Workers of America launched an initiative early last yearto support union organizing efforts in the tech and video game industries.

In January, more than 400 Google employees formed the Alphabet Workers Union, a non-traditional union in the sense that the group didn’t seek certification with the federal labor board, meaning that the company won’t be required by law to bargain “in good faith” with the group.

However, efforts made by the union, which is affiliated with the CWA, to advance working conditions at the company will still be protected under the National Labor Relations Act.

Drivers for app-based taxi services like Uber and Lyft have also formed worker organizations, despite being classified by their companies as “independent contractors.” Such workers are not protected under the National Labor Relations Act, and thus don’t have collective bargaining rights that can be policed by the federal labor board. 

Despite the labor movement’s efforts to expand into new sectors like nonprofits, at least one labor expert is skeptical those unions will have staying power. 

“I will be curious to see how many high-powered professional workers, who are researchers at think tanks are going to want a union to represent them,” said Douglas McCabe, a professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. 

McCabe, who said he is pro-union, added, “Whether they’re at Brookings Institution on Mass Ave., or the Cato Institute, I’d be very hesitant to see whether they’re going to be willing to join a union.” 

But workers who are part of the union drive say that they hope their efforts will galvanize more think tanks to organize. 

“When we’re working towards this union effort I think a lot of us are thinking about solidarity,” said Kate Hannick, a member of the Brookings Union Organizing Committee, “and knowing that a place as influential and prestigious as Brookings forming a union, it could really become industry standard in the think tank world and beyond.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on April 13, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.


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Swarming Solidarity: How Contract Negotiations in 2021 Could Be Flashpoints in the U.S. Class Struggle

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The labor movement’s pundits and prognosticators ring in the New Year like commentators anywhere. They make pronouncements about what “will” happen and what “should” happen to revitalize the shrinking U.S. trade union movement.

At 6.2 percent density in the private sector, U.S. unions aren’t even treading water; we are drowning. That makes it more imperative than ever to engage members to strengthen connections between our union struggles and build broader public support.

The best opportunity to involve union members in 2021 will be through the large-scale collective bargaining agreements that are due to expire this year. Economic struggles remain the center of gravity for the U.S. working class and its organized members in particular. An analysis of the collective bargaining calendar points us in the direction of where those struggles are most likely to occur.

This year, 450 collective bargaining agreements covering more than 200 union members apiece will expire, according to Bloomberg, which maintains the most comprehensive database of expiring agreements outside of the AFL-CIO. Of these, 160 agreements cover more than 1,000 workers.

These 450 contracts, involving more than a million and a half workers, are an ideal opportunity for the labor movement to showcase our power and the advantages of collective bargaining. 

HOT SPOTS

Agreements covering 200,000 health care workers will expire. In the public sector 161,000 municipal workers, 112,000 state workers, and 100,000 school employees have contracts expiring. 

Most of these workers have been on the front lines providing essential services during the pandemic. But with the economy sinking, employers will be preaching austerity and looking for concessions. There are likely to be many contentious negotiations, some leading to vigorous contract campaigns or strikes. 

Union leaders and rank-and-file members need to brace themselves for the coming battles. These contract campaigns—and some inevitable strikes—will offer the best opportunity for the labor movement to build class consciousness and recast our unions as vehicles to advance wages and working conditions—or at a minimum, maintain them. 

The single largest contract is the Postal Workers (APWU) agreement with the U.S. Postal Service that expires in September, covering 200,000 workers. Another USPS agreement with the Rural Letter Carriers, covering 131,000 workers, expires in May. 

The 50-state scope of these agreements, and postal workers’ newly evident status as providers of a service essential to our democracy, make their contract fights a natural for nationwide solidarity. While it’s unlikely (though not impossible) that there will be a strike, given the legal straitjacket imposed on postal unions and their scant recent history of shop floor militancy, the reform leadership at the helm of the APWU is committed to workplace contract campaigns and outreach to the public. Postal workers have plenty to be mad about—months of forced overtime, intense understaffing, jammed mail plants, attacks from a hostile new Postmaster General, and a two-tiered workforce—and they’re very visible in every community of this country.

There will also be state and regional opportunities to build solidarity among workers in different unions who may be facing common problems or making similar demands. With 52 expiring agreements covering more than 200 members, California is the state with the most opportunity for geographic solidarity, closely followed by Washington (36), Pennsylvania (35), and New York (32). 

An even better possibility for synergies is at the metropolitan level. Cities with the most expiring agreements over 200 members are New York (16 contracts), Minneapolis-St. Paul (12), Seattle (11), and Portland (8). Of course, there are many smaller expiring agreements in these cities that could also be included in any metro solidarity initiative. 

There are a few other large multistate agreements that might lend themselves to a national focus: 

  • Kaiser Permanente’s agreement with a coalition of unions representing 45,000 workers expires in September.
  • United Airlines’ agreement with the Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA), covering 25,000 workers, expires in July.
  • The school bus company First Student’s agreement with the Teamsters, covering 20,000 workers, expires in March.
  • Throughout 2021, the TV networks (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) have big agreements that expire with SAG/AFTRA, CWA-NABET, and the Electrical Workers (IBEW).

INSPIRE THE UNORGANIZED

The struggles for new agreements will also be labor’s best opportunity to showcase the advantages of collective bargaining to not-yet-union workers. As millions of union workers get into motion to resist austerity and win Covid-19 protections, the unorganized will be watching—and evaluating the efficacy of uniting with their co-workers.

In our experience, unorganized workers are generally attracted to unions that engage in contract campaigns and strikes. For example, after the 1997 Teamsters UPS strike, workers at FedEx, Overnite, and many other freight and delivery companies were inspired to try to form unions with the Teamsters. 

BUILD ON PUBLIC SUPPORT

To the extent that unions make our struggles in the public interest and for “the common good,” contract expirations offer an opportunity to build alliances with patients, parents and students, subway and bus riders, and people who depend on state and municipal services.

Who can dismiss the importance and bravery of bus drivers and train operators during the pandemic? There’s never been more public support for the 67,000 transportation workers who are going to the table nationwide in 2021.

Thousands of other workers who were deemed essential during Covid-19 will soon square off against their employers too: 37,000 airline workers in seven agreements (plus 2,500 pilots who fly for UPS and 4,000 who fly for FedEx), 27,600 construction workers in 16 agreements, and 48,500 grocery workers in 17 agreements.

The biggest grocery agreement, with Kroger, covers 20,000 Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) members in the Greater Cincinnati area. These negotiations come after a year when consumers have gained a new appreciation for frontline supermarket workers for their pandemic shopping needs and deliveries. 

In recent years, union bargaining teams have brought their “constituents” (customers, patients, students) directly to the table to raise their shared concerns for the staffing and skills needed to maintain or improve services. What better way to educate our allies about collective bargaining and show management a broader united front than to bring them into bargaining with us? 

CROSS-POLLINATE IN KEY SECTORS

With more than 300 of the agreements expiring on or after June 1, union leaders and activists have ample to time to prepare. The biggest expiration months are June (140), August (43), and December (38).

In recent years, teachers have been the most militant sector of the labor movement. The National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) respectively have 71 and 39 school agreements up in 2021 that cover more than 200 members each, collectively involving 77,500 K-12 educators and support personnel.

Imagine the movement that might emerge from holding joint meetings of leaders and activists from these 100-plus unions to share strategies and coordinate bargaining demands. Not to mention representatives from unions covered under the many smaller expiring agreements, who could also be invited to participate.

The 224,400 health care workers and 40,600 nurses with expiring contracts—who are unfortunately spread out among nine different national or international unions (AFSCME, AFT, National Nurses United, Communications Workers, National Union of Healthcare Workers, Operating Engineers, Service Employees, Teamsters, and UFCW)—have a similar opportunity. The need for improved coordination and information sharing in the health care industry has never been greater. 

GET POLITICIANS INVOLVED

We’ve just been through an election cycle where many Democratic politicians pledged to support unions and collective bargaining. Some even showed up to picket lines and union rallies. They must have remembered the powerful boost that Bernie Sanders got from assisting the Verizon strike during his 2016 run for the Democratic nomination. 

Our contract negotiations can assume a political character with the support of politicians. But beyond perfunctory appearances, it’s time for supposedly pro-union elected officials to weigh in by regulating the ability of corporate owners to repress labor action. Should public pension funds finance strikebreakers? Should police herd scabs? The power of the state at the local, state, and federal level can help swing the outcome of many labor disputes.

The historic Senate election of Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in Georgia has put the Democratic Party in control of Congress and the White House. Many union members will be hoping for passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. Against the backdrop of this push for labor law reform, these 450 expiring contracts could take on an even greater political character. 

Putting aside whether labor law reform can pass in a very divided Congress, many in labor hope “Scranton Joe” Biden will be a powerful cheerleader for unions and use his executive power to aid his allies. Top priority on our list would be a $15 minimum wage and union neutrality for employees of federal contractors. 

As an example, the president could use his bully pulpit to voice forceful support for the tens of thousands of essential workers with expiring contracts who have been recognized as heroes of the pandemic. And with more federal-level support, local elected officials could be urged to use state and municipal regulations to help workers gain additional bargaining leverage.

In each sector of the economy, unions can strengthen their arguments by pointing to the public largesse their employers received during the pandemic, or the essential services their members provide. As is both usual and necessary, members themselves will be the very best ambassadors to make the case to the public.

HOW TO DO IT: SWARMING SOLIDARITY

The best way to convey the economic significance and high drama of these collective bargaining struggles onto the political landscape is “swarming solidarity.”

That means getting union activists and other friends of labor to rally in support of each other’s struggles by marching on picket lines, testifying at city council and state hearings, writing letters, and showing support on social media. It was the core tenet of Jobs with Justice’s “I’ll Be There” pledge and the AFL-CIO’s “Street Heat” in the ’80s and ’90s. 

For example, successful supermarket strikes have always involved other unions adopting stores and picketing to keep their members and their families from crossing the lines as hungry consumers. 

Imagine if all the pro-union members of the California legislature showed up at airports to support striking airline workers? Or if those legislators confronted store managers while 5,000 UFCW members picketed after their contracts expire in July at Rite-Aid stores? These kinds of creative solidarity can propel labor struggles into the public consciousness and force a “which side are you on?” moment for the American public and elected officials. 

Labor Notes’ subscribers and its conference participants are a great network of activists well positioned to assist unions in a broad mobilization. Other networks that could be enlisted include Jobs with Justice coalitions, central labor councils, occupational safety and health (COSH) networks, branches of the Democratic Socialists of America, Labor for Bernie supporters, and the relatively new Labor Action to Defend Democracy.

Labor leaders and activists everywhere need to study the national, regional, and local bargaining schedules—and get everyone to mark their calendars with expiration dates. It’s time to reach out to local union leaders and begin making plans to expand their collective bargaining campaigns. There is ample time now, months in advance, to make plans for “swarming solidarity” and begin aggressive support for the key upcoming contract battles. Labor should not squander these important opportunities in 2021 and beyond.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on January 14, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rand Wilson is chief of staff at SEIU Local 888. He was communications coordinator for the Teamsters’ 1997 UPS strike.

About the Author: Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director at the ILWU, currently working with a national network of Amazon employees and organizers. 


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So You Want a General Strike? Here’s What It Would Take.

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You know that things are getting serious when #GeneralStrike starts trending on Twitter. It happened last week, when Donald Trump was publicly mulling the idea of sending Americans back to work by Easter, a move that would imperil countless lives. A general strike has long held a strong utopian allure. But what would it take to actually pull one off? We spoke to the experts about the reality behind the dream.

Amid a healthcare crisis intertwined with an economic crisis, with millions of people freshly unemployed and new wildcat strikes and work stoppages popping off daily, we are living through the most opportune environment for massive, radical labor actions in many decades. America has had great crises before, though—and it has never had a true, nationwide general strike.

Is it even possible?

The “general strikes” in American history have been confined to individual cities. The most famous was probably the Seattle general strike of 1919, when more than 60,000 (peaceful) striking union members induced a total shutdown of the city’s business. Periods of intense social upheaval sparked other citywide general strikes—most notably in 1934 in San Francisco, during the Great Depression, and in Oakland in 1946, just after World War Two. Joshua Freeman, a labor history professor at the City University of New York, notes that those successful strikes depended on the combination of established labor union coalitions and “a broad class anger, usually at what was seen as an attack by business or police on legitimate working-class activity.” A general strike today would probably require the same combination. And while the union establishment of 2020 is in some ways weaker than it was a century ago, the teachers’ strikes and other mass labor actions of recent years show how quickly that can change.

“That is a very tall order, and at the moment it seems to me quite unlikely,” Freeman says, “but we are living in a moment of hyperspeed change. So who knows.”

Who knows?

Saturate them with urgency

The general strike was catapulted into public consciousness as a legitimate possibility early last year, when flight attendant union leader Sara Nelson gave a speech (that went viral) calling on fellow union leaders to consider it as a way to end the ongoing government shutdown. Today, Nelson still believes a general strike should not be considered an impossibility. “Any labor leaders should be able to talk about this,” she says. “A general strike may seem overwhelming, but it has the same fundamentals as preparing for any strike.”

That means “you have to saturate the thinking of the general public” with the importance of the situation, says Nelson. In normal times that is incredibly difficult, in a nation as big as ours; but right now, the public’s thinking is already focused on the physical, economic, and moral dangers of this crisis. If a necessary condition is, as Nelson says, a widespread sense of urgency so intense that it feels “like if you don’t take action right now, you’re gonna die,” we’re in luck—millions of Americans are having that very thought already.

Like Freeman, Nelson believes any successful general strike would have to be powered at its core by unions. Not only do they have the expertise and infrastructure necessary for the large-scale communications, strategy, and logistical needs of such an undertaking, but they also have a key characteristic that other groups don’t: They are broad-based organizations of all types of working people—all races, locations, and political affiliations, united by their identity as workers—rather than affinity groups that include certain demographics, but exclude others. That is vital, when it comes to pulling off something that cuts across the lines that normally divide American society. “You can’t rely on self-selecting organizations to run something like this, because there are people who are going to feel that they’re not included,” she says.

Consider the alternatives

Randi Weingarten, the head of the 1.7-million-member American Federation of Teachers, thinks that pursuing a general strike today would be a mistake—the focus, she says, should remain on Donald Trump’s horrific and damaging mishandling of the coronavirus crisis and the ongoing relief effort. “I think we should not change the topic and let him have a fight about a national strike,” she says. “We should have the fight about his immorality.”

Weingarten worries about the ill effect a general strike could have on those who do need to continue working, for the common good. (Nobody I spoke with for this story advocated an indiscriminate general strike that would include health care or other truly essential workers.) Instead of pushing for a general strike, the union leader advocates using more established pathways like the courts. In the event that the government were to order her members back to work before the dangers crisis had abated, Weingarten says her union would approach it as a health and workplace safety issue, and seek assurances that members would not be at personal risk. “If we do not have that assurance, we would advise, at that moment in time, we’d go to court and try to stop the schools from reopening,” she said. “[Workers] have a moral right and legal right to withhold their services if their health and safety are not a priority.”

Energize the organizers

Still, veteran labor organizers say that conditions today may be more conducive to unprecedented labor actions than they have ever seen before. One little-noticed stumbling block, in fact, could be the established labor movement itself.

Lauren Jacobs, a longtime union organizer and staffer who now serves as the head of the Partnership for Working Families, sees two challenges. First, the challenge of building a sense of unity in a huge class of workers who are wedded to various identities other than “worker”—blue collar and white collar, lower class and middle class, and even the newly unemployed. All of them must be activated in the face of a common crisis, rather than seeing themselves in opposition to one another. “How does it start to get to the middle class, to professional and managerial workers?” Jacobs says. “You have to engage that strata of the workforce. They are workers too, even though we often don’t talk about them that way.”

Jacobs believes that a general strike would need the full power of the labor movement to help organize and take advantage of powerful but unfocused feelings of dissatisfaction and solidarity among the public. And while she fully believes the labor movement still has enough inherent power to do the job, convincing it that it is possible is the second challenge. She is unafraid to talk about a widespread but little-discussed issue: the fact that labor organizers and union leaders themselves, used to fighting losing battles and being brutalized in various ways by bosses, can become gun-shy about radical actions. Jacobs speaks of the importance of not becoming a “naysayer,” and being humble enough to recognize that major turning points are not always predictable in advance.

“One has to do the same resisting that we work with our members on—to overcome, not letting fear rule them,” she says. “How do you react when change is coming? Are we wedded to the institutions we’ve criticized and struggled against?”

Follow the Money

Boyd McCamish, the organizing director for the Midwestern board of Workers United, ticks off the harsh economic situation that millions are facing already: unemployed or in tenuous positions, with a paltry one-time $1,200 government stimulus payout and unemployment benefits that may or may not be enough to balance out the lack of a rent freeze, and existential concerns over health insurance. The entire situation, he says, will have the effect of allowing large numbers of working people to barely cling to their modest means of survival, as anger builds.

McCamish envisions one possible scenario for a general strike in the near future: If the coronavirus causes an economic crisis similar to (or worse than) the recession of 2008, many older workers could be extremely reluctant to return to work before they are absolutely sure it’s safe, given their higher vulnerability to the disease. “Boomers are one of the system’s greatest social stabilizers because they consent to almost anything going on in the economy these days,” he says, “but this might change that.”

If the natural reluctance that is already appearing among many workers to risk their health in order to work were shepherded along—not only by the labor movement, but by state and local politicians, with wall-to-wall media coverage—it is no stretch to imagine that most non-essential businesses would not be able to reopen until working people were good and ready. Though nurses and doctors are willing to risk their lives during this crisis, burrito-makers and factory workers very well may not be, especially if they feel supported in that decision by constant outside reinforcement. “That,” McCamish says, “is as close as we would get to a general strike.”

Care for each other

In any big labor action, the flashy parts can only exist with much work behind the scenes. “Beyond the visible things like popular will and communications infrastructure, there are quiet systems of care that are critical to pulling off a general strike,” says Michelle Miller, an SEIU veteran who runs Coworker.org, an online organizing platform. “People to acquire, prepare and deliver food. Maintain morale through things like music, counseling, and internal conflict resolution. Help with children. Tend to the sick. Deal with money, collecting it and allocating it in a way everyone trusts. These are the systems that sustain us over long periods of hardship (and strikes are hard), and they give us an opportunity to model the world we’re trying to create through our action.”

And remember…

“The strike is our tactic,” Sara Nelson says. “Solidarity is our power.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 1, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporting fellow at In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.


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What’s at Stake in Chicago Teachers’ Strike: Whether Unions Can Bargain for the Entire Working Class

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“Solving Chicago’s affordable housing crisis? What’s that got to do with a labor contract for educators?”

That’s the question the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board asked last week as the city’s teachers and school support staff inched closer to an October 17 strike date, with little progress made in negotiations for a new contract.

A standoff at the bargaining table over the Chicago Teachers Union’s (CTU) package of housing demands dominated the city’s news cycle last week. The union is asking Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to provide housing assistance for new teachers, hire staff members to help students and families in danger of losing housing, and take other steps to advocate for more affordable housing overall in the city.

In response, recently elected Mayor Lori Lightfoot accused the union of holding up contract negotiations, and the Sun-Times chided teachers to take a “reality check.”

It’s true that CPS has no legal obligation to bargain with the union over affordable housing policy. But it’s hardly unrelated—an estimated 17,000 students in the city are homeless, as CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates stated on Chicago Tonight.

Housing advocates agree. “The mayor’s view reflects a very narrow understanding of the professional responsibilities of public school educators,” says Marnie Brady, assistant professor at Marymount Manhattan College and research committee co-chair of the national Homes For All campaign. “The living conditions of their students are indeed the working conditions of their classrooms.”

By raising an issue that affects not only teachers, but the communities they live and work in, CTU is deploying a strategy known as “bargaining for the common good.” That approach was key to the union’s victory in its landmark 2012 walkout, but a potential strike of 35,000 school and parks workers this week is shaping up to be an even more dramatic test.

Bargaining for the common good

During their eight-day strike in 2012, Chicago teachers rallied under the slogan “fighting for the schools our students deserve.” By highlighting issues such as class sizes, standardized testing, predatory Wall Street deals and a pattern of racist disinvestment in the city, teachers helped secure wide support from the city’s parents while wringing concessions from then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The CTU also helped galvanize a new wave of teacher militancy that’s seen unions in red states use unauthorized strikes to address abysmal state funding for education and protest tax breaks for the rich and the fossil-fuel industry.

Teachers in cities like Los Angeles, meanwhile, have won contracts that include more nurses and additional resources for students, as well as special provisions requiring the district to provide immigration support for students and curtail school policies that the union said amounted to racial profiling.

The increasing embrace of “common good” bargaining by teachers has, in turn, helped boost public support of their unions nationwide—from 30 percent in 2015 to 43 percent in 2019, according to a poll from Education Next.

Frequently vilified as greedy in the media, teachers unions often have their hands tied by laws restricting the issues they can bargain and strike over. Per a 1995 Illinois law, for example, the only “mandatory” bargaining issues for Chicago teachers are pay, benefits and the length of the school day. But unions can still mobilize public pressure to try to force employers to negotiate over additional demands.

In 2013, citing inspiration from Chicago, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers (SPFT) worked with community allies to jointly draw up a list of 29 demands to bring into its contract negotiations, including the expansion of preschool, reforms to school discipline procedures and the reduction of standardized testing. While the school district initially refused to negotiate over 18 of these areas, a united front by teachers and community members eventually pressured it to include language on almost every area in the SPFT’s new contract.

“I had negotiated almost a dozen previous contracts for the SPFT,” explained the union’s then-president Mary Cathryn Ricker in a 2015 article for Dissent. “But, for the first time, I felt that signing a contract was just one step in building a larger movement.”

These victories helped give birth to a formal network called “Bargaining for the Common Good,” which now includes some 50 unions and community organizations. The goal is to expand labor’s scope of bargaining beyond wages and benefits to advance a broad, working-class agenda and go on the attack against shared enemies, including Wall Street and corporate America.

Three strikes at once

Chicago remains at the cutting edge of this effort. This fall, it may not be just CTU walking out—school support staff and Chicago Parks District workers represented by SEIU 73 have also set strike dates of October 17. While negotiating separately, the unions are pushing a common narrative: The new mayor must get the city’s priorities in check by committing more resources to vital public services and the workers who make them run.

Other key issues include adequate staffing of nurses, counselors and librarians—which many of the city’s schools lack entirely—rolling back the privatization of school services, creating enforceable sanctuary protections for undocumented students, and lifting poverty wages for school support staff and part-time parks workers.

The unions have also taken on the question of where the money to accomplish all this could come from. The Chicago Teachers Union has been leading the fight against massive tax giveaways to developers through the city’s Tax Increment Financing (TIF) program. Earlier this year, SEIU 73 members waded into what’s often a third-rail for public-sector unions when they protested outside Chicago Police Department headquarters to demand the city stop diverting resources from schools and parks to the police budget.

Venus Valino, a member of SEIU 73’s bargaining team, notes that the parks district has been subsidizing police patrols to the tune of about $4 million a year. But she rarely sees police where she works, in Wolfe Park on the city’s far Southeast Side, while dealing with periodic drive-by shootings, and a teen who was stabbed in the neck.

“That money is going to tourist areas, and we’re mostly left to fend for ourselves,” Valino says. She would prefer that resources be put back into dedicated park security guards who are familiar with the area, as well as public programming that would benefit the neighborhood. Two-thirds of park staff are part-time and receive zero paid-time-off, she adds.

As a 20-year parks worker, Valino sees her role as similar to that of a teacher. During the 2012 teachers strike, she remembers, she helped take care of 300 school children when the city made use of parks for its contingency plan. The fact that parks workers could be out on strike at the same time as teachers this year will put a squeeze on both city agencies and parents, but Valino says that since the union announced a potential strike, she’s been receiving calls of support from parents she’s worked with over the years.

“We’re always there for the public, and we see the needs of the public,” she says. “When it was freezing this winter, we’re the ones who opened up warming centers. I’m really touched that the public is thinking about how they can support us.”

Why affordable housing?

The close relationship between public unions and the communities they serve can make them especially well-suited to bring the concerns of those communities to the bargaining table. The CTU’s demand for affordable housing is perhaps the boldest example of this, and it’s one that labor commentators have been urging unions to take up in recent years.

Lightfoot and media commentators, conversely, have attempted to use this demand to paint the CTU as out-of-touch and drive a wedge in public support. “If the CTU strikes over this one, we predict it will not go down well with most of the rest of the city,” wrote the Sun-Times editorial board.

Eva Jaramillo, a mother of three who is currently in court fighting her family’s eviction, tells In These Times that she is grateful to see the teachers union taking up the issue. Jaramillo’s 10-year-old daughter attends North River Elementary, just blocks from the Albany Park apartment where the family has lived for 16 years. Earlier this year, Jaramillo was served with an eviction notice after complaining about malfunctioning heat during the winter. Two other families in the building who reportedly complained about conditions are also facing eviction, which would represent a violation of Chicago’s landlord-tenant laws. The group has formed a tenants union and protested outside the landlord’s home, but one of Jaramillo’s biggest concerns is that her daughter will have to transfer schools.

“She loves everything about her school,” Jaramillo said in Spanish. “She wakes up excited to go, and when she is sick, she cries because she doesn’t want to miss a day. This situation has affected her the most, because she doesn’t want to leave the school.”

Chicago students living in temporary housing situations have the right to remain enrolled in their current school, and can stay until the academic year if they find new housing. But Jaramillo is skeptical that, if her family is evicted, they will ultimately be able to find affordable housing anywhere nearby.

The school district doesn’t keep statistics on how housing displacement ultimately contributes to school enrollment, but anecdotal evidence suggests that in many neighborhoods, they’re closely linked.

In Albany Park, a gentrifying neighborhood in the city’s northwest side, the Autonomous Tenants Union documented how a 2017 mass-eviction in a single building being rehabbed by its new owner impacted some 30 children who attended Hibbard Elementary.

Data from a study released in May shows that the eviction rate is twice the citywide average in some Black neighborhoods, including ones where schools were shuttered in 2013 due to purported under-enrollment. Thanks to the model known as student-based budgeting, when students and their families have been forced out of schools, funding follows them. This cycle of housing displacement and school disinvestment has played a prominent role in driving thousands of Black residents from Chicago each year.

For these reasons, it’s hard for Jaramillo to understand how the city could consider housing and schools as unrelated. “The school and home have a deep relationship,” she says. “The school is the second home, but children also need their first home to be a stable one.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on October 14, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rebecca Burns is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has appeared in The Baffler, the Chicago Reader, The Intercept and other outlets. She is a contributing editor at In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.


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New Collective Bargaining Law Paves the Way to Worker Justice at Delaware DMV

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After Delaware Gov. John Carney signed a bill to expand collective bargaining rights for public employees in June, workers have begun organizing at state agencies. Employees of the Delaware Division of Motor Vehicles voted last week to join Laborers (LIUNA) Local 1029, establishing a union there for the first time.

Gurvis Miner, business manager for Local 1029, said the organizing win was hard earned and well worth it.

“Employees at the DMV now have a voice on the job, and I commend the state Legislature and Gov. Carney for changing the law to expand our rights and making this all possible,” he said.

The new bargaining unit includes 340 workers at the DMV.

SB 8, the bill that provided these employees their new collective bargaining rights, was made possible through the diligent advocacy efforts of the Delaware State AFL-CIO and others. The law expanded collective bargaining rights for about 2,000 workers across the state.

“We congratulate LIUNA Local 1029 and all of the DMV workers, and we welcome these brothers and sisters to our growing labor movement in Delaware,” said Delaware State AFL-CIO President Jim Maravelias (LIUNA).

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on July 25, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michael Gillis is a writer at AFL-CIO.

 


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Sorry to Bother You: Worker Wins

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Our latest roundup of worker wins begins with big victories for working people in the Minnesota legislature and includes numerous examples of working people organizing, bargaining and mobilizing for a better life.

Minnesota Legislative Session Yields Victories for Working People: As the legislature finished up its work for the current session, several bills that will benefit working people were passed. Among the bills pursued as part of Minnesota AFL-CIO’s Legislative Agenda of Dignity, Justice & Freedom for Working Minnesotans that passed are making wage theft a criminal felony offense, eliminating the sunset provision on the health care provider tax that funds care for hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans and expanding the Working Families Tax Credit for unreimbursed work expenses. About the legislation, Minnesota AFL-CIO President Bill McCarthy (UNITE HERE) said: “Despite being one of only two states with divided government, the 2019 legislative session yielded big wins for working Minnesotans, including the strongest law in the nation to combat wage theft. We applaud Governor Walz and the House majority for putting working people at the center of their legislative priorities this year.”

Inspired by Rapper and Filmmaker Boots Riley, Salt Lake Film Society Staff Unionize: Front-of-house staff at the Salt Lake Film Society were inspired by Boots Riley’s film “Sorry to Bother You” to reach out to the Utah AFL-CIO who connected them with an organizer from IATSE. After doing the hard work to organize the new unit, the staffers got more than 80% to sign cards in favor of unionizing. The drive got a boost from Riley himself when he sent the organizers a video message. Riley said: “So much of what you do is getting stories to people. And the thing about what happens when people come together and fight, especially when they do that on the job, is it starts to tell a story to other people…it’s about the story that is being told to millions of other people that will be finding out about what you are doing….What you’re doing is very important, and I’m inspired by you.”

Vox Media Staffers Secure First Collective Bargaining Agreement: After 14 months of negotiations and a one-day walkout, staffers at Vox Media have reached a tentative agreement on a new contract. The bargaining committee tweeted: “We are thrilled to announce we have reached a tentative agreement with Vox Media for our first-ever collective bargaining agreement. Our unit still needs to ratify our contract, but we are proud of what we have won in this agreement and can’t wait to share the details.”

Nevada Governor Signs Bill Extending Collective Bargaining Rights to 20,000 Working People: Gov. Steve Sisolak recently signed S.B. 135 into law. The legislation expands collective bargaining rights to more than 20,000 Nevada state employees. About the legislation, AFSCME President Lee Saunders said: “This bill is about respect for state employees who make their communities stronger every day. By signing this bill, Governor Sisolak demonstrates his understanding of the importance of giving working people a seat at the table and the voice on the job they deserve. Americans are looking for an answer to a rigged economy that favors the wealthy, and it’s clear that they are turning to unions in growing numbers. It is time to make it easier all across the country for working people to join in strong unions.”

Fiesto Rancho Casino Workers Vote to Join Culinary Union: After 85% of the nearly 150 workers who voted said they were in favor of unionizing, the Fiesta Rancho Hotel & Casino becomes the sixth Station Casinos property in Las Vegas to unionize since 2016. Geoconda Argüello-Kline, secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Workers Union, said: “Workers are standing up and fighting! Two Station Casinos’ properties have voted to unionize by a majority this week. We call on Station Casinos to immediately negotiate and settle a fair contract for the workers at Fiesta Rancho, Sunset Station, Palms, Green Valley Ranch, Palace Station and Boulder Station.”

Radio Station Employees at Santa Monica’s KCRW Join SAG-AFTRA: More than 90 public media professionals at radio station KCRW voted to be represented by SAG-AFTRA. The workers delivered a petition signed by more than 75% of staffers with a request to form a union. SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris said: “On behalf of SAG-AFTRA members, I am thrilled to welcome KCRW to our union family. KCRW is a one-of-a-kind radio station that produces some of Los Angeles’ most dynamic and diverse programming, and we’re excited to make sure everyone’s voice is heard through the collective bargaining process.”

Stagehands Ratify Collective Bargaining Event with DNC Venue: Stagehands working at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee have ratified a contract with the venue, which will host the Democratic National Convention in 2020. IATSE Vice President Craig Carlson said: “This agreement illustrates that both parties believe in the dignity of hard work, the honor it instills and the respect it commands. Our agreement rewards all workers with safe working conditions, fair wages and meaningful benefits. I commend Fiserv Forum’s Management and [IATSE] Local 18 for putting together an agreement which will lead to the future success of both workers and management. We look forward to a wonderful relationship.”

Working People at Ikea Distribution Centers in Illinois Vote to Join IAM: Nearly 200 distribution center workers employed at Ikea have voted to be represented by the Machinists (IAM). The organizing campaign is part of a larger IAM campaign to unionize workers at Ikea distribution and fulfillment centers throughout the world. Dennis Mendenhall, who led IAM’s campaign in Illinois, said: “These hardworking men and women are proud to work at Ikea and do tremendous work for this company. Yes, joining the IAM gives them the opportunity to negotiate on wages, benefits and work rules. But this campaign was mostly about fairness and a voice on the job, as well as ensuring that the profits they create also benefit their families and communities.”

AT&T Workers in the Midwest Reach Tentative Agreement on Contract: Technicians and Installers who work for AT&T and are represented by the Communications Workers of America (CWA), reached two tentative agreements with the telecom giant. Some 8,000 employees are covered by the agreements, which have to be approved by the union’s membership. CWA District 4 Vice President Linda L. Hinton said: “I am incredibly proud of our AT&T Midwest bargaining teams and our members. We did not back down and our agreement reflects the priorities we brought to the bargaining table on jobs, health care and employment security.”

Guggenheim Museum Staffers Join Local 30 of the Operating Engineers: Art handlers and facilities staff at the Guggenheim Museum in New York have voted to join the Operating Engineers (IUOE). The union will represent about 90 workers at the museum. An anonymous art handler, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “It’s incredibly exciting. Workers were able to unite behind a movement despite extensive attempts to exploit divisions by Guggenheim management. It signals a future ability to create a strong contract that benefits all of us equally.”

This blog was originally published by the AFL-CIO on July 18, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.


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The Trump Administration’s War on Federal Workers

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Claiming 700,000 members in the United States and overseas, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) stands as the nation’s largest federal and D.C. government employee labor union. The union represents employees who provide care and support for veterans, the elderly and disabled, and people in need of housing through the Social Security Administration, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, along with other federal agencies.

A statement on the AFGE website describes these employees as the “vital threads of the fabric of American life.” Now, the AFGE contends, its members are under attack, thanks to recent actions by the Trump administration.

The AFGE is currently in contract negotiations with the Department of Veterans Affairs on behalf of 260,000 employees who work for the agency. In the process of these negotiations, AFGE District Office Manager Matt Muchowski says that VA management is attempting to undo labor rights that have been won by the union since its founding in 1932.

To better understand the nature of these affronts, Muchowski argues, it is important to look at three executive orders signed by President Trump on May 25, 2018. While the orders have since ostensibly been ruled in violation of labor law by a U.S. District Court in August 2018, Muchowski says that sections of the orders which limit time spent during the work day on union activities (known as “official time”) as well as due process are being pushed into the contract by VA negotiators.

This approach is “making it difficult for federal workers to do what they do,” by seeking to alter key elements of the contracts negotiated between AFGE members—including Veterans Affairs workers—and management, he says. Further, Muchowski notes, this strategy has already been employed during negotiations over the Social Security Administration contract earlier this year, which resulted in major concessions for workers. He says the Trump administration’s approach to the AFGE negotiations “represents an escalation of its anti-union tactics.”

The key elements of the 2018 executive orders fall under three categories: employees’ job protection and due process rights, official time and collective bargaining procedures.

The first order outlines limits on the use of “progressive discipline” approaches for workers in federal agencies and instead calls for the allowance of more immediate dismissals, among other more stringently dictated relations between management and workers.

The second order calls for more regulated and restricted use of “official time”: time employees are allowed to spend on union duties while still on the clock. This is a concept that has been part of AFGE’s labor contracts since the Carter administration, Muchowski notes, when the presence of unions in the workplace was seen as “part of effective governance.”

Under this model, an employee can conduct union business while using government-provided items such as office space, computers or phones. Trump’s executive order, however, calls for employees’ official time to be greatly reduced and also mandates that they should no longer be given free or reduced rate access to an office or a computer.

While the Trump administration holds that this revision is necessary to make the government “effective and efficient,” Veterans Affairs employee Germaine Clano disagrees. Clarno is a social worker at the Edward Hines, Jr., VA Hospital in suburban Chicago, and she says the loss of official time would be devastating.

Clarno provides full-time union representation to doctors, social workers and other professional employees of the VA through the official time provision, whether they are dues-paying union members or not. It’s work she describes as essential. “The culture of the VA is still very retaliatory,” Clarno says, noting that she acts as a resource for employees who would like to bring allegations of “waste, fraud or abuse” to light.

“Taking away official time means taking away employees’ security around being able to report what’s going on at the VA,” Clarno insists, “so that we can make things better for our veterans.”

The third order issued by Trump in 2018 is designed to “assist executive departments and agencies in developing efficient, effective, and cost-reducing collective bargaining agreements.” The order claims that collective bargaining agreements limit managers’ ability to either hold “low-performers accountable” or reward “high performers,” and that they are often drawn out, at the expense of taxpayer money.

The order calls for an expedited contract negotiation period, with lingering disputes to be settled by the politically-appointed members of the Federal Service Impasses Panel (FSIP). In the post-Janus era—which has brought new challenges to public sector unions—it’s notable that panel member David Osborne’s bio states that he has built a career around “offering free legal services to those hurt by public employee union officials.”

While both the FSIP and attempts to govern through executive orders are not new, they are part of an increasingly fraught era for federal workers and the Trump administration’s federal management team.

Just days before Trump issued his three executive orders, news reports noted the rising tension between workers and federal managers, who had just unveiled “an ambitious and aggressive plan to modernize the civil service,” according to Nicole Ogrysko of the Federal News Network. This plan, union leaders alleged, was intended to cut department budgets while turning more federal employees into poorly compensated temp workers.

Trump’s executive orders were contested in court by the AFGE and other labor unions, and in August 2018, U.S. District Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson ruled in favor of the unions. At the time, a review of the case appeared in the online news outlet, Government Executive, where reporter Erich Wagner stated that Brown Jackson found the executive orders to be in violation of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978.

This Act upholds the value of good-faith labor-management negotiations and concludes that they are done “in the public interest.” Nonetheless, Muchowski says, the Trump administration has persisted in seeking to negotiate labor contracts with federal employees according to the 2018 executive orders. As evidence, he cites the recently settled contract between the Social Security Administration and the 45,000 AFGE members who work there.

During the contract negotiation process, SSA management and union negotiators could not agree on twelve clauses, according to a reportfiled by Tom Temin of the Federal News Network. As a result, the contract was turned over to the FSIP, which has the power to either “recommend a way to agree,” or “order specific, binding actions” that both parties must abide by, Temin states.

While some government panels are bipartisan, the FSIP is not: All seven members were appointed by Trump. Temin notes that, of the twelve disputed clauses, the FSIP sided with management on ten of them. Although AFGE members were able to keep certain grievance rights, they did lose ground on some central matters, including the implementation of a seven-year contract (the union wanted a two-year term) and the loss of both office space and hours set aside for official time.

David Cann, director of field services and education for the AFGE, says he believes the FSIP’s actions are a violation of Judge Brown Jackson’s ruling against certain aspects of Trump’s executive orders. Brown Jackson’s decision, Cann notes, found that parts of the executive orders violated collective bargaining rights outlined in the Civil Service Act of 1978, and that neither the president nor his subordinates could continue negotiations under such terms.

Because the FSIP is an entirely politically appointed body, Cann argues that its members are, in effect, Trump’s subordinates and therefore should not be allowed to settle disputes, using what he believes are the administration’s executive orders as a guide.

In a statement posted to its website, the AFGE minced no words about the dangerous precedent such a decision could set: “A panel of Trump’s union-busting appointees has imposed anti-worker provisions in a new labor-management contract for the people who ensure elderly Americans and those with disabilities can live with dignity and financial security.”

Clarno has been closely tracking the contract settlement between AFGE and the Social Security Administration and says that, for her, the “fear is that the Federal Service Impasse Panel will push the same thing” for VA workers in contract negotiations. “Federal employees can’t strike,” she states. “Really, what leverage do we have? We have none. It’s very, very concerning.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on June 14, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sarah Lahm is a Minneapolis-based writer and former English Instructor. She is a 2015 Progressive magazine Education Fellow and blogs about education at brightlightsmallcity.com.


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New Koch Brothers-Funded Super PAC Looks to Capitalize on Janus Decision Ahead of the Election

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On the cusp of the midterm elections, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a right-wing political advocacy organization founded by the billionaire Koch brothers, has endorsed eight GOP House incumbents in the hopes of weakening labor groups’ influence in Washington and ensuring that the AFP’s political agendas remain a priority in Congress.

AFP is a Koch-funded organization whose agenda is in line with other groups—such as Concerned Veterans for America, which is also funded by the Koch brothers—that work against progressive initiatives and protections for labor unions, healthcare reform and any effort to combat climate change, says David Armiak, a researcher for the Center for Media and Democracy, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit watchdog group.

On August 31, AFP endorsed eight GOP House incumbents as its “policy champions”: Peter Roskam (R-Ill. 6th), Dave Brat (R-Va. 7th), Ted Budd (R-N.C. 13th), Steve Chabot (R-Ohio 1st), Will Hurd (R-Texas 23rd), Erik Paulsen (R-Minn. 3rd), Rod Blum (R-Iowa 1st) and David Young (R-Iowa 3rd).

“AFP will fully activate its grassroots infrastructure through phone banks and neighborhood canvassing, as well as deploy targeted digital, mail, and radio advertising” to support these candidates in their upcoming elections, the organization writes in a statement.

While it’s hard to know the specific reason that the AFP singled out these eight GOP incumbents as its “policy champions,” the AFP has “correctly recognized that these are candidates who are vulnerable,” says Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, a political scientist and public affairs professor at Columbia University. According to the nonpartisan election analyst the Cook Political Report, many of them are in toss-up races. In three of the elections, Ill.-06, Iowa-01 and Minn.-03, polls currently lean Democrat.

Armiak says AFP’s newly formed super PAC, Americans for Prosperity Action (AFPA), allows all Koch brother-funded groups to consolidate their spending power into a single political ad-buying powerhouse. This makes it more challenging for an experienced researcher, such as Armiak, to track the money funneling through the Koch brothers’ political network.

“[The groups] are reorganizing their spending filing to make it more complicated,” Armiak says. “It’s a sophisticated network and difficult to figure out and will take a while to study to truly understand how it operates.”

This can be worrisome to progressive interest groups that AFP and Koch brother affiliates typically work against—such as those pushing for healthcare reform and environmental advocacy—because it allows AFP to spend more money against such interest groups with little disclosure of where their funds come from.

Organized labor groups especially may be negatively impacted after the Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court decision this June. “[AFP wasn’t] directly involved in the Janus decision but heavily supported it,” Hertel-Fernandez says. The decision means right-to-work laws, which prohibit unions from charging non-members fees regarding union services like collective bargaining, now apply to the public sector. This could benefit AFP and its endorsed candidates because it could lessen the financial strength of unions, which will inevitably hurt their lobbying abilities in Washington, according to Hertel-Fernandez.

It’s likely AFP and the Koch brothers are eyeing the Janus decision as an opportunity to use it as justification to support federal right-to-work laws in the private sector, too, Hertel-Fernandez says. AFPA is a new weapon that allows the AFP to spend exorbitant amounts of money to support candidates who will push for private sector right-to-work laws, which are currently applied in 27 states.

As a super PAC, AFPA is not restricted to any donation or spending limits. While it is illegal for a super PAC to coordinate with political candidates, it can spend unlimited amounts to support any candidate it chooses with methods such as advertising and canvassing. Donors to AFPA know that if they want their agendas advanced, they have to keep financially supporting congressmen that have proven to be a strong return on investment by voting on legislation that suits their interests, says Hertel-Fernandez. The eight GOP incumbents AFP has endorsed have historically been aligned with the Koch brothers’ libertarian ideology and political interests.

“To Charles and David Koch, politicians are just actors who are just a means to an end. They are looking for people who will just do what they ask them to,” Hertel-Fernandez says. “They are willing to work with anyone to pursue [their] agenda.”

The Koch brothers and their political network are clearly focused on maintaining influence in Congress. But as we head into the polls today, political analysts and pundits are predicting a blue wave that might just thwart the Koch brothers’ attempt to keep control of the House.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on November 6, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Eric Bradach is an editorial intern for In These Times.


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The Union Difference Is Even More Pronounced for Families of Color

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A new report from the Center for American Progress shows that union membership helps increase wealth and prosperity for families of color. The research comes on top of recent polls showing that more and more people are embracing the powerful benefits of collective bargaining.

Here are some of the key findings of the report:

When working people collectively bargain for wages, benefits and employment procedures, as union members they have higher wages, more benefits and more stable employment as a result of the bargaining agreement.

Household wealth is dependent on several factors, including income, savings, people having benefits like health insurance and life insurance.

Higher wages lead to higher savings, particularly when combined with job-related benefits, such as health and life insurance, since those benefits require union members to spend less out-of-pocket to protect their families.

Union members have higher job stability and protections, which lead to longer tenures at a workplace. This can lead to more savings as longer-tenured employees are more likely to be eligible for key benefits that accrue over time.

Nonwhite families with a union member in the household have a median wealth that is 485% as large as the median wealth of nonunion families of color.

Union members’ annual earnings are between 20 and 50% higher than those for nonunion members.

The benefits of union membership for nonwhite families is more significant than it is for white families because nonwhite workers tend to work at jobs with lower pay, fewer benefits and less stability. Union membership lowers the gap for everyone, but the gains are larger when you are starting from a lower level of income and benefits.

Union members also are less likely to experience a negative shock (a large change in income) and more likely to experience a positive shock.

Read the full report.

This blog was originally published by the AFL-CIO on September 11, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.


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