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We Need a Big National Strike Fund

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Hamilton Nolan - In These Times

More successful strikes help the entire labor movement. We should pay for them together.

On July 24, more than 600 Frito-Lay workers in Kansas who had been on strike for three weeks finally signed a new union contract. The contract, won at great personal cost for the striking factory workers, came with a modest 4 percent wage increase, and the right to at least one day off per week. 

It is absurd that these workers had to undertake a painful strike in order to win those things, and they deserve praise for being willing to fight so hard for their own rights. But after the congratulations, we should also be honest about another thing: The enormous amount of effort invested in the strike resulted in fairly paltry gains. This is sadly common, and it underscores the fact that employers often have a built-in advantage when their workers go on strike?—?namely, that low-wage workers can’t afford to go very long without getting paid. If the labor movement wants to take full advantage of the recent surge in worker militancy, it’s time that we build more than a piecemeal solution to this perpetual problem. 

The long decline in union density since the 1950s is well known, but the portion of workers who are union members is not the only way to measure the level of latent labor power in America. Strikes themselves are a meaningful metric as well. Having a lot of strikes happening shows that there are many strong, aggressive and confident unions at work. They also create a positive feedback mechanism for organized labor as a whole?—?strikes get attention, and successful strikes are a tangible demonstration of union power in action. Strikes keep unions in the news, and in the minds of the majority of working people who are not themselves union members. Every time someone sees striking workers win something, it may occur to them that unions have something to offer. In this way, strikes drive new organizing and the expansion of labor power nationwide. 

Data going back nearly 50 years shows strike activity in America peaking in 1974, when 1.8 million workers were involved in a work stoppage, and then fell steadily to a low of a mere 25,000 workers in 2017. In the past few years, however, strike activity has rebounded sharply, with more than 400,000 workers participating in 2018 and 2019. (In 2020, major strikes fell again, but that year of Covid-19 is hard to compare to previous ones.) 

The pandemic was a galvanizing event for the half or so of the working population who saw, in a very tangible way, that their lives are considered disposable. Right now, we can look across the country and see some of the upswells of worker anger that have burst forth into strikes: the nurses in Massachusetts, the miners in Alabama, the Spectrum workers in New York whose endless battle drags grimly on. These high profile strikes, to a large extent, define union power in the public mind. Winning them is important not just for the workers on the picket line, but for the entire labor movement. And, when strikes are very hard, their biggest vulnerability is the simple reality that workers on the picket line are not getting paid?—?the brutal economic calculus that ultimately defines how long and hard people can fight before they need to settle. 

Individual unions do have strike funds, but these are meager?—?often, union members can expect to get a few hundred bucks from a strike fund in the time they might have gotten a few thousand from work. Strike funds will always pay less than wages. (A little math can help demonstrate why: In Alabama, for example, 1,100 miners have been on strike for four months. If the United Mine Workers paid each of them even a thousand dollars a week, they would have already spent more than $50 million. To guarantee that rate of compensation for every strike would rapidly bankrupt most unions, and would create an incentive for unions to push hard against big strikes by members.) But the strength of the labor movement is about thinking collectively in the largest possible sense. If we want to encourage more big, high profile strikes that can carry on long enough to secure major gains, we have to have a big, national strike fund. 

To be perfectly clear, I’m not holding my breath for the creation of a centralized strike fund big enough to cover lost wages for anyone who goes on strike. The entities big enough to make those sorts of payouts are called ?“businesses.” What we can do is to build one central strike fund for the entire labor movement, that can jump in and boost the strike pay for workers engaged in strikes of major strategic value?—?and to issue hardship grants to striking workers with specific needs?—?so that those strikes can carry on long enough to be worthwhile. If the Frito-Lay workers in Kansas had had a little more money to carry them through, perhaps they could have won something better than, basically, the working conditions of a factory worker a century ago.

Every union could kick into a central strike fund that has the authority to bolster the benefits of workers engaged in strikes that have great importance for all of us. This is collective power in action. Once a fund like this is established, it can fundraise, to bring in private donations; it could also seek out government funds, the same way that unions should be doing for their new organizing efforts right now, while they have friends in Washington. (How to create new funding streams for organized labor is an exciting topic for another day.) The point is that a much larger pool of money can be put together collectively by the entire universe of unions and their political allies than can be compiled by any individual union. And that big pool of money can serve as a potent sort of insurance for workers who are considering a tough strike, but unsure of whether they can hold the line long enough. 

The labor movement would greatly benefit from a huge increase in big picture thinking. We do not want to just sit back and let things happen to us, and react as best we can. We want to have a plan and then make it a reality. We should not just want to wait for strikes to happen, then maybe throw a few bucks into a GoFundMe and hope for the best. We need to recognize some basic truths: More strikes are good for the growth of the labor movement as a whole. Each strike is a public test of union power. We all have an interest in making high profile strikes successful. And the strategic application of funding to help striking workers succeed benefits all of us by facilitating and encouraging the next strike, and the next organizing campaign, and a brighter future in which unions are strong and ubiquitous once again. 

Let’s get to work.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 27, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere.


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The Leadership Struggle In One of California’s Most Powerful Unions Just Keeps Getting Weirder

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Hamilton Nolan - In These Times

Accusations of cheating, chicanery and violent retaliation dog the SEIU Local 1000 election. The consequences for labor are very real.

Even by the chaotic standards of the past year, the story of SEIU Local 1000 stands out for its bizarreness. One of the most politically powerful unions in California, representing nearly 100,000 state employees, announced last month that its longtime president, Yvonne Walker, had lost an election to a gadfly named Richard Louis Brown, who ran on a platform of ending the union’s (substantial) political donations, which made him an instant right-wing media darling. Now, the election is beset with allegations of misconduct and dangerous retaliation, while Brown positions himself as a truthteller under attack?—?but the union’s future has never been more uncertain. 

What we know for sure is this: Brown, an employee of the state treasurer’s office who had twice before run unsuccessfully for a leadership position, won the SEIU Local 1000 presidential election on May 24 with only 33% of the vote. Walker, who had led the union since 2008, received 27%, and three other challengers split the rest. Only 7,880 ballots were cast. Therefore the union’s entire approach to how it wields power for tens of thousands of members may be upended by about 500 votes. 

The drama was only beginning. Brown, it turned out, had publicly offered to pay the dues of members so that they could vote in the election. Though he says that no one took him up on it, the outcome of the election was challenged, and a ?“protest committee” inside the union will render a decision before the end of June. The makeup of that committee is controlled by Yvonne Walker, the person who lost to Brown, and who still has a couple of weeks left in office. Now, all sides of the election are simultaneously suspicious?—?some believing that Brown cheated, and others believing that Walker and her allies are conspiring to roll back Brown’s victory. Walker herself is not an uncontroversial leader. An essay in Strikewave last week by Jonah Paul, a rank and file member of SEIU 1000, characterized Walker as a ?“centrist, politically shrewd, and utterly tyrannical” president who used bureaucratic maneuvering to consolidate power in her own hands and systematically push out rivals, to the detriment of members and morale. 

Immediately after his election, Brown received a rash of media attention when he said that he would not offer the union’s backing to California Governor Gavin Newsom, who is facing a recall attempt. But the platform that Brown is planning to implement offers much more frightening promises for labor movement traditionalists. He vows to zero out spending on electoral politics, which would be a major blow to the California Democratic Party. And he says he will cut member dues in half, and allow members who do not pay dues at all (enabled by the 2018 Supreme Court Janus ruling, which allowed public employees to opt out of financial support for their unions) to vote in union elections?—?setting up the potential of both a dramatic drop in income for the union, and a political takeover by conservative, anti-union membership. Already, Brown’s election has been celebrated in the Wall Street JournalFox News, and by the Koch-funded anti-union Freedom Foundation, a good indication that he is already being held up by conservatives as that rare creature: A union president who is a hero of right wing, anti-labor institutions. 

But Brown, whose Trumpian tics include exclamation point-laden prose and ominous questions about vaccines, has more immediate concerns on his mind. In an interview on Monday, he said that on May 25, the day after his victory was announced, Sacramento police showed up at his house at 5 a.m., after an anonymous person called them with a report of a woman screaming. Brown, who lives alone, says he believes this incident was ?“retaliation against me for winning this election,” and was a serious threat to his safety. 

“If they swear me in, I’m going to go on national TV and give interviews to anybody that wants to know the truth about the corruption of this union that I belong to,” he said. ?“I have no confidence in my union at all. My life could have been taken from me… I’m concerned for my life. That’s what I’m concerned for right now.” 

The Sacramento Police Department confirmed that the call occurred: ?“On May 25, 2021 at approximately 5:02 a.m., the Sacramento Police Department responded to a reported call for service in the 3200 block of 43rd Street. The unidentified caller stated that they heard a possible disturbance inside of a residence on the street. Officers checked the residence and determined that there was no disturbance and the call appeared to be unfounded.” They added, however, that the false call appeared to be part of a pattern. ?“The department has also received at least two other calls of similar circumstances for other residences within this area, and on different streets. These calls have occurred over the last few weeks.”

“You know Breonna Taylor lost her life. And here I am, helping people… and I could have lost my life over this,” Brown said of the police incident. ?“Local 1000 needs to stop playing these games with me. The Sacramento Police Department needs to investigate who made that call against me.”

The police department said ?“These incidents have been documented in a report and the department has not identified any specific intended victims of these unfounded calls for service at this time. The department will continue to investigate any further incidents that occur to determine if there is a connection between them.” Yvonne Walker said in an interview that she did not know anything about the incident. (Brown and Walker are both Black.)

Discussing his platform, Brown called the requirement that only dues-payers vote in elections, which is standard procedure in most unions, a ?“poll tax,” and likened it to laws that oppressed Black voters in the past. He said his preference would be to see the end of exclusive representation?—?the requirement that unions represent everyone in a workplace whether they pay dues or not?—?but barring that, he would like to see non-payers be able to vote. Such a policy would allow union politics to be controlled, at least in part, by the people most hostile to the union. Brown said he has ?“no connection” to the Freedom Foundation or any other anti-labor group. 

“A union, when they can automatically control your wages and working conditions, they could care less about how you feel. And this is the case with Local 1000,” Brown said. Some members of the union are living paycheck to paycheck, and would be better served if the union stopped spending money on politics, slashed their dues, and built a strike fund to help it wield power via strike threats rather than political donations. ?“As long as our union spends more than 50 percent on politics, to the Democratic Party, they’re alienating half the union, and this is why they cannot raise their membership. And this is why I got elected.”

Such a policy would also have major implications for the most politically active national union in America. ?“We have to stop our political spending,” Brown says. ?“Does that mean we have to end our affiliation with SEIU? I would probably say yes.”

Opponents see this theory of how to gain power as, at best, naïve?—?particularly for a union of state employees. ?“It’s incredibly important [to be involved in politics], especially for public service workers. Our bosses are politicians,” said Yvonne Walker. ?“If we’re not having a voice in electing the people that share the same values that we do, that is a very grave mistake.”

Likewise, she said that Local 1000 would regret any decision not to support Gavin Newsom against the recall effort. ?“We have traveled this road before. We saw what happened after Gray Davis got recalled [in 2003],” she said. ?“We went through the loss of some things that people thought were just automatic. And they weren’t. And I would hate to see us in that place again.”

Walker said she was proud of accomplishments like putting the union on a sound financial footing, buying a headquarters building, expanding apprenticeship programs, and guiding the union through the aftermath of the 2008 recession. She rejected the criticisms raised in the Strikewave story, saying she would not have done anything differently during her time in office to increase union democracy or to further encourage more members to vote in elections. And she voiced hopes that whoever succeeds her will make strong efforts to lock in the newfound flexible work arrangements that employees have been able to try out during the pandemic. But, she said, she will not be around to lead those efforts, no matter what happens.

For now, the fate of nearly 100,000 union members faces a maddening level of unpredictability. Pending the outcome of the union’s election review, control could pass to Brown, who would lead the organization down a radical conservative path, or the election could be run again, adding even more uncertainty as to what the future would hold. The only certainty is that whatever happens, the losing factions will feel cheated and full of distrust. It is an ominous set of ingredients for decisions that will profoundly affect members, their families and the labor movement as a whole?—?not to mention the electoral politics of the nation’s most populous state.

The only person who seems to have achieved some level of peace is Yvonne Walker herself, who does not believe that Brown’s plans will ever come to fruition. ?“It’s easy to make pronouncements,” she said dismissively, ?“when you don’t know how things work.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 15, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere.


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How Many Strikes Are There in the U.S.?

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Johnnie Kallas

How many strikes are there in the United States?

It’s a question with obvious importance to labor activists, yet there is no readily accessible answer.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) releases an annual work stoppage summary in February reporting the number of strikes and lockouts over the prior year—but only those that involved at least 1,000 workers and lasted an entire shift. This is especially problematic because nearly 60 percent of all private sector workers are employed by companies with fewer than 1,000 employees. Even many of those who work at big firms are in bargaining units or workplaces with under 1,000 workers.

The BLS kept track of all work stoppages involving six workers or more and lasting at least a full shift until 1982, when cuts by the Reagan administration diminished resources for labor research and statistics.

According to BLS data, strikes increased significantly in 2018 and 2019—after a long decline—before returning to historic lows in 2020. But we cannot know for certain how accurate a picture this is, since the BLS excludes a sizable amount of strike activity by only capturing big strikes. Even the ongoing strike by the Massachusetts Nurses Association at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester—owned by Tenet Healthcare, one of the country’s largest for-profit hospital chains—is left out of the BLS data, because the strike involves just 800 nurses.

NEW LABOR ACTION TRACKER

This gap in our understanding of strike activity is a serious limitation for our knowledge about the labor movement. To help fill this void, we have created the ILR Labor Action Tracker, housed at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, to more accurately track strikes and labor protests across the U.S. (Unlike the BLS, we are not currently collecting data on lockouts, though we hope to add that data in the future.)

One important advance is that our tracker also includes labor protests, such as rallies and informational pickets. That means it includes the recent rally by 2,000 food delivery drivers in New York City demanding better pay and improved health and safety. It also includes a multi-city action by Tribune Publishing employees—who work for newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and Baltimore Sun—to prevent the sale of the company to a hedge fund.

Considering the vast legal and economic obstacles to striking, we believe it is important to capture these types of events to show the wide range of tactics used by U.S. workers in the 21st century. Users are able to search our interactive map for strikes and labor protests separately or both types of actions together.

We distinguish between strikes and labor protests based on whether a temporary stoppage of work occurred as part of the action. This definition of a strike is relatively inclusive, covering actions like wildcats and sickouts.

In some cases, such as the national days of action associated with the Fight for 15 campaign, it can be particularly difficult to determine whether the action should be labeled a strike or labor protest. But if we can convincingly demonstrate, based on the sources we cite, that a collective stoppage of work occurred as part of the protest, we will add that event to our tracker as a strike. Full information about our methodology, including how we add actions to our tracker and the other variables we capture, can be found here.

A DIFFERENT PICTURE

We began tracking strikes in late 2020, though our database is most reliable beginning in March 2021. We have discovered a much different reality of strike and protest activity in the United States than existing sources indicate.

We found that 28 strikes occurred during the month of April alone. That includes all strikes that began after January 1, 2021, and were still ongoing at some point in April. This stands in stark contrast to recent annual data from the BLS, which identified just seven major work stoppages in all of 2017, 20 in 2018, 25 in 2019, and eight in 2020. The BLS documented just six strikes in April; among the strikes it excluded were the aforementioned walkout by 800 Massachusetts nurses at St. Vincent Hospital, a strike for a first contract by 200 faculty members at the Oregon Institute of Technology, and a strike by 24 distribution workers fighting for a pay increase after a four-year wage freeze at N.H. Scheppers Distributing in Missouri, among many others.

While we know that more strikes are occurring than existing data would indicate, we recognize that strike activity today is nowhere near the levels seen in the mid-20th century. For example, the BLS identified an average of 821 work stoppages (both strikes and lockouts, involving six workers or more and lasting at least a full shift) for the month of April during the 1970s, before the Reagan administration’s cuts forced the agency to only capture major events. Additional research is needed to generate more rigorous and informative historical comparisons.

Workers face immense obstacles to organizing and striking that have only become more pronounced over the past few decades. We hope that our project will amplify the voices of striking and protesting workers, as well as draw attention to these obstacles.

We welcome any feedback on how to make this tool more useful for workers and the labor movement. Our project aims to democratize data and inform labor activists about labor actions in their communities. Going forward, we hope to more accurately capture labor protests and pinpoint the location of ongoing strikes based on the address of a major picket line, which should help local activists support striking workers.

We are aiming to be as comprehensive as possible (especially on strikes)—so if you notice that we are missing a strike or labor protest, please use the report button on our website or fill out this Google form.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on May 26, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the authors: Johnnie Kallas, a former labor organizer, is a PhD student at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations and director of the ILR Labor Action Tracker. Eli Friedman is a professor and chair of the Department of International and Comparative Labor at the ILR School. He serves as faculty advisor of the Labor Action Tracker. Dana Trentalange, another former labor organizer, is a recent graduate student of the master’s program at the ILR School, and is the Labor Action Tracker’s coordinator and social media strategist.


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Comic Book Answers: Why Do Workers Need a New ‘Bill of Rights’?

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comic book developed by the North Carolina State AFL-CIO aims to answer the question of why we need a new “Bill of Rights” in this country to turn the tide of economic and societal forces back in favor of working people during the current pandemic and beyond.

The ‘Bill of Rights’ We Need Now More Than Ever

America’s labor movement continues to lead the response to the coronavirus pandemic and to fight for economic opportunity and social justice for all working people—including fighting for policies and principles that, had they been in place at the start of the current crisis, would have lessened the disruption to lives and livelihoods caused by COVID-19.

Back in 2017, at the national AFL-CIO convention in St. Louis, delegates passed Resolution 1: Workers’ Bill of Rights, which declares that all working people have the right to:

  • A good job with fair wages;
  • Quality health care;
  • A safe job;
  • Paid time off and flexible, predictable scheduling;
  • Freedom from discrimination;
  • To retire with dignity;
  • Education;
  • The freedom to join together; and
  • A voice in democracy.

With public approval of unions today near a 50-year high and with COVID-19 having exposed and even worsened preexisting and persistent structural racial and economic inequalities in the United States, now is the time for the labor movement to champion these essential rights and freedoms.

Introducing ‘The Workers’ Bill of Rights: A Comic Exploration’

In keeping with our commitment to promote the Workers’ Bill of Rights to a broad audience, we are thrilled to announce an exciting, new resource: The Workers’ Bill of Rights: A Comic Exploration, a comic book developed by the North Carolina State AFL-CIO.

The comic book, available in Spanish and English, both in print and online, comprises nine captivating and beautifully illustrated individual stories that explore the nine key components of the Workers’ Bill of Rights.

We must educate our members and the public on the need for a comprehensive bill of rights for all working people—Black, Brown and White; urban and rural—because we deserve better.

One job should be enough to make ends meet. Getting an education should not require mortgaging your future. No one should have to sacrifice their health or life to earn a paycheck.

Join us in this fight for better jobs and better lives for all working people!

Visit the comic book website to read The Workers’ Bill of Rights: A Comic Exploration.

Get involved by texting comic to 235246 to get your own digital copy of this publication or by emailing info@aflcionc.org to request a printed copy.

This post originally appeared at the North Carolina State AFL-CIO.

About the Author: North Carolina State AFL-CIO is the largest association of unions of working people in North Carolina, representing over a hundred thousand members, working together for good jobs, safe workplaces, workers’ rights, consumer protections, and quality public services on behalf of ALL working people.


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Service + Solidarity Spotlight: Labor Movement Fighting Anti-Asian Racism in All Forms

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

Anti-Asian racism has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Working people condemn this vile behavior as a stain on our nation. We will continue to fight these injustices.

Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance National President Monica Thammarath (NEA) stated, “It is not right that Asian Americans are afraid to be alone in public, especially our elders who live in poverty and depend on access to community services, and our young people who live in places where there are few community spaces to turn to. We grieve for the elders who have been assaulted in Chinatowns across the nation. We grieve for Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai man who was attacked on one of his daily walks in San Francisco. We send our love to Noel Quintana, a 61-year-old Filipino American who was attacked on a Manhattan subway car, and to the 52-year-old Chinese American woman who was attacked outside of a Flushing bakery. We grieve for Christian Hall, a Chinese American teenager who was murdered by the Pennsylvania State Police. We grieve for Angelo Quinto, a 30-year-old Filipino American who was murdered by Antioch, California, police. Our communities are hurting, and we are more agitated than ever to create change.”

“The entire labor movement is appalled by the continued rise in anti-Asian racism across the country. Acts of physical violence, yelling of racial slurs and intimidation tactics used against our Asian American friends, family and communities must be called out and stopped,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka (UMWA). “Anti-Asian rhetoric is only hurting our nation more during this pandemic, and we all must stand up and condemn in the strongest terms possible that racism in any form is unacceptable.”

“Racism in any form is wrong. Plain and simple. I have been so incensed to see the attacks on our Asian brothers and sisters that I could just scream,” said Clayola Brown (Workers United), AFL-CIO civil rights director and A. Philip Randolph Institute president. “For those of us of color who have endured systemic racism for 400 years, it is scary to see this unrelenting targeting and denigration happening to another group. The kind of ugliness we’ve seen happening to members of the Asian community as they simply go to the store or gather in a park to visit is disgusting and must be stopped. To watch elderly people come under attack and no one come to their aid shows we still have so much more work to do. Humanity must prevail. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘The time is always right to do what is right.’ We must all take responsibility to make sure that no one is targeted, tormented or harassed because of their ethnicity. Until we learn that lesson, we all pay the price for racism.”

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on March 8, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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The Labor Movement Hasn’t Won Anything Yet

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It looks very like­ly that Democ­rats will win con­trol of the Sen­ate. That means that for the first time in more than a decade, the Democ­rats will con­trol both the White House and Con­gress. The labor move­ment will and should view this as the time to col­lect on their hefty invest­ment in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. This also means that the labor unions are in mor­tal dan­ger of squan­der­ing the next two years trans­fixed by devel­op­ments in Wash­ing­ton while the real action pass­es them by.

On this hope­ful morn­ing, we should all take a moment to remem­ber the glo­ri­ous days of 2009, when Oba­ma won the pres­i­den­cy, and Democ­rats won Con­gress, and the labor move­ment won… noth­ing. In the cold light of his­to­ry, the enor­mous finan­cial and logis­ti­cal back­ing that major unions gave to Oba­ma won them only a short term reprieve from bla­tant gov­ern­ment repres­sion rather than any real progress towards a revival of labor pow­er in Amer­i­ca. It did not win them the pas­sage of the Employ­ee Free Choice Act, their top leg­isla­tive pri­or­i­ty. Union den­si­ty in Amer­i­ca was 12.3% in 2009. By 2016, after two Oba­ma terms, it was 10.7%. By 2020, it was 10.3%. (In the mid-1950s, it was 35%. By the ear­ly 1980s, it was 20%.) Under both friend­ly and hos­tile pres­i­den­tial admin­is­tra­tions, union mem­ber­ship has con­tin­ued to decline for decades. Col­lect­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars from union mem­bers and fun­nel­ing it into the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty every four years has done noth­ing to solve the most press­ing prob­lems that unions face: they are slow­ly disappearing. 

And here we are again! Unions backed Biden strong­ly, vow­ing to keep the bit­ter lessons of the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion in mind. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, the Democ­rats who appear to have won in the Geor­gia Sen­ate races, both ben­e­fit­ed from a flood of on-the-ground sup­port from Unite Hereand oth­er unions. The 2021 ana­log to the Oba­ma-era Employ­ee Free Choice Act is the PRO Act, a very fine bill that would roll back the worst parts of America’s anti-work­er labor laws and make it mean­ing­ful­ly eas­i­er to build and sus­tain strong unions. We have won the White house. We have won the House. We have won the Sen­ate. And we have our top pri­or­i­ty bill in hand. 

So will the PRO Act become law? No. It will be fil­i­bus­tered in the Sen­ate. In order to pass it, Democ­rats would have to com­mit to doing away with the fil­i­buster, and Joe Manchin?—?now the key­stone of the Sen­ate?—?has said he will not do that. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Sen­ate vic­to­ry means that Biden will be able to get his judges, and he’ll be able to get his cab­i­net sec­re­taries con­firmed, and as a con­se­quence the reg­u­la­to­ry appa­ra­tus of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment will be more favor­able towards the inter­ests of work­ers than it would oth­er­wise have been. But ulti­mate­ly none of the juici­est reforms of the PRO Act, like elim­i­nat­ing ?“right to work” laws and legal­iz­ing sec­ondary boy­cotts, will come to pass. 

Of course it is good for orga­nized labor that the Democ­rats won. I’m not try­ing to be a down­er. I am try­ing to put the util­i­ty of the nation­al Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty in its prop­er con­text. For the labor move­ment, most of the invest­ment in Democ­rats amounts to an insur­ance pol­i­cy: We have to back Democ­rats because even if they don’t do any­thing for us, they are not active­ly try­ing to destroy us. Total Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­trol of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment amounts to noth­ing but a tem­porar­i­ly neu­tral play­ing field for labor. It does not get us any­thing. It just makes con­di­tions some­what more con­ducive to get­ting things for our­selves. That is the part that often gets for­got­ten, as unions sit back and con­grat­u­late them­selves after Elec­tion Day. The myopic focus of the labor estab­lish­ment on nation­al pol­i­tics is like spend­ing all of your mon­ey on home insur­ance and hav­ing noth­ing left over to actu­al­ly build a house. 

Pol­i­tics fol­lows move­ments. Not vice ver­sa. We drag elect­ed offi­cials along after we have made the demand for change so strong it can’t be ignored. The labor move­ment in Amer­i­ca is weak because not enough Amer­i­cans are part of the labor move­ment. You can’t fight cap­i­tal­ism when only ten per­cent of the peo­ple are on your team. The labor move­ment must grow. If it can’t grow with­in the hos­tile forms dic­tat­ed by cur­rent law, it must grow out­side of those forms. 

Union lead­ers can wake up today and bask in the knowl­edge that they got their vic­to­ry. They should also mar­i­nate in the knowl­edge that this vic­to­ry will not buy them a sin­gle new union mem­ber. Polit­i­cal dona­tions are a pro­tec­tion rack­et for unions. On the oth­er hand, mon­ey spent on orga­niz­ing is nev­er wast­ed. If we spend the next two years hyp­no­tized by Con­gress and the PRO Act and get­ting ready for the next midterms, two years will pass, and union den­si­ty will con­tin­ue to decline, and we will be weak­er than we are today. We should instead look out towards the 90% of work­ing peo­ple who do not have a union, and ask: How do we get them one? 

We will be told today that we won in Geor­gia. The state of Geor­gia ranks 47thout of 50 in union den­si­ty. Bare­ly four per­cent of work­ers there are union mem­bers. What has the labor move­ment actu­al­ly won for the peo­ple there? How much will their lives be changed in the next two years?

The elec­tion is over. Fall out of love with pol­i­tics, and fall in love with orga­niz­ing. Please. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 6, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where.


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Stiffing Corporate Lobbyists; Short-Time Work Salvation; Nurses on the Line

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It’s the permanent government—the corporate lobbyists who have friends in both parties. It is at the heart of why we don’t have Medicare for All, why the Pentagon is rolling in dough and why banks and Wall Street rip us off. Jeff Hauser, the executive director of the Revolving Door Project, talks about what the strategy looks like to limit the influence of the corporate elites in a possible Biden Administration.

The pandemic has ripped through the world, killing and sickening millions. But, if you look at the economic hits people have taken, the pandemic has exposed the complete and utter failure of the system in the U.S. to make sure people can hang on. Both Europe and the U.S. had to shut down their economies and both took hits in output—but why has the unemployment rate been so much lower in Europe in the first half of the year than the U.S.? Maria Figueroa, the Director of Labor and Policy Research at the Industrial and Labor Relations School at Cornell University, explains how “short time work” made the difference.

It’s fairly obvious that Trump has the blood of thousands of Americans on his hands for his absolute narcissistic bungling and incompetent handling of the pandemic. Tens of thousands of people, especially front-line workers like nurses, got sick at work because this administration let corporate shills, who don’t care about workers, run the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Which brings me to the Oregon Health and Science University, a massive sprawling operation which in 2019 had $3.2 billion in revenues. OHSU is taking a page from Jeff Bezos when it comes to stiffing nurses who are seeking a fair wage and leaving nurses at great risk by refusing to commit to fully providing for a safe workplace during the pandemic. We get the lowdown from Terri Niles, an ICU Nurse at OHSU and a vice president at the 2,900-member Local 52 of the Oregon Nurses Association.

(If you want my final election analysis and predictions for next week, check out my Working Life website and read it all there).

This blog originally appeared at Working Life on October 28, 2020. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is a political / organizing / economic strategist and the author/editor of Working Life.


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Is the Conservative Case for Organized Labor an Oxymoron?

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Oren Cass—con­ser­v­a­tive pol­i­cy wonk, 2012 Mitt Rom­ney advi­sor and exec­u­tive direc­tor of the new think tank Amer­i­can Com­pass (which does not dis­close its donors)—is a sur­pris­ing can­di­date for labor law reformer. That is exact­ly why his recent­ly launched project to build and define a “Con­ser­v­a­tive Future for the Amer­i­can Labor Move­ment” is draw­ing so much attention. 

In a found­ing state­ment titled “Con­ser­v­a­tives Should Ensure Work­ers a Seat at the Table,” the group argues that orga­nized labor can improve eco­nom­ic pros­per­i­ty and strength­en com­mu­ni­ties, all while main­tain­ing lim­it­ed gov­ern­ment. The state­ment is signed by Cass, Mar­co Rubio, Jeff Ses­sions and oth­er fig­ures on the right. As you might imag­ine, the dev­il of this labor reform project is in the details. 

We spoke to Cass about sec­toral bar­gain­ing, labor mil­i­tan­cy, and the polit­i­cal real­i­ties of con­vinc­ing Repub­li­cans that unions deserve to exist. 

What made you decide that now was the time to launch this effort to save orga­nized labor? 

Oren Cass: It fits gen­er­al­ly with the broad­er focus of Amer­i­can Com­pass, which is to ask, “What has gone wrong in our econ­o­my which is lead­ing to poor out­comes for many peo­ple? And what would a gen­uine­ly con­ser­v­a­tive response look like?” My view is, what we call con­ser­v­a­tive eco­nom­ic pol­i­cy in Amer­i­ca is not con­ser­v­a­tive in any mean­ing­ful sense of the word, it’s lib­er­tar­i­an. It’s a func­tion of the Rea­gan coali­tion in which eco­nom­ic lib­er­tar­i­ans did the eco­nom­ic pol­i­cy, and social con­ser­v­a­tives did the social pol­i­cy. But if you think about the mar­ket fun­da­men­tal­ism that dom­i­nates right of cen­ter think­ing, it’s in many ways the antithe­sis of con­ser­vatism. It puts fair­ly blind faith in a mar­ket, with­out any ref­er­ence to the rules around the mar­ket, insti­tu­tions sup­port­ing the mar­ket, with­out con­cern for social struc­tures or the social fab­ric. We’ve real­ly been miss­ing a gen­uine­ly con­ser­v­a­tive per­spec­tive that asks, “How do we ensure that the mar­ket is one that is actu­al­ly deliv­er­ing the out­comes that we want for healthy fam­i­lies, and com­mu­ni­ties, and the strength and sol­i­dar­i­ty of the nation?” 

One of the places that strikes me as a huge oppor­tu­ni­ty that has been over­looked, if not out­right den­i­grat­ed, by the lib­er­tar­i­an per­spec­tive is this idea that, look, orga­nized labor is a great thing—that unions as they are oper­at­ing in Amer­i­ca today are dys­func­tion­al in many ways, but the idea that we should want work­ers to be able to act col­lec­tive­ly… is all to the good. That’s exact­ly the for­mu­la for a well func­tion­ing mar­ket economy. 

How do you dis­tin­guish what you call the con­ser­v­a­tive per­spec­tive on this issue from the lib­er­al (non-social­ist) perspective? 

Cass: If we talk about tra­di­tion­al lib­er­als, I think in many ways there’s a lot of shared ground with respect to the out­comes we want. The major point of depar­ture is on two ques­tions: One, how good are mar­kets at doing things rel­a­tive to how good is gov­ern­ment at doing them? My view at least is that mar­kets are quite effec­tive and pow­er­ful, and the role that we want for gov­ern­ment is in fig­ur­ing out what kind of con­di­tions we need to cre­ate to chan­nel that pow­er in the right direc­tion. Where­as the left of cen­ter view, I think, tends to be more, if we’re not hap­py with what a market’s doing, we will just tell it some­thing else. Sec­ond­ly and relat­ed­ly, I think there is a very dif­fer­ent view of the role that redis­tri­b­u­tion can play. I think the lib­er­al view tends to be, we can pro­vide to who­ev­er has been left behind, where­as the con­ser­v­a­tive view is that that’s actu­al­ly not a good answer—that a gov­ern­ment check is not a sub­sti­tute for a paycheck. 

You were a Mitt Rom­ney advi­sor in 2012. Have your views on these issues changed a lot since then? This doesn’t sound like the Rom­ney labor plat­form.

Cass: I don’t think my views have nec­es­sar­i­ly changed very much. If we were to talk about spe­cif­ic ques­tions like sec­toral bar­gain­ing, [that] is some­thing I’ve become much more inter­est­ed in over the past year or two, after writ­ing in my book that that was exact­ly the wrong way to do labor reform … But in terms of the big­ger pic­ture ques­tion of what should the goals of eco­nom­ic pol­i­cy be and what should the levers be, I would say my instincts have always been in this direc­tion, and as I’ve had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to do more research and work on it I’ve been able to flesh out more of the ratio­nale for that, and what it might mean to give it shape in the real world.

You talk in your state­ment about sub­sti­tut­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing for employ­ment reg­u­la­tions, rather than hav­ing both as we do now. How do you take away those work­place reg­u­la­tions with­out expos­ing work­ing peo­ple to per­ilous dan­ger in the process? 

Cass: I don’t think you take them away, I think you shift them from a base­line to a default. The way the sys­tem we have today works is that every­thing estab­lished in employ­ment law is a non-nego­tiable start­ing point, and if you union­ize or are oth­er­wise bar­gain­ing with employ­ers, the entire pur­pose of the exer­cise is to think of new things to add on top of that. But of course, the whole ratio­nale for need­ing such a robust régime of employ­ment reg­u­la­tion is that indi­vid­ual work­ers with­out col­lec­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tion don’t have the abil­i­ty to safe­guard their inter­ests very effec­tive­ly. So at the point where you do have work­ers orga­nized and bar­gain­ing col­lec­tive­ly, it seems to me they can just say, we’re adopt­ing as much of the employ­ment reg­u­la­tion as we want. They don’t have to agree to any­thing. When you think about the scope for bar­gain­ing an agree­ment that you could con­sid­er—hav­ing most, not all, of exist­ing reg­u­la­tion on the table I think is a real­ly attrac­tive arrange­ment. I think it’s attrac­tive for work­ers, because there’s no short­age of reg­u­la­tion that they don’t val­ue that highly …

And like­wise from the employ­er per­spec­tive, this changes the prospect of col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing from “the worst thing imag­in­able” to some­thing that could actu­al­ly have some upside. 

It seems to me that that arrange­ment would by neces­si­ty require work­ers to have a bal­ance of pow­er with employ­ers they’re bar­gain­ing with. Do you sup­port a robust right to strike as part of that? 

Cass: I do think there should be a right to strike, but I think if you shift to a sec­toral bar­gain­ing con­cept then that becomes a very dif­fer­ent ques­tion. Because this adver­sar­i­al bar­gain­ing isn’t going to be hap­pen­ing between the work­ers and employ­ers at a sin­gle firm, it’s going to be hap­pen­ing at the sec­toral lev­el. Do you get sec­tor-wide strikes in sec­toral bar­gain­ing? Yes, it does hap­pen, but I think you tend to see a lot less labor strife in that context. 

What is the work­ers’ lever­age, even in sec­toral bar­gain­ing, besides the right to with­hold their labor? Par­tic­u­lar­ly if you are sug­gest­ing that employ­ment reg­u­la­tions should be on the table.

Cass: That is one form of lever­age they have, but there are a bunch [of oth­ers] that I think are more close­ly con­nect­ed to the role that you have gov­ern­ment play­ing in a sec­toral bar­gain­ing sys­tem. If the fall­back if no agree­ment is reached is not “employ­er does what­ev­er it wants,” it’s essen­tial­ly bar­gain­ing is imposed, that’s obvi­ous­ly one fall­back… Anoth­er thing that tends to play a role is, par­tic­u­lar­ly when you have a sec­toral sys­tem, unions are actu­al­ly doing oth­er things that are con­struc­tive. For exam­ple, unions are typ­i­cal­ly play­ing a much more assertive role in train­ing. There are more facets to that part­ner­ship that are also at risk if no agree­ment is reached. 

I know some labor lead­ers who would say that the fact that a per­son like you is advo­cat­ing for sec­toral bar­gain­ing is proof of the draw­back of sec­toral bar­gain­ing—that it is a way to sap mil­i­tan­cy out of the labor move­ment. What do you say to that? 

Cass: I see that atti­tude as encap­su­lat­ing per­fect­ly how the Left has man­aged to total­ly sab­o­tage the labor move­ment in recent decades, which is to try to use it as a tool of par­ti­san or rad­i­cal left­ist pri­or­i­ties, rather than a tool that’s actu­al­ly going to improve things for work­ers. If you think we’re real­ly on the cusp of suc­cess for a mil­i­tant labor move­ment in this coun­try, then I don’t know where you’ve been, but that’s obvi­ous­ly not the direc­tion where this is head­ed. To the con­trary, the labor move­ment is slow­ly dying out of its own dys­func­tion inter­nal­ly, and its own poor design in the statu­to­ry frame­work it’s oper­at­ing under. Now, my equal frus­tra­tion is with those on the right of cen­ter who say “huz­zah,” and stand aside and shrug or grin as this hap­pens. To come from the right of cen­ter and say, let’s not have this thing die out, let’s find a way to have a labor move­ment that works, and achieves valu­able things for work­ers, is not a plot to defang a mil­i­tan­cy that does not exist and has no prospect. That would be a waste of effort. 

When you talk about the labor move­ment being too par­ti­san—what choice do they have? The plat­form of the Repub­li­can Par­ty is to wipe them off the face of the earth. 

Cass: If you go back and look at the his­to­ry, there’s plen­ty of blame to go around … Dwight Eisen­how­er went to the AFL to cam­paign for their votes in the 50s. Nixon fet­ed labor lead­ers at the White House. The AFL-CIO did not endorse McGov­ern in ’72. Samuel Gom­pers had polit­i­cal non­par­ti­san­ship as a core prin­ci­ple of orga­niz­ing. If you fast for­ward to the ’90s, when Newt Gin­grich was Speak­er, those more pro-labor rep­re­sen­ta­tives in the Repub­li­can Par­ty were ulti­mate­ly aban­doned by the unions, and in turn aban­doned the unions. So it seems to me that it’s sort of a piece of the broad­er sto­ry of polar­iza­tion in our pol­i­tics. I guess if you want­ed to have a strat­e­gy of reclaim­ing a strong and mil­i­tant labor move­ment under the Wag­n­er Act you would be wel­come to try, but I’m not aware of any­one oth­er than those whose job it is to say that’s a good idea who thinks that’s a good or plau­si­ble idea. 

Let me ask you about the polit­i­cal real­i­ty of these issues. I don’t see any space in the Repub­li­can Par­ty of today for what you’re advo­cat­ing. Am I wrong about that? 

Cass: I think you’re wrong. That’s part­ly why we start­ed with this state­ment, which I think showed an inter­est­ing range of rep­re­sen­ta­tives … What I found on the Hill in par­tic­u­lar, with folks in the House and the Sen­ate, is that the over­whelm­ing response was, “This is real­ly inter­est­ing, but not some­thing we’ve ever thought about enough.” There’s not a sin­gle per­son we talked to where the response was, “No, I don’t agree.” 

We’re at the point where there are a lot of peo­ple inter­est­ed in this dis­cus­sion. I can’t promise you we’re going to suc­ceed, but I think that a year from now we will have a much broad­er coali­tion that says, actu­al­ly now I under­stand this, and this is some­thing we should be push­ing for­ward on. 

What do you think the leg­isla­tive first step would be down this path? 

Cass: Prob­a­bly to find some par­tic­u­lar places where it would make sense to try some­thing like this. One would be to pick a top­ic, like min­i­mum wage, where I think all sides would be hap­pi­er than the sta­tus quo by say­ing, min­i­mum wage should real­ly be set through more of a sec­toral­ly bar­gained or wage board type mod­el. On a lot of these things the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment can’t do more than set up a frame­work, but here is a mod­el that states and local­i­ties and who­ev­er else could work from. 

Anoth­er pos­si­bil­i­ty is a par­tic­u­lar sec­tor. There obvi­ous­ly are a num­ber of sec­tors that are exclud­ed from the [Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act], part­ly for dis­crim­i­na­to­ry and part­ly for prac­ti­cal rea­sons. You could start in either the agri­cul­tur­al or domes­tic ser­vice or gig sec­tor and say hey, let’s actu­al­ly imple­ment this here. That’s an approach that could have promise. And a third one is to do it region­al­ly and say, we’re going to offer waivers from the NLRA to some state that wants to come for­ward and try a dif­fer­ent framework. 

What do you think will hap­pen if no agree­ment like this for the future of labor is reached, and cur­rent trends continue? 

Cass: Unfor­tu­nate­ly trends can con­tin­ue for a very long time. Every­thing has break­ing points even­tu­al­ly. I don’t think any­one can very effec­tive­ly pre­dict where any sort of mean­ing­ful break­ing point would occur. So I think the best bet in the absence of reform is that, dur­ing the near to medi­um terms, things just sort of con­tin­ue … to con­cen­trate the gains towards a small num­ber of win­ners, and then you have an awful lot of folks who don’t get to share in those gains, and who strug­gle in a lot of ways. 

This inter­view has been edit­ed for length and clarity. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 30, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for 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 for the Labor Movement on Election Day? Everything.

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Amer­i­ca is in cri­sis. There can be no doubt about that. All of our imme­di­ate crises—the pan­dem­ic and the unem­ploy­ment and the eco­nom­ic col­lapse and the death spi­ral of var­i­ous pub­lic insti­tu­tions—have lent the upcom­ing pres­i­den­tial elec­tion an air of emer­gency. For work­ing peo­ple in Amer­i­ca, though, the emer­gency is noth­ing new at all. What is at stake for labor in this elec­tion is every­thing. Noth­ing, there­fore, has changed. 

Don­ald Trump and the coro­n­avirus, the two fac­tors infus­ing this elec­tion with urgency, are of recent vin­tage. But the cri­sis for work­ing Amer­i­cans has been grow­ing worse for at least four decades. Since the Rea­gan era, eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty has been ris­ing, union pow­er has been declin­ing, and glob­al cap­i­tal­ism has been widen­ing the chasm between the rich and every­one else. 

Orga­nized labor has been fight­ing a los­ing—and some­times inept­ly fought—bat­tle against these trends in every elec­tion since 1980. The once-in-a-cen­tu­ry cat­a­stro­phe sur­round­ing the 2020 elec­tion may be what it needs to final­ly reverse two gen­er­a­tions of dis­re­spect and defeat. 

Labor unions, which rep­re­sent work­ers in a work­place, have always includ­ed peo­ple of all polit­i­cal stripes. The labor move­ment—the broad­er uni­verse of groups pur­su­ing the inter­ests of work­ing peo­ple—will con­tin­ue to lean left, in the direc­tion that val­ues labor over cap­i­tal. (See­ing police unions endorse Trump, whose admin­is­tra­tion is deter­mined to crush labor rights, is an exam­ple of the fact that indi­vid­ual unions and their mem­bers can act in self-inter­est­ed ways that go against the labor move­ment as a whole.) 

For rough­ly the past half cen­tu­ry, union house­holds have tend­ed to vote Demo­c­ra­t­ic by about a 60–40 mar­gin, but that mar­gin has fluc­tu­at­ed. In 1980, Ronald Rea­gan nar­rowed the gap to only a few points. Barack Oba­ma took the union vote by 34 points in 2012, but in 2016, that gap shrank by half. Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Joe Biden, tout­ing his Oba­ma con­nec­tions and fac­ing an out­right incom­pe­tent racist, will like­ly expand that mar­gin again. 

Since Con­gress passed the Taft-Hart­ley Act in 1947, unions have been oper­at­ing in the frame­work of a set of labor laws designed to rob them of pow­er. The state of those laws today is abysmal. The right to strike is restrict­ed, and com­pa­nies have been able to clas­si­fy large swaths of their work­ers as “inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors,” who lack the right to union­ize. More than half the states in the coun­try have passed “right to work” laws, which give work­ers the abil­i­ty to opt out of pay­ing union dues, mak­ing it extreme­ly dif­fi­cult for unions to orga­nize and main­tain mem­ber­ship. The 2018 Supreme Court deci­sion in the Janus v. AFSCME case made the entire pub­lic sec­tor “right to work” as well, which is sure to eat into that last bas­tion of strong union den­si­ty. The unful­filled desire to achieve some sem­blance of labor law reform has been the pri­ma­ry rea­son that unions in Amer­i­ca have poured mon­ey into the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty for decades, despite get­ting decid­ed­ly mod­est leg­isla­tive wins in return. 
“It’s critical that in the new administration, labor doesn’t just get siloed: ‘What’s the thing we can do to make the unions happy’ It’s got to be an approach to looking across everything, especially in light of the economic situation.” —Sharon Block, former Labor Department official in the Obama administration

Ear­li­er this year, Sharon Block, a for­mer Labor Depart­ment offi­cial in the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion who now heads the Labor and Work­life Pro­gram at Har­vard, and labor expert and Har­vard pro­fes­sor Ben­jamin Sachs spear­head­ed the assem­bly of the “Clean Slate for Work­er Pow­er” agen­da—some­thing of a union-friend­ly labor law plat­form for Democ­rats in exile dur­ing the Trump years. That agen­da is a fair sum­ma­tion of the labor movement’s wish list. It calls for a swath of reforms that make it eas­i­er for all work­ers to orga­nize and exer­cise pow­er. Its pil­lars include sec­toral bar­gain­ing, which would allow entire indus­tries to nego­ti­ate con­tracts at once; a much broad­er right to strike; work­er rep­re­sen­ta­tives on cor­po­rate boards; stream­lined union elec­tions; more labor rights for inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors and oth­er gig work­ers; the end of statewide “right to work” laws; and stronger enforce­ment of labor stan­dards. Biden’s own labor plat­form, while not quite as rad­i­cal—it con­spic­u­ous­ly does not include sec­toral bar­gain­ing—does include the major­i­ty of the Clean Slate agen­da. Biden’s plat­form also says there will be a “cab­i­net-lev­el work­ing group” of union rep­re­sen­ta­tives, which could pre­sum­ably push his plat­form even fur­ther left. Though Biden was among the most cen­trist of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry can­di­dates, the party’s cen­ter has moved so much in the past four years that he has the most left­ist labor plat­form of any nom­i­nee since the New Deal. 

While Biden is regard­ed by many as very pro-union, his­to­ry has taught the labor move­ment that its great­est chal­lenge will be get­ting him to actu­al­ly pri­or­i­tize labor if he assumes pow­er. “I had the priv­i­lege of see­ing Joe Biden in action. When he walked into a room where we were dis­cussing pol­i­cy, we knew that the inter­ests of work­ers, their col­lec­tive pow­er, and the labor move­ment was going to be on the table,” Block says. But, she warns, “It’s crit­i­cal that in the new admin­is­tra­tion, labor doesn’t just get siloed: ‘What’s the thing we can do to make the unions hap­py’ It’s got to be an approach to look­ing across every­thing, espe­cial­ly in light of the eco­nom­ic situation.”

In oth­er words, the new admin­is­tra­tion must treat orga­nized labor not as a spe­cial inter­est but as the key to chang­ing our increas­ing­ly two-tiered econ­o­my. That point is key to under­stand­ing the divide between the part of the labor move­ment that sup­port­ed left-wing can­di­dates like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Eliz­a­beth War­ren (D-Mass.), and those that sup­port­ed Biden. While Sanders’ back­ers will speak of his fanat­i­cal moral devo­tion to pro-work­ing class pol­i­cy, Biden’s allies will speak of the per­son­al rela­tion­ship they have with him. It is the divide between those who see unions more as part of a greater effort to improve con­di­tions for all work­ers, and those who see them more as a prac­ti­cal tool for mem­bers. “Joe Biden had an open door pol­i­cy. That was the biggest thing. That was the crux of the rela­tion­ship,” says a spokesper­son for the Inter­na­tion­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Fire Fight­ers, the first big union to endorse Biden when he entered the 2020 race. “With Joe Biden at the White House, our voice is heard. We get pri­or­i­ty access.”

This trans­ac­tion­al, loy­al­ty-cen­tric approach is unsur­pris­ing for a career politi­cian like Biden, but it can leave out labor lead­ers who don’t have such a long his­to­ry of back­ing him. Most major unions did not endorse in the 2020 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry, pre­fer­ring to focus on back­ing who­ev­er became the nom­i­nee to oppose Trump. And Biden—though he has many union allies—is not a cru­sad­er, but a politi­cian with decades of strong cor­po­rate back­ing, lead­ing many in labor to won­der how much he real­ly means what his plat­form says. The Biden cam­paign tried to mit­i­gate that wor­ry by includ­ing mul­ti­ple pro­gres­sive union lead­ers in the Biden-Sanders “Uni­ty Task Force,” which was explic­it­ly set up to uni­fy the left and cen­trist wings of the par­ty, in part by get­ting pro­gres­sive poli­cies into the Demo­c­ra­t­ic plat­form. That task force prod­ded Biden mod­est­ly to the left but not so far as to endorse core pro­gres­sive ideas like Medicare for All. The unions clos­est to Biden, par­tic­u­lar­ly the fire­fight­ers, are opposed to Medicare for All because they want to keep the health­care plans they nego­ti­at­ed for themselves.

The biggest labor unions often have strong pro­gres­sive fac­tions but most­ly plant them­selves firm­ly in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s main­stream. In fact, four major union lead­ers who serve on the plat­form com­mit­tee of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee vot­ed against includ­ing Medicare for All in the party’s plat­form. One was Ran­di Wein­garten, pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers, who also served on the Biden-Sanders Uni­ty Task Force. She says the DNC plat­form vote was a result of a pri­or agree­ment among those on the Uni­ty Task Force to vote for its rec­om­men­da­tions, in the way you might vote for a union con­tract that was imper­fect but the best you could get.

The wretched­ness of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has pushed unions to view the elec­tion as a mat­ter of sur­vival. “What Trump has done with his abysmal han­dling of Covid, and his even worse han­dling of racism, is to have sobered up every­one that this is an elec­tion like no oth­er,” Wein­garten says. “That this elec­tion needs to be won by Biden to make sure that our democ­ra­cy, as imper­fect as it is, stays in place. … Yes, it’s aspi­ra­tional about how we need to do bet­ter. But it’s also very pri­mal, about what the stakes are right now.” 

The bru­tal real­i­ties of the pan­dem­ic mean that many unions are forced to focus on their imme­di­ate needs more than on long-term ide­o­log­i­cal goals. In the Feb­ru­ary run-up to the Neva­da cau­cus, Joe Biden and the oth­er Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry can­di­dates bat­tled to win the endorse­ment of the pow­er­ful Culi­nary Union, which has orga­nized the state’s casi­no indus­try. (The union ulti­mate­ly did not endorse, and Bernie Sanders won the cau­cus.) Less than two months lat­er, the unem­ploy­ment rate for the union’s mem­bers was close to 100%. Geo­con­da Argüel­lo-Kline, the union’s sec­re­tary-trea­sur­er, says the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion is now framed in relent­less­ly prac­ti­cal terms: The refusal of Repub­li­cans to deal with the pan­dem­ic and the eco­nom­ic cri­sis show that only Biden can make the gov­ern­ment sup­port work­place safe­ty leg­is­la­tion, pro­tect health insur­ance and pen­sions, and fund ade­quate unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits until Las Vegas is back on its feet. 

“The gov­ern­ment real­ly has to pro­vide every­thing that the work­ers need dur­ing this pan­dem­ic,” Argüel­lo-Kline says. Her union is adapt­ing its leg­endary get-out-the-vote machine for a social­ly dis­tanced era, rely­ing on phone bank­ing, text mes­sag­ing and dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion more than door-knock­ing and ral­lies. She’s con­fi­dent that Trump will not car­ry Neva­da. “Every­body in the coun­try sees how he’s being oppres­sive to minori­ties over here. How he’s attack­ing the Lati­no com­mu­ni­ty. How he doesn’t want to have any­body in this coun­try who doesn’t look like him,” she says. “We know work­ers nev­er have an easy road.” 

Across the coun­try, unions that typ­i­cal­ly would be spend­ing the sum­mer and fall months focused on elec­tion­eer­ing are forced to bal­ance that with the work of triag­ing the needs of mem­bers fac­ing very real life-and-death sit­u­a­tions. The Retail, Whole­sale and Depart­ment Store Union rep­re­sents front-line retail work­ers who have been sub­ject­ed to wide­spread lay­offs that now appear to be per­ma­nent. It also rep­re­sents poul­try plant work­ers in the South who have con­tin­ued to work through­out the pan­dem­ic with des­per­ate short­ages of pro­tec­tive equip­ment. It is hard to tell whether the work­ing mem­bers or the unem­ployed mem­bers of the union face more dan­ger. Stu­art Appel­baum, the union’s pres­i­dent, has been a mem­ber of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee for decades, but he has nev­er dealt with an elec­tion year that com­bines such dire cir­cum­stances for work­ers with such logis­ti­cal chal­lenges to mobi­lize them to fight. 

If there is any sil­ver lin­ing, it is that the val­ue of unions is clear­er than ever before. Their pub­lic pop­u­lar­i­ty is near a 50-year high. Trump’s car­toon­ish class war lent the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­maries a strong pro-union fla­vor, and the work­place inequal­i­ty exposed by the pan­dem­ic has only sharp­ened the recog­ni­tion of the need for work­place pro­tec­tions. “We heard more talk about unions and sup­port of unions than we’ve heard in any oth­er cam­paign that I can remem­ber,” Appel­baum says. “There is more of a recog­ni­tion in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty now and in soci­ety as a whole as to the impor­tance of work­ers hav­ing a col­lec­tive voice. I remem­ber when Bill Clin­ton was first elect­ed, and I’d go to union meet­ings where peo­ple would say, ‘Is the pres­i­dent ever going to men­tion the word union?’ That’s not a ques­tion we have now.” 

That, of course, is no guar­an­tee that things will work out in unions’ favor. The right wing’s long attack on orga­nized labor has sapped some of the basic abil­i­ty of unions to exer­cise pow­er. No employ­ees have been more direct­ly sub­ject­ed to that attack than the work­ers of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment itself. The Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Gov­ern­ment Employ­ees has butted heads with the Trump admin­is­tra­tion inces­sant­ly over issues such as the lack of pay­checks dur­ing the gov­ern­ment shut­down, efforts to take away col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights from hun­dreds of thou­sands of employ­ees at the Defense Depart­ment, and work­ers at fed­er­al agen­cies being forced back into the office before the pan­dem­ic is under control. 

“For us, this elec­tion isn’t about par­ty affil­i­a­tion. It’s not about the dai­ly out­rages from Twit­ter. It’s about our very liveli­hoods. It’s about our rights and our lives at work,” says Everett Kel­ley, pres­i­dent of the 700,000-member union. “The issues that our mem­bers are fac­ing are real­ly the same issues that face labor as a whole—our mem­bers just work in a sec­tor where the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has the widest lat­i­tude to imple­ment its anti-labor poli­cies. But there’s no doubt that they want to export their union-bust­ing play­book from the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to the broad­er pub­lic and pri­vate sectors.” 

All of the mon­ey, email blasts and vir­tu­al get­ting-out-the-vote that unions are engaged in on behalf of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty will, if suc­cess­ful, result in mil­lions of mail-in bal­lots. And all of it will be worth­less if those bal­lots are not deliv­ered and count­ed prop­er­ly. Sav­ing the post office—and, who knows, per­haps democ­ra­cy itself—is a job that has fall­en in the lap of the labor move­ment. Unions have been key play­ers in pub­li­ciz­ing the threat to the postal ser­vice. They have ral­lied polit­i­cal sup­port behind postal work­ers and the pop­u­lar insti­tu­tion as a whole. What may have been seen as just anoth­er under­fund­ed gov­ern­ment agency a few years ago is now an avatar of every­thing wrong with Trumpism.

The U.S. Postal Ser­vice is, like many oth­er insti­tu­tions, fac­ing a pan­dem­ic-induced loss of rev­enue. It is also the tar­get of the Repub­li­can Party’s long-term desire to pri­va­tize mail deliv­ery and allow cor­po­ra­tions to take over its oper­a­tions. Add to that the president’s appar­ent desire to sab­o­tage the postal ser­vice before the elec­tion to pre­vent mail-in bal­lots from being count­ed, and sud­den­ly, the hum­ble post office finds itself at the cen­ter of a nation’s sense that the entire gov­ern­ment may be tee­ter­ing on the edge of irre­triev­able corruption. 

“Pri­va­ti­za­tion usu­al­ly means three things. It means high­er prices for the con­sumer, less ser­vices, and low­er wages and ben­e­fits for the work­ers,” says Mark Dimond­stein, head of the 200,000-member Amer­i­can Postal Work­ers Union. “This is cer­tain­ly the fork in the road of whether we’re going to have a pub­lic insti­tu­tion that belongs to every­body, serves every­body and is the source of good, liv­ing-wage union jobs—or a pri­va­tized, bro­ken-up gig econ­o­my postal service.”

With tens of mil­lions of Amer­i­cans unem­ployed, a dead­ly dis­ease rag­ing and an incum­bent pres­i­dent who appears not to care very much about either cri­sis, unions and their allies find them­selves pushed into a famil­iar cor­ner: Fight like hell for the less-than-ide­al Demo­c­rat—main­ly because there is no alter­na­tive. Joe Biden is an imper­fect ally. His record is busi­ness-friend­ly, and his labor plat­form, though strong in the­o­ry, is not as aggres­sive as those of some of his pri­ma­ry rivals. Labor move­ment vet­er­ans remem­ber 2008 well, when the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion swept in with promise but failed to deliv­er on the Employ­ee Free Choice Act, which would have enabled “card check” orga­niz­ing (a method of form­ing a union with a sim­ple major­i­ty vote) and was labor’s main (rel­a­tive­ly mod­est) wish. Biden is sell­ing him­self as Obama’s suc­ces­sor. It is up to the labor move­ment to ensure that a Biden admin­is­tra­tion does not take them for granted.

“We have to look at a Biden vic­to­ry not as an end to our work, but a begin­ning,” Dimond­stein says. “The his­to­ry of this coun­try is, it’s always been the peo­ple and the move­ment, includ­ing the work­ing class move­ment, that have cre­at­ed change in Con­gress. Not the oppo­site way.”

That, in fact, is the task that the labor move­ment—shrunk­en, bat­tered and divid­ed though it is—should be pour­ing most of its ener­gy into, even now. Union den­si­ty in Amer­i­ca has fall­en by half since the ear­ly 1980s. Bare­ly one in 10 work­ers are now union mem­bers. That exis­ten­tial decline must be turned around, or labor will nev­er have enough pow­er to win the eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal gains that work­ing peo­ple need. No new pres­i­dent can do this for the labor move­ment—they can only remove some bar­ri­ers to make it eas­i­er for the move­ment to do it for itself.

Biden looks strong in the polls, but there is no cer­tain­ty about what lies ahead. Few union lead­ers want to engage seri­ous­ly with the ques­tion of what hap­pens if Trump wins. The answer is always some vari­a­tion of “Just keep fight­ing.” But anoth­er four years of Trump would be grim, and sur­viv­ing it would require a fero­cious turn toward rad­i­cal­ism. After 2016, some fac­tions of the union world toyed with the the­o­ry that the way to meet the moment was to cater to the minor­i­ty of “white work­ing class” union mem­bers who felt left behind and embraced Trump. That approach was always flawed—Trump’s base is the upper, not low­er class—and sub­se­quent events have ren­dered it a moot point. The labor move­ment has loud­ly allied itself with Black Lives Mat­ter and pledged to join the fight for social jus­tice. Liv­ing up to that pledge means mak­ing a choice to oppose Trump. If he is reelect­ed, orga­nized labor should expect to be one of many tar­gets of his vindictiveness.

All of which points to the fact that nei­ther elec­tion out­come will mean auto­mat­ic sal­va­tion for work­ing peo­ple. The past 40 years of his­to­ry demon­strate that. Con­trol of the White House has gone back and forth, but through it all, the rich have got­ten rich­er, the wages of work­ing peo­ple have stag­nat­ed, union den­si­ty has declined and labor law has remained bro­ken. The worst-case sce­nario for the labor move­ment is to see more of the same.

“I don’t real­ly look to the Democ­rats for lead­er­ship; I look to the labor move­ment,” says Sara Nel­son, the head of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Flight Atten­dants and one of labor’s most promi­nent pro­gres­sive voic­es. “And we have the pow­er to change this right now if we choose to do so. That pow­er is not an appendage of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. It’s our labor. It’s our sol­i­dar­i­ty,” she says. “As long as we out­source our pow­er to politi­cians, we are nev­er, ever going to get what work­ing peo­ple need.”

The views expressed above are the authors’ own. As a 501©3 non­prof­it, In These Times does not sup­port or oppose can­di­dates for polit­i­cal office.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 22, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for 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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In California, a “Labor Slate” Aims to Redefine the Relationship Between Unions and Politics

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From union jobs to Medicare for All, this new pro-worker slate is pushing a progressive platform—and could become a model for how organized labor approaches elections.

The political influence of organized labor usually involves jockeying with other interest groups that are trying to sway Democratic politicians. In recent decades, this dynamic has achieved mixedresults, at best. In California, one group of union activists is now trying to take a more direct approach: forming a “Labor Slate” of candidates, in what they hope will become a model for future election cycles.

Centered in the Bay Area, the idea for the Labor Slate effort began germinating last summer. Gaelan Ash, an AFSCME staffer and one of the Labor Slate’s organizers, said that even in progressive Northern California, “It’s a pain in the ass going up against so-called progressive politicians” who do not end up prioritizing the needs of the working class. “There are so many amazing labor leaders who would make better politicians,” he said. “[We realized] we need to make this much more about building an organization that’s membership based and rooted in labor.”

The project came together in full force earlier this year, taking advantage of the fact that everyone had more free time after the pandemic struck. Now, Labor Slate is an established organization with a full platform and a slate of six candidates—three of whom are running for City Council in the East Bay city of Hayward, and three who are running for various board positions in other Bay Area cities. Organizers say that they made the strategic choice to only back candidates who are running in nonpartisan races this November, in order to avoid an immediate clash with the established political parties. If all goes well, they hope to scale up to partisan races like those for California State Assembly in four to six years.

Labor Slate is funded by member dues of $5 a month. The group is not formally allied with any unions, but draws on the interest of true believers in the labor movement. All of the candidates the group nominates must agree to its platform, which was developed by an internal working group. The platform emphasizes union jobs, affordable housing, Medicare for All, public education and transportation, as well as increasing taxes on the rich. Jon Ezell, the group’s recording secretary and an ILWU member who works at San Francisco’s recently unionized Anchor Brewing Company, said that the platform committee had the advantage of having input from union members working directly on many of the issues—when discussing healthcare, for example, union nurses were in the room. The group’s platform, Ezell said, is intentionally broad, so that candidates can “fill in the gaps” based on local conditions.

Anchor Brewing’s union drive drew public support from elected officials in San Francisco. That opened Ezell’s eyes to the potential for building union power through electoral politics. “You can help people unionize,” he said, “or you can change the environment they unionize in.”

One of the Labor Slate’s candidates is Eduardo Torres, who is running for a board seat in the Ambrose Recreation and Park District in Bay Point, where he’s lived for 41 years. Torres is a longtime activist and organizer with Tenants Together, which promotes affordable housing and tenants’ rights in California. (The other five candidates are also members of unions or labor groups in the area). “I am part of the working class. We have elected officials that don’t look back at the community that helped get them elected,” Torres said. “We’re sick of our elected officials not doing what they should be doing, which is helping low income and working people.”

Though Labor Slate is a new and relatively small group, it has the advantage of being rich with trained organizers. Dozens of union locals are already represented in its membership. If it can find success with its first crop of candidates in November, it can lay claim to being a legitimate new model for union members to engage with local politics. Its promise is not just in who it gets elected, but in the potential for building a labor-centric approach to elections that sits outside of the Democratic Party—which has, on a national scale at least, largely come to take union support for granted.

For Torres, who grew up in a union household, the advantage of the Labor Slate is not just the phone banking and door-knocking it brings to his campaign, but also a sense of mutual accountability between candidate and cause. “It helps me see the bigger picture,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to be done. And it will be done by the working class.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 2, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for 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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