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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 [email protected]


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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 [email protected]


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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 [email protected]


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Labor Movement in Tucson Demands Freedom for Mexican Labor Attorney

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Susana Prieto Terrazas, a Mexican attorney and activist who organizes workers in the maquiladora factories along the southern border, was arrested by Mexican authorities last month on trumped-up charges. On June 10, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka (UMWA) called her arrest “an outrage” and demanded her immediate and unconditional release from prison.

Members of the Pima Area Labor Federation and Jobs With Justice took direct action. They delivered a joint letter to the Mexican Consulate in Tucson, Arizona, along with a letter from the UAW and a copy of Trumka’s statement. The members met with Consul Enrique Alfonso Gómez Montiel, who assured them he would send the letters and statement to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Prior to the meeting, the members had a constructive conversation with the consul’s staff explaining the details of the situation and the desire of America’s labor movement to see the release of Prieto Terrazas.

It was announced after the meeting at the consulate on July 1 that a judge had ordered her release from prison just hours after the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement on trade went into effect. However, the criminal charges against Prieto Terrazas still remain. The Pima Area Labor Federation, under the leadership of Chair Trish Muir (IBT), posted an update on Facebook: “We will continue to push for her to be absolved of these erroneous claims, and stand with workers everywhere.”

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on July 13, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Aaron Gallant is a contributor for AFL-CIO.


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Tammy Johnson Leads Wyoming’s Labor Movement, Fighting for Struggling Workers and the Unemployed

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With the Wyoming Legislature scheduled to begin an emergency session later this week, Wyoming State AFL-CIO Executive Secretary Tammy Johnson (USW) is taking the lead fighting for workers in her home state. Policymakers are considering a bill that includes three major components: unemployment insurance (UI), workers’ compensation and rent relief. The UI provisions would hold employers harmless as the state provides additional money to cover the increase in UI claims, and the rent relief portion would provide additional eviction protections for tenants.

However, Johnson and the state federation are working to change the state’s workers’ compensation system so that all front-line workers who get infected will be presumed to have been infected on the job. Currently, most employers are exempted from the state’s workers’ compensation system unless their employees are performing “extra hazardous” jobs. Johnson said legislators were surprised to learn that many grocery store workers in Wyoming would not be eligible for compensation under the proposed legislation.

“We have to have some kind of protection in place for workers,” she explained. “If they don’t have health care because their hours have been cut to part time and they can’t take unemployment because there’s work available, then they’ll have to go to work sick. You would not want sick grocery store workers to be in the stores.”

Johnson was also appointed by Gov. Mark Gordon to be on the Business and Financial Sector Task Force that is providing policy recommendations for reopening Wyoming’s economy. She said that one of the local unions she has helped is United Steelworkers (USW) Local 13214, whose members mine soda ash. Working with her colleagues on the task force and the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, she helped ensure that those USW members who were placed on furlough wouldn’t be penalized by the UI system for drawing on their pensions or for taking a “voluntary” furlough. “The challenge going forward is to educate everyone that all workers contributed to these systems and we have to modernize thinking about compensation packages,” she said.

“The backbone of Wyoming is exposed right now. Big corporations are keeping us in the shade, but it’s the workers who keep these companies up and running,” Johnson explained. “Companies may leave, but the workers are still going to be here, and they are the people who make up our communities….COVID-19 has made it clear where the strength in our economy is: It’s with the workers.”

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on May 14, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Aaron Gallant is a contributor for AFL-CIO.


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More Than 1,200 IBEW Members Call on Union Leadership to Retract Biden Endorsement

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On February 5, the 775,000-member International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers announced that it was endorsing Joe Biden for president. It was Biden’s biggest union endorsement campaign so far in his presidential campaign. This week, nearly 1,300 IBEW members who support Bernie Sanders sent a letter to union membership asking them to retract that decision.

The letter, from “IBEW Members For Bernie,” blasts the union’s leadership for endorsing Biden without a vote of members. “The leadership of the union had previously provided reassurance to the membership that they would trust the judgement of rank-and-file leaders and members to  represent their own interest in the 2020 presidential primary, and we are disappointed that the International has instead thrown their weight behind the Biden campaign without member consultation,” it reads. The letter says that those who sign it support Sanders’ “transformative vision for expanding the labor movement, as well as the democracy and the solidarity that his campaign embodies.” It concludes, “We are calling on the International Officers to immediately retract their endorsement and call for the rank-and-file to participate in a democratic endorsement process by participating in an in person vote at their March local union meeting.”

It is signed by more than 1,200 IBEW members from across the country, including dozens who identify themselves as officers or members of the executive boards of their locals. Signatures were still being added as of Monday night.

The existence of the letter is a result of the work of Sanders supporters within the IBEW, who began circulating it online and within local chapters shortly after the endorsement was announced. Mark Gardner, an engineer in Manchester, Connecticut and member of IBEW Local 457 who helped to organize the letter, said that it came in response to not just a disagreement over candidates, but also over the union’s undemocratic process. “I have been frustrated with the trend of union leadership’s endorsing the establishment candidates while rank and file votes generally go for Senator Sanders,” Gardner said. “We do not want IBEW leadership to switch their endorsement to Bernie, but to open the choice up to the rank-and-file and hold a vote during the local unions’ March meeting.”

Another Sanders supporter, Joe Ellerbroek, a member of IBEW Local 347 in Des Moines, Iowa, echoed those sentiments. “I was outraged when I learned what the international had done. I felt there was too much at stake to just ignore it and hope for the best, especially when we have this rare opportunity to transform the whole dynamic of the labor struggle. Turns out I wasn’t the only one,” he said.

For Biden, whose campaign is flagging after disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, union endorsements are a key firewall against charges that the platform of “Middle Class Joe” is not the most attractive for the working class. Biden has been endorsed by the firefighters union, the Iron Workers, and the Amalgamated Transit Union, but the 775,00-member IBEW is his biggest prize. The union did not endorse a candidate this early in the past two Democratic primaries. “It’s not typical for the IBEW to endorse this early in the primary process,” the union said in its endorsement, “but this year there’s an urgency we haven’t seen in a very long time. Energy policies made today will reverberate for decades, and it’s paramount that we have a candidate for president who supports IBEW jobs and IBEW values.” The IBEW has been publicly skeptical of the Green New Deal, the ambitious climate change plan that Sanders, but not Biden, has backed.

Neither the IBEW nor the Biden campaign responded to a request for comment on the letter.

In organized labor, as in society at large, the 2020 Democratic primary is exposing the deep, latent divide between the left and the establishment. The IBEW is not even the first union in the past week to experience an intra-union uproar pitting progressives against moderates—members of Unite Here who back Bernie Sanders circulated a similar internal letter for signatures last week after the Culinary Workers union in Las Vegas warned its members in ominous terms that Bernie Sanders wanted to “end” their health care plan. Already, both national and local unions are choosing sides in what amounts to a proxy war for the soul of the Democratic party. The ability of factions like the IBEW Members for Bernie to successfully exercise power against much more conservative union leadership will determine the posture of the entire labor movement long after the 2020 election is over.

Read the full letter here.

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 18, 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 [email protected].


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Over the Last Week, At Least 85,000 Workers Were Out on 13 Different Strikes

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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 485,000 U.S. workers were involved in strikes and lockouts during 2018. That’s the highest number since 1986. The data for 2019 won’t be released until 2020, but there’s a good chance that number will be exceeded, a point driven home by the fact that, over the last week, at least 85,000 workers participated in 13 different strikes across the United States.

The crest of the strike wave has primarily been ridden by school workers. About 26,000 Chicago teachers have now been on strike for 12 days, demanding that Mayor Lori Lightfoot be held accountable for her campaign promise to bolster support staff and decrease class size. The work stoppage has now lasted longer than the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) 2012 strike, which ended up sparking its own strike wave.

“Hundreds of CTU members showed up for the Wisconsin uprising of 2010,” Chicago activist and striking teacher Kenzo Shibata told In These Times. “We learned what was possible and we continued organizing for our 2012 strike. Educators in West Virginia, Los Angeles, Oklahoma and Arizona cited us as inspiration for their strikes. The Solidarity is contagious. They’ve passed back that inspiration and we’re here as a boost of momentum to this teacher strike wave.”

On October 17, about 8,000 CPS staff workers in the city also went on strike, represented by SEIU Local 73, with union leaders reaching a tentative agreement with the city on October 27, which members still have to vote on. Workers are not back at school, however, as CPS remains shut down by the CTU strike.

In a show of solidarity, the local Teamsters union is refusing to cross the picket lines to make deliveries. “We stand behind the teachers union 100% and believe they should fight for every form of benefits and relief for the children they are seeking,” Teamsters Local 705 official Juan Campos told the Chicago Tribune.

In Mendota, Illinois, about 2 hours away from Chicago, 76 elementary school teachers went on strike October 16, looking for wages that are comparable to their neighboring districts. Classes resumed October 28 after members of the Mendota Education Association ratified an agreement.

In Dedham, Massachusetts, hundreds of teachers dealt the state its first teachers’ strike in 12 years, voting on October 24 to approve a walkout by a vote of 258-2. Teachers walked out the next day in defiance of a state order, as it’s actually illegal for public employees to strike in Massachusetts. The teachers had been working without a contract for over a year—and had attempted to negotiate one for almost two. They were looking for stronger health insurance and a contract that addresses sexual harassment.

“Right now there is a movement of workers across the country who are taking back their power at a scale we have not seen in recent memory,” tweeted Independent Vermont Senator and presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders on October 25. “I stand with educators in Dedham, Massachusetts. This takes courage.”

On October 27, it was announced that a tentative deal had been reached, and school resumed the next day. Details of the new agreement have not yet been released.

The teachers’ strike wave is also hitting the West Coast. On October 21, dozens of teachers called out sick in Berkeley, California—some of them doing so as part of wildcat strike that was unauthorized by their union, the Berkeley Federation of Teachers. The teachers have been working on an expired contract since the summer. “It was good old-fashioned organizing. It happened through the whisper network,” history teacher Alice Bynum told a local paper. They’re back at work now.

The current strike wave is certainly not limited to teachers. About two dozen sanitation workers for Republic Services in Marshfield, Massachusetts, have been on strike since August 29. They’re demanding affordable health care and a living wage. Teamsters 25, the union that represents the employees, cites Economic Policy Institute data which shows that the workers with one child are making 40% less than the state’s living wage. Republic Services’ biggest single shareholder is billionaire Bill Gates, who makes $100 million annually off dividends from his shares. Last month, two dozen of the striking workers protested outside of a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gala in New York City, holding signs that read, “Bill Gates treats kids like trash.” Striking employee Bernard Egan-Mulligan told New York Daily News, “We’re here because Bill Gates is a 32% stockholder in our company. We figure our shareholders would like to know what’s going on.”

The workers have now extended the strike into Indiana, as more than 70 Republic workers in Evansville have joined the picket line.

At least 50 bus drivers in northern Virginia, represented by Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, are on strike in response to their garage being privatized as some of their services are now being contracted out. They’ve been fighting for a new collective bargaining agreement for months.

Around 1,700 ASARCO copper workers are on strike in Arizona, angry about pension freezes, health insurance costs, and a lack of raises. “For the past nine years, these workers haven’t seen a pay raise,” Teamsters Local 104 secretary-treasurer Karla Schumann told NPR. “They’re working in some of the most difficult and dangerous conditions out there, and it’s just unfathomable and untenable to do that to these guys.”

Roughly 75 workers at the luxury Battery Wharf Hotel in Boston are also on strike. UNITE HERE Local 26, who represents the workers, says its members are looking for higher wages, better pensions, protection for immigrant employees, and sexual harassment prevention. Earlier this month, the English singer-songwriter and activist Billy Bragg headlined a rally in support of the workers. “The strike at the Battery Wharf Hotel goes to the very heart of the problems in our society,” Bragg told Boston Magazine. “Working people feel they no longer have any agency over their lives.”

About 700 Service workers in Santa Clara County, California have been on strike since October 2. SEIU 521 filed more than 15 complaints of unfair labor practices leading up to the strike. In addition to complaints about poor working conditions, employees are upset with the decision to move the San Jose Family Resource Center, as well as an allegedly unsafe environment for children at the Receiving, Assessment and Intake Center.

On October 27, more than 50 fast food workers at Oregon’s Burgerville chain ended a 4-day strike after the company agreed to continue negotiations with the employees. The workers have been agitating for a living wage for the last 18 months.

The longest auto workers strike in 50 year just ended with 49,000 United Auto Workers (UAW) members returning to General Motors on October 26. The employees were able to secure small raises, partially phase out a “two-tier” wage structure, and win a better process for temporary workers to become permanent, but potential fallout and further unrest looms as the agreement includes plans to close down three factories.

Tim O’Hara is President of UAW Local 1112, where the Lordstown, Ohio plant is set to close. He told the local news that he felt betrayed by the vote. “We just wanted them to remember that what happened to us can happen to them ’cause there’s nothing in this contract that stops GM from showing up unannounced at their plant the Monday after Thanksgiving—for example, like they did to us—and telling them they’re done,” he said.

The new General Motors contract was announced just a day after over 3,600 UAW-represented workers at Mack Trucks ended a two-week strike as a result of a tentative agreement being reached.

More work stoppages could be on the horizon. Teaching assistants in Decatur, Illinois are set to strike for a new contract. About 4,000 mental health clinicians across 100 Kaiser Permanente facilities could go on strike in November over staffing shortages, and the Little Rock Educators Association has set up a fund in the event of a “collective job action.” At a recent meeting, Little Rock Education Association President Teresa Knapp Gordon said teachers didn’t want to strike, but they were prepared for anything if their current contract is allowed to expire. That’s the last thing we want to do,” she said, “But you can bet your bottom dollar that if that is what it takes to make sure our children are protected, then that’s what we will do.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on October 28, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements.


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Today Amazon, Tomorrow the Railroad Industry: The Fight for $15 Rolls On

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After being called out by labor activists and progressive politicians like Bernie Sanders for paying poverty wages despite receiving tax breaks and raking in billions of dollars, Amazon has caved to the pressure and announced it will offer all its workers a $15-per-hour minimum wage starting next month. Now, a new coalition of workers and community leaders is taking aim at another major player in the logistics industry: the railroads.

Class I railroads like CSX, Norfolk Southern and BNSF benefit from billions in taxpayer subsidies and are reporting high profits. Yet the people who transport their rail crews between trains, cities, hotels and homes are paid low wages and receive few benefits. To keep costs down and evade liability, the railroads use subcontractors like Hallcon and Professional Transportation Inc. (PTI) to hire their crew drivers.

On September 27, several dozen rail crew drivers with the United Electrical Workers (UE), United Steelworkers (USW), Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) and United Public Services Employees Union (UPSEU) protested outside a conference of railroad executives in downtown Chicago. The drivers and community allies are calling on the Class I railroads to implement responsible contractor policies to make companies like Hallcon and PTI pay a $15-an-hour minimum wage and offer decent benefits.

“We’re dedicated drivers out here,” said Devin Ragland, a PTI driver with USW District 7. “It’s not fair that we’re out here from sundown to sunup, running these crews back and forth where they need to go, and then we get mistreated when it comes time for pay.”

Ragland and the other drivers were joined by Cook County Commissioner and congressional candidate Jesús “Chuy” Garcia, who called for an “end to the poverty wages in the rail yards.”

“I join your voices in saying to these railroad companies that they should adopt responsible contractor policies to ensure that the prosperity that they are experiencing is shared with all of the workers in the industry,” Garcia told the drivers.

UE, USW, SMART and UPSEU represent crew drivers from coast to coast. UE has been organizing Hallcon drivers nationwide for the past several years, recently winning a union election at the company that added 650 more drivers from 8 states into the union’s ranks, bringing the total number of UE-represented drivers at the company to nearly 1,700. 

“Everywhere we go at Hallcon, people are at minimum wage or just above,” UE International Representative J Burger told In These Times.  Drivers say they earn so little that many are forced to rely on public assistance.

UE is currently negotiating a new master contract at Hallcon. Burger said the company is resisting demands for living wages, instead arguing that drivers should only get a one-time bonus or miniscule raises of between 15 to 20 cents per year.

“I’ve been told we were offered 21 cents. I can’t make a phone call with 21 cents,” driver and UE member Vickie Bogovich said on September 27. “Is that all I’m worth? I don’t think so.”

“They’re offering us pennies and we need dollars,” added Clarence Hill, a Hallcon driver who serves as Chief Steward of UE Local 1177. Hill said he is paid only $12 an hour after 8 years on the job.

The drivers are on-call at all hours of the day, required to hop in a company van at a moment’s notice to shuttle a rail crew from one location to another. Frequently, they wait hours at a time before finally getting a call. After one trip, they often have to wait several more hours for the next call, sometimes stretching their work day to 24 hours or more. Drivers are only paid for their driving time, not for the hours they spend waiting.

Burger noted this “stretch out” is not only unfair to drivers, but it also endangers the rail crews they transport, putting them at the mercy of fatigued drivers operating on little to no sleep. In contract talks, UE is fighting for on-call pay and more compact hours when the company is unable to put drivers to work. 

Additionally, the union is demanding improved benefits, including paid time off and affordable health insurance. “We’re trying to make the job something people can actually live by,” Burger told In These Times.

UE’s current contract at Hallcon was originally set to expire in August, but has been extended to October 21. Meanwhile, USW, SMART and UPSEU—which represent drivers at both Hallcon and PTI—will also see some of their current contracts expire later this fall, setting up the potential for a nationwide strike that could disrupt retail freight in time for the busy holiday shopping season.

The unions have been increasingly coordinating efforts over the past year, trying to “have a united front approach,” Burger explained. “We’re all talking about raising the standards in the industry. We’re united for the betterment of the drivers.” 

In addition to Chuy Garcia, the drivers also have the solidarity of the rail crews they shuttle. Other union workers in the railroad industry—including from the Brotherhood of the Maintenance and Way Employees and the Chicago All Rail Craft Coalition—joined Thursday’s protest.

“The labor movement was built on the simple concept that an injury to one is an injury to all,” Mark Burrows of Railroad Workers United, a coalition of rank-and-file rail workers from across North America, told the drivers. “We’re doing all that we can to educate our coworkers and get them behind this struggle.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on October 2, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke is a Working In These Times contributor based in Chicago. He has a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in labor history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was a summer 2013 editorial intern at In These Times. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke.


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