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Laborers Step Up to Provide Food Relief to Other Union Members

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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 those stories every day. Here’s today’s story.

Members of Laborers (LIUNA) Local 773 delivered fresh produce and dairy products to their union brothers, sisters and friends in Madison County, Illinois. Local 773 set up shop in the bus lot at two local school districts, where members gave out 200 boxes of produce and 250 boxes of dairy products to union families in need. “Our strength comes from the willingness to stand together as a united front,” Local 773 Business Manager Jerry Womick told the Labor Tribune. “It is this commitment to each other that has allowed us to prosper through good times and preserve through bad.”

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on July 16, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Celebrating Juneteenth, Labor Finds Its Voice for Racial Justice

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In work stoppages, rallies, motorcades and a spectacular West Coast port shutdown, labor tied itself to the movement in the streets.

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—The enormous white stone arch in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza is a memorial to the Union’s victory in the Civil War. Confederate monuments are toppling across the country, but the arch is only getting more popular. At 11:30 on a hot Juneteenth morning, Kyle Bragg stands in its shade, wearing a red T-shirt, a New York Knicks-branded face mask, and a purple hat with the logo of 32BJ SEIU, the 175,000-member union that he leads.

“My son is 25, and my daughter is 29. I worry every single time they’re out of the house,” says Bragg, a Black man who has spent decades as a labor leader. “The most important conversation I had with them when they were young was not about sex or drugs. It was about how to deal with the police.” 

The uprisings that have swept America this month are spontaneous, massive and often leaderless, and the structured world of unions initially seemed puzzled as to how to react. The burning of the AFL-CIO’s headquarters in the early days of the protests was symbolic of the disconnect between organized labor and the streets. But as the days went by, labor rallied to the cause. In the week leading up to Juneteeth, the June 19 holiday commemorating the end of slavery, it seemed unions found their voice.

The ILWU, the longshoremen’s union, spectacularly shut down West Coast ports on Juneteenth. United Auto Workers nationwide stopped work for eight minutes and 46 seconds in honor of George Floyd. The AFL-CIO’s headquarters, boarded up but newly festooned with “Black Lives Matter” banners, became a staging ground for marches and rallies. The labor federation organized a set of coordinated “Workers First Caravan” events across the country on Wednesday, June 17, with union members driving around in cars covered in signs demanding racial and economic justice.

It was not quite the socialist dream of melding labor’s class war with the movement for racial justice into one big, huge, perfect revolution, but it was something. It was an effort by organized labor to publicly tie its fate to that of the people marching in the streets, many of whom have no connection to unions. It was a start. 

And in New York City, 32BJ—a union whose purple shirts and hats and banners are familiar to anyone who has been to any protest for economic justice in the city in the past decade—held protests for the entire week. On Tuesday, union members took a collective knee near Rockefeller Center, in honor of the 30th anniversary of SEIU’s “Justice for Janitors” strike in which Los Angeles police infamously beat and injured workers. And on Friday, Juneteenth itself, 32BJ gathered in Brooklyn for a motorcade that would wind through the city, all the way up to the Bronx, a purple river flowing through a landscape of anti-racism rallies citywide. 

The pre-motorcade rally began just before noon at the Grand Army Plaza arch. Three children were assigned to hold up a green banner reading “JUNETEENTH DRIVE TO JUSTICE,” which kept drooping in the middle as the kids’ attention strayed. Assorted local officials had shown up to pay homage to the day, and to the union, and to the assembled media. The twist-the-knife ethos of New York City politics has been heightened by the weeks of uprisings, and the politicians who consider themselves the philosophical brethren of the protesters are enjoying their sudden moment of advantage against the entrenched powers. Jumaane Williams, the public advocate, gave an obligatory nod to the city’s new ban on police chokeholds, but made a point of not crediting city leaders.

“The only reason that’s happening is because the streets have been hot,” he said. “I know the governor said you won and you don’t have to protest any more. Nothing could be further from the truth!”

When 32BJ president Kyle Bragg’s turn came at the podium, he pulled his Knicks mask down to his chin. “It’s our mission to provide economic justice—but there is no economic justice without social justice,” he said. “There’s a triple threat. There’s an economic crisis. There’s a pandemic. And now there’s a racial crisis.” 

As he was speaking, the microphone abruptly cut off; despite frantic effort, it could not be revived. All fell silent. But after a moment, someone handed Bragg a megaphone. He held it up to his mouth, and carried on.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 20, 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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Know Your Rights to Paid Leave and Unemployment During the COVID-19 Crisis

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On March 18 Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), in part to discourage layoffs and in part to guarantee paid leave to workers who need to stay home due to the COVID-19 emergency. On March 27 Congress enacted the CARES Act to expand unemployment insurance eligibility and benefits. Both laws expire on December 31, 2020, unless extended.

What follows is a selection of questions relating to the new laws. Please note that this is a complicated and rapidly changing area. Although the U.S. Department of Labor has issued several regulations and guides, aspects of the programs remain hazy.

Moreover, enforcement is likely to be slow and spotty, as a poorly staffed federal Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor appears unable to effectively oversee the leave program and state UI agencies claim to be overwhelmed by the crush of applications. Union workers should always review their contracts to see if they have stronger protections.

1. Business shut down due to COVID-19 emergency

Q. Our governor has ordered nonessential retail businesses to close temporarily due to the COVID-19 emergency. My employer, a department store, has issued over 300 layoff notices. Can I collect unemployment insurance (UI) benefits though I only worked there for a week?

A. Yes. The CARES Act awards UI benefits to workers who are laid off, temporarily furloughed, or reduced in hours due to the COVID-19 emergency–even if they have a sparse wage history. Most states pay approximately 50 percent of wages up to a maximum amount that varies significantly around the country. Some add more for dependents.

The CARES Act adds $600 to weekly UI benefits between March 27 and July 31, 2020—even if this raises benefit checks above a claimant’s regular pay. UI payments are taxable.

2. Quit due to COVID-19 safety concerns

Q. I work in a supermarket in close contact with customers and co-workers. Social distancing is impossible. Management has not responded to our complaints about the lack of proper protective equipment. Two workers have contracted COVID-19. If I quit because of the virus risk, could I qualify for unemployment insurance?

A. Possibly. The CARES Act grants UI eligibility to an employee “who has to quit his or her job as a direct result of COVID-19.” Although the Act does not elaborate, the entitlement would appear to apply to a worker who stops work because of a reasonable concern of contracting the virus. A state UI official will ultimately decide.

Tip: Put your resignation in writing, making sure to explain your fears.

3. Paid sick leave during self-quarantine

Q. My doctor has told me to self-quarantine for two weeks due to COVID-19 symptoms. Does my employer have to grant me paid leave for the absence?

A. Yes, unless you are a health care provider or an emergency responder or work for an employer with 500 or more employees (see questions 5 and 6 below).

Under the FFCRA a full-time worker who needs to quarantine due to COVID-19, or who is experiencing symptoms of the virus and seeking a diagnosis, is entitled to up to 80 hours of paid sick leave at a rate of up to $511 per day over a two-week period. Part-timers are entitled to pay on a pro-rata basis. The employer is reimbursed dollar-for-dollar through tax credits from the federal government.

You cannot be required to use other accrued benefits, such as paid vacation or sick leave, in place of FFCRA leave. Nor can you be required to make up the time.

Your employer must continue paying for group health coverage during your leave. If your workplace has 25 or more employees, you must be restored to your regular job or an equivalent position (unless a layoff affecting you has transpired).

Your employer can deny paid leave if 1) you decline an offer of telework, or 2) there is no work available. In the latter event, you would qualify for UI benefits.

After two weeks, if you continue in quarantine, or if you are still experiencing COVID-19 symptoms (but are not severely ill), you may file for benefits from your state UI agency.

Note: You are also entitled to paid leave to care for a family member or other person with whom you have a relationship who is subject to a quarantine order or is advised by a physician to self-quarantine. Your rate will be two-thirds of your regular pay up to a maximum of $1,000 per week.

Note: Workers requesting paid sick leave under the FFCRA must give notice to their employer as soon as is practicable after the first day missed, providing the name of the health care provider who issued the stay-at-home advisory.

4. Paid childcare leave

Q. My ten-year-old child’s school has closed due to the COVID-19 crisis and I must be home to care for her. Does my boss have to provide me with paid time off?

A. Yes. You are covered by the FFCRA if you have worked 30 days or longer for your employer and you are not in one of the Act’s exempt categories (see questions 5 and 6 below). Eligible employees are entitled to 12 weeks of protected paid time off if a child’s school or daycare center closes due to the COVID-19 crisis and no other parent or usual childcare provider is available.

The pay rate for workers taking childcare leave under the FFCRA is two-thirds of regular pay up to a maximum of $200 per day. You may supplement your check up to your regular earnings with other available paid leave such as sick or vacation pay. Leaves may be taken intermittently—up to a total of 12 weeks—if your employer agrees. Your employer may not take adverse action against you because of your time-off request.

Your weeks out of work will count against your annual 12-week Family and Medical Leave (FMLA) entitlement. If your employer violates your leave rights, you may file a complaint with the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor.

A worker whose request for childcare leave is denied may apply for UI benefits. UI benefits may also be available if you need more than 12 weeks time off. You cannot collect UI benefits for any weeks that you receive paid leave.

5. Employers can refuse leave requests from health care providers

Q. I am a hospital nurse. My child’s regular caregiver cannot come to my home because of the COVID-19 virus. Am I entitled to paid time off?

A. This is a sore point. To guarantee the availability of medical personnel, the FFCRA allows covered employers, public and private, large and small, to deny COVID-related sick and caregiver leave to persons who serve as “health care providers.” A similar federal law (the FMLA) restricts this term to physicians and other professionals qualified to issue medical diagnosis. According to the Labor Department, however, for purposes of FFCRA leave the phrase includes everyone employed by a hospital, clinic, nursing home, pharmacy, medical products manufacturer, or other similar institution. Consequently, your hospital can refuse your request.

Note: A hospital employee whose request for a COVID-related caregiver leave is denied can stop work and file for UI benefits under the CARES Act. The possible downside is that the employee may lose his or her rights to paid health insurance and reemployment.

6. Large employers can refuse leaves

Q. We work for General Motors. Are we entitled to sick and caregiver leaves under the FFCRA?

A. Surprisingly, no. Congress excluded private employers with 500 or more employees (across all facilities) from the FFCRA, supposedly to prevent such employers from claiming the Act’s tax credits.

7. Public employees

Q. Are state workers entitled to paid sick and childcare leaves under the FFCRA?

A. Yes. The FFCRA applies to all state and local government agencies and many, but not all, federal agencies.

8. Small employers and paid leave

Q. I work for a private social service agency with 12 employees. Does the agency have to approve FFCRA leaves?

A. Yes, with one exception. An employer with less than 50 employees can deny a COVID-19 child care leave if the employee’s absence would prevent the employer from working at minimum capacity or would cause expenses to exceed its revenues.

9. Workplace closes during caregiver leave

Q. I am in the midst of a 12-week FFCRA leave to care for my children. If my company closes its workplace during my absence, can it stop paying me?

A. Yes. Pay to a COVID-related leavetaker can be halted if the employer closes its doors or otherwise has no work available. You would then be able to apply for UI benefits.

10. Independent contractors and UI benefits

Q. I drive for Uber. Due to COVID-19, rides have dried up all over the city. Where I used to pull in $1,200 a week, I now make less than $200. Can I file for UI?

A. Yes. The CARES Act allows self-employed persons, including independent contractors and “gig” workers, whose incomes have dried up due to the COVID-19 crisis to file for total or partial UI benefits through December 26, 2020. Successful claimants will receive their regular weekly rate plus the $600 bonus through July 31, 2020. You will have to document or otherwise certify your income loss.

But note: Many state agencies are delaying decisions on claims from self-employed persons until they can make changes in their claims verification system. When approved, however, your benefits should be retroactive to the first week you lost work due to COVID-19.

11. Part-time workers and UI benefits

Q. I was working part-time when my employer ceased operations due to the COVID crisis. Do I have to look for full-time work to receive UI benefits?

A. No. The CARES Act allows persons out of work because of the COVID crisis to limit their job search to part-time work.

12. Undocumented workers and UI benefits

Q. Can undocumented immigrants file for UI benefits due to the COVID-19 public health emergency?

A. No. Although undocumented workers are deemed essential in some industries, they are still excluded from UI programs.

This article first appeared in Labor Notes.

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 21, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Robert M. Schwartz is a retired union-side labor lawyer and author of several Labor Notes books, including The Legal Rights of Union Stewards, The FMLA Handbook, and Just Cause: A Union Guide to Winning Discipline Cases. Ordering information is at labornotes.org for when our online store reopens.


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We Need the Labor Movement To Organize Worker Fightback in the Face of the COVID-19 Crisis

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Life-and-death circumstances are being imposed on U.S. workplaces and workers are increasingly responding by standing up, fighting back and walking out, but frequently without the support of organized labor. Unions have a choice right now: Hunker down and try to ride out the COVID-19 storm or put our shoulders to the task of assisting workers in their fight to either improve conditions on the job or shut their workplaces down. If unions seize the moment, we can not only improve the immediate situation for millions of workers but also create a wave that changes our society greatly for the better, organizes many new workers into unions and forges a generation of workplace leaders who will be able to build fighting organizations for years to come.

With the enhanced unemployment benefits currently in place and with real fears surrounding just showing up for work every day, workers have the upper hand. Employers need them much more than the other way around. Workers who learn how to use collective action to shut a workplace down or to force management to yield to their safety and compensation demands will not soon forget those lessons.

The immediate need of workers at this moment is not a comprehensive list of demands but rather three basic principles that speak to their survival needs.

  • Fight to make employers shut down all workplaces except those truly critical to sustaining life until the public health crisis has been controlled.
  • Give workers in those critical jobs everything they need to do their work safely and compensate them for the immense risk they are taking.
  • Provide robust economic support for everyone else to allow and incentivize them to stay home.

Likewise, rather than an attempt to plan a national coordinated set of actions that would likely be joined by only a smattering of already-committed activists, what is needed instead is to help large numbers of workers gain the tools they need to lead fights at their workplaces.

Out of these fights the workers will develop the demands they need to protect themselves. And each of these fights, if given the proper direction and support, can inspire solidarity throughout the country and move many other workers into action, creating the conditions not only for more workplace victories but also to produce political pressures that force the federal government to address the needs of working people.

While the relief packages passed by Congress so far provide some economic support to laid-off workers, much more is needed, including to address all those left out, not least the undocumented. Congress must also act to provide health care to all given that millions more will now be without insurance due to the loss of their jobs. Already, a number of excellent proposals address these issues. Getting workers into motion is going to be the way to win them, just as widespread worker unrest in the 1930s won the relief programs and labor rights that workers needed then.

To organize the worker fightback needed right now, unions should:

•       Aggressively promote these principles, both to their own members and to the unorganized, and then provide workers the help they need to take on their employers.

•       Provide basic toolkits on their websites to educate workers on their rights and to outline for them the initial steps in self-organization and taking their demands to the boss.

•       Make union staff available to provide guidance and facilitate needed support.

•       Recruit labor leaders and member activists committed to solidarity actions that produce immediate pressure on the relevant corporate or political targets.

•       Create new and robust structures for coordinating effective solidarity.

Our union, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), has called on all workers, both our members and nonunion workers, to stand up and fight. We have created online resources to help nonunion workers take action to win safe workplaces. We have published a special issue of UE Steward on how to organize members around COVID-19 issues in the workplace. Alongside the Democratic Socialists of America we are launching a joint effort called the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, which will provide organizing and logistical support to workers who are ready to take on their boss. Our members, both in organized shops and in workplaces where we have organizing campaigns, are winning concessions from their employers through militant and creative tactics.

Now is the time for all labor organizations committed to forging a better society for working people to step up and help launch workers into the kinds of fights needed to win that future. UE is committed to doing just that, and to work with and support all others who do so. We see some others in the labor movement doing likewise, but not nearly enough. We call on all labor unions to join us in this fight.

This blog was originally published at InTheseTimes on April 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Carl Rosen is the UE General President. Andrew Dinkelaker is the UE General Secretary-Treasurer. Gene Elk is the UE Director of Organization.


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The Culinary Workers Run Vegas. The Politicians Are Just Visiting.

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It was the politicians that turned the picket line chaotic. Not the workers. The workers knew just what they were doing. Hundreds and hundreds of them, in their red Culinary Union T-shirts, stretched out down West Flamingo Road in front of the Palms Casino, just off the Vegas Strip last Wednesday. They marched a few hundred yards and back in an orderly if boisterous circle, guided by a battalion of bullhorn-wielding chant leaders. They’d done this before.

Then the presidential candidates showed up.

One by one, each taking their turn in the spotlight, and each accompanied by a seething scrum of press, they plowed their way down the the picket line like speedboats slicing through a river. Cameramen walking backwards tripped over curbs; microphone-waving reporters bumped into strikers; union staffers had to join arms and form human shields around the more popular candidates, just to keep the march moving. Some of the candidates, like Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, looked natural, familiar with the rhythm of pickets. Others, like Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden, looked awkward and nervous, pale, spectral wonks in white Oxford shirts dropped into a seething horde of humanity and forced to carry “No Justice, No Peace” signs, unable to quite pull off the angry working-class look. And some, like Tom Steyer, accompanied by a single staffer and ignored by most of the press, just looked happy to be invited. (Bernie Sanders was conspicuously absent.)

But all of them, one after the other, messed up the flow of the picket line. Their presence was something to be tolerated. This was all part of a system that has been perfected over decades. The reporters come to trail the politicians. The politicians come to pay homage to the Culinary Union. The Culinary Union puts them all to use by marching them up and down a picket line for a fight against Station Casinos, a grinding fight that has been dragging on for years and years.

For a few days, the national spotlight is here in Las Vegas, for the Nevada Caucus. But after the spotlight moves on, the Culinary Union and its 60,000 workers will still be here, trying to win contracts in the face of criminal intransigence, trying to pull thousands of working people into the middle class through sheer force of solidarity and stubbornness. It is this dynamic that always gets twisted in the whirlwind of the national media around a presidential election. The union does not exist to serve the politicians. The politicians exist to serve the union. The union has built a wondrous machine to ensure that it stays that way.

That machine is a simple virtuous circle. It begins and ends with organizing, which never stops. Organizing is propelled by the fact that the union demonstrably improves the lives of its members. Building that array of member benefits, from health care to pay to job protections to a training academy to discounts on rental cars, never stops either. These things provide a large number of extremely engaged people. The union can offer the support of this motivated and well-organized force to politicians who back the union’s goals. These union members can do everything from phone bank to flier to knock on doors to produce screaming rallies on short notice. Their support is highly prized, and their opposition is feared. The political allies they earn help to clear the omnipresent political obstacles to more organizing, and the cycle continues.

The Culinary Union has spent more than 80 years becoming what it is today, which is one of America’s most effective social and economic justice organizations. Its members are mostly women and mostly Latino. They work in casinos, making the food, cleaning the rooms, serving the drinks, doing the laundry, carrying the bags. They are the work force that makes Las Vegas run, and the members of that work force have middle class wages and health insurance and job protections and the backing of local and state and national elected officials as a direct result of the work of the union. The Culinary Union operates in the heart of the most gilded industry in an unnatural city built of money, and it is the one and only reason why the people who do the work of that industry are not exploited to the hilt.

They have pulled off this feat with their cycle of organizing, improving people’s lives and exercising political power. Never is this method more evident than during Nevada caucus week, when it is put on display for the entire world. This year, it came with more than a little extra drama.

The union’s headquarters is a squat, sprawling two-story white concrete building just north of the Vegas Strip, in the shadow of the Stratosphere spire, with “In Solidarity We Will Win!” emblazoned in red on its wall. The visitors who pass through the lobby on an average weekday morning provide a sampling of the union’s sprawling operations. A young woman dragging two wayward toddlers is checking on a grievance. Workers are here to sign up for job training. A team of Steyer staffers wants to know if Tom can come in and talk. Someone from the Mexican embassy would like to set up a meeting.

In back, a warren of cubicles had been cleared out for volunteer get-out-the-vote phone banking, which continued for a solid week before the February 21 caucuses. It was the least combative phone banking I’ve ever witnessed—not a grumble from anyone who picked up the phone, after they heard it was the union calling.

Marc Morgan, a middle-aged bellman at the D Hotel and six-year member of the union, sat patiently dialing from a list, telling callees the time of the caucus (Saturday at 10 a.m.) and the exact location of their caucus site at their workplace. He reminded them to get permission from their supervisors and to alert a shop steward if the supervisors illegally refused. Within an hour, at least a half dozen people who were not planning to caucus—including one who said, “Caucus? What does that mean?”—promised to turn out. Multiply that by many people calling for many hours for many days, and you start to get a sense of why the Culinary Union is a sought-after political ally for Democrats. Thousands more members voted early as well, another process the union encourages and supervises.

Morgan, a shop steward, is, like many union members, a practical man more than a fire-breathing ideologue. His attachment to the union was motivation enough for him to volunteer to spend hours calling fellow members, just out of a sense of duty. That attachment was rooted in personal experience. “I can see the necessity—the managers, oh my god,” he said. He had been through a bitter contract fight at his own casino in 2018, and had seen the petty retaliations that workers suffered. “Employers want to test the boundaries. They’ll continue to test those boundaries until you pull them back in. It’s like parents and children.”

Despite being coveted madly by everyone running for president, the Culinary Union did not issue an endorsement this year. The union endorsed Obama in 2008, but he lost to Hillary Clinton in Nevada anyhow. It didn’t endorse in the 2016 primaries. Much has been made in recent weeks of its spat with Bernie Sanders, which became a huge political news item after the union issued a purportedly educational flier to members warning them that Sanders, if elected, would “end Culinary healthcare”—a rather misleading characterization widely interpreted as a declaration of opposition to Medicare For All.

This mushroomed into an entire news cycle pitting the union against Sanders, and even drove a round of questioning in last week’s presidential debate. Moderate Democrats seized on the opportunity to frame their opposition to Medicare For All as a pro-union position, a development that certainly pleased the health insurance industry and drove progressives in the labor movement mad.

There was much speculation that the union decided not to endorse anyone because they were pretty sure Bernie was going to win, and they couldn’t endorse him because of the conflict they’d started, but didn’t want to endorse someone who would lose, and so decided to sit on their hands. But officially, they simply chose to endorse their own “goals.”

The conflict over this issue—within individual unions, and within organized labor as a whole—is very real. The Culinary Union runs its own healthcare center for members, and uses its healthcare benefits as a key recruiting tool in a “right to work” state. Major unions that are, in effect, in the health care business themselves have a natural level of conservatism towards change in the system. But there is also an influential portion of the labor movement that is strongly in favor of Medicare For All, not least because it would free up unions to spend their political capital on things other than health care, like better wages.

Larry Cohen, the former president of the Communications Workers of America who now leads the Sanders-affiliated group Our Revolution, says that Medicare For All would amount to a spectacular gain for unions in the long run. By bringing down administrative and pharmaceutical costs, he says, national health care would actually save employers money—money that would be funneled to workers in the form of better pay and other benefits. On top of that, there is the simple fact that freeing people from employer-based health care would allow them to be less enslaved to bad jobs.

“If you go do something else, you’re not covered!” Cohen exclaims. “Why would we possibly want to have a system where the job is what gives you the health care?”

Culinary Union members and staffers will remind you that their current health care system, which is free for members and provides care for more than 100,000 people, has been won at the cost of many years of great struggle and quite a few strikes, some of which dragged on for years. They consider it a crown jewel, and view it with pride. Yet the decision of union leadership to wade publicly and aggressively into the Medicare For All debate has put them in the position of becoming a useful talking point for for-profit health care interests. (It is much more politically palatable for conservatives to say “unions are against public health care” than “insurance companies want to maintain profits.”)

One union staffer told me, “The best way for any worker to be protected is a union contract.” That may be true, but all three million citizens of Nevada are unlikely to be in the union any time soon, and they still get sick. As Culinary Union member Marcie Wells wrote last December in a widely shared essay calling for Medicare For All, “We have to acknowledge the reality that for-profit insurance asserts that if you don’t work you deserve what you get: up to and including death. Also, sick people don’t deserve jobs.”

The other thing that should be said, however, is this: For the political left, or supporters of Bernie Sanders, to view the Culinary Union as some sort of enemy is utterly insane. The union has actually accomplished the things that the left says it wants to accomplish. There is no popular political movement that could not learn from its success. Ultimately it is incumbent on the left to bring along the Culinary and other unions on the path to Medicare For All, not vice versa. They are natural allies. Some people in the union world say privately that Bernie Sanders is on their side ideologically, but that he often fumbles or ignores the standard political business of pulling in stakeholders and listening to them before he plunges ahead on big issues that affect them. The differences between the two sides, in other words, are fixable. Fighting over such things is a waste of time, when there is still a working class that needs help.

***************

The general public typically hears about the Culinary Union in relation to electoral politics. But from the perspective of the union, electoral politics is just a means to an end. All of the famous politicians stumbling down the picket line think they are there for the sake of their own campaigns, but in fact they are there to help draw attention to a nearly decade-long union organizing campaign at Station Casinos, the company that owns the Palms and seven other casinos where workers have voted to unionize in recent years.

The company relentlessly fought the organizing campaigns. Once workers at individual Station Casinos began voting to unionize in 2016, they refused to recognize the unions, stalled on contract bargaining, and have dragged the entire mess into the bureaucratic mire of the National Labor Relations Board. Thousands of workers who should already have union contracts have been forced to continue their fight against the company for several years.

To heighten the contradictions to cartoonish levels, Station is owned by the billionaire Fertitta brothers, who got filthy rich when they sold the Ultimate Fighting Championship for $4 billion in 2016. The Fertittas have donated millions of dollars to the Trump campaign. In 2018, Frank Fertitta spent $25 million on his daughter’s wedding, complete with an appearance by Bruno Mars. Yet there seems to be no length to which they will not go to prevent their housekeepers from joining a union.

They are unsympathetic figures. A picket line feels almost polite, in relation to their conduct. At the rally at the Palms on Wednesday, flight attendant union leader Sara Nelson, who had come in support, called them “the frittata brothers.” D. Taylor, the hardboiled head of Unite Here—who, in shades, a ballcap and a faded t-shirt, resembled nothing so much as a high school baseball coach about to yell at everyone to run laps—was even more direct. “These guys are scumbag liars!” he shouted. “The only way we’re going to win is to kick the everloving crap out of them and beat the shit out of them.”

That is a colorful way of saying: “We recognize the value of continued organizing.” On Friday, the day before the caucuses, as the national press corps was still replaying two-day-old debate zingers, a group of 17 Culinary Union organizers involved in the Station Casinos campaign met at 9 a.m. in a second-floor conference room at the headquarters building. They were men and women, young and old, Latino and black and white, and almost all of them had been as casino workers and union members before they were organizers.

For an hour, they reviewed the past week’s work. Most important was the tally of how many union cards each person had gotten signed, with each card earning a round of applause inside the room. (One organizer who had pulled in five signed cards earned herself a day off, and the jealousy of everyone else.) Afterward, the organizers headed out for home visits. This is the true, sweaty, grinding substance of union organizing: a never-ending process of talking to people who are always busy doing other things. A never-ending process of refining and updating a master list of names. Without this work, unions don’t exist.

I set out with Oscar Diaz, a 35 year-old with a shaved head, glasses, and a goatee who had been with the Culinary Union for ten years. His father had been a Culinary Union shop steward at the Westgate, where he worked for more than 30 years. Diaz’s organizing work focuses on Boulder Station and Palace Station, two Station Casinos properties that, after years of organizing, held successful union elections in 2016.

The fact that he is still deeply engaged in organizing them four years later will give you an idea how hard the fight has been. Part of the slog is directly attributable to national politics. When the company breaks the law, the union files charges against them with the NLRB. But staffing numbers at the NLRB’s Las Vegas office, Diaz says, have been reduced under President Trump, meaning that cases take longer to work their way through the bureaucracy. The delays mean the union cards signed a year or two ago have expired; organizers must get workers to sign again.

Good organizers combine the talents of a salesperson, a private detective, a motivational speaker and a long-haul driver. With a printed list of workers’ names, Diaz drove around North Las Vegas, seeking out addresses in the expanse of identical sand-colored housing developments. The workers do not know that organizers are coming, meaning that they may be gone, or asleep, or suspicious about opening the door. But Diaz is used to navigating logistical hurdles. We reached one apartment complex only to find that we didn’t have an access code to open the front gate. Diaz hopped out of the car, peered on top of the keypad box, and found the code. “The FedEx guys will scratch it on top of the box sometimes,” he said, shrugging.

An organizer may knock on dozens of doors in a day and have only a few truly productive conversations. The ability to navigate unknown neighborhoods with little information and track down security codes and slip seamlessly between Spanish and English and read each person for signs of bias or dishonesty or confusion are all just inherent in the job. And things used to be even harder. At the beginning of the campaign, Diaz recalls, organizers got referrals with no names or addresses, just vague descriptions: “Go up Tropicana, you’ll see a house that has a statue of the Virgin Mary, knock on the back door.”

For the worker who signed a union card, Diaz will come back again another day with one of her coworkers, to recruit her to get more involved. For the workers who didn’t answer their doors, he will mark them down, and come back again, however many times are necessary to pull cohesion out of this huge group of tired, busy, far-flung people. He and his fellow organizers will do this tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day. They did this for years already to get an election, and years more to try to get that election affirmed, and may do it for years more to win a contract. This is what it takes.

“Busting unions is not hard,” Diaz says. “It’s playing with people’s fears.” During the long Station Casinos campaign, he has seen how much effort it takes to counteract intransigent bosses that possess enormous advantages in time and money. The people that they are up against have billions of dollars. The Culinary Union has Oscar Diaz, and all of the other organizers, who will find out where you live and convince you to stand up for yourself. With those tools, the Culinary Union has organized Las Vegas. Organizing beats money, even if it takes a very, very long time.

Saturday was caucus day. The caucus for workers at the Bellagio, one of the more opulent properties on the strip, was held in a ballroom, where 100 chairs were set out on garish paisley carpet under crystal chandeliers. Around 11 a.m., small groups of housekeepers wearing their dark blue uniforms began trickling in, taking seats and trying to ignore the mass of cameras at the back of the room, where every network and news outlet had gathered to witness this immodest open demonstration of democracy.

Most of the caucus-goers were women of color. A few shared their thoughts as they waited for the proceedings to begin. Laura Flores, a housekeeper and 20-year member of the Culinary Union, said she was supporting Bernie Sanders, because of his position on health insurance.

Morena Del Cid, another Culinary Union member, who worked in the poker room and had been with the company for 30 years, was participating in her first caucus. She was supporting Bernie Sanders. “People have to make a change,” she said. Asked about his stance on Medicare For All, she replied, “I love that.”

Of 123 eligible people in the room to caucus, 75 went for Bernie Sanders in the first round, and 39 went for Joe Biden. Warren got six and Steyer got three, meaning they were not viable. One supporter of each viable candidate then had a minute to make their case to the handful of voters whose candidates didn’t make the cut. A Bellagio worker wearing a red Culinary union t-shirt spoke for Bernie Sanders, declaring, “My children and future generations should all have health care!” Medicare For All was her pitch.

The final tally was 76 votes for Bernie, 45 for Biden, and two uncommitted. Bernie ran away with the Bellagio and almost all of the other casinos on the Vegas Strip, the very heart of the Culinary Union’s territory. This set up an easy narrative about a political victory over an entrenched union leadership.

But that narrative is misleading. A union is the people in the union. The members, collectively, are its heart, its mind and its voice. In a good union, its leaders and organizers and staffers do what they do in order to give power to its members. The Culinary Union is a good union. Its members won, so it won.

After the votes had all been counted, those who had caucused filed out of the room quickly, returning to work and trying to avoid the gauntlet of media that lined the exits, bombarding them for quotes. I didn’t have the heart to press them any more. They had already spoken.

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 24, 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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The Multinational Trying To Bankrupt the Dock Workers Union Has a Sordid Past

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Image result for Ari PaulThe International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) is facing an existential crisis.

Founded by the militant labor icon Harry Bridges, the ILWU has made a name for itself as the take-no-crap West Coast dockers union, one that has engaged in work stoppages and other tactics both to protect their jobs and benefits, but also to oppose war and racism.

A federal jury in Portland, Oregon granted a $93.6 million penalty in November against the union to the American subsidiary of the Philippines-based International Container Terminal Services (ICTSI), which formerly operated the Portland terminal. The back story is a complicated one about union jurisdiction. In 2012, the local ILWU began a series of work slowdowns over two jobs that involved handling refrigerated containers (as well as electrical equipment related to those containers) that the union believed were wrongly being put outside of the ILWU’s collective bargaining agreement. Instead, these two port jobs were represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). ICTSI sued the ILWU, claiming the industrial action was an illegal secondary boycott and that years of battling the union had taken financial toil on the company. The jury sided with ICTSI.

The ILWU has $8 million in assets, according to its most recent Department of Labor filing (Local 8, the local involved in the suit, has $386,000 in total assets, according to its DOL filing). Needless to say, the award, if upheld by the judge in proceedings in February, will almost certainly lead to bankruptcy for the union.

While officials say that this would not be the end of the union necessarily, the restructuring of the union would likely cramp its ability to administer the business of representing and organizing workers. The union’s president, Willie Adams, said in a message in the union’s newspaper, the Dispatcher, “We’re hoping that the Court will review the verdict and explore a different outcome—one that is more fair and consistent with the evidence. If that doesn’t happen, there’s a possibility that we may seek protection in federal court to re-organize our finances under protections allowed by the federal bankruptcy court. While nobody wants to take this step, it may be the best way to protect the ILWU and to allow us to return to sound financial footing as quickly as possible.”

For maritime unionists, the involvement of ICTSI in this case raises eyebrows. It is one of the most notorious ports operator in the market, a company that profits off of war, misery and labor exploitation. The news that ICTSI would seek to destroy a union is in line with its troubling global track record of undermining workers’ rights—and exploiting low wages and poor working conditions to protect its profits.

An international labor-rights abuser

The company brings a global track record mired in accusations of labor abuses. Starting in 2017, the International Transport Workers Federation, the global alliance of transport unions, intervened in what it called a severe undercutting of labor standards by ICTSI, the operator at the Port of Tanjung Priok, in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta. Specifically, union activists alleged that the ICTSI-run terminal was paying workers 15% less than other nearby port operators. The International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) also alleged that the company had broken Indonesian labor law by continuing to outsource labor, against the government’s orders, and avoiding issuing overtime pay. As one Indonesian labor leader, Didik Noryanto, said at the time, “Workers at the ICTSI port are looking to the Indonesian Government to show leadership and step in to defend these workers’ basic human rights because ICTSI is waging an aggressive campaign to drive down their wages and conditions.”

These concerns led to the Maritime Union of Australia leading a several-week-long blockade in late 2017 of the Port of Melbourne’s terminals, run by the ICTSI, specifically on grounds that a firm with such a bad reputation within the ITF had no business in Australia. Paddy Crumlin, the IFT’s chief dockers official, said at the time, “Everyone is awake to ICTSI’s destructive ways and won’t cop it anymore.”

Crumlin described ICTSI’s rogue labor record as a “cancer” spreading around the world. Indeed, that same year, the Guardian uncovered union busting and low wages at Madagascar’s main port, also run by ICTSI. This drama, once again, made its way back to Australia, where ICTSI was looking to increase its presence. In 2018, the ITF demanded an investigation of the company after it was awarded the Webb Dock terminal at the Port of Melbourne. The ITF also raised concerns about the firm’s anti-union practices in Madagascar with ICTSI shareholders, urging them to vote out two board members for failing to reign in the company’s operations in places like Madagascar, where, according the trade journal Maritime Executive, ITF “said that hauler strikes and protests have led to delays, with some vessels reportedly anchored and unable to berth for weeks.”

Exploiting misery

But to fully understand the ICTSI’s reputation as a rogue operator in the world of port management, one must really look more at the company’s business model, one that specifically turns the economic misery and complete lack of democratic governance to its business advantage. And to understand that business model, you have to understand its chairman and president, Enrique Razon.

Razon is one of the richest people in the Philippines with a net worth estimated over $5 billion and is a scion of the ports industry. His grandfather came from Spain to Manila to establish its primary port. From there, Razon has built his shipping fortune—and notoriety—primarily by swooping into countries that are so undesirable from a human rights standpoint that he wouldn’t have to go into bidding wars with rivals and create a near monopoly for himself. He told investors in 2015: “I’m very bullish about Iran, Congo and Cambodia… It’s okay to say that if you make investments in bad places right now, over time, you’ll gain without competition.”

And Razon particularly likes setting up shop in sub-Saharan Africa, where  he’s faced accusations of union busting in Madagascar. Razon specifically highlighted that the desperation for infrastructure means he can charge higher fees. He told the Wall Street Journal in 2014, “Bottom line: Returns are best there with high yields in the handling business. To handle a box in our terminal in Yantai, [China], we charge about $45-$50. The same container in Africa easily goes for $200-$250.”

Crumlin put it crudely in a statement released August 2018: “[It is a] business model of deliberately prioritizing countries where human and labor rights are most at vulnerable and by partnering with some of the worst anti-democratic regimes implicated in crimes against humanity.”

But perhaps ICTSI’s most intriguing operations have been in the Democratic Republic of Congo. With relatively poor rail and paved transport infrastructure, the Congo River is the major highway for goods in the second largest country in Africa in terms of area. This past December, the company announced that it would spend $100 million to double container capacity at its port operations in Matadi, where it has controlling stake in the port company. Ten percent of that company is the state-owned Société Congolaise des Transports et des Ports. For the ITF, this means that ICTSI isn’t simply trading with a corrupt regime, but is inextricably linked to the regime of President Joseph Kabila, which the federation calls on its website ICTSI Exposed, “one of the world’s worst kleptocracies.”

Today, Razon’s business empire includes casinos, a venture he has jokingly called his night job, but the gaming side of his operations is no less sordid. In 2016, cyber thieves made off with $81 million from the central bank of Bangladesh’s American account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, with $29 million winding up in an account for Solaire, one Razon’s gaming subsidiaries. Razon insisted that the scandal did little damage to his business’ reputation.

Australian labor’s resistance to ICTSI operating ports was based on the fear that the company—seeking to expand its presence around the globe—would drive down standards for the country’s port workers. Australian unions had a right to be worried: Economic liberalization has led to a decline in union bargaining power in Australia, and union membership is declining. In fact, the MUA faced a crippling lawsuit, similar to the one the ILWU is facing, regarding a work stoppage involving Chevron cargo, and the MUA ended up merging with another union.

Rattling the transport labor movement

ICTSI is no longer operating at the Portland terminal. But its existence there, unless the judge in the ILWU case decides to rehear the matter or grant some sort of appeal, will forever leave a stamp in American maritime unionism and rattle the transport labor movement worldwide.

It should be noted, however, that ILWU’s campaign at the Portland terminal may be considered ill-advised. The dispute in Portland stemmed from the fact that the jobs in question related to electrical operation of refrigerated containers. Thus, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers claimed, the jobs rightly belonged to the IBEW. ICTSI had made the argument that as the port operator, the ILWU’s targeting of ICTSI in what was ultimately a dispute over union jurisdiction was a secondary boycott. Was it really the best use of the ILWU’s time and energy to fight over a few workers who were likely going to end up with some sort of union representation? In hindsight, it certainly was not.

It isn’t clear if ICTSI-related companies have any port operations in the United States or plan to compete for opportunities at U.S. ports anytime soon—the company did not respond to a request for comment. What is clear from this debacle is that employers are ready and willing to use the secondary boycott ban against transport unions to the extent that it could cripple unions’ operations. Employers have happily embraced the jury award, saying that it puts the union—and rank-and-file port workers—on notice.

“It hearkens back to the Gilded Age when corporations used employer friendly courts to bankrupt and destroy unions,” said James Gregory, a labor historian at the University of Washington. “More important, it threatens the existence of a union that has long been a model of progressive politics and democratic governance, a union that fights for labor rights worldwide, a union that has beaten back every challenge since 1934. And if the courts are again going to issue rulings bankrupting unions, no union is safe, nor are the workplace rights that all of us—union and no union—rely upon.”

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on January 16, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Ari Paul has covered politics for The NationViceThe GuardianDissentJacobinAl Jazeera America and many other outlets.

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Bosses Are Charged with Breaking the Law in Over 40% of Union Campaigns

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Labor unions are more popular than they’ve been in over 15 years. Yet a record-low number of workers belong to them. The gap between the public perception of unions and their actual membership illustrates just how difficult it’s become for workers to organize.

In a new report, the progressive think tank Economic Policy Institute (EPI) found evidence that employers are increasingly brazen in seeking to obstruct workers’ attempts to unionize. Records of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which oversees private-sector labor rights and union elections, reveal that in more than 40% of the 3,260 union elections during 2016 and 2017, employers have been charged with unfair labor practices aimed at undermining electoral procedures and retaliating against pro-union workers.

About 30% of unfair labor practice (ULP) charges analyzed by EPI involved allegations of threats, surveillance or harassment of workers. Another 30% involved allegations of illegal discipline, with one in five elections marred by the charges of illegally firing workers for supporting the union. Workforce size is a factor: the highest rate of ULP claims—more than 50%—was seen among firms with potential bargaining units of 61 workers or more. The anti-union actions occurred at a higher rate during the two-year period than during the early 2000s.

This pattern of union busting could help explain why private-sector unionization has dwindled to just 6.4% in 2018. Ben Zipperer, co-author of the report, told In These Times that the study suggests “the hostile atmosphere towards labor, or basically the employer aggression against workers trying to form unions, is the main obstacle.”

In one case of election-related ULP claims, workers at Trump International Hotel Las Vegas, who sought to unionize with UNITE HERE in 2016, just ahead of Trump’s election, charged their employer with a number of retaliatory actions, including tightening supervision or increasing the workload of some employees, and “disparately enforc[ing] its new Grooming Policy” to coerce targeted workers into changing their hair color.

Although EPI does not cover the outcome of the cases (charges are often dropped and litigation might drag on for years), the prevalence of ULP charges is telling. It’s likely that the employees who file a formal legal charge represent only the fraction of workers who have the resources and wherewithal to wage a legal battle with their employer. After all, the most successful union-busting campaigns may be the ones that never come to light because the workers have been thoroughly suppressed—or ousted.

“Employers pursue a variety of tactics that would otherwise be illegal or unfair, that never make it to the charging stage,” says Zipperer, “because it’s a very difficult and lengthy process with little reward for the worker at the end.”

Filing an unfair labor practice charge is the basic tool that workers have to hold employers to account under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). To protect workers’ right to organize and maintain the integrity of union elections, under the law, employers cannot threaten to shut down a plant, or fire workers or take away their benefits if they seek to unionize. Bosses are barred from coercively interrogating workers about their union activities, or attempting to spy on them. The NLRA also broadly prohibits employers from discriminating against workers who support unionization—for example, by demoting or laying off workers who promote unionization to their coworkers.

While the NLRB should act as the central arbiter of labor relation, the agency has little leverage over employers that engage in union-busting. Typically, even if a company is proven to have acted illegally, the NLRB cannot force it to pay damages, beyond back wages and reinstatement. On top of those structural barriers, the current Republican majority on the NLRB ensures that whatever cases do go before the Board, there is a good chance they will result in an anti-worker ruling.

The overarching weakness of the NLRA is what it does not cover. Employers are free to deploy various anti-union tactics on their worksites, including broadcasting arguments against unionization and launching smear campaigns against the “third party” union organizers who threaten to undermine the workers’ relationship with their boss.

The market for anti-union tactics has given rise to a cottage industry of union-busting firms. Overall, EPI estimates that companies pour an estimated $340 million every year into “union-avoidance” consultants. Among the top spenders are Nestle, Fedex, Mission Foods and Trump International Hotel Las Vegas. The anti-union consultancies specialize in flooding workplaces with propaganda as well as orchestrating so-called “captive-audience” meetings, in which companies pressure workers to attend anti-union lectures.

Allegations of intimidation, retaliation and disinformation are at the center of recent clashes at GoogleHousing Works and Johns Hopkins University Hospital—a purportedly progressive tech giant and two nonprofits—where workers have accused their employers of using dirty campaign tactics to crush union drives.

The current unionization drive by Hearst employees has prompted the company’s executives to set up a microsite featuring pointedly biased explanations of the consequences of unionizing, according to Vice. Workers were warned, “All terms of pay, benefits, and working conditions would be up for discussion. No one can guarantee in advance what that contract would include.”

Last April, Labor Notes reported that at a captive-audience meeting at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, workers were bombarded with pro-business messaging from Gov. Bill Lee, who sang the praises of Volkswagen for bringing jobs to the state and telling workers it was best to “have a direct relationship” with the automaker, free of union interference.

While some aggressive anti-union practices are perfectly legal, EPI notes that the NLRA’s protections for workers’ organizing rights can be strengthened simply by giving the law real teeth. The recently introduced Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act would create civil penalties for abusive employers, ban captive-audience meetings and allow workers to press unfair labor practice claims in civil courts, rather than just the NLRB.

“One of the simplest things that we can do,” Zipperer said, “is we can actually make labor law matter by attaching meaningful and significant penalties to employers when they violate that law.”

Under the current legal framework governing union elections, the fact that unions remain so popular in public opinion surveys shows that despite the hostile political climate, workers still believe in the power of collective action. Imagine what might be achieved if labor law stopped getting in the way.

This article was originally published at In These Times on December 12, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Labor Needs To Embrace Social Justice Unionism

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Proponents of the “rank-and-file strategy” (RFS) emphasize the need to lay the foundations of a revitalized labor movement through rank-and-file workers—as opposed to union staff or leadership. As Laura Gabby notes, this idea has a long history: In the 1970s, for instance, thousands of leftists (myself included) of both working-class origin and otherwise entered the workforce to build a real working-class Left and rebuild organized labor.

Though this rank-and-file emphasis is more of an orientation than a full strategy, it is good in that it encourages people on the Left to engage as rank and filers—to enter into the working class as coworkers rather than staff. The idea is not, as Andrew Dobbyn argues, elitist; instead, it suggests fellow workers have something to teach, rather than simply being vessels for knowledge from leftists.

But the current discussion has certain important blind spots. First, the mostly white socialists discussing the RFS often fail to recognize that leftist formations composed mostly or entirely of people of color have historically been instrumental in developing and leading efforts to retool the labor movement. The direction and character of these formations has frequently differed from that of white-led formations.

Peter Shapiro presents one example in his Jacobin article, “On the Clock and Off,” drawing on his work with the League of Revolutionary Struggle. He writes about the Mexican immigrant women who emerged as rank-and-file leaders in the 1985–87 frozen food strike in Watsonville, Calif. They were not part of their union’s progressive reform caucus, the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, nor would they have been considered part of any conventional “militant minority”—which is why, Shapiro writes, “some strike supporters on the Left viewed them skeptically.” But these women established their own informal infrastructure, bound together through the solidarity of not just working together but the shared experience of racial and gender oppression, and propelled the strike to victory.

More broadly, proponents of the rank-and-file strategy must look beyond the clear, identifiable base of organic leaders and leftists and assess the forces within any workplace, including conservatives and pragmatists. As Fernando Gapasin and I write in our book, Solidarity Divided, to defeat the conservative elements, the Left must pull the center along. Advocates of a “militant minority” can be skeptical of such alliances, but this is a mistake.

William Z. Foster, a brilliant trade unionist who led the Communist Party USA, advocated a militant minority strategy but later adjusted his approach to pursue a “Left-Center Alliance,” recognizing that, even in the militant 1930s, the Left was not sufficiently powerful to act alone. Workers will not necessarily agree with the total program of a leftist, so it is unlikely that leftists will be organizing workers around an exclusively left-wing program. To the extent to which we ignore the center we cede territory to conservative forces that will build their own alliances to crush the Left.

Leftists in the labor movement must also look beyond the narrow objectives of trade unionism as we know it, centered on making gains within the workplace. In fact, the Left needs an alternative framework, a “social justice unionism,” with objectives focused on the larger working class—which includes, for instance, what Stephen Lerner and others refer to as “bargaining for the common good.” Here, the union takes issues of the larger community to the bargaining table. Unions, too, might provide active support to or establish shared agendas with other worker or progressive community organizations.

Lastly, rebuilding the labor movement requires recognition that labor, as Andrew points out, is not only trade unions. The rise of so-called alt-labor, such as worker centers and domestic worker organizations, is part of this rebuilding. Leftists play a major role in this sector, which is disproportionately workers of color. Unions can and should provide direct material assistance to this organizing; the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, for instance, has worked to ally with informal economy workers.

A Left without a working class base is not a Left, but a collection of advocates for change. Our mission is to rebuild that base, transforming the Left and the labor movement together.

For alternate perspectives on the rank-and-file strategy, see Want To Build the Labor Movement? Get a Job at a Union Workplace.”and “90% of Workers Aren’t in a Union. Labor’s Future Depends on Them.”

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on November 6, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a talk show host, writer, activist, and trade unionist. He is the executive editor of The Global African Worker, a co-author (with Fernando Gapasin) of Solitary Divided, and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us”–Twenty Other Myths about Unions. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook and at http://www.billfletcherjr.com.

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90% of Workers Aren’t in a Union. Labor’s Future Depends on Them.

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My comrade Laura Gabby says that “supermajorities are necessary to raise class consciousness, fight capital, strike and win,” and I agree. But we diverge on how to get there.

She and other rank-and-file strategy (RFS) supporters suggest realigning internal union politics from the inside out through a “militant minority.” As Kim Moody argues in his seminal pamphlet about RFS, unions have to “take a central role … by virtue of their size and their place at the heart of capitalist accumulation.”But, in practice, attempts at union realignment through RFS have mixed results, while most workers remain without a union. What’s needed, instead, is a broad “yes, and” approach with an emphasis on new organizing.

Many unionists were first exposed to RFS in August through a series of unfortunate articles in Politico and the New York Times, detailing activities from the Labor Branch of New York City’s chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. (Laura is a member.) These DSAers called for socialists to get union jobs in specific “strategic industries” to form a “militant minority” and change unions internally. This strategy was reiterated in the national RFS DSA resolution and in a pamphlet, put out by Young Democratic Socialists of America and Democratic Socialist Labor Commission, titled, “Why Socialists Should Become Teachers.”

While the news articles unfairly portray RFS as a devious plot, they highlight real failures in political strategy. NYC-DSA is, anecdotally, disproportionately white; the optics aren’t good for them to take over unions with membership that is mostly people of color.

Organic worker-leaders built our movement; if socialists want to lead, they must become organic leaders, not tack themselves on like some gaudy ideological accessory. Laura says organic leaders and socialists must work together, but the problem remains: The union realignment strategy treats union members as constituencies to be managed, rather than organic partners.

The strategy also leads to a militant minority divorced from the larger union, leaving the efforts of RFS reform caucuses decidedly mixed. While the rank-and-file caucus in the Chicago Teachers Union has seen success, New York’s Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) has seen less. MORE is a favorite of NYC-DSA Labor Branch members, yet its vote share in the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) presidential election dropped from roughly 10,000 in 2016 to less than 2,500 in 2019, and the incumbent UFT Unity Caucus captured all 102 seats on the executive board.

If leftists want to transform the labor movement, there’s a much easier route: Unionize the unorganized. Surveys show that at least 48% of workers would like a union, but 90% do not have one. Unions enjoy high levels of public support, and millennials are joining in disproportionately large numbers.There is no better time for the Left to organize new unions or add new bargaining units. Leftists should focus on developing organizing committees before a union steps in, ensuring unions will actually commit resources to finish the job and that the workers joining do so on their own terms.

A partnership between the progressive International Longshore and Warehouse Workers (ILWU) and DSA San Francisco shows how this organizing can be done. DSA members spent months with Anchor Brewing workers developing the organizing committee, researching unions and writing the campaign plan, and only then reached out to the ILWU, chosen because of its democratic practices and militant politics. Together, they won.

As Moody himself admits, the conservative craft unionism of the Teamsters, for example, only changed because leftists organized huge swathes of new workers. These leftists weren’t outsiders, but organized their neighbors and coworkers. As the Anchor group put it, “We can’t be outsiders helping the labor movement; we have to be organic partners.”

The nature of new organizing reveals why this works: Because workers must take huge risks to form unions, newly organized unionists are likely to be active, politically astute and militant. The bonds forged in this struggle, between leftists and their coworkers, build the relationships necessary to transform the labor movement.

If we want to change the labor movement, our goal shouldn’t be internal realignment, but new unions for the 90%.

For alternate perspectives on the rank-and-file strategy, see “Want To Build the Labor Movement? Get a Job at a Union Workplace.” and “Labor Needs To Embrace Social Justice Unionism.”

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on November 6, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Andrew Dobbyn is a rank-and-file elected leader in CWA Local 1104 and former co-chair of Suffolk County DSA.

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Want To Build the Labor Movement? Get a Job at a Union Workplace.

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Only workers themselves have the power to transform society, and workers must organize themselves to do so. Union staff and elected leadership can play important and sometimes pivotal roles, but in the fight against capital to win substantive, lasting gains, workers must be in the driver’s seat.

When workers are sidelined, at best we get staff-driven mobilizing, which Jane McAlevey describes as “dedicated activists who show up over and over … but [lack] the full mass of their coworkers or community behind them.” With an organized rank-and-file base, by contrast, ordinary workers themselves are the change agents, deeply involved in developing an analysis of what’s wrong in the workplace and a strategy for how to fight the boss (and, ultimately, capitalism). Their power comes from building majorities large enough to leverage militant action. Wins are less likely to be rolled back when a majority puts its own sweat into the process and stands ready to defend its gains.

The widespread teachers’ strikes of 2018 and 2019 and the Chicago Teachers Union strike of 2012 illuminate the potential power of worker-led organizing, as they were primarily led and initiated by rank-and-file union members.

This deep organizing, however, does not yet exist in most industries. To build it, unionists and labor movement activists can look to the “rank-and-file strategy” (RFS). The phrase was coined by Kim Moody in 2000 but takes inspiration from 20th-century labor upheavals like those led by the Minnesota Teamsters in the 1930s and black workers at a Chrysler assembly plant in Detroit in the 1970s, when radical unionists and socialists were at the heart of big gains.

What socialist rank-and-file activists such as Moody identified was a gulf between the Left and the organized working class, developed under McCarthyism. The class character of this gulf—with leftists more often in the middle class and disconnected from the day-to-day struggles of the working class—has weakened the Left and the labor movement.

When class conflict and labor struggles arise, as they inevitably do under capitalism, they can expose underlying capitalist ideology—an opportunity for people in these struggles to actively raise working-class consciousness. RFS proponents have sought to close the Left-labor gulf by building a layer of workplace organizers—including socialists joining the labor movement and respected workplace leaders of all political persuasions—to heighten class conflict and develop this consciousness.

Part of the answer to overcoming the inertia that ails the labor movement may lie in a new, young and energetic Left—which already shows signs of being closer to the broader working class than other recent generations of leftists. However, this Left remains largely divorced from the organized working class, where RFS suggests young leftists would best be able to exercise real power alongside coworkers. (While young workers are fast joining unions, 2017 data shows only 7.7% of workers between the ages 16 and 34 were union members.)

Evidence suggests that young leftists are already playing key roles in labor struggles that produce wins and raise class consciousness. As Eric Blanc notes, “Though few in number, young socialists inspired by the Bernie Sanders campaign played an outsized role [in the teachers’ strikes].”

But radical unionists acting by themselves aren’t enough to win.

At the core of any success are rank-and-file leaders, the ones coworkers respect and come to for advice. What’s necessary is a mix, working in coordination: organic, workplace leaders—able to move coworkers and fellow union members to action—and socialists, who can bring a broader analysis and organizing experience, and who are sometimes workplace leaders themselves. This layer of activists and rank-and-file leaders is sometimes called the “militant minority.”

The militant minority organizes and wins campaigns around workplace issues to grow its ranks and raise class consciousness through these practical struggles, and it fights for the demands of the broader working class by creating an ever-larger group of worker-organizers with a shared vision of class-struggle unionism.

The militant minority seeks to build supermajorities in the workplace. And supermajorities are necessary to raise class consciousness, fight capital, strike and win.

For alternate perspectives on the rank-and-file strategy, see “90% of Workers Aren’t in a Union. Labor’s Future Depends on Them.” and “Labor Needs To Embrace Social Justice Unionism.”

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on November 6, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Gabby is a carpenter in Local 157 and member of the Labor Branch of the New York City Democratic Socialists of America.

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