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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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Will Biden Resuscitate the NLRB?

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Unions are hoping that President-elect Joe Biden quickly takes control of the National Labor Relations Board and launches a new era of federal labor policy.

Over the past four years, a cabal of Trump appointees, determined to rewrite U.S. labor law, has run the NLRB into the ground. The agency has issued a steady stream of precedent-setting anti-labor rulings, seemingly designed to not only undo all progress made on workers’ rights during the Obama administration but also to grievously undermine the ability of unions to resist.

What are the chances that Biden will resuscitate the Labor Board and restore its role as a defender of workers’ right to engage in concerted action against employers? It may take quite a while before we find out.

REPUBLICANS STILL IN CONTROL

The NLRB is governed by five Board members appointed by the president. The Senate must confirm each appointment by a majority vote of senators present and voting (a filibuster rule requiring 60 votes was jettisoned in 2013). 

Board members serve for five years with one member’s term expiring each year. Depending on the composition of the Board and the number of vacancies when a new president takes office, it may take as many as three years before he or she has three seats, the number of members needed to issue precedent-setting decisions. 

At present, four board members are in place. Three are Republicans. Chairperson John Ring and member William Emanuel worked for high-powered management-side law firms. Marvin Kaplan was a House staff member. The lone Democrat, Lauren McFerran, worked for a union-side law firm. One slot is vacant.

Biden will be able to nominate a second pro-labor member upon taking office on January 12. If GOP dominance of the Senate continues after the Georgia runoffs, the chamber may reject the nominee or delay voting for months. (It is also theoretically possible, though unlikely and without precedent, that Trump and McConnell will try to block Biden at the last moment by filling the vacancy before Trump leaves office, a so-called “midnight appointment.”)

Even with a second Democrat, Republicans will still have a majority on the board. Over the next eight months that majority is likely to issue a slew of anti-labor rulings such as a ban on displaying stationary signs and inflatable rats to pressure secondary employers and a weakening of the contract bar rule blocking decertification proceedings.

LOTS TO UNDO

Biden should be able to nominate a third Democrat to take office on August 27, 2021, when Emanuel’s term expires. Confirmation, however, cannot be assumed. A GOP-controlled Senate may reject the nominee, leaving the board deadlocked two to two—assuming Biden’s first nominee is confirmed by then. Or, it may force a deal compelling Biden to appoint a more middle-of-the road nominee.

One move Biden can make immediately upon taking office is to appoint McFerran as Board chairperson. This will increase her influence but will not prevent the Board from issuing more bad decisions. On the other hand, unless Biden takes the bold step of sending him packing, Peter Robb, the union-hating general counsel, who supervises NLRB regional offices and plays a major role in setting the Board’s agenda, will be able to stay in office until his four-year term expires on November 16, 2021. 

Eventually, a Biden majority may well control the NLRB. If Biden’s appointees are as labor-friendly as Obama’s picks, they will have an opportunity to reexamine many of the most harmful Trump-era rulings. The following cases should be at the top of their undo list:

  • Boeing Companies (2017), which gave employers unprecedented rights to enact work rules restricting union and other concerted activity.
  • PCC Structurals (2017), which changed the definition of appropriate bargaining units to make it far more difficult for unions to petition for representation rights.
  • Supershuttle (2019), which eased the way for employers to classify workers as independent contractors exempt from union bargaining rights.
  • Valley Hospital (2019), which allowed employers to cease deducting union dues when a collective bargaining agreement expires.
  • United Parcel Service (2019), which limited Board review of arbitration awards that violate NLRA rights.
  • Kroger Limited (2019), which allowed employers to bar union organizers from distributing literature on employer property even if groups such as the Girl Scouts were allowed to solicit.
  • MV Transportation (2019), which elevated management-rights clauses in union contracts to levels of unilateral privilege not even dreamed of by HR specialists. 
  • General Motors (2020), which ended the special protections long enjoyed by union representatives.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on December 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Robert M. Schwartz is a retired union labor lawyer. He is the author of several books including The Legal Rights of Union Stewards and No Contract, No Peace! A Legal Guide to Contract Campaigns, Strikes, and Lockouts. His books can be purchased from the Labor Notes online store.


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Unions disagree over Biden’s Labor secretary pick

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Union leaders are hoping to influence Joe Biden’s pick for Labor secretary — but they’re increasingly at odds over who should get the job.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and some of his organization’s largest affiliate unions are singing the praises of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who previously led the city’s Building and Construction Trades Council and could appeal to construction workers who supported President Donald Trump. But other unions in the federation are publicly pushing Rep. Andy Levin, a Michigan Democrat who worked as a labor organizer and ran the state’s job training program before he was elected.

The federation, which spans 56 unions representing over 12 million of the more-than 14 million unionized workers in the U.S., was supposed to discuss the potential Labor secretary pick and a possible endorsement at a meeting of union presidents who serve on its political committee on Friday. But that didn’t happen and another meeting hasn’t been scheduled, according to four people familiar with the conversations.

The split over Walsh and Levin was the reason why, one of the people said. “A number of the presidents were sort of furious at the whole thing,” said the person, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive conversations.

Union leaders have long been expecting to hold sway in a Biden administration, given his support for workers’ right to organize — and the Labor Department will play the leading role in implementing Biden’s sweeping pro-worker agenda, making the role an obvious choice for organized labor to weigh in.Biden met on Monday with Trumka and the heads of Service Employees International Union, United Auto Workers, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and United Food and Commercial Workers.

But the early division over potential candidatescould make it difficult for Biden to choose someone who would win support from all sides of the labor movement. It’s also unclear whether any of the white male candidates whom unions are supporting would appeal to the Biden camp, which is trying to build a diverse Cabinet.

Also in the mix for the position is Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who’s been courting the Biden camp — and, according to CNN, the AFL-CIO — as he pushes himself for the job. California Labor Secretary Julie Su, who is well-regarded by unions in her state, is another contender.

Biden and his team have said they do not expect to make any Cabinet appointments until closer to Thanksgiving, and those close to the transition say announcements for leaders at higher-profile agencies such as the Treasury and State Departments are likely to come before the Labor Department.

Unions will unify behind whomever Biden chooses, Trumka said in an interview.

“Once the nomination is made, everyone will get on the same page,” he said. “Because I have no doubt that the person Joe Biden will name will be an effective friend of workers and do right by working people.”

Still, Trumka and others in the labor movement are trying to put their thumbs on the scale.

The AFL-CIO’s two largest affiliates, the American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, threw their weight last week behind Walsh. Trumka, while stopping short of endorsing Walsh, said he would be a “great choice.”

But not everyone has fallen in line: United Auto Workers and Utility Workers Unionof America sent letters to Biden’s transition team Tuesday backing Levin, who serves on the House Education and Labor Committee. National Nurses United and Communications Workers of America have thrown their weight behind Levin as well.

Levin has stronger ties to labor than some of the other names floated, with time spent as an SEIU organizer and more than a decade working for the AFL-CIO. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he also served in the Labor Department during the Clinton administration and as Michigan’s chief workforce officer under former Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

“Levin has both the knowledge and the expertise and the connections, both in the labor movement and in the broader progressive movement, including the environmental movement, to really be effective and a forceful advocate for families,” Economic Policy Institute President Thea Lee, who worked with Levin at the AFL-CIO, told POLITICO.

Levin was elected to represent Michigan in the House in 2018 after his father, longtime congressman Sander Levin, decided against running for reelection. So far, he’s not openly campaigning for the Labor Department job.

“The power behind this, if it’s happening, is not me,” Levin said in an interview. “I’m humbled to have people I’ve worked with shoulder to shoulder for decades saying they’d like for this to happen.”

Walsh, for his part, led Boston’s Building and Construction Trades Council before becoming mayor, credentials that may help a Biden administration draw in workers from the other side of the aisle: 75 percent of construction workers who made political donations gave them to Trump’s presidential campaign.

Walsh and Biden also have a well-documented personal relationship: Not only did Biden speak at the mayor’s 2017 inauguration, but the pair have been spotted together in Walsh’s city at the anniversary of the Marathon bombings, at a Stop & Shop workers rally and even on a dinner date.

“He’s a friend and knows Joe: They’ve worked together on numerous occasions,” Trumka said. “They have the relationship I think is necessary.”

Current and former union officials have raised concerns about revelations of corruption under Walsh’s watch as mayor, including one city employee who pled guilty in September 2019 to accepting a $50,000 bribe. But Trumka was quick to dismiss those: “It’s nonsense,” Trumka said. “It had nothing to do with him.”

Walsh, for his part, has stayed tight-lipped.

“I’m excited about what a Biden-Harris administration means for Boston,” he said in a statement. “While it’s an honor to be mentioned among the many highly qualified individuals being considered for a role in the Biden Administration, I am focused on my job as mayor of the City of Boston.”

This article originally appeared at Politico on November 16, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Megan Cassella is a trade reporter for POLITICO Pro. Before joining the trade team in June 2016, Megan worked for Reuters based out of Washington, covering the economy, domestic politics and the 2016 presidential campaign. It was in that role that she first began covering trade, including Donald Trump’s rise as the populist candidate vowing to renegotiate NAFTA and Hillary Clinton’s careful sidestep of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

A D.C.-area native, Megan headed south for a few years to earn her bachelor’s degree in business journalism and international politics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Now settled back inside the Beltway, Megan’s on the hunt for the city’s best Carolina BBQ — and still rooting for the Heels.


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Democrats’ lackluster performance in Senate spells trouble for labor

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With the Democrats’ failure to win an outright majority in the Senate and Republicans making surprising gains in the House, Joe Biden’s sweeping promises to expand American labor rights just got a lot harder to fulfill.

Proposals pushed by Democratic lawmakers to raise the federal minimum wage to $15, expand workers’ ability to form unions and rewrite years of U.S. law form the cornerstone of Biden’s labor agenda. But if Republican Mitch McConnell stays in charge of the Senate, it’s unlikely that any push for collective bargaining rights or wage hikes would advance even if Biden wins the presidency.

“I am concerned about it,” Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers, said in an interview.

Unions had high hopes for the election, spending $188 million backing Democratic candidates and voting for Biden in larger numbers than the general electorate did. They were also a major source of grassroots organizing power for the party.

Yet Democrats failed to win in many Senate battlegrounds this week, and both parties are still short of a majority in the chamber. Georgia is now the key to control of the Senate, with both of the state’s races appearing likely to head to runoffs in early January.

Despite the disappointing results, Weingarten and other union leaders say they’re not giving up. She says there will be “a real fight” to enact Democrats’ PRO Act in a GOP-controlled Senate, a bill that Biden has backed as a major priority of his administration that would vastly expand workers’ ability to form unions.

But passing that legislation and raising the federal minimum wage to $15 may be unachievable with GOP control of the Senate. House Democrats’ faced major headwinds from red-state members of their own caucus when pushing for the Raise the Wage Act, which the chamber passed July 18.

Enacting the most progressive reforms largely hinged “on taking over the Senate and either winning enough votes to make the filibuster unimportant or dealing with the filibuster,” Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), who serves on the Health Education and Labor Committee, said.

A Biden administration could still get a lot done if it “puts the right people” in the Labor Department, Levin said, “but there’s no fundamental reform.”

Biden will also have to weigh how much political capital he wants to risk with the powerful business lobby — which has billed the Democrats’ proposals as potential job killers and warned that putting any more liability on businesses could stymie the economic recovery from the coronavirus.

Some in the business community pointed to 2009, when newly elected President Barack Obama fell silent on a key labor-backed bill, the Employee Free Choice Act, despite endorsing it in the 2008 campaign and calling it a top priority.

Even with a 60-vote Democratic Senate supermajority, the party couldn’t pass the bill, which would have allowed unions to represent workers based on the informal collection of signed authorization forms, known as card check, instead of an NLRB-supervised secret ballot election.

The labor movement will keep pushing for its agenda, despite the shaky odds of full Democratic control of Congress, said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

“We’ll figure out a way to get it done eventually,” Trumka said on a press call Thursday. “And we’ll have popular support. There are a number of legislative vehicles that we use; we will try everything we can.”

Weingarten said she is optimistic about Biden’s chances to find some bipartisanship in a divided Washington. “Given who Joe Biden is,” she said, “he uniquely will help demonstrate to these hard-core Republican senators and to the business community that long-term it’s in everyone’s interest to rebuild the middle class.“

Other labor leaders agreed that they don’t plan to tamp down their expectations of Biden’s labor agenda even if Republicans win control of the Senate, a result that won’t be known until January with the likely Georgia runoff elections.

“We are going to stay fiercely committed to demanding that the House, Senate and president take dramatic, bold action on curbing the pandemic and creating good jobs that people can feed their families on, and by tackling racial and inequality and the climate crisis,” Mary Kay Henry, international president of the 2 million-member Service Employees International Union, told POLITICO.

Major unions like SEIU organized canvassing drives and texting campaigns in swing states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Nevada. Union members overall were more likely to support Biden than voters generally, with 57 percent of union households backing him compared to 51 percent of non-union households, according to The New York Times’ exit polling.

But labor leaders say President Donald Trump aided the GOP’s performance by giving working people a message — albeit a false one — that they wanted to hear: Covid-19 will end after Election Day.

“If you’re tired of COVID, and you’re fatigued by COVID, and you’re anxious to get back to your job and your work or your small business is teetering, you want to believe that,” Weingarten said.

“You can’t underestimate the social isolation that has happened in America, since the start of this terrible pandemic,” she said.

Other leaders blamed Democrats’ performance in congressional races on freshman lawmakers, who are usually the most vulnerable in their efforts to get reelected.

“Democrats can also always do a better job of talking about kitchen table economics,” said Trumka. “I tell them that every single time that I meet with them, but many of the losses that we saw on the House side, were in districts with first-time Democratic seats.”

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich said a Biden presidency could be the last chance for unions to secure an expansion of labor rights before restrictions on collective bargaining drown out their influence.

“As organized labor declines in numbers and percentage of the workforce, it has less political clout,” said Reich, who served under President Bill Clinton. “So it’s a death spiral.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on November 6, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Eleanor Mueller is a legislative reporter for POLITICO Pro, covering policy passing through Congress. She also authors Day Ahead, POLITICO Pro’s daily newsletter rounding up Capitol Hill goings-on.


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California proves it’s not as liberal as you think

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OAKLAND, Calif. — The myth of lockstep liberal California took a hit this election.

Voters in the deep-blue state rejected a progressive push to reinstate affirmative action, sided with technology companies over organized labor and rejected rent control. They are poised to reject a business tax that had been a decadeslong priority for labor unions and Democratic leaders.

President Donald Trump regularly portrays California as a land of complete liberal excess, and Democrat Joe Biden currently has 65 percent of California’s vote. Yet decisions on ballot measures this week reflect a state that remains unpredictable, flashing a libertarian streak with a tinge of fiscal moderation within its Democratic moorings.https://e3b374dfacf220d92b4c6008a9eb8004.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

“We’re not going to go for everything that’s progressive,” said Mindy Romero, head of the University of Southern California’s Center for Inclusive Democracy. “We think of ourselves as such a progressive state, and I’ve always said we’re a blue state but really we’re many shades of blue.”

California has long been an incubator for policies that go national, so industries and labor unions know that winning a ballot fight here has much wider implications. Already, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said Thursday that he wants to build on his California success by pursuing the same law in other states and nations. And just as the state’s 1996 affirmative action ban touched off a similar set of laws across the nation, the California vote this week could deter other states from trying to reinstate racial or gender preferences.

The ballot outcomes underscore that California voters are not a liberal monolith even as Democrats enjoy unprecedented control in the state that produced Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon.

Liberals thought 2020 was their moment to secure long-desired changes: California’s electorate has steadily more diverse and Democratic in recent decades, relegating its once-mighty Republican Party to the political margins. A deeply galvanizing presidential election tantalized liberal groups as a potential high-water mark for turnout and a chance to enshrine ambitious ideas.

Decades after a more Republican California electorate curtailed property tax increases in 1978 and banned affirmative action in 1996, campaigns believed that demographic shifts would produce different outcomes a generation later.

But they seemingly miscalculated. There was no bigger example than voters’ decisive rejection of Proposition 16. The ballot measure would have reinstated affirmative action and directly repudiated what liberals consider a racist chapter of California’s recent past.

State lawmakers, inspired by a summer of racial justice activism, saw a rare window to repeal Proposition 209, the 1996 law backed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican widely blamed for turning Latino voters against the GOP for good in the state. The affirmative action ban passed when California still had a white majority population, and it was the second major wedge issue initiative that Wilson championed.

Many of the Democratic lawmakers of color who placed the repeal measure on this year’s ballot were inspired to enter politics during that divisive era. They saw Proposition 16 as not only a legal change but a moral imperative — and figured voters would as well.

The ballot measure had a clear cash advantage with $31 million from wealthy activist donors and foundations, compared to only $1.6 million raised by opponents. Yet it failed badly, securing only 44 percent support as of Thursday.

California is not uniformly liberal. It is still home to millions of Republicans, while the ever-larger Democratic tent includes plenty of moderates. And the state’s booming minority population still lags in voter participation.

“We have a history of being a more red state,” Romero said. “A big reason why California is blue is because of the growth of communities of color, most dominantly because of the growth of the Latino community,” but “it does matter the shape of the electorate. We still have a voting electorate that is white, wealthier, better educated than the rest of our population.”

Democrats saw a chance to go after another long-sought target: commercial property tax hikes.

Since its passage in 1978, Proposition 13 has been blamed for starving governments and schools of tax dollars by keeping property taxes low relative to the soaring value of housing and commercial real estate in California. Liberals acknowledge the political reality that they can’t convince homeowners to repeal Prop 13 provisions on residential property, often called the third rail of California politics. But they have long wanted to untether business property from the same protections.

Unions, education groups and the foundation started by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg were so convinced that November 2020 was their best opportunity that they gathered enough signatures for the ballot twice, the second one taking revisions they believed were an easier sell. It landed on the ballot as Proposition 15.

They presumed that high turnout from liberals and anti-Trump voters would translate into an anti-business vote; their ads regularly featured white businessmen in board rooms as a foil. Yet the initiative is poised to lose, trailing with only 48.3 percent of the vote.

Former Assemblymember Catharine Baker, a moderate Republican who was the last GOP lawmaker from the Bay Area, suggested Prop 15’s failure could “be an example of how a gigamajority Legislature might have not its finger on the pulse of the California electorate.”

The pandemic loomed inescapably over the election and reshaped campaigns’ appeals to voters. On Proposition 15, for example, backers argued they needed the money more than ever during a debilitating recession, while opponents countered that it would be foolish to further burden reeling businesses. The message of economic caution appeared to resonate, Baker said.

“There’s just no embrace right now for Californians, many of whom are suffering economically, for more taxes, the possible cost of that, and any closure of economic activity,” Baker said. “It’s made all the worse by the pandemic, in a time like this you want people to be able to make a living and be able to afford living here.”

Yet, the California electorate defies easy conclusions. The criminal justice landscape was a mixed bag after a year of surging activism. Voters handily rejected law enforcement’s effort to increase property crime sentences and limit early prison releases. They overwhelmingly voted to enfranchise felony parolees. Progressive Los Angeles district attorney candidate George Gascón built an early lead over incumbent District Attorney Jackie Lacey in a bellwether contest for criminal justice reform.

But Californians voted to keep cash bail, repudiating a 2019 law that sought to prohibit it and undercutting a state-by-state movement to eliminate the practice. In rejecting Proposition 25, the electorate sided with bail companies that spent millions to stay in business. They also vindicated civil libertarians and criminal justice advocates who warned a replacement system of predictive algorithms would perpetuate discrimination.

Those dynamics led the bail bonds industry to adopt the rhetoric of criminal justice reformers in warning about systemic bias — a tactic that reflected a calculation that progressive messages would resonate with voters.

“I think they knew they had to in order to win,” said Democratic strategist Katie Merrill. “You can’t win statewide in California on issues unless you are appealing to Democrats and progressives, and they knew they had to do it.”

Those licking their wounds this week pointed to one thing: money.

They said massive campaign spending can be a better predictor than partisan affiliation when it comes to ballot initiatives. Health care unions failed again to rein in kidney dialysis providers after they were outspent enormously by the dialysis industry’s $100 million counterattack. Real estate groups poured money into defeating a second consecutive rent control initiative.

But nowhere was cash clout more evident than in a battle over the tech industry’s employment practices. Homegrown Silicon Valley giants like Uber shattered state spending records by plowing more than $200 million into Proposition 22, which allows them to circumvent a state mandate to convert their independent contractor workers into employees. That massive outlay was enough to surmount unified labor opposition.

“I don’t know if we should be looking at this as progressive versus not progressive or if we should be looking at the overwhelming impact that money has in campaigns,” said Sandra Lowe, a Democratic consultant and former top California Democratic Party strategist. “It’s pretty hard to compete against $200 million of advertisements and most of the people that’s the only thing they know, is what they’re seeing on their television.”

Democratic strategist Michael Trujillo echoed that sentiment, noting that for all of organized labor’s political California clout, “labor’s money isn’t infinite.” Well-funded special interest groups were better able to sway critical Democrats, he said.

“California’s a liberal, Democratic state so if Democrats want to get an initiative passed it’s really on the backs of Democrats,” Trujillo said, and “for the most part, the folks that were able to get their message through in a very expensive state like California tended to do well.”

Some campaigns likely had a harder time breaking through airwave saturation and mailbox inundation of other big-money measures, said Public Policy Institute of California president Mark Baldassare. That may have been the case with affirmative action, which failed despite polls showing widespread support for racial equity measures. Though backers had $31 million, that was a fraction of the money other campaigns had to blitz voters.

“It was a very difficult landscape for other ballot initiatives to get attention and get support for voters,” which often means people default to voting no, Baldassare said. “The connecting of dots in some cases just didn’t take place.”

Still, Republican consultant Rob Stutzman pushed back on the notion that cash mismatches were the sole determining factor in organized labor getting “creamed at the ballot.”

If money exclusively swung elections, Stutzman argued on a post-election panel, “there would be 60 Democratic senators as well,” referring to cash-soaked challenges to GOP senators like Mitch McConnell, John Cornyn and Lindsey Graham, all of whom won.

This article was originally published by Politico on November 12, 2020 Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jeremy B. White co-writes the California Playbook and covers politics in the Golden State. He previously covered the California Legislature for the Sacramento Bee, where he reported on campaigns, myriad nationally significant policy clashes and multiple FBI investigations of sitting lawmakers.

He has a bachelor’s degree in English from Tufts University and a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. A native of Bethesda, Maryland, one of his life dreams is to throw out the first pitch at a Washington Nationals game — although he would settle for winning a playoff series. He lives in Oakland with his partner and his cat, Ziggy Pawdust.


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The Movement for Black Lives and Labor’s Revival

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The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis ignited the most widespread series of protests in U.S. history. Working people—not only Black, but people of all races—were the driving force. Even labor leaders who are usually reluctant to weigh in on hot social issues spoke out.

The challenge now is to bring the militancy and energy of this year’s revived Black struggle into the workplace—amid the coronavirus-driven economic crisis.

A deep look at U.S. labor history shows that labor can make big steps forward when Black workers are in motion in their communities. In our past, a mobilized Black community has brought the energy and self-confidence of powerful collective action in the streets into workplace organizing. It’s also brought a grassroots orientation that challenges top-down conservatism.

Will the same be true for unions today?

PANDEMIC POTENTIAL

The potential could be glimpsed in the early weeks of the pandemic, when union and non-union workers alike took action over unsafe working conditions, in worksites ranging from hospitals to Amazon warehouses to grocery stores. Because so many “essential workers” are Black and Latino, they were often at the center of the action, from Detroit bus drivers to Pittsburgh sanitation workers to Georgia poultry workers.

What makes the Black Lives Matter protests so important isn’t just their size. It’s the fact that demonstrators are linking the struggle against racist police violence to the whole racist system. The basketball players’ walkout in August highlighted the connection between racism in society and at the workplace.

Black workers have never drawn a line between civil rights in the community and worker rights on the job. That has everything to do with the central role Black labor has always played in the U.S. economy, from the unpaid labor of slavery to the low wages paid to Black workers by modern industrialists to boost profits.

STREETS TO WORKPLACE

Labor history shows that Black workers don’t protest in the streets while keeping quiet at work.

Black workers were key to labor’s 1930s upsurge in many industries, particularly in the South, even if many Southern struggles were ultimately unsuccessful. In the Midwest, the steel, auto, and meatpacking industries could not have been unionized had not rank-and-file organizers, including socialists of all currents, taken on the racism of the companies—and often of their white co-workers.

Many workplaces and unions at the time were Jim Crow—barred to Black workers. In New York City, a Black community boycott of two privately owned bus lines in 1941 forced the companies to hire Black workers.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Black workers were the driving force of the Southern civil rights movement. A key strategist of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56—the breakthrough struggle of the civil rights movement—was E.D. Nixon, the Alabama president of an all-Black railroad union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Nixon was among those who worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., then a dynamic but largely unknown 27-year-old preacher. The Brotherhood was a key connection between Black union members in Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland and mostly non-union Southern workers.

The Southern civil rights movement prodded the highly conservative AFL-CIO bureaucracy into supporting it, even as nearly all-white building trades unions kept fighting to maintain a color bar into the 1960s. More generally, the level of mobilization in the Black community and the confidence that came with winning the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 reinforced the desire to fight at work as well.

PUBLIC SECTOR STRIKE WAVE

The Southern Black struggle then came North in the form of the Black Power movement. By then Black workers represented big numbers in major industrial unions, such as auto and steel. Black workers were an essential part of—and often a leading force in—the strike wave that began in the mid-1960s.

That period saw a massive expansion of public sector unionism, with Black workers a key component. The welfare rights movement in New York City, with Black women at the center, is one example. That movement was linked to social workers’ unionization efforts in the Social Services Employees Union, an independent organization that struck in defiance of the law and got the support of King and other civil rights leaders as well as community groups. SSEU helped open the way for AFSCME’s recognition and formal public sector bargaining rights in New York.

The assassination of Dr. King led to street rebellions across the U.S. in 1968. Three months later, in auto, Black workers’ Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) led a 1968 wildcat over speedup and discrimination, which spurred similar organizations and strikes elsewhere in auto and in other industries. The workers also took on internal struggles in the United Auto Workers. The UAW had been willing to support the Southern civil rights movement and the 1963 March on Washington, but it sought to suppress Black members’ demands internally.

The 1970 national postal wildcat was strongest in the big cities of the Northeast and Midwest, strongholds for Black workers. Black workers were the absolute majority of postal workers in Chicago, Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Detroit. That job action was likely the largest-ever Black participation in a strike.

Labor struggles of the late 1960s and 1970s were widespread and certainly not limited to Black workers. But the militancy of Black workers was an essential ingredient. Could that same dynamic emerge today?

AN OUTSIZED ROLE

Potentially. But this time Black workers—and their Latino, Asian, and white co-workers—will have to undertake the basic task of union organization on a much greater scale. In 1970, more than 24 percent of workers belonged to unions. The Black Power movement could therefore find a connection in heavily Black unionized workplaces in auto and the post office. Today the path from protest to the workplace is more difficult.

But the same dynamic still exists. The Fight for 15 movement, even though it did not result in union contracts, won a $15 minimum wage through legislation in some states and cities in large part because of the participation of low-wage Black workers. And Black workers are more likely to be in unions than any other group.

Certainly, Black workers have lost important footholds in the unions over the last few decades, with plant closures and shifts of production to the largely non-union South. And now the pandemic economic shutdown has hammered the hospitality and service economy, leading to layoffs in union hotels that hit Black and Latino workers particularly hard.

But Black workers are still a strong component of labor’s remaining base in the private sector, such as auto and UPS, and in the public sector, where they are 20 percent of the total. That means Black workers have an outsized role to play in any resistance to pandemic-driven government budget cuts.

The Chicago Teachers Union’s strikes of 2012 and 2019 showed how a bold union can win public support for demands that address racist realities. The CTU fought for “The Schools Our Children Deserve,” for Black teachers facing job loss, for rent control and sustainable housing and services for homeless students, and against evictions. The potential for such connections is much wider after the anti-racism protests of 2020.

It’s a huge fight. But it always has been. The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 give labor activists the opportunity to revive that tradition.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on October 27, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tim Schermerhorn is a retired transit worker in New York City and a former vice president of Transport Workers Union Local 100. Lee Sustar is a journalist in Chicago and member of the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981.


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Unions predict a Great Awakening during a Biden presidency

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Labor leaders are eyeing a Joe Biden victory in November as the start of a union revival, one with the potential to undo decades of policies that have diminished union influence, undermined the right to organize and exacerbated income inequality.

And they’re planning on playing a central role.

“It’s clear to me it’s going to be the most significant pro-labor, pro-worker administration in a long, long, long time,” said Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters — the first union to endorse Biden during the Democratic primary.

Reversing America’s decades-long decline in union membership, however, will be a difficult task for even the most labor-friendly administration. Just over 10 percent of workers were represented by unions last year, according to Labor Department data — a share that has been cut in half since 1983. And unless Democrats win the Senate as well as the White House, it will be an uphill battle for Biden to move any of the legislation union leaders are advocating for.

Labor officials have reason to be confident, though, that they’ll have a line into the Biden administration, should he win next month’s election. The former vice president and veteran senator has longstanding relationships with union leaders built over more than 40 years in politics.

He’s already named two union presidents — Teresa Romero of the United Farm Workers and Lonnie Stephenson of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers — to his transition team’s advisory board. At least five others served as members of the unity task forces Biden set up with Sen. Bernie Sanders over the summer, which published formal policy recommendations that helped shape the Democratic Party’s official platform.

Many expect Biden to appoint a union leader to his Cabinet — the Departments of Labor and Education are most often mentioned — or in senior positions throughout various agencies. And he has pledged to create a Cabinet-level working group comprised of labor representatives, “that will solely focus on promoting union organizing and collective bargaining.”

His policy plans across the board are peppered with references to expanding the right to join a union. And senior campaign officials, led by Biden’s longtime confidant and campaign aide Steve Ricchetti, have been holding a biweekly evening call with union leaders to keep them apprised of campaign developments and to allow them to offer their input.

“He’s doing more of this outreach than any other candidate that I’ve known on the Democratic side,” said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, who has been with his union since the late 1970s. “When he talks about organized labor, when he talks about the importance of unions, he really means it.”

Still, it’s an open question whether the labor movement can convince Biden and his team that it is worth spending the “political capital that will have to be spent in order to get major labor law reforms,” said Robert Reich, a former Labor secretary under Bill Clinton.

“It’s a chicken and egg problem,” Reich said. “Because right now, organized labor doesn’t have very much clout.”

And labor allies warn that Biden’s ability to enact changes will depend in large part on whether Democrats regain control of the Senate in November. Pushback from Biden supporters throughout corporate America, employers who might not want to see a resurgence of unions, could also hinder any effort.

That makes the Biden transition preparations, which involve vetting possible Cabinet appointees, plotting out policy priorities and strategizing on how to implement them, a crucial time period.

“I’m very confident that we’re being afforded and will be afforded an opportunity to offer our view and opinion on key positions and personnel that will become part of the administration,” Schaitberger said.

Saunders and other union leaders interviewed by POLITICO also said they have been engaged with senior members of Biden’s transition team, and many are preparing policy memos to share with the team if Biden wins. They emphasize their personal ties to the former vice president, and the interactions they’ve had with him, as evidence of how much he will do for them if he wins.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said Biden was her union’s “go-to person” in the Obama administration, and AFT members are currently engaged with members of his transition team.

Teachers are encouraged by Biden’s pledge to tap an educator to lead the Department of Education and feel connected to his wife, Jill Biden, a longtime community college professor, said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association. Construction workers are hopeful about Biden’s commitment to deliver an infrastructure plan — something President Donald Trump promised but failed to produce — and to create American jobs in the process, said Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Union.

From a labor perspective, Biden’s long record is not spotless. He voted in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement as a senator, a move some union members still hold against him. More recently, as a member of the Obama administration, he’s faced criticism for failing to push through the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made it easier for workers to form unions.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on October 9, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Megan Cassella is a trade reporter for POLITICO Pro. Before joining POLITICO in June 2016, Megan worked for Reuters based out of Washington, covering the economy, domestic politics and the 2016 presidential campaign.


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A Bunch of Union Organizers Explain What’s Wrong with Unions

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Here is the most fun­da­men­tal quandary of unions in Amer­i­ca: Polls show that 65% of Amer­i­cans approve of unions, and half of work­ers say they would join a union. But only about 10% of work­ers are actu­al­ly union mem­bers. In the yawn­ing gap between those num­bers lies the entire sto­ry of the Amer­i­can labor movement’s decline. 

The sys­tem­at­ic decades-long assault on labor pow­er by right-wing busi­ness inter­ests is the biggest con­trib­u­tor to union weak­ness, but by itself it is not a suf­fi­cient expla­na­tion. Why is there such an enor­mous dis­par­i­ty between the num­ber of peo­ple who want to be union mem­bers, and the num­ber who are union mem­bers? And how do unions close that divide? There is no short­age of opin­ions on these ques­tions, but we asked the one group of peo­ple who know the most and appear in the media the least: pro­fes­sion­al union organizers. 

A dozen orga­niz­ers respond­ed to our call and shared their thoughts about how unions got so deep in a hole, and how to get out. 

How did we get here?

Fear

“I do not hon­est­ly believe it is pos­si­ble to sep­a­rate ‘polit­i­cal issues’ from that gap between sup­port and mem­ber­ship. Yes, stuff like Right to Work and anti-work­er Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board appoint­ments harm work­ing peo­ple, but right-wing aus­ter­i­ty, gut­ting of the pub­lic safe­ty net, and lack of uni­ver­sal health cov­er­age is a huge fac­tor here as well. To me, the biggest rea­son peo­ple don’t join a union or orga­nize their work­place is because their boss has too much pow­er over their lives. When I worked on an exter­nal new orga­niz­ing cam­paign at Unit­ed Health­care Work­ers West I spent a ton of time talk­ing with work­ers who were ter­ri­fied of los­ing their job if they orga­nized or pub­licly sup­port­ed the union because it would mean los­ing health­care cov­er­age or finan­cial ruin for their fam­i­ly. A lot of peo­ple tru­ly just feel lucky to have a job. And while in the­o­ry, yes, they would love to have a union, they are more afraid of rock­ing the boat. I went to work on the Bernie cam­paign with the pur­pose of try­ing to change that. While card check or the Pro­tect­ing the Right to Orga­nize (PRO) Act would cer­tain­ly make it eas­i­er to win unions and first con­tracts, until los­ing your job does­n’t mean los­ing your health­care cov­er­age and abil­i­ty to cov­er rent, it is always going to be an uphill battle.”

— Dan­ny Keane, orga­niz­er-rep­re­sen­ta­tive with Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU) 221

Ser­vice unionism

“I’ve seen union-bust­ing both hard and soft, and these employ­ers have got­ten so good at nar­row­ing the focus of the union. Sure, peo­ple sup­port unions in broad strokes, but when it gets down to the pos­si­bil­i­ty of you form­ing a union, the boss is so good at either scar­ing peo­ple or con­vinc­ing peo­ple that union dues are not a worth­while ‘invest­ment.’

While right-wing forces have eager­ly tried to turn unions into irrel­e­vant third par­ties, unions have alien­at­ed them­selves from work­ers as well. I think that unions have sim­ply shift­ed away from empow­er­ing work­ers. Through an overzeal­ous focus on con­tract enforce­ment through griev­ances and through some anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic mea­sures, unions have, in effect, made them­selves a third par­ty to the work­ers. These shifts did­n’t hap­pen overnight, and I think inten­tions behind them were good, just misguided.

Take griev­ances, for instance, which appear to be a win-win: Work­ers get their issues heard with legal sup­port, and unions get to jus­ti­fy their increas­ing­ly bureau­crat­ic struc­tures by bog­ging them­selves down in the drawn-out griev­ance pro­ce­dure. But in the long-term, rely­ing too much on the griev­ance sys­tem hurts work­er pow­er. Griev­ance pro­ce­dures are pur­pose­ful­ly slow and bureau­crat­ic, and, by design, griev­ances are lim­it­ed sole­ly to nar­row con­tract enforce­ment. They take the pow­er out of the work­ers’ hands and put the deci­sions into the hands of lawyers and an osten­si­bly neu­tral arbi­tra­tor. They lim­it work­ers’ imag­i­na­tions from dream­ing of ways to improve and trans­form their work­places. And they turn the union into a third-par­ty ser­vice that tries to clean up mess­es for the price of biweek­ly dues.

Unions have also tak­en anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic mea­sures inter­nal­ly. I think that work­ers are large­ly shut out from the cam­paign deci­sion mak­ing that union staffers lead. As orga­niz­ers, we’re trained to fol­low the work­ers’ lead, but I see that teach­ing only goes so far. While I respect the per­spec­tive that trained orga­niz­ers know the best prac­tices for orga­niz­ing, I believe that work­ers know their employ­ers and their indus­tries best and need to be more includ­ed in the deci­sions that affect orga­niz­ing campaigns.”

— Daniel Luis Zager, Cam­paign Orga­niz­er at SEIU Health­care-Illi­nois Indi­ana Mis­souri Kansas

The nature of the mod­ern workplace

“Even before the pan­dem­ic length­ened aver­age hours worked by those still employed, work­ing an eight-hour work­day does­n’t leave much time for all else that needs to get done. Com­mit­ting to week­ly orga­niz­ing meet­ings and hours of one-to-one con­ver­sa­tions with cowork­ers—the back­bone of any union cam­paign—is daunt­ing, and for many, unten­able. The work­ers who have the most to gain from a union at their com­pa­ny—those who are over-worked, under­paid, and under-val­ued—are also the most like­ly to take on sec­ond or third jobs and man­age care-tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ties that make it hard­er to engage in a sus­tained union cam­paign. And unfor­tu­nate­ly, because of the nec­es­sary clan­des­tine nature of orga­niz­ing efforts, these meet­ings must take place out­side of the work­place, off work time, and through tedious (yet illu­mi­nat­ing) conversations.

Those who see issues in their work­place and would be most sup­port­ive of a union are often ones who are on their way out of a com­pa­ny. While there’s sim­i­lar­ly a con­tin­gent of work­ers who orga­nize because they love their com­pa­ny and want it to be a place they can remain employed long-term, there are always work­place lead­ers whose per­sis­tent griev­ances push them to sim­ply find a new job instead of com­mit­ting to a long campaign.

Along those same lines, the ‘career jobs’ of the past are large­ly lost in the 21st cen­tu­ry. Even those who are sat­is­fied with their jobs and enjoy the work are encour­aged to con­tin­ue gain­ing skills else­where for fear they’ll lose their edge, or miss out on oppor­tu­ni­ties else­where. The decline in long-term com­mit­ments to employ­ers pos­es chal­lenges for union cam­paigns, whose core philoso­phies rely on work­ers dig­ging into their own self inter­est and orga­niz­ing around the kind of work­place they desire. If employ­ees already see them­selves leav­ing with­in two to five years at any giv­en com­pa­ny, putting in the work it takes to build a union may not add up.

We are taught to see our­selves as mobile employ­ees who are poised to climb the lad­der in our work­place. Receiv­ing a pro­mo­tion to a man­age­ment posi­tion is aspi­ra­tional. And once in that man­age­ment or super­vi­so­ry posi­tion, employ­ees are no longer eli­gi­ble for a union. Even if a major­i­ty of work­ers sup­port unions and would like to see one in their own work­place, the dis­tance between see­ing them­selves as ‘work­ers’ who would be part of that, and their own endeav­ors to pro­mote out of the union-eli­gi­ble des­ig­na­tion, can be great.”

— Grace Reck­ers, north­east lead orga­niz­er, Office and Pro­fes­sion­al Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union

Polar­iza­tion

“Over 20 years of gen­er­a­tional change, [the old demo­graph­ics of affin­i­ty for unions] has fad­ed a lot, and atti­tudes to union­iza­tion break down much more clear­ly along con­ven­tion­al right to left lines. Younger peo­ple and non­white peo­ple and lib­er­als or Democ­rats—espe­cial­ly African Amer­i­cans—are the main sup­port­ers, and white, work­ing-class peo­ple—espe­cial­ly old­er ones—have as a group slot­ted unions in with the rest of right-left issues. The same polit­i­cal polar­iza­tion that exists in most oth­er issues, basically.

Addi­tion­al dynam­ics have been: The youngest gen­er­a­tion in the work­force now is the most left-wing and inter­est­ed in redis­tri­b­u­tion, but also has the least famil­iar­i­ty with any of the con­cepts of unions and is not nec­es­sar­i­ly strong like­ly union supporters.

There is an increas­ing­ly region­al back­ground to whether unions are a thing you see oper­ate. Blue states and red states have become much more polar­ized on labor stuff than the sim­ple Right to Work map indi­cates. Blue states like New Eng­land, the West Coast and the North­east have become much more proac­tive in work­ing with unions to union­ize more peo­ple and get them some stuff, and red or pur­ple states (espe­cial­ly the whole Mid­west) have got­ten much more hos­tile to that stuff.

The edu­ca­tion­al polar­iza­tion we see on right to left stuff has become a huge fac­tor in whether young, work­ing-class peo­ple want to union­ize. Indus­tries pop­u­lat­ed with poor, younger adults who are gen­er­al­ly overe­d­u­cat­ed like (ahem) dig­i­tal media or high­er edu­ca­tion, are super ripe slam dunks where you can trans­form an indus­try with hot-shop orga­niz­ing. Ones with most­ly poor­er, younger adults who are not edu­cat­ed, and are not most­ly based in urban areas, like retail and sup­ply chain logis­tics, have had cold work­ers that are not respon­sive enough to union dri­ves to make win­ning a pos­si­bil­i­ty. (Part of the equa­tion hold­ing them back, of course, is how that gen­er­a­tion of big-box retail and its sup­ply chain were built from scratch in such a way that unions could be kept out com­plete­ly and any rare com­po­nent that got infect­ed could be eas­i­ly shut down and dis­solved. But there’s an atti­tu­di­nal dif­fer­ence in the con­stituen­cies as well.)

A bright spot excep­tion to this has been fast food where, despite the work­force being young and not edu­cat­ed and rarely stay­ing long at par­tic­u­lar jobs, peo­ple just hate their job and boss so much they are eager to unionize. 

What I find myself want­i­ng to impress upon fel­low labor-fan left­ies is this: It is tru­ly not just the unfair play­ing field, or the pow­er of the boss’s fight to scare peo­ple, that pre­vents a major­i­ty of a work­place from vot­ing to union­ize. In many many work­places, skep­ti­cism and dis­in­ter­est in doing a col­lec­tive fight thing is wide­spread, organ­ic and real among the major­i­ty in the mid­dle. Not among social sci­ence adjuncts, or jour­nal­ists, or in large urban ser­vice job clus­ters where almost all the work­ers are poor and non­white. In those types of work­places, I think any com­pe­tent orga­niz­ing pro­gram should be able to grow the union. But in places that reflect the edu­ca­tion­al or polit­i­cal diver­si­ty of the coun­try as a whole, I think you’re work­ing with few­er total sup­port­ers and that’s why you wind up chas­ing stuff like card check neutrality.”

— Jim Straub, vet­er­an union organizer

The orga­niz­ing model

“The shop-by-shop mod­el of union­iz­ing in the Unit­ed States makes it real­ly hard to scale orga­niz­ing. It sad­dles both union orga­niz­ers and employ­ees who want a union with a ton of strate­gic, legal and bureau­crat­ic work just to orga­nize a work­place of even five or 10 peo­ple. It’s as if any work­er who want­ed health­care had to form their own insur­ance com­pa­ny before sign­ing up. We need to build a new mod­el—like sec­toral or mul­ti-employ­er bar­gain­ing—so we can orga­nize entire indus­tries together.

Often those most in need of unions have the least resources and band­width to form them. Staff work­ing long hours in dan­ger­ous or over­whelm­ing jobs just don’t have the band­width to sit on a bunch of evening Zoom calls to learn the ins and outs of deter­min­ing an appro­pri­ate bar­gain­ing unit under the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act (NLRA). The only way to bridge this gap would be if unions had the resources to offer more orga­niz­ing sup­port to work­places that need it.

A lot of work­ers ‘sup­port unions’ but think they are for oth­er work­ers. ‘White col­lar’ work­ers in par­tic­u­lar think unions are for work­ers in oth­er eras, in oth­er indus­tries, at oth­er work­places. Help­ing peo­ple under­stand that if they sell their labor then they are a part of the work­ing class and deserve a union is often the first hur­dle. More broad­ly, our coun­try doesn’t teach or cel­e­brate col­lec­tive action as some­thing peo­ple should aspire to par­tic­i­pate in. In fact, many peo­ple inter­nal­ize the idea that orga­niz­ing is incon­sis­tent with the idea of becom­ing a leader in their field.”

— Daniel Ess­row, orga­niz­er, Non­prof­it Pro­fes­sion­al Employ­ees Union

No pop­u­lar labor history

“I find that there is a huge gap between peo­ple’s gen­er­al sup­port for unions and hav­ing any idea of how they real­ly work, what it takes to start one, etc. I think there are two pri­ma­ry and relat­ed rea­sons for this. One is that labor process­es are com­plex and arcane to most peo­ple. Elec­tions, griev­ances, Wein­garten rights, just cause, right to work—all of these terms are either total­ly for­eign to or com­plete­ly mis­un­der­stood by most non-union work­ers. I’m cur­rent­ly work­ing on a cam­paign in a Right to Work state, and many of the work­ers there thought Right to Work means unions are for­bid­den! Oth­ers tend to think that unions are some­thing for just fac­to­ry work­ers and the like, even though the ser­vice indus­try is [a rapid­ly grow­ing union­ized sec­tor]. Relat­ed­ly, I think many who sup­port­ed unions in that poll might have answered dif­fer­ent­ly if asked, ‘Would form­ing a union improve work­ing con­di­tions at your job?’ I see a lot of folks who gen­er­al­ly sup­port unions, but don’t see their field or com­pa­ny as being a place to organize. 

The oth­er is that labor his­to­ry and process­es aren’t part of our basic edu­ca­tion, nor are they ever explained or even real­ly ref­er­enced in the media. I think it’s a big issue that our his­to­ry lessons don’t gen­er­al­ly address the role of labor in increas­ing liv­ing stan­dards for work­ers glob­al­ly, nor any of the big laws (NLRA, Taft-Hart­ley) and what they have done. Why don’t we learn about the NLRA in high school when we study the New Deal or McCarthy­ism? How come we don’t learn about the Con­gress of Indus­tri­al Orga­ni­za­tions and the Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World, and the gains made by the work­ing class in that era?”

— Steven More­lock, orga­niz­er, Nation­al Nurs­es United

Hold my jacket…

“There’s always going to be a gulf between sup­port­ing some­thing in the abstract and being will­ing to risk your ass to achieve it in a real way. This is a dynam­ic that plays out on the ground dur­ing orga­niz­ing con­stant­ly, as you have plen­ty of peo­ple who are will­ing to sup­port the union, but don’t want to actu­al­ly be pub­lic about it. The anal­o­gy I use is some­one offer­ing to hold your jack­et before you get into a fight. Get­ting work­ers to over­come that fear is a key part of orga­niz­ing, and it maps out to the broad­er trend. Insti­tu­tion­al­ly, the union move­ment has tried to nar­row this divide through pass­ing laws like the Employ­ee Free Choice Act or the PRO Act that reduce the risk of orga­niz­ing a union. I don’t think that approach is a viable or real­is­tic option: I severe­ly doubt Con­gress will pass a ver­sion of the PRO Act if by some mir­a­cle Biden wins and the Democ­rats have undi­vid­ed con­trol of the Congress.”

— Bryan Con­lon, union organizer

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 7, 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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California Labor Federation Wins New Protections for Workers

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

Last Thursday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a package of bills to expand worker protections. The new state laws will provide a workers’ compensation presumption for front-line workers who are afflicted with infectious diseases on the job and a requirement for employers to give timely notification of COVID-19 cases in the workplace. The California Labor Federation, under the leadership of Executive Secretary-Treasurer Art Pulaski (IAM), took charge of the fight for these new policies. “Since the pandemic began, the California labor movement has strongly advocated for the most robust worker protection policies in the country. Today’s signing of a package of bills to bolster worker protections as the COVID-19 crisis continues shows our commitment as a state to policies that put the health and safety of workers first,” Pulaski said. “While more work must be done in 2021 to strengthen protections to ensure essential workers putting their lives at risk return home safely to their families after each shift, today the governor gave a much-needed boost to all workers across the state.”

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on September 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Restaurant Workers Are Building Solidarity Amid the Pandemic

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BOISE, IDA­HO—It was rain­ing light­ly June 29 when Geo Eng­ber­son, own­er of the Pie Hole pizze­ria, con­vened an emer­gency staff meet­ing. He had intend­ed a quick con­fer­ence in the park­ing lot behind the restau­rant, known for its steady stream of week­end bar-goers. Giv­en the weath­er, Eng­ber­son fer­ried the hand­ful of work­ers into his trailer. 

Ear­li­er that month, work­ers at the piz­za joint peti­tioned for an hourly wage bump. Wor­ried that Pie Hole was pre­pared to replace them, for­mer employ­ee Kiwi Palmer says, she and her cowork­ers refused to train new hires. This refusal trig­gered a conflict. 

In a record­ing of the trail­er meet­ing obtained by In These Times, Eng­ber­son says, “Kiwi, yes­ter­day you told [the man­ag­er] you wouldn’t train new hires, any scabs. That still how you feel?” 

When Palmer and fel­low work­er Mar­shall Har­ris reaf­firmed they would not train new hires, Eng­ber­son fired them. 

In the weeks since, the Pie Hole work­ers have orga­nized a series of pick­ets in front of the restau­rant. Call­ing them­selves the Pie Hole Work­ers Union, they filed a com­plaint with the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board alleg­ing the fir­ing was retal­ia­to­ry and vio­lat­ed their right to par­tic­i­pate in “con­cert­ed activ­i­ty” with­out reprisal. 

Eng­ber­son rejects the claim that Palmer and Har­ris were fired for orga­niz­ing and that the busi­ness planned to replace them. “We got busy, and we need­ed to hire more peo­ple,” Eng­ber­son tells In These Times. He adds, “I treat my employ­ees like fam­i­ly … and I don’t ever hear from them that they’re dis­grun­tled about their wages.” Eng­ber­son also says that, when he used the word “scabs,” he was quot­ing Palmer— not con­firm­ing the new work­ers were, in fact, scabs. 

The Pie Hole work­ers have found sup­port from the Boise chap­ter of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA), which has aid­ed in pick­ets and con­nect­ed them with DSA’s nation­al Restau­rant Orga­niz­ing Project. 

Beyond Boise, mul­ti­ple left-wing labor groups have tak­en on the cause of restau­rant orga­niz­ing. In addi­tion to its Restau­rant Orga­niz­ing Project, DSA has col­lab­o­rat­ed with the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (UE)—a demo­c­ra­t­ic, rank-and-file union—to advise work­ers on union dri­ves and work­place actions. Between the DSA projects and UE’s orga­niz­ing, the Left has tak­en a cen­tral role in pan­dem­ic-era organizing.

“We’ve seen a sig­nif­i­cant uptick in work­ers con­tact­ing us about orga­niz­ing from the restau­rant indus­try, and in the food ser­vice [and] hos­pi­tal­i­ty sec­tor more broad­ly,” UE orga­niz­er Mark Mein­ster says. “Work­ers are very con­cerned about the lack of safe­ty pro­tec­tions regard­ing Covid, the lack of paid sick leave and the drop in income many antic­i­pate as a result of serv­ing few­er customers.”

This wave of labor activism in hos­pi­tal­i­ty has already ush­ered in wins. In March, a coali­tion of New Orleans ser­vice and hos­pi­tal­i­ty work­ers cam­paigned to dis­burse reserves from the city’s con­ven­tion cen­ter direct­ly into the hands of work­ers; by April 22, the city agreed to pro­vide $1 mil­lion in grants to work­ers affect­ed by the pan­dem­ic. Some restau­rants in Philadel­phia, where hos­pi­tal­i­ty work­ers have orga­nized to end the sub­min­i­mum wage for servers and bar­tenders, have increased wages dur­ing the pandemic.

But the restau­rant indus­try remains dif­fi­cult to orga­nize, and union shops are still the extreme minor­i­ty, with union den­si­ty in accom­mo­da­tion and food ser­vice hov­er­ing around 2.1%.

At Augie’s Cof­fee, a chain in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, work­ers demon­strat­ed 70% sup­port for the Augie’s Union (rep­re­sent­ed by UE) and request­ed the com­pa­ny vol­un­tar­i­ly rec­og­nize their bar­gain­ing unit. The com­pa­ny then shut down oper­a­tions and laid off every­one in the cafés. Now, for­mer work­ers are cam­paign­ing for union recog­ni­tion and to be rehired.

“Peo­ple are so atom­ized, and the job they do is so tem­po­rary,” says Matthew Soliz, a barista orga­niz­ing with Augie’s Union. “I think for peo­ple my age and younger, unions aren’t real­ly a con­cept, right? Like, in talk­ing to my cowork­ers, the most com­mon response is, ‘I don’t real­ly know what that is.’ ”

Giv­en the chal­lenges, restau­rant work­ers are band­ing togeth­er across restau­rants and across cities. In Chica­go, New Orleans, Den­ver and Boise, restau­rant work­ers have formed city­wide sol­i­dar­i­ty orga­ni­za­tions. On July 24, work­ers around the coun­try marched to demand expand­ed ben­e­fits from unem­ploy­ment insurance.

“The fact that [DSA’s Restau­rant Orga­niz­ing Project] is grow­ing is evi­dence [that] A, we’re not crazy, and B, we’re not alone, and C, that there is sol­i­dar­i­ty that is grow­ing rapid­ly,” Har­ris says. “Inside of five weeks, I’ve gone from nev­er hav­ing done any of this to attempt­ing to orga­nize oth­er people.”

This article originally appeared at In These Times on September 29, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alice Herman is an In These Times Good­man Inves­tiga­tive Fel­low, as well as a writer based in Madi­son, Wis­con­sin, where she works at a restau­rant. She con­tributes reg­u­lar­ly to Isth­mus, Madison’s alt-week­ly, and The Pro­gres­sive magazine.


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