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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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Overturning Austerity 101: California’s Prop 15 Will Tax the Rich

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California’s November ballot will feature a challenge to the notorious Proposition 13, which in 1978 helped to inaugurate the decades-long neoliberal assault on labor.

Prop 13’s anti-tax, small government campaign, with a dog-whistle racist subtext, created a national template for conservatives to simultaneously attack public sector unions, public employees, and the people they served. For the right wing, this was the lab experiment for Austerity 101.

In a time of high inflation, Prop 13 exploited fear—older homeowners on fixed incomes were afraid that rising taxes would drive them out of their homes. It rolled back assessments to 1975 rates, set property taxes at 1 percent of value, and capped increases at 2 percent per year, no matter the inflation rate or the increase in market price of the property. When it passed, grandma breathed more easily.

But grandma was not the biggest beneficiary of Prop 13. The same rules applied to commercial property—including giant corporate-owned properties like Chevron and Disney. The consequent plunge in property tax revenues to local and state government forced enormous cuts to social programs and schools, led to layoffs of public employees, and established a new normal in the Golden State, described by former California Federation of Teachers president Raoul Teilhet as “poor services for poor people.”

ANSWER TO A DISASTER

Prop 15 is the long-awaited answer to this disaster. It’s the product of a 10-year-old coalition of unions and community groups, now known as Schools and Communities First, with a couple of previous progressive tax victories under its belt. Prop 15’s passage will mean commercial property is assessed at current market value, not purchase price, for tax purposes. In a non-COVID year that change will raise $10 to $12 billion for schools and local services. In the Pandemic Depression, it will mean a bulwark against soaring class sizes and public sector layoffs due to plunging tax revenues.

Carefully crafted after years of opinion research funded by public sector unions, it exempts commercial property below $3 million and all residential property, including rental units. It also eliminates a tax on business equipment that mostly affected small businesses.

The bulk of the campaign’s funding comes from two of the biggest unions in the state, the California Teachers Association (affiliated with the NEA) and the state council of the Service Employees (SEIU). But the backbone for the coalition over the years has been three organizations that spearheaded a Millionaires Tax ballot campaign in 2011: the California Federation of Teachers (the other statewide teacher union, affiliated with the AFT), California Calls, and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment.

They have been joined in the Schools and Communities First coalition by virtually the entire labor movement, as well as hundreds of community, civil, and immigrant rights organizations, and a seemingly odd bedfellow or two like the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife.

Although the measure is opposed by the usual suspects like the California Chamber of Commerce and the right-wing Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, some large commercial property owners like Facebook stand to gain from the measure: Prop 15 would level the playing field that currently gives an unfair tax advantage to older businesses that purchased their properties decades ago.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted signature gathering, initially causing worries whether the measure would qualify for the ballot, in fact the coalition had already pulled in a record-breaking 1.7 million signatures by the end of March. This was due to the scope of the coalition and a massive volunteer effort alongside paid signature collection.

EASY TO SELL

Until the coronavirus put a stop to it, I staffed a table on campus along with other members of my union, AFT 2121, which represents faculty at City College of San Francisco. One union sibling, Kathe Burick, a dance instructor, said, “I’ve never had such an easy time filling petitions. Students, staff, faculty, even administrators—as soon as they heard what Prop 15 would do, they signed.” Local 2121 contributed 1,600 signatures to the CFT’s 20,000. In all the campaign’s volunteers collected 225,000.

Passage of Prop 15 is not a slam dunk. By their nature progressive tax measures attract well-funded enemies who, in addition to their war chests, have few scruples about lying to the electorate. On August 6 a judge ruled that the election information guide mailed by the Secretary of State to every registered voter had to be changed to eliminate “false or misleading” arguments by opponents. One claimed Prop 15 would allow the legislature to raise taxes on homeowners.

Another common tactic is to muddy the waters by implying that the tax in question will affect everyone. Undaunted by the judge’s decision, a spokesperson for the opposition commented, “This one will be won once voters know that Prop 15 is a $12.5 billion tax increase they can’t afford.”

In fact Prop 15 will draw 92 percent of its revenues from just 10 percent of commercial property holders, a reflection of the concentration of wealth in a state that, if a country, would contain the world’s fifth-largest economy—yet can’t seem to find money to properly resource its schools and services.

In addition to the usual flood of misleading advertising, Yes on 15 activists face the challenges of a pandemic election. Without the ability to canvass in person, the campaign will have to rely on phone banking, text banking, virtual house meetings, and the like. It remains to be seen whether labor’s grassroots “people power” can be channeled as effectively as usual under such conditions. But the need and the momentum for progressive taxes are real.

The California Labor Federation emerged from its annual convention the first week in August—held on Zoom—with solid commitments on two November ballot initiatives: Yes on 15 and No on 22. The latter is an attempt by Uber and Lyft to reverse legislation passed earlier in the year that reclassified drivers from contractor status to employees.

Speaking at a recent Zoom rally for Prop 15 hosted by California chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America, United Teachers of Los Angeles President Cecily Myart-Cruz said, “We’ve got to be able to pass Schools and Communities First, as one measure, and then come back with another measure, and another, so that we make the rich pay their fair share.”

This blog originally appeared at LaborNotes on August 24, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Fred Glass is the retired communications director of the California Federation of Teachers, and the author of From Mission to Microchip: A History of the California Labor Movement (UC Press, 2016).


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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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