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Empowering Workers: Worker Wins

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Despite the challenges of organizing during a deadly pandemic, working people across the country (and beyond) continue organizing, bargaining and mobilizing for a better life. This edition begins with:

Baltimore County Public Library Employees Vote Overwhelmingly to Join IAM: Workers at the Baltimore County Public Library (BCPL) had a special reason to celebrate this holiday season. It was announced last week that 460 full-time and part-time library workers voted 77% in favor of forming a union with the Machinists (IAM). The successful vote comes after years of organizing, which included the IAM winning a new state law allowing BCPL employees to collectively bargain. “This is so exciting for Baltimore County Public Library workers,” said Anita Bass, a BCPL circulation assistant III at the Essex branch. “This will empower the staff of BCPL to continue to do the important work of fulfilling BCPL’s mission and vision. We need a system in place to protect and support each other, and a legally binding contract will give us that. I believe in the BCPL mission, and I know the IAM will help us accomplish that mission.” “Baltimore County Public Library employees have always been a critical pillar to our community, and now especially during the pandemic,” said IAM Grand Lodge Representative Bridget Fitzgerald, lead organizer on the campaign. “I could not be more proud of these professionals for joining together and standing strong for what they deserve. This is a victory for them, their families and all of Baltimore County, which rightfully relies on a strong and inclusive library system.”

SHoP Architects Employees Vote to Join Machinists: Employees at SHoP Architects in New York are seeking to become the first private sector architectural workers to successfully organize since the 1940s. More than 130 eligible employees at the firm have signed cards in support of forming a union with the IAM. The firm is known for work on the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and the Steinway Tower south of Central Park, among others. Workers are seeking to reduce their workload and increase pay, after they reported working long hours for pay that doesn’t allow them to pay off the thousands of dollars of student debt those in their field often accumulate. The organizing committee has asked SHoP for voluntary recognition and wants to start a conversation with SHoP’s partners on how to address the challenges they face—and begin making positive changes. “Many of us feel pushed to the limits of our productivity and mental health,” the members of the committee said. “These conditions have become detrimental to our lives and in extension the lives of our families. These concerns are the product of larger systemic issues within the discipline of architecture and are in no way unique to SHoP. From the moment we begin studying architecture, we are taught that great design requires endless time and effort, and in turn demands the sacrifice of personal health and relationships. We are taught that architecture is a greater calling and regardless of how the client is willing to compensate us, we will perform our duty because it is critically important for the greater good.”

Air Line Pilots at Sun Country Ratify Tentative New Contract: Pilots who fly for Sun Country Airlines, members of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), voted 93% in favor of ratifying a new tentative four-year agreement. The pact brings the pilots’ salaries, retirement and other work rules in line with their peers in the industry. The agreement was reached after seven months of negotiations, and reflects the growth and modernization of Sun Country in recent years. “We are proud of this contract that reflects the work we’ve done and contributions we’ve made to help the airline grow,” said Capt. Brian Lethert, Sun Country Airlines ALPA Master Executive Council chair. “We are committed to helping the company continue growing and achieving its objectives through this modern contract, which will ensure the airline is able to retain and attract pilots.”

Kellogg Strike Ends as BCTGM Members Ratify New Contract: After a strike that began Oct. 5, Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTGM) members have approved a new five-year contract that includes “no take-aways; no concessions.” The workers at ready-to-eat cereal plants in Battle Creek, Michigan; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Omaha, Nebraska; and Memphis, Tennessee, voted in favor of the new agreement, which includes: no permanent two-tier system, a clear path to regular full-time employment, no plant shutdowns through October 2026, increases in pension payments and the maintenance of cost-of-living raises. “Our striking members at Kellogg’s ready-to-eat cereal production facilities courageously stood their ground and sacrificed so much in order to achieve a fair contract. This agreement makes gains and does not include any concessions,” said BCTGM International President Anthony Shelton. “Our entire Union commends and thanks Kellogg’s members. From picket line to picket line, Kellogg’s union members stood strong and undeterred in this fight, inspiring generations of workers across the globe, who were energized by their tremendous show of bravery as they stood up to fight and never once backed down….The BCTGM is grateful, as well, for the outpouring of fraternal support we received from across the labor movement for our striking members at Kellogg’s. Solidarity was critical to this great workers’ victory.”

Oregon Grocery Workers End Strike with Tentative Agreement: Grocery workers, members of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 555, at Fred Meyer and Quality Food Centers in Oregon ended a strike after reaching a tentative labor agreement. The new contract provides wage increases, improved workplace protections, new retirement and health care benefits. The stores are part of Kroger-owned supermarket chains.

WGAE Ratifies Landmark Contract with VICE: On Friday, the Writers Guild of America, East, (WGAE) announced that its 160 members at VICE Media have ratified a new three-year contract that sets an increased minimum salary of $63,000 and provides minimum yearly wage increases ranging from 3% to 3.75%. The WGAE previously had four contracts at VICE representing four main editorial verticals, but the new contract combines them all into one agreement. “Thanks to a unified and strong union, workers across VICE will now work under one collective bargaining agreement,” said WGAE Executive Director Lowell Peterson. “This new contract and its substantial gains are a testament to the VICE bargaining committee’s diligent efforts to address the concerns and aspirations of workers at a company that continues to grow within the ever-shifting media landscape.”

Ironworkers Emerge Victorious in Strike Against Erie Strayer: After nearly three months on strike, the members of Ironworkers Local 851 in Erie, Pennsylvania, have declared victory. Management at Erie Strayer came “to the table in good faith today to meet us in our demands,” the union announced on Friday. The members of Local 851 held the line, day and night, for months in their fight for a fair contract. “This win is a testament to the power of worker solidarity, and that the best protection and future for workers everywhere is with a union contract made for workers and by workers,” the Ironworkers said in a statement. Their grit and determination to win, together with the support of the local community and the labor movement, is an example to us all.

Vodeo Games Workers Form First Video Game Union in North America: The employees at Vodeo Games have come together to form Vodeo Workers United, the first certified union of video game workers in North America. The union was organized with the Campaign to Organize Digital Employees-CWA (CODE-CWA). Thirteen workers at the video game company, including independent contractors, received voluntary recognition of their new union from their employer. With this recognition, Vodeo Workers United is set to begin bargaining a first contract. “All workers deserve a union and a say in how their workplace is run, no matter where they work, what their employment status is or what kind of conditions they work under,” said Myriame Lachapelle, a producer at Vodeo Games. “We have been inspired by the growing worker organizing within the gaming industry and hope we can set a new precedent for industry-wide standards that will better our shared working conditions and inspire others to do the same.”

OPEIU Members at MOVE Texas Ratify First Contract: Members of MOVE Texas United (MTXU), an affiliate of the Office and Professional Employees (OPEIU) Local 277, unanimously ratified their first contract on Friday, having secured significant gains at the bargaining table. Highlights of the new contract include full benefits paid for by the employer, 40% employee representation on the board, a $50,000 wage floor for full-time employees and a 32-hour workweek. MOVE Texas is a statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering underrepresented youth communities. “To begin at the start of the new year, the 47-page contract will set an unprecedented example for the labor movement in the nonprofit sector,” MTXU said after the vote. “After almost a year of negotiations between the employer and the union, MOVE Texas United can celebrate an inspiring process and several innovative strides.”

Blue Skies Ahead: TWU Members at JetBlue Ratify First Contract: Members of the Transport Workers Union (TWU) who work as flight attendants, or “inflight crewmembers” (IFCs) as JetBlue calls them, decisively ratified their inaugural contract on Monday with the airline. The union said that while successfully negotiating a first contract is not an easy feat to accomplish under ordinary circumstances, it was made even more challenging because of the COVID-19 pandemic and a skyrocketing number of assaults against aviation workers. TWU members at JetBlue have been fighting for a fair contract since overwhelmingly voting to form a union in 2018. “This is a tremendous victory for our 5,500 IFCs at JetBlue. In this time of uncertainty and peril, there is no greater security for workers than a solid contract,” said TWU International President John Samuelsen. “Our JetBlue inflight crewmembers are no longer ‘at-will’ employees of the carrier, but union workers whose employment is secured by an enforceable collective bargaining agreement. What a huge difference it is.” The new contract includes a grievance and arbitration system, work rule improvements, health insurance and retirement benefits, and wage increases.

Big Cartel Workers Form First Tech Union in Right to Work State: Tech workers at Big Cartel received voluntary recognition of their new union, Big Cartel Workers Union, on Monday in a groundbreaking organizing victory. Staff at the e-commerce platform for creative businesses are the first tech workers to form a union in a “right to work” state as the company is based in Salt Lake City. The union members, who are affiliated with Office and Professional Employees (OPEIU) Tech Workers Union Local 1010, will begin bargaining their first contract with their employer next month. “Tech workers are becoming increasingly aware of the power a union brings them at work,” said OPEIU Organizing Director Brandon Nessen. “Unionizing gives working people agency to advance not only their own interests, but the mutual interests shared by both staff and management.”

Wirecutter Union Members Reach Tentative Agreement for Their First Contract: Members of the Wirecutter Union, part of The NewsGuild of New York/CWA Local 31003, announced on Tuesday that they have reached a tentative agreement with management. The workers at The New York Times’ product review site have been fighting for their first contract for two years. They went on a five-day strike during the recent Black Friday shopping season to pressure management to stop its union-busting practices and negotiate a fair agreement. Rallying together with 100% membership participation in the strike, and with the entire labor movement and our allies backing them up, these union members now get to vote on a groundbreaking new contract that includes significant wage increases, the elimination of nondisclosure agreements in cases of harassment, and strong diversity, equity and inclusion commitments. “We’ve fought to build our power over the last two years, despite continuous union-busting from The New York Times,” the Wirecutter Union tweeted. “The result is a bargaining agreement we’re proud of.”

VTDigger Newsroom Employees Secure First Collective Bargaining Agreement: Workers at VTDigger, members of the Providence Newspaper Guild (TNG-CWA Local 31041), ratified their first-ever collective bargaining agreement. The three-year deal “establishes consistent standards, rewards longevity, guarantees minimum salaries and overtime pay, and continues to solidify the organization’s commitment to improving diversity, equity and inclusion. It has been a long and at times difficult conversation, but we had it as equals, and the organization is much stronger for it,” said Lola Duffort, co-unit chair of the VTDigger Guild. “I am delighted we have arrived—unanimously—at such a robust agreement.” The new contract includes minimum salaries, cost-of-living increases, paid sick leave, paid parental leave, overtime pay, salary increases and other benefits.

Graduate Researchers Secure Union Recognition and University of California: More than 17,000 graduate student researchers across the University of California’s campuses have secured recognition from the university as members of Student Researchers United, an affiliate of the UAW. UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada said: “The UAW is proud to welcome UC Student Researchers into our union family. They have shown what is possible when workers stand together and refuse to be divided. We look forward to supporting them as they bargain a strong first contract.” Members of the union held a series of protests demanding representation, employment security, protection from harassment and other common workplace protections.

Workers at iHeart Podcast Network Join WGAE: The WGAE broke the news on Thursday that a clear majority of workers at the iHeart Podcast Network—the fastest-growing division of iHeartMedia—signed union cards to organize with the WGAE. The guild is calling on management to voluntarily recognize the union of about 125 producers, editors, researchers, writers and hosts. The iHeart Podcast Organizing Committee wrote a letter to management explaining their decision to form a union with WGAE and expressing their desire for appropriate compensation and benefits, accountability mechanisms regarding diversity and inclusion efforts, and clear paths for advancement and job security. WGAE Executive Director Lowell Peterson said: “We are pleased to welcome the storytellers at the iHeart Podcast Network to the guild. A union is vital to ensuring podcast workers are able to build sustainable careers in an industry where their contributions have been essential to the sector’s continued rapid growth.”

Chalkbeat Workers Unanimously Ratify First Union Contract: Writers at Chalkbeat, represented by the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE), voted unanimously to ratify their first collective bargaining agreement. The bargaining committee said: “Our members unanimously voted yes on our first contract because these issues were such a priority. We’re all excited to have better guidelines that we know will make Chalkbeat a better place to work. Organizing as a union has already helped our unit members feel more connected, sharing their various work experiences across the country, and working together to make sure we all have better working conditions. We’re excited that Chalkbeat ultimately heard our concerns, and we’re certain the new contract will lead to even more powerful journalism. Strong journalists make for a strong Chalkbeat.” The contract includes salary increases, minimum salary levels, paid parental leave, overtime compensation, improved health benefits, improved protections against sexual harassment, improved health benefits for transgender employees and other gains.

Actors’ Equity Secures Anti-Discrimination and Harassment Provisions in New Agreement with Purple Rose Theatre Company: Actors’ Equity Association announced on Tuesday that the union has reached a new agreement with the Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea, Michigan. Equity said the agreement reflects a shared commitment to creating a safe workplace, free from the discrimination and harassment the company experienced under its previous leadership. In addition to improved compensation and work hours, the two-year contract includes strong language prohibiting bullying, discrimination, harassment and retaliation. “This contract is now one of the strongest Equity contracts in the country in terms of protecting members from discrimination and harassment, and it will be a model for other theatres,” said Equity Assistant Executive Director and General Counsel Andrea Hoeschen. “Actors and stage managers will have a safer workplace because of the courage and efforts of those who revealed a range of working conditions at Purple Rose that were inconsistent with a safe, equitable, unionized workplace.”

SRU-UAW Wins Recognition from the University of California: In a massive victory for the UAW and the entire labor movement, Student Researchers United-UAW (SRU-UAW) announced Wednesday night that the University of California (UC) has recognized their union. SRU-UAW submitted union authorization cards in May after a months-long organizing campaign. Their recognition now means the union will represent 17,000 higher education workers at all 10 UC campuses and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. SRU-UAW members overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike in November over UC’s refusal to recognize their bargaining unit. “This historic victory was brought about by the tireless efforts of thousands of student researchers who organized to win a union and a direct response to our massive strike authorization vote,” the union tweeted on Wednesday. “Now let’s win a strong contract for all student researchers!”

Front-Line Grocery Workers Vote to Form a Union with UFCW Local 1439: United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1439 announced Monday that some 250 grocery workers at Fred Meyer in Richland, Washington, will join the union after a victorious election, marking the first time in recent history that an entire store of grocery workers in the state have done so. The organizing win now paves the way for these new union members to move forward in bargaining their first union contract to strengthen pay, benefits and working conditions. “This is an unprecedented victory, inspired by the sacrifices of essential grocery workers during the pandemic,” said Local 1439 Secretary-Treasurer Jeff Hofstader. “We hope this inspires other grocery workers to stand up and exercise their rights.”

Dancers at Ballet Idaho Vote to Join AGMA: The American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) and Ballet Idaho announced on Monday that the dancers of Ballet Idaho have voted to join AGMA. A vote was held on Tuesday, Nov. 30, based upon mutual agreement between the union and the performing arts company. Given the result in favor of forming a union, Ballet Idaho has recognized AGMA as the exclusive bargaining representative of the dancers. “AGMA is thrilled to welcome the dancers of Ballet Idaho into the union,” said Leonard Egert, national executive director of AGMA. “We look forward to a collaborative process with the management of Ballet Idaho, as the safety, well-being and long-term success of these artists remain a top priority for both parties.”

Carnegie Library Workers Reach Tentative Agreement on First Union Contract: After voting to join the United Steelworkers (USW) in 2019, approximately 300 workers at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh have reached a tentative agreement on their first union contract. The four-year contract covers eligible workers at 19 library branches and includes significant gains, including a voice in library decision-making, improved health and safety, pay equity for the lowest-paid workers and more affordable health care. Kira Yeversky, a clerk at the Homewood branch, said: “I’m so proud of every worker who shared their stories and fought for our first contract. They displayed true solidarity, and I can’t wait to see what this next chapter brings for all of us.”

PECSH-MNA Reaches Tentative Agreement at Sparrow Hospital: The bargaining team of the Professional Employees Council of Sparrow Hospital-Michigan Nurses Association (PECSH-MNA), an affiliate of National Nurses United (NNU), reached a tentative agreement with the hospital administration for a new three-year contract last Friday, averting a possible strike. The new agreement includes significant wage increases, no increases in health care premiums, a safe staffing process and contractually guaranteed access to personal protective equipment. “We truly believe that this contract will make a difference for caregivers working at our hospital, for the patients we serve and for our community as a whole,” said Katie Pontifex, RN, president of PECSH-MNA. “We are really proud of the solidarity shown by caregivers in advocating for our patients and our community.” In November, 96% of PECSH-MNA members voted to authorize a strike. Some 2,200 union members will cast their ballots in the coming days on whether to ratify the agreement.

MEBA Secures Pay Bonuses for Vaccinated Interlake Mariners: Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association (MEBA) President Adam Vokac announced last week that the union has agreed to a new pay policy to compensate fully vaccinated MEBA members sailing for Interlake Steamship Co. The policy doesn’t mandate vaccinations but provides a generous payment for those who are vaccinated or get inoculated against COVID-19, and sets up a system where an additional one-time payment is authorized for members if at least 85% of the fleet is certified to be fully vaccinated. The MEBA said it fully endorses this proactive and fair approach to motivate mariners to get vaccinated.

LIUNA Service Contract Workers Win Higher Wages: Hundreds of thousands of federal government contract workers will receive a pay raise as the Department of Labor’s Executive Order setting a $15 an hour minimum wage goes into effect in January. Thousands of Laborers (LIUNA) members working under service contracts for the federal government, including many supporting the U.S. military, also will benefit from this increase as well as the plan to index the minimum wage to an inflation measure, so that every year after 2022 wages will be automatically adjusted to reflect changes in the cost of living. “The Biden Administration should be commended for helping workers get ahead and ensuring that the workers who support the military and the federal government are able to support themselves and their families,” said LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “By setting a wage floor for federal contract workers with cost-of-living adjustments, many thousands of Laborers will earn higher wages now and in the future.”

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on January 4, 2022

About the Authors: Kenneth Quinell is a Senior Writer at the AFL-CIO.

Aaron Gallant is the Internal Communications Specialist at AFL-CIO


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The Top AFL-CIO Blog Posts of 2021

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By any measure, 2021 was another historic year. Working people across the country continued to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, engaged in an historic wave of strikes and worked to hold the administration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris true to their promise to be pro-worker. We covered these stories and many others throughout the year and here are the top 10 most-read stories by you, our readers.

Working People Respond to Attempted Coup at Nation’s Capitol (January 7): Yesterday saw an unprecedented attack on U.S. democratic institutions and working people across the country, and world, were shocked by what unfolded before us. Here are responses to Wednesday’s events from across the labor movement.

RWDSU-UFCW Leads Organizing Drive at Amazon Fulfillment Center in Alabama (January 26): The strongest effort to create a union at Amazon in many years is underway in Bessemer, Alabama. Organizers with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union-UFCW (RWDSU-UFCW) have been working with employees at the Amazon fulfillment center. By December, more than 2,000 workers had signed union cards, leading to an election set to begin in February. The company is engaging in union-busting activities in response, but the workers are not backing down. Many of the organizers and the employees at the fulfillment center are Black, and the organizers have focused on issues of racial equality and empowerment as a part of the drive.

John J. Sweeney, 1934-2021 (February 2): John Sweeney, who led an era of transformative change in America’s labor movement, passed away Feb. 1 at the age of 86. Sweeney was one of four children born to Irish immigrants in a working-class Bronx neighborhood shortly after the Great Depression. His parents, James and Agnes Sweeney, worked as a bus driver and a domestic worker, respectively. Sweeney always understood the struggles and the pride of working people.

20 Ways the American Rescue Plan Helps Working People (March 11): This week, Congress passed the American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion bill to help fight the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. President Biden signed the law, which will provide significant assistance to the American people during this unprecedented crisis. Here are 20 ways the American Rescue Plan will help working people.

Success in the Tech Industry: Worker Wins (March 25): Despite the challenges of organizing during a deadly pandemic, working people across the country (and beyond) continue organizing, bargaining and mobilizing for a better life. This edition begins with: “CODE-CWA’s Tech Industry Organizing Efforts Lead to Union Recognition at Mobilize….”

Profiles in Courage: Celebrating AAPI Labor Activists (March 31): In the wake of the rise of hate crimes and violence against the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, we take an important pause to voice our support of our brothers, sisters and friends in the AAPI community. The AAPI community has played an important and active role in the growth, expansion and unique diversity of this country and has given the labor movement many of its true heroes. This community is our community, and we are proud to celebrate these seven labor activists—all of whom have advanced the cause of worker justice.

13 Ways the PRO Act Helps Working People (April 26): The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act is a generational opportunity and the cornerstone of the AFL-CIO’s Workers First Agenda. It motivated working people this past election cycle to mobilize for a pro-worker trifecta in the U.S. House, Senate and White House. And working people won a mandate. The PRO Act was introduced by Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.) and Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (Va.), and it is landmark worker empowerment, civil rights and economic stimulus legislation, and an essential part of any plan to build back better from the COVID-19 pandemic and recession.

Richard L. Trumka’s Lifelong Devotion to Family and Democracy (August 13): Richard Louis Trumka dedicated his entire life to making sure every institution he touched—the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), the AFL-CIO, the U.S. government and the world community—served working people and the public interest, comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable.

Liz Shuler Elected President as Part of Most Diverse Leadership Team in AFL-CIO History (August 20): The AFL-CIO Executive Council today elected Liz Shuler, a visionary leader and longtime trade unionist, to serve as president of the federation of 56 unions and 12.5 million members. Shuler is the first woman to hold the office in the history of the labor federation. The Executive Council also elected United Steelworkers (USW) International Vice President Fred Redmond to succeed Shuler as secretary-treasurer, the first African American to hold the number two office. Tefere Gebre will continue as executive vice president, rounding out the most diverse team of officers ever to lead the AFL-CIO. 

Do You Know Where Your Nabisco Treats Are Made? (August 25): Members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTGM) working at Nabisco plants throughout the United States take great pride in producing the iconic products that have been a part of millions of Americans’ lives for more than 50 years. Workers at five Nabisco locations in the United States are currently on strike. 

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on December 16, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author is Kenneth Quinell. Kenneth Quinell is a Senior Writer at the AFL-CIO.


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Viewpoint: We Must Prepare to Strike UPS in 2023

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The year 2023, when the UPS contract expires, seems like a long way off—but in the complex world of contract negotiation, it’s just around the corner.

In the 24 years since the 1997 strike, UPS has become the poster child for corporate greed—demanding more and more from its employees in a quest for profits. And rather than reward those employees, the gains go into the pockets of shareholders and management.

The company reported $4.79 billion in profit in just the last quarter. This has been accomplished by increasing productivity demands and hours of work to the detriment of our safety, health, and family life.

In the Teamsters, the regime change of 1998 gave us two decades of corporate appeasement. Contract after contract was negotiated with minuscule improvements or even givebacks, culminating in a 2018 contract featuring two-tier wages and subcontracting, which was implemented despite being voted down by the membership.

Meanwhile “right to work” (for less) continued its spread across the U.S.; so did the endless corporate campaign to convince the public that unions were a relic of the past. Amazon, Uber, and Lyft, along with the continued consolidation of retail under Walmart and Target, accelerated the decline of wages and working-class living standards generally.

Fortunately, there are glimmers of hope. Union teachers and nurses have taken to the streets. Activism has generally increased. Public opinion on unions is more and more favorable, especially as the pandemic demonstrated how we all rely on workers to survive.

SIGNS OF HOPE

In the Teamsters, signs of change have appeared. Regime change is coming in 2021. The “two-thirds rule” that was used to implement the 2018 contract is no more. Rank-and-file members will be on the 2023 UPS contract negotiating committee. Strike benefits will now begin on day one.

The advantages of social media and the gross failure of the 2018 UPS contract have combined to create a new generation of Teamster activists and leaders.

But to really accelerate that pushback, more is needed. What’s missing is a single galvanizing moment—a struggle that spans the nation and can serve as an example for all of labor to follow.

IT’S OUR MOMENT

That moment, brothers and sisters, should be the 2023 UPS contract fight. This struggle could engage the entire country, pit the greedy corporation against the abused worker, unite the membership, and provide the platform to reinvigorate the labor movement.

No one ever wants a strike. But given the frustration of UPS Teamsters after two decades of stalled progress, and amid signs of a broader labor pushback, a strike seems necessary for the good of the country.

So the time is now to prepare for what may be inevitable. Start saving your money. Start engaging in your local union. Start talking to your friends and neighbors about what life is like at UPS. Because the odds are good that we will have to take this fight to the streets.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on August 3, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Greg Kerwood is a UPS package car driver and member of Teamsters Local 25 in Boston. A version of this piece was originally published by The Teamster Rebel, teamsterrebel.com.


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At World’s Largest Hilton, Workers Fight for Jobs, Daily Cleaning

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This is one of two articles from Hawaiian hotel workers. Read the other, “Hawaiian Hilton Workers Fear Permanent Layoffs As Recall Rights Expiration Nears,” here.

Tourism drives Hawaii’s economy, and housekeepers are the heart of our hotels.

But as tourism is returning to Hawaii, only a few housekeepers are being called back to work because many hotels are not providing daily room cleaning—taking advantage of the pandemic to cut labor costs.

This leaves housekeepers like me, who aren’t called back, enveloped with worries. We’ve been furloughed for 15 months already. Where are we going to find a decent paying job like our UNITE HERE Local 5 union jobs, should we get permanently laid off? How will my family keep our apartment? We can’t go back to my sister-in-law’s two-bedroom apartment where we stayed for eight years when I was still working in a non-union company.

My furloughed co-worker at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, Jhorina Ancheta, is a single mom with three kids is a furloughed housekeeper. “If there was daily room cleaning, more housekeepers would be called back to work,” she says. “If I can have my job back, I will be able to support my family the way it was pre-pandemic. We are only able to survive now because my bill and loan payments are deferred until September.”

DIRTY ROOMS HURT

Guests are spending hundreds of dollars a night in our hotel. Their room is supposed to be the cleanest and safest place to be. We, the housekeepers, are in charge of creating this atmosphere. A new study by HospitalityNet on hotel cleanliness shows that 79 percent of respondents are most concerned about their room’s cleaning and sanitation, while 91 percent are more likely to stay at a hotel that helps their employees who lost their jobs during the pandemic.

Pre-pandemic, Hilton was named the number one place to work by Fortune magazine. But at the Hilton Hawaiian Village—the largest Hilton in the world—housekeepers who are currently working are suffering from stress and fatigue.

“It’s harder to clean a filthy room that hasn’t been cleaned every day, compared to a room that is being cleaned every day,” said Maria Luz Espejo, a housekeeper here for 18 years. “Sometimes we can’t finish the rooms in a timely manner, even if we skip our lunch break. I am not getting any younger, so cleaning dirty checkouts makes me suffer with body aches and joint pains.”

Housekeepers are ready to fight for our jobs and safety. We won’t stop until management works with us to resolve this. We will work together, passing leaflets to guests encouraging them to join our call to ask for their rooms to be cleaned daily.

VICTORIES

Smaller hotels like Queen Kapiolani and The Kahala Hotel in Honolulu and Sheraton Maui in Lahaina have implemented daily room cleaning.

The Kahala workers took numerous actions to voice their concerns to management regarding their working conditions, including daily cleaning.

“We found out the hotel was reopening in May 2020,” said Carmelita “Joy” R. Melegrito, a housekeeper at the Kahala. “We demanded regular meetings with management to prepare for the reopening. We had worker leaders in these meetings representing their departments, and I was there representing housekeeping. I shared with them that if we don’t have daily room cleaning, it’s going to be really hard for us to clean the rooms. It will take much longer to clean checkout rooms.

“I’m happy that we have daily room cleaning,” said Melegrito, “because it means less worry about our safety. I got two injuries pre-pandemic because I was rushing to clean a dirty room. If it was already hard before the pandemic to clean rooms, how much more [is it] now if there’s no daily cleaning?”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on July 19, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Nely Reinante is a housekeeper at Hilton Hawaiian Village and a member of UNITE HERE Local 5.


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New York City holds parade honoring essential workers—but many essential workers boycott

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Wage theft is a huge problem that requires a creative solution, this week  in the war on workers | Today's Workplace

Wednesday was “a day to celebrate and appreciate the heroes who often go unsung,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said last month in announcing a parade to honor the essential workers of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’re going to sing about them this day.” 

Many of the workers, though, feel so unappreciated that they boycotted the parade supposedly held in their honor, saying a better way to honor them would be with better pay and working conditions. One of the groups with the biggest complaint is emergency medical technicians and paramedics. Those workers, who are more than half people of color and more than a quarter women, are paid dramatically less than firefighters, three out of four of whom are white and 99% of whom are male—and the truly essential role they played in the pandemic response did not stop de Blasio from opposing a move toward pay parity.

“A parade does not bring this workforce out of the poverty wages they are now being paid,” Oren Barzilay, the president of a union that represents more than 4,000 first responders, told the New York Daily News, describing attendance at the parade as like crossing a picket line. “It is far past time that the city gives this workforce the respect they deserve in livable wages. If taxpayer dollars can be allocated to put on this parade, then Mayor de Blasio, you can easily find the means to financially support our FDNY EMT’s, Paramedics and Fire Inspectors.”

The union has been in contract negotiations with the city since before the pandemic, and the city appears to remain intent on treating these workers as second-class first responders.

Another union representing social workers, contact tracers, health inspectors, and other workers similarly boycotted the parade, citing struggles to get personal protective equipment during the pandemic and saying in a statement, “To participate in a parade is an injustice to how we have been treated and continue to be treated. The Early Retirement Incentive was not passed, and Essential Worker pay seems to have disappeared.”

The parade included 14 floats and 260 groups of essential workers, including first responders (some of them, anyway), child care workers, transit workers, delivery workers, and more. Funeral industry workers who had to deal with the many, many bodies the pandemic produced were initially left out, then included after protest.

Eric Adams, the newly announced winner of the Democratic mayoral primary, did attend the parade, telling reporters, “We need to honor them [essential workers] with pay equity … we need to show them the respect they deserve.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on July 7, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and a full-time staff since 2011, currently acting as assistant managing editor.


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Steward’s Corner: How One Union Uses Kitchen Table Economics to Advance Medicare for All

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Kari Thompson (@UEKariT) | Twitter

Our union, the United Electrical Workers, represents a diverse range of workplaces. Our members manufacture locomotive engines in Erie, Pennsylvania, and soap in Orange County, California; provide social services from Connecticut to Iowa to Los Angeles; and work in grocery stores from Vermont to Wisconsin. They also have a wide spectrum of political opinions.

But wherever they work, and no matter their political views, chances are that they’re frustrated with the health care system.

Since the 1940s, UE has supported universal, single-payer health care, popularly known today as Medicare for All. Under this policy, everyone would have access to medically necessary care that is free at the point of service, and coordinated by the federal government instead of profiteering insurance companies.

We have found that education on this idea gives members an opportunity to see how their frustrations with the health care system, such as the expensive cost of care and confusion over what kinds of care are covered, are rooted in corporate control of society. It also creates a space to win back some workers who have been influenced by right-wing propaganda.

Our key vehicle for this conversation is an interactive workshop, “How to Fix Health Care.” The workshop succeeds because it gets members talking together about their own shared experiences and provides them with a tool to break down a complicated economic question.

DIAGNOSE THE PROBLEM

We start the workshop by asking members to talk about the problems they encounter in our current health care system. They know these issues well.

Even if they happen to be in a shop that has been able to retain a good, affordable plan, they still have complaints about all the hoops they have to jump through to see a doctor or to make sure their bill gets paid.

But far too many of our members have been forced into paying too much. And all of them know family and friends who lack affordable care.

Then we ask, “Why is the health care system like this?” and lead them through a discussion of for-profit health care. This includes looking at facts like the rate of premium increases over the last 20 years—consistently higher than wage increases—and that we spend more money per person on health care in the U.S. than in other countries, but have poorer health outcomes. Members have no problem understanding that the enemy is the insurance and pharmaceutical corporations that are trying to profit off of our illnesses. This activity gets everyone on the same page.

From there, we discuss how a single-payer system could fix the problems they’ve identified and describe the basic outlines of how it would work, including that the plan would be for everyone, be affordable, provide high-quality, comprehensive care, and create good jobs.

HOW WILL WE PAY FOR IT?

The kicker is always paying for it. Members assume this kind of system will cost too much, but that assumption comes from not fully understanding the costs of health care in our current system—and how much they’re already paying. We pay for our health care in premiums deducted from our paychecks, provider bills, and co-pays for prescriptions and office visits, but how often do we actually take the time to add up what we’re paying for our current ineffective system?

At this point, we pull out a helpful tool: our Health Care Cost Calculator (a simplified web version is available at healthcosts.ueunion.org). Members are given time to fill out a form where they write down how much they spend each year on premiums, deductibles, co-pays, prescriptions, and other medical, dental, and eye care costs. Then they tally these costs up and divide the total by their annual salary to calculate what percentage of their income they are already spending on health care.

The results are astounding. Sure, there are a handful of healthy folks with no dependents who are in shops with good plans. They find they’re only paying a small percentage of their income for health care. But it’s really only a handful.

Most of our members are paying between 10 and 20 percent of their incomes for health care, and it’s not uncommon for us to find members paying 20 to 30 percent or more.

Let’s take the example of a member with a good-paying factory job in Connecticut. Including overtime, he made about $85,000 last year. He paid $128 per week in premiums, or $6,656 per year. Additionally, he had a $2,500 up-front deductible, three office visit co-pays at $35 each, a prescription with a $25 monthly copay, and $670 in dental costs. This was a total of $3,575 in out-of-pocket costs. Combine those with his premium payments, and this member spent $10,231 on health care. Dividing his salary by this total means he spent 12 percent of his income on health care.

We even had one member in Wisconsin realize he was paying 60 percent of his income on health care for himself and his family! That realization moved him into action—he joined our lobbying efforts to get his member of Congress to sign on to Medicare for All.

SINGLE-PAYER SAVINGS

Once members see how much they’re paying now, it’s a simple task to swing the conversation back to what a payroll tax might cost them under single-payer—and how much less it would be. Using Senator Bernie Sanders’ projection of a 4 percent payroll tax for employees to pay for Medicare for All, this is a big savings for almost every worker.

We show how the employers would save too—meaning there would be more money available that we could demand back in wages or retirement benefits. We also talk about how Medicare for All would put to rest members’ fears of devastatingly big bills, medical debts or bankruptcy, losing their health insurance coverage altogether if they lose their job, or having to strike to maintain their benefits (or losing their benefits during a strike).

We also take a moment to answer questions and rebut criticisms that the members may have heard, similar to inoculating workers against the employer’s anti-union arguments during an organizing drive. When members raise concerns about long waiting lines or losing their doctors, we discuss what happens in the current system: people experience delays in care because of the need for pre-approval from insurance companies and restrictions on whom they can see because insurance companies don’t work with all providers. We explain that under Medicare for All, there will be fewer hurdles to jump through because all providers will be included in the plan.

SEE THE REAL VILLAIN

Using kitchen table economics is critical for winning workers over to Medicare for All. Before this training, members may be wary of trading something they’re familiar with for something that’s unknown. But in the workshop, they see for themselves that what they have now is robbing them blind—and that Medicare for All would bring them real economic gains.

What threads its way through much of our conversation is that the insurance companies are a big part of why we pay so much for health care. For example, a Center for American Progress study shows that more than 8 percent of U.S. health care spending goes to administrative costs. However, the study put out by the Congressional Budget Office last year indicated that administrative costs under a single-payer system would be 1.8 percent or even less.

Where does that money go right now? Insurance company bureaucrats: six health insurance CEOs made more than $15 million each in 2019, led by Larry Merlo of CVS Health, who made $36 million. We have not found much love out there for insurance companies.

This exercise is a good way to start to shift the views of those working-class folks who have been taken in by right-wing populism. Instead of identifying their enemy as the government, or people who aren’t like them, they start training their ire at huge corporations: the insurance companies.

This dovetails with our broader political education goals. We want our members to embrace their shared interests with other workers, not with wealthy elites. By grounding our workshop in our members’ shared negative experiences with our current system and the kitchen table economics of our cost calculator, we get more members on board with advocating for a health care system that benefits the whole working class.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on July 6, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kari Thompson is the UE Director of Education. 


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The Heat Wave Shows Climate Change Is a Workers’ Rights Issue

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Mindy Isser - In These Times

The workers laboring outside in this extraordinary heat are on the front lines of the climate crisis.

The end of June saw temperatures soar all around the United States, with historic heatwaves in the Pacific Northwest and excessive heat advisories, watches and warnings elsewhere. The heat is not just uncomfortable, it’s deadly, buckling roads and melting bridges, with temperatures climbing over 120 degrees in Death Valley, California and British Columbia.

While the 100 million computer workers in this country are more likely to be able to work safely indoors, other urgent and necessary work must continue outdoors, no matter the severity of the weather. The entirety of the working class is (or will be) affected by climate change, but it’s farm workers, letter carriers, construction workers, sanitation workers and other outdoor workers who are unable to escape to air conditioning, and are on the front lines of the environmental crisis. This clarifies the fight against climate change as one not just for environmentalists: Rising temperatures are a workplace safety issue. Relatedly, there is growing awareness among climate activists that workers’ rights and the future of the climate are inextricably linked. Continuing to connect these two existential issues is our best shot at a livable world in which we can all work safely and with dignity.

Between 1992 and 2017, at least 815 workers in the U.S. were killed and more than 70,000 were injured from heat stress injuries. It’s likely that the true number of workers hurt or killed due to extreme heat is much higher than reported to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Many workers who labor outside?—?particularly agricultural workers and construction workers?—?are undocumented or otherwise vulnerable and precarious, and may not know to report illnesses to OSHA. And of course, their employers are likely to misclassify a heat-related death. As temperatures continue to rise year after year, we can guess that the number of heat stress injuries and deaths will rise too.

On June 29, the United Farm Workers (UFW) slammed reports of heat-wave-related illnesses and deaths as ?“entirely preventable,” called on Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown to protect farm workers by issuing emergency heat standards. (At least 63 people have died in Washington and Oregon since the heatwave began.) Even in perfect weather, farm workers do physically demanding labor for very low wages and no benefits. And according to Centers for Disease Control data from 2008, farmworkers already were perishing from heat at a rate of 20 times other civilian workers. Now temperatures have climbed to well over 100 degrees in the Pacific Northwest, and a farmworker in Oregon was killed by the heat on June 26. UFW rightly calls heat protections for workers ?“a matter of life and death.” 

And while farm workers may be among those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, they are not the only workers organizing for safety in our changing environment. After a member of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) died after installing phone service for a customer in 100 degree heat in 2011, the union began negotiating over heat stress workplace standards. An International Union of Painters and Allied Trades local that represents political, nonprofit and campaign workers in the Pacific Northwest fought for heat and smoke safety to protect canvassers in their most recent collective bargaining agreement, which was signed in January 2021 after successive smoky summers due to multiple wildfires.

Even those who work primarily inside have started organizing around these issues. Library workers in New York City bargained for a clause in their 2015 to 2020 contract entitled ?“operation of the library in the event of extreme temperatures,” requiring a temperature and humidity indicator on each level of the buildings, and compensatory time for staff who continue working in weather above 85 degrees and 44 percent humidity. 

As buildings get older with no federal investment to retrofit them, and as summers get hotter and hotter, there will be more pressure on electrical grids, potentially resulting in power outages. We can expect that even computer workers will be expected to work without air conditioning and in dangerous conditions. Amazon, run by the richest man in the world, forced warehouse workers in Washington to work in near-90-degree heat, because the company wasn’t equipped to deal with the current heat wave. (This is not the first time Amazon has allowed their workers to suffer in the heat—multiple workers have collapsed from heat-related causes.)

Democrats in the House and Senate have introduced legislation to require OSHA to create and enforce standards to protect workers in extreme temperatures. (Currently OSHA has no specific standards around working in high-heat environments.) The legislation, entitled the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, is named for a 53-year-old farmworker who died after picking grapes for 10 hours straight in 105 degree heat in 2004. The act will require OSHA to establish measures like paid breaks in cool areas, access to water, limitations on time in the heat, and emergency response for illnesses caused by the heat. It will also ask that employers provide training for employees on how to recognize the potential risk factors of working in extreme heat, and ways to respond to symptoms if and when they arise.

While this legislation is important and timely, most workers in this country lack the true ability to safely advocate for themselves in the workplace. Thanks to our backwards labor laws, union density hovers around 11% nationwide, even though unions’ approval ratings are in the clear majority. If workers want to be in charge of their own health and safety, it’s imperative that we pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which will allow workers the ability to unionize without fear of retaliation. (Disclosure: This author has been involved in organizing to pass the PRO Act.) Unionized workplaces are safer than non-union workplaces: They are 30% more likely to face an inspection for a health and safety violation, because union members are more likely to know their rights and have the ability to fight for them. (Unionized workplaces are also much more likely to have health and safety committees, which exist for the sole purpose of ensuring the workplace is safe.) And of course, unions are why we even have OSHA, thanks to the leadership of beloved and dearly remembered labor leader Tony Mazzocchi.

Environmentalists, long seen as either opposed to workers or just apathetic to their plight, have begun to realize that without a strong working-class movement, there’s no real hope of fighting climate change. And with Biden’s deeply disappointing infrastructure legislation, we’re going to need a base of millions to push for a much more aggressive plan to fight climate change. That’s why the Green New Deal Campaign Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America went all in on pushing for the passage of the PRO Act. Unions don’t just protect members’ health and safety in the workplace, they have the ability to turn regular people into political actors with the skills and tools to fight for a dignified life both on and off the job. As workers feel the growing effects of climate change at work and at home, they’ll need to fight their employers for health and safety protections, and they’ll also need to go to battle with the politicians and fossil fuel executives who have allowed temperatures to rise so drastically.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 1, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.


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Shrugging Off Anti-Union Campaign, New York Times Tech Workers See a Chance to Make History

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Hamilton Nolan - In These Times

Times workers plan to ride the media union wave right onto a bigger wave of tech organizing.

In April, more than 650 tech workers at the New York Times announced that they were unionizing with the NewsGuild, forming what would instantly become one of the biggest unions of tech workers in America. Times management refused to voluntarily recognize the union, a break that could be a harbinger of more hostile labor relations throughout the media industry. But the tech workers remain supremely confident that they will prevail?—?and they are already contemplating the start of a much bigger union wave in the broader tech industry. 

For the past six years, newsrooms have been unionizing at a rapid clip, making the media one of the labor movement’s bright spots. Most of those unions, though, consist solely of journalists and other workers on the editorial side of publications. It has not gone unnoticed that everywhere that has a media union also has a large group of tech workers who could potentially be organized as well. For unions, tech-side employees of media companies represent both an obvious way into the mostly non-union tech industry, and a chance to further consolidate power for workers inside of companies that are already partly unionized. In this context, the NYT Tech Guild marks an important strategic step for the labor movement in two powerful industries.

Organizing among Times tech workers began about two years ago, according to Goran Svorcan, a senior software engineer who was involved from its early stages. The pandemic delayed the effort, but the work continued with help from organizers at the NewsGuild, which has long represented the Times newsroom. Svorcan had never been in a union before, but says that it seemed like the ?“logical next step” in addressing employee concerns. Contrary to common stereotypes about why tech workers and engineers have not widely organized (because they are too libertarian-minded, or because they are an individualistic culture), Svorcan believes that unions are in line with the public-minded ideals of early internet pioneers?—?ideals that faded as the industry became rich and powerful. ?“It’s kind of a proto-organizing model in a way,” he says of the collaborative nature of much of software engineering. ?“Seeing other people as allies, not [being on] a remote island is something I think is core to the early tech visions.” 

Kathy Zhang, a senior manager of audience analytics at the Times who was also involved from the very beginning of the organizing campaign, says that she and her colleagues have always been conscious of playing a part in spreading unionization in tech, even listening to the oral history of the Kickstarer union drive for inspiration. ?“One amazing result of our union going public has been seeing other underground tech unions inviting us to their organizing meetings. Tech is an industry ripe for unionization,” Zhang says. ?“We’re excited to be the largest majority tech union in the country, but we’ll be even more ecstatic to pass that torch onto the next tech workers to unionize!” 

Indeed, the tantalizing possibility of organizing the tech workers at all of the media companies that were being swept up in their own modern union wave occurred to Nozlee Samadzadeh years ago, when she helped her then-colleagues at Vox Media unionize?—?an editorial union that she, as a tech worker, was not eligible for. When she joined the Times as a senior software engineer in 2020, she got her chance. ?“It was something I felt so strongly about. I wanted to believe that tech workers could unionize,” she says. ?“It was inspiring to people when they realized we could do something about our health insurance, or about diversity, that wasn’t just asking management for something, or being part of a management-sponsored committee.” 

As is often the case, tech workers at the Times found when they started speaking to coworkers that there were a remarkably common set of issues that people wanted to address: pay equity, improving diversity, better health insurance, improved career development, and the end of at-will employment. The company’s refusal to voluntarily recognize the union, and instead to demand a formal NLRB election?—?despite voluntarily recognizing a similar union at the company’s Wirecutter division in 2019, and despite the paper having editorialized in favor of voluntary recognition?—?caused surprise and disappointment among the workers themselves, who say that they expected better from the purportedly liberal institution. Instead of open arms, however, they have received an overt anti-union campaign from management, complete with mandatory ?“captive audience” meetings and insinuations that a union could cost employees the benefits they already have. 

New York Times Co. spokesperson Daniell Rhoades Ha says that contrary to the ?“overwhelming support” for a union at the Wirecutter, ?“In this case, we heard, and continue to hear, a significant amount of reservations and uncertainty among our technology and digital teams about what a union would mean for them. It is clear to us that our colleagues want more information in order to determine the best path for their future and want the opportunity to have a vote on the matter, rather than the company making the decision to recognize the proposed new unit.”

It is a familiar justification for an anti-union campaign, and one that Samadzadeh characterizes as ?“concern trolling… well-meaning, paternalistic, pretending that they have a care for our welfare.” She rejects the company’s overt nod to the idea that tech workers are somehow different from other employees who have unionized in the past. ?“We’re workers,” she says. ?“The problems we have are very similar to the ones in the newsroom.” 

As it stands, members of the NYT Tech Guild say they are continuing to organize and collect union cards as the polite-but-insistent anti-union campaign from management grinds on. (They will not disclose the number of union cards they have collected so far.) There is no date for the formal NLRB election yet, but if history is any guide, the company’s insistence on drawing out the process will not succeed?—?virtually all of the media union drives in recent years that have faced anti-union campaigns have succeeded anyhow. And the tech workers at the Times are propelled by an extra sense of historical importance. 

“Institutions like The Times are still figuring out how to support career pathways that don’t rely on elite universities. Our union can speed up that progress, benefitting my coworkers and the next generation of Times tech workers,” says Bön Champion, a senior product designer who is on the Tech Guild’s organizing committee. ?“If we make this the decade where laborers in this country organize and realize their collective power, I think there’s a lot to be hopeful about. In tech specifically, our pay and benefits are largely a reflection of a competitive workplace with Big Tech at the forefront. Which means the conditions of our work are largely trickling down from Silicon Valley. If tech organizing spreads, instead those conditions will be set by the workers themselves, in their own offices and communities.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 29, 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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There Is No Labor Shortage, Only Labor Exploitation

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Bio – Sonali Kolhatkar

Conservatives and corporate employers are weaving an insidious web of myths, lies and exaggerations to justify maintaining low-wage jobs.

For the past few months, Republicans have been waging a ferocious political battle to end federal unemployment benefits, based upon stated desires of saving the U.S. economy from a serious labor shortage. The logic, in the words of Republican politicians like Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, goes like this: “the government pays folks more to stay home than to go to work,” and therefore, “[p]aying people not to work is not helpful.” The conservative Wall Street Journal has been beating the drum for the same argument, saying recently that it was a “terrible blunder” to pay jobless benefits to unemployed workers.

If the hyperbolic claims are to be believed, one might imagine American workers are luxuriating in the largesse of taxpayer-funded payments, thumbing their noses at the earnest “job creators” who are taking far more seriously the importance of a post-pandemic economic growth spurt.

It is true that there are currently millions of jobs going unfilled. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics just released statistics showing that there were 9.3 million job openings in April and that the percentage of layoffs decreased while resignations increased. Taking these statistics at face value, one could conclude this means there is a labor shortage.

But, as economist Heidi Shierholz explained in a New York Times op-ed, there is only a labor shortage if employers raise wages to match worker demands and subsequently still face a shortage of workers. Shierholz wrote, “When those measures [of raising wages] don’t result in a substantial increase in workers, that’s a labor shortage. Absent that dynamic, you can rest easy.”

Remember the subprime mortgage housing crisis of 2008 when economists and pundits blamed low-income homeowners for wanting to purchase homes they could not afford? Perhaps this is the labor market’s way of saying, if you can’t afford higher salaries, you shouldn’t expect to fill jobs.

Or, to use the logic of another accepted capitalist argument, employers could liken the job market to the surge pricing practices of ride-share companies like Uber and Lyft. After consumers complained about hiked-up prices for rides during rush hour, Uber explained, “With surge pricing, Uber rates increase to get more cars on the road and ensure reliability during the busiest times. When enough cars are on the road, prices go back down to normal levels.” Applying this logic to the labor market, workers might be saying to employers: “When enough dollars are being offered in wages, the number of job openings will go back down to normal levels.” In other words, workers are surge-pricing the cost of their labor.

But corporate elites are loudly complaining that the sky is falling—not because of a real labor shortage, but because workers are less likely now to accept low-wage jobs. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce insists that “[t]he worker shortage is real,” and that it has risen to the level of a “national economic emergency” that “poses an imminent threat to our fragile recovery and America’s great resurgence.” In the Chamber’s worldview, workers, not corporate employers who refuse to pay better, are the main obstacle to the U.S.’s economic recovery.

Longtime labor organizer and senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies Bill Fletcher Jr. explained to me in an email interview that claims of a labor shortage are an exaggeration and that, actually, “we suffered a minor depression and not another great recession,” as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. In Fletcher’s view, “The so-called labor shortage needs to be understood as the result of tremendous employment reorganization, including the collapse of industries and companies.”

Furthermore, according to Fletcher, the purveyors of the “labor shortage” myth are not accounting for “the collapse of daycare and the impact on women and families, and a continued fear associated with the pandemic.”

He’s right. As one analyst put it, “The rotten seed of America’s disinvestment in child care has finally sprouted.” Such factors have received little attention by the purveyors of the labor shortage myth—perhaps because acknowledging real obstacles like care work requires thinking of workers as real human beings rather than cogs in a capitalist machine.

Indeed, economists and analysts have gotten used to presenting facts from the perspective of private employers and their lobbyists. The American public is expected to sympathize more with the plight of wealthy business owners who can’t find workers to fill their low-paid positions, instead of with unemployed workers who might be struggling to make ends meet.

Already, jobless benefits were slashed to appallingly low levels after Republicans reduced a $600-a-week payment authorized by the CARES Act to a mere $300 a week, which works out to $7.50 an hour for full-time work. If companies cannot compete with this exceedingly paltry sum, their position is akin to a customer demanding to a car salesperson that they have the right to buy a vehicle for a below-market-value sticker price (again, capitalist logic is a worthwhile exercise to showcase the ludicrousness of how lawmakers and their corporate beneficiaries are responding to the state of the labor market).

Remarkably, although federal jobless benefits are funded through September 2021, more than two dozen Republican-run states are choosing to end them earlier. Not only will this impact the bottom line for millions of people struggling to make ends meet, but it will also undermine the stimulus impact that this federal aid has on the economies of states when jobless workers spend their federal dollars on necessities. Conservatives are essentially engaged in an ideological battle over government benefits, which, in their view, are always wrong unless they are going to the already privileged (remember the GOP’s 2017 tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy?).

The GOP has thumbed its nose at federal benefits for residents before. In order to underscore their ideological opposition to the Affordable Care Act, recall how Republican governors eschewed billions of federal dollars to fund Medicaid expansion. These conservative ideologues chose to let their own voters suffer the consequences of turning down federal aid in service of their political opposition to Obamacare. And they’re doing the same thing now.

At the same time as headlines are screaming about a catastrophic worker shortage that could undermine the economy, stories abound of how American billionaires paid peanuts in income taxes according to newly released documents, even as their wealth multiplied to extraordinary levels. The obscenely wealthy are spending their mountains of cash on luxury goods and fulfilling childish fantasies of space travel. The juxtaposition of such a phenomenon alongside the conservative claim that jobless benefits are too generous is evidence that we are indeed in a “national economic emergency”—just not of the sort that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce wants us to believe.

West Virginia’s Republican Governor Jim Justice justified ending federal jobless benefits early in his state by lecturing his residents on how, “America is all about work. That’s what has made this great country.” Interestingly, Justice owns a resort that couldn’t find enough low-wage workers to fill jobs. Notwithstanding a clear conflict of interest in cutting jobless benefits, the Republican politician is now enjoying the fruits of his own political actions as his resort reports greater ease in filling positions with desperate workers whose lifeline he cut off.

When lawmakers earlier this year debated the Raise the Wage Act, which would have increased the federal minimum wage, Republicans wagged their fingers in warning, saying higher wages would put companies out of business. Opponents of that failed bill claimed that if forced to pay $15 an hour, employers would hire fewer people, close branches, or perhaps shut down altogether, which we were told would ultimately hurt workers.

Now, we are being told another story: that companies actually do need workers and won’t simply reduce jobs, close branches, or shut down and that the government therefore needs to stop competing with their ultra-low wages to save the economy. The claim that businesses would no longer be profitable if they are forced to increase wages is undermined by one multibillion-dollar fact: corporations are raking in record-high profits and doling them out to shareholders and executives. They can indeed afford to offer greater pay, and when they do, it turns out there is no labor shortage.

American workers are at a critically important juncture at this moment. Corporate employers seem to be approaching a limit of how far they can push workers to accept poverty-level jobs. According to Fletcher, “This moment provides opportunities to raise wage demands, but it must be a moment where workers organize in order to sustain and pursue demands for improvements in their living and working conditions.”

This blog originally appeared at Independent Media Institute on , June 11, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute.


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BREAKING: Draft Legislation in New York Would Put Gig Workers into Toothless ‘Unions’

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Joe DeManuelle-Hall - The People's Summit The People's Summit

An effort backed by the New York State AFL-CIO would create a new bargaining scheme for app-based workers without addressing the question of whether or not these workers are legally “employees.”

Labor Notes obtained a draft version of the legislation that is being negotiated by unions and app employers.

Workers for apps like Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash are currently considered independent contractors; most in the labor movement consider them misclassified, a tactic the companies use to avoid paying the full cost of benefits. These workers are blocked from unionizing by antitrust laws, and don’t have the protection of the National Labor Relations Board (or many other protections).

To sidestep this, the draft legislation would enact a new process to recognize unions and bargain agreements—relying on the state government to enact the negotiated “recommendations” as regulations.

But the draft bill includes much to give labor activists pause, and marks a departure from the national push against misclassification.

“It’s about creating a distraction and a real carve-out from the PRO Act,” said Bhairavi Desai, director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance.

The federal PRO Act, which much of the labor movement is pushing for, would sidestep the question of misclassification but allow independent contractors to unionize under certain conditions using the National Labor Relations Act.

New York State Senator Jessica Ramos, chair of the Labor Committee, has just released a statement that she will not be backing the draft bill because “We will not legitimize any company union. We will not undermine the PRO Act.”

THE BIG UGLIES

We don’t know what would end up in the final legislation. But the biggest immediate concerns fall into two major categories: departures from existing labor law, and lessening local regulatory power over gig companies.

This legislation says that workers would be put into a union that they likely never voted for, and which would not be funded by workers, and barred from putting up any serious fight for an agreement—no strikes, no boycotts, no picketing. It would create a new type of legally recognized union which is not financially accountable to its members. This should be deeply concerning to those who care about building powerful, democratic unions.

This draft legislation would also take away local governments’ power to rein in gig employers—New York localities could no longer create specific minimum wages for app workers or rules about their working conditions. What’s more, cities would lose the ability to legislate about these companies at all. Local governments couldn’t create taxes or surcharges on the services, or rules for how they must operate. NYC already has a cap on the number of rideshare drivers; this would be thrown out. If a local government wanted to put a surcharge on rides or deliveries to fund infrastructure, or green jobs, or schools—it couldn’t. This power would rest solely with the state.

This type of legislation is not entirely new, but this may be the furthest it’s gotten. Two years ago, as California legislators were preparing Assembly Bill 5 to rein in misclassification, Uber and Lyft were approaching major unions, including SEIU and the Teamsters, in an attempt to preempt the legislation with a compromise. When that didn’t work, the companies spent hundreds of millions of dollars on last fall’s ballot measure, Proposition 22, to carve themselves out. They won, and they’ve made no secret of their intention to get the same deal in other states.

Now, up against the might of these incredibly powerful companies, some labor leaders are looking for compromise legislation of their own. What’s in it for the apps? Legislation like this could help siphon off labor organizing energy and undermine campaigns for tougher legislation.

TWO MASSIVE UNITS, ONE UNION EACH

The legislation covers app-based workers in two groups: rideshare drivers, who perform on-call taxi service for companies like Uber and Lyft; and delivery workers, who deliver packages, groceries, and restaurant orders for companies like Instacart, Amazon, DoorDash, and Seamless. Each of these two groups would become a massive, statewide unit. The draft bill sets up a process (detailed below) for one union to cover each group.

Rideshare companies employ around 80,000 drivers in New York City alone, a figure that is currently capped by local legislation. The number of delivery workers is less clear, but would include between 50,000 and 80,000 food delivery workers as well as Amazon “Flex” drivers and probably others.

The likely unions—based on who’s been pushing this legislation—would be the Machinists’ Independent Drivers Guild for the rideshare drivers, and the Transport Workers Union for delivery workers. The IDG already claims to represent the 80,000 app-based drivers in New York City, but this would formalize its role. The Machinists’ project has come under scrutiny for receiving money from Uber.

RECOGNITION

The recognition process relies in part on labor peace agreements—familiar in places like construction and the burgeoning cannabis industry. Here, the agreement requires companies to sign a peace deal with a union that meets certain requirements; the union is then restricted from encouraging any “picketing, strikes, slow downs, or boycotts” until a finalized deal has been ratified by the state.

The unions only have to show signed cards of support from 10 percent of the workers in the unit—there’s no election. (What if more than one union shows interest? It reads as an afterthought; the labor commissioner is supposed to come up with a process in that case.) Contrast that with the union authorization process run by the National Labor Relations Board, where 30 percent of workers must sign union cards to trigger an election, which can even include competing unions on the same ballot.

Under the draft law, the state ultimately gets to decide if the union should be recognized—because, in addition to the 10 percent show of support, the union must have “demonstrated experience in representing network workers or other related workers in reaching agreements with companies for at least five years.” (“Network” is being used here as a synonym for “app.”)

This puts significant power in the hands of the commissioner of the state’s Department of Labor, appointed by the governor, to determine whether or not a union is eligible to represent workers. This could lead to competing worker organizations being disqualified. The Taxi Workers Alliance, for example, is not a formal union in the legal sense, though it has members and strikes; it’s unclear whether it would meet the standard of “reaching agreements.”

“We read that as they want to make sure TWA is locked out,” Desai said. “It’s meant to favor—that’s not even strong enough—IDG and it’s meant to get rid of us.”

Service Employees Local 32BJ has been supporting the Worker’s Justice Project, a worker center, in its campaign to organize app-based delivery drivers—but will the state say that WJP or even SEIU has the requisite experience representing “network” workers?

Getting rid of or changing the union would require a much more significant lift, and an election. Thirty percent of workers would have to say they wanted a decertification election, and a majority of all workers (not just those voting) would have to vote to decertify. If they wanted a different union, workers would have to go through the process of showing 10 percent support again (after decertifying the existing union), and have the state “certify” their organization.

WHAT’S THE DEAL?

Once a union was certified, the rideshare companies would bargain together for one agreement, and the delivery companies would bargain a separate one, each across the table from the chosen union. The draft legislation demands that the negotiators bring state representatives a deal covering a handful of topics, including union access to workers and a minimum five-year agreement.

The two most remarkable topics they would negotiate are a “portable benefits fund” and the minimum wage for drivers. Portable benefits is a vague term that can mean a lot of different things that aren’t tied to a specific job—anything from Social Security to privatized unemployment insurance for misclassified workers. Here, the union and the employers are told to set up a nonprofit and negotiate how much money to send its way, though the legislation doesn’t say anything about what benefits this should cover. Unemployment? Workers compensation? Family leave? It would be up to them to figure that out. Many of these things are mandated for W-2 employees by laws that don’t cover independent contractors.

The wage negotiations are supposed to have a “floor,” consisting of a local minimum wage plus a mileage rate. The kicker, though, is that these only cover active time—that is, time the workers spend performing the job. App workers have long complained about unpaid idle time while they’re waiting for dispatch—this was a big push for California’s Assembly Bill 5, and NYC passed a driver minimum wage that covered inactive time (more on this later).

NO DUES, BUT LOTS OF CASH

The draft legislation provides a direct line of funding for the unions involved, in the form of surcharges. Each ride in an Uber or food delivery by an Instacart worker would have a 10-cent surcharge, paid by the customer, which companies would collect and then hand over to the unions.

This doesn’t necessarily preclude unions from setting up dues and membership structures, but it does provide them a huge pot of money without having to do that. Right before the pandemic, rideshare companies were hitting 750,000 rides a day in New York City. So the rideshare union would get $75,000 per day—almost $27.5 million per year—just from NYC, even before you figure in all the drivers in the rest of the state.

PROGNOSIS

The New York legislature is only in session for a little less than two weeks, leaving a small window for this to pass this year. The IDG has tried to pass similar legislation over the past several years, but this time it is opening the door to the support of another union by including a separate unit of delivery workers.

Similar legislation was floated recently in Connecticut, before it was allegedly shut down by the national AFL-CIO—in part because of its contradictions with the federal PRO Act, which would provide many misclassified “independent contractors” the right to organize and bargain under the National Labor Relations Act.

As app-based employers continue to grow in size and power, they will keep looking for creative new ways to undermine labor law. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy for them to find allies in labor who are willing to gamble away workers’ rights for the promise of quick, massive membership increases.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on May 21, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Joe DeManuelle-Hall is a staff writer and organizer at Labor Notes.


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