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Viewpoint: The NLRB is Underfunded and Understaffed—And That’s a Big Threat to the Current Organizing Wave

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Gay Semel

The budget for the National Labor Relations Board for fiscal year 2022 was $274 million, which might sound like a lot of money. But it is the same amount as the Board’s budget for Trump-era fiscal years 2021 and 2020, and that is a problem.

In fact, the NLRB has not had an increase in funding since 2014, the year that the Republicans took control of Congress during the Obama administration and reignited their decades-old campaign to deep-six workers’ rights to unionize.

No increase “means a cut to the agency’s funds, due to inflation and other factors,” explains Burt Pearlstone, president of the NLRBU, the union representing workers at the agency.

The Biden administration had sought a 10 percent funding increase for the NLRB this year. But Republicans dug in to oppose an increase, claiming the cost was too high. Privately many were simply doing the bidding of their corporate backers to further weaken an agency already in trouble. When the overall budget was finally passed in March, the administration had accepted flat funding.

HOLLOWED OUT, ON PURPOSE
A goal of the Trump administration, and the Republican Party generally, has been to decimate what they refer to as the “administrative state.” During the Trump years, agency heads were appointed to hollow out federal agencies from within. At the NLRB, Trump named Peter Robb, a management lawyer famous for breaking the strike of air traffic controllers under Reagan, as General Counsel.

Robb set out to weaken the agency by overturning pro-union case law and reducing agency staff, but many of his initiatives were stymied.

Case law at the Board changes slowly. Before a General Counsel can put into place changes that he or she seeks, the right case must be filed with the agency; the case must be tried before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) and then the Board in Washington, D.C.

Some of Robb’s initiatives were stopped by ALJs; for others, he did not find the appropriate case. Had Trump won a second term and Robb stayed in power, the story would be quite different.

Nonetheless, Robb was able to do significant damage to the agency. During his reign, jobs were left vacant across the country. There is always a certain amount of turnover, as staff move on to other jobs; those jobs were not backfilled during Robb’s tenure. In 2018 he offered buyouts, enticing additional staff to leave, and those jobs also were not backfilled.

The NLRB even failed to spend its budget in 2018 and 2019, prompting an investigation by the Board’s Inspector General. Underspending violates the laws establishing Congress’s spending authority (as does overspending).

As the NLRB Regions lost people, the workload increased significantly for those still working at the agency. In 2021, when President Biden took office, there already was a significant backlog of trials waiting to be scheduled. Those that were scheduled took longer and longer to get before an ALJ.

A NEW SHERIFF
To his credit, Biden took the unprecedented action of firing Robb on his first day in office. Shortly after, he appointed Jennifer Abruzzo as the agency’s General Counsel.

Abruzzo had worked at the NLRB in various capacities, including as Assistant General Counsel, for 23 years. When Trump appointees took over the agency, she left and went to work for the Communications Workers (CWA).

Abruzzo knows the agency inside and out. She wants to enforce the original intent of the National Labor Relations Act: to level the playing field between workers and employees, and to protect the rights of working people collectively seeking to better their lives.

Almost immediately, Abruzzo issued memos alerting the agency of cases and practices she would like to see revisited and revised. She called for reinstating the Joy Silk standard (where the Board would require an employer to recognize the union once a majority of workers had signed union authorization cards), increasing penalties on law-breaking employers, declaring mandatory anti-union meetings unlawful, and other pro-worker initiatives. The labor movement took notice.

Biden also appointed two union-side labor lawyers to fill existing vacancies on the five-person Board: Gwynne Wilcox and David Prouty. The majority of Board members are now Democratic appointees. Both Wilcox and Prouty have fought in the trenches for years on behalf of workers and unions and understand how NLRB case law and procedures can be used to help workers or to hinder them.

HAMSTRUNG BY UNDERSTAFFING
The new appointments to the Board and the new General Counsel are exciting news—and not a moment too soon. Union organizing is way up. Workers across the country are taking on big corporations like Starbucks, Amazon, and Trader Joe’s, as well as seeking to unionize in unexpected places—comics, gaming, tech.

Filings at the NLRB for union elections from October 2021 to March 2022 were up 57 percent compared to the same period a year earlier. In response, employer lawbreaking is increasing. Unfair labor practice charges against employers are up 14 percent for the same period.

All the pieces are in place for positive developments at the NLRB, except for one thing—there are fewer people to do the work.

The Republican attack on the agency, accelerated under Robb, is being felt now. Between 2012 and 2022, the field staff at the agency was reduced by more than 40 percent.

Field staff are the lawyers and examiners who handle union elections, investigate cases, and prosecute unfair labor practices, as well as the administrative professionals who support this work. At the Brooklyn Region, which ran the elections in Staten Island at Amazon, the staff is down 40 percent since 2012.

Everything now takes longer. Delay favors the employer. Workers begin to feel that they can’t win and give up or move on.

DEATH BY DELAY
That is Amazon’s goal in Staten Island. The company filed 25 objections to the election at the JFK8 warehouse. Along with claiming objectionable behavior by the Amazon Labor Union, Amazon alleges that the Brooklyn Region of the NLRB delayed the investigation of unfair labor practice charges, instead of dismissing them, creating the impression that Amazon violated the law affecting the vote.

Even though the Brooklyn Region received assistance from field staff at other Regions to help with the Staten Island vote, Amazon claims that the agency mishandled the election by providing insufficient staff for the election. Thus, Amazon is claiming that the underfunding of the agency is cause for overturning the vote.

Amazon’s claims of violations on the part of the Brooklyn Region also caused the hearing to be moved to the Region in Phoenix, Arizona, to avoid a conflict of interest. This, too, created delay. The hearing in Phoenix did not begin until June 13, months after the actual vote.

The objections hearing alone may take months, and then there will be many more months before the briefs are filed and a decision rendered. Other legal delaying tactics will follow.

Dragging things out is Amazon’s goal; understaffing aids that goal.

Even if the agency adds staff to resolve issues at Amazon (which it has done), fewer field staffers are available to handle the increased caseload involving workers and unions at other companies.

Workers at the Brooklyn Region feel overwhelmed by the workload. Many have begun talking about leaving. The Brooklyn chapter of the NLRBU has met with Abruzzo seeking relief.

“Brooklyn is not the only Region feeling overwhelmed by the workload,” says Pearlstone. He hears this from workers at NLRB Regions across the country. “The only solution is more money to hire more people.”

BIDEN MUST FIX THIS
President Biden claims to be pro-worker and pro-union. He has supported the PRO Act, recommended greater worker rights in the federal government, issued a pro-worker message to employees at Amazon’s Alabama warehouse, and jubilantly told Amazon “Here we come!” after the first union win in Staten Island. And he has nominated a General Counsel and new Board members that care about enforcing the National Labor Relations Act.

But without sufficient funding for the NLRB, all of Biden’s statements could end up being little more than hollow promises.

Unions and labor activists need to demand that the Biden administration find additional resources for the NLRB now. Adequate funding for the agency has got to be a major issue for the labor movement—or else the wave of new organizing that has ignited our imaginations and revived an understanding of the importance of labor may wither away.

Gay Semel is a retired union-side labor lawyer. She was District Counsel to District 1 of the Communications Workers in New York for more than 30 years. She also worked as a field attorney at Region 2 of the NLRB in Manhattan for two years. She is currently working on a book about a lengthy battle to get and keep a union at Brooklyn Cablevision.

This blog originally appeared at LaborNotes on July 6, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Gay Semel is a retired union-side labor lawyer. She was District Counsel to District 1 of the Communications Workers in New York for more than 30 years. She also worked as a field attorney at Region 2 of the NLRB in Manhattan for two years.


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Women Are Taking Over the U.S. Labor Movement

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Chabeli Carrazana

As she considered striking at the grocery store where she had worked for a decade, the dozens of moments that had pushed Ashley Manning to that point flooded back. 

She vividly recalled the indignities she endured throughout the pandemic, starting with child care. When schools shut down, no one could watch her 12-year-old daughter. She wouldn’t allow her elderly grandmother, Ruby, to do it, fearing she would get sick. And her store, a Ralphs in San Pedro, California, where she is the manager of the floral department, refused to work with her schedule, she said. 

No one can cover you, she said they told her. Your contract is for six days a week, we need you six days a week.

Unable to work and care for her daughter, she burned through three months of unpaid leave at the end of 2020 as she waited for in-person school to resume. When she came back, the store was in disarray. Managers were not enforcing mask mandates or limits on the number of people in the store, she said. Customers were spitting at employees. There were no plexiglass barriers up.

By then, Manning’s grandmother had started caring for her daughter — they were out of options, schools were still closed and Manning had no leave left to take. So when one of them got COVID-19 in the summer of 2021 — they still aren’t sure who got it first — Manning’s entire family got sick. Manning was hospitalized for two days, her mother for two weeks, her grandmother for three weeks. Her daughter got sick, too. 

“The only thing that [work] could do while I was gone was keep calling me: ?‘What day are you coming back to work?’” said Manning, 32.  “It wasn’t, ‘Are you feeling good’ It wasn’t, ‘Do you feel better?’ It wasn’t, ‘We can make adjustments.’ It wasn’t any of those things.” 

On August 13, Manning’s grandmother died alone in the intensive care unit at a hospital in Los Angeles, two days before Manning’s birthday. No family or friends were able to see her before she passed. 

“Until this day, it could be my fault that she’s not here,” Manning said. “I look at it that way because I was the one who was working at the grocery store.” 

Manning still carried that wound with her when she considered striking against Kroger, Ralphs’ parent company. The stress of her grandmother’s death and everything that came before it led Manning to take short-term disability from work for five months. When she returned early this year, negotiations between the union that represents her and 47,000 workers at several other Kroger-owned grocery stores in Southern and Central California were beginning to deteriorate. Their contract was up and both parties were far apart in the negotiations, which included demands for raises to account for cost of living and inflation increases over the last three years.

Kroger’s first offer: a 60 cent hourly raise.

By late March, 95 percent of workers who voted agreed to authorize a strike, Manning among them. Most of those workers were women, many of them women of color or single mothers like Manning, who were entering into the fight with their employer fueled by two years of turmoil that hit them — and, critically, their families — the hardest. 

Over the course of the pandemic, the majority of essential workers were women. The majority of those who lost their jobs in the pandemic were women. The majority of those who faced unstable care situations for their children and their loved ones were women. 

And now the majority of those organizing their workplaces are women. 

Kroger workers are part of a surge in organizing led by women, women of color and low-wage workers impelled by this once-in-a-century pandemic. Many said they feel the pandemic has unmasked the hypocrisy of some employers — they were “essential” workers until their employers stopped offering protections on the job, good pay and commensurate benefits.

Among them, a deep recalibration is happening, dredging up questions about why they work, for whom, and how that work serves them and their families. For many it’s the chance to define the future of work. 

“Most women are carrying their families on their backs,” Manning said. “We feel disposable. Everybody is enraged.” 

Over the past decade, about 60 percent of newly organizing workers have been women. Women now are also the faces of some of the largest labor movements in years, including the baristas who have unionized over a dozen Starbucks since late 2021, the bakery workers who recently went on strike for four months to secure their first union contract, the call center workers — mostly women of color — who went on strike in Mississippi, and the 17,000 Etsy sellers who went on strike last month to combat transaction fee increases.

All of those movements, most of them happening in companies and even industries for the first time, are ending a disparity that has long existed between men and women in union organization. In 2021, the gender gap in union representation reached its narrowest point since the data started being tracked in the early 1980s by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 10.6 percent of men are members of a union, compared to 9.9 percent of women; in 1983, the first year data was available, it was 24.7 percent of men and 14.6 percent of women. (BLS does not collect data on nonbinary people.) 

For women, unions can be a pathway to equal pay. Studies have found that unionization tends to benefit women more than men, eliminating factors that fuel pay disparity such as secrecy around salaries and societal barriers that discourage women from negotiating pay and benefits.

While union membership has waned in recent decades and was slightly down in 2021 compared to 2020, moments of upheaval have in the past turned into opportunities for women to organize. Take the suffrage movement and the Triangle Shirtwaist fire that killed 146 largely young immigrant women in New York in 1911, the wave of women entering the workforce during and after World War II, and the women’s liberation movement in the late 1960s and ?‘70s that helped women join the workforce en masse. Each of those moments changed the course of women’s involvement in the workforce, helping to pass the 19th Amendmentincrease union membership and pass equal pay legislation.

The pandemic, which set off the first women’s recession, might be that next catalyst, said Jennifer Sherer, the senior state policy coordinator at the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank. 

“It feels like we are living through potentially another one of those moments, where the public and media are awake at a different level right now because of the activity in multiple sectors,” Sherer said. 

The shift happening now comes along with a critical change in leadership at the nation’s major unions. After the death of former AFL-CIO president and prominent national union leader Richard Trumka in 2021, longtime labor leader Liz Shuler took over as president?—?marking the first time a woman took the helm of the largest and most powerful federation of labor unions in the country. 

“As work is changing, as the workforce is changing, we are going to be changing with it,” Shuler told The 19th. ?“Coming out of COVID-19, work is looking differently. That’s why the labor movement is so sorely needed: to show workers that they have a voice and a place in that change.”

The pandemic was a conduit, she said: It allowed women workers to bring up issues that had long plagued them — caregiving, family, health — that had long been treated as niche topics. 

“This has been building for a long time, and the pandemic really brought to the surface all of the issues that women have been fighting for and advocating for for a long time,” Shuler said. 

Mary Kay Henry, who in 2010 became the first woman to head the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — the second-largest industry union after the Education Association of the United States — said this moment feels like a turning point. It gets at the very core of the role women play in communities, families and the workplace. 

“Women leaders in the worksite and of organizations like mine are leading a fundamental reorganization of power that isn’t just about our workplace, but is about our communities. And for us, it’s reflected in the demand to be respected, protected and paid,” said Henry, who still runs SEIU.

Taken in the broader context of the rise of the #MeToo movement, the dismantling of care and the ping ponging value of the essential workforce, the reasons for organizing are more gendered now, said Sarita Gupta, co-author of “The Future We Need: Organizing for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century.” 

“In years past, issues like sexual harassment — that’s not in the bargaining agreement,” Gupta said. “How we think about these movements is not to the side of what a worker movement is, but actually integrated into the worker movement.”

Kathy Finn, the secretary-treasurer of the union representing the Kroger workers in California, has been organizing workers long enough to remember when they held what was then the longest grocery store strike in history, a four-and-a-half-month long ordeal from 2003 to 2004. Then, a grocery store job used to be a career that could support a family, Finn said. Over the past several decades, those jobs have increasingly become part-time positions with lower pay and limited benefits, a result of cost-cutting measures driven by competition, automation and decreased union participation.

Now, many moms — particularly single moms — at grocery stores feel like their employers are actively working against their needs as parents. The majority of the union’s bargaining committee is women for the first time. 

“It definitely feels very different right now,” Finn said. 

This is partly because low-income workers, mostly women, have more power to speak up about the support they need from employers. When Manning was away from work after her grandmother’s death, the tenor of the phone calls she received from her bosses had changed from when she was sick last year, she said. They couldn’t find anyone qualified to fill her spot. 

When are you coming back, she said they’d ask. We know your grandmother took care of your daughter, we can work with your schedule. We can make adjustments, they said. 

Manning returned to Ralphs because she didn’t have the option not to, but something snapped into focus for her. Her value, she said, felt conditional. 

As she voted to strike, Manning thought of her grandmother, who never once made her question her self-worth. When Manning tried to start her own floral business, it was her grandmother who encouraged her to pursue it, who got a shed built in her backyard to house Manning’s dream. 

“I feel like she’s on board with me, this is where you need to be,” Manning said. 

A couple weeks after the vote, Manning, who is on the bargaining committee, was able to help secure a historic agreement that increases hours for part-time employers, improves pension benefits and creates health and safety councils at each store — most of the demands they had been seeking. 

The wage increase won’t be cents. It’ll be $4.25 an hour. 

This reckoning was forged on the shop floor, through conversations between women in workplaces that once didn’t welcome them at all. 

In the 1990s, when women’s labor force participation was peaking in the United States — it has stalled since — women were joining industries long dominated by men. Unionization for a lot of women meant organizing to secure basic rights. Sanchioni Butler, who at the time worked at a Ford plant in Carrollton, Texas, recalled the moment when the few women at the auto plant joined together to help improve the conditions of the women’s bathroom so they would have somewhere to sit during breaks or during their menstrual cycles. 

“We got improvements by sticking together,” Butler said in “The Future We Need: Organizing for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century.” “…When we fought for a shower and couch in the women’s bathroom, that was our women’s movement.”

It seemed then like the only way to improve conditions in a vacuum of federal policy. The Paycheck Fairness Act, for example, which aims to close loopholes in pay discrimination laws, was first proposed around the time Butler was fighting for a couch in the women’s bathroom. It still has not passed.

“If we’re trying to strengthen and improve women’s position in the workforce, the idea of allowing and creating platforms for women to be able to negotiate their conditions, both through a union as well as through community-based, worker-led standards boards, for some of these essential sectors — that’s a start,” said Erica Smiley, co-author of “The Future We Need.” 

That nascent start has blossomed into more. In 2011, The New York Times ran “Redefining the Union Boss,” a piece about the women, including SEIU’s Henry, who were heading up major unions and rekindling a hope that their leadership could drive a comeback in unionization after years of reduced membership. 

In the decade since, the number of women represented by a union started rising again, peaking in 2015. And the numbers don’t break out evenly across race. Union membership has been rising steadily for Latinas, the group with the largest gender pay gap in the country, while it’s leveled out or decreased for other groups. Since 2010, the number of Latinas represented by unions has risen by 31 percent. But by 2021, rates across the board were back near where they were in 2011. 

Still, those numbers mask the amount of organization in 2021, which may not be reflected in statistics for several years. It often takes years to negotiate a union contract and get counted under those figures, and the upswell in organizing now is happening in workplaces that are at the very beginning of that process, workplaces that likely spent a part of 2021 disaggregated and diffuse. 

“People are having to overcome a set of obstacles in their daily lives like never before. They’ve lost loved ones and haven’t been able to properly bury them or grieve them because of the COVID pandemic,” Henry said. “They are dealing with staffing shortages and lack of health and safety, but are persevering and organizing on a scale that I’ve never seen before.” 

Those obstacles have led people to demand responses from companies that actually reach down to the lowest wage workers, not just talk about them, said Gupta, who is also the vice president of U.S. programs at the Ford Foundation. 

“These strikes matter because they are just saying, ‘You can’t just talk about [diversity, equity and inclusion] in your corporate boardroom. What are the other ways you are going to support my ability to stay in the labor force?’” Gupta said. 

Some employers are hearing that message, said Maria Colacurcio, the CEO of Syndio Systems, a platform that works with more than 200 companies, including 10 percent of the Fortune 200, to identify racial and gender pay gaps and improve pay bands and benefits for employees. 

Those conversations have changed, she said. Three years ago “they were like, ‘I’m just here to reduce my risk of a pay equity class action.’ Now 99 percent of our customers are looking at some racial comparison. And I really do think it’s because of the pressure that’s come out of this movement from employees around: This isn’t a gender problem. This is workplace equity, without regard to gender, race, ethnicity, disability, age.” 

High-profile union drives, like the one led by Starbucks workers, are forcing employers to think more proactively about what they can offer workers beyond higher pay. 

“It’s not a flash in the pan — there are also things getting embedded that are going to force it to be long-term,” Colacurcio said. “It’s really difficult to undo once you’ve opened the windows.” 

And yet, being a woman leader in a movement that has rarely allowed women to lead, has dredged up for many why this has taken so long. 

Kim Cordova, the first woman president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 in Colorado, saw it first hand this year when she faced negotiators on behalf of Kroger, the parent company of 8,000 grocery store employees in Boulder, Parker and the Denver area her union represents. It was her fight in Colorado that set the stage for what the California workers were recently able to do.

But those negotiations were dripping with gendered vitriol. 

She was that woman to them.

“It’s tough being a union president but it’s tougher being a female president,” Cordova said. “You have to speak louder than everybody in the room, you have to earn your respect that way — you have to fight for it. I’m a double whammy: I’m Latina and I’m a female.”

The corporate negotiators went over her head, she said, reaching out to male lawyers instead of her during the negotiations. 

“I am the chief spokesperson, I am the negotiator. I had to send a letter saying, ‘You need to send your questions to me,’” Cordova said. 

The fight led to a 10-day strike in the January cold, after which workers secured hourly raises as high as $5.99, unheard of, she said. “We’ve seen raises to the right of the decimal point, cents not dollars.” The new agreement also addressed the two-tier pay structure that led the men who dominated meat departments to earn more than the women in the lower-paid grocery jobs.

Cordova said the movement of the past three years has been “a career-defining moment” for her after 37 years with a union. 

It feels fierce enough to last. 

“This is our year, this is our time,” Cordova said. “I don’t think they are going anywhere backward.” 

The Kroger strike in Colorado inspired the workers in California. Many of the problems are the same: stagnant wages, lax health and safety precautions, and people who feel like they have been pushed to the edge of what they can endure. 

In Beverly Hills, Pavilions grocery store cashier Christie Sasaki remembers how hard the strikes in 2003 and 2004 were, but it felt last month like there was no option left. She is often doing the job of two or more people. Her wages have maxed out at $22.50 an hour after 32 years at Pavilions. She has nothing saved for retirement and three quarters of her paycheck goes to her rent, a 2 bedroom apartment she shares with her teenage daughter and a roommate she took on to help offset the cost. 

“I would like one day to have the American dream — to be able to retire,” said Sasaki, 54. “After almost 33 years, I don’t think I can. It brings a tear to my eye because I would like to be able to go on vacation, I would like to go out to eat.” 

Her only opportunity, she said, is to get the best contract she can for herself and her colleagues. She spoke directly to Kroger’s representatives about those struggles in meetings earlier this year, surrounded for the first time by the women who have worked with her shoulder-to-shoulder.

“During the bargaining committee, my entire table,” she said, “is female.” 

This story was originally published by The 19th on July 5th, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Chabeli Carrazana is an Economy Reporter at The 19th.


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The Amazon Labor Union Victory Shows That Jurisdiction Is Dead

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Hamilton Nolan

When news spread April 1 that the independent Amazon Labor Union (ALU) had won its union election at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island in New York, the initial response from anyone who supports the labor movement was exultation at this unprecedented — and unexpected — victory for the working class.
he secondary response was a collective “In your face!” to mega-billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who was shown that all the money in the world can’t crush the will for a union.

Now, we can all move on to what should be the next response: Forcing the union establishment to take a long, hard look at what it needs to change.

The ALU — a project of current and former Amazon workers as well as committed volunteer organizers — succeeded in organizing Amazon before any big, well-funded union could. That fact has produced a million insta-analyses: “They were in New York City, not Alabama — so they had the easiest target!” “The ALU was led by cool younger people — old union bureaucrats must be purged!” Etc.

Rather than indulge in that particular argument, I propose an adjacent conclusion that I think will hold true no matter where anyone lands on the specific tactical questions about the ALU victory. This is the lesson the union world should take from the ALU’s accomplishment: Jurisdiction is dead. By this I mean that all of the time unions spend arguing with one another over who has the right to organize which workers, in which industry, at which company is one gargantuan waste of time. Stop it. It’s useless. It is, in essence, a bunch of drivers arguing over a single parking space in one corner of a vast, empty parking lot. While an asteroid is approaching. It is not something that should be on the list of top 100 priorities for labor, given the current situation.

Who cares about jurisdiction in the first place? Well, many major unions consider this parochial concern to be the most important reason for the AFL-CIO to exist — to serve as a traffic cop, arbitrating petty arguments between unions that want to organize the same place. Inherent in this perspective is the belief that other things the central body of the labor movement could be doing — like, for example, building multi-union coalitions capable of organizing powerful employers like Amazon — are less important than this traffic cop role.

What has this approach gotten us?

It has gotten us a nation in which barely one in ten workers (including barely 6 percent of private sector workers) are union members, while economic inequality has been rising for decades. The idea that unions should have the right to lay claim to particular industries where 90 percent of workers are not union members is farcical. A perfect illustration of this absurdity is the fact that, in March, new Teamsters president Sean O’Brien told Bloomberg he “wants the Teamsters to be the only union that organizes workers at Amazon’s fulfillment centers and sorting hubs.” Less than two weeks later, the independent ALU had actually unionized an Amazon fulfillment center, which is one more Amazon fulfillment center than the Teamsters have unionized.

Unions serve workers. Not the opposite. What serves workers best is having a union now, not the abstract concept of a single union that owns their industry and may get around to organizing them years from now. Until union density in America reaches, say, 50 percent or more, we don’t need to hear any more jurisdictional arguments from unions about whose territory is whose. Instead, we need to see successful union campaigns in which millions of new workers are unionized.

Want to claim “jurisdiction” in an industry? Then organize it. Otherwise, make way for those who will.

To the credit of America’s union leaders, their public reaction to the ALU victory has uniformly been one of support. But that same victory throws into relief how pressing it is for those same unions to change the way they’ve been doing business for the past half century. No more individual fiefdoms jealously guarding their own shrinking islands of union territory, while the majority of working people flounder with no support from organized labor. The ALU inspired us all by unionizing the first 8,000 Amazon workers in the United States. Organizing the next 800,000 will require the combined efforts of many unions, and then some.

Rich, ruthless, and omniscient companies like Amazon will not be organized solely with GoFundMe donations, as the Staten Island warehouse was. Now is the time for the labor movement to start building multi-union coalitions capable of tackling employers on a national scale, and keeping up the fight long enough to win contracts in the face of endless litigation — think something like the Change to Win coalition, but more active, and aimed at individual companies.

Building multi-union coalitions requires unions to recognize the futility of arguing over jurisdiction, and instead do the opposite: Combine forces and organize without freaking out over who gets to put their label on the end product.

ALU leader Chris Smalls, whose vision made the Amazon union victory a reality, has already become a celebrated figure. In the end, his greatest contribution to the labor movement might be that he’s served as a blaring wake-up call. There is no room for egos or territorialism in a country of 10 percent union density. This fight is going to be expensive. Everyone, ante up.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 18, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer 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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Limiting Non-Compete Agreements is Key to a Just Recovery

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Najah Farley

As tens of millions of workers—more than one-fifth of the U.S. workforce—were losing their jobs at the start of the pandemic, worker advocates sounded another important alarm: In many states, being laid off would not release workers from “non-compete” agreements they had signed with their employers, which would restrict what future job offers they could accept.

The prospect that employers could hamper workers in their return to work by using non-competes seemed like a far-off possibility in March 2020. But now, with many seeking to return to work, the possibility of workers being bound by past non-compete agreements or agreeing to new ones is deeply concerning. Non-competes limit workers’ power and autonomy and exacerbate existing inequities that disproportionately harm workers of color.

What Are Non-Competes?
Non-competes are contracts, signed by employees when they accept a job, that restrict them from taking a job in the same industry for a set period of time after they leave their position. Restrictions may be defined by industry or geography, and some may list specific rival competitor companies that employees are prohibited from joining. Research suggests that nearly one in five U.S. workers is currently bound by a non-compete. The types of workers bound range from chief executive officers to security guards to sandwich makers, as in the infamous Jimmy John’s case that first brought this issue to the fore.

Nearly one in five U.S. workers—from CEOs to security guards to sandwich makers—is currently bound by a non-compete.

Employers usually present non-compete provisions in a “take it or leave it” fashion. They may require workers to sit out of the labor market for a year or even longer. Not surprisingly, non-competes have been shown to depress wages by reducing competition. This is what economists refer to as the problem of monopsony, where employers have greater market power and are able to continue to offer lower wages due to lack of competition.

Non-competes may exacerbate the wage gap that workers of color face.

Push for State Reforms
Many legislatures are successfully taking on the challenge of non-compete reform. New laws have been passed or are advancing in several states. Bills were introduced in West Virginia, Minnesota, Connecticut, Colorado, New York, and Iowa. In New York, Governor Kathy Hochul included a non-compete provision in her budget proposal, and the State Senate also introduced a bill. Both the West Virginia and Iowa bills proposed banning non-competes for workers in low-wage industries.

Many legislatures are successfully taking on the challenge of non-compete reform.

The Minnesota non-compete proposal would limit agreements to an annual salary equal to the median family income and also provide for “garden leave”, i.e., an employer would have to pay 50 percent of the employee’s highest annual base salary during the restricted period. Connecticut’s bill, had it passed, would have set the non-compete threshold close to $100k. Colorado’s bill would be an important improvement of the state’s previous non-compete law. Although many legislative sessions ended without passing the non-compete laws under consideration, the bills in New Jersey, New York, and Colorado are still being considered.

Movement Nationally
President Biden’s initiative to improve competition through his Executive Order on Competition, released on July 9, 2021, has also helped fuel the push for these bills. As a result of this directive, federal agency work in the area has increased.

On March 7th, the Treasury Department, in partnership with the Labor Department, the Justice Department, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), released a report on “The State of Labor Market Competition.” The report found that the lack of competition results in wage declines of between 15 and 25 percent. It also highlighted the power differential that exists between companies and workers, based on information asymmetry as well as labor market forces, that leads to employers exerting market power and offering lower wages and worse working conditions. Now that the FTC has a full complement of commissioners, advocates are pushing for the agency to pursue rulemaking in this area. The Open Markets Institute initially submitted a petition to the FTC in 2019, joined by 60 signatory organizations, including NELP.

Coercive waivers, such as non-disclosures, arbitration agreements, and non-competes, work together to reduce worker power.

Where We Go From Here
In the wake of the “Great Resignation,” management-side lawyers have become even more aggressive in their tactics to keep employees bound by these coercive agreements. In a recent blog post on a human resources site, management-side lawyers stated that they have seen an uptick in employers wanting to sue employees because of the talent shortage; they not only want to retain the employees but also prevent them from going elsewhere. Such articles highlight the abusive way in which non-compete agreements are used to block workers from going elsewhere to use their talents and skills.

In the wake of the “Great Resignation,” management-side lawyers have become more aggressive in their tactics to keep employees bound by coercive agreements.

State law advocacy will hopefully help level the playing field for workers seeking to be free from onerous non-compete agreements imposed by their employers, but advocates still have more to do.

While many states are moving in the right direction, federal legislative reform and rulemaking remain crucial.

The Workforce Mobility Act, sponsored by Senators Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Todd Young (R-IN), would eliminate non-competes for the majority of workers, keeping them only for workers involved in the sale of a business. This bipartisan bill would go a long way toward ensuring that workers can chart their own careers; it would take power away from employers that abuse the use of non-competes. A federal bill that bans non-competes for workers could, like Oregon’s non-compete law, have a positive impact on the wages of hourly workers. Now is the time to continue to push for broad non-compete reform, creating the just recovery that workers need.

This blog is a shortened version of one that originally appeared in full at NELP on May 19, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Najah Farley is a senior staff attorney at NELP, who focuses on workplace standards and wages.


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From fake customer accounts to fake job interviews, Wells Fargo is just the worst

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Laura Clawson

Wells Fargo is once again making headlines for being a terrible, unethical company even by the poor standards of the financial industry. Just over two years after the bank paid a $3 billion fine for opening millions of fake accounts in the names of actual customers, current and former employees are alleging that they were told to conduct fake interviews to fulfill Wells Fargo’s diversity policies.

Wells Fargo now has an official policy that for every open job paying more than $100,000, at least one “diverse” candidate—a woman or person of color—must be interviewed. But the company had apparently been doing what the NFL faces a lawsuit over: interviewing “diverse” candidates only after jobs had been promised to other (white, male) candidates.

From fake accounts to fake interviews, fake is very big at Wells Fargo.

Former Wells Fargo executive Joe Bruno says he was fired after telling superiors that the fake interview practice was “inappropriate, morally wrong, ethically wrong.” Wells Fargo says Bruno wasn’t the one retaliated against, but was fired for retaliating against a fellow employee. But whatever the reason for Bruno’s firing (and company claims that they didn’t retaliate against workers should always be viewed as suspect), The New York Times found seven current and former Wells Fargo employees who were instructed to carry out fake interviews and another five who were aware of the practice.

So the fact that a company spokeswoman told the Times, in an emailed statement, “To the extent that individual employees are engaging in the behavior as described by The New York Times, we do not tolerate it,” rings false. Because unless all seven current or former employees who had been told to conduct the fake interviews had the same superior telling them to do so, it’s not remotely a thing being done by “individual employees.” For that matter, if there’s one Wells Fargo executive senior enough to have multiple direct reports who are senior enough to be the ones conducting interviews, it’s also not an “individual employees” kind of problem.

The spokeswoman also said that maybe this had happened in the past, but not under current leadership, which came in following the fake accounts scandal. But three of the Times’ sources said they had conducted or been aware of the fake interviews happening this year.

Wells Fargo told the Times that 77% percent of the people hired in 2020 and 81% of the people hired last year were not white men, but refused to say what those percentages were for people being paid more than $100,000.

Discrimination is not a new issue at Wells Fargo, either. Twice in recent years, it has paid out millions of dollars over discrimination claims, once paying nearly $8 million in back wages and interest after a Department of Labor claim that it had discriminated against more than 30,000 Black job applicants, and once paying a $36 million settlement in a lawsuit by Black financial advisers who said they had been steered into poor neighborhoods and away from opportunities.

Wells Fargo’s credibility is low across the board. It sounds like they should be doing less issuing statements about how they did not do fake interviews and more assessing their exposure and getting ready to pay another fine or settlement. 

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on May 19, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor. 


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These Are The Workers Who Took on Amazon, and Won

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Luis Feliz Leon (@Lfelizleon) / Twitter

Against all odds, Amazon workers in New York organized a successful union against one of the biggest companies in the world. Here’s how.

Hey, Jeff Bezos, I’m going to let you know something today: We are just getting started,” Chris Smalls declared at an August 2020 protest in Washington, D.C. August 2020 was the month Amazon founder Jeff Bezos became the richest person in recorded history.

Outside of his $23 million, 27,000-square-foot pied-à-terre, a group of Staten Island Amazon workers and a crowd of supporters erected a mock guillotine.

“Give a good reason why we don’t deserve a $30 minimum wage when this man makes $4,000 a second,” Smalls went on.

After leading a walkout over Covid-19 safety at Amazon’s mammoth JFK8 warehouse in March 2020, the first month of the pandemic, Smalls and his coorganizers took their rebellion on the road that summer. Outside Bezos’ mansions?—?a $165 million Beverly Hills home, a waterfront estate outside Seattle and a Fifth Avenue Manhattan penthouse?—?the group staged demonstrations denouncing income inequality and demanding wage hikes and protections for workers given the pandemic designation of ?“essential.”

At each stop, they quietly grew the ranks of supporters who also sensed that the scrappy movement was the start of something big. 

Those early supporters included Cassio Mendoza, then 23, who decided to show up to the October 2020 protest in Beverly Hills after connecting with Smalls on Instagram. 

“Wow, this is really different,” Mendoza remembers thinking at the protest. 

“Talking about billionaires, ?‘They gotta go.’ Damn! This is really radical.” 

Mendoza would soon move across the country to take a job at JFK8 and ultimately help win the first-ever union at any of Amazon’s U.S. warehouses. 

Since the Amazon Labor Union’s stunning win in April, much of the media analysis around the victory has been centered on Smalls. Just as important, however, is the collective story of the workers who charted their own path against one of the world’s biggest companies. 

What became the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) brought together an organic group of leaders demanding safety and dignity at Amazon?—?some with prior union experience?—?and a diverse, roving band of socialists in their 20s seeking to join a righteous labor fight. After setting their sights on a union election at the JFK8 warehouse, the group was joined by veteran warehouse workers who brought a deep bench of experience and relationships to the campaign. All of them were essential to the ALU’s upset win to represent more than 8,000 warehouse workers. 

In May, Amazon’s union-busting efforts dealt the ALU a defeat in its second union election, this time at LDJ5, a smaller sort center across the street from JFK8. Out of roughly 1,633 employees eligible to vote in the election, nearly 1,000 cast ballots, with 380 workers voting in favor of the union and 618 against. 

The outcome is disappointing but not entirely surprising for ALU leaders, who say they faced even steeper odds at LDJ5, a newer facility comprised largely of part-time workers. After the union’s first win sent shockwaves through the U.S. labor movement, the ALU says that hundreds of Amazon workers nationwide have reached out for support in their own organizing efforts. There’s every reason to think that the ALU is still just getting started.

ESSENTIALLY DISRESPECTED

It’s fitting that the last day of voting at JFK8 fell on March 30, marking the two-year anniversary of the walkout that jumpstarted the organizing effort there. 

Staten Island’s first case of Covid-19 case was confirmed March 9, 2020. Things escalated quickly in the following weeks. 

While infections rose, ?“They weren’t giving us masks,” says Gerald Bryson, a warehouse picker in his 50s who had been a union member at previous jobs. 

Instead of responding to the pandemic, Amazon organized what Derrick Palmer, 33, describes as a ?“mini-carnival” to recruit workers to racial and ethnic affinity groups, crowding employees into a small room and handing out plates of food while people milled about maskless. 

“They totally disregarded Covid,” Palmer remembers. Worker Jordan Flowers, then 21, has lupus and was awaiting a kidney transplant, which put him at high risk for Covid complications. As Flowers saw stories of people dying across the country that March, he grew increasingly concerned about the lack of personal protective equipment at work. 

“I’m my mom’s only child,” Flowers says. ?“I wasn’t gonna risk my life to work for this company.” Amazon had already fired him once anyway, when he took short-term disability in 2019, but the company reinstated his employment shortly after he challenged the termination.

Chris Smalls’ job as a process assistant at the warehouse, a training role adjacent to management, gave him responsibility for approximately 60 people. Alarmed that managers weren’t properly notifying employees when someone they’d worked with tested positive for Covid, Smalls took it upon himself to warn workers of their possible exposure. 

Jason Anthony, 36, was one of the workers under Smalls. ?“Our relationship evolved from a worker-supervisor thing to a brotherhood, a bond that will never be broken,” Anthony says. ?“We call each other brother and sister. We care about each other. That’s something that Amazon doesn’t even do?—?care about their own people.” 

In the afternoon of March 30, 2020, workers filed out of the New York warehouse, led by Bryson, Palmer, Flowers and Smalls. They demanded Amazon close the facility for cleaning and offer employees paid time off in the meantime. 

“Alexa, please shut down and sanitize the building,” one of their protest signs read. 

Amazon fired Smalls that day, claiming he violated the company’s quarantine rules. Amazon fired Bryson the next month, though an administrative law judge ordered the company reinstate him two years later in April 2022. Amazon gave Palmer a ?“final warning” and put Flowers on medical suspension. 

According to a leaked memo, Amazon’s chief counsel denigrated Smalls soon after, calling him ?“not smart, or articulate” and suggesting a press narrative of ?“us versus him.” Amazon did not respond to a request for comment. 

This narrow focus on Smalls ultimately backfired on Amazon, elevating Smalls to the status of a martyr while underestimating the depth of worker anger. The more that Amazon singled out Smalls, the more organizers could focus on talking to their coworkers and bringing new people into the union campaign. 

Meanwhile, Smalls’ story reached workers far and wide. Brett Daniels, 29, got in touch with Smalls via social media after the walkout. At the time, Daniels was working at a dine-in movie theater in a suburb of Phoenix. When he was laid off due to pandemic-related closures, he picked up a job as a seasonal hire at an Amazon facility in Arizona with the hope of organizing among fellow workers. The child of a union firefighter and flight attendant, Daniels hoped to organize a union after years of community organizing experience, including the Fight for $15 in Tucson, Ariz.“We know the ins and outs of the company. Derrick is a six-year vet. I worked there for almost five years. Who better to lead the fight than us?” — Chris Smalls

Inspired by the pandemic walkout, Daniels moved to Staten Island in November 2021 and was rehired at Amazon. ?“Almost all?—?if not all?—?of the organizers here were inspired by Chris, Derrick, Gerald and Jordan leading that walkout,” Daniels says.

Connor Spence, 26, also relocated from New Jersey to take a job at JFK8 in May 2021, shelving his aviation training to become an organizer instead of a pilot.

Smalls’ story ?“was emblematic of everything that’s wrong with Amazon?—?everything that’s wrong with society at the time,” Spence says.

Instead of backing down after his firing, ?“Chris was motivated to take the momentum and use it to fix the things he saw that were wrong with Amazon,” Spence says. ?“That was inevitably going to attract other people who wanted to actually step up, take action and change things.”

A UNION IS BORN

On May 1, 2020 —International Workers’ Day?—?Smalls, Bryson, Flowers and Palmer launched the Congress of Essential Workers, a predecessor to what would become the Amazon Labor Union. The group’s original goal was to unite frontline workers across industries in the fight for better conditions and pay. Jason Anthony joined up after he was fired from Amazon in July 2020.

The group envisioned a broad working class struggle against billionaires profiting from the pandemic?—?and they didn’t mince words. 

“The capitalist economy of the U.S. is built off the backs of a class of underpaid people who are degraded to wage laborers and valued only for what they produce, not for their intrinsic value as humans,” reads the Congress of Essential Workers’ website.

As they traveled the country to protest at Bezos’ mansions, the group forged stronger bonds with each other while welcoming newcomers, an approach Smalls describes as ?“all-inclusive” with a caveat. 

“It is Black-led, and we’re gonna keep it that way,” Smalls says he would explain as people joined. ?“Once we have that understanding, we let them in. And they’ve been with us ever since. There’s loyalty, and there is trust. They’re family members.”

In summer 2020, Spence traveled from his home in New Jersey to the Manhattan protest outside Bezos’ penthouse. ?“We really only talked for about two minutes,” Spence says of his first time meeting Smalls. Nonetheless, Spence was quickly added to an organizer chat group. He is now the ALU’s vice president of membership.

“One of the signs of a good organizer is believing fundamentally that working-class people are smart and capable,” Spence says. ?“So building an organization where you tried to make everybody have a part in the democratic process, let everybody have a role in it?—?that’s going to be a successful organization of working-class people.”

That’s the same ethos that drew in Cassio Mendoza at the October 2020 rally outside of Bezos’ Beverly Hills home. 

A committed socialist and the son of a videographer with Unite Here Local 11, Mendoza was skeptical of staff-led organizing. He saw in Bryson and Palmer genuine rank-andfile leadership and was especially impressed that Palmer had flown to Los Angeles after finishing up a shift at Amazon. The Congress of Essential Workers ?“didn’t seem manufactured in any way,” Mendoza says. 

A Los Angeles native, Mendoza typically wears a blue L.A. Dodgers hat, loose black T?shirts and beige khakis?—?wardrobe choices that match his understated personality. Despite his attempts to fade into the background, Mendoza became a pivotal campaign organizer. By June 2021, he had packed up and moved to New York. He began working at Amazon a month later, with the intention of helping the organizing effort. 

But at that point, the labor fight was still solely about garnering more respect for workers, and the group mostly wanted to convene Amazon workers across the country for a national conference. ?“They didn’t even say the word ?‘union,’” Mendoza remembers of those early conversations. 

“The idea was to have us all come together under one banner,” Spence says.

As members of the Congress of Essential Workers began reaching out to other worker groups through social media, they learned that most didn’t have a real organizing presence inside Amazon. One exception was Amazonians United, a loose network of worker committees in the United States and Canada. That group’s organizing model is based on ?“solidarity unionism,” in which workers begin acting like a union without any official, government recognition.

The organizers on Staten Island opted for a different approach when they formed the Amazon Labor Union, although members of Amazonians United have lent support to the union drive at LDJ5.

Bryson had been a member of multiple New York City unions, including the Service Employees International Union Locals 32BJ and 1199, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 37. And Smalls had once been a Teamster before working at Amazon, leaving what he describes as ?“a bad contract.” 

While the Congress of Essential Workers at first resisted the idea of a formal union, that changed after the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) lost its campaign to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., in April 2021. (As of press time, the outcome of the second election in Bessemer is still pending.) Put off by RWDSU’s approach, which leaned on politicians and celebrities to gin up support among Amazon employees, Smalls and the other organizers thought they could do better.

“We know the ins and outs of the company,” Smalls explains. ?“Derrick is a six-year vet. I worked there for almost five years. Who better to lead the fight than us?”

As they discussed the idea of a new, independent union to keep workers in the driver’s seat, they looked for examples of other militant unions. Mendoza was especially inspired by William Z. Foster, a Communist organizer in the steel industry in the 1930s. Spence turned to Labor Law for the Rank & Filer from Daniel Gross and Staughton Lynd, and he distilled lessons from labor studies and copious online research into presentations for the organizing committee?—?including how to take on union-busting consultants on the shop floor. For language on inclusion, the group referenced Unite Here’s national constitution. For union democracy structures?—?including how union officers’ salaries should be pegged to the average wages of the union membership?—?they looked at the United Electrical Workers. 

“I’m my mom’s only child. I wasn’t gonna risk my life to work for this company.” — Jordan Flowers

All of these ideas would be reflected in ALU’s constitution. 

“Let’s combine the union model with the rank-and-file committee model,” Spence recalls discussing with Smalls. ?“Each building has a worker committee that is the main decision-making body of the union.” 

Ultimately, the group eschewed abstract theories and rigid methods and looked to workers to act. 

“Screw it,” Spence recalls saying. ?“Let’s just go to JFK8, Chris’s old building, and organize workers there. It’s probably the best building to start a union campaign.”

THE DRIVING FORCE

It’s hard to overstate the odds stacked against an independent union taking on Amazon.

It’s not just that Amazon has a storied union-busting record. The company’s size and ubiquity make it an unavoidable part of modern American life, compunctions of conscience about the welfare of its workers aside. Amazon’s sprawling warehouse and logistics network delivers billions of boxes of stuff annually to its 153 million Amazon Prime members, with 40% of all online purchases in the country originating through Amazon, compared with just 7% at Walmart. More than 1.1 million people now work at Amazon’s more than 800 U.S. warehouses, and Amazon is projected to employ 1% of all U.S. workers in the next few years. 

What’s more, employee turnover inside Amazon facilities is constant. Amazon’s annual churn rate?—?representing the number of employees leaving the company each year compared to their total number?—?is about 150%, which Bezos has said is by design to prevent what he called a ?“march to mediocrity.”

That high turnover made Amazon warehouse veterans, like Michelle Valentin Nieves (who’s been there three years), invaluable organizers. Inside the JFK8 warehouse at the height of the pandemic, Valentin Nieves was growing increasingly frustrated. Managers would reprimand her on the shop floor while she was risking a Covid infection. 

In the first months of the pandemic, Valentin Nieves watched CNN for live updates on infections, hearing false reassurances from former President Donald Trump. ?“Then, come to find out, there were people actually coming up with Covid-19 already in the facility. And they were trying to keep it a secret.”

As Valentin Nieves waited to get vaccinated in 2021, ?“I was just losing my mind,” she says. ?“I’m like, ?‘I’m gonna get it. I’m gonna bring it back to the house. I’m gonna give it to my family.’ ”

When Palmer approached Valentin Nieves to sign a union card in 2021, she didn’t skip a beat. Valentin Nieves would go on to read Martin Jay Levitt’s Confessions of a Union Buster and become a fierce worker organizer, connecting especially with Latino workers for whom she was a familiar face.

Valentin Nieves, who is from Puerto Rico, says good organizing entails good listening, so she would take her time to hear workers’ grievances and provide feedback. During one of these chats, she talked with a worker who had foot spurs from standing for prolonged hours at Amazon. Eventually, Valentin Nieves helped the worker file multiple requests for medical accommodations until they finally got approved. 

Brima Sylla, 55, a widely respected immigrant worker from Liberia with a doctorate in public policy, started working at Amazon in January 2022 and joined the union campaign in March. He had come to Amazon after 10 years of teaching at a small private school on Staten Island, which laid him off during the pandemic. He quickly grew tired of the ambulances blaring to the warehouse entrance to ferry an injured worker to the hospital. Nationwide, workers at Amazon suffered 27,700 injuries in 2020 and 38,300 in 2021. The company accounts for nearly half of all injuries in the warehouse industry— a rate of 6.8 per 100 workers. 

Sylla says he organized to build the union to make Amazon a dignified workplace, because ?“the company just wants money, money, money. They forgot about the human side of the workers. The job is damn hard.”

Pasquale ?“Uncle Pat” Cioffi, a former longshore worker with the International Longshoremen’s Association for about nine years, had been reticent about supporting the union when he was first approached. He scolded organizers for making promises about wage hikes before even securing a contract. 

But when he saw cops arrest Smalls, Daniels and Anthony for trespassing as they delivered food to workers in February, Cioffi changed his mind. 

“At the end of the day, they were dropping off food,” Cioffi says. 

Cioffi occasionally wears Nike tracksuits and a yellow Amazon vest adorned with pins and the words ?“Italian G.O.A.T.” emblazoned on the back. Like Smalls, he is a process assistant. When he speaks, he jabs his fingers at your upper body to punctuate a point, evincing a self-confidence that enraptures listeners. Workers say he personally flipped hundreds to support the union

“People tend to go with people that they trust,” Cioffi explains. ?“Everybody knows me from day shift, any shift, any department. They know who I am because I’m always making that extra effort to help them out in whatever the situation is.”

“Amazon didn’t make this about the ALU,” Cioffi adds. ?“They made it about Chris Smalls. But this wasn’t really about Chris Smalls. This was about the people.” 

Karen Ponce, 26, is one of those people. She had started working at an Amazon delivery station in 2020, intending to save up money for a master’s degree in social work. After a layoff without warning, Ponce was rehired at JFK8. 

Though she had been active in immigrant rights causes in college, Ponce says she didn’t understand unions and initially bought into Amazon’s anti-union propaganda. ?“I was brainwashed, even scared,” Ponce says.

Her thinking began to shift after reaching out to her college sociology professor, who encouraged her to talk to the organizers. Connor Spence answered Ponce’s list of questions about dues and the union election, and they talked about working conditions. 

“They understood the toxic work environment because they were workers themselves,” Ponce says. 

As Ponce learned that some of her coworkers were living in their cars and homeless shelters, she began to connect the organizing drive to her social work calling. She began studying labor history and read Jane McAlevey’s A Collective Bargain. Not only did Ponce eventually join the union effort, she became the ALU’s secretary in December 2021.

Arlene Kingston, meanwhile, supported the union effort from the get-go. She grew up talking politics and had strong municipal unions in her native Trinidad and Tobago. 

Kingston and another coworker aided the union effort by offering free food in the break room, cooking peas and rice, chicken and macaroni pie to give out. ?“And if we have to do it again, we’re gonna do it again over and over,” Kingston says. 

She relishes how ?“a little person that you underestimated” defeated Amazon. ?“And that is just the beginning.”

SOLIDARITY & INDEPENDENCE

The Amazon Labor Union had no time to waste after the victory at JFK8. As messages of support poured in from Amazon workers nationwide, the priority quickly shifted to the vote at the next warehouse, LDJ5, where roughly 1,500 workers sort packages for delivery to the New York City metro area.

Less than a month after voting wrapped up at the first facility, workers at the second facility began casting ballots. In a May 2 vote count conducted by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the union came up short. 

Compared to the first warehouse, relatively few of the ALU’s key organizers work at LDJ5. That posed a tougher challenge for those who do, including Julian Mitchell-Israel, 22, who first sent Smalls his resume after reading an article about the ALU in the socialist magazine Jacobin.“When it comes to organizing, you. have to be vigilantly kind. And it takes discipline. And it takes a sort of militancy and love. People need to have unlimited chances here.” — Julian Mitchell-Israel

Mitchell-Israel had been involved in electoral politics, including Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid, but says he learned a crucial lesson about organizing over the course of a high-stakes campaign at LDJ5.

“When you’re up against misinformation, when you’re up against people that are violently anti-union, you have the instinct to sort of get on the defensive, to go?—??‘Screw you, you don’t understand you’re being brainwashed, whatever,’?” Mitchell-Israel says. ?“When it comes to organizing, you have to be vigilantly kind. And it takes discipline. And it takes a sort of militancy and love. People need to have unlimited chances here.”

Madeline Wesley, another LDJ5 employee, arrived from Florida in August 2021. Wesley, 23, had been a student activist at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. It was there that Wesley met ALU’s pro bono lawyer, Seth Goldstein, who was representing the university’s physical plant workers and clerical workers. After stints working for Unite Here union locals in Boston and Miami, Wesley joined the Amazon campaign on Goldstein’s urging and soon became ALU’s treasurer.

After the upset victory at JFK8, ?“some of us thought that LDJ5 would be an easy win,” said Wesley before the vote. ?“And what we realized was that we were absolutely wrong. Amazon is really angry at us for winning JFK8, they weren’t expecting it at all. And now they’re giving us everything they’ve got here at LDJ5.”

Wesley says she and her fellow workers at LDJ5 faced a bruising campaign in which Amazon doubled down on its union-busting tactics. The company is also seeking to overturn the election results at JFK8 through an appeal to the NLRB.

On April 24, the day before voting began at LDJ5, national labor leaders rallied at Amazon’s Staten Island campus in a bid to boost support

The mood at the ?“Solidarity Sunday” rally was jubilant. Surrounded by Amazon workers and hundreds of their supporters, Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D?N.Y.) also delivered fiery speeches.

Many union leaders pledged their full support of the ALU?—?including Mark Dimondstein, president of the 200,000-member American Postal Workers Union; Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA; and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. Earlier in April, Sean O’Brien, new president of the Teamsters, met with Smalls and Derrick Palmer, ALU vice president of organizing, in Washington, D.C.

“We work in the same industry as all of you?—?and we’re either going to rise together or we’re gonna fall together,” Dimondstein said at the rally. 

Smalls welcomes the support but remains unequivocal about the union’s independence. ?“Everybody knows that we’re gonna remain independent,” Smalls said at the rally. ?“And these bigger unions know?—?every time I meet with one of their presidents, I let it be known?—?there ain’t no strings attached.”

With hopes of unionizing a second facility postponed for now, the ALU still has another momentous task before it: winning its first collective bargaining agreement with Amazon. If the new union can channel its broad national support and deep connections inside JFK8 into improved conditions at that warehouse, it will make a clear case to Amazon workers elsewhere that they should join up.

“There’s no way we’re going to stop or let this bring us down,” said ALU’s co-founder Derrick Palmer at an impromptu press conference following the May 2 loss. ?“It’s going to do the complete opposite. We’re going to go 10 times harder.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 23, 2022. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Luis Feliz Leon is a staff writer and organizer at Labor Notes.


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The Amazon Labor Union Victory Shows That Jurisdiction Is Dead

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Hamilton Nolan - In These Times

No more arguing over territory or industries—we need multi-union coalitions capable of organizing on a national scale.

When news spread April 1 that the independent Amazon Labor Union (ALU) had won its union election at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island in New York, the initial response from anyone who supports the labor movement was exultation at this unprecedented?—?and unexpected?—?victory for the working class. 

The secondary response was a collective ?“In your face!” to mega-billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who was shown that all the money in the world can’t crush the will for a union. 

Now, we can all move on to what should be the next response: Forcing the union establishment to take a long, hard look at what it needs to change. 

The ALU?—?a project of current and former Amazon workers as well as committed volunteer organizers?—?succeeded in organizing Amazon before any big, well-funded union could. That fact has produced a million insta-analyses: ?“They were in New York City, not Alabama?—?so they had the easiest target!” ?“The ALU was led by cool younger people?—?old union bureaucrats must be purged!” Etc.

Rather than indulge in that particular argument, I propose an adjacent conclusion that I think will hold true no matter where anyone lands on the specific tactical questions about the ALU victory. This is the lesson the union world should take from the ALU’s accomplishment: Jurisdiction is dead. By this I mean that all of the time unions spend arguing with one another over who has the right to organize which workers, in which industry, at which company is one gargantuan waste of time. Stop it. It’s useless. It is, in essence, a bunch of drivers arguing over a single parking space in one corner of a vast, empty parking lot. While an asteroid is approaching. It is not something that should be on the list of top 100 priorities for labor, given the current situation.

Who cares about jurisdiction in the first place? Well, many major unions consider this parochial concern to be the most important reason for the AFL-CIO to exist?—?to serve as a traffic cop, arbitrating petty arguments between unions that want to organize the same place. Inherent in this perspective is the belief that other things the central body of the labor movement could be doing?—?like, for example, building multi-union coalitions capable of organizing powerful employers like Amazon?—?are less important than this traffic cop role. 

What has this approach gotten us?

It has gotten us a nation in which barely one in ten workers (including barely 6 percent of private sector workers) are union members, while economic inequality has been rising for decades. The idea that unions should have the right to lay claim to particular industries where 90 percent of workers are not union members is farcical. A perfect illustration of this absurdity is the fact that, in March, new Teamsters president Sean O’Brien told Bloomberg he ?“wants the Teamsters to be the only union that organizes workers at Amazon’s fulfillment centers and sorting hubs.” Less than two weeks later, the independent ALU had actually unionized an Amazon fulfillment center, which is one more Amazon fulfillment center than the Teamsters have unionized. 

Unions serve workers. Not the opposite. What serves workers best is having a union now, not the abstract concept of a single union that owns their industry and may get around to organizing them years from now. Until union density in America reaches, say, 50 percent or more, we don’t need to hear any more jurisdictional arguments from unions about whose territory is whose. Instead, we need to see successful union campaigns in which millions of new workers are unionized.

Want to claim ?“jurisdiction” in an industry? Then organize it. Otherwise, make way for those who will. 

To the credit of America’s union leaders, their public reaction to the ALU victory has uniformly been one of support. But that same victory throws into relief how pressing it is for those same unions to change the way they’ve been doing business for the past half century. No more individual fiefdoms jealously guarding their own shrinking islands of union territory, while the majority of working people flounder with no support from organized labor. The ALU inspired us all by unionizing the first 8,000 Amazon workers in the United States. Organizing the next 800,000 will require the combined efforts of many unions, and then some.

Rich, ruthless, and omniscient companies like Amazon will not be organized solely with GoFundMe donations, as the Staten Island warehouse was. Now is the time for the labor movement to start building multi-union coalitions capable of tackling employers on a national scale, and keeping up the fight long enough to win contracts in the face of endless litigation?—?think something like the Change to Win coalition, but more active, and aimed at individual companies. 

Building multi-union coalitions requires unions to recognize the futility of arguing over jurisdiction, and instead do the opposite: Combine forces and organize without freaking out over who gets to put their label on the end product.

ALU leader Chris Smalls, whose vision made the Amazon union victory a reality, has already become a celebrated figure. In the end, his greatest contribution to the labor movement might be that he’s served as a blaring wake-up call. There is no room for egos or territorialism in a country of 10 percent union density. This fight is going to be expensive. Everyone, ante up.

This post originally appeared at In These Times on May 18, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer 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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Unionized nursing homes were safer in the pandemic, this week in the war on workers

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Laura Clawson

Unions have increasingly bargained for the common good in recent years, as when teachers negotiate lower class sizes and more school nurses or counselors, or nurses negotiate for improved staffing ratios so they can give every patient the attention they deserve.

Union opponents often try to claim that these are really self-interested measures that only benefit workers (as though there’s anything wrong with benefiting workers), not also students and patients. These are of course the same people who always come up with excuses for how larger classes and more patients per nurse are reasonable, as they are hostile not just to workers but to investments in the public good.

All of which is to set up why this study of resident mortality and worker infection rates in union versus nonunion nursing homes in 2020-2021 is interesting and important.

As the study, by Adam Dean, Jamie McCallum, Simeon Kimmel, and Atheendar Venkataramani notes, “nursing home residents have accounted for roughly one of every six COVID-19 deaths in the United States,” making nursing homes a major site of mortality.

So, how did union and nonunion nursing homes compare? After a lot of data and statistics, “we found that unions were associated with 10.8 percent lower resident COVID-19 mortality rates, as well as 6.8 percent lower worker COVID-19 infection rate.”

Imagine if 1 in 10 of the nursing home residents who died of COVID-19 … hadn’t.

Laura Clawson

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on May 14, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor. 


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The New Labor Movement Is Young, Worker-Led and Winning

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Katie Barrows

This year, May Day was celebrated during a historic moment for the American labor movement. Nearly every day, news reports announce another example of workers exercising their rights as nonprofit professionals, Starbucks workers, and employees at corporations like Amazon, REI and Conde Nast announce their union drives. The approval rating for labor unions has reached its highest point in over 50 years, standing at 68 percent, and petitions for new union elections at the National Labor Relations Board increased 57 percent during the first half of fiscal year 2021.

Three years ago, we (In These Times) wrote an op-ed about how young workers in historically unorganized occupations — such as digital journalism, higher education and nonprofit organizations — were beginning to rebuild the labor movement. Today, Covid-19 has changed the way that we relate to work and created new sources of economic anxiety, while exacerbating old ones. Yet, young workers continue to fuel the new labor movement as they form new unions to win back a degree of control over their futures in a world fundamentally altered by a global pandemic. With momentum in union organizing and worker activism still growing, it is important to recognize the ways that workers in every industry are helping the labor movement live up to its values and reverse the years-long decline in union density. 

Through organizing campaigns at the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, we’ve learned that successful new organizing campaigns must be member-led. Recent organizing victories at Amazon in Staten Island and at Starbucks stores across the country have reinforced the importance of workers themselves being empowered to be the drivers of their own organizing campaigns. We’ve also seen this in other traditionally unorganized sectors, such as political campaigns, digital media and tech.

There are a variety of reasons why member-led organizing campaigns tend to be more effective. One is the commitment that worker-led union organizing requires — leading a union organizing campaign is not for the faint of heart. Worker-leaders must be dedicated, and their time and energy investment means they have more skin in the game. Additionally, these workers build genuinely supportive relationships with their coworkers through one-on-one conversations, working in teams on union materials, and happy hours that bring more workers into the organizing drive. The relationships built during a worker-led organizing campaign helps workers to feel supported, as they know that their coworkers have their back. This collective approach also solidifies workers’ resolve to push back on empty rhetoric from their employer.

Member-driven campaigns are also key to combating bosses’ anti-union campaigns. When workers are active in setting campaign strategy, reaching out to their coworkers, and driving the narrative of the union campaign, they can successfully push back on corporate union-busters’ messaging that the union is a “third-party” or “outside agitator” — because workers know that they are their union.

The significance of momentum can not be understated. In all of these newly organized industries, we’ve seen the power a single union victory can have when it sparks a new consciousness among workers who previously didn’t know they could join a union, or didn’t think unions existed that understood and could address their specific concerns. Union wins years ago at Gawker, the Center for American Progress and Kickstarter helped incite the momentum for new organizing, and laid the groundwork for the campaigns we are seeing today. 

We’ve also learned the importance of publicizing our unions’ tangible contract gains. Workers want to be a part of a union that’s effective at improving their pay, benefits, and working conditions, so we as a labor movement need to make the public aware of our wins. That’s why our union and others in newly organized spaces will shout our wins from the rooftops with press releases, social media posts, news stories, and through any other means that will spread the word.

Today’s unions are making incredible gains and raising workplace standards.

Katie Barrow and Ethan Miller

Today’s unions are making incredible gains and raising workplace standards. For example, members of our union at the Center for American Progress recently won a new contract that raised starting salaries by 20 percent over three years, secured annual raises of between 2-2.5 percent, and codified junior staff’s right to be credited on research and policy publications that they work on. Union members at G/O Media ratified a new contract that raised the organization’s salary floor to $62,000, includes trans-inclusive healthcare and prevents forced relocation for remote staff. At NPR, union journalists won 20 weeks of paid parental leave, a hiring process that commits to interviewing more candidates from underrepresented groups, and regular pay equity reviews. The more folks outside of the labor movement know about these victories, the more they will want to learn more about forming a union in their own workplaces. 

Millennials and Gen Z are excited, energized, and winning new gains and a new sense of power at work. For the labor movement to continue to grow, we must learn from each other, continue implementing the strategies that are winning union organizing campaigns, and support new, young leaders. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 9, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Katie Barrows and Ethan Miller are the President and Secretary-Treasurer of the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, IFPTE Local 70, which is made up of the staff of 49 organizations in Washington, DC and across the country.


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Starbucks broke the law more than 200 times in effort to squash union organizing, labor board says

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Laura Clawson

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is taking Starbucks’ union-busting campaign very seriously. The board’s regional director in Buffalo issued a complaint late Friday accusing the company of 29 unfair labor practices involving 200 violations of the law.

The complaint specifically names interim CEO Howard Schultz for dangling improved benefits if workers didn’t unionize, and calls on Schultz or Executive Vice President Rossann Williams to make clear to workers what their rights are—the very rights that Starbucks has so dramatically been trampling on—as well as calling for the company to provide “equal time to address employees if they are convened by [Starbucks] for ‘captive audience’ meetings.” The complaint also calls on Starbucks to reinstate seven fired workers, with back pay.

The NLRB complaint also points to Starbucks closing stores in Buffalo as workers started organizing, retaliatory discipline and firings of union supporters, and “unprecedented and repeated” visits by top national executives to the Buffalo stores.

”Starbucks has been saying that no union-busting ever occurred in Buffalo. Today, the NLRB sets the record straight. The complaint confirms the extent and depravity of Starbucks’ conduct in Western New York for the better part of a year,” Starbucks Workers United said in a statement. “Starbucks will be held accountable for the union-busting minefield they forced workers to walk through in fighting for their right to organize. This Complaint fully unmasks Starbucks’ façade as a ‘progressive company’ and exposes the truth of Howard Schultz’s anti-union war.”

“Starbucks is finally being held accountable for the union-busting rampage they went on.”

– Former Starbucks Employee, Danny Rojas.

”Starbucks is finally being held accountable for the union-busting rampage they went on,” said fired Buffalo Shift Supervisor Danny Rojas—one of the seven whose reinstatement the complaint calls for—in the statement. “It is disappointing that Starbucks has refused to work with their partners and instead chose to fire union leaders like myself. Today, the NLRB is validating that the psychological warfare and intimidation tactics that took place in Starbucks stores was unacceptable. Starbucks needs to understand that it is morally corrupt to retaliate against union leaders and I am looking forward to the NLRB forcing Starbucks to make this moment right.”

Despite this aggressive and often illegal anti-union campaign, Starbucks workers have voted to unionize at more than 50 stores so far.

If Starbucks doesn’t settle—which a statement from a company spokesman indicated would not happen—the complaint will go to trial.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on May 9, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor. 


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