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A New Group to Organize College Football Players Just Launched. Incredible Timing.

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After last week’s NLRB memo made the unionization of college athletes a possibility, the CFBPA could become very important.

Last week, a memo from the top lawyer of the Biden administration’s National Labor Relations Board, Jennifer Abruzzo, asserted that certain college athletes should be legally considered employees. This decision took a wrecking ball to the myth of the “student athlete,” and opened the door for the unionization of players in big time college sports. For one recently launched group, the timing could not have been more fortuitous. 

The College Football Players Association (CFBPA) formally launched in July, with the goal of promoting labor organizing among college football players. Now, the nascent group finds itself presented with an unprecedented gift from the NLRB, few competitors in its newly energized space, and a clear path to becoming a leader in the drive to transform college sports forever. 

All they need now are the college football players. 

The CFBPA is the brainchild of Jason Stahl, a former professor at the University of Minnesota who became concerned about the exploitation of the school’s football players while he was teaching many of them in his classes. He left the school last year amid disputes over its treatment of players, and began working on a book about the topic. He put together the CFBPA with the belief that some kind of players association is necessary to enable players to begin organizing effectively. Stahl is the group’s executive director. Its advisory board includes current and former college players, ethics and labor law experts, and former University of Minnesota regent Michael Hsu, a longtime advocate of paying college athletes. 

In addition to fundraising (the group is seeking 1,000 recurring donors by the end of this month, a number that Stahl believes they will reach), the CFBPA’s biggest ongoing task is recruiting active college football players as members. That’s not an easy task, particularly because the fear of retaliation is high. For now, the group is allowing its current player members to remain anonymous, and is not releasing specific membership numbers. Players from at least three schools are already organizing with the group, according to Stahl. 

“Any workplace trying to unionize [can face retaliation], and this is the same thing. But within college football, it’s particularly pronounced,” Stahl says. If coaches or schools do retaliate with measures like withholding playing time from certain players, it can be virtually impossible to prove. “We’re trying to create an initial campaign that guys feel safe with.” 

The group’s goal is to unveil an organizing committee in December, made up of current players from a number of different schools, both big and small. By the end of the year, Stahl hopes to establish the first Players Association chapter at an individual school. 

The structure of college football poses some unique challenges for organizers. Though college football players as a group hold a great deal of leverage within a wealthy, powerful institution, individual players serve only brief careers—many may be on teams for only a year or two before leaving football and their schools entirely. And a good deal of uncertainty surrounds what the laws will ultimately be that govern the players’ labor rights, and whether collective bargaining would take place with individual schools, with athletic conferences, or with the NCAA itself. 

For its part, the NCAA issued a statement last week arguing forcefully against the NLRB’s memo, but politics and regulatory decisions could eventually make negotiating one big collective bargaining agreement covering all NCAA athletes a rational decision. Perhaps the only certainty is that if college athletes are to take advantage of their new labor rights, they will need to organize, and likely unionize, in order to create an entity capable of bargaining in the first place. 

Against this backdrop, the CFBPA aims to become a permanent institution, capable of serving the needs of players even after they have left college football altogether. That will require not just organizing the players of today, but building Players Association chapters durable enough to carry on for years. Structurally, such associations could be obvious launching pads for union campaigns, if the CFBPA is indeed able to attract large numbers of players at certain schools. 

Stahl says that most players, parents and associates of players that he speaks to have concrete concerns—chief among them, seeing to it that existing NCAA rules governing things like how many hours players can be asked to devote to “football activities” are actually enforced. He is not unaware of the obstacles. “There’s so much work to be done, with such a transient work force,” he says. 

But with the landmark NLRB memo coming just months after the June Supreme Court ruling that allows college athletes more avenues for compensation, 2021 is shaping up to be the year that the NCAA’s fantasy world of unpaid “student athletes” finally starts to crumble for good. The CFBPA is, quite literally, in the right place at the right time. Whether they are the seed that grows into a new branch of the labor movement remains to be seen.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 5, 2021. Reprinted with permission.


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Jennifer Abruzzo, the NLRB’s General Counsel, Is Labor’s Best Legal Friend

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In an interview, Abruzzo discusses independent contractors, penalizing bad employers and what she might do to make good faith bargaining a reality in America.

Joe Biden has pledged to be the most pro-union president in recent memory. Whether that turns out to be true will depend in large part on the work of Jennifer Abruzzo. Since being confirmed as the National Labor Relations Board’s top lawyer two months ago, Abruzzo has wasted no time laying out a strong pro-worker agenda. A memo released in August outlining her priorities indicated her intent to revisit a number of policies in ways that could make them much friendlier to unions and to worker organizing. 

Among the most significant are the “Joy Silk” doctrine, which could require employers to demonstrate actual reasons for not voluntarily recognizing unions; Ex-Cello Corp, which could impose far more significant penalties on employers for bad faith bargaining; and other items touching on everything from independent contractor classification to the rules for employer handbooks.

Abruzzo, an NLRB veteran who last worked as a lawyer for the Communications Workers of America, is essentially the opposite of her predecessor, Peter Robb–a Trump appointee hostile to organized labor who was fired shortly after Biden took office. We interviewed Abruzzo via email about her priorities, keeping bad employers in line and the flaws inherent in American labor law. 

Your intent to revisit the Joy Silk doctrine has gotten a lot of attention. Can you explain your thinking behind that, and what you think the practical effects of a change in that policy might be for unions? You’ve said you also want to revisit Ex-Cello Corp, dealing with potential penalties for employers who refuse to bargain in good faith. Can you explain what you think might result from revisiting it? 

Jennifer Abruzzo: When Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), it said in Section One of the Act that it was the policy of the United States to “encourag[e] the practice and procedure of collective bargaining” and to do so “by protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment or other mutual aid or protection.” To effectuate this policy, there must be meaningful remedies when employers interfere with workers exercising their rights to organize and to bargain. 

Both the Joy Silk and Ex-Cell-O doctrines deal with remedies to employer interference in that initial, and often vulnerable moment, when workers first organize a union and request to bargain. Under the Joy Silk doctrine, from 1949 until about 1969, the Board would issue a bargaining order if an employer refused to bargain upon a request for recognition from a union that represents a majority of employees, if that refusal was in bad faith. 

The Ex-Cell-O case dealt with monetary remedies when an employer refused to bargain in good faith. In that case, the D.C. Circuit actually told the Board it had the power to order such a remedy and that such a remedy was necessary to effectively remedy the harm. So, I think that both doctrines have support in the Act’s purpose, history, and federal court precedent and are worth reexamining in order to more effectively fulfill the Act’s mission. 

There has been a long term trend of companies replacing full-time workers with “independent contractors.” What if anything do you anticipate doing during your tenure that might help give labor protections to independent contractors?

Abruzzo: Whether a worker is an employee or independent contractor is a question of law based on the actual employment relationship—it is not determined by an employer’s label or classification. In the Taft-Hartley amendments to the NLRA, Congress excluded independent contractors from the protections of the National Labor Relations Act. For this reason, whether a worker is an employee versus an independent contractor is crucial. If you are an employee, you have the full protections of the National Labor Relations Act in your workplace, such as the right to organize with your co-workers to improve health and safety, which is a critical right as the country is dealing with a pandemic. If you are an independent contractor, you have none of those legal protections. 

In 2019, in a case called Velox Express, the Board majority at that time rejected an argument that employer misclassification of an employee as an independent contractor was itself a violation of the Act. Chairman McFerran (then Member McFerran) wrote a dissent agreeing with the argument. She explained that when a worker is in fact an employee with NLRA rights but is being told by their employer that they are an independent contractor, it sends a clear message to the worker that, in the employer’s view, they have no rights under the Act. She further explained that this communication could unlawfully interfere with the exercise of an employee’s rights. 

In my first General Counsel Memorandum, I asked our Regional Offices to submit cases for my consideration as to whether and under what circumstances misclassification itself can violate the National Labor Relations Act, and as to the scope of the independent contractor exemption. With regard to the latter, I believe the statute should be broadly construed and the common law, which delineates a number of factors, provides a very good framework for determining employee status. In the SuperShuttle DFW case, the Board majority at the time put substantial emphasis on the significance of one factor—entrepreneurial opportunity—and that warrants further scrutiny. 

Under your existing power, what do you think the NLRB can do to create penalties for employers who violate labor law that are meaningful enough to reverse the current situation in which it makes good economic sense for employers to engage in illegal union busting tactics? 

Abruzzo: I will pursue the full breadth of possible remedies under the NLRA to deter violations and to protect and enforce the statutory rights of workers in this country. Full and effective remedies are so important to effectuating the NLRA. It is for that reason that one of my first priorities as General Counsel was to issue GC 21–06 on “Seeking Full Remedies” and GC 21–07 on “Full Remedies in Settlement Agreements,” memos in which I ask our Regional Offices to seek the full panoply of remedies available to ensure that victims of unlawful conduct are made whole for losses suffered as a result of unfair labor practices. 

Under the NLRA, the Agency cannot mete out fines or penalties to violators of our statute, but it does have the broad discretionary power to provide make-whole remedies to victims of those violators. A make-whole remedy is one that aims to restore the worker’s situation prior to being subject to the unlawful conduct. For example, if a worker was unlawfully fired, we ask what wages and benefits the worker lost as a result of the firing. But we also need to determine what other economic losses a worker suffered as a result of the unlawful firing. Did they lose their work visa, or their car because they were unable to keep up with their payments? Did they have to move to find another job? Did they need to obtain health insurance coverage or incur medical expenses due to the loss of coverage? Additionally, we must try to discern how the firing affected those in the worker’s workplace, in other words, the chilling effect it had on other workers’ ability to exercise their statutory rights, and how we can most fully remedy those detrimental effects. 

So, there is no question in my mind that we can and should do more pursuant to our Congressional mandate under the NLRA as it currently stands. 

What is your view on minority or “members only” unions, meaning unions representing less than 50 percent of a workplace? Some believe that employers should be obligated to at least bargain with the members of such a group, even if the entire workplace is not unionized. Is this an issue you anticipate addressing?

Abruzzo: What are sometimes called “members only” or “minority” unions have been present throughout U.S. history. These kinds of formations have often acted as precursors to exclusive majority representatives. The NLRA currently protects the rights of workers to act collectively and engage, through representatives if they so choose, with their employer to improve their working conditions. I encourage engagement between management and labor to ensure that workers’ voices are heard and workers’ concerns are elevated in order to reduce workplace conflict. 

As to requiring an employer to bargain or confer with a members only union on behalf of its members, this argument has previously been made by academics and practitioners through various submissions, cases, and a petition for rulemaking. If this issue is brought before me as General Counsel, I would carefully consider it as I do all matters brought to my attention. 

Is there any way for workers, unions, and America as a whole to break out of the sort of frantic pendulum of labor rules, as the NLRB swings back and forth between Democratic and Republican administrations? It feels like any gains workers make now will inevitably be rolled back by a future, more conservative board. How does the NLRB make progress that lasts? 

Abruzzo: My job as General Counsel of the NLRB is to fully effectuate the Act to the best of my ability, for as long as I have the honor to serve in this role. I am fortunate to have an excellent cadre of dedicated and talented board agents in the field offices and in headquarters to support my efforts to ensure that we are achieving our Congressional mandate to promote industrial stability and collective bargaining and to protect the rights of workers to act together to improve their wages and working conditions. 

It is worth noting that the vast majority of meritorious case resolutions occur without any Board intervention (through settlements), thus, the extent of “flip flopping” is minimized. Notably, it makes it that much more important to ensure that the Agency receives adequate budgets so that the Agency has the staffing and resources to educate employees, employers, labor organizations, and community advocates and members, about statutory rights and obligations, to deter violations, and to obtain full remedies during early enforcement to diminish workplace conflict and broader industrial strife. 

You’ve worked on the regulatory side of labor, and inside a union. When you think about the barriers to a true revival of union power—how much of that is regulatory, how much is legislative, and how much do you think are missteps of the labor movement itself?

Abruzzo: As an independent federal agency, the NLRB’s role is to vigorously effectuate the NLRA’s mission, which includes protecting workers’ rights to organize and collectively bargain. I have spent the vast majority of my career as a public servant at the NLRB enforcing the Act and so that is what I will speak to. As General Counsel, I can think of no better calling than to ensure that the rights of workers in this country are protected and that violations of these rights are swiftly and fully remedied. 

I enjoy good relationships with labor and management practitioners and worker and business advocates, and fully expect to continue to collaborate with them, as well as with Agency personnel, to ensure that we are doing our jobs as effectively and efficiently as possible. This includes having a robust outreach program, particularly reaching those in vulnerable and underserved populations. I certainly think that there needs to be a broader focus on these populations and on workers in general to ensure that more equitable workplace conditions and opportunities are afforded so that they and their families and their communities can not only survive but thrive, particularly during these challenging times. 

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 27, 2021. Reprinted with permission.


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NLRB Hearing Officer Recommends Rerun of Amazon Bessemer Election

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Luis Feliz Leon (@Lfelizleon) | Twitter

A National Labor Relations Board hearing officer has recommended a rerun of the union election that Alabama Amazon warehouse workers lost by more than 2 to 1 in April.

The hearing officer sided with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which argued that Amazon had interfered with a fair election by pushing the Postal Service to install an unmarked mailbox as a ballot-drop site, within view of company surveillance cameras. The mammoth warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, employs more than 5,000 workers.

In the hearing report, released today, NLRB field attorney Kerstin Meyers also agreed with RWDSU that Amazon had threatened employees, hired private police, and even changed the county traffic lights to impede the union’s access to voters.

“The question of whether or not to have a union is supposed to be the workers’ decision and not the employer’s,” said RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum in a statement.

Meyers’ recommendation will most likely be upheld, but that decision rests with the Board’s regional director in Atlanta. This decision in turn could be appealed to the full board in Washington, D.C., explains labor lawyer Brandon Magner, but new Democratic appointments on the Board will tilt the balance in favor of a rerun election.

Magner concludes, “the union is probably getting a second election if it wants to wait for one”—meaning if the union doesn’t pull the petition and give up.

A do-over will likely stretch into next year. Given Amazon’s more than 150 percent turnover rate, it will likely involve an almost entirely new workforce.

Shortly after the April election defeat, Labor Notes spoke to Amazon worker Darryl Richardson, who described how Amazon had bolted him down in place, making it hard to organize on the job even after he emerged as a workplace leader.

“At Amazon, we were designated to a station,” Richardson said, comparing restrictions on mobility within the warehouse to his previous job at a unionized auto parts plant. “We couldn’t roam. We was tied down.” This made it difficult to talk to co-workers, he said. The pandemic-related social distancing measures only exacerbated these limitations.

Richardson’s freedom to roam was even more severely curtailed when he was assigned to exclusively pick items out of bins, whereas before he had toggled between roles. Previously he had worked in such roles as “water spider,” which, in Amazon lingo, is someone who goes into the trailers with pallet jacks, pulls pallets of packages, and stages them to be unloaded onto the conveyors.

“Receivers, packers, and sorters are the least mobile. They typically stand in one place and do the same tasks over and over again,” said a member of the collective Amazonians United, who asked to remain anonymous and has held numerous roles at Amazon facilities. Amazonians United is a network of rank-and-file worker committees stretching across the U.S. and Canada.

These roles are randomly assigned, so the company can’t be charged with retaliation, workers say. Meyers, the Board’s hearing officer, rejected claims by pro-union workers in Alabama that the company had isolated them, corroborating what workers told Labor Notes about being routinely reassigned. “Employees are regularly moved to areas where they are needed,” wrote Meyers in the 61-page recommendation.

But it’s an expression of the arbitrary and dictatorial power that Amazon exercises over its workers. Sometimes, according to Amazon workers, even when they bring doctor’s notes certifying that they have plantar fasciitis or stress fractures and need relief from the repetitive motions of picking, the company doesn’t accommodate these requests; it might just move someone to pick another floor.

While the Board has found that Amazon pressured its workers in Alabama to vote against joining RWDSU, many of the company’s practices—including captive-audience meetings where workers were forced to listen to management’s anti-union rants—were within the purview of the law. One exception was the anti-union “vote no” pins—featuring Amazon’s warehouse mascot, Peccy—and “vote no” tags for workers to hang from their cars’ rearview mirrors.

Meyers called the anti-union onslaught “propaganda.” The company festooned common areas with banners declaring “speak for yourself” and “vote no.” It also sent emails saying “Don’t Give Up Your Voice.”

Even if the Atlanta regional Board director calls for a rerun of the election, Amazon’s control over the workplace must be overcome in the worker’s courtroom: the shop floor.

“I thought the outcome was going to be totally different. In the facility, every day, everybody was complaining. Ain’t nobody got anything good to say. I’m just still overwhelmed about how the outcome came out,” Richardson told Labor Notes in April. “Due to Amazon’s anti-union tactics, they was confused, didn’t know what was going on. [Amazon] put pressure on ’em.

“They didn’t want to lose their jobs,” he said. “They didn’t want [Amazon] to take away their wages and benefits. They didn’t want [Amazon] to relocate.”

And now? “1 more round, I’m ready,” Richardson said on Twitter yesterday.

This post originally appeared at LaborNotes on August 3, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Luis Feliz Leon is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes.


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Amazon is intentionally burning through warehouse workers, but it may not be sustainable forever

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Interview with Laura Clawson, Daily Kos Contributing Editor | Smart  Bitches, Trashy Books

Amazon defeated a union organizing drive in Alabama recently, but two major new articles on the company’s warehouses powerfully show why workers wanted to unionize—and why it’s going to be nearly impossible for such efforts to succeed.

The New York Times led off with a damning look at JFK8, an Amazon fulfillment center in New York City. The JFK8 story was a window into Amazon’s broader employment practices, though, starting with high turnover by design, because Amazon founder Jeff Bezos wants people gone quickly, calling long-term employment a “a march to mediocrity.” In the warehouses, that translates to Amazon not caring that it is churning through workers at a staggering rate, seeing turnover of 150% a year even before the coronavirus pandemic. Other analyses of Amazon’s turnover rate have put it somewhat lower, but still at least 100%.

Hourly warehouse employees also have few chances for advancement—again by design, a former human resources vice president for the company told the Times. The internal promotion rate for these workers is less than half that of Walmart, with Amazon preferring to hire “wicked smart” college graduates in management roles. And—surprise!—at JFK8 that and other policies translated to an hourly workforce that was 60% Black or Latino, while management was more than 70% white or Asian. Black workers were also almost 50% more likely to be fired than white workers.

Amazon really is treating people as disposable, bringing them in and burning them out. Partly that seems to come from Bezos’ contempt for workers. But HuffPost’s Dave Jamieson also highlights how this helps insulate Amazon from worker organizing efforts

High turnover is “definitely one way to avoid a union,” former JFK8 worker Chris Smalls, now launching an independent organizing effort at the facility, told Jamieson. That plays out in the development of solidarity between workers, the trust workers feel in each other that enable them to talk freely about things management wouldn’t want them talking about, the long-term investment workers feel in improving the workplace … and, very concretely, in the mechanics of getting a union representation election.

To get the National Labor Relations Board to set up an election, organizers have to have signed union cards for 30% of workers, but in reality, organizers need far more than that because some initial support may disappear in the face of an anti-union campaign by management.

“At an Amazon warehouse, high turnover means a union would be losing cards every day as workers leave and new employees unfamiliar with the campaign replace them,” Jamieson writes. “Even if the union manages to win an election, high turnover could hurt its position at the bargaining table if some of the most active organizers have quit or been fired. And churn could even help the employer purge the union from the facility by convincing newer workers to decertify it.”

Bezos is stepping down as Amazon’s chief executive soon, and on his way out he has made sounds about improving Amazon’s employment practices, vowing the company would become “Earth’s best employer.” That is … unlikely. But, the Times pointed out, Amazon’s turnover is so extreme that “multiple current and former Amazon executives fear there simply will not be enough workers. In the more remote towns where Amazon based its early U.S. operations, it burned through local labor pools and needed to bus people in.” Reforming its employment practices enough that the company can keep a workforce in place for the long run may be a necessity at some point. And that, in the most optimistic scenario, could also be an opening for organizers.

This blog originally appeared at DailyKos on June 4, 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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Amazon defeats Alabama union effort after dirty, but predictable, campaign

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The union organizing effort at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, appears headed for defeat after the first day of counting ballots. There were 3,215 votes, with the count standing at 1,100 against unionizing to 463 in favor. Voting ended March 29, but before the counting began, hundreds of ballots were challenged, most by the company. If those could be decisive, they will be revisited.

But on the day counting began, we learned more about how far Amazon went to stack the deck in its favor. The National Labor Relations Board had refused Amazon’s request to have a ballot drop box in the facility, citing coronavirus social distancing precautions. But documents obtained by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union through Freedom of Information Act requests show that Amazon defied that by going to the U.S. Postal Service and asking for a mailbox to be installed on Amazon property—which it was, unmarked, the day before voting started.

One critique of the campaign and the decision to press forward to an election after Amazon successfully expanded the bargaining unit involved in the vote from around 1500 workers to all 5800 in the warehouse: 

“We have not heard anything back on the install of this collection box,” a Postal Service account manager emailed Postal Service workers in Alabama on Jan. 14. “Amazon is reaching out again to me today about the status as they wanted to move quickly on this.” 

Those emails directly contradict a Postal Service spokesman’s claim that the mailbox was “suggested by the Postal Service as a solution to provide an efficient and secure delivery and collection point.”

”Even though the NLRB definitively denied Amazon’s request for a drop box on the warehouse property, Amazon felt it was above the law and worked with the postal service anyway to install one,” RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said in a statement. “They did this because it provided a clear ability to intimidate workers.” 

When the mailbox was installed, journalist Kim Kelly and More Perfect Union showed exactly why it functioned to intimidate workers:

Assuming the vote counting continues as it has begun, this will become the basis for a challenge by the union. It was, of course, only one of a string of intimidation strategies and efforts to rig the vote in Amazon’s favor—most of which were allowed under current U.S. labor law. So much of what’s happened in Bessemer is a case study in why we need the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, but also in why big business is so determined to keep U.S. labor law weak and tilted in favor of management.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on April 9, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Citing Unfair Labor Practices, 1,300 Steelworkers Strike in Five States

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At 7:00 AM on Tuesday, March 30, 1,300Steelworkers employed by Allegheny Technologies Incorporated (ATI) walked out in protest at facilities in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. The strike comes just over a year after United Steelworkers began negotiations with ATI. According to a statement released that day, the union is dissatisfied with company demands for ?“major economic and contract language concessions.”

United Steelworkers further claims that ATI has committed unfair labor practices. A charge filed with the National Labor Relations Board on March 9 alleges that the company is refusing to furnish the union with essential bargaining information. As USW International Vice President David McCall tells it, this withholding finally pushed the workers to strike.

“We are willing to meet with management all day, every day. But ATI needs to engage with us to resolve the outstanding issues,” McCall says. ?“We will continue to bargain in good faith, and we strongly urge ATI to start doing the same.

Healthcare is among the biggest points of contention in the negotiations. While the company maintains that their proposals continue a ?“premium-free plan,” a union bargaining update contends that out-of-pocket costs are up. Workers are also balking at a company plan to assign coverage to workers hired after 2024, which they say will give new employees inferior, more expensive coverage and thus introduce a ?“two-tiered system.”

Plant closures have been another topic of heated debate. Andy Artman, President of USW 1138?–?6 and an electrician at ATI’s Latrobe facility, says he had to relocate after ATI’s Bagdad plant in Gilpin, PA, shuttered in 2016. And he has company. Michael Barchesky, who has worked in electrical maintenance at the Latrobe facility since 2007, claims he knows people who have had to move two or three times because of facility closures. With the company pushing for more?—?including the Waterbury facility in Connecticut, the Louisville facility in Ohio, and a production line in Brackenridge?—?the union is fighting to ensure that workers forced into retirement will keep the pensions they’ve earned.

For rank-and-file workers like Joe Clark, an overhead crane operator at the Brackenridge facility, a work stoppage is his chance to draw a line in the sand after years of compromise.

“When we were first contracted to put this [hot rolling mill] in [at Brackenridge], they asked us for concessions because they wanted to create jobs that were going to be for us and for our families in the future,” says Clark. ?“It was supposed to guarantee more jobs for the community, so we sacrificed.”

The company spent $1.5 billion to expand and update the Brackenridge facility, aided by a controversial economic development strategy known as ?“Keystone Opportunity Zones.” The long-term tax abatements awarded to these zones were supposed to create jobs, but a 2015 piece written by then-President of the USW, Leo Gerard, argues they have never materially benefitted local residents. Bill Hrivnak, who Gerard quotes in the piece, says that “[Everyone] thought when they built a $1 billion plant here that it would be great for the community, and it hasn’t been.”

“They cut two thirds of the same department we work in now,” he continues. ?“The [new] jobs never appeared, the technology cut [existing] jobs, and we continued to work without raises, sacrificing. They’re always telling us the company is in a difficult position, and they’re not making money. But they’re paying out millions of dollars to their CEOs and their upper-level people.”

Workers are skeptical about the company’s claimed hardship. ?“You look at what we’re getting compensated and what the CEOs are getting compensated, it doesn’t really add up,” says Barchevsky.

Although it expects to rebound in 2021, recent filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission reveal ATI has lost money each of the last three quarters. The same report finds that the company has ?“reduced company-wide employment levels by approximately 1,400 people, or about 17% of our total workforce.”

Many of those layoffs have been union jobs. Before a 2015 labor dispute that led to a lockout, workers say there were approximately 2,200 bargaining unit employees. Now there are just 1300, with management proposing to close more plants and make further cuts. 

Artman puts things bluntly: ?“They’re trying to break the union.” Clark agrees, describing management as a ?“tyranny of evil men.” For its part, ATI released a statement on social media saying that it was ?“disappointed USW elected to strike.”

Fortunately for the USW, the Brackenridge community is on its side. 

“Everyone’s still supportive,” says Barchesky. ?“They still wave, they still come and talk to us. Nobody wants to go on strike. We didn’t get compensated for the last seven months we were locked out, but we can’t lay down and take another beating… we can’t let them just keep gutting us.”

This blog originally appeared atIn These Times on April 1, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: C.M. Lewis is an editor of Strikewave and a union activist in Pennsylvania. 


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How Joe Biden Is Empowering America’s Workers

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Time and again over the past few years, as he fought to protect his coworkers at Bobcat’s North Dakota plant, William Wilkinson faced two obstacles.

One was the company. The other was a federal government that, instead of fulfilling its duty to safeguard workers, helped management exploit them.

Within hours of taking office on January 20, however, President Joe Biden began to level the playing field and harness the strength of working people to tackle the huge challenges confronting the country.

Biden understands that only with a healthy, empowered workforce can America end the COVID-19 pandemic and rebuild the economy.

So in one of his first official acts, Biden fired Peter Robb, the union-busting corporate lawyer who wormed his way into the general counsel’s job at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and then used his power to turn the agency against the people it was created to protect.

Robb, who directed agency field offices and set policy, thwarted organizing drives and advocated stripping workers of long-standing union protections. He determined that employers had no obligation to bargain with unions seeking COVID-19 protections and even sided with employers who fired workers for voicing coronavirus safety concerns.

“Board charges used to scare the company. Now, they mean nothing,” said Wilkinson, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 560, who sensed Robb’s anti-worker animus rigging the scales in numerous cases that he filed on behalf of his members.

“No matter what, your case is dead before you get there,” Wilkinson said, recalling one dispute in which the NLRB refused to make Bobcat turn over financial data the union needed to assess a health insurance hike. “It’s Bizarro World. They have no interest in wrongdoing or whatever problem brought you there.”

Righting the NLRB will involve not only selecting a new, capable general counsel but, in a change from the former administration, installing board members committed to upholding labor law.

Biden’s housecleaning will ensure the agency returns to its mission of protecting labor rights, such as ensuring that the growing number of Americans who want to join unions—including employees of AmazonGoogle and transportation services—can do so without harassment or retaliation.

A properly functioning NLRB will reset the scales and once again bar corporations from changing working conditions in the middle of a contract.

It will roll back recent, unfair rulings making it easier for corporations to oust unions, discipline workers without recourse to their union representatives and misclassify employees as contractors with fewer labor rights. In classifying SuperShuttle drivers as contractors, for example, the board denied many exploited workers the chance to form a union and build better lives.

An overhauled NLRB will have to reassure workers that they’ll get a fair hearing when they bring contract violations and other offenses to the board.

“We just want to be equal,” Wilkinson said. “I’m not asking for special treatment.”

When the coronavirus struck, Wilkinson and many other workers across the country had to fight their employers to implement commonsense safety measures like social distancing and sanitizer stations.

Some refused, exposing their communities to needless risks and fueling the virus’s spread. All the while, the previous administration callously refused to ramp up workplace protections or hold corporations accountable.

But in an executive order declaring worker health and safety to be a “national priority,” Biden quickly unshackled the agencies charged with protecting Americans on the job.

The order requires the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)—an agency that Wilkinson described as having “gone completely corporate” like the NLRB in recent years—to update COVID-19 safety guidelines for workplaces.

Biden also directed OSHA, whose leadership allowed investigations to lag and inspector positions to go vacant before the pandemic, to scrutinize its enforcement program and train resources on COVID-19 hotspots.

And under Biden’s order, both OSHA and the Mine Safety and Health Administration must quickly study the need for emergency, temporary infectious disease standards that would require employers to take certain steps to keep workers safe on the job.

The USW and other unions demanded these standards for nearly a year, realizing that many employers will act responsibly only when regulators hold their feet to the fire. Workers need these protections more than ever as America’s COVID-19 death toll eclipses 440,000, new variants of the virus begin hitting the nation and Biden accelerates the vaccine rollout that his predecessor botched.

To accomplish all of this vital work as quickly as possible, it’s essential to have battle-tested experts at the helm.

That’s why Biden tapped James S. Frederick, formerly the assistant director and principal investigator for the USW’s Health, Safety and Environment Department, to serve as one of the top leaders at OSHA.

During his 25 years on the front lines of occupational safety, Frederick doggedly pursued answers to workplace tragedies and advocated for some of the most important safety regulations that OSHA is responsible for enforcing today.

But it isn’t just technical knowledge that prepared Frederick for his new role. His empathy for injured workers and bereft families will give a fresh urgency to OSHA’s work.

“What a super win to get a Steelworker in there,” said Wilkinson, who praised the USW’s health and safety programs. “He’ll do a good job for working people. He’ll do it right.”

Working people took so many hits the past four years that Wilkinson felt the country’s foundation crumbling.

But with Biden in their corner, he believes workers will have the support they need to steer through the pandemic and build a stronger America.

“What he’s done so far is totally a morale changer,” Wilkinson said. “If Biden holds to his promises, I see the middle class growing, along with unions. That’s more jobs and higher wages for all working people.”

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

About the Author: Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).


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Biden has promised to be a champion for workers. Some early signs suggest he means to deliver

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President Joe Biden has long branded himself as a union guy, Joe from Scranton who represented the worker. The reality of his policies—especially as a senator from credit card company mecca Delaware—and his personnel decisions has been more mixed. But the early signs from his presidential administration have many labor advocates and progressive economists excited.

First off, Biden didn’t wait on a key union priority: getting rid of National Labor Relations Board general counsel Peter Robb. On Inauguration Day, Biden requested Robb’s resignation, and when Robb refused, Biden fired him. Robb had 10 months left in his term, but worker advocates felt—and Biden apparently agreed—that the extreme anti-worker agenda he was bringing to the role was such that 10 months was way too long.

Robb is a longtime union-busting lawyer who, as NLRB counsel, let McDonald’s off the hookfor any responsibility for labor conditions at franchisee-owned stores. “Since then, Robb has gone after so-called ‘neutrality’ agreements between unions and employers that make it easier for workers to organize,” Dave Jamieson reported. “And he has recently taken on Scabby the Rat, the labor-dispute protest icon beloved by unions and progressives. Robb apparently hates the rat and wants to ban its use as ‘unlawfully coercive.’” 

Robb had also sought to restructure the NLRB to remove power from civil servants and put them in the hands of political appointees like himself.

“There’s one measure that will signal that Biden is serious” about his claims to support unions, C.M. Lewis wrote at Strikewave the week before inauguration. “On day one, he needs to fire National Labor Relations Board General Counsel Peter Robb.” Well, Biden has signaled that he’s serious.

But that’s not the only labor-related move that drew excitement from progressives on the evening of Biden’s inauguration. The announcement of Janelle Jones as chief economist, Angela Hanks as counselor to the secretary, and Raj Nayak as senior advisor drew a lot of excitement on Wednesday night. Jones and Hanks have both been affiliated with the Groundwork Collaborative, which “is dedicated to unifying progressives and activists in communities across the country to refine and advance a progressive economic worldview.” Hanks has also spent time at the Center for American Progress, the National Skills Coalition, and as a staffer for the late Rep. Elijah Cummings. Jones has worked at the Economic Policy Institute and the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and news of her hiring moved Rep. Ayanna Pressley to tweet “Personnel is policy. Janelle Jones = policy that meets the moment & the crises we face.” Nayak is an alumnus of the Obama Labor Department and has worked at the National Employment Law Project.

There was a LOT of excitement about these hires.

So the early signs on Biden and labor are looking decidedly better than expected. But that doesn’t mean the pressure can let up. American workers need the Biden administration to deliver big things. 

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on January 21, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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BAmazon Union: Anticipating the Battle in Bessemer, Alabama

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Last Friday, representatives from the Retail Workers (RWDSU) went before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), Region 10, seeking a quick union certification election.

The election is to determine whether a majority of the employees at the newly opened Amazon Fulfillment Center (BHM1) in Bessemer—a small of suburb of Birmingham, Alabama—want union representation.

Amazon was represented at the hearing by the law firm Morgan Lewis—a firm that specializes in “union avoidance” strategies. In dispute was the size of the bargaining unit.

The union had petitioned the Labor Board on November 20 with the support of at least 30 percent of a workforce that it calculated at 1,500. Obviously seeking to invalidate the union’s petition, the company countered that the appropriate bargaining unit was more than 5,700! The hearing took evidence from both parties and the hearing officer will decide who is right.

If the hearing officer rules in favor of the union, a quick certification election could be forthcoming. It is far more likely, however, that Amazon will spend its millions on legal actions to thwart a quick election. The company will argue that it is protecting the franchise of thousands of workers from a predatory outside organization.

UPRISINGS AT AMAZON

RWDSU’s filing for an election at Amazon caught the business press and many labor activists by complete surprise. But as Alex Press pointed out in Jacobin, “With pandemic-fueled growth has come an uptick in organizing at Amazon warehouses. The global health crisis and increased demand for Amazon’s services have led to widespread worker complaints about unsafe working conditions, including quotas that preclude safety measures they see as necessary to protect themselves from the virus.”

The Bessemer facility opened in March, at the onset of the pandemic. It is an 885,000-square-foot, four-story facility in one of Alabama’s poorest communities. The Bessemer City Council welcomed the opening with great fanfare, seeing these $15-per-hour jobs as particularly attractive in a state with only a $7.25 minimum wage.

Nevertheless the conditions at Amazon that have provoked nationwide actions against inhumane speed-up, pandemic-related and other health and safety issues, and callous disrespect have provoked a reaction here too.

Union drives in the South have often suffered from a perception that the union is a bunch of outside carpetbaggers from the North. However, this drive could have real local legs. RWDSU represents poultry processing facilities throughout the Southeast and has 7,500 poultry members in Alabama. Workers at nearby Koch Foods held a public protest on June 3 to force their employer to provide protective gear and safer conditions during the pandemic.

That kind of visible public fight no doubt was an appeal to friends and family working at Amazon who are suffering from some of the same conditions, without an organization to fight back.

RWDSU previously announced a union drive at Amazon’s Staten Island, New York, fulfillment center in late 2018, during the battle over the company’s plans to open a new headquarters in New York City, though the union never filed for an NLRB election. In March, a small walkout at the same facility over the lack of protective gear resulted in a flurry of publicity, but management fired a key leader, Chris Smalls.

AMAZON WORKERS ORGANIZE

For two years now, a network organizing under the banner Amazonians United has waged high-profile battles with Amazon at delivery stations in Sacramento, Chicago, and Queens. Instead of filing petitions for union elections, these workers have focused on building workplace organizations to wage fights around the immediate needs and interests of employees.

For example, in 2019, Sandra, an employee at a Sacramento delivery station, was fired for exceeding her unpaid time off by one hour. For weeks the Human Resources department ignored her and strung her along without a paycheck. But Amazonians United Sacramentoswung into action—and within 24 hours of their submitting a petition, H.R. announced that Sandra would be rehired with back pay.

Victories like this are the reason that Amazonians United’s efforts have been celebrated worldwide. The group has also made links internationally with other rank-and-file Amazon workers, particularly in Europe.

Workers at an Amazon facility in Shakopee, Minnesota, have also won local demands. After public protests backed by the local labor movement, workers won Muslim prayer hours for a large group of Somali employees. In particular, their efforts have received crucial support from SEIU Local 26, which represents many Somali janitors in the Twin Cities area.

There is no better base for organizing than the commitment and grassroots support of existing unionized workers who have friends and family in non-union workplaces. Hopefully, the organizing taking place in Bessemer, Alabama, is similarly “organic.”

OBSTACLES AHEAD

No matter how deep or wide the organizing is, the workers’ road to victory is mined with heavy obstacles. 

First, they face obstruction and delay. The company originally sought to delay the NLRB hearing until January, arguing that its supervisors were too busy with “peak” season to supply the information on employment necessary to determine the size of the unit. The NLRB agreed to delay the hearing only from December 11 to the 18th. 

But without a doubt, Morgan Lewis’s attorneys will take advantage of every legal loophole to obfuscate and delay. That’s a big part of what the current round of hearings on the size of the unit is about—delaying an election as long as possible to weaken any momentum the union has built up.

Next, they can expect aggressive management interference. If and when the NLRB finally sets an election date, the company’s anti-union “persuasion” campaign will swing into high gear, utilizing a combination of promises and threats, carrots and sticks.

Amazon undoubtedly will try to enlist some city councilors or other elected officials who raved about landing the warehouse in Bessemer to assist its campaign to throttle the union. Remember how Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, the ex-mayor of Chattanooga, lambasted the UAW’s attempt in 2014 to organize the Volkswagen plant there. Corker threatened that the state would pull back on its tax breaks for VW if workers won their union. When the union tried again in 2019, VW brought the governor of Tennessee into the plant to lead mandatory all-employee anti-union meetings.

Under these conditions an election victory would be a moving and inspiring moment, a true David and Goliath story. But wait, there is more: If the company chooses not to make fraudulent claims to undermine election results, next the RWDSU must bargain with the company for a first contract. Amazon can be expected to thwart labor law by not bargaining in good faith. Here again Amazon will stall and try to demoralize the workers. 

SUPPORT FOR BAMAZON UNION

These are some of the grim caveats that confront this valiant and apparently community-rooted effort. However, as we recently wrote in The Cost of Free Shipping: Amazon in the Global Economy, workers in facilities like Bessemer are in a position to wield significant power. “Amazon’s vulnerability is its supply chain management… based on the sophisticated coordination of product inventory and transportation logistics. That makes it highly susceptible to strategic action by workers—whether in its vast warehouse and sortation centers, shipping its products, or on the technology side.”

The whole Amazon world, and especially its workforce, will be watching and rooting for success. A victory in Bessemer would be a victory for all Amazon workers and a credit to the RWDSU and its members. 

Bearing in mind the national and international reach of Amazon, its sophisticated logistics capacity, and its vast resources to oppose worker organization, building workers’ power and sustaining organization must ultimately be national and international in scope.

The flexibility built into the Amazon business model which enables same-day delivery and the efficiency of the last mile is also flexibility that can be used to thwart worker organization if it remains isolated at single facilities.

That is why ultimately the effort will require the dovetailing of internal worker organization at multiple facilities—like what Amazonians United is doing—with the power and resources of one or several national unions, like RWDSU or the Teamsters, for instance. There is no single model for success at Amazon. RWDSU has launched an important initiative in Bessemer.

Amazon’s business model fundamentally undermines wages and working conditions for the whole labor movement, including the more than 200,000 Teamsters employed at UPS and hundreds of thousands of grocery store members of the United Food and Commercial Workers. We all have a stake in supporting a victory for the workers in Bessemer and their new “BAmazon” union! Stay tuned to Labor Notes for updates on the NLRB election and further developments in organizing at Amazon.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on December 21, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director at the ILWU, currently working with a national network of Amazon employees and organizers. 

About the Author: Rand Wilson is chief of staff at SEIU Local 888. He was communications coordinator for the Teamsters’ 1997 UPS strike.


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Trump’s NLRB Quietly Makes It Riskier To Wear Union Schwag at Work

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The Republican-controlled National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ended 2019 by rolling back another round of Obama-era regulations and handing down a number of pro-employer decisions. One of those rulings restricts workers from wearing union buttons and other pro-labor insignia.

The Organization United for Respect at Walmart (Our Walmart) had challenged a company policy limiting the size of union buttons for employees of the retail corporation. The group seemingly had momentum on its side. In 2017, the NLRB rejected an attempt by the fast-food chain In-N-Out Burger to prohibit its workers from wearing “Fight for $15” buttons during their shifts. The company then tried to have the case heard before the U.S. Supreme Court, citing the court’s infamous anti-union Janus ruling to argue for an expansion of corporations’ free speech rights, but the case was declined. “Today’s decision affirms that no company can just unilaterally decide to take away our right to speak out and join together in a union,” In-N-Out employee Alondra Becerra told Bloomberg Law in February of 2019. “It’s a victory for workers everywhere who are fighting to win our unions and make the economy more equal that the Supreme Court is not going to take up In-N-Out’s case.”

However, in a 3-1 decision handed down on December 16, 2019, the NLRB ruled that private sector employers covered by the NLRB are allowed to ban some union insignia. Walmart had argued that its restrictive policies “enhance the customer shopping experience and protect its merchandise from theft or vandalism.” The NLRB agreed. The decision further erodes worker rights and will make it harder for employees to openly back unionization campaigns while on the job.

The decision upends a 75-year-old precedent that was established in the 1945 Republic Aviation Corp. v. Labor Board case. In doing so, the NLRB cited its 2017 Boeing ruling, which established a new test to determine whether employer rules are lawful: The court must weigh the rights of workers against the concerns of the employer. By the conditions of Boeing, the NLRB ruled that it’s unlawful for Walmart to prohibit certain union buttons in “employees only” zones like break rooms, but perfectly legal to require that they are “small and “non-distracting” on the sales floor. “[Walmart’s need] to enhance the customer shopping experience and protect its merchandise from theft or vandalism—outweigh the adverse impact on employees’…rights,” reads the decision.

The lone dissent came from the only Democrat who was on the board at the time, Lauren McFerran. “I fear that today’s decision signals the majority’s intention to import the Boeing framework… into other well-settled areas of Board law that currently require their own subject-matter specific analyses,” she wrote. “That surely would not be a welcome development for workers.” McFerran’s term expired shortly after the decision.

Cyndi Murray, a United for Respect member and Walmart associate of 20 years, slammed the ruling in an interview with In These Times. “Trump’s NLRB continues to put the interests of large corporations ahead of working families,” said Murray. “Walmart’s CEO McMillon would rather us not talk about having our hours cut or how no one can make ends meet at $11 an hour, but this ruling won’t stop people who work at Walmart from continuing to speak out for living wages and respect.”

The Walmart decision comes amid a barrage of pro-employer rulings that will surely make workplace organizing more difficult. Last month, the NLRB overturned the Obama-era Lincoln Lutheran of Racine decision, effectively allowing employers to unilaterally end automatic deductions of union dues when a collective bargaining agreement expires. In Caesars Entertainment, it found that the casino didn’t break the law by prohibiting employees from using their work email addresses for  “non-business information.” In blocking potential unionizing on these platforms, the board overturned an Obama-era decision which protected the right to share information regarding “wages, hours, or working conditions” via company email. The board also reversed union election rules that were adopted under Obama. Employers will now have more time to prepare for organizing votes and potentially develop plans to thwart unionization efforts.

Despite the large number of strikes and work stoppages in 2019, union membership in the United States remains scant. On January 22, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released data showing that the percentage of wage and salaried workers in unions fell by 0.2 points last year to a record low of 10.3%. A recent piece of legislation called the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (or the PRO Act) would strengthen unions and make it easier for workers to organize, but it has yet to receive a vote on the House floor.

This article was originally published at In These Times on January 28, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: “Michael Arria is the U.S. correspondent for Mondoweiss. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria.


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