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As Universities are Gutted, Grad Student Employee Unions Can Provide a Vital Defense

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The exploitation of academic workers has simmered for decades. Now, buoyed by a National Labor Relations Board ruling that graduate employees at private universities have the right to unionize, a new generation is organizing unions across private universities—defying a wave of pushback from administrations. Some students win (Columbia, Loyola). Some withdraw (Duke). Some get caught in a limbo of university appeals (Yale).

But all of these efforts are integral to the U.S. labor movement, as graduate workers challenge their own exploitation and the neoliberal decimation of the higher-education institutions that employ them.

I’m a graduate worker at Vanderbilt University and a member of the committee organizing to unionize 1,200 graduate employees. I attend graduate school out of a passion for learning, writing and teaching young people. I came here to critique Western intellectual history by analyzing social, economic and political issues. These matters impact my life and the lives of loved ones; they are not academic hobbies or intellectual fancies. Even lecturing is no mere academic exercise: Higher education is what fosters democratic citizenship. It cultivates capacities for critical self-reflection, engagement in public discourse and thoughtful participation in a rapidly changing world. We need these pursuits now more than ever.

I did not come to graduate school to spend thousands of dollars out-of- pocket to fulfill professional obligations while watching my institution insidiously cut funding opportunities for faculty and graduate workers. I did not come to graduate school to listen to administrators rebrand us as students gaining ‘experiential education opportunities’ rather than as employees teaching introductory classes, executing research programs, or building scholarly communities. Most importantly, I did not come to graduate school to bolster a system that abuses its workers, ignores academic rigor, overlooks sexual harassment allegations against distinguished (male) faculty, engages in unlawful labor practices and disregards the needs of its staff and faculty.

And yet, this system demands that I participate by providing constant intellectual, physical and emotional labor, despite minimal job security.

Many scholars have already exposed the decline of education and the poor labor conditions of university educators. In his 2011 The Fall of the Faculty, Benjamin Ginsberg published a devastating analysis of the decline of faculty power. More recently, Elizabeth Anderson’s 2015 Tanner Lectures at Princeton, published as Private Government, chronicled dictatorial employment practices. And last month, University of Michigan dual-Ph.D. candidate Maximillian Alvarez penned “Contingent No More,” a manifesto criticizing the laissez-fare academic culture that perpetuates the “neoliberization of higher education.”

These writers illuminate the struggles of a new generation of faculty and graduate workers in academia. Burdened by insurmountable student debt and confronted by the machinery of U.S. capitalism, we fight just to survive.

Recent struggles in higher education are part of a long history of economic exploitation and domination over workers, problems that have pervaded U.S. society since its racist, genocidal and profit-driven founding. Whereas in the 1970s almost 80 percent of faculty were full-time, universities today have shifted to a contingent employment model. Non-tenure track faculty now compose 70 percent of the academic labor force, 41 percent of whom are part-time. Graduate workers are 13 percent of the academic labor force, almost 5 percent more than full-time, tenure-track faculty.

Why? Because contingent labor is cheap, and no tenure means we’re expendable. This allows universities to slash salaries for faculty while expanding bureaucratic administrations that obstruct grievance processes and legal redress.

In fact, Business Insider reveals that tuition has increased by 260 percent since 1980, compared to the 120 percent increase in consumer items over the same period. So, where is that money going, if not to faculty and graduate employee salaries? It is going to university administrators, whose employment has increased by 221 percent from 1975 to 2008. In contrast, faculty employment has increased by only 3.5 percent.

All the while, faculty and students are left in the dark as to how university revenue is spent. The Illinois State Senate’s 99 Percent General Assembly 2015 Report on Executive Compensation notes that “tuition increases have coincided with a dramatic increase in administrative costs, including the size of administrative departments and compensation packages for executives.” Vanderbilt University’s Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos was cited by Forbes as the fifth-highest- paid university president in 2012, with an annual salary of $2.23 million. He and 35 other university presidents across America made over $1 million that year. Nearly 40 percent of university presidents are eligible for financial bonuses for increasing statistics like graduation rates, at the expense of faculty resources for research and conference travel.

For the administrative university, undergraduates—our students—have gone from ‘future leaders’ to ‘commodities.’

The generation of capital, rather than free and critical thought, is increasingly becoming the purpose of higher education. Deans see themselves as micro-CEOs, while provosts and chancellors view the university as a money-making venture. We instructors are the face of the university and provide the classroom education that students pay for, yet revenue we bring in doesn’t pay for our security. Instead, we are told that admission to a doctoral program is a gift, that our employers are benevolent, and that quiet gratitude is the only appropriate response to our conditions. They pretend this is enough to ignore watching us sink below a living wage, struggle with mental health with little support, and work ourselves to exhaustion.

This piece was originally published at In These Times on July 5, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sabeen Ahmed is a PhD student in the Department of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. She is interested in social and political philosophy and critical phenomenology. She is currently working to analyze refugee discourses through a critique of Western intellectual history.


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Veteran Organizer Gives Inside Look at the First $15 Minimum Wage Campaign

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Back in 2011, as the Occupy Wall Street movement was still spreading through the country, a smaller standoff was unfolding at Sea-Tac, the international airport in the small, eponymous town between Seattle and Tacoma that serves both cities. Along with some of her coworkers, Zainab Aweis, a Somali Muslim shuttle driver for Hertz car rental, was on her way to take a break for prayer, when her manager stepped in front of the doorway.

“If you guys pray, you go home,” the manager said.

As devout Muslims, Aweis and her fellow staff were dedicated to praying five times a day. Because it only takes a few minutes, their employer had previously treated the prayers like smoke breaks—nothing to worry about. Suddenly, the workers were forced to choose between their faith and their jobs.

“I like the job,” Aweis thought, “but if I can’t pray, I don’t see the benefit.”

As she and others continued to pray, managers started suspending each Muslim worker who prayed on the clock, totaling 34.

The ensuing battle marked a flashpoint in what would eventually be the first successful $15 minimum wage campaign in the country. The story of these Hertz workers, and the many others who came together to improve their working conditions, is recounted in Beyond $15: Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists, and the Revival of the Labor Movement, a new book by Jonathan Rosenblum, a leading organizer of the campaign.

As the labor movement finds itself in a state of crisis, Beyond $15 is both a timely history of a bold campaign’s unlikely victory and an inspiring call for a flexible, progressive and power-building vision of labor organizing.

The decades-long decline of union power and the recent rise of anti-union legislation have made organizing workers in even the best of conditions an uphill battle. At Sea-Tac, one might have thought it impossible. While organizing even a single workplace is a challenge, Rosenblum and others were hoping to organize many. Decades of restructuring and union busting in the airline industry meant that many low-wage workers at Sea-Tac worked for various contractors rather than the airlines themselves. Though many of the employees worked alongside each other and shared grievances, they did not necessarily have the same boss.

Worse than that, Sea-Tac airport workers weren’t guaranteed most federal rights to union activity because those rights do not fully cover contractors or transportation workers. Due to an antiquated law called the Railway Labor Act (RLA), airport workers are all but prohibited from striking and so-called disruptive activity in the workplace. And, if all of that wasn’t bad enough, many of the workers wanted nothing to do with a union. Some had already had bad experiences with unions and did not trust them, while others were refugees who wanted no part in anything that might attract the government’s attention.

That Rosenblum and his colleagues were able to achieve victory under such circumstances, alone, makes Beyond $15 an instructive read. The book’s detailed portraits of organizers, workers and their actions are a testament to bold and creative maneuvers, which were executed so well that they made a seemingly invincible corporation feel threatened by a united front of cabin cleaners and shuttle drivers. Rosenblum’s coalition of faith leaders and a team of worker organizers, closely tied to the community, led picket drives on luggage carts, co-opted shareholder meetings with defiant prayers and songs, made a successful bid to demand union recognition and launched a citywide ballot initiative that narrowly beat its concerted conservative opposition (and I mean narrowly–the initiative passed by 77 votes, a 1 percent margin).

But more than just a collection of war stories, Rosenblum’s purpose in Beyond $15 is to persuade other advocates to follow his lead. The book uses Sea-Tac’s success to argue for a “social movement union” approach to organizing that grounds labor advocacy in moral terms, challenges the existing economic and political order and broadens the definition of union organizing to include a wide swath of community groups and faith leaders rather than union members alone.

“Today’s expectation among most union leaders …. is that the organization providing the most dollars and staff get to call the shots,” Rosenblum writes. “But community allies bring other assets, like relationships, credibility, or cultural competence, which can’t be measured monetarily but are just as vital.”

To be sure, Rosenblum’s vision for labor organizing is not exactly new. Many progressive union leaders, particularly younger ones, would find his recommended principles obvious. Even the most powerful and ostensibly hierarchical union leaders would likely agree with many of his points. And while this kind of progressive vision is important, there are practical conundrums that cannot be resolved by Rosenblum’s call to “aim higher, reach wider, build deeper”—namely, a history of industrial segmentation, automation and the large number of workers in sectors where traditional models of union organizing simply aren’t feasible. Even when union heads fully prioritize grassroots organizing, coalition building and collaborating with faith leaders, as AFL-CIO head John Sweeney did in the 1990s, this strategy is not a panacea.

With Republican control of every branch of government, the rising popularity of “right-to-work” legislation and the increasing number of preemption bills that allow conservative states to nullify laws like the one passed at Sea-Tac, these challenges are only multiplying. It’s with that in mind that Beyond $15 may be exactly the inspirational fodder that organizers need. There may not be an easy fix for the tensions between grassroots organizing and newer forms of worker advocacy, but Rosenblum can attest that the problem need not be resolved to plod ahead. As he shows in his book, progressive organizing and coalition building can work alongside ballot initiatives and big unions, and victories can still be won—now.

 This article was originally published at Inthesetimes.com on June 2, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 
About the Author: Jonathan Timm is a freelance reporter who specializes in labor and gender issues. Follow him on Twitter @jdrtimm.

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Big Organizing Victory in the South: Volkswagen Workers to Be Represented by UAW

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Kenneth-Quinnell_smallAnother story about working people in the South successfully organizing comes our way via Chattanooga, Tennessee, where skilled trades employees at Volkswagen’s plant in the town voted overwhelmingly to be represented by UAW Local 42. More than 70% of workers who cast ballots voted for the union.

Mike Cantrell, president of UAW Local 42, said:

A key objective for our local union always has been moving toward collective bargaining for the purpose of reaching a multiyear contract between Volkswagen and employees in Chattanooga. We have said from the beginning of Local 42 that there are multiple paths to reach collective bargaining. We believe these paths will give all of us a voice at Volkswagen in due time.

Ray Curry, director of UAW Region 8, commended the workers after the vote:

Volkswagen employees in Chattanooga have had a long journey in the face of intense political opposition, and they have made steady progress. We’re proud of their courage and persistence. We urge Volkswagen to respect the decision of its employees and recognize the local union as the representative of the skilled trades unit.

Gary Casteel, secretary-treasurer of UAW, urged Volkswagen to drop plans to appeal the election:

It’s overdue time for Volkswagen to refocus on the values that made it a successful brand — environmental sustainability and meaningful employee representation. The hardworking members of UAW Local 42 stand ready to assist in the Volkswagen comeback story. Our hope is that the company now is ready to move forward in the German spirit of co-determination.

This blog originally appeared at AFLCIO.org on December 7, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist.  Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.  Previous experience includes Communications Director for the Darcy Burner for Congress Campaign and New Media Director for the Kendrick Meek for Senate Campaign, founding and serving as the primary author for the influential state blog Florida Progressive Coalition and more than 10 years as a college instructor teaching political science and American History.  His writings have also appeared on Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.


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Lacie Little: You’re Un-Fired

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Leo Gerard  Lacie Little won back last week everything Indiana University Health Inc. took from her –  except her job. Her beloved nursing job.

She got back wages and a formal public statement by the hospital corporation saying that it  removed the firing from her work record. So she’s un-fired.

But she’s not rehired. The hospital behemoth refused to consider restoring Lacie to her  nursing job for seven years, long enough, it hopes, to prevent her from helping form a union  there. Despite everything that has happened to her, Lacie hasn’t given up that goal. Now, she’s  working for my union, the United Steelworkers (USW), trying to organize nurses.

Indiana University (IU) Health fired Lacie on March 30, three days after she began trying to persuade her fellow nurses to unionize. Lacie wanted her co-workers to join together to collectively bargain with IU Health for the same reason many nurses want to negotiate with their hospitals. They love their profession; they’re devoted to their patients, and they want to help their hospitals be the best that they can be.

IU Health Inc. believed it knew what was best for the bottom line of the hospital system – and that wasn’t a nurses union. So like many employers, it took action to squash the nascent effort by employees to gain a voice at work by organizing. Firing workers for trying to form a union is illegal. But institutions – even ones supposedly dedicated to restoring health or to Catholic theology – do it all the time anyway because the penalties are so very paltry and the fear instilled is so very profound.

Corporations know they can stall an organizing campaign with just the threat of firing. Duquesne University in Pittsburgh recently used this tactic in a startling way. It included in a pleading to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) a threat to refuse to rehire for future semesters two adjunct professors who had testified at an NLRB hearing about efforts to organize at Duquesne, which holds itself out as a religious institution. One of the adjuncts described Duquesne’s written threat as bone chilling.

Lacie felt both unnerved and betrayed when the hospital corporation fired her. Her partner was five months pregnant with their second child. She had responsibilities, and the termination left her unsure how she would fulfill them. She could not believe the hospital system she so loved had done this to her.

The doctors and nurses and staff at Indiana University Health endeared themselves to Lacie when her grandfather, Robert Little, was hospitalized at Methodist, an IU institution, just after she graduated from high school. He was admitted to the cardiovascular critical care unit, where Lacie would later work.

Robert Little was having trouble breathing. To distract him, the nurses joked with him. They held his gargantuan hands. The doctor took the time to find out about Robert Little as a person. The physician learned that Robert Little was a union bricklayer who had worked hard all his life and who continued chopping wood as he fell increasingly ill in his 70s. Robert Little would not be happy bedridden, tube invaded, machine dependent.

At that time, Lacie’s mother was a nurse at IU Health. She had worked in its bone marrow transplant unit in the very early days when many patients did not survive. Lacie says her mother taught her an important lesson about that:

“She told me that taking care of someone in their last days and hours of life is an honor. You usher them out. And you can make it a great experience or an awful experience. You can truly take care of the patient and the family. I feel Methodist really did that for my family, took the time to get to know my grandfather and explain things to us. They were able to let him die with dignity. He was clean and warm and not in pain and had his family around him. Everyone has to die. It might as well be in a good way.”

Lacie started work at IU Health when she was just 19 years old. She earned bachelor’s degrees in psychology and biology. Then, while working as a secretary for the hospital system, she returned to college to get her nursing degree. She says she learned: “Nursing is caring for people. Great nurses care for their patients. They don’t just take care of them.”

In 2009, she launched her nursing career in the cardiovascular critical care unit where her grandfather had died. Every day, she challenged herself to care for her patients like they were her grandfather.

The stories she tells show that she reveled in accomplishing that. She talks about caring for an older farmer who had been injured in a tractor accident. At one point as he began to get better, he kept motioning toward his face. Still connected to a breathing tube, he could not talk. She knew he was trying to ask for a shave. Lacie recounts:

“I got some hot water and put some wash cloths in there. I sat him in a reclining chair and leaned him back and said, ‘Here we are at the barber shop’ and gave him a really good shave. He kept touching his face and giving me thumbs up. The shave wasn’t necessary to get him better, but we had fixed all of the acute things, and this was important for helping him feel better. We have to do some things to help them feel good mentally.”

When Lacie began in nursing, the hospital system enabled nurses to help patients feel better. But that changed.

In the fall of 2013, the hospital corporation laid off 800 workers, including Lacie’s mother, who had worked there 25 years. At about the same time, IU Health instituted a management method described as “going lean.” What that meant to Lacie was that the hospital system had the best doctors and nurses and staff but was setting them up to fail at meeting goals like treating their patients like their grandfathers.

“They wanted us to do more with less. And they would say that. Everything was about cost, cost, cost. But we care about patients over profits,” she said. It meant there was rarely time to give a farmer a shave.

Lacie says nurses began talking about being in moral distress, “People were leaving the hospital and going home and crying because they felt they did not take good care of their patients.” They did all the basics. They gave patients all of the medications but had no time to talk to them like they were human beings. “If you are not spoken to, you feel like a specimen, not a person,” Lacie explains. Feeling like a specimen does not help heal.

That’s when the union talk started. Because her father and grandfather were union men, Lacie said family experience had taught her that unions could put workers in a position to get CEOs to listen. “I knew unions were a way to stack up enough people so they were on a level playing field with the CEO,” she said.

Earlier this year, the IU nurses chose the USW to help them organize and began holding informational meetings, three a day, twice a week. Lots of nurses attended. They discussed problems at work and how organizing could be a solution. “People were encouraged because they wanted to do something, not just talk about it,” Lacie says.

In March, Lacie and several other nurses began asking co-workers if they were willing to sign a card petitioning for an election that would determine whether they could form a union.

Lacie was careful to do this only while she was on lunch and other breaks. She cautioned co-workers not to sign unless they too were on a break. She chatted with on-duty nurses but did not take their signatures. Even so, on her third day of doing this, IU Health Inc. officials accused her of accepting signatures from nurses who were on duty.

The hospital corporation suspended her, then fired her just days later. “I was dumbfounded,” she says, “I felt betrayed because I had given my loyalty to IU Health.” She had worked there a decade.

Not long after the hospital system terminated Lacie, the state Health Department issued a report saying the hospital was short staffed and that it adversely affected patient care.

The USW hired Lacie immediately after the firing, but the termination imperiled renewal of her nursing license. She knew if she fought the hospital corporation through the NLRB process and the courts, she would win. But that could take years. And she’d be unable to work as a nurse in the meantime.

So she took the settlement deal. It requires IU Health Inc. to post notices at its hospitals saying that it had rescinded Lacie’s firing and discipline against her and that federal law forbids the hospital corporation from threatening, interrogating, surveilling, disciplining, suspending or firing anyone for attempting to form a union.

Lacie’s firing steeled the commitment of some, who started a Facebook meme saying, “I’ve got a Little fight in me.” But for many others, the firing had the effect the hospital corporation intended. Nurses were fearful, and turnout at union meetings declined.

Studies show the number of illegal firings of union activists increasing and the number of union members in the United States dwindling. Workers like Lacie need legislation to stop it. This time last year U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) introduced the Employee Empowerment Act, which would do just that. It could be called Lacie’s Law. But that wouldn’t be fair to the thousands of other workers who suffered as a result of the same illegal corporate union-busting practice.

Lacie insisted on a provision in the agreement allowing her to apply to return to IU Health in seven years because, she said, “I still love the IU Health nurses and doctors and staff.”

This blog originally appeared at OurFuture.org on August 11, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Leo W. Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers International union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the second Canadian to lead the union, started working at Inco’s nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.


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We Cannot Build a Strong, Equitable Economy on Low-Paying Jobs

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Mary Kay HenryWhat started out last fall as a one-day walkout at fast-food restaurants to protest poverty-level wages and stand up for basic human dignity has transformed into a movement that has captured the public interest.

I’ve been privileged, especially in recent weeks, to talk to institutional partners, policymakers and media about why low-wage workers across the country are risking their jobs and forgoing a much-needed day’s pay to work toward a better future for themselves and their families. We will be better off when hardworking people have enough money in their pockets to put back into their communities and generate more jobs, and SEIU members are proud to back these workers in their pursuit of economic justice and better lives for their families.

I traveled to New York City on Wednesday, to talk to Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert about the fast-food strikes. How in the world did this happen? I told Kendall Fells, an organizer from Fast Food Forward, it is because of the courage of the strikers, such as Shay Kerr and Shakira Campbell.

Shay has worked at McDonald’s in East Flatbush, N.Y., for six months. She earns minimum wage and, because sometimes her hours are cut for no reason, she can’t rely on a set pay every week. Since she cannot make ends meet on her wages, she has been bouncing around shelters. She’s fighting for a union so she can make a better life for herself and her 6-year-old son. Shakira is leading an action tomorrow at her store to be put back on the schedule. Their stories echo stories I’ve heard from workers all around the country.

Shakira, Shay, and many others who I have had the privilege of meeting in recent months are helping the public understand that, contrary to what some believe, these positions aren’t being filled by teenagers. Anyone who thinks they are is nostalgic for a time that no longer exists.

More than 4 million people work in the food service industry. Their average age is 28. Many of these workers have children and are trying to support a family. The median wage (including managerial staff) of $9.08 an hour still falls far below the federal poverty line for a worker lucky enough to get 40 hours a week and never have to take a sick day. According to the National Employment Law Project, low-wage jobs comprised 21 percent of recession losses, but 58 percent of recovery growth in the last few years.

This means middle-class jobs are disappearing while low-wage jobs are growing. If we simply accept this as fact, then the divide between the haves and the have-nots will only grow worse. And that is just wrong.

We cannot build a strong, equitable economy on low-paying jobs. Corporate profits are at an all-time high. McDonalds earned $5.5 billion just last year; other fast-food restaurants and retail chains are similarly profitable. They can afford to raise wages.

Americans have a long history of sticking together to fight for something better. SEIU can be proud of how we are fighting on so many fronts, from winning commonsense immigration reform, to delivering on the promise of the Affordable Care Act, to telling our elected officials to invest in vital public services, and to organizing in various sectors to make sure workers have a voice in the workplace. All of our members are involved in these campaigns to help workers strengthen and grow our union. As we do it, we know we have to reach out to the growing service sector of low-wage jobs in retail and fast food.

We are united to make a path to power for all workers; winning a just society; and leaving the world a better and more equal place for next generations to come.

This article originally appeared on SEIU blog on August 8, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mary Kay Henry is the International President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).


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Labor Board Deals Blow to Fired Immigrant Strikers in Wisconsin

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WISCONSIN—The union campaign at Palermo’s Pizza in Milwaukee.—which offers a test case in integrating labor, immigrant and community-based organizing—was dealt a painful blow last week by the regional National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB told both sides it would not find the company’s mass firing of immigrant strikers to be illegal, would not protect other strikers from being “permanently replaced,” and would not order the company to enter collective bargaining.

“The Labor Board, it wasn’t very favorable to our cause,” Palermo’s striker Raul de la Torre tells Working in These Times in Spanish. “There was ample evidence to show that the company violated the rights of a majority of workers.”

The decision was announced by labor and management on November 21 and is expected to be issued in writing by the NLRB this week. Organizers celebrated some portions of the NLRB’s decision, including an expected complaint (similar to an indictment) against Palermo’s on other counts of union-busting, including nine other firings. But they pledged to appeal the NLRB’s choice not to pursue the mass termination–a significant legal setback for immigrant worker organizing–and not to require the company to negotiate.

Voces de La Frontera, a low-wage workers’ center and immigrant rights group, has been organizing Palermo’s workers around issues like staffing and wages since 2008 and has helped spur a nationwide boycott of Palermo’s products. Voces Executive Director Christine Neumann-Ortiz said the NLRB’s validation of some of the charges against Palermo’s offered “very good affirmation for the boycott.”

But Neumann-Ortiz called the decision not to prosecute the mass firings “a travesty of justice in terms of immigrant worker rights” that shows how immigration laws are being applied in a way that “is undermining federally protected rights for all workers.” She said workers and their supporters “fully intend on getting that decision overturned both in the streets and in the legal system.”

In an emailed statement, Palermo’s President Giacomo Fallucca wrote, “We are proud that the NLRB decision confirms that we complied with the applicable laws. Voces de la Frontera should be embarrassed that its blatantly false claims have been rejected so soundly.” Dismissing the NLRB’s remaining charges as “minor technicalities,” Fallucca described the decision as “a major victory for Palermo’s and our workers” and urged Voces to “get out of the way” of an NLRB election.

Richard Saks, an attorney for the Palermo’s Workers Union, said it was “significant that the NLRB found Palermo’s guilty of a wide range of various serious violations of federal labor law, including retaliation and surveiling and interfering with employee rights to support the union and engage in protected activities.” But he said the union was “disappointed” that the regional NLRB had not found the firing of 75 strikers to be against the law.

As I’ve previously reported for Working in These Times, Palermo’s workers began actively pursuing unionization in the spring with support from Voces, the AFL-CIO and the United Steelworkers (USW) union (an AFL-CIO affiliate). In May, three-quarters of production workers signed a petition seeking recognition as the Palermo’s Workers Union. By law, companies can choose to recognize a union based on such a demonstration of majority support. Or they can then be forced to recognize a union if workers win an NLRB-supervised election.

Palermo’s refused to recognize the union, and the same day, workers were told that they had 28 days (soon reduced to 10) to prove that their immigration status authorized them to work in the United States.

In response, workers submitted a petition to the NLRB seeking a union election. Many also went on strike. Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in what appears to be the first application of an agreement with the Department of Labor designed to avoid manipulation of ICE for union-busting, announced on June 7 that it was suspending immigration enforcement at Palermo’s. But the next day, Palermo’s fired 75 striking workers. Management called this legal compliance; organizers called it obvious union-busting.

The workers have now been on strike for almost six months. The union election has been repeatedly delayed, both by successive union-busting allegations filed by Voces and, before that, by a petition from a rival union, the United Food & Commercial Workers, to appear as an alternative to the Palermo Workers Union (the PWU is expected to affiliate with the USW). Because of the gravity of the union-busting allegations, the change in the make-up of the potential pool of voters (as strikers are replaced by new hires), and the wide margin by which workers originally petitioned management, USW and Voces began arguing that a fair election was no longer possible, and that the NLRB should issue a bargaining order requiring Palermo’s to proceed directly to negotiations with the PWU instead. Such orders are rare.

The NLRB strategy carried risks from the beginning. Because of the opportunities they provide employers to intimidate workers, and because of the limited leverage they offer to compel employers to actually negotiate in good faith, some major unions have essentially abandoned NLRB elections, opting instead for “comprehensive campaigns” to pressure employers to voluntarily grant union recognition based on a showing of majority support.

Interviewed in September, AFL-CIO Director of Immigration and Community Action Ana Avendaño described the Palermo’s struggle as an example where filing for an NLRB election might be serving an important purpose, because it provided a formal demonstration to ICE that the workers were actively organizing, thus securing the suspension of enforcement. Avendaño said that could make the NLRB filing worthwhile, despite the risks, and even if actual union recognition was won through a voluntary agreement reached because of the strike and the comprehensive campaign.

But the ICE letter didn’t stop Palermo’s from firing 75 workers, and the regional NLRB is not planning to prosecute those terminations. According to Saks, the NLRB “is essentially saying that the company would have acted that [same] way absent the strike and absent the unionization effort.” He added that because the NLRB was not finding the mass firing to be illegal, it also would not consider the strike to be an “Unfair Labor Practices” strike, and thus Palermo’s could legally “permanently replace” those strikers who haven’t been fired.

Saks said that the NLRB’s choice not to issue a bargaining order means that “there will probably have to be an election at some point for union recognition.” He said the Board has not indicated how quickly that could happen. If the regional NLRB’s decision stands, it could wait to schedule an election until after reaching resolution on all the charges it is proceeding with against Palermo’s.

That leaves union activists hoping for one of three results: Getting the regional NLRB’s decision changed on appeal; winning a majority of the current voter pool in an NLRB election; or winning union recognition and the reinstatement of the fired workers directly from Palermo’s through its comprehensive campaign. “All of those options are still on the table,” said Neumann-Ortiz. She said that while the favorable aspects of the NLRB’s decision provide validation for the workers’ allegations, the disappointing ones demonstrate “the importance of continued public support for these workers to have justice prevail.”

So far, the comprehensive campaign’s main lever has been a consumer boycott of Palermo’s pizzas, including pressure on Costco, the chain where the majority of Palermo’s product is sold. Organizers credit behind-the-scenes pressure from Costco—which benefits from a progressive reputation as an “anti-Walmart”—for spurring Palermo’s to seek a meeting with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in September. This month, De la Torre and other Palermo’s workers made a national tour, demonstrating at several Costco locations before arriving at headquarters in Washington state, where they met with officials from the company.

De la Torre described the meeting as “very positive” and said the Costco representatives “were surprised to hear what Palermo’s has done to the workers.” At the end of the meeting, said De la Torre, a Costco official “made the comment that if the charges that we made against the company were validated [by the NLRB], they could buy their pizza from any other company.”

The campaign has also targeted universities, including the campuses of the University of Wisconsin. UW-Madison undergraduate Allie Gardner said the boycott is “absolutely a student issue, because we’re on campus and we’re the ones who are paying tuition to go to this school that is then creating contracts with corporations that aren’t honoring the labor policies that we’ve created as an institution.” Gardner is a board member of the United States Students Association and of the statewide UW student council, both of which have passed resolutions calling on universities to support the boycott. The licensing committee at UW-Madison has unanimously called for the university to end its Palermo’s contract; students are pressing the university’s chancellor to honor that recommendation. The UW-Milwaukee student senate recently voted to endorse a boycott as well.

Last month, in an AFL-CIO report and legislative testimony by workers, the campaign also questioned state subsidies provided to Palermo’s.

 “With the progress of the strike and the boycott so far, I feel happy,” said De la Torre. “But I’m not yet satisfied.”

Full disclosure: The United Steelworkers is an In These Times sponsor.

This post was originally posted on Working In These Times on November 28, 2012. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer and a contributor at In These Times, The American Prospect, Dissent, and Alternet.  After receiving his MA in Political Science, he worked as a union organizer for five years.  His website is http://www.josheidelson.com. Twitter: @josheidelson E-mail: “jeidelson” at “gmail” dot com.


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NLRB Chairman: New Penalties Needed for Union-Busting of Undocumented Workers

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NEW YORK CITYNational Labor Relations Board Chairman Mark Pearce says his agency could pursue new remedies to punish employers who retaliate against undocumented immigrants for organizing. Last year Pearce interpreted a 2002 Supreme Court decision to rule out back pay as a remedy in such cases, limiting the NLRB’s options of financial penalties.

Interviewed Friday by Working In These Times, Pearce called the tension between immigration law and labor law “extremely frustrating,” and the tools available for protecting undocumented workers against employer crimes “insufficient.”

“The concept of ‘made whole’ by us needs to be examined,” said Pearce, referring to a legal guideline for NLRB remedies. “Perhaps there are things within that concept that we can utilize. Now I can’t articulate what they are, because we’ve got to consider it.”

Pearce made these comments following a forum hosted by Cornell University’s ILR School. In his remarks to the assembled attorneys, Pearce said he “had angst over” his ruling in the NLRB’s Mezonos Maven Bakery case last year. In that 3-0 decision, the NLRB found that a bakery that fired a group of workers who had collectively complained about a supervisor could not be required to pay them back pay, because they were undocumented.

The Mezonos decision cited the US Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Hoffman Plastic Compounds v. NLRB, which overturned an NLRB ruling granting back pay to an undocumented worker who was fired after trying to form a union (the NLRB is tasked with enforcing and interpreting private-sector labor law, but federal courts have the power to overturn the NLRB). Writing for a 5-4 majority, then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist said that “awarding back pay in a case like this not only trivializes the immigration laws, it also condones and encourages future violations.”

At Friday’s forum, Pearce said that the Hoffman decision had forced him to deny back pay in Mezonos and “continues to create that problem where an employer could get away scot-free” with firing undocumented union supporters. Pearce said he had “struggled with the tension between the National Labor Relations Act, immigration law, and the rights of undocumented workers.” While the NLRB can still use non-economic remedies in such a situation, like requiring a company to post a notice saying it will comply with the law in the future, Pearce said that “seems a little empty” without a financial cost attached.

After the forum, Pearce told Working In These Times that the tension he’d identified could be resolved if a future Supreme Court case offers the NLRB “a more promising, or a more significant remedy to be applied for discriminatees who happen to be undocumented. But otherwise, it would probably have to take a change in the law.”

In the meantime, said Pearce, “the board has a certain degree of discretion with respect to the remedies.” He noted that the NLRB is legally empowered to “make whole” workers who are illegally punished or discriminated against, but is barred from assessing punitive damages against employers. That means that financial penalties against companies generally come in the form of back paywhich Mezonos took off the table for undocumented workers. “So exploration would have to be had,” said Pearce, “as to the full parameters of [the ‘made whole’] concept, to see whether or not a remedy could be fleshed out [for] those kinds of violations.”

Such a move “would be significant,” said Ana Avendaño, the AFL-CIO’s director of immigration and community action. “Because under the current structure, employers basically get a free bite at the apple. They can violate the law with impunity.”

Interviewed Saturday by phone, Avendaño disputed Pearce’s view that the Supreme Court’s Hoffman ruling required the NLRB to deny back pay in Mezonos. She said that a lower-level NLRB judge had been right to find that Hoffman didn’t apply in Mezonos, because in Hoffman it was the undocumented worker that had been proven to have violated immigration law, and in Mezonos it was the employer. Avendaño, who was among the attorneys arguing for back pay in Mezonos, said she hopes the second circuit court will reject the NLRB’s Mezonos reasoning and send the case back for a new ruling.

But Avendaño echoed Pearce’s criticism of Hoffman, which she said “has a chilling effect” on undocumented immigrants seeking to organize at work. Ultimately, she said, new legislation will be necessary to restore such workers’ rights, perhaps as part of a broader immigration reform.

Still, Avendaño welcomed the NLRB Chairman’s comments about the possibility of other remedies under current law. Given that the law bars punitive damages, and Hoffman restricts back pay awards to workers, Avendaño said, “one idea that advocates haveand the legal basis for this is soundis that there could be a fund established, where employers would still have to pay the back pay, but it would go into the fund, not directly to the worker.”

Avendaño said such a “special remedy” would be “less than ideal,” but would be an improvement over the status quo, where employers face a “perverse incentive … to just violate the immigration law, and then violate the [National Labor Relations Act], and have no responsibility for it.”

If a fitting test case reaches the NLRB, said Pearce, “We would have to see whether the board has that kind of authority, or is there something that causes us to feel that we are able to create an exception to the standard remedy.” Avendaño said the AFL-CIO hopes that will be the case: “If there was an opportunity, and we may have one soon, then we certainly are going to advance that argument.”

This article was originally posted on In these Times on October 29, 2012. Reprinted with permission.


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Workers Try to Organize Airport Subway, Get Fired

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david baconOAKLAND, CA—This city is supposed to be a union town, but out at the airport, workers say they’re getting fired for trying to join one. The airport is administered by the Oakland Port Commission, whose members, appointed by the mayor, are mostly viewed as progressives. The commission has passed a living wage ordinance that not only sets a level much higher than state or national minimum wage laws, but also requires companies who rent space to respect the labor rights of their workers.

One of the workers fired recently is Hakima Arhab, who says she lost her job at the Subway concession after she complained about violations of the ordinance, and because she and her coworkers are trying to join UNITE HERE Local 2850.

Arhab told her story to Working In These Times:

I worked at Subway for a year and a half. When I got the job there I thought that I would have a better life. It should be a good job. I thought I’d have more money, and be able to afford a few more things for myself, and be able to send money to my home country, because I have family there. When I started at the airport I was getting $12.82 an hour, and then it went up to $13.05.

Most people go through the airport and see us from one side of the counter, but from our side it feels really different. It turned out to be like working in hell. When the airport was busy, there were huge long lines—sometimes it seemed like 100 people. We had to wait on them, and make the orders up at the same time. Sometimes I thought I’d fall down from being so tired, but I’d eat something sweet and go back to my job.

The schedule was always changing, and it turned out to be just a part-time job. They kept cutting peoples’ schedules. Whenever we would hear that they were going to hire someone, everyone would get scared because we were afraid our hours would be cut. They’d hire people and give them our hours.

Then they told us that if we worked two days in the airport, we should work outside too. The owners have many other Subway stores, so they’d pressure me to work for them outside the airport. And it was a hard job too. But I did it because I was scared that if I didn’t they would fire me from the airport job.

They expected me to work outside the airport if I wanted a full time set of hours, but the work outside was at a different wage. That work only paid minimum wage—$8 an hour. They’d send me around to all their stores. Sometimes I’d open one store, and then go close at another one. I worked overtime, but they didn’t pay me overtime pay. They’d give you separate checks, so you’d never get overtime pay.

I was very angry about that, but they refused to give me a full schedule at the airport. They even wanted me to work seven days a week, but since they wouldn’t pay overtime, at first I said no—that was too much. Many of my coworkers did, though, because they couldn’t afford to say no. If you said no, then the owners would cut your whole schedule.

So I also just shut up and worked too. And the worst part was that sometimes when I’d work 50 or 60 hours, they wouldn’t pay for all those hours. They’d be short an hour or an hour and a half.

I knew some other workers who work at HMS Host concessions right next to us, and I knew they had a union. Last spring I got very sick, but I still had to work, because otherwise, how was I going to pay for my rent or my food? I was so, so angry. One of them asked me, “Hakima, do you want to speak to the union?” I told her, “Yes, I want to do it.” So I set up an appointment with the union, and asked them to help us: myself, my coworkers and all the workers who work hard in the airport without benefits or sick days. That’s how it happened.

Finally I filed a complaint with the government, with the Port of Oakland. But they didn’t take it seriously. It was like they were just playing around, and told us it would take months to investigate. And I needed my job, especially after I was fired.

On May 29 I took unpaid vacation, for 20 days. The owner agreed that I could do that when I told her four months before. But I filed the complaint before I took the time off. She found out, because the Port gave her the names of the people who complained.

So when I came back on June 19, she gave me a check for the days I worked before the vacation. She told me, “Hakima, you know, I’m very very slow right now. I don’t have any more hours for you.” I told her, “No, no, no. Don’t play with me. I know you just took in $5,500—you’re making the highest amount ever here in the airport. How can you tell me that?”

And just two days later, she hired another worker at the airport. She just wanted to kick me out because I’d gotten involved in the union, and I stood up and filed a complaint. Because I was demanding my rights. That’s why she fired me.

Last week we had a rally out at the airport, to support me and the other workers who have been fired. We even had a chant in Berber. That’s the home language of North Africa, and I’m from a little Berber town in Algeria. And the meaning is “We are Berber, we are people who would rather fight and be fired than work without rights.”

The union says several other workers have faced retaliation as well. Isaac Kos-Read, director of external affairs for the Port of Oakland, says the port takes the complaints very seriously, but called it “an open ended thing. It could take as little as a month or as many as three months. We don’t know.” By now, the port is investigating 15 complaints. Meanwhile port security is writing up workers if they use their badges to go into the airport to meet with employers or other workers.

Nevertheless, “the port prides itself on providing jobs, and union jobs. Over 70% of the jobs at the port are union jobs,” Kos-Read says. “We assiduously enforce the living wage ordinance.”

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on August 10, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: David Bacon is a writer, photographer and former union organizer. He is the author of Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (2008), Communities Without Borders (2006), and The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the US/Mexico Border (2004). His website is at dbacon.igc.org.


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How to Restore the Power of Unions?

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imagesJulius Getman’s latest book offers a compelling answer

In the early 1990s, trade unionists in the United States abandoned the strike as a central component of trade union strategy. In its place, unionists and academic supporters focused on organizing the unorganized, one-day strikes and community campaigns. Yet on the main concern of the traditional labor movement—how to extract concessions from employers through collective bargaining—there has been virtual silence.

University of Texas Law Professor Julius Getman stands out as a rare exception to this trend. For several decades, Getman has urged the labor movement to focus on the fundamentals of trade union power.  Getman’s 1998 book, The Betrayal of Local 14, chronicled the heartbreaking International Paper strike of the early 1990s, making a strong plea for banning the permanent replacement of striking workers.

Fortunately for labor activists, Getman has written another about book about labor: Restoring the Power of Unions: It Takes a Movement (Yale University Press). The first half of Restoring the Power of Unions focuses on the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE). Getman believes HERE’s member-centered unionism can serve as an example for the entire labor movement. The second half of the book provides insightful analysis on all-too-often ignored topics of trade union strategy, the shortfalls of the organizing approach and the need for labor law reform.

But throughout the book, Getman constantly directs the labor movement back to its true source of power: a mobilized rank and file.

Getman chose to focus on HERE because he believes that this union, “more than any other union, has focused not only on organizing and bargaining but also on creating a spirit of movement.” With hotel workers currently engaged in a high-profile, strategic battle against national hotel chains, Getman’s analysis is certainly timely.

Getman traces HERE’s transformation from a mobbed-up union into one of today’s more dynamic international unions. Along the way, he provides valuable analysis and history of HERE’s strikes at Yale University and the transformation of local unions in San Francisco and Las Vegas. To Getman, key to HERE’s transformation was the rise of a grouping of leaders who firmly believed the power of the union comes from movement building— thus the title of the book.

Restoring the Power of Unions makes another valuable contribution by analyzing the conflicted 2004 merger of HERE and UNITE, the garment workers union, into UNITE-HERE. Drawing on his decades of relationships with UNITE-HERE leaders, Getman provides a detailed account of the battle between former HERE leader John Wilhelm and former UNITE leader Bruce Raynor. To many media observers, this was merely a personality dispute—a fight over who got the corner office. To Getman, however, the dispute was over fundamental differences in union philosophy: between the top down philosophy held by Raynor and his allies in SEIU, and the member-centered unionism of Wilhelm and the core HERE leadership.

With the labor movement wracked by internal conflict in recent years (the split of Change to Win, the UNITE-HERE conflict, the civil wars in SEIU), figuring out the underlying politics can be mystifying. Restoring the Power of Unions helps explain part of the puzzle. (Luckily, another piece will soon be filled in by Steve Early’s highly anticipated book The Civil Wars in Labor, which will dissect the politics and practice of Raynor’s ally, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and is due out next year.)

Halfway through the book, Getman switches to trade union policy. Getman covers topics such as details on how labor law is stacked against workers, the restrictions on the right to strike and a critical analysis of the Employee Free Choice Act. Getman disagrees with many other labor scholars that simply amending labor law to include card check will resolve labor’s crisis.

Drawing on decades of research, Getman argues that issues of access to employees and underlying union strength are more important to union growth. To Getman, such problems can be only be resolved through pressure tactics such as comprehensive campaigns. The comprehensive or “corporate” campaign is the strategy of strategic mobilization and pressure on employers used by some unions, including UNITE-HERE.

At some points, Getman overemphasizes the power of the comprehensive campaign. When properly utilized, the strategy has proven able to beat back some of the worst concessions. For example, earlier this year mineworkers at Rio Tinto utilized member mobilization and international pressure to force an end to a lockout and reach a contract settlement. Represented by the ILWU, the members beat back some, but not all, of management’s concessions.

After 25 years, however, it is time to admit that strategy alone will not revive the labor movement. To do that, we need a labor movement willing to confront the system of labor control—the legal restrictions on the right to strike and solidarity—that hamstrings the labor movement.

Most labor commentators ignore the system of labor control’s restrictions on the right to strike. They focus on organizing or social unionism, ignoring the fundamental questions of union economics. Not Getman. He argues the restrictions on the right to strike are critical, particularly changing the rule allowing permanent replacement of striking workers. Unlike many commentators, Getman also discusses the importance of labor’s long-lost tactics of solidarity, the powerful secondary strikes outlawed by the Taft Hartley Act of 1947. To Getman, union power comes from solidarity—from workers acting together.

The main problem facing the labor movement is not employers, politicians or labor law. It is our way of thinking—a problem of incorrect strategy. It is time for trade unionists and all involved in the broader worker’s movement to debate the critical question of how to “restore the power of unions.” With Restoring the Power of Unions, Getman provides an invaluable contribution for those in the labor movement looking for answers.

This article was originally posted on Working In These Times.

About The Author: Joe Burns, a former local union president active in strike solidarity, is a labor negotiator and attorney. He is the author of the forthcoming book Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America (IG Publishing, 2011) and can be reached at [email protected]


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Some Things I Took Away From The Organizing Conference Last Week

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Image: Richard NegriLast week I attended the Web 2.0 Organizing Conference in NYC. It was an incredible event packed with hundreds of online organizers from around the country.

While I think the conference was a tremendous success, I think we, in labor, have a long way to go. We have the daunting task of internal organizing so that we can actually do 1/2 of the great things we talk about with online organizing and mobilizing. We have to remember that some unions’ web sites still look they were built out by a third grader. There appears to be an underlying fear among old school unionists to do anything on the web — and most probably because they cannot control the interactivity — or they don’t think they can. This is where we become educators.

We have to educate our bosses on the technology in a way that they can understand, and this is not easy for a whole host of reasons. Some of us don’t know how to explain why some social media tools work and others don’t. We don’t know how to explain that Convio is capable of a lot more than sending a mass email, etc. We can talk about this stuff until we are blue in the face, but often times we just need a shot at doing something to prove that it works. Do it now and apologize later? Maybe.

There are two different things at play for a lot of unions. One is actual organizing and the other is outreach – they are two different things that are frequently carried out by the same individual. (I think one day this will change. I think eventually the unions will realize that they need a team of workers to carry out the online organizing, mobilizing and education and will not put the task to one or two people only. I also think we are not there yet). For now, the same person who is clicking away at Twitter a few times a day is also the person who is getting flyers on web sites and sending emails to workers to get the flyers to print and distribute. The same person should also be building out technology to mine workers’ names and information to turn over to the boots-on-ground organizers. And this is where it can get very tricky for traditional organizing models.

At the conference something was said in one of the workshops that really struck a chord with me. If a worker’s first contact with a union is through a web site form, so should the second — usually with an email. Too often unions will realize they can get a worker’s information mined by the sites but then they want someone to go house visit with the worker immediately after. It shouldn’t, in my opinion, work quite that way. (In other words, I agree with the person who said this at the conference).  It should be: initial contact web site – second contact email. Sure, by the third or fourth correspondence with the worker, have them meet up with someone from the organizing committee, but they might not be ready sooner than that. This is why an online organizer needs to make assessments of the workers in the same way an organizer on ground has to.

The education and mobilization part is becoming easier and easier. We have tools like Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, YouTube. There are progressive blogs welcoming labor’s messaging, such as FireDogLake, Daily Kos and Huffington Post. Then there are labor specific blogs like UnionReview.com where we can get to the meat of things if we need to.

Of course it is important to comment on stories we see — and that is a brand of online activism the same organizer who is mining workers’ names from the sites must motivate people to do. If we see an article in the mainstream media news that is totally counter everything we believe in as working class union workers, then take ten minutes and leave a comment, sway the discussion and get yourselves heard.

If there is one thing that is clear to me after a few years of doing this stuff it is this — never before have we had the opportunity to actually be the media. I talk about this in workshops at the union I work for and wherever else I am asked to talk, it is pivotal. We have to take into consideration that once upon a time it was a talked-at media. We were talked at from places like the NY Times, CNN, etc. Now journalism is an interactive trade. We are still talked at, but now we can talk back, instantly. If we stay as apathetic online as many of us are in the shops we work at, nothing is going to change. And change is what everyone is crying for.

Finally, I think it is important to mention that some of us who are doing online mobilization and education fall into the rut of singing to the choir. I have been guilty of this also. When we have made some ground on blogs or web sites, got heard and — even better – understood, why not move on to the next site or blog? Don’t get caught up in saying the same thing over and over to the same people. It can be a challenge because sometimes we don’t know if our work is ever really done, but who doesn’t like a challenge?

Do you want to be part of the change or would you rather sit back and hope for the best?

This article originally appeared in UnionReview.com on December 12, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.

About the Author: Richard Negri is the founder of UnionReview.com and is the Online Manager for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.


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