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Did You Get a Text Inviting You to a Picket Line? It Might Be from Bernie Sanders.

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As graduate student workers at the University of Chicago began a three-day work stoppage this week to demand union recognition, Sen. Bernie Sanders—one of the university’s most notable alumni—called on his army of supporters to join their picket lines through an email and text message blast.

One of Sanders’ supporters who received the message was UChicago graduate instructor Laura Colaneri, a member of the union Graduate Students United (GSU) and a PhD candidate in Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Studies.

“It was a really awesome boost to get that message because I’m one of the workers involved in this action,” Colaneri told In These Times. “I’m excited to see a candidate using his status to support workers directly, not just by giving us a rhetorical line, but helping us out with an action that we’re doing.”

While candidates traditionally use their extensive contact lists to focus on fundraising or bringing people out to their campaign rallies, Sanders is undertaking an apparent first in modern presidential politics: using his lists to help mobilize turnout at worker-led actions.

Last month, the Sanders campaign helped turn supporters out to a one-day strike at the University of California campuses, where representatives said 1,000 people “responded with interest or committed to go to a protest.” The campaign also called onsupporters to join thousands of McDonald’s workers who went on strike across the country May 23 demanding a $15-per-hour minimum wage.

Sanders supporters were also recently encouraged to join healthcare workers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center on their picket line, as well as nurses at Mercy Health St. Vincent Medical Center in Toledo, Ohio. The campaign is currently working to turn supporters out for a march of McDonald’s workers in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on June 9 that Sanders will join.

“I think it’s fair to say this is a workers’ movement as much as it’s a presidential campaign,” Bill Neidhardt, Midwest Press Secretary for the Sanders campaign, told In These Times. “And that’s exactly how we want it to be. That’s how you win. With a movement.”

Neidhardt noted that the Sanders team has previously used its contact lists to drive turnout for labor actions at Delta Airlines, Disney, Amazon, General Motors, Wabtec, Nissan and the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Meanwhile, Sanders’ own employees recently unionized themselves, winning the first union contract for staff of a major party presidential campaign. Among other gains, the contract includes a $20-an-hour wage for interns at the Washington, D.C. campaign headquarters and a cap on manager salaries. Since the announcement, three other 2020 Democratic campaigns have unionized: those of former HUD Secretary Julián Castro, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

“[Sanders’] objective is to strengthen unions as they’ve dwindled and been busted,” said Nanci Ponné, who joined GSU’s picket lines at UChicago on June 5 after receiving an email from the campaign. She was one of hundreds of people who joined GSU for a mass picket and rally that afternoon, many of them directed there by Sanders.

“Unions bring strength and power where workers didn’t have it before,” Ponné, who works in the Chicago hotel industry and identified as a member of Unite Here, told In These Times. “There’s no reason for Bernie not to use his awesome email list to empower unions that will help bring more benefits to workers.”

The three-day work stoppage at UChicago this week comes nearly 19 months after an overwhelming majority of graduate workers there voted to unionize with GSU in an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

As at many other private universities where graduate workers recently voted to form a union, the UChicago administration continuously refuses to recognize GSU, claiming grad workers are more “students” than employees and therefore ineligible for union representation. With the NLRB now controlled by anti-union Trump appointees—who are poised to undercut the legal basis for grad worker unions—GSU has withdrawn from the formal Board process and is demanding voluntary recognition from the university.

“They’re stonewalling,” Colaneri said of the UChicago administration, adding that administrators called extra campus police out to the GSU pickets. “They keep saying it’s your free speech to do this, but then they’ve sent out emails to undergraduate students and their parents telling them to report if your graduate instructor isn’t in class. But we’re not letting it intimidate us.”

As a UChicago alumnus, Sanders has supported GSU throughout their fight for union recognition. “I hope very much that you will set an example throughout the world by supporting a democratic decision made by graduate students and teaching assistants,” the senator wrote university president Robert Zimmer in November 2017. “To appeal this decision to an anti-worker, Trump-appointed National Labor Relations Board is not something that a world class institution of higher learning should do.”

No stranger to campus activism, while a student at UChicago in the early 1960s, the future presidential candidate helped lead a 13-day sit-in to demand an end to the university’s housing discrimination policy, was arrested protesting racial discrimination at Chicago Public Schools, and joined the youth wing of the Socialist Party.

“My four years in Chicago was an extraordinary moment in my life, and very much shaped my worldview and what I wanted to do,” Sanders said earlier this year.

With classes at UChicago now over for the spring, on the evening of June 5 GSU members voted to suspend their work stoppage. “We have shown the university, the world, and ourselves what we are capable of as a union, and how fundamentally the university depends on our work,” read a statement from the union.

“The amount of energy we’ve been able to sustain over three days is really incredible,” Colaneri said. “This doesn’t come from Bernie, it comes from us, from the workers being ready to fight for what we deserve. And it’s great to be supported in that, but not overshadowed. It’s not about Bernie, it’s really about us.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on June 6, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke is a Working In These Times contributor based in Chicago. He has a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in labor history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was a summer 2013 editorial intern at In These Times. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke.


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31,000 New England grocery workers strike

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More than 30,000 grocery store workers are on strike in New England after negotiations stalled between the workers, represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers, and Stop & Shop, the region’s biggest grocery chain.

“Stop & Shop’s parent company, Ahold Delhaize, saw over $2 billion in profit last year and got a US tax cut of $225 million in 2017,” the union said in a statement. “While Stop & Shop continues to propose drastically cutting worker benefits, Ahold shareholders voted on April 10 to give themselves an 11.1 percent raise in dividends over last year. The expected payout will be on April 25 for around $880 million.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren joined workers at a picket line on Friday, bringing donuts and telling them, “You fight for the dignity of working people.” Sens. Kamala HarrisKirsten GillibrandCory Booker, and Bernie Sanders also tweeted their support, as did fellow Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro and numerous Democratic members of Congress.

What you can do: DON’T cross the picket line. DO contact your local store to let them know you support the workers and want management to offer a fair deal. DO express support for workers on social media and, if you pass a picket line, in person. DO keep shopping at union stores if there’s one near you—see that list for options.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.
This article was originally printed at Daily Kos on April 13, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

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Fired Hostess Worker Becomes One-Man ‘Truth Squad’

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Bruce VailJust 12 short weeks ago, Mike Hummell found himself in the middle of one of the highest-profile union fights of 2012: the nationwide strike against Hostess Brands. As a member of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM), Hummell hit the picket lines in early November in support of the union’s desperate showdown with the company famous for making Wonder Bread and Twinkies. But for Hummell the strike would become more than an angry protest against Hostess’ assault on his livelihood. It would be the beginning of a journey through the electronic media in search of fairness for himself and his coworkers.

“It was incredible to see the strike portrayed in the media as the union forcing the company out of business,” says Hummell, a receiving clerk at the Hostess bakery in Lenexa, Kan. With 14 years on the job, Hummell was dismayed that media portrayals of the struggle showed little or no understanding of the workers’ viewpoint. Adding insult to injury, many news outlets blithely repeated Hostess’ assertions that the company would be destroyed by BCTGM’s refusal to make “reasonable” compromises, he says.

The facts, as Hummell knew from his years at the bakery, were quite different. Workers had already made broad concessions to help save the company, and the goal of the strike was to the hold the line against Hostess managers intent on busting the unions and dismembering the company. While some press accounts seemed biased or misinformed, equally troubling was that the main newspaper in the area, Kansas City Star, was ignoring the story. Hummel’s wife sent in a complaint and a reporter soon contacted him.

“I got into an argument with them. I have to admit I was a little surprised when the the story came out and it was pretty accurate. They even quoted me by name,” he recounts.

Hummell then decided to make his own leap into personal journalism. Long a reader of the Daily Kos blog, he composed his first-ever post for the site. On November 18, Hummell—using the screen name Bluebarnstormer—blasted Hostess in a lengthy post titled “Inside the Hostess Bankery.”

“Wow, it just took off,” Hummell says. The post went viral, logging 261,723 page views in the following days. Indeed, it was so popular that Hummell’s work finished in second place in Daily Kos’ 2012 annual calculation of the site’s most popular reader posts. It was instant fame, of sorts. He was contacted by a news reporter for CNNMoney, and his comments received wide distribution. Hummell then received a call from a producer of the CNBC television network, asking that he represent the workers on a cable program with national distribution. He made two appearances on CNBC, during which he ably fielded hostile questions from both hosts and guests.

“The funniest thing about CNBC was the second time I was on, it was like they felt they had to have a whole crew of so-called ‘experts’ to prove I was wrong,” Hummell says. “Well, none of them seemed to know anything about Hostess.” He says he received a lot of encouragement from his co-workers in his efforts to spread accurate information about the strike, as well as from officers of BCTGM Local 218, which represents Hostess workers in the Kansas City area.

His campaign was not successful, however, in deterring Hostess owners from their plan to close the company, dismiss all the workers, and sell off all the assets to the highest bidder. Currently, Hostess is seeking final approvals from a federal bankruptcy court for an auction of the company’s bakeries and other property.

But Hummel is not finished in his quest. He recently completed work on a 27-minute video, which he videotaped (with a help of a close friend) at a union meeting for fired workers. He hopes that a continued campaign to inform the public will aid Hostess workers in what he regards as a gross miscarriage of justice in Hostess’s bankruptcy proceedings.

“It is absolutely a crime what has happened,” Hummell charges. “The owners of Hostess have lied again and again, and there has been no accountability” from Judge Robert Drain, who oversees the court case.

Judge Drain, he says, has been complicit in the abuse of the bankruptcy court process and should be called to account. Hummell hopes that full public exposure of Hostess managers and of Judge Drain can insure that some of the cash generated by the sale of Hostess will flow to the workers.

As for his journey into the world of media, Hummell says he plans to go further. His public stand on behalf of the BCTGM members has led to an invitation to work with the International Longshoremen’s Association, he says. His experience over the last 12 weeks has convinced him that it is possible for rank-and-file workers to make a difference, he tells Working In These Times.

You can contact Mike at bluebarnstormer <at> yahoo <dot> com.

This article was written by Bruce Vail at Working In These Times on February 2, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.


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