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Service + Solidarity Spotlight: Nebraska AFL-CIO Rallies with Meatpacking Workers in Lincoln

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Working people across the United States have stepped up to help out our friends, neighbors and communities during these trying times. In our regular Service + Solidarity Spotlight series, we’ll showcase one of these stories every day. Here’s today’s story.

On April 8, Nebraska State AFL-CIO President/Secretary-Treasurer Martin spoke at a rally in Lincoln, Nebraska, with members of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 293 who are in the middle of contract negotiations with Smithfield Foods. Smithfield has refused to negotiate for COVID-19 protections and is opposing any state legislation. Martin talked about how passing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act is vitally important in guaranteeing workers the right to negotiate for better working conditions without fear or intimidation by our employers. Some 50 people showed up in the rain to show their support for the workers.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIOon April 15, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell  is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.


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Alabama Amazon organizing drive is a case study in why it’s so important to pass the PRO Act

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The recent organizing drive by workers at an Alabama Amazon warehouse has drawn an unusual amount of attention to a union representation election, and for good reason—Amazon is a massive employer that has successfully beaten back multiple organizing efforts in the United States. Even the possibility of a union win, in Alabama of all places, is worthy of the headlines. But it also draws attention to just how much the deck is stacked against workers and unions in this country. Amazon management has carried out an aggressive anti-union campaign, texting workers multiple times a day, posting anti-union messages in bathroom stalls, and more.

What could make it easier for workers to build power in the United States? In March, the House passed the PRO Act—the Protecting the Right to Organize Act—which would provide a much-needed update to labor law after decades of erosion of collective bargaining and rising economic inequality.

Much of the discussion of the PRO Act, both on social media and here at Daily Kos, has centered on one provision of the bill applying to freelancers and independent contractors. I’ll get to that. But it’s one provision, so let’s refocus for a bit on parts of the bill that would affect far, far more workers.

The PRO Act protects worker-activists from being fired during organizing campaigns—something that’s technically illegal now, but employers do it all the time anyway, facing few penalties. The PRO Act creates penalties with real teeth. 

Under the current system, workers regularly face captive audience meetings in which they’re barraged with anti-union messaging and speaking out can put a target on them. The PRO Act would ban such meetings and allow union organizers to contact workers at their work email accounts (unless there was a strong business reason against it). The bill would also force companies to disclose what anti-union consultants they’ve hired. Delay is a common tactic to intimidate workers (often by firing outspokenly pro-union workers); the PRO Act would streamline the process and give workers more of a say in what their bargaining unit would look like.

These provisions would have made a significant difference in the Amazon organizing drive, as Brandon Magner writes at Jacobin. Amazon wouldn’t have been able to hold the many captive audience meetings it did hold. It wouldn’t have been able to force a vote by virtually all the workers in the building in one bargaining unit rather than accepting the significantly smaller bargaining unit the workers wanted. The election would have been held with much less delay and with the option of electronic voting. 

Once workers do vote to join a union, employers frequently continue using delay as a tactic. They drag their feet on bargaining a contract, they refuse to negotiate in good faith, they lock out workers or unilaterally impose their own proposals. The PRO Act would prevent those things, including with a mediation and arbitration process for first contract negotiations and a ban on “offensive lockouts” in which an employer declares that bargaining is at an impasse and locks out workers to put pressure on them.

And the PRO Act repeals state “right to work” laws, which weaken unions by allowing workers to freeload on their union coworkers, refusing to pay even a fee to cover the costs of their representation, which the union must nonetheless provide even for nonmembers.

But about that provision that’s drawing controversy from unexpected places:

Markos recently wrote about—and invited a guest writer to expand on—concerns that the inclusion of the so-called ABC test in the PRO Act would hurt freelancers. ABC is a test used to determine whether someone is an employee or a legitimate independent contractor. In the PRO Act, it would be used for assessing whether people had the right to organize as workers at a company; Markos, however, points to concerns that if the ABC test is made federal law for one purpose involving freelancers, it will be a slippery slope to its use for other purposes.

Opposition to this provision of the PRO Act is very sincerely coming from some freelancers concerned for their ability to make a living, following the failure of California’s AB5 to carve out an adequate exemption for their work when that law—since repealed by Proposition 22—used the ABC test to determine employment status much more broadly. But the opposition is also coming, Alex Press reports, from organizations like the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and others who are less concerned for the rights and livelihood of freelance writers than they are with opposing any bill that might give unions or worker organizing efforts any additional leverage.

The Authors Guild, which supports collective bargaining rights for freelancers, earlier echoed the concerns expressed by Markos and Kim Kavin, writing that it “does not agree that it is the right test to determine whether creative freelancers have the right to collectively bargain” and was drafting alternative language for amendments to the act. However, the Authors Guild is now supporting the PRO Act, planning a webinar on the bill that will “address misinformation fanned online about how the PRO Act would ‘nationalize’ California’s AB5 law and make freelance writers employees—which in reality is not the case.”

The AFL-CIO and Economic Policy Institute (EPI) argue those concerns are misplaced. The EPI spells out what the PRO Act does and doesn’t do with regard to freelancers and independent contractors: “The PRO Act would provide workers with the right to join unions and band together no matter where they live if they are deemed employees because the legislation would be federally regulated and enforced.” However, “The Act would not impact rules or laws in states that determine whether workers are employees or independent contractors for the purposes of determining a workers’ state income tax status or whether they’re entitled to workers’ compensation benefits or unemployment benefits.” That’s what’s in this act, and while some opponents of the ABC test have argued that putting it into federal law in this context would create a slippery slope to laws replicating AB5, the reality is that there are few slippery slopes to new labor laws in the U.S.

The National Writers Union and its Freelance Solidarity Project agree, supporting the PRO Act in part because “Under current labor law, freelancers can form unions like ours, but our attempts to organize are not protected—and employers are even able to file legal charges against us for some of the very same activity protected for our W-2 colleagues. This means we are forced to walk a very narrow line, and in some cases avoid certain types of organizing and advocacy entirely. The PRO Act would change this, and make it easier for us to exercise our civil rights to come together for our common good.”

Again, though, wherever you come down on this specific provision in the bill, it’s a small part of a larger law to strengthen workers’ right to organize, a right that exists in law already but in practice is constantly compromised and under attack. It would benefit workers in Amazon warehouses, and in hospitals and nursing homes and meatpacking plants. 

The political reality, of course, is that while the PRO Act has passed the House, it is not going to get through a Senate in which the filibuster is intact. Filibuster reform or abolition is the prerequisite to getting almost anything done for workers, from raising the minimum wage to passing this bill. 

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on April 2, 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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How Employers Punish Workers for Forming Unions

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Workers at Solvay’s Pasadena, Texas, plant voted overwhelmingly to join the United Steelworkers (USW) in 2017 and looked forward to sitting down with the company to quickly negotiate a fair contract.

Solvay decided to play games instead.

Company representatives canceled some bargaining sessions at the last minute, took two-hour lunches on days they did show up, dithered for weeks over the union’s proposals and pulled every stunt imaginable to drag out the talks and frustrate the workers into giving up.

“They were angry that we actually had the audacity—in their mind—to challenge them with a union. This was their way of getting back at us,” said USW Local 13-227 President Steve “Tote” Toto, noting the spiteful antics cost him precious time with his wife, Mary, who was dying of pancreatic cancer about 1,500 miles away.

The U.S. House just passed bipartisan legislation to end shenanigans like this and help ensure that workers achieve the fair contracts they earned.

The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which faces an uphill battle in the Senate because of a lack of Republican support, would better protect workers from illegal bullying and retaliation during the organizing process.

And once workers vote to form a union, the PRO Act would set timelines for progress toward a contract and impose mediation and binding arbitration when employers stall and delay.

Although Toto and his coworkers achieved an agreement in January 2019—after more than a year of fighting—corporate foot-dragging on contract talks continues to worsen nationwide.

Right now, companies resort to stall tactics so often that about half of all workers who organize still lack a contract one year later. Worse, 37 percent of workers in newly formed private-sector unions have no agreement after two years. And some continue fighting for a first agreement long after that.

The PRO Act, which President Joe Biden hails as essential for leveling the playing field for workers and rebuilding the middle class, will spur employers to show up at the bargaining table and reach agreements as expeditiously as possible.

That’s exactly what would have helped Toto and his colleagues four years ago.

The workers at Solvay organized to obtain safer working conditions and a voice at the chemical plant, recalled Toto, who relocated to Pasadena after the company closed the Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania, facility where he originally worked. His wife, already battling cancer, remained in the couple’s Philadelphia area home to be in comfortable surroundings and to stay close to her doctors.

Talks stretched out month after month as Solvay’s negotiators refused to schedule regular bargaining sessions, made onerous proposals solely intended to bog down the discussions and even balked at excusing workers for jury duty. But nothing infuriated union members as much as finding the company’s chief negotiator asleep one day in a room where he had ostensibly gone to study union proposals.

“It’s about discouraging you,” Toto said of the company’s ploys. “It’s about breaking you down. It was also frustrating for me because it was taking time away from the last year I had with my wife.”

Just like Toto and his colleagues, workers at the Bishop Noa Home in Escanaba, Michigan, made modest demands that they expected to speedily resolve at the bargaining table.

Yet more than three years after voting to join the USW, the 55 certified nursing assistants and dietary, environmental services and laundry workers continue fighting for a contract even as they put their lives on the line to care for the facility’s residents during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The home refuses to accept the workers’ choice to organize. It brought in a union-busting attorney who belittles workers at the bargaining table, makes unreasonable proposals, spurns efforts to bring the parties together and drags out talks to try to break the workers’ morale.

Marcia Hardy, a dietary worker who has dedicated 35 years to Bishop Noa, said she and other negotiating committee members repeatedly made good-faith compromises that they felt certain would speed talks along.

“That didn’t happen,” she said, noting the home not only rebuffed the workers’ goodwill but refused to budge from its own proposals.

“They don’t want to have to answer to anybody but themselves,” Hardy said of the facility’s efforts to silence workers. “They will not give that up for anything. It’s just so disheartening because you’ve put your heart and soul into the place.”

Throughout the pandemic, workers have been putting in extra hours, taking on additional responsibilities and serving as surrogate family members to residents cut off from loved ones, all so Bishop Noa can continue providing a top level of care. And although a contract would afford opportunities for building on that record of excellence, Hardy said, Bishop Noa prefers to wage war on workers instead.

She and her colleagues, who have widespread community support, will keep fighting for the agreement they earned. “If I give up,” Hardy said, “they win.”

Solvay, Bishop Noa and other employers that drag out negotiations squander resources that could be better used to provide safe working conditions, serve customers or otherwise improve operations.

Toto said workers want to put contract talks behind them and “live our lives.” And he predicted that the PRO Act would hold employers’ feet to the fire and finally force them to approach contract talks with the urgency the task requires.

“It puts accountability back at the bargaining table,” Toto said. “The job is to go in there and get it done in a timely fashion.”

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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‘A creature of white supremacy’: AFL-CIO targets filibuster

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The AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest federation of unions, called on Democrats Thursday to reform the filibuster, the Senate rule standing in the way of enactment of some of their top priorities for the Biden administration.

“The very survival of our democratic republic is at stake. And standing in its way is an archaic Senate procedure that allows the minority to block the majority—the filibuster,” the AFL-CIO’s executive board said in a statement. “An artifact of Jim Crow. A creature of white supremacy. A procedure that was said to encourage robust debate but has turned into an instrument of government paralysis.”

POLITICO was the first to report the effort.

The labor federation’s lobbying could move the needle significantly on efforts to weaken or eliminate the filibuster, as President Joe Biden — a self-described union man — has firmly aligned himself with the labor movement, a large fundraising source for Democrats. Biden, a former longtime senator, has so far not endorsed efforts to get rid of the filibuster, with the White House saying his “preference” is to keep it.

The AFL-CIO’s statement didn’t suggest any specific changes.

The group’s executive council discussed the issue during meetings this week and was planning on speaking out to reaffirm its past stance against the filibuster, sources told POLITICO prior to the statement’s release.

“The abuse of the filibuster doesn’t just threaten our progressive agenda; it threatens our democracy and must be challenged,” the powerful union federation said in a statement in 2010, shortly after a union-backed labor reform bill, The Employee Free Choice Act, failed to gain enough Democrats to overcome a Senate filibuster in 2009.

At the time, the union federation’s executive council called on the Senate “to reform and democratize its procedures and rules.”

But this statement is much more forceful, deriding the filibuster as “a tool used by those seeking to preserve the social, economic and political status quo, that the AFL-CIO has long opposed, as a matter of principle as undemocratic and rooted in racism.”

Already, Biden has demonstrated the influence that organized labor has on his administration, nominating a former union president to be his Labor secretary, firing former Trump officials from the National Labor Relations Board, and releasing a video in support of workers organizing in Alabama.


The new president also has pledged to see the pro-union PRO Act — which would broadly expand workers’ ability to organize — enacted and to more than double the federal minimum wage to $15, which organized labor has sought for years.

However, those changes require approval from Congress. Eliminating the Senate rule — which allows unlimited floor discussion on a bill unless 60 senators agree to limit debate — is likely the only way for union-backed measures like the $15 minimum wage and an expansion of collective bargaining rights to pass.

While Democrats control both chambers, the Senate is tied 50-50. Scrapping the filibuster would allow Democrats to pass legislation through the Senate with just a simple majority of 51 votes, with Vice President Kamala Harris acting as a tie-breaker.

“I don’t want to hear, ‘Oh my, we don’t have 60 votes, woe is we,’” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told POLITICO last week. “Figure out a way to do it. Let’s figure out a way to do it.”

However, two Democratic senators — Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema — have said they oppose doing away with the filibuster.

Two AFL-CIO affiliates — National Nurses United and International Union of Painters and Allied Trades — had already released public statements against the filibuster ahead of the union federation’s move Thursday. 

House passage of the PRO Act Tuesday provided an impetus for unions to come forward. The legislation, which advanced mostly along party lines, would make it easier for workers to form and join unions by empowering the NLRB to levy fines on employers and by extending collective bargaining rights to independent contractors, among other things. Its lack of Republican support — the vast majority of GOP lawmakers deride it as anti-business — means it is extremely unlikely to win the 60 votes in the Senate needed for passage.

A coalition of groups, including IUPAT, Communication Workers of America and progressive organizations such as the Sunrise Movement, are planning to launch a mobilization campaign in support of the PRO Act in the coming weeks targeted at swing-state senators, said a person familiar with the effort.

NNU called for abolition of the filibuster ahead of Tuesday’s vote, calling it “an undemocratic rule that has long been used to block legislation that has widespread public support and is in the broad public interest.”

“It is a sad reality that the Republican leadership used the filibuster to make the Senate almost ungovernable during the prior Democratic administration, and it threatens to act in a similar manner today,” NNU President Jean Ross said in a statement. “We cannot let the minority hold our democracy hostage.”

In addition to the PRO Act and the minimum wage, eliminating the filibuster would also allow potential passage of health care reform, voting rights reform, and workplace violence protections, among other things, NNU said.

IUPAT joined NNU’s stance on Wednesday.

“The time is now for the United States Senate to stop hiding behind arcane rules that have prevented pro-worker legislation from being passed for decades,” the union said in a statement. “Our union has been spearheading the campaign to pass the PRO Act and we are willing to do whatever it takes to ensure its passage — not just for our 160,000 members, but for the 90% of US workers who are not afforded the protection of a union.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on March 11, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.

About the Author: Holly Otterbein is a reporter for POLITICO Pro.

About the Author: Eleanor Mueller is a legislative reporter for POLITICO Pro, covering policy passing through Congress. She also authors Day Ahead, POLITICO Pro’s daily newsletter rounding up Capitol Hill goings-on.


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The Filibuster Is a Labor Issue

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On Tuesday, the House passed the PRO Act, the sweeping labor law reform bill that would re-energize unions in America. If it were to become law. Which it will not, as long as the filibuster remains in place in the Senate. The situation now is very simple: destroying the filibuster is a labor issue. 

The Senate, an anti-democratic institution by design that exists to squash the dreams of the majority of our nation’s citizens, is evenly split, controlled by Democrats by only a single vote. It currently takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, meaning that ten Republicans would have to join all of the Democrats to push through the PRO Act. There is zero chance of this happening. (Frankly, I doubt that every Senate Democrat would even line up behind the PRO Act if the Chamber of Commerce lobbyists really started putting the screws on them, but that is purely academic at this point.) On top of that, it is hard to imagine any Congressional election in the coming decades that would change the composition of the Senate enough to allow the bill to pass with the filibuster in place. The PRO Act is not bullshit?—?it is serious, historic, pro-worker reform. That is something that is not now and will never be an issue that a large chunk of Republican senators will flock to support. The donors who pay to elect Republican senators, as a rule, are spending money to prevent a bill like this from ever passing. 

So here is where we are: A) Organized labor went all out to get Joe Biden and a Democratic Congress in place, and they know they are owed payback; B) The PRO Act is labor’s highest priority; and C) The PRO Act has virtually no chance of becoming law as long as the filibuster stays in place. To be very gauche and transactional about all of this, words from Senate Democrats now about how pro-union they are do not mean anything at all if they are not accompanied by a commitment to end the filibuster. I would venture to say that it is time to start painting Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema, the two most outspoken Democrats committed to preserving the filibuster, as anti-union. They will certainly protest, but reality tells its own truth. We need the PRO Act. There is only one way to get it. Being unwilling to do something completely within their power to get the bill passed is indistinguishable from being against the bill. And if you’re against the bill, you are not pro-union. 

The filibuster is a barrier to progress in worker rights, just like union-busting law firms and greedy bosses are. A barrier is a barrier is a barrier. It is absurd to treat this barrier as sacrosanct, and then declare that you are, nevertheless, strongly in support of doing the thing that the barrier is preventing. Get real!

The AFL-CIO’s executive board is meeting this week, and they are considering the possibility of taking a formal position on the filibuster. They should. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka has said ?“The PRO Act is our litmus test,” which should imply that opposition to the filibuster is a litmus test as well. At this point, eliminating the filibuster is part and parcel of the progressive reforms that we are all trying to get passed. Claiming to support the PRO Act, or a strong green infrastructure bill, or the voting rights bill, without supporting the end of the filibuster, is like claiming to support going into a building but refusing to open the door. Assuming that you don’t enjoy banging your head against the wall endlessly, you must do one in order to do the other. 

It’s good that major unions are running publicity campaigns touting the PRO Act. It will also go down as a lot of wasted effort if we are not able to do away with the filibuster, as it seems rather futile to do all this work to promote a bill that will just languish in a Senate drawer. Ending the filibuster is a labor fight. It is an environmental fight. It is a healthcare fight. It is equivalent to the substance of all these issues themselves, because it is the thing that enables them to happen. There is a coalition to be built on this issue?—?of every progressive in America who wants tangible gains in the next two years?—?that is broad and powerful enough to push the Democratic Party where it needs to go. 

Any Senate Democrats who don’t like this ultimatum should consider themselves to be on the other side of working people. And we should be sure to tell them that, loudly. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on March 10, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere.


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AFL-CIO to explore taking a stance on eliminating filibuster

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The AFL-CIO’s executive board will meet next week to determine its position on eliminating the filibuster, the labor federation’s president, Richard Trumka, told POLITICO Thursday.

Two of organized labor’s highest priorities in Congress — boosting the minimum wage to $15 an hour and legislation containing a long list of union priorities known as the PRO Act — are unlikely to garner the 60 votes needed for passage in the Senate.

“There are several ways to get them done,” Trumka said. Ending the filibuster “is one of them.”

“And quite frankly, we — we being my executive board — are going to have a discussion about that next Wednesday,” he said. “We’re going to have that discussion [about] where we ought to be on that very issue.”

If organized labor coalesces around overturning the filibuster, a priority for many progressives, it could give the movement significant momentum. A major ally of Democrats and the president’s election campaign, unions have seen early success in lobbying the Biden White House. Unions pressed Biden, after weeks of silence, to speak out on a high-stakes union election at an Amazon factory in Alabama — which some say was the most pro-union statement a president has ever made.”

The Raise the Wage Act, which Democrats had been hoping to clear as part of President Joe Biden’s coronavirus relief bill, would hike the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025 and eliminate the subminimum wage for workers who earn tips. But the Senate parliamentarian last week ruled the wage provisions ineligible for enactment via the budget reconciliation process Democrats are using to shield the relief legislation from a GOP filibuster in the Senate.

The PRO Act would dramatically expand workers’ ability to join and form unions, including by empowering the National Labor Relations Board to levy fines on employers who retaliate against workers for attempting to organize, and by extending collective bargaining rights to more workers.

“The PRO Act is our litmus test,” Trumka said. “It has to get done.”

“I don’t want to hear, ‘Oh my, we don’t have 60 votes, woe is we.’ Figure out a way to do it. Let’s figure out a way to do it.”

The White House is weighing whether to compromise with Republicans — who recently offered their own, scaled-down minimum wage hike — in order to get a raise enacted once Congress passes its Covid relief bill. But asked if he would be willing to back down from $15 an hour, Trumka was blunt: “I’m not willing to move from it.”

“I think that’s the absolute minimum that’s necessary to dignify people, reward work and help a family get out of poverty,” he said. “The easiest path forward would be for [Republicans] to come to their senses and say, ‘$15 by 2025.'”

In addition to eliminating the filibuster, the labor federation will also explore whether Democrats can “find another bill that the Republicans want and append” the wage increase to it, Trumka said, “or do three or four other kinds of machinations that we can do.”

Rebecca Rainey contributed to this report.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on March 4, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Eleanor Mueller is a legislative reporter for POLITICO Pro, covering policy passing through Congress. She also authors Day Ahead, POLITICO Pro’s daily newsletter rounding up Capitol Hill goings-on.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.


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Why U.S. Labor Laws Need a Major Update—The PRO Act Is a Great Start

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When workers at Orchid Orthopedic Solutions tried to form a union, the company quickly brought in five full-time union-busters to torment them day and night.

The hired guns saturated the Bridgeport, Michigan, plant with anti-union messages, publicly belittled organizers, harangued workers on the shop floor and asked them how they’d feed their families if the plant closed.

The months of endless bullying took their toll, as the company intended, and workers voted against forming the union just to bring the harassment to an end.

“Fear was their main tactic,” recalled Duane Forbes, one of the workers, noting the union-busters not only threatened the future of the plant but warned that the company would eliminate his colleagues’ jobs and health care during a labor dispute. “Fear is the hardest thing to overcome.”

Legislation now before Congress would ensure that corporations never trample workers’ rights like this again.

The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, introduced on February 4, will free Americans to build better lives and curtail the scorched-earth campaigns that employers wage to keep unions out at any cost.

The PRO Act, backed by President Joe Biden and pro-worker majorities in the House and the Senate, will impose stiff financial penalties on companies that retaliate against organizers and require the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to fast-track legal proceedings for workers suspended or fired for union activism. It also empowers workers to file their own civil lawsuits against employers that violate their labor rights.

The legislation will bar employers from permanently replacing workers during labor disputes, eliminating a threat that companies like Orchid Orthopedic often use to thwart organizing campaigns.

And the PRO Act will empower the NLRB to force corporations into bargaining with workers if they interfere in union drives. That means an end to the mandatory town hall meetings that employers regularly use to disparage organized labor and hector workers into voting against unions.

Orchid Orthopedic’s union-busters forced Forbes and his colleagues into hour-long browbeating sessions once or twice a week for months—and that was on top of the daily, one-on-one bullying the workers endured on the production floor.

“There was nowhere to go,” Forbes, who’s worked at Orchid Orthopedic for 22 years, said of the relentless intimidation. “You couldn’t just go to work and do your job anymore.”

growing number of Americans, many of whom saw unions step up to protect members during the COVID-19 pandemic, seek the safe working conditions and other protections they can only achieve by organizing.

That includes Forbes and his colleagues, who endured years of benefit cuts but still put their lives on the line for the company during the pandemic.

They launched an organizing drive to secure a voice in the workplace. They also sought job protections to prevent the company from discarding them “like a broken hammer”—as one worker, Mike Bierlein, put it—when it’s done with them.

But as more Americans seek the benefits of union membership, employers’ escalating attacks on labor rights make the PRO Act ever more important.

Corporations drop hundreds of millions of dollars every year on “union-avoidance consultants”—like the ones Forbes and Bierlein encountered—to coach them on how to thwart organizing drives.

The higher the stakes, the dirtier employers play. Tech giants Google and Amazon used their vast technology and wealth to propel union-busting to a new level.

Google not only electronically spied on workers it suspected of having union sympathies, but rigged its computer systems to prevent them from sharing calendars and virtual meeting rooms.

Amazon developed plans for special software to track unions and other so-called “threats” to the company’s well-being. In Alabama, where thousands of Amazon warehouse workers just began voting on whether to unionize, the company showed anti-union videos and PowerPoints at mandatory town hall meetings, posted propaganda in bathroom stalls and sent multiple harassing text messages to every worker every day.

“It really opened my eyes to what’s going on,” Bierlein, who’s worked at Orchid Orthopedic for 18 years, said of the unfair tactics his company employed against organizers. “The deck is stacked against workers.”

The PRO Act will help to level the playing field and arrest the decades-long erosion of labor rights that significantly accelerated under the previous, anti-worker presidential administration.

It will require employers to post notices informing workers of their labor rights, helping to ensure managers respect the law. The legislation will enable prospective union members to vote on union representation on neutral sites instead of workplaces where the threat of coercion looms.

And the PRO Act will make it more difficult for employers to deliberately misclassify employees as contractors with fewer labor rights. That change will give millions of gig workers, including those driving for shared-ride and food-delivery companies, the opportunity to form unions and fight for better futures.

Right now, employers often stall negotiations for a first contract to punish workers for organizing or frustrate them into giving up. The PRO Act will curb these abuses by requiring mediation and binding arbitration when companies drag talks out.

Orchid Orthopedic’s campaign of intimidation and deception lasted until the very end of the union drive.

As the vote on organizing neared, Forbes said, the company promised it would treat workers better in the future if they decided against the union.

Instead, after the vote fell short, the company quickly increased the cost of spousal health insurance. That left Forbes more convinced than ever that workers need changes like those promised in the PRO Act to seize control of their destinies.

“I’m all about right and wrong,” Forbes said, “and the way we were treated was wrong.”

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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Transforming the Labor Landscape: The Working People Weekly List

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Every week, we bring you a roundup of the top news and commentary about issues and events important to working families. Here’s the latest edition of the Working People Weekly List.

The PRO Act Could Transform the Labor Landscape: “Joe Biden promised to be the most pro-union president in modern history. He has a chance to prove it by passing the PRO Act, a sweeping labor law reform bill. As Joe Biden enters the White House with slim majorities in the House and Senate, organized labor is making a concerted push for a major piece of legislation: the PRO Act. The bill is a wide-ranging labor law reform that would help workers fight back after decades of retreat in the face of aggressive employers. The AFL-CIO recently declared the PRO Act one of its top priorities. The International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) is leading the push for the PRO Act. The painters’ union organized its electoral work around the bill and has been holding public events on the legislation. Now, IUPAT is building up allies as it prepares to push the new presidential administration and Congress to pass the act.”

What Biden and Congress Can Do to Support Unions: “In the last Congress, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the U.S. House of Representatives passed the most significant worker empowerment legislation since the Great Depression by creating a much fairer process for forming a union. It is called the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act. After an anti-worker majority blocked it in the Senate, reintroducing the PRO Act, passing it in both chambers of Congress and getting Biden’s signature is vital to our economic recovery. The PRO Act would protect and empower workers to exercise their freedom to organize and bargain. It would make sure that workers can reach a first contract quickly after a union is recognized, end employers’ practice of hiring permanent replacements to punish striking workers and finally hold corporations accountable by strengthening the National Labor Relations Board and allowing it to impose penalties on employers who retaliate against collective bargaining. It would also repeal so-called ‘right to work’ laws, which make it harder for working people to form unions and collectively bargain for better wages, benefits and working conditions.”

Activision Blizzard Says Interviewing Diverse Candidates for Every Opening ‘Unworkable’: “Activision Blizzard is looking to avoid a shareholder proposal that it interview at least one diverse candidate when it hires for a position, according to a Vice report. The proposal was made separately to both Activision Blizzard and Electronic Arts by the AFL-CIO labor federation, which owns shares in both publishers. The proposal was based on the NFL’s Rooney Rule, adopted in 2003 to require all of the football league’s teams to interview at least one diverse candidate for every head coaching vacancy. It was later expanded to include vacancies for general managers and similar front office positions. In its letters to the publishers, the AFL-CIO argued for the adoption of the rule, saying, ‘A diverse workforce at all levels of a company can enhance long-term company performance.'”

Local Union Halls Opening Up to Provide Space for Vaccinations: “Community organizations with space are stepping up to make room so more people in Lucas County can be vaccinated. Press conferences, job fairs and union organizing have all brought WTOL 11 to UAW Local 12’s hall, but now they’re preparing to administer 300 vaccines to eligible people in Lucas County on Tuesday.”

Health Care Unions Find a Voice in the Pandemic: “Health care workers say they have been bitterly disappointed by their employers’ and government agencies’ response to the pandemic. Dire staff shortages, inadequate and persistent supplies of protective equipment, limited testing for the virus and pressure to work even if they might be sick have left many workers turning to the unions as their only ally. The virus has claimed the lives of more than 3,300 health care workers nationwide, according to one count. ‘We wouldn’t be alive today if we didn’t have the union,’ said Elizabeth Lalasz, a Chicago public hospital nurse and steward for National Nurses United. The country’s largest union of registered nurses, representing more than 170,000 nationwide, National Nurses was among the first to criticize hospitals’ lack of preparation and call for more protective equipment, like N95 masks. Despite the decades-long decline in the labor movement and the small numbers of unionized nurses, labor officials have seized on the pandemic fallout to organize new chapters and pursue contract talks for better conditions and benefits. National Nurses organized seven new bargaining units last year, compared to four in 2019.”

Biden Toughens Buy American Rules: “‘The Trump administration used the right words but never put in place policies to affect meaningful change,’ Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, said in a statement. ‘This executive order will close loopholes that allow agencies to sidestep Buy American requirements… [and] is a good first step in revitalizing U.S. manufacturing.'”

The Unfinished Story of Women at Work: 9to5 Yesterday, Today the PRO Act: “If you’ve never had to make coffee for your boss, it’s thanks to women who organized in the 1970s. And while the electric typewriter is no more, how women of that era organized is relevant—to current battles like organizing Big Tech, building care infrastructure and winning labor reform by passing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act—so women can form and join unions now without fear. A new documentary, ‘9to5: The Story of a Movement,’ captures the history of an organization started by a group of secretaries in the 1970s, and their sister union, SEIU District 925, and offers powerful insight for us today.”

Mask Fights and a ‘Mob Mentality’: What Flight Attendants Faced Over the Last Year: “Aviation safety officials have received dozens of confidential complaints in the past year from attendants trying to enforce mask safety rules. The reports, filed in the Aviation Safety Reporting System database, at times describe a chaotic, unhinged workplace where passengers regularly abuse airline employees. The tension is at a level flight attendants have not seen before, said Paul Hartshorn Jr., a veteran attendant and a spokesman for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants union. ‘I think we’re pretty well trained on how to handle a disruptive passenger,’ said Mr. Hartshorn, 46. ‘What we’re not trained to do and what we shouldn’t be dealing with is large groups of passengers inciting a riot with another group of passengers.'”

Biden’s ‘Buy American’ Manufacturing Order Called ‘Good First Step’ by Labor: “‘This executive order will close loopholes that allow agencies to sidestep Buy American requirements and increase the thresholds for domestic content,’ said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in a statement. ‘This order is a good first step in revitalizing U.S. manufacturing, which [President Donald] Trump’s policies failed to do over the past four years,’ Trumka said. The order will modify the rules for the Buy American program, reports the Associated Press, making it harder for contractors to qualify for a waiver and sell foreign-made goods to federal agencies. And it changes rules so that more of a manufactured product’s components must originate from U.S. factories.”

Amazon Union Drive Takes Hold in Unlikely Place: “The largest, most viable effort to unionize Amazon in many years began last summer not in a union stronghold like New York or Michigan, but at a Fairfield Inn outside of Birmingham, in the right-to-work state of Alabama. It was late in the summer and a group of employees from a nearby Amazon warehouse contacted an organizer in the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. They were fed up, they said, with the way the online retailer tracked their productivity, and wanted to discuss unionizing. ‘The pandemic changed the way many people feel about their employers,’ said Stuart Appelbaum, the retail union’s president. ‘Many workers see the benefit of having a collective voice.’ ‘I am telling them they are part of a movement that is world wide,” said Michael Foster, a Black organizer in Bessemer, who works in a poultry plant ‘I want them to know that we are important and we do matter.'”

NFL Players Endorse Amazon Warehouse Workers Unionization: “Amazon warehouse workers at the facility in Bessemer, Alabama will begin voting on what could become the first union in the technology giant’s history on February 8. The National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), the union that represents more than 2,000 NFL players in the United States, has endorsed a union drive at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, where workers are scheduled to begin voting in a historic union election on February 8. On Sunday, the NFLPA released a video on Twitter, where current and former NFL players, discussed the importance of union representation in improving their own wages, benefits, and working conditions, and how a union could do the same for Amazon employees.”

Labor Groups Push Biden Administration on Union-Friendly Priorities: “‘Robb’s removal is the first step toward giving workers a fair shot again, and we look forward to building on this victory by securing a worker-friendly NLRB and passing the PRO Act so all working people have the freedom to form a union,’ Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, said in a statement Wednesday.”

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on January 29, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell  is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.


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Union Density Went Up Last Year! Don’t Get Too Excited.

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Last week, labor unions got some uncommonly good news: The government’s annual survey showed that union density in America actually rose by a full half point in 2020, a rare reversal of a long-term trend of decline. Should unions be celebrating their work? Actually, no! 

Union density?—?the percentage of working people who are union members?—?has been broadly declining for decades. At its high point in the 1950s, about a third of American workers were union members. By the 1980s, it had fallen to about a fifth. And now, it is down to barely more than a tenth. This long-term trend is the single biggest problem facing unions in America. If they do not turn it around, they will die out, or shrink down into single-digit numbers that will render unions (more) unable to exert meaningful strength on behalf of the working class. Raising union density, in other words, is an absolutely vital task that unions fail at year after year. 

So you can imagine that seeing the Bureau of Labor Statistics say in its yearly report last week that ?“the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of unions?—?the union membership rate?—?was 10.8 percent, up by 0.5 percentage point from 2019” was big news for unions. Indeed, the AFL-CIO declared that ?“We believe this increase is part of a national groundswell.” In the midst of a terrible pandemic, with widespread unemployment, union density actually rose. Victory! Success! Vindication at last! 

But hold on there. Here was another fact in the BLS’s annual numbers: ?“The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions, at 14.3 million in 2020, was down by 321,000, or 2.2 percent, from 2019.” So while union density went up, the total numberof union members went down. Put a hold on all the party favors, please. What’s going on here? 

As Heidi Shierholz, a labor economist and the director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute explained to me, two factors at work in 2020 created this weird disparity. One is what she calls the ?“pandemic composition effect,” which means that the industries that lost the most jobs last year thanks to the pandemic were industries that tended to have low unionization rates?—?bars, restaurants, hospitality, etcetera. The second factor was that unionized workers were less likely to lose their jobs than non-union workers in the same industry. Each of those two factors was responsible for about half of the increase in union density. So even as hundreds of thousands of union jobs were lost, union members were less impacted than the economy as a whole, which produced the mathematical trick of an appearance of progress. (It is worth noting, too, that assuming that jobs come back to the same hard-hit industries when the pandemic is over, that will serve to dilute and reduce last year’s union density gains.) 

“I don’t want to act like this was a good year for unions. This was a really bad year in the labor market across the board. Everyone got hit hard,” Shierholz said. ?“But the main message was that non-union members got hit harder than union members.”

The honest takeaways for unions in 2020 are these: 

1. Unions demonstrated their value, by helping to protect their existing members from job losses. 

2. Whatever new organizing unions did in 2020 was not even close to the amount necessary to balance out the number of union members that were lost. 

3. Nothing that happened in 2020 indicates that unions have a functional ability to turn around their long-term decline. 

Every year, when the BLS union numbers come out, the union establishment rushes to issue press releases putting some positive spin on them, no matter how depressing they might be. This actually hurts the cause. We need brutal honesty. That is the only way to instill the appropriate amount of urgency in the wounded labor movement. It would be nice, for once, to hear the AFL-CIO say something like, ?“Unions proved their value in 2020. But our membership numbers are still heading in the wrong direction. It is absolutely vital we turn those numbers around. Here is our plan for doing so.” 

The closest that Richard Trumka came to doing that this year was to call for passing the PRO Act, which would wonderfully reform labor law. Yeah, that would be great. But guess what? This Congress is not going to pass the PRO Act. So please?—?let’s make a better plan before next year’s numbers come out. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 28, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. 


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The Labor Movement Has a Game Plan for the Biden Era

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As the Democrats take control of the White House and both houses of Congress amid overlapping national crises, labor leaders say it is now more critical than ever that Washington deliver significant material gains for the working class.

Democrats partly owe their recent electoral victories in places like Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Georgia to the extensive get-out-the-vote efforts of unions like UNITE HERE and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which reached millions of Black and Latino voters. 

After defeating Donald Trump and the Republicans at the polls, the labor movement does not intend to rest on its laurels.

“We’re not going to stop the campaign just because the election is done,” D. Taylor, international president of UNITE HERE, told In These Times. ?“We have to hold Democrats accountable. We will go to the same voters they made promises to and point out whether they have lived up to those promises or not. They can no longer blame the Republicans. It’s right on their shoulders.”

President Joe Biden, who calls himself a ?“union guy,” has signaled his intention to work with organized labor by tapping Boston mayor Marty Walsh to be his Labor Secretary. A former official in the Laborers’ Union Local 223, Walsh was the AFL-CIO’s preferred choice for the Cabinet position, though many progressive unionists and Transport Workers Union president John Samuelson wanted Sen. Bernie Sanders in the role. 

Further, in his proposed $1.9 trillion Covid relief package, Biden has included a provision to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour?—?something service sector workers led by SEIU and other unions have famously been fighting for since 2012. 

Besides delivering immediate economic relief and getting the pandemic under control, labor leaders want the Biden administration to quickly reverse the various anti-worker measures that Trump and his Department of Labor enacted, like reducing the number of workers eligible for overtime pay and restricting the collective bargaining rights of federal employees. 

They are also counting on the new president to appoint union-friendly members to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). There is one vacancy on the Board right now, and another is set to open in August when the term of one of the current Republican members is set to expire. That means, assuming Biden makes nominations that swiftly get confirmed by the Senate, Democrats should hold a majority on the Board by late summer.

In the meantime, unions like SEIU are pressuring Biden to immediately fire NLRB general counsel Peter Robb?—?a notorious union buster appointed by Trump. 

In his powerful position at the Board, Robb has worked to make sure McDonald’s can’t be held legally responsible for labor violations carried out by its franchises, attacked neutrality agreements that restrict employer interference in unionization drives, and even tried to outlaw Scabby the Rat.

“Swift action is required. Robb must go,” SEIU president Mary Kay Henry tweeted last week.

In addition to making demands on Biden, labor leaders are also seeking bold moves from lawmakers on Capitol Hill. 

“While there are immediate actions that Joe Biden and his Department of Labor can take to support worker organizing and to protect collective action, the transformative change we need requires action by Congress,” said Sara Steffens, secretary-treasurer of the Communications Workers of America (CWA).

The CWA is part of a growing coalition of unions, state labor federations, worker centers, and progressive groups led by the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) that is mobilizing to ensure Congress passes the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act.

The PRO Act would dramatically reform private sector labor law by removing the many corporate-friendly legal obstacles to unionizing and striking. Publicly supported by Biden and Walsh, the legislation was passed last year by the Democratic-led House of Representatives, only to go nowhere in the Republican-dominated Senate. 

In the aftermath of the November election and Georgia runoff, the IUPAT-led coalition has launched a campaign pushing for passage of the bill.

In 2009, the last time Democrats simultaneously controlled both houses of Congress and the White House, they failed to accomplish a similar attempt at labor law reform?—?the Employee Free Choice Act?—?despite campaigning on a promise to pass it. Union leaders are aiming to avoid a repeat of that disappointment.

“The labor movement should be doing something we didn’t do the last time around, and that’s push like hell and not expect people who say the right thing to do the right thing,” Taylor said.

“The trap we fell into with the Employee Free Choice Act was taking their support for granted and just waiting to see how the process unfolded,” explained Ryan Kekeris, IUPAT’s communications director. ?“We’re doing the opposite here. We’re calling the question and making this a priority from day one. We’re building a grassroots, decentralized movement that can mobilize people and pressure politicians.”

“We know that if a fight stays in the halls of Washington, D.C., those fights end up losing a lot of the time,” said IUPAT general vice president Jim Williams. ?“We have to take the fight outside of Washington, D.C. and into our congressional districts, into the states, into our communities.”

At a townhall hosted by the IUPAT last Thursday, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said the PRO Act must be brought to Joe Biden’s desk this year ?“come hell or high water.”

“This time has to be different,” Trumka said. ?“We can’t be at the back of the train; we have to be at the front of this train.”

Unionists agree that to have any hope of securing sweeping legislation, partnerships must be forged with other progressive movements, including those organizing around racial justice, immigrant rights, and climate action.

“We need to unite with others who are in motion,” explained Carl Rosen, general president of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE). ?“A big advantage relative to 2009 when Obama came in is there wasn’t nearly the level of mobilized action going on in the country then as there is now.”

A key partner in the IUPAT’s campaign to pass the PRO Act is the youth-led Sunrise Movement, which is at the forefront of the fight for a Green New Deal. 

“We’re definitely serious about the ?‘Green’ part of that, and we’re equally serious the ?‘New Deal’ part,” Lauren Maunus, the Sunrise Movement’s legislative manager and a member of CWA Local 1180, said at last Thursday’s townhall. ?“America needs labor law reform on a scale unseen since the original New Deal.”

Labor leaders stress that it will also be necessary to organize outside of progressive and liberal circles, especially since some 40% of union households voted for Trump.

“We have to get to that section of the working class that we’ve stopped talking to, and that have instead been wooed away by the Right because they haven’t seen any solutions being offered to them,” said Rosen.

“I’m not talking about trying to bring dyed-in-the-wool, super right-wing racist white nationalists over and make them our allies. Far from it,” he added. ?“But they have influence over an awful lot of people because we’ve failed as labor and progressive movements to get an alternative out there for folks to be part of and to feel like it can make a difference for them.”

“Many union members are rightfully skeptical of electoral politics. Many turned to Trump for that very reason?—?he promised a break from politics as usual,” Williams of IUPAT recently wrote for In These Times. ?“For decades, our members have been sold false promises… Our standards of living have fallen and despite promises from Washington, nothing has changed.”

Through organizing conversations with its membership, the IUPAT found that the PRO Act is popular with rank-and-file members across the political spectrum, including those who voted for Trump. ?“This is an issue that unites working people regardless of political party affiliation,” Kekeris said.

Rosen contends that another issue with the potential to win over workers who typically vote Republican is Medicare for All. 

“People like Medicare, including rural and working-class folks who might otherwise be convinced by right-wing propaganda to be anti-government. We need to build on that,” Rosen explained. 

Taylor, whose union’s diverse membership includes people from all over the world, said that comprehensive immigration reform must be ?“front and center.” Biden reportedly plans to send a bill to Congress soon that would offer a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants.

For its part, the Teamsters union is launching a campaign to push for implementation of multiple federal policy priorities, including strengthening pensions and ending the misclassification of workers as ?“independent contractors.”

Beyond mobilizing working-class voters to hold elected officials accountable, unions expect to continue waging workplace struggles to protect workers’ health and safety in the pandemic and to safeguard wages and benefits amid the recession.

As Rand Wilson and Peter Olney recently wrote in Labor Notes, this year alone, 450 collective bargaining agreements covering over 1.5 million union workers will expire, opening the door to contract campaigns and potential strikes that offer ?“an ideal opportunity for the labor movement to showcase our power and the advantages of collective bargaining.”

“It would be very, very good for unions to engage in as many militant workplace-based fights as possible,” Rosen said. ?“In the end, to win serious change in this country, we’re going to have to convince the folks in the capitalist structure that they’re better off giving some concessions to us rather than ignore our protests or attempt to repress them, that they’ve got too much to lose if they don’t give in to some substantial degree.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 20, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke has been a Working In These Times contributor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst. 


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