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On the Picket Line With Striking Miners

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Last Thursday, around 1,100 coal miners at Warrior Met Coal in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, went on strike. According to the union, the United Mine Workers of America, a tentative bargaining agreement has now been reached with the company, but workers must still vote on whether or not to ratify it. 

In order to cover this important strike and spread these workers’ stories, we’ve teamed up with our brothers-in-arms Jacob Morrison, a union organizer and cohost of the outstanding Valley Labor Report, Alabama’s only weekly labor radio talk show, and the incredible musician Lee Bains III of The Glory Fires. Jacob and Lee went down to the Warrior Met Coal picket line this weekend to talk with striking miners, play some music, and show solidarity. In this special episode, we’ve compiled clips from Lee’s live performance as well as Jacob’s interviews on the picket line and at the local UMWA union hall.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on April 8, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Maximillian Alvarez is a writer and editor based in Baltimore and the host of Working People, “a podcast by, for, and about the working class today.” His work has been featured in venues like In These Times, The Nation, The Baffler, Current Affairs, and The New Republic.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Service + Solidarity Spotlight: UMWA Goes on Strike at Alabama’s Warrior Met Coal

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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.

Unless the parties can reach a last-minute agreement, the Mine Workers (UMWA) union is launching its largest strike since the 1990s. UMWA President Cecil Roberts lambasted the company in a press release announcing the strike at Warrior Met Coal in Alabama. “[I]nstead of rewarding the sacrifices and work of the miners, Warrior Met is seeking even further sacrifices from them, while demonstrating perhaps some of the worst labor-management relations we’ve seen in this industry since the days of the company town and company store,” he said. The union explained that workers at Warrior have made significant concessions since 2016 to help bring the company out of bankruptcy.

Roberts said: “We have always been ready to reach a fair agreement that recognizes the sacrifices our members and their families made to keep this company alive. At this point, Warrior Met is not….Despite Warrior Met’s apparent appetite for this conflict, we will prevail.”


This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIOon April 1, 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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Pathway to Progress: The Charleston Hospital Strike

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History has long been portrayed as a series of “great men” taking great action to shape the world we live in. In recent decades, however, social historians have focused more on looking at history “from the bottom up,” studying the vital role that working people played in our heritage. Working people built, and continue to build, the United States. In our new series, Pathway to Progress, we’ll take a look at various people, places and events where working people played a key role in the progress our country has made, including those who are making history right now. Today’s topic is the Charleston hospital strike.

In the late 1960s, Charleston, South Carolina, was NOT primed to be the next city to be a touchstone in either the civil rights movement or the labor movement. Much of the progress and activism seen elsewhere had passed Charleston by. And the White power structure was as equally entrenched against labor unionism as it was against the expansion of Black people’s rights. But the hospital strike of 1969 became as important to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) Poor People’s Campaign and the labor movement as the Montgomery bus boycott would be to the civil rights movement.

After dock workers were rejected in their bid for a union contract, everyone assumed Black hospital workers had absolutely no chance or successfully organizing. Workers at two hospitals, though, had other plans. One of the hospitals was run by the state and the other by the county. Management had reportedly engaged in racially biased behavior, notably preventing Black doctors from working at the hospital for many years.

Local 1199, then associated with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, had experience with organizing in hostile territory. After it organized 34,000 new members in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, it formed a national organizing committee for hospital workers. The local also reached out to the SCLC, one of the most important civil rights organizations, to coordinate on organizing efforts. Nearly 3 million hospital and nursing home employees throughout the country were without union representation, most were Black or Latinx and most were desperately poor. The SCLC launched the Poor People’s Campaign specifically to help out in such situations and so it joined with Local 1199 in forming the National Organizing Committee of Hospital and Nursing Home Employees. Coretta Scott King was named honorary chair and Ralph Abernathy and other SCLC leaders were members of the committee.

The SCLC and Local 1199 trained staff in union organizing methods that were successful in places like Memphis, Tennessee, Atlanta and St. Petersburg. The hospital workers in Charleston weren’t idle, either, as they began organizing meetings with help from the local Black community. Management was led by Dr. William McCord, president of the medical college, which ran the state hospital. After delaying meeting with organizers, McCord fired 12 of them. The reaction was immediate, when 400 workers, including nurses, nurse’s aides, kitchen helpers, laundry workers and orderlies, walked off the job. A week later, workers at the county-run hospital walked out in sympathy. The workers’ demands were clear, rehire the 12 fired workers, recognize the union, increase wages and institute grievance procedures.

McCord was contemptuous. He offered to give Black workers an additional holiday for the birthday of Robert E. Lee. McCord secured an injunction from a segregationist judge that effectively eliminated legal protests. The Black workers rejected the injunction’s validity and began picketing the hospital. Arrests immediately followed. Even worse, vigilantes began assaulting strikers, who had to establish security guards at the picket and around their union hall.

By now, SCLC and Local 1199 staff were on the ground to provide leadership and assistance. Abernathy and other prominent leaders like Andrew Young set up camp in Charleston and sought to bring national attention to the plight of the Black hospital workers. They quickly tied the hospital strike to the larger civil rights movement and connected the strike directly to Martin Luther King Jr., who had been slain in Memphis the previous year while supporting striking sanitation workers. Coretta Scott King said: “If my husband were alive today, he would be in Charleston, South Carolina.”

Charleston faced mass meetings, daily marches, evening rallies and boycotts of stores and schools that didn’t support the strike. The response included daily confrontations with police and local White citizens, and arrests were daily. The governor came out against the strike and sent state troopers and National Guardsman. Arrests were stepped up.

But the strikers didn’t back down and they weren’t intimidated. They showed up, day-after-day, regardless of what was thrown at them, which, by that point, included bayonets, tanks and National Guardsmen patrolling the city’s streets. Coretta Scott King spoke at two local churches and nearly 30% of the city’s Black population showed up. She not only championed the cause of the hospital workers, she appealed for financial assistance, as the union and SCLC were running out of money to sustain the strike. 

King’s request went national. The leaders of civil rights organizations and Black elected officials came together for the first time since Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. The appeal worked. With the help of national ads and television coverage, money began flowing in. Walter Reuther personally joined the demonstrations and donated $10,000. George Meaney and the national AFL-CIO gave another $25,000. Other unions, including White unions, joined the hospital workers on the picket lines. Abernathy was jailed, as were leaders of 1199B, the new designation for the local started by the Charleston hospital workers. 

The opposition to the strike started to fracture. Boycotts brought business activity to a standstill in the city. The business community began to fear a economic disaster and they called for a settlement. Others feared that a victory for Black hospital workers would lead to further organizing by civil rights organizations and labor unions in the city. In particular, they were afraid that union organizing would move into the textile industry, which was strong in the state. Further complicating the situation were federal contracts, with $12 million worth on the verge of being canceled if the hospital continued to discriminate against Black workers.

In this environment, the hospital administration agreed to rehire the strikers, including the original 12 fired workers. State government agreed to raise the minimum wage as well, potentially giving strikers several of their demands. With the agreement set to be finalized, Sen. Strom Thurmond stepped in and said that the federal aid would be delivered, regardless of the hospital’s actions. The hospital withdrew from the settlement and Local 1199 and the SCLC accused President Richard Nixon of “giving Senator Thurmond his political payoff for services rendered in the last election. A payoff whose real price is the suffering of Black hospital workers.”

Demonstrations started up again and they expanded to the textile companies and government buildings in the state and in Washington, D.C. More unions joined the protests and mass arrests continued. Attempts to solve the problem from the nation’s capitol were stalled by the Nixon administration until Secretary of Labor George Schultz took action. He sent a mediator to South Carolina and demanded that the strike be settled.

After 100 days, the strike was settled in favor of the Black hospital workers. They won wage increases of 30-70 cents an hour, the establishment of a credit union, a grievance procedure that allowed the union to represent employees and all fired and striking workers were reinstated. They didn’t win union recognition, but the wins they achieved addressed most of the problems the union would’ve taken on anyway.

At a victory rally at Zion Olivet Church, the Rev. Andrew Young summarized why the strike was successful: “We won this strike because of a wonderful marriage—the marriage of the SCLC and Local 1199. The first of many beautiful children of this marriage is Local 1199B here in Charleston, and there are going to be as many more children like 1199B as there are letters in the alphabet.”

The combined efforts didn’t stop in Charleston. The tactics used in South Carolina were quickly exported elsewhere. Within months, they had also secured collective bargaining rights for 1,500 mostly Black workers at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Within a year, the Baltimore local had added 6,000 more hospital and nursing home workers. In December, the National Union of Hospital and Nursing Home Employees was established with Coretta Scott King as honorary chairperson. While reflecting upon the success in Charleston, King said that right before his death, her husband had concluded that “the key to battling poverty is winning jobs for workers with decent pay through unionism.” Charleston was one of the first moments that proved King right.

Source: “Organized Labor and the Black Worker, 1619-1981” by Philip S. Foner, 1974.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on February 19, 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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Ohio Auto Parts Workers Strike to Unionize

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Update, February 1: The workers ended their strike January 30, without having won union recognition. They plan to petition for a union authorization election with the National Labor Relations Board. —Editors

Workers at an auto parts factory in Norwalk, Ohio, are reviving a classic tactic—they’re eight days into a walkout to demand that their employer recognize their union.

The strikers work for Borgers, a German-owned Tier 1 auto parts supplier, meaning they supply parts directly to auto manufacturers. The factory produces wheel well and trunk liners for companies like General Motors, Ford, Volvo, BMW, and Tesla.

An overwhelming majority, 170 workers, signed union cards with the SEIU affiliate Workers United and demanded recognition—but the company ignored them. So on January 21, they walked out.

Norwalk, west of Cleveland and south of Detroit, has been hit hard by deindustrialization and plant closings. The Borgers facility sits across the street from a former Janesville Acoustics plant that closed in 2013, where hundreds of workers were members of Workers United.

‘I’VE NEVER BEEN TREATED SO BADLY’

The Borgers strikers describe a workplace rife with sexual harassment, racism, safety problems, and arbitrary management decisions.

Tiffany Slagle works as a quality technician, checking that parts are up to standard and that machines are operating properly. “I’ve never been treated so badly in my life,” Slagle said. “People grabbing at me, pulling my hair. Nothing happens to them because they’re close to management.”

Supervisors and those close to them also wield the power of job advancement. “If you’re a woman, your only shot for getting an improvement is to get involved with a supervisor,” said Joe Krout, a material handler and forklift driver. He said the “good old boys culture” allows endemic racism and sexual harassment to continue.

Jacob Gonzales works on Felt Line 1 as a forklift driver. His first day on the job, a supervisor asked if he should refer to Gonzales as one racial slur or another. “I was taken aback,” said Gonzales. “I was afraid for my job. Was this how it was going to be? This guy’s been there for five years.”

ARBITRARY WAGE RATES

Workers say that safety issues aren’t taken seriously in the facility. Gonzales talked about a time one of his co-workers lost the tip of his finger in an accident.

“In the immediate aftermath, management started making jokes, snickering,” said Gonzales. “This guy just lost a portion of his body, hadn’t even been taken to the hospital yet, and they were saying, ‘Well I guess he won’t be picking his nose with that finger.’”

The strikers say their wages are far too low for the work that they do, and are arbitrary. Wages and pay increases are merit-based, which in practice means they are inconsistent and based on favoritism. 

Krout makes $14.50 per hour—higher than most. Some workers get as little as $13. He previously earned $19 an hour as a forklift driver in a nearby unionized factory, and said he doesn’t know of anywhere else nearby that pays forklift drivers less than $15. “The biggest things I want to see would be a living wage, and a fair and transparent bidding process to move up,” said Krout.

Workers want a fair chance at advancement, and think that a big international company like Borgers can afford it. Said Slagle: “They can afford to pay rent-a-cops to sit out here and watch us on the picket line, but can’t give us a wage increase?”

Borgers workers in Germany are members of I.G. Metall. Ohio strikers have been in contact with their German counterparts. “In Germany, all their plants are unionized,” Gonzales said. “We don’t want to be considered second-class employees at Borgers.”

STRIKING JUST IN TIME

Striking for union recognition was a popular tactic during the U.S. labor movement’s growth spurt in the private sector during the 1930s-40s, and again in the public sector unionization wave of the 1970s. It’s far less common now. Most unions either use the National Labor Relations Board election process or find ways to put pressure—short of a strike—on an employer to voluntarily recognize the union.

Recognition strikes are most effective when workers have significant leverage over their employer. Much of the auto industry operates on a “just-in-time” model for parts delivery: big manufacturers get and make parts as they need them, rather than sitting on huge stockpiles. Workers at a Chrysler supplier in Toledo, Ohio, in 2014 used this leverage to win a recognition strike.

During the strike, the company has continued to operate at a reduced capacity, using a combination of workers who crossed the picket line and temps. But workers believe they’re affecting production.

“Since the strike, the quality of the parts has gone down,” said Slagle. “Their production is lower because they have people going back through parts [to check for mistakes].”

Krout expects the company to start incurring fines from automakers for falling behind on parts orders. “The impact on production has been significant,” he said. “Certain high-volume production cells are depleted entirely.” Much of what the Borgers workers produce goes to big General Motors facilities: Spring Hill in Tennessee; CAMI in Ontario, Canada; and Ramos Arizpe in Northern Mexico.

Strikers hope that the presence on the picket line of the high-skilled maintenance workers—responsible for keeping the finicky machines running—will slow down production even further.

“Our hopes are still high,” said Slagle. “The company is hard-headed and they’re not budging, but they’ve got some good workers out here who they can’t replace.”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on January 29, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Joe DeManuelle-Hall is a staff writer and organizer at Labor Notes.


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Chicago Teachers Are Showing the Country How to Fight an Unsafe Reopening

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As Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot presses ahead with a controversialplan to reopen elementary schools next Monday, the 25,000-member Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) may be headed into its third strike since 2012.

Closed since March because of the coronavirus crisis, K?8 schools are set to resume in-person classes on February 1, with parents having the option of sending their children back or continuing remote learning. The decision was made unilaterally by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) despite ongoing negotiations with the union over how to reopen safely.

Elementary teachers and staff were ordered to return to school buildings this week to prepare for the reopening. But citing safety concerns, 71% of CTU members voted over the weekend to defy that order and continue teaching remotely until an agreement is reached. 

Lightfoot has warned that educators who don’t report in-person by Monday may be locked out of online learning systems and docked pay. If that happens, the union is promising to go on strike.

“We are willing to keep teaching, but CPS has said they will lock us out,” said CTU President Jesse Sharkey. ?“Is the mayor creating a crisis just to get her way on a reopening date that ignores the risks in our schools and our neighborhoods?”

Coming 15 months after the CTU went on strike to demand Lightfoot keep her campaign promise of putting a nurse and social worker in every school, the confrontation is demonstrating the power of unions to fight for workers’ health and safety amid a pandemic that has killed over 425,000 people in the United States. As the incoming Biden administration attempts to get a handle on the pandemic, the CTU’s struggle is shaping the national discourse around what constitutes a safe way to reopen schools.

Reopening

The union is asking for weekly testing for teachers and students inside school buildings, a public health metric for determining when schools reopen or close, and the flexibility to allow teachers to return to schools after they’ve been vaccinated

“I think our members have been beyond reasonable,” said CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates. ?“They are asking for a safe reopening. It’s not if we reopen, it’s how we reopen.”

Teachers just became eligible to receive Covid vaccinations this week. While educators in suburban Evanston and Skokie are already getting vaccinated, CTU members say CPS has not put forward a comprehensive plan to help them know when and where to receive vaccinations.

“This is the third largest school district in the United States, you would think they would have a real vaccination plan,” said Linda Perales, a special education teacher at Corkery Elementary in Little Village.

In contrast to CPS leaders, the head of the Los Angeles Unified School District?—?the nation’s second largest public school system?—?is insisting that in-person learning not resume until after teachers have been vaccinated.

When asked on Tuesday why she is refusing to wait until teachers can get vaccinated before reopening schools, Lightfoot appeared to pit teachers against frontline essential workers. ?“We also have others who have been out there every single day, working, putting themselves at risk,” she said. ?“How do we say to those folks, ?‘You have to go to the back of the line?’”

“We have been teaching effectively since March, almost one year, from the safety of our homes. We know that essential workers, mostly Black and Brown folks, have not had that privilege. They should be the ones that are prioritized for this vaccine,” said Perales. ?“But CPS: If you’re trying to force us back into the building, give us a real vaccination plan.”

The union is also demanding telework accommodations for teachers who live with medically vulnerable family members, but says CPS is nitpicking over what counts as a sufficiently serious underlying health condition.

“We’re literally going back and forth on if cancer is more serious than hypertension or diabetes in terms of granting accommodations,” Davis Gates said. ?“This shouldn’t be a fight.”

At Joliet Public Schools District 86, the school board recently voted unanimously to continue remote learning until the end of the school year. Notably, the members of the Joliet school board are elected to their positions, unlike the members of the Chicago Board of Education, who are handpicked by the mayor.

Equity

Lightfoot claims her reopening plan is a matter of equity for students of color, who she says are falling behind under remote learning. But only 31% of Latino families and 33.9% of Black families feel comfortable sending their children back to school. These are the same communities that have been hardest hitby Covid-19.

The mayor also says her rush to reopen is in response to the demands of parents, who have struggled to find childcare options during remote learning. Yet out of 191,000 K?8 students at CPS, the parents of only 71,000 plan to send their kids back to school next week.

Meanwhile, optional in-person learning already resumed for pre?K and special education students on January 11, but less than 19% of those students have returned, with the rest choosing to continue online instruction. 

“It’s obvious to everyone but CPS and the mayor that parents aren’t sending their children back because they do not believe schools are safe or that Covid is under control,” Davis Gates explained. ?“This is especially true for Black and Brown families.”

Pre?K and special education teachers and staff were ordered to reenter school buildings on January 4, but 40% refused to do so. Instead, many protested by setting up tables and laptops right outside their schools and holding remote learning sessions in frigid temperatures. CPS has moved to discipline over 100 of these teachers and staff, locking them out of their digital classrooms and docking their pay. 

“I have been ripped away from my students for practicing my right to work in a safe working environment,” said Perales, who is among those locked out. ?“My students have not had me there in front of them to teach them. That is infuriating and that is not equity.”

Safety

The controversy in Chicago was thrust into the national spotlight earlier this week when President Joe Biden?—?who wants to reopen most of the nation’s schools within his first 100 days in office?—?was asked his opinion about it.

“We should make school classrooms safe and secure for the students, for the teachers and for the help that’s in those schools maintaining the facilities,” Biden said. ?“The teachers, I know they want to work. They just want to work in a safe environment.”

The mayor argues her reopening plan meets suitable health and safety criteria, but the CTU notes that in the three weeks since some teachers and staff were ordered back into buildings, new Covid cases have already been reported at 64 CPS schools. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a study on Tuesday reporting that the risk of Covid transmission in schools appears to be low, but the study only looked at schools in rural areas, not in a major city like Chicago. 

Three CDC researchers also published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Tuesday with similar conclusions, but they warned that the reopening of schools must be paired with restrictions on indoor dining at restaurants and bars to prevent wider community spread. Lightfoot lifted a suspension on indoor dining in Chicago earlier this week.

Over 160 CPS nurses have signed a letter saying Lightfoot’s plan is unsafe. ?“Nurses who work in schools have not been asked to formulate CPS’s plan,” the letter states, ?“but we are expected to carry it out?—?despite our objections.” Although the union won a contract guarantee of eventually putting a nurse in every school following its strike in October 2019, the letter acknowledges that ?“CPS is still far away from having a nurse in every building every day.”

Meanwhile, 36 out of 50 elected alderpeople on the Chicago City Council have signed a letter of their own expressing concerns about the school reopening plan. Similarly, multiple local school councils?—?elected bodies of parents, students and teachers?—?have issued resolutions objecting to the plan.

“We want to return to safe, welcoming and thriving schools,” Davis Gates said. ?“That can’t happen until we put the health and safety precautions of our educators, our students and the larger community ahead of the unreasonable demand to return to school buildings that lack the necessary protocols to keep us safe.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 27, 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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In a Six-Day Strike, Bronx Produce Workers Doubled Their Raise and Inspired New York

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Drivers and warehouse workers who feed New York City have won their strike. After six days off the job, the strikers at Hunts Point Produce Market in the Bronx ratified a contract that doubled management’s wage offer and defeated a health care cost increase.

The 1,400 workers at the world’s largest wholesale produce market, members of Teamsters Local 202, are responsible for packing and delivering 60 percent of the fruits and vegetables that go to restaurants and grocery stores in New York City.

The unit is comprised of 14 different companies that bargain a contract together. Before the strike, the employers were offering a raise of just 32 cents an hour, and wanted to pass on to workers an increase in health care costs.

The strikers demanded a $1-an-hour raise and no increased cost for health care. They pointed out that they have been working throughout the pandemic, putting their lives at risk. Ten workers have died of Covid since the pandemic began.

“The companies stopped providing PPE [personal protective equipment] months ago, back in September,” said Frankie, a Local 202 member I met on the picket line, who has been with his company for 28 years.

“They don’t even require workers to wear masks at work,” he said. “They also took the handwashing stations out back in September. It’s like they decided that Covid was over.

“Meanwhile the companies received $15 million in PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] loans each! I’m striking to show my daughters that just because we are poor does not mean we don’t stand up for what we deserve.”

ARRESTED ON MLK DAY

The workers called the strike on a Sunday night, January 17, after negotiations broke down. They started to picket both entrances to the Hunts Point Market.

The next evening, police showed up in riot gear and announced that any workers continuing to picket in the entrances would be arrested. The workers kept their picket lines moving until a group of around 50 police officers rushed them and arrested five people.

“It is outrageous that after being called essential heroes for months, several of our members were arrested while peacefully protesting for a raise today,” said Local 202 President Danny Kane in a statement. “These are the essential workers who went to work every day through the worst of the pandemic to feed New York. All they are asking for is a dollar-an-hour raise so they can feed their families too. The fact that they were arrested on Martin Luther King Day reminds us what side of history we are on.”

Videos of the police attacking the striking workers soon went viral, and the community responded with an outpouring of solidarity. Major support came from the NYC Democratic Socialists of America, which set up a table to keep the strikers fed and warm, and collected donations totaling more than $31,000 that went to things like firewood, hand warmers, and hot food.

The workers continued to picket behind the barricades that the police had set up on both sides of the entrance. They resorted to shouting down scabs and co-workers who were crossing the picket line. The police attempted to stop the strikers from trying to talk people out of crossing the line, in some cases physically escorting them back to the barricades.

The police continued to be a presence and were accused of targeting the night shift, where most workers were Black and Brown and the white leadership was visibly absent. Some workers were eager to continue to picket in the entrance, while some of the union leadership urged them to be patient and let leaders handle the situation.

The workers received a number of visits from local politicians, including Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who does not represent the district but lives nearby. Teamster leaders and rank and file were overwhelmed by the support; many visited the table to thank the supporters, and said things like, “We wouldn’t be able to still be out here if it wasn’t for you guys.”

The picket line ran 24/7; people took the same shifts they normally would work. Many of the workers mentioned that this was their first time striking—but that they felt it had been a long time coming.

“Every contract we talk about striking, but we never do,” said Jason, a packer who has been with his company for seven years. “This time was different. In 2021, in the middle of a pandemic and they’re saying we are essential and all of that, so why not pay us the dollar?”

‘WE KNOW THEY NEED US’

By Wednesday, union leaders announced that they were back at the negotiating table, and workers were anticipating a deal soon. “Yesterday, a whole train full of produce from Ohio turned around and refused to cross the line,” a driver named Jose told me that day. He has been with his company for 35 years.

“The guys that they are trying to bring in to do our jobs don’t know kale from spinach,” he said. “The food will go bad waiting for someone to unpack, and they can’t take those losses for too long. They think anyone can do this job, but we know that they need us.”

Spirits were high on the picket line, and on Friday, after another visit from Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, leaders announced they had a tentative agreement. Terms were to be announced the next morning on the picket line; supporters were invited to a victory brunch.

On Saturday morning, crowds gathered at the picket line; leaders led groups of workers a few at a time into the market to discuss the terms and vote on the contract. Supporters stood by waiting anxiously.

Soon the news was shared and celebrated by all: the deal had been ratified by 97 percent of the members voting.

HOPING TO INSPIRE

The new contract includes an immediate raise of 70 cents an hour, followed by a 50-cent raise in 2022. Warehouse workers who currently make $18.57 an hour, as well as all drivers, will see a 65-cents-an-hour raise in 2023. Warehouse workers currently earning $20.70 will receive a $1,300 bonus in 2023 instead of the 65 cents. The strike also stopped the company from increasing what workers pay for family health care benefits.

“It’s not the dollar we wanted, but it’s a win,” Jose said, “and next time we will fight even harder. I’m glad we did this, because before we felt like nobody cared about us, nobody knew us.

“Now we know that New York City supports Black and immigrant workers, some of us formerly incarcerated, many of us just trying to feed our kids and make a better life for them.

“Hopefully other workers will get inspired to fight for what they deserve, by seeing us do it.”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on January 26, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bianca Cunningham is a staff writer and organizer at Labor Notes.


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Chicago Teachers Are Voting on Whether to Defy Monday’s Reopening Order

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Delegates of the Chicago Teachers Union have just sent a referendum to members: shall we all work remotely starting Monday, January 25?

That’s the date when many were assigned to return to schools. If the district retaliates, delegates will reconvene to take a strike vote.

The plan was voted up by a large majority in an emergency meeting. It’s CTU’s boldest official move yet against reopening; the union has had to walk a difficult legal line.

But militancy has bubbled up from the rank and file. The members who were assigned to return in earlier waves of the mayor’s divisive reopening plan have been organizing their own resistance actions, school by school.

With the pandemic death toll in the U.S. now more than 400,000, Covid positivity rates in Chicago have climbed above 10 percent—double the target rate the city has set for itself—and in some neighborhoods, 15 percent. Yet the city is trying to force its educators back into classrooms.

RESISTING DIVISION

Clerks were ordered back into the school buildings last fall, followed January 4 by pre-K and special needs educators, followed January 11 by their students, to be followed by an ongoing rollout of returns by grade level.

Educators applying for accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act due to their own vulnerabilities or those of household members have been rejected at alarming rates.

The entire system is designed to push individuals to make choices for themselves—do I try to get an ADA exemption, or brave the reopening, or quit?—rather than as a collective. But educators are working through these challenges.

Ana Bolotin, a special education teacher, said she was one of many teachers “who felt alone and did not know how to proceed as we were facing bullying from CPS.” She connected via Facebook with others from across the district who were ready to refuse to go into buildings. “Because of the pandemic, we didn’t know each other in real life. All of the relationships were forged virtually,” said Bolotin.

The group called a Zoom meeting, attended by 30 people, and talked about how they could organize to refuse to enter. Their next meeting had 100. These meetings were designed to support people to go back out and organize actions at their own schools.

LOCKED OUT

Staff members at Brentano Math and Science Academy decided that, beginning on January 4—the date they were ordered back—they would bring their laptops and teach from outside the school building.

And that’s what they did, despite below-freezing temperatures. “We are all scared,” said Pre-K teacher Kirsten Roberts. “All of our families have been directly impacted by Covid—by loss and illness.”

So far only pre-K and special needs educators had been called back, but other Brentano teachers turned up throughout the day to support them.

The next day when Roberts attempted to log on to Google Classroom, she was denied access—to her students, her email, and her pay. Management had blocked her.

At Suder Montessori, educators bought their own protective gear and used a CTU-provided checklist to do safety inspections. Educators at other schools donned masks during remote learning so that parents would have a better idea of what students would be experiencing in the classroom.

Some planned to get appointments to test before returning to school, which would require them to stay out of buildings until the results came back negative.

News reports suggest up to 60 percent of the educators who were told to return did not enter their buildings on the first day back.

That’s when Chicago Public Schools (CPS) announced it would be cutting off access to remote teaching for any educators like Roberts who were, by district rules, supposed to be inside. As of this writing, some are still locked out; an end to the lockout has been added to the union’s demands.

Still the organizing continued. The key, said Bolotin, “was brainstorming ways to increase solidarity and help people see that individual educators needed to support each other.”

STILL NOT SAFE

Mayors, governors, and other policymakers across the country continue to insist that schools are not sites of Covid infection, even as growing evidence suggests they are wrong. A study in the medical journal The Lancet noted that previous studies showing low or no school transmission had missed asymptomatic students and included schools with low attendance.

Recent reports from around the world suggest that open schools strongly correlate with hospitalizations and community spread. England, Germany, and South Korea initially reopened schools, but have since closed them again in the face of rising positivity rates.

But here in the U.S., where the government has been slow to provide relief for workers, policymakers continue to beat the school-reopening drum. That means educators’ lives are being put at risk—along with the lives of students and their families.

Many of the arguments made for reopening school buildings speak only to the health of students. And some of the most-cited reports of successful reopenings in the U.S. ignore the measures taken—smaller class sizes, robust testing and contact tracing—that are absent in most U.S. schools.

NO GOOD OPTIONS

Organizing against the reopenings has been tough for unions. Educators want to do what’s best for students, and everyone can see how inadequate remote teaching is—especially when many families have limited WiFi access and parents are juggling work and childcare. The stream of mixed messages about school transmission hasn’t helped.

CTU has been demanding testing, contact tracing, vaccinations for educators and other school staff, and the enforcement of safety protocols such as adequate protective gear, air-quality systems, and cleaning schedules before educators go back into the buildings.

The union has been holding virtual town halls with educators and providing checklists for building safety. It has garnered the support of 33 aldermen to say it’s not safe to reopen the buildings. Meanwhile, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has refused to negotiate with CTU about the reopening plan.

The Illinois legislature recently passed a law which would make many of the issues involved in reopening mandatory subjects of bargaining. The measure would repeal a section of the Illinois Educational Relations Act passed in 1995 that has allowed the district to refuse to bargain with the union over issues including class sizes, layoffs, subcontracting, and charter schools. That law is now sitting on the governor’s desk, waiting to be signed.

COMPETING FEARS

For Dennis Kosuth, a school nurse and Roberts’ partner, solidarity has meant working with members who were both afraid of getting sick and afraid of the district, in varying degrees. “We don’t trust CPS,” he said. So organizing required “finding the place where the person’s fear about the virus and readiness to risk their job met.”

To start, Kosuth struck out alone. He started doing his work outside the school building—checking on students, completing paperwork—and livestreamed it. Over the course of a week, more and more educators stopped by to show support. For him, the present challenge for organizers is, “How do we lead without getting out ahead?” 

Kosuth was one of 150 Chicago school nurses who signed a letter to the district saying that schools are unsafe. National Nurses United and the Illinois Nurses Association have backed up their concerns.

While the district is trying to pit parents and teachers against each other, Roberts said the message from the union to students’ families is: “We are exactly like you as workers. We want for you what we want for ourselves.”

‘OUR ONLY POWER’

At the end of the second week of forced return, some CTU members took personal days off and led a car caravan though the streets of Chicago to City Hall and the homes of members of the Board of Education while a board meeting was in session.

“Lori Lightfoot and the Board of Education seem to want there to be a corrosive atmosphere,” said Roberts. “In any rational world we would have collaboration. But they are creating a situation where our only power is to show them they cannot run the schools without us.”

Now the proposed January 25 stay-at-home is up to a member vote. A strike threat forced the city’s handback in August and kept schools remote.

Under Illinois law, public sector unions are banned from striking while under a collective bargaining agreement. CTU’s contract expires in 2024. The law also bans the city from locking workers out.

If CTU were to strike, it would be a safety strike. That, notes Roberts, would be uncharted territory.

But so are 4,000 deaths a day.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on January 21, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Barbara Madeloni is Education Coordinator at Labor Notes and a former president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.


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Chicago Teachers Are Considering a Strike Amid Pandemic Surge

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As the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic enters its dead­liest phase yet, the Chica­go Teach­ers Union (CTU) and its allies are resist­ing May­or Lori Lightfoot’s plan to reopen school build­ings and resume in-per­son learn­ing this month.

Over 10,000 CTU mem­bers have pledged their oppo­si­tion to the reopen­ing plan put for­ward by the may­or and Chica­go Pub­lic Schools (CPS), cit­ing seri­ous con­cerns over safe­ty and transparency. 

In-per­son learn­ing is set to resume for pre?K stu­dents on Jan­u­ary 11, and for ele­men­tary school stu­dents on Feb­ru­ary 1. May­or Light­foot and CPS have not yet indi­cat­ed when they plan to reopen high schools.

“Many of our mem­bers are not feel­ing safe at all, they’re feel­ing more anx­ious and scared than ever,” said CTU Pres­i­dent Jesse Sharkey. He added that union mem­bers will hold meet­ings in the com­ing days and weeks and may con­sid­er hold­ing a strike autho­riza­tion vote.

Light­foot and CPS claim their deter­mi­na­tion to reopen schools at this time is a mat­ter of equi­ty for stu­dents of col­or who they say are falling behind under remote learn­ing. But only 31 per­cent of Lati­no fam­i­lies and 33.9 per­cent of Black fam­i­lies feel com­fort­able send­ing their kids back to in-per­son learn­ing. These are the same com­mu­ni­ties that have been hard­est hit by Covid-19. Across the coun­try, oth­er teach­ers’ unions are sim­i­lar­ly protest­ing school reopen­ing plans that they deem unsafe. 

“The biggest obsta­cle to reopen­ing schools is the man­age­ment of CPS, because they’ve failed to reach the stan­dards set by teach­ers and prin­ci­pals for our sup­port of a reopen­ing plan,” said Troy LaR­aviere, pres­i­dent of the Chica­go Prin­ci­pals & Admin­is­tra­tors Asso­ci­a­tion, which also oppos­es the rush to reopen. ?“Con­trary to the words of our may­or and CEO, this reopen­ing plan does not seek to address inequity, it is pro­mot­ing inequity.”

With its mem­bers hand­picked by the may­or, the Chica­go Board of Edu­ca­tion is the only unelect­ed school board in Illi­nois. Mean­while, 36 out of 50 elect­ed alder­peo­ple on the City Coun­cil have signed onto a let­ter express­ing their con­cerns with the school reopen­ing plan. Sim­i­lar­ly, mul­ti­ple local school coun­cils?—?elect­ed bod­ies of par­ents, stu­dents and teach­ers?—?have issuedres­o­lu­tions object­ing to the plan.

“We believe the plan CPS has put for­ward is irre­spon­si­ble. We don’t think we are ready to send chil­dren back to the class­room, and nei­ther should we send teach­ers and staff,” said Alder­woman Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez. ?“It seems like every fail­ure of this sys­tem ends up being the respon­si­bil­i­ty of teach­ers and staff to fix and we are always offer­ing them in sac­ri­fice when we can’t make the sys­tems work.”

CTU Vice Pres­i­dent Sta­cy Davis Gates con­curs. ?“You have a sit­u­a­tion right now where prin­ci­pals, para­pro­fes­sion­als, clin­i­cians, class­room teach­ers, elect­ed offi­cials, stu­dents and their fam­i­lies are beg­ging, demand­ing, ask­ing for safe­ty in the mid­dle of a pan­dem­ic,” she said. ?“And then the ques­tion comes to the Chica­go Teach­ers Union, ?‘Are you all going on strike?’ I actu­al­ly think that’s the wrong ques­tion. The right ques­tion has to be, ?‘Why aren’t they?—?the may­or and her team at CPS?—?lis­ten­ing to every­one else?’”

On Mon­day, about 7,000 pre?K and spe­cial edu­ca­tion teach­ers and staff were expect­ed to return to school build­ings, with their stu­dents set to return next week. Although CPS is threat­en­ing to dis­ci­pline edu­ca­tors who refuse to return in-per­son, about 40 per­cent did not reen­ter school build­ings on Monday. 

At Brentano Math and Sci­ence Acad­e­my in Logan Square, teach­ers and staff who had been told to report inside the build­ing on Mon­day instead set up tables and lap­tops in the school’s out­door court­yard, where they held remote learn­ing ses­sions all day in below-freez­ing temperatures.

“One of our biggest respon­si­bil­i­ties is to pro­tect, to guide and to advo­cate for our stu­dents at all times. This means we need to work to ensure their safe­ty, the qual­i­ty of their edu­ca­tion and to set an exam­ple by stand­ing up for our own health and safe­ty too,” said Annie Kel­logg, a spe­cial edu­ca­tion preschool teacher at Brentano.

“We work hard to attain our stu­dents’ trust. This can take weeks and months,” Claire Colt, a social work­er at Brentano, explained. ?“Now because of the anx­i­ety and uncer­tain­ty caused by CPS reopen­ing schools to in-per­son instruc­tion at the height of the pan­dem­ic, there is a chance these rela­tion­ships may be disrupted…This means more loss­es for our stu­dents, pre­cise­ly at a time when they need as much sta­bil­i­ty as possible.”

Accord­ing to a CTU sur­vey, 69 per­cent of edu­ca­tors who chose to return to school build­ings on Mon­day report­ed poor con­di­tions, lack of PPE and inad­e­quate air fil­ters for class­rooms. Light­foot and CPS CEO Jan­ice K. Jack­son post­ed pho­tos on Twit­ter of their vis­it to two ele­men­tary schools?—?but reporters were not invit­ed to these events, nor were they on the mayor’s pub­lic schedule. 

The CTU is demand­ing clear pub­lic health cri­te­ria for reopen­ing schools, specif­i­cal­ly that in-per­son learn­ing only resume when Chicago’s test pos­i­tiv­i­ty rate is below 3 per­cent. The city’s cur­rent pos­i­tiv­i­ty rate is over 10per­cent and rising. 

“They didn’t go by any met­rics or any data, they went by a date,” Alder­man Car­los Ramirez-Rosa said of CPS’s reopen­ing plan. ?“And they picked a date that comes right after a peri­od of time when peo­ple were gath­er­ing indoors and spread­ing coro­n­avirus to each oth­er dur­ing Christ­mas and New Year’s.”

A major point of con­tention between the union and CPS has been the school district’s insis­tence that it can uni­lat­er­al­ly impose a reopen­ing plan with­out first reach­ing a nego­ti­at­ed agree­ment with the CTU. Last month, the Illi­nois Edu­ca­tion­al Labor Rela­tions Board denied the union’s motion for an injunc­tion on the cur­rent reopen­ing plan, but an admin­is­tra­tive judge will hear the case at the end of this month.

“It’s not going to work if the dis­trict sim­ply con­tin­ues dic­tat­ing to us and doesn’t sit at the table and lis­ten to the peo­ple who are most on the ground, who know most about what the spe­cif­ic con­di­tions are like in build­ings,” Sharkey explained.

“We need more than what we are receiv­ing in this moment,” Davis Gates said. ?“And it should not take a fight that shuts every­thing down to get those things.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 5, 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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The Year That Labor Hung On By Its Fingertips

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A lot of things hap­pened for work­ing peo­ple this year, and most of them were bad. But even in a year as deranged as 2020, the broad­er themes that afflict and ener­gize the labor move­ment have car­ried on. If you are read­ing this, con­grat­u­la­tions: There is still time for you to do some­thing about all of these things. Here is a brief look at the Year in Labor, and may we nev­er have to live through some­thing like it again.

The pan­dem­ic

Broad­ly speak­ing, there have been two very large labor sto­ries this year. The first is, ?“I have been forced into unem­ploy­ment due to the pan­dem­ic, and I am scared.” And the sec­ond is, ?“I have been forced to con­tin­ue work­ing dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, and I am scared.” America’s labor reporters spent most of our year writ­ing vari­a­tions of these sto­ries, in each com­pa­ny and in each indus­try and in each city. Those sto­ries con­tin­ue to this day. 

The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment left work­ing peo­ple utter­ly for­sak­en. They did not cre­ate a nation­al wage replace­ment sys­tem to pay peo­ple to stay home, as many Euro­pean nations did. OSHA was asleep on the job, unin­ter­est­ed in work­place safe­ty relat­ed to coro­n­avirus. Repub­li­cans in Con­gress were more intent on get­ting lia­bil­i­ty pro­tec­tions for employ­ers than on doing any­thing, any­thing at all, that might help des­per­ate reg­u­lar peo­ple. And, of course, Trump and his allies unnec­es­sar­i­ly politi­cized pub­lic health, lead­ing direct­ly to hun­dreds of thou­sands of unnec­es­sary deaths and the eco­nom­ic destruc­tion that goes with that. It was a bad year. The larg­er polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions cre­at­ed to pro­tect work­ers did not do their jobs. The labor move­ment was left very much on its own. And its own track record was mixed. 

Front-line work­ers

The year of the hero! We love our heroes! Our front-line work­ers, our deliv­ery peo­ple and san­i­ta­tion work­ers and bus dri­vers, our para­medics and nurs­es, our cooks and clean­ers and gro­cery work­ers: We love you all! Sure, we will bang pots and pans to cel­e­brate reg­u­lar work­ers who had to push through dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, and we will write you nice notes and have school chil­dren draw signs cel­e­brat­ing you. But will you get paid for this?

How well have unions rep­re­sent­ing these front line work­ers done this year? In many cas­es, not well. I think first of the gro­cery work­ers, rep­re­sent­ed by UFCW, who were gen­er­al­ly award­ed with tem­po­rary ?“haz­ard pay” bonus­es rather than actu­al rais­es. Or of the UFCW’s meat­pack­ing work­ers, whose plants were encour­aged to stay open by an exec­u­tive order, and who suf­feredter­ri­bly from the coro­n­avirus and from management’s utter dis­dain for their wel­fare. These are work­ers who, par­tic­u­lar­ly dur­ing the ear­ly phase of the pan­dem­ic, had a ton of lever­age. Had they struck, or walked out, ask­ing for basic safe­ty and fair pay for risk­ing their lives, the pub­lic would have neared pan­ic, and their demands prob­a­bly would have been met. Their employ­ers would have had no choice. Instead, there was a great deal of out­cry from their unions, but no real labor actions at scale. Thus, the meat­pack­ing work­ers con­tin­ued to suf­fer, and the gro­cery work­ers saw their ?“haz­ard pay” bonus­es dis­ap­pear, and here we are. 

The point of this is not to be harsh. Faced with an unex­pect­ed dis­as­ter, most unions have spent this year scram­bling des­per­ate­ly to keep them­selves and their work­ers afloat, and have been flood­ed with the task of deal­ing with the cat­a­stro­phe that has cost mil­lions their jobs. But when this is all over, there should be a seri­ous post­mortem about what could and should have been done bet­ter. And that will include, right up top, the fail­ure of front line work­ers to turn their new­found hero sta­tus?—?and the tem­po­rary, absolute neces­si­ty that they con­tin­ue work­ing through life-threat­en­ing con­di­tions?—?into any last­ing gains. It is easy to sur­ren­der to the feel­ing of just being thank­ful to be employed while oth­ers sink into pover­ty. But we need to be ready with a bet­ter plan for next time. Bil­lions of dol­lars and a good deal of poten­tial pow­er that work­ing peo­ple could have had has evap­o­rat­ed because unions were not pre­pared to act to take it. 

Pub­lic workers

Teach­ers unions con­clu­sive­ly demon­strat­ed their val­ue this year. In gen­er­al, in cities with strong teach­ers unions, pub­lic schools did not reopen unless the teach­ers were sat­is­fied that ade­quate work­place safe­ty pro­ce­dures were in place. (In prac­tice this meant that many school dis­tricts sim­ply kept instruc­tion online.) While this earned the ire of some par­ents, they should think it through: Work­place safe­ty in Amer­i­ca only exist­ed where unions were strong enough to see to it that it hap­pened. Schools were the most promi­nent exam­ple of that. 

Else­where, the news for fed­er­al gov­ern­ment employ­ees was gloomy. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion waged a years-long war against the labor rights of fed­er­al work­ers, and it is fair to say that the unions lost that war. Fed­er­al employ­ee unions in par­tic­u­lar, and state employ­ee unions in Repub­li­can states, have become pathet­i­cal­ly weak. Much of their bar­gain­ing pow­er has been out­lawed by Repub­li­can politi­cians. The unions have been reduced to writ­ing polite­ly angry let­ters as their work­ers are abused while wait­ing for a new Demo­c­ra­t­ic admin­is­tra­tion that they can beg to restore their rights. It is not a work­able mod­el for a union. These unions must decide at some point that they are will­ing to break the law in order to assert the fun­da­men­tal rights of their mem­bers, or they will grow increas­ing­ly less able to demon­strate to mem­bers why they have any value. 

That may not be fair, but it’s the truth. 

Orga­niz­ing

The biggest issue for unions in Amer­i­ca?—?big­ger than any pan­dem­ic or pres­i­den­tial elec­tion cycle?—?is that there are sim­ply not enough union mem­bers. Only one in 10 work­ers is a union mem­ber. In the pri­vate sec­tor, that fig­ure is just over 6%. The decades-long decline of union den­si­ty is the under­ly­ing thing rob­bing the once-mighty labor move­ment (and by exten­sion, the work­ing class itself) of pow­er. If unions in Amer­i­ca are not grow­ing every year, they are dying. 

Dis­as­trous years like 2020 tend to put struc­tur­al issues on the back burn­er, but they can also serve as inspi­ra­tions for peo­ple to join unions to pro­tect them. The annu­al fig­ures for the year are not out yet, but anec­do­tal­ly, union lead­ers and orga­niz­ers are opti­mistic that the pandemic’s hav­oc will serve as fuel for future orga­niz­ing. Most unions man­aged to at least con­tin­ue major orga­niz­ing efforts that were already under­way this year, like SEIU’s suc­cess­ful con­clu­sion of a 17-year bat­tle to union­ize 45,000 child care providers in Cal­i­for­nia. Indus­tries that were already hotbeds of orga­niz­ing tend­ed to remain so. The safe­ty net of a union con­tract clear­ly demon­strat­ed its val­ue far and wide this year, at least in the abil­i­ty of union mem­bers to nego­ti­ate terms for fur­loughs and sev­er­ance and recall rights and all the oth­er things that mat­ter dur­ing dis­as­ters, as non-union work­ers were sim­ply cast out on their own. 

Still, it is up to unions them­selves to have a con­cert­ed plan to take advan­tage of the wide­spread nation­al suf­fer­ing and chan­nel it into new orga­niz­ing. Since unions have spent the year trans­fixed by the elec­tion and by try­ing to respond to the eco­nom­ic col­lapse, it is safe to say that such a con­cert­ed plan does not real­ly exist yet. That needs to be done, soon, or this moment will have been wasted. 

Strikes

Dur­ing the ear­ly months of the pan­dem­ic, a frag­ile sort of labor peace reigned. The grip of the cri­sis was such that most work­ers were sim­ply try­ing to hang on. As time went by, and the fail­ures of employ­ers became more clear, that peace began to evap­o­rate. Teach­ers unions around the coun­try used cred­i­ble strike threats to head off unsafe school open­ing plans. And in the health­care indus­try, unions have had mul­ti­ple strikes, as nurs­es and hos­pi­tal work­ers have passed their break­ing points.

Lever­age for work­ers varies wide­ly by indus­try right now, as cer­tain indus­tries are besieged with unem­ployed work­ers look­ing for any job they can get (restau­rants), and oth­ers are des­per­ate for skilled work­ers, who are extreme­ly vital (nurs­es). At min­i­mum, every union should look at its lever­age in the spe­cif­ic con­text of the pan­dem­ic and ask if they should act now, lest an oppor­tu­ni­ty be lost forever.

Gig work­ers

You can think of many enor­mous com­pa­nies as huge algo­rithms that are mak­ing their way through the Amer­i­can labor force, turn­ing employ­ees into inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors or free­lancers or part-timers. There is mon­ey to be made in free­ing busi­ness­es from the respon­si­bil­i­ty and cost of pro­vid­ing for employ­ees (a sta­tus that comes with ben­e­fits and a host of work­place rights, includ­ing the right to union­ize). The ?“gig econ­o­my” is not just Uber and Lyft and Instacart and oth­er com­pa­nies that exclu­sive­ly work in that space?—?it is an eco­nom­ic force of nature push­ing every com­pa­ny, includ­ing yours, to get your job off its books, and to turn you into some­thing less than a full employee. 

Coun­ter­ing this force is prob­a­bly the sin­gle most impor­tant legal and leg­isla­tive issue for labor as a whole, because this process inher­ent­ly acts to dis­solve labor pow­er. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the most impor­tant thing that hap­pened on the issue this year was the pas­sage of Prop 22 in Cal­i­for­nia, leg­is­la­tion specif­i­cal­ly designed to empow­er the gig econ­o­my com­pa­nies to the detri­ment of work­ers. Scari­er yet is the fact that the suc­cess­ful leg­is­la­tion in Cal­i­for­nia will now be used as a blue­print for state leg­is­la­tion around the coun­try. Com­pa­nies are pre­pared to spend hun­dreds of mil­lions or bil­lions of dol­lars on this issue, because they save far more mon­ey on the back end and pre­serve their busi­ness mod­el, which depends in large part in extract­ing wealth that once went to work­ers and redi­rect­ing it towards investors. Either Amer­i­ca will have a nation­al reck­on­ing with what the gig econ­o­my is doing to us, or we will con­tin­ue bar­rel­ing towards a dystopi­an future of the Uber-iza­tion of every last indus­try. Includ­ing yours. If ever there were a good time to launch a work­er coop, it is now. 

The elec­tion and Washington

After an ear­ly peri­od of hope for a Bernie-led insur­gency of the left, unions coa­lesced around Biden. They spent a ton of mon­ey on him, and indeed, his rhetoric and his plat­form are both more defin­i­tive­ly pro-union than any pres­i­dent in decades. Unions expect a lot of things from Biden, and expe­ri­ence tells us that they will not get many of them. 

What they will prob­a­bly get: a much bet­ter NLRB, a func­tion­ing OSHA, a pro-labor Labor Depart­ment rather than the oppo­site, and, par­tic­u­lar­ly for unions with long­stand­ing ties to Biden, rel­a­tive­ly good access to the White House. What they prob­a­bly won’t get: pas­sage of the PRO Act, a very good bill that would fix many of the worst prob­lems with U.S. labor law, but which has no hope in a divid­ed Con­gress. (And, I sus­pect, even with full Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­trol of Con­gress, many of the more cen­trist Democ­rats would sud­den­ly find a rea­son to oppose the act if the Cham­ber of Com­merce ever thought it might actu­al­ly pass). It is true that the cen­ter of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty is slow­ly mov­ing left, but Biden is a man who nat­u­ral­ly stays in the mid­dle of every­one, and he will be con­ser­v­a­tive in his will­ing­ness to burn polit­i­cal cap­i­tal by push­ing pro-labor poli­cies that don’t enjoy some amount of pub­lic bipar­ti­san sup­port. The polit­i­cal cli­mate for unions will be sim­i­lar to what it was under Oba­ma. The words will be nicer, but any action will have to be pro­pelled by peo­ple in the streets. 

The nine-month odyssey between the pas­sage of the CARES Act and the next relief bill that Con­gress actu­al­ly passed is a use­ful demon­stra­tion of the lim­its of labor’s lob­by­ing pow­er. While par­tic­u­lar unions, espe­cial­ly those in trans­porta­tion and the USPS, showed skill at get­ting con­crete mate­r­i­al gains for their mem­bers into bills, the inabil­i­ty to force any sort of time­ly action from Con­gress in the face of mas­sive human suf­fer­ing shows that labor as a spe­cial inter­est will nev­er have the polit­i­cal pow­er it craves. Until many, many more Amer­i­cans are union mem­bers, it will be impos­si­ble to break out of this trap.

The labor move­ment at its high­est lev­el must break itself of the addic­tion to the false belief that sal­va­tion will be found if only our Demo­c­rat can win the next elec­tion. It won’t. Orga­nize mil­lions of new work­ers and teach them to always be ready to strike. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty must be dragged towards progress by an army, and our army is weak. The AFL-CIO got burned in the protests this year. It remains to be seen if it learned any­thing from that. 

End­ing on a pos­i­tive note

It may be the per­pet­u­al nature of unions that the lead­er­ship is often dis­ap­point­ing, but the grass­roots are always inspir­ing. The big pic­ture for orga­nized labor in 2020 has been… close to okay, in some aspects, but cer­tain­ly not great. But when you pull out a mag­ni­fy­ing glass and look at what indi­vid­ual work­ers and work­places and units are doing, you will find thou­sands and thou­sands of inspir­ing things. And not even a pan­dem­ic has changed the basic fact that orga­niz­ing is the most pow­er­ful tool that reg­u­lar peo­ple have at their dis­pos­al in a sys­tem that val­ues cap­i­tal over humanity.

If you are an employ­ee, you can union­ize your work­place. If you are a gig or tem­po­rary work­er, you can orga­nize with your cowork­ers. If you are unem­ployed, you can march in the streets now, and union­ize your next job. All the labor move­ment is is all of us.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 23, 2020. 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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