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Striking Alabama Miners Are Done Playing Nice

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Jacob Morrison | North Alabama Area Labor Council, AFL-CIO

Hundreds of UMWA miners remain on the picket line at the Warrior Met Coal mine.

BROOKWOOD, ALA.?—??“You ain’t working tonight!”

That was one of the picket line chants heard June 15 as several hundred members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and their allies attempted to block strikebreakers from entering the Warrior Met Coal mine.

With tank tops that read ?“scab bullies,” supporters stood shoulder to shoulder with the miners while police pleaded for protesters to move their trucks. No one would claim the vehicles.

“Who is in charge?” one of the officers asked.

“Everyone,” answered Haeden Wright, president of a local UMWA women’s auxiliary unit, a close-knit group of union members’ wives and supporters. ?“We are the UMWA.”

Police eventually towed the vehicles, but the standoff would last for hours. One miner offered a simple explanation: ?“This playing nice shit ain’t cutting it.”

The picket line had grown contentious before. In May, about two months after the strike began, Tuscaloosa police arrested 11 leaders of the UMWA and the Alabama AFL-CIO for blocking one of the mine’s 12 entrances. They all spent the night in jail and, according to the union, were given a warning: If they’re arrested again, they will be held until trial.

Along with threats from police, striking miners have faced other attacks?—?including three separate vehicular assaults in June, in which drivers plowed into UMWA picketers.

“Warrior Met personnel, either management or nonunion workers, have repeatedly struck our members, who were engaging in legal picket line activities, with their vehicles,” UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said in a June 7 statement. ?“We have members in casts, we have members in the hospital, we have members who are concerned about their families and potential of violence against them if they come to the picket line.”

The work stoppage, which follows the months-long campaign to unionize Amazon warehouse workers in nearby Bessemer, is one of the country’s most significant mining strikes in decades. On April 1, upward of 1,100 workers walked off the job as their contract with Warrior Met expired. The union reached a tentative agreement with management a week later, but rank-and-file members rejected it, claiming it failed to address demands for better hours and wages. The miners remained on strike.

When the UMWA signed its most recent contract in 2016, it agreed to significant concessions to save the jobs of workers laid off by the mine’s previous owners, Jim Walter Resources, with the understanding that new management would eventually reward workers for their sacrifice. Those concessions included an average wage cut of $6 (from $28 to $22), mandatory seven-day workweeks, loss of overtime pay and, perhaps most crucially, an end to full healthcare coverage.

“Our members are the reason Warrior Met even exists today,” Roberts said in a March 31 statement. ?“They made the sacrifices to bring this company out of the bankruptcy.”

While cheaper and greener alternatives threaten the coal industry, companies like Warrior Met, whose coal is used in the production of steel, enjoy a measure of security. Warrior Met reported a net loss of $21.4 million in the first quarter of 2021, but CEO Walter J. Scheller, III says the company is ?“strongly capitalized and well-positioned to restart our growth trajectory” after the pandemic and is negotiating in good faith.

Meanwhile, strikers are struggling. The UMWA has provided members with weekly payments of $350, but that’s a fraction of their lost salaries. Roberts estimates the strike costs the union more than $1 million per week. To supplement these payments, the UMWA created a strike fund that has directed hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from other unions and groups directly to the miners. (Full disclosure: the North Alabama Area Labor Council, of which the author is secretary-treasurer, has contributed to the fund.)

The women’s auxiliary pantry has collected tens of thousands of dollars more. Local markets have also allowed the unit to purchase bulk groceries at wholesale for miners and their families.

“Miners have always been their brother’s keeper,” says Braxton Wright, a long-time UMWA member and Haeden’s husband. ?“They’ve always stuck together as a group, even outside of work.”

Haeden sees the strike as part of a bigger struggle. ?“We know about Blair Mountain, we know about Mother Jones, we know Harlan, and we know what it takes to move a company,” she says. ?“That’s hard for people to understand if they have never been a part of [this].”

Fourteen miners clad in camo-print UMWA T?shirts took the fight to Wall Street on June 22 to protest three hedge funds with substantial stakes in Warrior Met?—?BlackRock Fund Advisors, State Street Global Advisors and Renaissance Technologies?—?that the union blames for stalled talks. Among others, labor leaders Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, and Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, marched alongside them.

Their battle cry remained the same: ?“No contract, no coal!”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 9, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Jacob Morrison is Secretary-Treasurer of the North Alabama Area Labor Council which represents thousands of union workers and co-hosts The Valley Labor Report, a union talk radio show on Saturday mornings from 9:30 to 11:00am on WVNNWGOL, and YouTube.


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‘We Want to See Our Families’: Frito-Lay Workers Strike Over 84-Hour Weeks, Meager Raises

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Dan DiMaggio | Labor Notes

Frito-Lay workers in Topeka, Kansas, have been on strike since Monday over low pay and forced overtime.

Some workers have been forced to work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, for weeks on end due to short staffing. They want to see that change.

“Nobody I know loves Frito-Lay enough that they want to live there,” said Monk Drapeaux-Stewart, a box drop technician, responsible for keeping the plant’s machines supplied with cardboard. “We want to go home and see our families. We want to have our weekends off. We want to work the time that we agreed to work—and hopefully not much more than that.”

‘BOTTOM OF THE LADDER’

The last several contracts have featured lump sum bonuses most years, leaving wage rates stagnant for most classifications. Drapeaux-Stewart said he’s only gotten a 77-cent increase over the last 12 years.

Meanwhile, the Topeka area has attracted several new manufacturing facilities and large warehouses over the past 20 years, taking advantage of its location smack in the center of the country, with access to a number of highway arteries. The Frito-Lay facility, which has been around for 50 years, now competes for workers with a Mars chocolate facility, a Bimbo bread bakery, and Home Depot and Target distribution centers, as well as a Goodyear tire plant that opened in 1945 (workers there are members of the Steelworkers). A Walmart distribution center is slated to open in September.

“Between all those industries, Frito-Lay sits at the bottom of the ladder as far as wage scales,” said Mark Benaka, business manager for Bakery Workers (BCTGM) Local 218, which represents workers at Frito-Lay and Bimbo. Other local facilities have offered significant wage increases in recent weeks, Benaka said, but Frito-Lay continues to offer pennies.

“Fifteen, 20 years ago Frito-Lay had a really good reputation—all you need is a high school diploma and you’ve got this job with good pay and benefits,” said Drapeaux-Stewart, who started working at the facility 16 years ago. “But slowly all of that has been whittled away.”

That’s made it difficult to maintain workers—and led to the mountains of forced overtime.

“Conditions are really just deteriorating as each contract rolls by,” said Cheri Renfro, an operator in the Geographic Enterprise Solutions department, where workers fulfill orders for smaller mom-and-pop shops and gas stations.

Renfro estimated that the company brought in more than 350 employees in the last year—and lost the same amount. “You have to wonder as a company why wouldn’t you question that—say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’”

CONTRACT VOTED DOWN

Last week, workers voted down the latest contract offer from the company, which included a 2 percent wage increase this year and a 60-hour-a-week cap on the amount of hours a worker can be forced to work. The wages weren’t enough and the overtime cap would have meant more senior workers being forced in on weekends, workers say.

Other issues fueling workers’ anger include safety, a punitive attendance policy, and pressure from inexperienced supervisors competing for promotions. “This storm has been brewing for years,” Renfro wrote in a letter to the Topeka Capital-Journal, in which she outlined examples of the plant’s “toxic work environment,” including management keeping the line going after a worker collapsed and died and refusing bereavement leave for a worker whose father passed away during the Covid lockdown, since there was no funeral.

In late June, Local 218 members voted 353 to 30 to approve a strike.

“In the past people were afraid to go on strike—you keep hoping every contract is gonna be better,” said Renfro. “But as time has gone on the company has proven they are not gonna get better and they are not gonna work with us.”

SNACK SURGE

Frito-Lay is a division of PepsiCo and has been a major contributor to the company’s bottom line, earning $1.2 billion in profits on $4.2 billion in revenue in the first quarter. Last year, the division was responsible for over half of PepsiCo’s operating profits, with profits of $5.3 billion on $18.2 billion in revenue. PepsiCo also owns brands including Mountain Dew, Quaker Oats, Gatorade, Tropicana, and Aquafina.

Topeka is one of the largest of Frito-Lay’s 30 U.S. manufacturing facilities; most are nonunion. The 850 workers there make, package, and ship nearly every type of Frito-Lay snack: Lays potato chips, Tostitos, Cheetos, Sun Chips, Fritos, every flavor of Dorito, and more. Six hundred are members of Local 218 (Kansas is a right-to-work state).

The plant never slowed down during the pandemic, workers said. Instead, production increased, as people ate at home more and bought more comfort foods like chips. “I’ve learned that when something’s hitting Americans beneath the belt, the two main items that never suffer are snack foods and alcohol,” said Benaka, who retired from the plant in 2017 after 37 years.

Workers were at one point given an extra $20 a day to work during the pandemic, up to $100 a week—but that only lasted a few weeks. “I don’t know if they were afraid we were gonna get used to the higher wage,” said Renfro.

Production at the plant fluctuates seasonally—it’s busier in the summer and around big holidays and the Super Bowl. Workers are used to overtime during those periods. But recently the overtime has become constant. “Now we’ve having overtime when we shouldn’t be,” said Renfro—and a lot more of it.

‘I’M DONE WITH GIVING EVERYTHING TO FRITO-LAY’

Renfro said she worked 73 hours during the week leading up the Fourth of July, and then worked from 3 a.m. until 3 p.m. on the holiday. “I went to sleep—I didn’t even hear the fireworks, I was so tired.”

“I’ve had to miss going to so many holidays because I’m getting forced,” said Renfro. “I’ve had to call my mom and tell her I couldn’t make it. I don’t want to miss those moments anymore. I’m done with giving everything to Frito-Lay—my time, my holidays.”

One of the most hated forms of forced overtime at the plant is being forced to work a “suicide.” That’s when the company makes a worker stay four hours on top of their eight-hour shift, and then forces them in four hours early before their next shift—leaving them only eight hours off.

Drapeaux-Stewart said these shifts have become increasingly common, especially in departments with the worst understaffing, like the warehouse. “It’s crazy that this has become the blue-collar everyday [worker’s] new normal.”

EMPTY SCAB BUSES

The company has set up a parking lot a mile from the plant. It’s running coach buses from the lot every 15 minutes to shuttle in temporary workers and out-of-state scabs.

But strikers suspect that the buses are a ruse. “Most of these buses are completely empty, or have one to three people, not counting the driver,” said Drapeaux-Stewart. “It’s psychological warfare—they’re trying to demoralize and dispirit the men and women of the union in the hopes we’ll come groveling back for whatever crumbs they offer us.”

Benaka said the company also appears to be pulling empty trailers in and out of the facility to intimidate workers. “You’re talking about folks who’ve worked at this facility 30 or 40 years—they know what an empty trailer looks like.”

Strikers are also monitoring the facility’s smokestacks to get a sense of the strike’s impact. “There’s been no smoke, no steam, no nothing, no sign of production at all,” said Drapeaux-Stewart.

“Usually there’s always an odor coming out of Frito-Lay, but it’s been smelling really good outside,” said Renfro.

Local supporters have been donating food and water to the picket line. Some local restaurants have said they will stop serving Pepsi products. A local magazine, 785, has set up a fund to help strikers pay their water bills.

“I’m really amazed at the community support,” said Renfro. “It makes you proud to be a part of this community.”

“It’s scary but it’s exciting,” said Drapeaux-Stewart. “I have so much hope for this strike that we will finally get what we’ve needed—the guarantee of getting to see our families, and earning a living wage to support those families.”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on July 10, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Dan Dimaggio is an assistant editor at Labor Notes.


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Portillo’s Food Chain Walk Out on Strike

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Jeff Schuhrke (@JeffSchuhrke) | ??????

A group of non-unionized workers at the Chicago-based chain staged a week-long walk out, part of a growing wave of strikes in the area.

Alleging unfairly low pay and employer mistreatment, a group of non-unionized workers at Portillo’s?—?a popular Chicago-based restaurant chain serving hot dogs, Italian beef and Polish sausages?—?staged a seven-day strike last week. 

“All we want is to be treated decently, to be treated fairly, to be paid fairly,” said striking worker Armando Huerta.

The strikers?—?all Latino?—?work at Portillo’s Food Service in suburban Addison, where the food served at the company’s nearly 50 Chicago area restaurants is prepared. They say that management has failed to replace their coworkers who left during the pandemic, instead expecting them to perform more labor while offering only a $0.35-per-hour raise.

“I was working before four days a week, and now I’m working six days a week,” explained Paty Córdova, another striker. ?“The company refuses to give us overtime. We are tired of the injustice of having us work double.”

Out of 25 employees at the Addison facility, 17 participated in the work stoppage, which lasted from June 28 to July 5. Most say they have been with Portillo’s for over a decade. According to Córdova, they have been trying to address workplace issues with management for the past four years.

“Thanks to the company for the good years, but enough is enough,” Huerta said last Friday at a rally outside Portillo’s flagship restaurant in Chicago’s River North neighborhood.

The strike was organized by the workers themselves with support from Arise Chicago, a 30-year-old worker center founded by diverse faith leaders. The employees, who don’t have a union, first reached out to Arise Chicago last November. They soon formed a workplace committee to collectively bring their concerns to management.

“We have tried to engage in talks with management at several levels?—?corporate, the plant manager, human resources?—?and none of them have responded to us,” Córdova said. ?“So we created this committee, this group, and we go by the motto: ?‘An injury to one is an injury to all.’”

On June 28, the committee attempted to deliver a set of demands around safe working conditions and higher wages to the company. Managers refused to meet with them and allegedly said, ?“if you don’t like it, go home.” The workers responded by hitting the picket lines.

“The Portillo’s leadership team is committed to hearing from each of our team members individually and will continue to do so,” the company said in a statement. 

But Córdova said that this approach isn’t good enough: ?“They keep insisting on meeting with them one-on-one, individually, but we are not going to allow that because we don’t want to be intimidated at those individual meetings.” 

Portillo’s management described the strikers as ?“a small group…[that] does not speak for our team members,” but was clearly shaken by the work stoppage. The company had to bring in temp workers to ensure food production continued, and allegedly resorted to intimidation by sending letters to some strikers threatening to fire them if they didn’t return to work. Arise Chicago says the latter is an Unfair Labor Practice and has filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

The company eventually agreed not to discipline any of the strikers, and they returned to work together on the morning of July 6. Concerned that management might attempt to lock them out, the workers were accompanied back into the Addison facility by faith leaders from Arise Chicago. 

“I have mixed emotions because we know the struggle isn’t over yet,” striker Jesus Victoria told In These Times. ?“But walking in after our strike, I felt capable and courageous demanding what is just.” Victoria and the other strikers report that they did not face any immediate discipline after going back to work, but they noted that the company held one-on-one meetings with each of them.

The non-unionized Portillo’s workers got the attention of Association of Flight Attendants International President Sara Nelson, who tweeted about the strike last week, saying: ?“Workers are the Labor Movement, the power and purpose. They don’t have time for leadership to catch up. They are showing us the way. We have to run hard to help them form their unions that will mean lasting change and sustainable rights.”

Meanwhile, at least two other groups of Chicago-area workers were also on strike over the Fourth of July weekend. 

At Dill Pickle Food Co-op?—?a member-owned grocery store in the Logan Square neighborhood?—?workers unionized with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) staged a two-day strike on Friday and Saturday. 

The IWW says Dill Pickle management has been violating the collective bargaining agreement that’s been in place since last November, and is refusing to settle over allegations of unfair discipline, retaliation and unilateral of implementation of new policies brought to the NLRB. 

I’Talia McCarthy, the co-op’s general manager, called the union’s allegations ?“unfounded” and said that eight cases with the NLRB have been closed ?“with no enforcement action or adjudication.” 

“Their distrust, and the repeated suggestion that the Co-op is violating its contract with the union, is not only a misrepresentation?—?it is damaging sales,” McCarthy said. ?“At this time, the Co-op could really use support, not suspicion.”

But according to the IWW, the labor board ?“found merit” in the workers’ complaints.

“Dill Pickle Worker’s Union is on strike to save the co-op,” the union said on Saturday. ?“They demand that management settle rather than fight the National Labor Relations Board and bankrupt the store in the process.”

At the same time, 2,500 Cook County workers with SEIU Local 73 kept up their indefinite strike that began on June 25. The strikers include frontline employees who continued coming into work throughout the pandemic, including technicians, medical assistants, custodians, clerks and others at the county’s hospitals, health clinics, offices, courthouses and jail.

The striking Local 73 members?—?primarily Black women?—?are some of the county’s lowest paid workers. Now on day 14 of their strike?—?and nearly nine months into contract negotiations?—?they say Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s bargaining team is pressuring them to accept minuscule raises while simultaneously increasing their health insurance costs by 70 to 80 percent.

The county workers have received widespread support from the local labor movement, community organizations, faith leaders, and socialist and progressive elected officials?—?and have received hundreds of individual donations to their strike solidarity fund.

On July 7, a group of Local 73 workers held a sit-in outside Preckwinkle’s office after neither she nor her staff accepted a letter from allies in the faith community.

Preckwinkle’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Cook County nurses with the National Nurses Organizing Committee also held a one-day walkout over staffing shortages on June 24. Afterward, they won a new contract that includes a commitment from management to hire 300 new registered nurses over the next 18 months, along with 12 to 31 percent pay raises.

For their part, the Portillo’s workers who were on the picket lines for a week plan to continue organizing now that they’ve returned to work.

“We are in this fight together and we will be fighting until the end,” Córdova said.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 8, 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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Chicago Nurses Are Going on Strike—And Management Is Bringing in Scabs Through a Text Blast

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Jeff Schuhrke (@JeffSchuhrke) | Twitter

Nurses and support staff in the Chicago area are joining other militant healthcare workers across the country by walking off the job, despite attempts by their bosses to hire strikebreakers.

On Thursday, over 2,700 Chicago-area nurses and support staff at Cook County Health (CCH) are planning to go on strike, the latest example of rising worker militancy in the healthcare sector. 

The National Nurses Organizing Committee (NNOC) and SEIU Local 73?—?which respectively represent 1,250 nurses and 1,500 medical aides, therapists, technicians, clerks, housekeepers, food service workers and patient transporters at CCH?—?have each been in contract negotiations with the county since last fall. 

Citing dramatic staffing shortages, the two unions are teaming up to demand CCH invest in employee recruitment and retention by improving pay and benefits.

Rather than investing in long-term employees, the unions say CCH has been increasingly relying on temp workers hired through staffing agencies like SnapNurse. With the threat of a walkout looming, management is aggressively trying to bring in even more temps to serve as strikebreakers.

In These Times obtained a text blast sent out by SnapNurse last week seeking prospective scabs. Referencing ?“a pending strike notice in Chicago,” the text message explains that strikebreakers will be paid between $4,620 and $6,468 per week?—?more than regular CCH nurses make. ?“Respond with STRIKE to deploy,” the message says.

CCH and SnapNurse did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but in an email to employees last week, CCH’s recently hired CEO Israel Rocha, Jr. said management was ?“taking all steps necessary to ensure the delivery of safe patient care in the event of a strike.”

“Nurses are at the breaking point throughout the Cook County Health system,” said Consuelo Vargas, an emergency room nurse at Stroger Hospital and a chief representative of NNOC. ?“We need more nurses on staff, and we needed them yesterday.”

Consisting of Chicago’s Stroger and Provident Hospitals, as well as over a dozen clinics in the city and suburbs, CCH is one of the nation’s largest public health systems. Its predominantly Black and Brown patients are often uninsured or under-insured, meaning they delay seeking care and therefore face critical health needs. Stroger Hospital, which has the busiest emergency room in Illinois, treats the highest number of Chicago’s gunshot victims (and was the setting of the hit television show ER in the 1990s).

The nurses and support staff say that instead of valuing their labor and listening to their concerns, the county has been dragging out negotiations, offering paltry raises that wouldn’t keep up with the cost of living and seeking to double the amount employees pay for health insurance.

“We are striking because we are tired of being mistreated, undervalued, underserved, disrespected and cast aside,” said Eugenia Harris, a ward clerk at Stroger Hospital and SEIU Local 73 member. 

The nurses plan to be on strike for 24 hours, but may call more strikes in the near future. The SEIU Local 73 members?—?who already held a one-day work stoppage at CCH in December—intend to hold an open-ended strike.

“Our members are willing to strike for as long as it takes to achieve a fair contract,” SEIU Local 73 President Dian Palmer said. ?“It is time for Cook County to take these negotiations seriously.”

Over the past 15 months, healthcare workers have been on the front lines of the Covid pandemic, organizing and striking in states like IllinoisWashington and New York to secure adequate personal protective equipment and safer staffing levels. In Massachusetts, union nurses at St. Vincent Hospital have been on strike for more than 100 days?—?the longest nurse’s strike in the United States in over a decade. Meanwhile, thousands of previously unorganized nurses in North Carolina and Maine successfully voted to unionize in recent months.

The pandemic has fueled the uptick in healthcare worker militancy because it ?“revealed to a lot of us how little our employers care about our lives, and frankly how little they care about our patients’ lives,” Elizabeth Lalasz, a clinical nurse at Stroger Hospital and NNOC steward, told In These Times.

Throughout the pandemic, Vargas said, ?“hospital management has abused, disrespected and abandoned us. Because management treats nurses as expendable, we were not given adequate personal protective equipment, and over 150 of us tested positive for Covid-19.”

NNOC and SEIU Local 73 are calling on management to tap into some of the $998 million in federal funds Cook County is receiving from the American Rescue Plan to invest in the healthcare workforce. 

“Every day we learn of another experienced nurse who resigned for a better job because Cook County has failed to provide them with the resources they need to provide the best care to their patients,” Vargas explained. ?“With each loss of an experienced nurse, we see years of skills and expertise vanish. In one six-week period, I saw a hundred years of experience walk out of my department.”

CCH CEO Rocha’s salary is $650,000 a year. His predecessor, who was dismissed by the Cook County Board of Commissioners in late 2019, received $542,000 in severance pay.

“It doesn’t make any sense for upper management to be making that kind of money when we desperately need people to be recruited and retained,” Lalasz said. ?“We need money for staff and support on the front lines, not for money to be given upwards, or pocketed.” 

This would be the third time in the past two years that SEIU Local 73 went on strike in conjunction with a fellow union. In 2019, Local 73 workers at Chicago Public Schools hit the picket lines alongside their colleagues in the Chicago Teachers Union. And last year, 4,000 Local 73 workers at the University of Illinois at Chicago went on strike at the same time as hundreds of UIC nurses with the Illinois Nurses Association.

Besides its members at CCH, nearly 1,000 SEIU Local 73 members at Cook County Jail and other county offices are also set to strike on Thursday. 

Both Local 73 and NNOC have expressed disappointment in Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who is the ultimate decision-maker on management’s side. Preckwinkle, who doubles as the chair of the Cook County Democratic Party, unsuccessfully ran for Chicago mayor in 2019 on a pro-union platform with the backing of Chicago’s progressive unions.

“For years I’ve worked in politics, particularly with Toni Preckwinkle, who said she would work with the unions to ensure they had contracts with fair wages. She’s turned her back on us,” said veteran civil rights activist James Phipps, a Local 73 member who works at the county clerk’s office. 

Preckwinkle did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but she issued a statement last week calling the staffing shortage at CCH ?“a mutually shared concern.” Regarding management’s demand to raise health insurance costs for workers, she said it has been six years since the last hike and that a new increase ?“is needed in this round of bargaining.”

“It doesn’t matter, you have a billion dollars in Covid relief money and yet you’re asking us to double our healthcare and only take a minimal increase in pay,” Lalasz said in response to Preckwinkle’s statement. ?“We shouldn’t be the people who are suffering…Without us doing the work we do, this hospital system will not function.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 23, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke has been 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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Essential food workers strike over $1 in New York City, this week in the war on workers

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Remember back in April when everyone suddenly realized that food chain workers are essential workers? A group of workers in the Bronx is trying to make good on that realization as they negotiate their next contract—and it’s led to a strike, as the bosses at the Hunts Point Produce Market refuse the workers’ call for a $1 an hour raise and added help with healthcare costs. Union representatives say that hundreds of workers have gotten COVID-19 and six have died, but New York City has gotten the food it needs—the 1,400 Teamsters workers at the market handle around 60% of the city’s produce.

“We’re working in a pandemic, now risking our life, every day, and you want to give us less than what you gave us the last time in a normal situation?” union trustee Charles Machadio told Gothamist. Pointing out that management rhetoric about the “continued uncertainty surrounding the pandemic” is in sharp contrast with the fact that the produce market has remained open throughout, Machadio thinks this is more than just a normal wage dispute: “I think they’re using the pandemic to try and get out of the contract.”  

The market is offering 32 cents in added pay and 60 additional cents toward healthcare coverage.

Rallying with the workers on Wednesday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said “Our entire city needs to stand by our essential workers. And it’s not enough for us to just say it and it’s not enough for, you know, we have to say thank you to all of our essential workers from our nurses to our food workers to the folks loading the trucks. But it’s not just enough to say thank you. We have to support them in their demands for a better life.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on January 23, 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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Work Is the Reason Latinos Are Getting Slammed So Hard by the Pandemic

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The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout have hammered the Latino community.

Latinos make up 40 percent of COVID-19 deaths after adjusting for age, according to the Centers for Disease Control, but only 19 percent of the population. This is the biggest disparity of any major ethnic or racial group.

Why the disproportionate impact? The reason is work.

Latinos are highly overrepresented in “low-wage hazardous jobs,” said Jessica Martinez, co- director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH), and in “essential jobs that continue to work despite the peaks in COVID.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Latinos represent 18 percent of the working population, but 35 percent of the workforce in slaughterhouses and 23 percent in seafood processing.

“Sixty or 70 percent of Latino workers don’t have the chance to do teleworking,” said Jorge Mújica, an organizer at the worker center Arise Chicago. “They have to show up to the factory or the warehouse.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly half of non-Latino white workers are able to telework.

“So you get 25 workers getting sick in the workplace, and then they get 25 family members sick.”

Meatpacking and poultry plants have been particular hotspots for outbreaks of COVID. According to the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN), at least 49,000 meatpacking workers have tested positive for COVID.

“The companies were not providing any personal protective equipment,” said Magaly Licolli, who organizes poultry workers with the Arkansas-based group Venceremos. “Social distancing was almost impossible because of the way that these plants are structured—workers work shoulder to shoulder.”

At the same time that many Latino workers were forced to continue to work in cramped conditions, many others were being laid off. As the pandemic’s effects set in, the unemployment gap between white and Latino workers tripled, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Latinos work disproportionately in restaurants, hotels, and construction.

As a result, according to Pew Research, 59 percent of Latinos reported that their households suffered lost wages or jobs, compared to 43 percent of the overall population. The study was conducted in May.

NOT IN A VACUUM

COVID intensified the damage of “decades of structural and strategic racism,” said Martinez. “We are seeing the impact of long-term discriminatory practices in health care, employment, housing, and education.”

Latinos are more likely to be uninsured and undocumented. That means it’s harder to get treatment for COVID symptoms—and harder to get the economic relief that they disproportionately need.

For example, the checks sent out to individual taxpayers by the government were sent only to those who were documented. Even those who were part of married couples where one partner is undocumented were deemed ineligible, except for military households.

There are 10.5 million undocumented people and 16.2 million people in mixed-status families in the United States.

At work it is no different. Working at a poultry plant is extraordinarily dangerous. The line moves fast, repetitive motions often cause carpal tunnel syndrome, and workers handle chemicals whose long-term health effects are unknown, with little oversight from the government. Typically the plants are built in isolated rural spots, where workers have little recourse against intimidation on the job or discrimination in town.

SIXTY CHICAGO STRIKES

With the support of groups like Arise Chicago and Venceremos, Latino workers are fighting back against dangerous work conditions during the pandemic.

Mújica says that in the early days of the pandemic, his group was receiving between 80 and 100 calls and messages a day from workers seeking help because they had sick co-workers or even co-workers who had already died. Arise Chicago launched a campaign to assist workers to strike to defend their health.

They produced letters for workers to present to their employers, saying, “I’m sorry, but since you are so irresponsible, we are taking matters in our own hands. And we are going into quarantine,” Mújica said. Around 60 groups of workers went out on strike through this process, mostly in April and May.

Subsequently, as pandemic conditions eased, Arise Chicago produced video workshops on Facebook addressing questions about a safe return to work that have received over 380,000 views.

The group is also helping workers to form unions.

CALL THEM UP

Licolli said she was forced to turn away from in-person communication because of the pandemic and had to rely on phone calls to organize poultry workers. She made calls to workers, dividing them up by company and plant.

“Workers were terrified” to speak up against management, “but also afraid of losing their lives,” said Licolli.

Through this process she helped workers identify their needs, like social distancing at work and personal protective equipment, and map their workplaces to identify leaders who could help organize. From there, Licolli and the workers created a petition that received 300 worker signatures. The group set up public rallies to draw attention to the poultry plant conditions and began attracting national media attention. Workers gathered videos from inside and gave testimonies to the media.

So far, workers at Tyson Foods, an Arkansas-based multinational food company, have received daily surgical masks, more sanitation stations, and two additional $500 bonuses if workers were able to meet attendance requirements. They have fallen short, however, of winning paid sick leave, which was one of their top demands, and the surge in COVID cases is making it difficult to continue having public events.

DRIVERS’ LICENSES FOR ALL

In Massachusetts, immigrant workers have continued to push for a key pre-pandemic demand, despite the new obstacles to organizing: driver’s licenses for all. In July, the Pioneer Valley Workers Center and the undocumented-led Movimiento Cosecha (Harvest Movement) led an occupation at the steps of the Massachusetts capital for 13 days.

Undocumented workers have been demanding driver’s licenses for years because they need to travel long distances within the state to get to and from work. A single arrest due to racial profiling or a minor traffic offense can lead to detention and deportation.

One alternative to driving yourself is to carpool—often with a management rep driving, for an exorbitant fee, as frequently happens in farm work. This was uncomfortable and unsafe before—but as Andrea Schmid of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center points out, in a pandemic it’s also yet another health risk.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on November 30, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Saurav Sarkar is an Assistant Editor of Labor Notes. Saurav previously worked for the Poor People’s Campaign, as a staff writer for the business daily Mint in New Delhi, India, and at the National Union of Teachers in the United Kingdom. He also started the blog South Asia Labor Watch. Saurav covers worker centers, immigrant workers, LGBTQ workers, the Steelworkers, the Electrical Workers (UE), and the global labor movement.


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“This Strike Is a Fight for Our Lives”: Healthcare Workers Are Walking Off the Job to Demand Pandemic Protections

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As a strike wave sweeps the U.S. health­care indus­try amid the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic, 700 front­line work­ers at 11 Chica­go-area nurs­ing homes have been on the pick­et lines since Novem­ber 23. 

Pri­mar­i­ly Black and Lati­na women, the strik­ing work­ers are mem­bers of SEIU Health­care Illi­nois & Indi­ana and include cer­ti­fied nurs­ing assis­tants (CNAs), dietary aides, house­keep­ers and laun­dry work­ers. They are fight­ing for at least $15 an hour, haz­ard pay and ade­quate per­son­al pro­tec­tive equip­ment (PPE).

Their employ­er, Infin­i­ty Health­care Man­age­ment?—?a for-prof­it chain oper­at­ing sev­er­al nurs­ing homes across Illi­nois and four oth­er states?—?recent­ly received $12.7 mil­lion in fed­er­al Covid-19 relief, but has so far refused to meet the work­ers’ demands after near­ly six months of con­tract negotiations. 

The strike is coin­cid­ing with oth­er health­care-relat­ed work stop­pages around the coun­try, sig­nal­ing grow­ing work­er unrest as the twin pub­lic health and eco­nom­ic crises con­tin­ue to wreak hav­oc on work­ing-class Amer­i­cans?—?par­tic­u­lar­ly Black and Brown communities.

In New York, over 1,000 nurs­es with the New York State Nurs­es Asso­ci­a­tion (NYS­NA) held a one-day strike at Albany Med­ical Cen­ter Hos­pi­tal on Decem­ber 1, while 200 oth­er NYS­NA nurs­es at Mon­te­fiore Hos­pi­tal in New Rochelle orga­nized a two-day strike on Decem­ber 1 and 2. At both loca­tions, nurs­es are demand­ing improved safe­ty pre­cau­tions and bet­ter pay.

Mean­while, in Wash­ing­ton state, over 100 doc­tors, physi­cian assis­tants and nurse prac­ti­tion­ers with the Union of Amer­i­can Physi­cians and Den­tists staged a two-day strike last week at 20 urgent care facil­i­ties run by Mul­ti­Care Health Sys­tems after being forced to work 12-hour shifts with­out breaks.

The strik­ing SEIU work­ers at the 11 Infin­i­ty-run nurs­ing homes in Chica­go and sur­round­ing sub­urbs plan to stay out indef­i­nite­ly until a con­tract set­tle­ment is reached.

Long-term care facil­i­ties have been at the epi­cen­ter of the pan­dem­ic in the Unit­ed States, account­ing for an esti­mat­ed 40 per­cent of coro­n­avirus deaths in the coun­try. In Illi­nois, a stag­ger­ing 52.1 per­cent of all Covid-19 deaths have been tied to nurs­ing homes. 

The Infin­i­ty-run facil­i­ties have seen some of the high­est Covid infec­tion and death rates in the state. At Infinity’s City View Mul­ti­Care Cen­ter in Cicero, there have been 249 cas­es, while the company’s Niles Nurs­ing and Reha­bil­i­ta­tion facil­i­ty has had 54 deaths. In May, City View under­went a court-ordered inspec­tion after the city of Cicero sued the facil­i­ty for fail­ing to abide by health guidelines.

“I’ve seen sev­er­al res­i­dents that I was very close to pass away because of lack of staffing,” a res­i­dent of an Infin­i­ty nurs­ing home said on a recent SEIU-host­ed livestream. The res­i­dent, who chose to remain anony­mous, said she has also wit­nessed the work­ers at her nurs­ing home get coro­n­avirus because they were giv­en inad­e­quate PPE.

“If I could phys­i­cal­ly take my [Social Secu­ri­ty] check out of the own­ers’ hands and put it in the arms of the CNAs, the nurs­es, I so would, because they deserve it,” the res­i­dent tear­ful­ly said.

Shan­to­nia Jack­son, a CNA at City View, told In These Times that one of her cowork­ers?—?a friend of hers who was set to retire in June after work­ing 24 years at the facil­i­ty?—?con­tract­ed the virus and passed away in March.

“This strike is a fight for our lives, and espe­cial­ly for our res­i­dents’ lives,” Jack­son explained. ?“The nurs­ing home indus­try is set up like a ware­house. Nobody wants to live in a ware­house. It’s their home, so it should be treat­ed as their home.”

A union stew­ard, Jack­son has worked at City View for five years and is respon­si­ble for as many as 70 res­i­dents per shift, but only makes $14.30 per hour. Some employ­ees at Infin­i­ty-run facil­i­ties make as lit­tle as $11.50 an hour despite being clas­si­fied as essen­tial workers.

“They call us heroes, but they don’t treat us like heroes,” she said, adding that the strike isn’t ?“just about a buck, it’s about the dig­ni­ty and respect of the work­ers that come every day” despite the risk of coronavirus.

The nurs­ing home work­ers have the over­whelm­ing sup­port of the com­mu­ni­ty. Sev­er­al social­ist and pro­gres­sive mem­bers of the Chica­go City Coun­cil, as well as activists and lead­ers from oth­er local unions, have joined them on the pick­et lines, while the work­ers’ strike fund has raised over $10,000 from pub­lic donations.

Illi­nois Gov. J.B. Pritzk­er has also come out in sup­port of the strik­ers. ?“Giv­en the sig­nif­i­cant fed­er­al and state finan­cial sup­port for nurs­ing homes dur­ing this pan­dem­ic, it’s impor­tant that work­ers see that fund­ing reflect­ed in their work­place, in their safe­ty and their pay,” Pritzk­er said.

“This is the first time I’ve been on strike,” said Jack­son. ?“It’s rough, but if you want some­thing and you believe in it, you got­ta do it. Now I know the pow­er of strik­ing, of hav­ing a union.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 2, 2020. 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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2018 and 2019 hit a 35-year high for major strikes, this week in the war on workers

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Large work stoppages, aka large strikes, had been on the decline for years. That turned around in 2018—going from 25,300 workers involved in major strikes in 2017 to 485,200 in 2018—and stayed relatively high in 2019, the Economic Policy Institute reports.

“Through 2017, the general trend was downward, but there was a substantial upsurge in workers involved in major work stoppages in 2018,” Heidi Shierholz and Margaret Poydock write. “On average, in 2018 and 2019, 455,400 workers annually were involved in major work stoppages—the largest two-year pooled annual average in 35 yearssince 1983 and 1984.” A significant number of them—10 in 2019—were really large strikes, involving at least 20,000 workers.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on February 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

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Major campaign to organize tech and video game industries launches, this week in the war on workers

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There are increasing signs that workers in the tech industry are starting to see themselves as … workers. Maybe it’s the 100-hour workweeks as video game companies get products ready for launch, or maybe it’s the layoffs that come after a big release. Maybe it’s the increasing realization that companies such as Amazon and Wayfair are doing terrible work for the Trump administration, and that their employees are helping make that happen and have no control over it.

Workers at tech companies have staged a series of walkouts over a variety of issues, and subcontractors for Google recently unionized. Game Workers Unite, a grassroots group, has called for unionization in the video game industry. Now, following conversations with Game Workers Unite and with one of its founders onboard as a full-time organizer, the Communications Workers of America is launching a major organizing drive, the Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE).

”We’ve been watching the amazing organizing of workers across the industry,” CWA organizer Tom Smith told the Los Angeles Times. “And workers themselves reached out to us while doing that amazing self-organizing, and said, ‘Can we do this in partnership with the CWA?’”

This could get very interesting—and it could really underline the point that unions are not just for blue-collar workers.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on January 11, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

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Chicago teachers reach tentative agreement but one key thing is missing to end strike

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The Chicago Teachers Union reported a tentative agreement with schools management Wednesday night, but Mayor Lori Lightfoot is holding up the end of the strike in a disagreement over make-up instructional days. In previous strikes, the schools have added make-up days to the end of the school year—but Lightfoot doesn’t want to do that.

Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey spoke highly of the tentative agreement, saying in a statement that “This deal will move us closer to ensuring that our most vulnerable students receive the instruction, resources and wraparound services they need to thrive. No educator wants to leave their classroom, but our 10-day struggle was the only option we had to enshrine, ensure and enforce real change for our students and school communities. This contract will put a nurse in every school, a social worker in every school and provide a real solution for thousands of homeless students in Chicago.” But, he said, “By not restoring days of instruction to our students lost during the strike, the mayor is making it clear that she is more concerned about politics than the well-being of students.”

Lightfoot objects to the make-up days because teachers would be paid for those days, saying “I’m not compensating them for days that they were out on strike.” Which is … not what would be happening since they would be working those days, but way to try to score a cheap political hit on your way out!

Lightfoot and schools management had supposedly been very concerned about instructional time (at the expense of the prep time teachers pressed for), but apparently that wasn’t really such a concern. The teachers also expressed frustration at Lightfoot’s admission that “There’s a lot of work that we could have done sooner, but we didn’t start to do really until the strike”—making her own lack of preparation in large part responsible for the length of the strike.

The teachers report that the agreement includes 209 additional social workers, 250 additional nurses, investments in staff education and recruitment, $35 million a year to reduce class size, and added funding for sports coaches and equipment.

The agreement has been accepted by the union’s House of Delegates, which would allow the strike to end if an agreement can be reached on make-up days. The CTU’s full membership would then vote on ratifying it. On Wednesday, school staffers in SEIU 73, who went out on strike with the teachers, voted to ratify their own contract.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on October 31, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

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