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Volvo Workers Forced to Vote Again on Contract They Just Rejected

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Jane Slaughter, Author at LA Progressive

Auto Workers (UAW) officials are fed up with their striking members at Volvo Trucks in Virginia and are helping the company get them back to work under a contract members have rejected—three times.

The strike has been running on and off, through three ratification votes, since April 17. Each time, local and International officials have urged members to vote yes despite huge increases in health care costs and continuation of an onerous two-tiered wage.

The first two votes were 91 and 90 percent no; the latest, on July 9, was 60 percent no. As one worker, Carrie Davis, said on Facebook: “They know they only need to scare 11 percent to get it to pass.”

Volvo is using several scare tactics, and union officials are stolidly repeating the information (UAW Local 2069 President Matt Blondino: “That’s what we’re here for”):

  • Telling workers that if they vote yes on Wednesday, on the same agreement turned down last week, they will return to work with a $2,000 bonus ($1,000 for new hires). If they vote no, they’ll come back with no bonus.
  • Telling workers that the most recent rejected agreement is Volvo’s “last, best, and final offer” that will not change no matter what. “They said no matter how you vote, you’re going to work under this contract,” explained one worker who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.
  • Threatening not to carry through on planned investment and construction in the plant.

In one case, the UAW is not repeating Volvo’s line. Volvo asked workers to cross picket lines and return to work today. UAW officials have asked workers to stay out until the vote and said line-crossers will not be allowed to vote on ratification. It’s estimated that 20 to 25 have crossed.

Today, member Rhonda Sisk filed an unfair labor practice charge against Blondino with the National Labor Relations Board, for refusing to share with members a copy of the entire proposed agreement. Sisk says this secrecy indicates that there are hidden surprises. Blondino was on the picket line today, she said, urging a yes vote.

NO STRATEGY

Local and International union officials have offered no strategy or information about how to defeat Volvo’s tactics. Blondino indicated that an unfair labor practice against Volvo, for imposing the agreement, could be filed—but first, members have to vote on the agreement they just rejected.

The worker quoted above summed up members’ experience: “We have fought against the company and our own union for a fair contract. …The company is strong-arming us with the threat of that bonus.”

The UAW’s Heavy Trucks Department, of which the Volvo plant in Dublin, Virginia, is a part, was previously led by Ray Curry. He was involved in the earlier attempts to pass a concessionary contract in Dublin. On July 1, Curry was appointed international union president by the executive board.

You’d think a man who wants to continue as union president would not crush a strike of his members—but until now, UAW presidents have been well insulated from member opinion. They have been elected at controlled conventions where delegates obediently raise their hands for the status quo.

But UAW members now have the chance to switch to a one-member-one-vote system; they will vote in a referendum this fall whether to do so. It’s their chance to inject some accountability into their union.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on July 12, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Jane Slaughter is a former editor of Labor Notes and co-author of Secrets of a Successful Organizer.


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A Charter School Named For the Author of “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” Is Union Busting

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Writers Guild of America Honors Hamilton Nolan for Digital Organizing -  Variety

At Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Massachusetts, teachers say a hostile administration is trying to crush their union.

In 1968, Paulo Freire, a famous Brazilian philosopher, authored the book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a Marxist argument for using education to empower the downtrodden. In 2013, a charter school named in his honor was founded: the Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School (PFSJCS), located in Chicopee, Massachusetts. Now, in a display of the universe’s sense of humor, teachers at PFSJCS say that the school’s leadership is engaging in union busting.

In March 2020, the school’s professional staff of about 26 people?—?mostly teachers, along with a few other employees such as guidance counselors?—?unionized with UAW Local 2322 in Massachusetts. Zack Novak, one of the teachers who helped lead the union drive, said that several years of experience working in unionized public schools had led him to expect certain standards of treatment that he didn’t see at PFSJCS. ?“At charter schools in general, the climate is much different. I noticed people being treated unfairly by the administration,” Novak said. ?“The only way to get ahead was if the powers that be liked you. That’s not an equitable environment for teaching staff.” 

Novak sent out an email notifying everyone at the school that the staff had unionized in March of last year. The same day, he says, he was pulled into a meeting with administrators, which he interpreted as an assertion of their power. At the end of the school year, he said, he was offered a new contract to come back?—?but that contract was rescinded before the next school year began, for no apparent reason. He believes that his involvement in organizing the union was the motivating factor. 

In July 2020, the school hired Gil Traverso as its new executive director, to replace a retiring predecessor. Since then, union members say, labor relations have been awful. According to Carol Huben, a PFSJCS teacher, the first ominous sign was ?“a really strong pattern of not responding to union communications.” Next, she said, teachers were warned or disciplined after posting innocuous pro-union messages in their Zoom backgrounds at bargaining meetings. 

Then, Huben said, came the most serious blow to the union: a dozen teachers whose contracts were up last year were ordered to reapply for their own jobs?—?and none of them were rehired. The union said in a press release that ?“no explanation was offered for their non renewal of contracts.” Huben also said that management is warning newly hired teachers to beware of the union. The union has filed complaints over more than 20 incidents since Traverso’s hiring, teachers said. 

Gil Traverso did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Such aggressive hostility towards the union is puzzling for Novak, who points out that such high turnover among the teaching staff is correlated with worse learning outcomes for students. But he sees the administration’s anti-union behavior as a basic expression of pure power politics on the job. ?“People want to organize, and the bosses don’t want them to,” Novak said. ?“They enjoy disproportionate power over the workplace.”

On June 23, PFSJCS union members are planning an ?“informational picket” outside of the school, and the union plans to drum up public support in the community. Though similarly absurd situations have arisen before?—?in 2017, for instance, there was a union busting campaign at a charter school named for Cesar Chavez—the hypocrisy of the pressure they’re facing is not lost on the teachers. 

“It certainly is quite ironic,” Huben said, ?“that the school that uses Paulo Freire’s name, who was a labor activist, is choosing to use his name to union bust.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 22, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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The Roots of Today’s White Collar Union Wave Are Deeper Than You Think

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Writers Guild of America Honors Hamilton Nolan for Digital Organizing -  Variety

At UAW Local 2110, Maida Rosenstein has quietly organized the most prestigious group of cultural institutions on the East Coast.

Before the recent wave of organizing among media workers, adjunct professors and nonprofit workers set the world talking about the promise of white collar unions, there had already been decades of quiet organizing among the white collar creative underclass. A surprising amount of that organizing has been done by a single local union: UAW Local 2110 in New York City, which with little fanfare helped to pioneer the sort of unionizing that routinely draws headlines today. 

Beginning in the 1980s, the union organized workers at a list of cultural institutions including the Museum of Modern Art, the Village Voice and HarperCollins Publishers. More recently, Local 2110 has been organizing the museum and culture industry at a furious pace, at places like the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the New York City Tenement Museum and the Children’s Museum of the Arts. In just the past year, the union has added the Portland Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Whitney Museum, the Brooklyn Museum and Film at Lincoln Center, among others. (They also found time to help lead a strike against a pricey private school.)

Local 2110 is led by Maida Rosenstein, who joined after leading a campaign to unionize administrative staffers at Columbia University in the 1980s. She has spent more than three decades assembling what may be the most prestigious collection of cultural institutions in America in a single union local, all with a resolutely anti-elite organizing model of keeping the door open to everyone. In an interview, Rosenstein offered the long view on the white collar union trend that continues in earnest to this day. 

On the reason the UAW doesn’t just organize autoworkers: 

“UAW calls itself an industrial union, and they’ve long had a view of trying to organize companies broadly. There were always a certain amount of office workers, even in the Chrysler plant or whatever. When District 65 [the union she originally joined] affiliated with the UAW, they affiliated more on the ground of progressive politics than anything else. Walter Reuther took the UAW out of the AFL-CIO during the Vietnam War era. That was really where the affiliation came from. We in District 65 actually brought in a lot of the white collar organizing.” 

On the recent popularity of unions:

“I do think there’s a generational thing. The millennial generation is a lot more pro-union than my generation was. At least in the blue cities, it seems like there was a wave of people who after Bernie Sanders, and after Trump was elected, embraced the idea of organizing. People went from Occupy Wall Street, where everybody was doing their own thing, to saying ?‘We have to get organized politically.’ I feel like that did carry over?—?unions made [sense to] a lot of people when they thought about their disgruntlement at work. The millennial generation have been so much more open towards it.”

On unionizing the museum industry:

“In museums, there have been these big shifts, with the expansion of the number of employees, and a lot of money flowing in as they’re very involved in land expansion projects, etc. They have these very corporate boards and much more highly paid leadership, and then they bring in a ton of younger, educated people and pay them really low wages. Most of them are working there for idealistic reasons, and in large numbers.

“I thought the pandemic would put a stop to that, would kill our organizing. And it didn’t. In some ways it made it easier. Museums and all these institutions were shut down, and a lot of people were furloughed or laid off. Their institution betrayed them. A lot of people saw that and felt they had no recourse, and it was very disappointing. They wanted to do something about it. Also, we found a way of organizing virtually, too. There were certain things about it that made it more accessible. All these people got on these Zoom meetings, because really they had nothing to do. They were home, they were upset and they were isolated. This was something to really make a difference. And it really took hold.

“The pay issue is a really big one. Especially in larger institutions, they have these trustees who are just like dripping with money. Museum leadership is starting to be like university presidents, where it’s very obviously out of whack, and you have people who are paid really poorly. Museums are absolutely terrible at having large numbers of staff being very precarious, like the front line staff who do visitor services and the store. A lot of them are part time, some of them are seasonal. They get paid like minimum wage or a little above. In almost every museum it’s like that. Very few of them have full time jobs. And even the more skilled positions?—?art handlers, museum educators?—?those have been converted into per diem positions, on-call positions, intermittent work. They basically work the way a freelancer would work.

“Even the people who are in the full time professional positions are paid very low. You know this from journalism: You’re a writer, and now you’ve been busted down and people are making like $50,000 a year. And that’s what happened in museums: You’re a curator and you’re making $50,000 or $60,000 and living in Boston, New York or Portland. It’s not very much money.”

On why the publishing industry has been slower to unionize:

“You have corporations that are gobbling each other up. It’s like unbridled capitalism, and it’s very, very difficult. They can move, merge, subcontract, do all these things with no control. Nonprofits can do a lot?—?universities like Columbia are notoriously anti-union, and they do a lot of bad things?—?but museums and universities so far haven’t been able to move some place. They can’t really pick up and leave. We’re still doing better in the nonprofit sector than we are in the for-profit sectors.”

On the Village Voice, a media union pioneer:

“The union at the Voice was amazing when I first met people there. At that point the newsroom was like 175 people or 200 people. It was very, very vibrant. They really ran the paper, they had so much control.”

On craft unions vs. industrial unions:

“The arts unions, the craft unions, they have done a phenomenal job for their members, but they are very focused and deeply wedded to their occupations. I think administrative staff, for instance, have really been overlooked in a lot of these institutions. We were appealing to them in a lot of ways. In the museums they are [wall to wall unions that include everyone], but not all of them. We can’t always get wall to wall.

“No one is organizing museums in a [systematic] way?—?no one has targeted this and said, ?‘This is a strategic target, we’re doing all this research.’ We’re a local union. We have opportunities to organize, we’re taking it. We’re just trying to push the envelope forward where we’re able to.”

On the difference between the 1980s and today:

“When I was organizing, it was like, ?‘A union, in an office? What are you, kidding? That’s very blue collar.’ People said ?‘I don’t want to wear a uniform, I don’t want to punch a time clock.’ At Columbia, they did a full out anti-union campaign. They told us, ?‘With a union you’ll have to go to meetings downtown. The union will come between a secretary and her boss.’ It was really also sexist and elitist. It was hard. They ran an anti-union campaign, and we won our election at Columbia by eight votes out of 1,100 people. It was a total squeaker. People were terrified.

“One thing I’m noticing is that the anti-union campaigns [now] seem less effective. And there’s been more exposure. No one had ever heard of an anti-union campaign. It was like a secret that bosses did this. And now it’s out there. Everybody knows about Walmart, or Amazon or Delta. The fact that there was actual press on that stuff is amazing to me!”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 17, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Volvo Workers in Virginia Vote Down Bad Contract by 90 Percent—Again

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Jane slaughter (@Tracey_barmaid) | Twitter

Auto workers at Volvo’s truck plant in southwest Virginia have just voted down a concessionary contract by 90 percent—for the second time. Now they’re back on strike.

“The International union has been down here twice for town halls,” said Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2069 member Rhonda Sisk. “Each time we say ‘take it back, it’s garbage,’ and they just say they think it’s a good contract, but they don’t say why.”

The first vote came May 16, after a two-week strike that began April 17. Many workers were dismayed when their union sent them back to work and said they would be told later what had been bargained. When terms were finally revealed, they were outraged.

Apparently undeterred by the resounding rejection, union officials brought back a second agreement just four days later that workers described as nearly identical to the first. They voted no June 6, and officials announced the resumption of the strike at noon today.

“They made a billion-dollar profit off our labor and we got nothing,” said Sisk, a three-year assembler in the chassis department.

GET RID OF TWO-TIER

The 2,900 members had voted by 98 percent to authorize the first strike. Though union officials were close-mouthed about bargaining goals, rank and filers wanted to get rid of the two-tier wage system they had worked under for years.

The strike was solid, shutting down the largest Volvo truck manufacturing facility in the world.

It wasn’t easy finding out the first tentative agreement’s contents. A “highlights” pamphlet was distributed, but unlike the UAW’s practice at the Big 3 automakers, the entire proposed agreement was not put online. Workers could get a copy at the union hall, and soon the thick document was brought into the plant and copied.

One of the biggest insults in the first agreement, according to Sisk, was raising the cost of health care. Out-of-pocket costs would rise by the end of the contract to $2,000 a year, with a $4,000 deductible.

Under the current contract, workers are divided into “core”—those with more than 15 years’ seniority—and “competitive.” New hires start at $16.77 and get a dollar more each year for five years, up to a max of $21.77—far less than the core top pay of $30.02. Under the rejected agreement, though there are raises, “tiers are there to stay,” Sisk said. New hires in one assembler classification, for example, would get to $27 by 2026.

Language would have allowed union officials to agree to an unspecified Alternative Work Schedule such as “four 10-hour days, alternate shift operations, or other alternate schedules based on the needs of the business.” Time-and-a-half pay over eight hours in a day would be gone. These alternative schedules are popular with management at the Big 3 automakers—and very unpopular with many auto workers.

Another clause would have made workers take 40 hours of vacation in order to use FMLA.

A worker in the second-tier, “competitive” classification, who asked that his name not be used, said he wants a contract like the UAW’s pact at Mack Trucks (also owned by Volvo) in Pennsylvania, Florida, and Maryland, which “is like 40 times better.” That contract was won after a strike in fall 2019. He wants to see all workers reach top pay after three years of work. (In the 1970s, before the era of concessions began, new hires reached top pay after 90 days.)

HOW THEY REJECTED

A private Facebook group with 1,900 members was part of angry members’ organizing but, Sisk said, “most of it was just sitting and talking with people who had been there longer than we had.” There were no leaflets; members were forbidden to campaign during the vote at the union hall (where there was a police presence all day), nor were they allowed to observe the vote count.

One high-seniority worker posted a video of himself sitting on a toilet. He has cut up the tentative agreement and taped it around a toilet paper roll. A voice asks, “Dad, what do you think of the contract?” Another worker posted a picture of people burning the tentative agreement.

International officials tried to sell the first contract. “We thought Ray Curry would be there, who negotiated our contract,” Sisk said, “but he did not show up.” Curry is the UAW Secretary-Treasurer and head of the Heavy Truck Department; insiders say he will head the union’s “Administration Caucus” ticket when officers are elected next year.

At a contract information meeting, Dave Snyder of the International’s Heavy Truck Department became so exasperated with Sisk’s questions that he told her, “If you don’t like the agreement, you can go work somewhere else.”

“That blew up,” Sisk said.

The “competitive” worker said local officials did not campaign for the first contract. “It feels like it’s more the International than anything,” he said. “They’re playing more of a role than they should. The union is saying we gotta answer to the International, and whatever the International wants to do, they’ll do it. And we had no say or fight in that.”

To try to ensure a fair vote, workers encouraged each other to bring a black pen to mark their ballots. (When they had elected the bargaining team, officials told them to use pencil, and many workers think that election was fraudulent.) They took pictures of their “no” ballots alongside their company badges; Sisk—who had predicted the 90 percent no vote well before it happened—said that hundreds of such pictures were posted to Facebook.

On the first day back in the plant after the first vote, officials circulated a survey asking members’ top five issues to fix. “Everybody’s saying, ‘It’s more than five!’” Sisk said. “They’re filling up the page front and back.”

“You can take that piece of trash back to the table and let them know we are not weak pushovers and if they want to continue using the best truck builders in the world as they call us then they can give us a fair contract!!” said one worker on the local’s Facebook page.

When some workers began a petition to recall the discredited bargaining team, using union bylaws, officials threatened that their move was illegal, accused them of union-busting, and called them communists.

This blog originally appeared at LaborNotes on June 7, 2021. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Jane Slaughter is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes.


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UAW and GM reach a tentative deal to end monthlong strike

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The monthlong strike by nearly 50,000 workers against General Motors may soon come to an end after GM and the UAW, the workers’ union, reached a tentative deal.

Under the deal, workers will reportedly get $1,000 in profit sharing for every $1 billion in profit the company makes, with no cap, as well as a contract ratification bonus of more than $8,000. The workers’ share of their health coverage costs will remain low, an important point in a physically grueling industry.

But the biggest things the workers were fighting for were good jobs beyond longtime union members. They wanted temp workers to have a path to permanent employment, permanent workers on a lower-tier pay scale to be moved up, and investment in jobs in the U.S. Details remain unclear, but the workers appear to have won some substantial improvements on these fronts.

The deal must be ratified by the striking workers, who will get a vote after it is first reviewed by the UAW’s National Council on Thursday morning.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on October 16, 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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GM poured billions into stock buybacks then closed plants

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Donald Trump is blaming the UAW for General Motors’ Lordstown, Ohio, plant closing. A Republican blaming a union for a massive company’s actions is not so surprising, but Trump is claiming that union dues are responsible, which is both strange and ignorant. Union dues are paid by workers to their union; they don’t come from the company. But a new report from Hedge Clippers and the American Federation of Teachers offers a better idea of who to blame for the Lordstown plant closing.

And guess what! GM, the company that decided to close the plant, says it needs to make $4.5 billion in cuts—through layoffs and plant closings—to survive. But “GM has given over five times as much money—$25 billion—to Wall Street hedge funds and other investors in the past four years, including over $10 billion in controversial stock buybacks.”

So, yeah. GM has money for stock buybacks, but not to keep its plants open and its workers employed.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on March 23, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

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Tesla Swears It’s a Fair Employer—Yet It’s Trying to Dodge a Law That Protects Workers

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Since 2013, Tesla has fought unfair-labor-practice complaints from the NLRB, insisting it’s not a union buster and that it maintains a safe factory. However, just a week before the company went in front of a judge to face some of these accusations, Tesla petitioned the state of California to get around a new labor regulation that would require the company to be certified as a “fair and responsible workplace.”

On June 11, Michael Sanchez, a Tesla employee who is currently out on medical leave, testified before an NLRB administrative law judge, claiming that he was asked to leave the company’s Fremont factory by a supervisor and security guards in February 2017 after he attempted to hand out pro-union literature. The hearing is part of a wider complaint that was originally filed against Tesla by the NLRB last August.

Tesla has denied these allegations, insisting that the company is being unfairly targeted by labor groups looking to sow division among workers.

However, just one week before Sanchez’s testimony, the company sent a letter to the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency asking to be exempt from a new state rule that would require the company to be certified as a “fair and responsible workplace” in order for Tesla customers to receive state rebates for buying electric cars. Those rebates are viewed as key enticements in Governor Jerry Brown’s plan to put 5-million zero emission cars on California’s roads by 2030.

Governor Brown stuck the rule into his cap-and-trade legislation from last year, in a move that was perceived as a win for organized labor. However, Tesla believes that the provision effectively means that the state has picked a side in the company’s labor battles and is unfairly singling them out.

“To be sure, Tesla is not perfect–no company is,” reads the letter, dated June 4. “But any objective analysis of our workplace, as opposed to the selective use of unrepresentative anecdotes in a company of almost 40,000 employees globally, demonstrates we are a leader in the workplace. There should be absolutely no question that we care deeply about the well-being of our employees and that we try our hardest to do the right thing.”

On May 23, the state put out a concept paper for public comment, which detailed how the new rule would potentially be enforced. As part of their application process for the customer rebates, companies would have to submit information about their workplace practices to the state. This would include information about the company’s illness and injury prevention program, the recordable worker injury rates, nondiscrimination measures, and policies for investigating workplace complaints, wage violations and safety concerns. Manufacturers would also have to submit a list of citations and charges brought against them by government agencies and any criminal charges that have been brought against them for workplace issues within the last five years.

The concept paper will be revised with the accepted comments, and then the unions will push for the final document to become law. The government agencies have suggested that full certification commence in two years, but the United Auto Workers (UAW) union, which has been pushing to unionize the company’s factory, wants it to take effect by July 2019.

In addition to the aforementioned NLRB complaint, which encompasses a number of different accusations, Tesla is also facing several discrimination lawsuits from former employees. Last November, a former African-American worker named Marcus Vaughn sued the company claiming that coworkers and supervisors consistently referred to him by the n-word. Vaughn alleges that when he complained about the treatment, he was fired for not having a positive attitude.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has repeatedly defended the company’s safety record publicly. In May, he went on a lengthy Twitter rant attacking the media for covering Tesla negatively, focusing specifically on a Reveal report that detailed how the company left workplace injuries off their books. Musk also criticized the UAW and declared that his employees didn’t actually want a union. “Nothing stopping Tesla team at our car plant from voting union,” Musk tweeted. “Could do so [tomorrow] if they wanted. But why pay union dues & give up stock options for nothing? Our safety record is 2X better than when plant was UAW & everybody already gets healthcare.”

When asked to explain what he meant by the stock option comment, Musk shifted to an observation about the Revolutionary War: “US fought War of Independence to get rid of a 2 class system!” Musk wrote, “Managers & workers [should] be equal [with] easy movement either way. Managing sucks [by the way]. Hate doing it so much.” Musk’s net worth is estimated to be about $18.2 billion currently.

The new rule and the NLRB hearing comes amid additional bad news for Tesla and its employees. After misjudging the speed at which they could produce their Model 3 vehicles, the company laid off more than 3,000 people—about 9 percent of their workforce. “We made these decisions by evaluating the criticality of each position, whether certain jobs could be done more efficiently and productively, and by assessing the specific skills and abilities of each individual in the company,” Musk wrote to the company in an email. “As you know, we are continuing to flatten our management structure to help us communicate better, eliminate bureaucracy and move faster.”

The rule could be codified as early as July.

This article was originally published at In These Times on June 15, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria


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Columbia grad students go on strike to protest university’s efforts to block unionization

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More than a year after graduate students at Columbia University voted to unionize with the United Automobile Workers, hundreds of students participated in a walkout Tuesday to protest the university’s refusal to bargain with them.

The students plan to stage a week-long strike during what is the university’s most hectic time, when students and professors are preparing for finals and the help of graduate teaching assistants, fellows, and research assistants is critical.

They claim that the university has “repeatedly ignored” the majority support among graduate students for the Graduate Workers of Columbia University-United Automobile Workers (GWC-UAW). This, despite the fact that efforts to unionize have been ongoing for more than three years.

The conflict between the university and its students regarding unionization is rooted in a fundamental disagreement about whether or not graduate students are university employees — students argue that they are, and the university contends that they’re not.

The distinction is not merely an issue of semantics, but one of rights, better wages, and improved working conditions. According to a January 2018 report by the Economic Policy Institute, graduate teaching assistants have taken on heavier workloads, have more responsibility when it comes to teaching and grading, and assume much of the research that ends up winning the universities grants and prestige.

“And yet the pay they receive rarely rises to the level of a living wage,” the report stated.

The EPI report found that between 2005 and 2015, the rise in graduate assistant and non-tenure-track faculty jobs surpassed that of tenured and tenure-track jobs, with the former currently making up approximately 73 percent of the academic workforce.

“The simple explanation for this increasing reliance on graduate and non-tenure-track faculty is that they are far less costly to employ,” the report reads.

In a statement last week, Columbia University provost John H. Coatsworth said “we believe it would not serve the best interests of our academic mission—or of students themselves—for our student teaching and research assistants to engage with the University as employees rather than students.”

Coatsworth noted that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has “repeatedly reversed itself on the status of teaching and research assistants over the past 15 years,” and called for a judicial review of the “still-unsettled question.” The most recent decision came in 2016, when the NLRB ruled that student teaching and research assistants at private universities are employees with the right to form a union. That ruling is expected to be reversed again under the current Trump administration.

Other universities across the country, including Harvard University and the University of Chicago, have also recently taken steps toward unionization. Harvard graduate students voted to unionize with UAW last week.

“This growing momentum makes clear that Columbia’s efforts to block our democratic rights here on our campus cannot hold back the rising tide of academic workers seeking to improve our conditions and make our universities more just and inclusive for all,” a statement posted on the GWC website on Monday reads. “Columbia administration needs to get on the right of history and negotiate with our union.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on April 24, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Elham Khatami is an associate editor at ThinkProgress. Previously, she worked as a grassroots organizer within the Iranian-American community. She also served as research manager, editor, and reporter during her five-year career at CQ Roll Call. Elham earned her Master of Arts in Global Communication at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and her bachelor’s degree in writing and political science at the University of Pittsburgh.


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Tesla Workers Say Elon Musk is a Union Buster. The NLRB Just Gave Their Case a Boost.

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Tesla factory workers have been trying for months to win restitution for the company’s alleged union-busting and harassment. Now, a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) complaint against the company appears to be making strides.

Last August, the NLRB filed a complaint against Tesla after finding merit in a number of accusations from employees at its Fremont, California factory. Some Tesla factory workers say the company engaged in various forms of union-busting, through harassment and surveillance. They also claim that Tesla required them to sign a confidentiality agreement which prohibited them from discussing the details of their working conditions.

On March 30, the NLRB amended the complaint to add new allegations from workers which the board found to have merit. In the new claims, Tesla workers say the company investigated them after they posted information on a pro-union Facebook page.

The case has now been scheduled to go before an NLRB administrative law judge in June. After hearing the case, the judge will issue a decision and recommended order. The fact that the complaints were deemed to have merit, and that workers will have their concerns heard, constitute significant developments in the case.

The amended NLRB complaint comes as Tesla, and its CEO Elon Musk, are being criticized for failing to live up to their production goals. After Tesla shares dropped last month, its engineering chief Doug Field sent an email to staff attacking people who doubted Musk’s vision. “I find that personally insulting, and you should too,” Field wrote in a March 23 email. “Let’s make them regret ever betting against us. You will prove a bunch of haters wrong.”

In an internal memo from March 21, the company also announced that a small number of “volunteers” would be brought in to help assist with Tesla’s Model 3 line. After Bloomberg reported this fact on March 29, Tesla informed the outlet that volunteer shifts would only take place on one day, while production of the company’s Model X and S cars was stopped. Employees who regularly work on those models could either volunteer to work on the Model 3, take paid time off, or take unpaid time off that day.  “The world is watching us very closely, to understand one thing: How many Model 3’s can Tesla build in a week?” Field wrote in his email to staff. “This is a critical moment in Tesla’s history, and there are a number of reasons it’s so important. You should pick the one that hits you in the gut and makes you want to win.”

The working conditions of Tesla employees, and their organizing efforts, were brought to the public’s attention last February when Jose Moran, a production worker at Tesla’s plant in Fremont, published a Medium post criticizing the company’s hourly wages and high number of preventable work injuries. “Tesla isn’t a startup anymore. It’s here to stay,” wrote Moran. “Workers are ready to help make the company more successful and a better place to work. Just as CEO Elon Musk is a respected champion for green energy and innovation, I hope he can also become a champion for his employees.” In his piece, Moran mentions that Tesla workers had reached out to the United Auto Workers (UAW) for assistance with their unionizing efforts.

Workers at the Tesla factory say they were reprimanded by management for printing copies of Moran’s post and attempting to pass them out, along with information about the UAW. Three workers cited this action in the charges that became part of the August complaint from the NLRB. Workers also claim they were harassed for wearing UAW shirts. The updated complaint claims that two workers were investigated and interrogated by Tesla after they posted company information in a private Facebook group called “Fremont Tesla Employees for UAW Representation.” Last October, one of the employees was fired and the other was given a disciplinary warning. Tesla said it fired the employee after he admitted to lying about the incident during their internal investigation.

That same month, Tesla fired 700 of its employees without notice or warning, about 2 percent of its entire workforce. The UAW promptly filed a federal complaint against the company, claiming that some of the employees were fired because they were part of the unionization efforts. On a quarterly earnings call last November, Elon Musk defended the firings and called criticisms of them “ridiculous.” He pointed to Tesla’s supposedly high standards for performance. “You have two boxers of equal ability, and one’s much smaller, the big guy’s going to crush the little guy, obviously,” said Musk. “So the little guy better have a heck of a lot more skill or he’s going to get clobbered. So that is why our standards are high. They’re not high because we believe in being mean to people. They’re high because if they’re not high, we will die.”

Last November, the UAW filed another complaint against Tesla. This one concerned its Gigafactory battery plant in Nevada. The filing, which was obtained by Jalopnik via an FOIA request, charges Tesla with intimidating, surveillance, and interrogating employees who participated in union organizing. The NLRB consolidated these charges into the ongoing complaint.

Earlier this month, Tesla released the following statement regarding the amended NLRB complaint: “These allegations from the UAW are nothing new. The only thing that’s changed since the UAW filed these charges is that many of the allegations have been outright dismissed or are not being pursued by the NLRB. There’s no merit to any of them.”

Legally, Tesla has to respond to the newest round of complaints by April 13. The case will go before an administrative judge on June 11.

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 12, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria


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King and Meany Brought Civil Rights and Labor Together for a Legacy That Continues Today

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Beginning in 1960, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and then-President George Meany of the AFL-CIO began a relationship that would help bring the labor and civil rights movements together with a combined focus on social and economic justice.

Meany was an outspoken defender of individual freedom, and in March 1960, he emphasized the crucial link between the union and the civil rights movements. He told an AFL-CIO gathering, “What we want for ourselves, we want for all humanity.” Meany met with King to privately discuss how they could work together. King proposed that the AFL-CIO invest pension assets in housing, to help lessen economic inequality. The AFL-CIO then established the Investment Department in August 1960 to guide union pension funds to be socially responsible investors.

The next year, King spoke to the AFL-CIO Executive Council, comparing what labor had achieved to what the civil rights movement wanted to accomplish: “We are confronted by powerful forces telling us to rely on the good will and understanding of those who profit by exploiting us. They resent our will to organize. They are shocked that active organizations, sit-ins, civil disobedience, and protests are becoming every day tools just as strikes, demonstrations, and union organizations became yours to insure that bargaining power genuinely existed on both sides of the table.” At the AFL-CIO Constitutional Convention later that year, Meany made civil rights a prominent item on the agenda, and King spoke to the delegates about uniting the two movements through a common agenda, noting that African Americans are “almost entirely a working people.”

Not only did the AFL-CIO provide much-needed capital to the civil rights movement, but numerous affiliates did as well. Several combined to give more than $100,000 to King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The UAW directly funded voter registration drives in predominantly African American areas throughout the South and paid bail money for jailed protesters. Meany and the AFL-CIO also used their considerable political influence in helping to shape the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Union activists were a key part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom as well. The Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO endorsed the march, as did 11 international unions and several state and local labor councils. A. Philip Randolph, then-president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was a key organizer of the event. UAW President Walter Reuther was a speaker at the march, condemning the fact that African Americans were treated as second-class economic citizens.

King’s final act in pursuit of social and economic justice was in support of the sanitation strike in Memphis, Tennessee. After his death, then-President Lyndon B. Johnson sent the undersecretary of labor to settle the strike, and the city acceded to the demands of the working people, leading to the creation of AFSCME Local 1733, which still represents sanitation workers in Memphis.

In 1964, Meany sent a letter to all AFL-CIO affiliates outlining an new pathway that would directly support housing construction and homeownership. In 1965, the Investment Department helped establish the Mortgage Investment Trust, which was the formal embodiment of the socially responsible investment plan and gave a boost to badly needed affordable housing construction. In 1984, the Mortgage Investment Trust was replaced by the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust, one of the first socially responsible investment funds in the United States. Since it was created, the HIT has grown to more than $4.5 billion in net assets and has helped finance more than 100,000 affordable housing units and helped create tens of thousands of union jobs.

The partnership between civil rights and labor launched by King and Meany has helped the country make great strides in the intervening years, and the partnership continues.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on January 12, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.


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