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Joe Biden Says He Stands With Unions. This Is His Moment to Prove It.

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Mark Dudzic on Single Payer

The longest national nurses strike in over a decade could also be a “watershed moment” for Medicare for All.

Speaking on the recent National Solidarity Call in support of striking nurses at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, Our Revolution leader Joseph Geevarghese characterized the situation as ?“Biden’s PATCO Moment.” The call was convened by the Labor Campaign for Single Payer to help mobilize national support for the 800 nurses at the Tenet Healthcare-owned hospital who are now engaged in the longest nurses strike nationally in over a decade. Tenet has spent more than $75 million to date to prolong the strike. A fraction of those funds could have easily met the nurses demands for the staffing improvements that are the sole issue driving the strike.

Now Tenet is threatening to permanently replace the striking nurses who are represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA). This action, by a notorious healthcare profiteer (Tenet leveraged federal bailout funds intended to provide urgent relief to employees and patients to triple its profits at the height of the pandemic last summer), has transformed a hard fought strike battle into a red line issue for the entire labor movement.

For those of us old enough to remember, it evokes the rampage of union busting that followed the Reagan Administration’s mass firing of striking air traffic controllers in the notorious PATCO strike of 1981.

Busting the air traffic controllers’ union sent a signal to employers everywhere that it was acceptable for management to break strikes and bust unions. In quick order, striking workers from copper miners in Arizona to newspaper workers in Detroit found themselves permanently replaced. Even more significantly, it changed the balance of power in labor/?management relations as labor’s most powerful weapon was neutralized. This ushered in a devastating period of concessionary bargaining whose consequences are still being felt today.

Reagan’s decision to fire the striking PATCO members was not some isolated act of pique by an outraged president. In fact, his administration jumped at the opportunity to give teeth to its explicit policy to weaken and undermine the considerable power of the U.S. labor movement. And it was very successful.

The U.S. labor movement was slow to respond to this provocation. Both of us can remember standing on the National Mall on Solidarity Day in 1981 with half a million other union workers. It had taken the AFL-CIO more than six weeks after the initial firings to call the rally and they chose to hold it on a Saturday when Washington was shut down tight for the weekend. As we dozed in the sun listening to endless speeches, we could see the planes taking off and landing unimpeded just across the Potomac at National Airport. What should have been a forceful exhibition of labor power had been turned into a demonstration of our impotence. Like many others who were there that day, we vowed to never let another PATCO moment go unchallenged.

Tenet is a key player in a major strategic sector of the economy. If it is able to make the threat of permanent replacement an acceptable management tool in healthcare bargaining, it will weaken the entire labor movement for decades to come.

That’s why the Labor Campaign for Single Payer and other labor groups are stepping up to support the nurses and their union. They will be joining the MNA at a rally on July 7 in front of Tenet Headquarters in Dallas. They are also circulating a petition urging members of Congress to join Reps. Katie Porter (D?—?Calif.) and Rosa DeLaura (D?—?Conn.) in requesting an investigation into the use of taxpayer-financed Covid-19 relief funds by Tenet and other large hospital systems.

This strike could be a watershed moment for the Medicare for All movement by exposing the corrupt and anti-worker underpinnings of our for-profit healthcare system. ?“The simple fact is that, if we had Medicare for All, we wouldn’t even be in this fight,” said LCSP National Coordinator Rhiannon Duryea. ?“Nurse-to-patient ratios would be set by law, ensuring safe and effective staffing ratios across the country that protect nurses, patients, and the community. Hospitals would not be able to exploit nurses and patients to line shareholder pockets.”

This strike could also be a watershed moment for the Biden administration. Ronald Reagan reversed a 40-year policy to promote the right of workers to organize and to bargain collectively. Before Reagan, corporations feared using the permanent replacement option because the federal government had made it clear that it would not tolerate such brutal behavior in the course of labor relations. After Reagan, it was open season on workers and their unions. Inequality skyrocketed as wealth was massively redistributed upward.

President Biden, to his credit, has vowed to reverse these trends. He has made a number of statements explicitly supporting worker rights and has appointed a number of pro-union advocates to key policy positions.

This is his chance to send a message to Tenet and corporate America that there’s a new sheriff in town. We need to challenge the Biden administration to put its money where its mouth is and to intervene forcefully in this conflict. The president must make it clear that permanently replacing lawful strikers is contrary to the policy of the U.S. government.

Tenet is not alone in trying to pull the rug out from under an upsurge in labor militancy. There are a number of current and pending labor battles where management is engaging in overt union busting, including months-long strikes by coal miners in Alabama and steelworkers employed by Allegheny Industries as well as a nasty lockout of refinery workers at a giant Exxon/?Mobil facility in Beaumont, Texas.

You can be sure that employers everywhere are watching how the Biden Administration reacts to these crises. As Our Revolution’s Geevarghese told the participants on the Solidarity Call, ?“This strike creates the opportunity for President Biden to undo what President Reagan did.” It’s an opportunity that should not be squandered. 

This story was first posted at Common Dreams.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 6, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mark Dudzic is National Coordinator of the Labor Campaign for Single Payer.


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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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How Employers Punish Workers for Forming Unions

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

Solvay decided to play games instead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

About the Author: Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).


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Tate’s Bake Shop threatens workers with deportation, this week in the war on workers

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Workers attempting to unionize at Tate’s Bake Shop are getting hit with an all-too-common, and totally vile, union-busting message: They say they’re being threatened with deportation

Yes, Tate’s—now owned by Mondelez International—hired an anti-union consultant, who apparently looked at the company’s many undocumented workers and went for the threat that would scare them the most. It’s an illegal threat—undocumented workers are explicitly allowed to unionize under the National Labor Relations Act—but a potent one.

“They began threatening people based on their immigration status, telling them that if their documents are not in order and they attempted to join the labor union they would get deported,” said Cosmo Lubrano, president of the Eastern States Joint Board of the International Union of Allied, Novelty and Production Workers.

”People are scared to talk,” a Tate’s sanitation worker told Gothamist. “They’re scared to express themselves.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on March 13, 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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Why Amazon Is Fighting So Hard to Stop Warehouse Workers From Unionizing

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Thousands of warehouse workers at an Amazon plant in Bessemer, Alabama, are at the center of a potentially game-changing union vote taking place right now. On February 8, the warehouse workers were sent ballots by mail to decide over the next seven weeks if they want to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Just getting to this point was a major victory considering the aggressive union busting by the world’s largest retailer and the fact that employees are working during a pandemic. If workers vote affirmatively, they would have the first unionized Amazon workplace in the United States.

Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the RWDSU, described to me in an interview the shocking details of what he calls “the most aggressive anti-union effort I’ve ever seen,” aimed at the 5,800-strong workforce. “They are doing everything they possibly can,” he said. The company has been “bombarding people with propaganda throughout the warehouse. There are signs and banners and posters everywhere, even in the bathroom stalls.”

According to Appelbaum, the company is also texting its workers throughout the course of the day urging a “no” vote and pulling people into “captive-audience” meetings. Unsurprisingly, Amazon is resorting to the most commonly told lie about unions: that it will cost workers more money to be in a union than not. One poster pasted on the wall of the warehouse claims, “you already know the union would charge you almost $500 a year in dues.” But Alabama is a “right-to-work” state where workers cannot be compelled to join a union if they are hired into a union shop, nor can they be required to pay dues.

Complementing its heavy-handed in-person union-busting efforts is a slick website that the company created, DoItWithoutDues.com, where photos of happy workers giving thumbs-up signs create a veneer of contentment at the company. On its site, Amazon innocently offers its version of “facts” about a union that include scare-mongering reminders of how joining a union would give no guarantee of job security or better wages and benefits—with no mention of how Amazon certainly does not guarantee those things either.

On the company’s own list of “Global Human Rights Principles,” Amazon states, “We respect freedom of association and our employees’ right to join, form, or not to join a labor union or other lawful organization of their own selection, without fear of reprisal, intimidation, or harassment.”

But in a page out of Donald Trump and the Republicans’ playbook, the company tried to insist that even in the middle of a deadly pandemic, the union vote must be “conducted manually, in-person, making it easy for associates to verify and cast their vote in close proximity to their workplace.” The National Labor Relations Board rejected Amazon’s appeal for a one-day physical election.

Ballots were mailed out to workers on February 8, and the union and its advocates are shrewdly using the seven-week-long voting period to campaign and encourage workers to vote “yes.” But Amazon is also continuing its efforts at countering the RWDSU. Organizers in Bessemer had taken to engaging the workers while they stopped at a red light upon leaving the Amazon warehouse. But the company, according to Appelbaum, “had the city change the traffic light so our organizers wouldn’t be able to speak to them.” (A statement from Bessemer city denies the claim.)

So aggressive are Amazon’s anti-union tactics that 50 members of Congress sent the company a warning letter saying, “We ask that you stop these strong-arm tactics immediately and allow your employees freely to exercise their right to organize a union.” Even the company’s own investors are so shocked by the tactics that more than 70 of them signed on to a letter urging Amazon to remain “neutral” in the vote.

The path to this union vote was paved by staggeringly high inequality that worsened during the pandemic as workers were stripped of their insultingly low hazard-bonus of $2 an hour while the company reaped massive gains over the past year. CEO and soon-to-be “Executive Chair” of Amazon, Jeff Bezos is the world’s second-richest man. He is now worth a mind-boggling $188 billion and saw his wealth increase by $75 billion, over the past year alone—the same time period that about 20,000 of his workers tested positive for the coronavirus.

Bezos’ announcement that he was moving into a new role at the company came on the same day that the Federal Trade Commission announced Amazon had stolen nearly $62 million in tips from drivers working for its “Flex” program. Appelbaum speculated that “what Bezos was trying to do was to create a distraction just like Trump would do,” and that “instead of focusing on the $62 million they stole from their drivers, people would talk about the fact that Bezos was getting a new title.”

Appelbaum sees the historic union vote in Bessemer as more than just a labor struggle. “Eighty-five percent of the people who work at the facility are African American. We see this being as much a civil rights struggle as a labor struggle,” he said. Indeed, conditions at the warehouse are so shocking that they sound like a modern-day, technologically enabled incarnation of slavery. “People were being dehumanized and mistreated by Amazon,” said the union president. He explained, “people get their assignments from a robot, they’re disciplined by an app on their phone, and they’re fired by text message. Every motion they make is being surveilled.”

Union advocates are countering Amazon’s combative anti-union efforts with their own information war. In addition to organizers talking to the warehouse workers in Bessemer every chance they get, an informational website Bamazonunion.org shares data from various studies about the dangerous working conditions in Amazon facilities. The site reminds workers that unions are able to win contracts where workers can only be fired for “just cause” and not on the whim of managers; that complaints against the company can be filed via formal grievances; and that wages and benefits are negotiated collectively.

As a proud union member of SAG-AFTRA, my colleagues and I at KPFK Pacifica Radio have benefited regularly from such protections even against a small nonprofit public radio station struggling to make ends meet. When faced with a ruthless for-profit corporation that has built its empire on the backs of a nonunionized workforce, Amazon’s workers are on the front lines of those who most need the protections a union can provide.

“This election is the most important union election in many, many years because it’s not just about this one Amazon facility in Alabama,” said Appelbaum. “This election is really about the future of work, what the world is going to look like going forward. Amazon is transforming industry after industry, and they’re also transforming the nature of work,” he said. Indeed, the level to which Amazon has fought against unionization at just one warehouse in Alabama is an indication of how important it is to the company that its workers remain powerless.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

About the Author: Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute.


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The Animal Legal Defense Fund Is Busting Its Union With a Smile

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The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) is a major nonprofit that boasts of its more than 40 years of ?“tireless pursuit of justice for animals.” When it comes to the pursuit of justice for working humans, however, its own employees say that it is badly failing the test. 

In mid-December, ALDF’s employees told the organization’s management that they intended to unionize with the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, a division of the IFPTE. They presented signed union cards representing a ?“super majority” of the 54-person staff, and asked for the ALDF to voluntarily recognize their union. Such voluntary recognition has become standard in the nonprofit world?—?the NPEU says that of the 35nonprofits it’s organized, only two have refused to recognize their unions. 

One of those two is the ALDF. According to employees and the NPEU, the ALDF responded to the news of the union drive by hiring the anti-union law firm Ogletree Deakins and embarking on a union-busting campaign that is now in full swing. That campaign has centered on an ongoing series of ?“captive audience meetings” in which managers gather employees in small groups to try to persuade them not to unionize, a tactic common among corporations intent on intimidating and misleading workers who seek to organize. 

An ALDF employee who supports the union, and who asked not to be identified due to fear of retaliation at work, said that the union drive came about because of the sort of disillusionment common in the nonprofit world, where people find that what they had seen as a ?“dream job” actually is nothing of the sort. After the killing of George Floyd, the staff’s dissatisfaction with what they saw as the organization’s ?“lukewarm, half-ass” response?—?as well as a perception of unfair pay rates, and inequitable treatment by managers?—?led directly to the desire to unionize in order to have a stronger voice in the workplace. ?“The people who control most of these [animal rights] organizations are largely white, and largely wealthy,” and uninterested in scrutinizing the flaws of ALDF itself, the employee said. ?“This is a huge problem for us. We’re a legal organization, so justice is paramount among our concerns… They think of us as being expendable because we have such coveted jobs.” 

The ALDF did not respond to a request for comment from its management. 

The organizing drive gathered steam through the summer, working in tandem with the NPEU, which has led an explosion of organizing among nonprofitsover the past two years. The employee says that it became clear that management knew about the drive by late October, so the unit made sure to present a large majority of signed union cards in December to make it ?“unambiguous that this is what people want.” Nevertheless, just before Christmas, management called a meeting and told everyone they would not be recognizing the union. 

Employees are upset that ALDF chose to hire Ogletree Deakins, the sameanti-union firm that the ACLU of Kansas hired last year to fight its own employee organizing drive?—?particularly because the firm works with clients in industrial agriculture, which employees see as being antithetical to ALDF’s mission. Though firms like Ogletree Deakins typically work to ensure that the employer’s anti-union campaign is as scary as possible while still following the letter of the law, they are not immune from comedy; ALDF employees found out about the firm’s involvement when a manager accidentally CC’d staffers on an email with an Ogletree attorney discussing details of an anti-union meeting.

“Anything short of recognizing your staff union in this political environment is union busting,” says Kayla Blado, the president of NPEU. ?“Management there doesn’t want to cede power to workers. They are using pretty infamous union busting tactics, the same things you see at big companies.” Blado says that the ALDF is not only forcing its employees to file for an NLRB election in order to certify their union?—?a process which will likely take months?—?it is also trying to challenge the size of the union, arguing to the NLRB that the number of eligible employees should be cut by a full two-thirds, which Blado calls ?“insulting.”

Employees at ALDF shared with In These Times notes that they took during three separate captive audience meetings with different managers. They paint a picture of a nonprofit using a standard anti-union playbook that would not be out of place at Walmart or an Amazon warehouse: a mix of encouraging comments about how management values employees’ opinions and that a union is not necessary to communicate with them directly, along with fearmongering statements painting the union as a predatory outside entity that is only out for dues money. Managers alternate between insisting that they want employees to speak up and change the organization from within, disparaging the NPEU, and warning that forcing the ALDF into bargaining with the union does not mean that employees will actually make any gains. One meeting even features the highest form of the anti-union meeting genre?—?the assurances that the people delivering the anti-union message are, in fact, strong believers in unions. 

At one point, a manager describes the ALDF’s outside attorney as ?“a really liberal blue guy,” adding, ?“He’s a management-side attorney, no doubt about it, but he’s just not a union-buster.” At another point, ALDF executive director Stephen Wells, who is leading the group’s decision to fight against the union, is described as ?“a really pro-union guy.” 

“It’s not like he’s an anti-union person,” the speaker says of Wells. ?“He’s really liberal, he’s really progressive.”

Depending on how long it takes to settle legal arguments at the NLRB and schedule a final vote, workers could be in for another two months or more of these sorts of meetings. Still, the ALDF employee says that the union-busting has not changed any minds, and is confident that the union will win. ?“It’s making people madder and more dedicated,” the employee says. ?“This is an act of love for this organization.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 13, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Bosses Are Charged with Breaking the Law in Over 40% of Union Campaigns

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Labor unions are more popular than they’ve been in over 15 years. Yet a record-low number of workers belong to them. The gap between the public perception of unions and their actual membership illustrates just how difficult it’s become for workers to organize.

In a new report, the progressive think tank Economic Policy Institute (EPI) found evidence that employers are increasingly brazen in seeking to obstruct workers’ attempts to unionize. Records of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which oversees private-sector labor rights and union elections, reveal that in more than 40% of the 3,260 union elections during 2016 and 2017, employers have been charged with unfair labor practices aimed at undermining electoral procedures and retaliating against pro-union workers.

About 30% of unfair labor practice (ULP) charges analyzed by EPI involved allegations of threats, surveillance or harassment of workers. Another 30% involved allegations of illegal discipline, with one in five elections marred by the charges of illegally firing workers for supporting the union. Workforce size is a factor: the highest rate of ULP claims—more than 50%—was seen among firms with potential bargaining units of 61 workers or more. The anti-union actions occurred at a higher rate during the two-year period than during the early 2000s.

This pattern of union busting could help explain why private-sector unionization has dwindled to just 6.4% in 2018. Ben Zipperer, co-author of the report, told In These Times that the study suggests “the hostile atmosphere towards labor, or basically the employer aggression against workers trying to form unions, is the main obstacle.”

In one case of election-related ULP claims, workers at Trump International Hotel Las Vegas, who sought to unionize with UNITE HERE in 2016, just ahead of Trump’s election, charged their employer with a number of retaliatory actions, including tightening supervision or increasing the workload of some employees, and “disparately enforc[ing] its new Grooming Policy” to coerce targeted workers into changing their hair color.

Although EPI does not cover the outcome of the cases (charges are often dropped and litigation might drag on for years), the prevalence of ULP charges is telling. It’s likely that the employees who file a formal legal charge represent only the fraction of workers who have the resources and wherewithal to wage a legal battle with their employer. After all, the most successful union-busting campaigns may be the ones that never come to light because the workers have been thoroughly suppressed—or ousted.

“Employers pursue a variety of tactics that would otherwise be illegal or unfair, that never make it to the charging stage,” says Zipperer, “because it’s a very difficult and lengthy process with little reward for the worker at the end.”

Filing an unfair labor practice charge is the basic tool that workers have to hold employers to account under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). To protect workers’ right to organize and maintain the integrity of union elections, under the law, employers cannot threaten to shut down a plant, or fire workers or take away their benefits if they seek to unionize. Bosses are barred from coercively interrogating workers about their union activities, or attempting to spy on them. The NLRA also broadly prohibits employers from discriminating against workers who support unionization—for example, by demoting or laying off workers who promote unionization to their coworkers.

While the NLRB should act as the central arbiter of labor relation, the agency has little leverage over employers that engage in union-busting. Typically, even if a company is proven to have acted illegally, the NLRB cannot force it to pay damages, beyond back wages and reinstatement. On top of those structural barriers, the current Republican majority on the NLRB ensures that whatever cases do go before the Board, there is a good chance they will result in an anti-worker ruling.

The overarching weakness of the NLRA is what it does not cover. Employers are free to deploy various anti-union tactics on their worksites, including broadcasting arguments against unionization and launching smear campaigns against the “third party” union organizers who threaten to undermine the workers’ relationship with their boss.

The market for anti-union tactics has given rise to a cottage industry of union-busting firms. Overall, EPI estimates that companies pour an estimated $340 million every year into “union-avoidance” consultants. Among the top spenders are Nestle, Fedex, Mission Foods and Trump International Hotel Las Vegas. The anti-union consultancies specialize in flooding workplaces with propaganda as well as orchestrating so-called “captive-audience” meetings, in which companies pressure workers to attend anti-union lectures.

Allegations of intimidation, retaliation and disinformation are at the center of recent clashes at GoogleHousing Works and Johns Hopkins University Hospital—a purportedly progressive tech giant and two nonprofits—where workers have accused their employers of using dirty campaign tactics to crush union drives.

The current unionization drive by Hearst employees has prompted the company’s executives to set up a microsite featuring pointedly biased explanations of the consequences of unionizing, according to Vice. Workers were warned, “All terms of pay, benefits, and working conditions would be up for discussion. No one can guarantee in advance what that contract would include.”

Last April, Labor Notes reported that at a captive-audience meeting at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, workers were bombarded with pro-business messaging from Gov. Bill Lee, who sang the praises of Volkswagen for bringing jobs to the state and telling workers it was best to “have a direct relationship” with the automaker, free of union interference.

While some aggressive anti-union practices are perfectly legal, EPI notes that the NLRA’s protections for workers’ organizing rights can be strengthened simply by giving the law real teeth. The recently introduced Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act would create civil penalties for abusive employers, ban captive-audience meetings and allow workers to press unfair labor practice claims in civil courts, rather than just the NLRB.

“One of the simplest things that we can do,” Zipperer said, “is we can actually make labor law matter by attaching meaningful and significant penalties to employers when they violate that law.”

Under the current legal framework governing union elections, the fact that unions remain so popular in public opinion surveys shows that despite the hostile political climate, workers still believe in the power of collective action. Imagine what might be achieved if labor law stopped getting in the way.

This article was originally published at In These Times on December 12, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.


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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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This Lawyer Helped Reagan Bust the Air Traffic Controllers Union. Now Trump Wants Him on the NLRB.

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Former President Ronald Reagan had a long history of clashing with organized labor, but his most infamous moment came in 1981, when he busted the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) and fired more than 11,300 air traffic controllers who were on strike. This act weakened the power of U.S. unions and set the stage for an all-out assault on organizing rights.

Thirty-six years later, Reagan’s lead attorney in the air traffic controllers case is poised to make decisions about thousands of unfair labor practices throughout the country.

As anticipated, President Donald Trump has nominated the management-side labor attorney Peter Robb, of Downs Rachlin Martin in Vermont, to serve as general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). This is a four-year position, and the individual who holds it is responsible for investigating unfair labor practices. Obama administration general counsel Richard Griffin’s term expires this November and, if confirmed, Robb would take over the position.

In 1981, Robb filed unfair labor practice charges against PATCO on behalf of the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) after a court ruled that the air traffic controllers’ strike was illegal. The FLRA case led to the decertification of PATCO, and Reagan subsequently banned most striking workers from federal service for their rest of their lives.

Reagan’s move set a new precedent for employers, emboldening them to attack labor more openly. In an interview with The Real News Networkfrom 2014, Joseph McCartin, Georgetown history professor and author of Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed Americaexplained the long-term impact. “When Ronald Reagan replaced the air traffic controllers [in] 1981, it was still not common for American employers in the private sector to deal with strikes by trying to break them and by permanently replacing workers who’d gone out on strike,” said McCartin, “Employers saw that Reagan was able to do this and, in effect, get away with it. Many private-sector employers took a similarly hard line when workers went out on strike in the private sector.”

Robb’s connections to union busting certainly don’t end with the landmark PATCO case. In 2014, he was hired by the Dominion Nuclear power plant when the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) began organizing workers. The Downs Rachlin Martin website contains a blurb boasting that Robb “represented a major national corporation in a National Labor Relations Board representation case proceeding, which had 34-days of hearing over 3 months to resolve 80 contested classifications covering hundreds of employees.”

In an interview this September, John Fernandes, a business manager for IBEW Local 457, told Bloomberg BNA that Robb represented used “scorched earth” tactics to thwart the organizing efforts. Fernandes says the plant added workers to the proposed unit in order to water down the union vote and sent videos of managers explaining the dangers of unionizing to the homes of employees. Ultimately, the plant was able to add more than 150 workers to the original petition and defeat the organizing drive.

“[Robb] handled most of the direct examinations, and his witnesses were well-schooled in advance—he’d ask one question and they’d go on forever,” Fernandes told Bloomberg BNA. “I was at a disadvantage, not being an attorney, but [the legal fees] would’ve been overwhelming for our local to pay … we certainly viewed it as union busting—it was a very long case.”

Robb also has previous connections to the NLRB. He worked as an NLRB field attorney in Baltimore during the late 1970s. He returned to the agency in 1982 as a staff lawyer and chief counsel for former member Robert Hunter. As a Republican, Hunter was an important ally to then-Chairman Donald Dotson, a staunchly anti-union member. In 1985, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) told The Washington Post that Hunter had been the, “most loyal supporter of Donald Dotson in the transformation of the NLRB into a fundamentally anti-union entity.”

More recently, Robb’s firm harshly criticized the Obama-era NLRB, as captured in a slideshow compiled by Robb and Downs Rachlin attorney Timothy Copeland Jr. The presentation took aim at some of the pro-labor positions made by the NLRB under the previous administration. “The [Democratic] NLRB majority continues to narrowly define NLRB supervisory status, sometimes defying all common sense,” one slide reads. New Republican members are “likely to agree that the Obama board went too far,” the slideshow explained.

One of the decisions that Robb objects to is a 2014 rule that cuts back the amount of time between the filing of a unionization petition and the union vote to 11 days. The GOP has been attempting to extend the number of days to at least 35. This move would give businesses more time to construct a plan to stomp out union activity, like the aforementioned Dominion Nuclear strategy.

“The NLRB has made it clear that the intent of the new regulations is to run an election as quickly as possible which, of course, will give the employer the shortest period of time to respond to a union election petition,” Robb and three other Downs Rachlin lawyers wrote in a 2015 advisory.

The Trump administration has already quietly laid the groundwork for the NLRB to emerge as a much more business-friendly entity. This reality was underscored in August, when Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta announced that Ronald Reagan would be inducted into the department’s hall of fame. Trump’s previous NLRB nominees all have connections to union-busting, and the expected nomination of Robb would effectively make the NLRB—responsible for enforcing labor law—an anti-labor agency.

This article was originally published at In These Times on September 21, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Trump is about to make America much crueler to unionized workers

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Since Election Day, unions have lived on borrowed time. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which has exclusive authority over many key questions of labor law, is still controlled by Democrats?—?thus shielding workers and their unions from attacks that became far likelier the moment Donald Trump was declared the winner of the 2016 election.

But this period of interregnum is about to end. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) began the process of confirming the first of Trump’s two nominees to the NLRB on Monday. When both nominees sit on the Board, a swift rollback of union rights is likely.

As soon as this week, the Senate is likely to vote on Marvin Kaplan, the first of these two nominees. A former GOP Hill staffer, Kaplan drafted legislation—strongly supported by business lobby groups—which would have made it easier for employers to fight unionization campaigns.

Trump’s other nominee, William Emanuel, is a veteran management-side lawyer who touts his “particular expertise with laws concerning union access to the private property of employers.” He’s also filed briefs in three cases claiming that employers can force workers to waive their right to bring class actions and similar lawsuits.

The NLRB is an unusual agency that functions very much like a judicial body. It is the only agency that can enforce certain portions of federal labor law, which protects the right to unionize, to engage in collective action within the workplace, and to have one’s employer actually bargain with a union in good faith.

While the NLRB employs lawyers who investigate and prosecute certain violations of labor law, the board members themselves function much like judges?—?sitting on individual cases and handing down precedential opinions interpreting the rights of workers, unions, and employers.

In recent years, however, the Board has grown increasingly partisan. By design, it has five board members, and three of those seats are typically controlled by the party that also controls the White House. For this reason, the Board’s understanding of labor law often lurches to the left and then to the right as control of the presidency changes hands.

During the second Bush administration, for example, the NLRB determined that workers with fairly minimal authority over their co-workers count as “supervisors” under federal labor law?—?and thus do not enjoy a legal right to unionize. The Board’s current Democratic majority, by contrast, appears much less eager to strip employees’ collective bargaining rights by declaring them “supervisors.”

Yet, while partisanship has shaped the NLRB’s decisions for quite a while, if Kaplan and Emanuel are confirmed, the Board will have a Republican majority for the first time in the post-Tea Party, take-no-prisoners era of GOP politics that began shortly after the Obamas moved into the White House.

The new majority on the board is likely to confront, and possibly reverse, a number of Obama-era decisions on important matters such as whether graduate students with significant work responsibilities should be allowed to unionize.

But the GOP’s recent approach to unions suggests that the party will not be satisfied with simply rolling back union rights to where they stood in the Bush era. Last year, the Supreme Court came within a hair of defunding many public sector unions based on an aggressive reading of the First Amendment?—?the suit failed only due to Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, and a similar suit is likely to prevail soon now that Neil Gorsuch occupies Scalia’s seat.

Republican governors like Scott Walker crusaded against unions in their states. Senate Republicans even attempted to shut down the NLRB entirely during the Obama presidency?—?an action that would have rendered much of federal labor law unenforceable?—?by refusing to fill vacancies on the Board.

It is likely, in other words, that the NLRB’s incoming majority will push much harder against the right to organize than even President Bush’s appointees to the Board. They are creatures of a very different era.

This blog was originally published at ThinkProgress on August 2, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Ian Millhiser is Justice Editor for ThinkProgress and author of Injustices: SCOTUS’ History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted. 

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