Workplace Fairness

Menu

Skip to main content

  • print
  • decrease text sizeincrease text size
    text

Historic Child Care Organizing Victory in California a Win for AFSCME, SEIU

Share this post

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

In a union election victory 17 years in the making, child care providers across California voted overwhelmingly to be represented by Child Care Providers United (CCPU). The organizing campaign was a joint effort of United Domestic Workers/AFSCME Local 3930 and SEIU locals 99 and 521, with 97% of represented workers who voted choosing to join CCPU. “This has been a long time coming,” UDW Assistant Executive Director and AFSCME Vice President Johanna Hester said Monday. “This win gives 40,000 family child care providers in California the opportunity to bargain for higher pay, better training and increased access to care for every child who needs it.” With AFSCME’s and SEIU’s strong support, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law the Building a Better Early Care and Education System Act (A.B. 378) in September, paving the way for this historic victory, one of the largest union organizing wins in America so far this century.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on July 31, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Aaron Gallant is a contributor for AFL-CIO.


Share this post

Assisted Living Facility Staffer Says He Was Fired for Organizing His Coworkers During the Pandemic

Share this post

In March of this year, Schuyler Stallcup was working as an “activities assistant” at an assisted living facility in Lincoln Park, Chicago, owned by Sunrise Senior Living. For the past year and a half, he had spent his days planning and leading recreational activities for the elderly residents, working to keep them entertained and engaged. When the coronavirus crisis hit, he decided that it was time to start organizing his coworkers. That’s when the trouble began.

By the middle of May, Stallcup was fired. He says that his employer fired him on a flimsy pretext, as retaliation for workplace organizing that started with a single petition, and grew into a union campaign. He has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board seeking to be reinstated. His is a disturbing story that illustrates the difficulties of trying to improve workplaces from the inside in the midst of a health crisis that has everyone on edge.

Sunrise Senior Living is a national chain of more than 300 assisted living facilities, employing thousands of non-union workers. Anti-union material is a standard part of employee training. Stallcup was making $15 an hour in March, watching with dread as Covid struck. Staffing levels began dropping as employees called in sick, or were forced to stay home to take care of their children. Family visits for residents were put on hold, which meant that the remaining Sunrise staffers, already overworked, were forced to spend more time interacting with residents to keep them from becoming isolated and agitated. On top of that, masks were in short supply—Stallcup said it was not until mid-April when Sunrise was able to issue fresh masks to everyone for their shift each day.

On March 17, Stallcup submitted a petition to his manager, signed by about 30 coworkers—roughly half of the total frontline staff. It called for two weeks of additional paid sick leave, increased staffing, a “clearly articulated plan” for how to stop Covid from spreading in the facility, and childcare subsidies and free meals for employees. Of these demands, the company only ended up granting free meals. Each free meal saved employees three dollars.

In a sworn affidavit filed with the National Labor Relations Board, Stallcup says that his supervisor warned him that he shouldn’t have circulated the petition, and then sent him back to work. But he could see that the issues he had raised were not being addressed. “There was so much fear and uncertainty,” he said. “We would have days when all the caregivers [who provide direct patient care] would call out and there would be no one there. Those of us in activities would be doing those tasks.”

By early April, Stallcup decided that Sunrise needed a union. He began talking to coworkers, during breaks, after work, and on social media. On April 7, he says, he began posting union fliers and informational material in the break room, and quickly garnered 15 to 20 verbal commitments of interest. Only a few days later, though, two coworkers who had been enthusiastic supporters of the idea began to say they wanted nothing to do with it. The chill of fear had begun to creep in to the nascent campaign.

In the first week of May, management came for Stallcup’s job. They accused him of disabling an alarm connected to a door leading to a second-floor patio area, where staff took residents outside to get fresh air. “I immediately recognized it was retaliatory,” Stallcup said. Not only does he say he didn’t do it during the shift in question, but also that turning off the alarm was a “common and approved practice” for the entire previous summer, because forgetful residents tended to accidentally set off the loud alarm, startling many other residents. He was also accused of “leaving residents unattended”—a charge, he says in his written statement to the NLRB, that is “a particularly and obviously frivolous allegation as Sunrise is an assisted-living community meaning residents are left unattended constantly and the staffing levels make it mathematically and functionally impossible for residents to never be unattended.”

Nevertheless, following an internal “investigation” by management, Stallcup was fired in mid-May. He believes it was direct retaliation for his petition and union organizing. (“They were always on the ball for union busting,” he said ruefully. “Not so much for a pandemic.”)

Asked about Stallcup’s allegations about Sunrise and the circumstances surrounding his firing, a Sunrise Senior Living spokesperson sent the following statement: “We do not comment on litigation matters or issues related to former team members. Sunrise is proud of its longstanding Open Door Policy, which demonstrates the Company’s commitment to hear, listen to, and support team members to be successful at Sunrise. Moreover, Sunrise of Lincoln Park has had a sufficient supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) consistently over the past several months and has been carefully following applicable guidance from the local department of health, CDC, and other government authorities. Team members have been trained and retrained regarding appropriate use of PPE including masks, googles, gowns, gloves and face shields.”

Another current employee at Sunrise, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation from management, corroborated much of Stallcup’s story. The employee said that in the early days of the coronavirus crisis, workers were given a single mask in a paper bag with their name on it, which they reused each day at work. After Stallcup began his organizing campaign, the employee said, “it became apparent that people were very scared”—fearing that they might lose their jobs if management came to know that they were associated with the union effort.

And in fact, it seems that Stallcup’s firing has successfully caused the organizing at the Lincoln Park Sunrise facility to grind to halt. Stallcup himself spoke to an attorney and to union organizers after he was fired, and is hoping to be reinstated after an NLRB ruling. But that process can be painfully slow. In the meantime, he says, the remaining employees have not continued to pursue the union drive after seeing him lose his job.

The staffing issues that he asked the company to address in his petition months ago still persist, according to the current Sunrise employee. Since Stallcup left, “his department is really bare,” his former coworker said. “He was so good with the residents.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 16, 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. You can reach him at [email protected]


Share this post

Unions tap into burst of worker angst over coronavirus

Share this post

“Maybe these workers will start to understand the value they have for society, because for decades they’ve been told they have no value and that they’re replaceable,” one union official said.

CHICAGO — Amazon warehouse workers in New York walked off the job to demand protection against Covid-19. A county judge in Illinois ordered a McDonald’s franchise to work out an agreement with its employees to supply more masks and hand sanitizer. And grocery store workers at Publix and Trader Joe’s in Florida have haggled for hazard pay as they work public-facing jobs.

Across corners of the labor market traditionally without unions, the coronavirus is spurring new interest in organizing for safer workplaces and better pay as the nation embarks on a long economic recovery.

Most states have already crafted or kicked off plans to reopen their economies after shutting them down to curb the spread of Covid-19. Now, many among the millions of people who toiled away at invisible low-wage jobs stocking shelves or setting up medical equipment the whole time are looking to capitalize on how “essential” they’ve become.

“In literally a day, grocery store workers have gone from ‘just a job,’ to having a job that’s incredibly stressful, demanding and scary,” said Damon Silvers, the policy director and special counsel for the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C. “The nature of the job has been transformed. Employees are saying, ‘If I’m going to risk my life, how about paying me more?’”

“In literally a day, grocery store workers have gone from ‘just a job,’ to having a job that’s incredibly stressful, demanding and scary.”

 Damon Silvers, policy director and special counsel for the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C.

Union membership across the country has been on a steady decline since the early 1980s but organized labor has attracted the national spotlight in recent years thanks to series of teacher strikes, including in conservative states like West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona. Unions are happy to leverage the new angst brought on by the coronavirus. 

On Tuesday, the AFL-CIO’s Department for Professional Employees launched an initiative to educate nonunion workers about how organizing can protect their health and safety as Covid-19 persists. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters offers an online resource guide for nonunion workers. And the California Labor Federation has a team responding to nonunion workers trying to file for unemployment, spokesman Steve Smith said.

Despite the new energy, organizing efforts are slow and may ultimately falter. No one’s yet formed a union based on not being able to get PPE. If employees do try, they may face new hurdles enacted by the National Labor Relations Board under the Trump administration, which many labor officials interviewed for this report see as anti-union. The agency recently issued rules unions complain would prolong the election process. NLRB argues the changes will increase transparency.

Coronavirus hit the U.S. at a time when the labor market was tight — unemployment was low and employers were actively looking to hire. But in a matter of days, companies shut down and hundreds of thousands of people across the country were laid off. For those still on the job, it created fear and anxiety among low-wage workers, and raised questions about the value they provide in a crisis and the risks they’re forced to take on at a moment’s notice.

“There’s a disconnect in what people think of workers — they’re heroes — and what they’re being paid,” said Zach Koutsky, political director for Local 881, which represents retail food and drug store workers in Illinois as well as employees in the cannabis industry. Calls come in from frozen pizza plant workers, cannabis workers and nonunion grocery employees, he said. They say, “’Dear god, we need to meet with you.’ It’s always been there, but it’s definitely picked up.”

The uptick in union phone calls isn’t likely to translate into membership, labor experts say.

“It’s very hard for them to join because the laws are imbalanced, the NLRB is incredibly hostile right now and a good number of states have governors and legislative bodies that are very antagonistic toward labor,” said Robert Bruno, director of labor studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Employers “aren’t afraid to spend millions to keep their operations union free.”

Still, members of Congress have also taken note of this workforce in the Pandemic Heroes Compensation Act, legislation introduced last month to setup a victims fund for a wide range of essential workers. 

“On September 11, it was the heroic firefighters and officers who ran into the burning buildings to save lives,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), a co-sponsor, told reporters on a conference call hyping the bill. “Today, it is the hospital workers, nurses, doctors, EMS, janitorial staff, pharmacists, technicians and all essential workers.”

It’s a mishmash of industries. Steel mill workers in Gary, Ind., have called the AFL-CIO asking how to get more personal protective equipment because their bosses didn’t supply enough. Ride-hail drivers in California are asking union shops how to get gear too. Employees at the Pilgrim’s Pride chicken processing plant in central Minnesota have protested working conditions. And while larger grocery store chains like Kroger or Jewel-Osco have a unionized workforce, people employed at smaller stores in St. Louis and restaurant workers in Chicago want to know how to organize.

“I was just talking to a dental hygienist who wanted to know how she can get a union started,” said Bob Reiter of the Chicago Federation of Labor.

This wouldn’t be the first time safety issues would become a lightning rod for the labor movement, of course. Union organizers have leveraged the works of Upton Sinclair, the safety hazards of the mining industry in Appalachia and the difficult farming conditions in California to secure new worker rights and safer conditions. 

In Chicago, where hundreds of nursing home assistants are calling for pay increases to at least $15 an hour, the heart of their concerns was about safety.

“Workers are worried they could lose their house and their family’s health,” said Diana Tastad-Damer, director of organizing for UFCW Local 1189 in Minnesota. “So, it’s being put in a bigger picture than just wages or livelihood. Now it’s about their family’s livelihood and survival.”

Dave Cook, president UFCW 655 in St. Louis, Mo., hopes the pandemic will change the way the country looks at low-wage jobs and how low-wage workers look at themselves. 

“Without your Dollar General or your Amazon warehouse workers, Americans wouldn’t be fed,” he said. “Maybe these workers will start to understand the value they have for society, because for decades they’ve been told they have no value and that they’re replaceable.”

Greg Ferrara, CEO of the National Grocers Association, says the 1,600 independent grocers in his organization were attentive early on to safety issues and as a result haven’t heard calls for union representation. But he acknowledges employees have a renewed interest in safety. 

“When you’re working in a place where you have a shield in front of you or you’re wearing a mask and doing enhanced sanitizing procedures, employees are much more aware of the important role they’re playing,” he said. “Whether it ties to an interest in organized labor, I can’t say.” 

It’s too early to say whether Covid-19 concerns will lead to a rise in union membership, said Roberta Lynch, executive director of AFSCME Council in Chicago. 

“Our current history is providing a compelling picture of more and more workers who are not able to earn a decent living, whose jobs are fragile and in jeopardy and who don’t have retirement security, who have been turning to unions more and more with the pandemic,” Lynch said. “I think there’s every reason that that will intensify.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on June 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Shia Kapos is a reporter for POLITICO and author of POLITICO’s Illinois Playbook, the most indispensable morning newsletter for influencers in Illinois government and politics. Prior to joining POLITICO, she wrote the popular Taking Names column for the Chicago Sun-Times (and before that Crain’s Business). She’s also had stints at Dealreporter and the Salt Lake Tribune. Shia’s career has been built on breaking news and landing sit-down interviews with notable names and personalities. She’s covered billionaires on the rise and lawmakers’ precipitous falls—and all the terrain in between.


Share this post

Major Public Defense Nonprofit in New York Is Unionizing

Share this post

One of the nation’s most respected public defender nonprofits is unionizing, the latest in a surge of union drives at prominent nonprofits across the country.

The Bronx Defenders, a large nonprofit that defends low-income people in the Bronx, New York, told management today that they intend to unionize with the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, an affiliate of the UAW. The proposed union will have about 270 members, covering virtually the entire non-management staff. Of those, about 100 are not attorneys, including everyone from social workers to paralegals to facilities workers.

Employees at the Bronx Defenders cited issues like pay, health care benefits, and equality of professional development and promotions as motivating factors for the union drive. But one factor stood out more than any other: the potential for burnout among public defenders and those who work alongside them.

“I’ve seen people who were hired with me who left already because of burnout,” says Imani Waweru, a staff attorney in the criminal defense practice who has been at the organization for less than two years. “What we do every day is advocate. Why not have a place we can advocate for ourselves?”

Naima Drecker-Waxman, an associate in the immigration practice, agrees that burnout is a real threat—and believes that improvements in working conditions for the Bronx Defenders staff will translate to better outcomes for the clients. “We need to ensure our workforce is treated with respect in order to serve our clients,” she says.

Discussions about unionizing began quietly a year ago, and the effort to collect union cards intensified in the past couple of months. (Union drives at nonprofits usually win voluntary recognition from management, thanks to the inherent pressure for the organization to live up to the ideals it espouses. Employees at the Bronx Defenders expect the same.) The culmination of the union campaign comes against the backdrop of the coronavirus crisis, which has hit both the Bronx and the incarcerated population of New York City with savage force. The employees of the Bronx Defenders see their union drive as part of a larger struggle to improve a justice system that often seems unable to keep up with the demands of the crisis. “We’re all sharing this burden of a court system that’s not responsive to our needs,” says Drecker-Waxman.

Alex Shalom, the union organizer at the ALAA, says his union has already won protective equipment and hazard pay in other places. “We’re seeing the tangible benefits of an organized workforce,” he says. “Our members are of no use to clients if they’re sick.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 29, 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. 


Share this post

A Quiet Frenzy of Union Organizing Has Gripped the Nonprofit World

Share this post

“The reason we all work at nonprofits is because we support the mission of the nonprofits,” says Kayla Blado, who works at the Economic Policy Institute. It makes sense. Like many fields that involve doing something good for the world, nonprofit work tends to come with low pay and long hours. But now, more than ever before, it comes with something else: a union drive. The nonprofit union wave is rising right along with the intensity of the crises that nonprofits are dealing with in our bad, bad world.

Over the past two years, there has been a legitimate boom in nonprofit union campaigns. All of those that have gone public have been successful. Alongside the recent rise in unionization at media outlets, museums and cultural institutions, nonprofit workers are part of an unprecedented uprising of labor organizing in white collar professions.

At the center of it all is the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union (NPEU), where Kayla Blado serves as president. The NPEU has been around since 1998, when EPI unionized, but two years ago it began aggressively attracting new nonprofits. Now—seemingly all of a sudden—it represents 27 different workplaces, including influential D.C. institutions like the Center for American Progress, Open Markets Institute and J Street. Though affiliated with the national union IFPTE, the NPEU is run as a volunteer operation (with a single quarter-time paid organizer), with an executive board made up of members and an organizing strategy driven by word of mouth in the tight-knit D.C. nonprofit world. The numbers tell the story of how dramatic and recent the surge in organizing has been: According to Blado, the NPEU has 250 dues-paying members, another 400 bargaining contracts now, and more than a thousand organizing at shops that are not public yet.

So far, the NPEU has won voluntary recognition in every single union campaign it has organized—a remarkable record that reflects skillful use of the fact that the management of most progressive nonprofits don’t want to be seen as anti-union (even if they wish that the union didn’t exist). The fact that in multiple recent campaigns management has taken weeks to voluntarily recognize the union hints at the grudging nature of their acceptance of the new, organized reality of their work force.

During a two-week period in the month of April, as the coronavirus crisis raged, the economy buckled, and office workers fled to their homes, the NPEU announced seven successful union drives, boosting their number of shops by a full third. That record is likely unmatched anywhere in the union world. Blado says that the organizing at all of them had begun before the crisis, but was accelerated by the urgency of the moment. It doesn’t hurt that all of those workers now have a vehicle to participate in the conversation about when it is safe to reopen their offices. “This is exactly why people have chosen to have a union,” Blado says, “because of situations like this where management could [otherwise] make a unilateral decision.”

At the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, staffers began discussing unionizing last fall. After a couple of months shopping around for various unions, they settled on NPEU. “We felt really connected to NPEU because they’re mission driven, and we’re similarly a very mission driven organization,” says Morgan Conley, a national election protection coordinator there. Employees saw their union drive, which management announced an “intent” to recognize in April, as perfectly aligned with the group’s civil rights purpose. “We wanted to make sure we were making the right decision for the Lawyers Committee,” she says. “We felt this would really ensure the success and viability of the organization.”

At progressive nonprofits, the decision of how intense and public to make any labor battle is a tricky one. Unlike at regular companies, many of the employees in the union may feel torn between protecting the organization’s reputation, which is valuable for serving a purpose they believe in, and protecting their own labor rights. The NPEU’s surge in organizing no doubt benefits from the increased militancy of a younger generation of workers—not just in nonprofits, but everywhere—who are already living through the second economic crisis of their careers. “Many non-profits expect that mission-driven work will keep workers, especially younger workers, satisfied with lower pay,” says Alyson Samach, a staffer at the liberal pro-Israel nonprofit J Street, which recognized its new union last week after a month of negotiations. “Our millennial staff have already struggled to launch careers through one recession, and our Gen-Z staff are now thrust into financial instability by another. As we are all faced with a dire economic outlook, we are banding together to ensure more protections for our staff.”

That commitment to “mission” is ubiquitous as a motivation to organize. Jessie Hahn and Trudy Rebert are attorneys at the National Immigration Law Center, which works to advance the rights of low-income immigrants in America. When staffers began talking to one another about organizing many months ago, they realized there was a shared desire for transparency and some system for joint decision making at work. A union seemed like a natural fit. “We are a mission driven organization,” Hahn says. “People come to work here because they align with those values. We saw starting a union as an important way to model those values.” Rebert echoes this, noting that she and other attorneys came to the organization specifically because they want to live out those values, “not because we want to be paid the big bucks.” Despite this, the NILC Union has now been negotiating for recognition from management for more than a month. The head of NILC, Marielena Hincapié, was recently announced as a member of the Biden-Sanders immigration task force, which will be closely scrutinized for progressive bona fides.

Rather quietly, and without a paid staff, the NPEU has taken serious strides toward unionizing an industry with a good deal of inherent political power and a high public profile. Many left-leaning media outlets and allegedly liberal cultural institutions have already been through full-scale battles against their own employees who painted them as hypocritical for fighting against unionization. The NPEU has not had to do that yet, but history tells us that that day will come. (In fact, an ongoing fight for union recognition at the ACLU in California may turn into such a battle.) Everyone at the union—whose members include many lawyers, researchers, and P.R. professionals that amount to the makings of a volunteer army—indicates they aren’t scared of the fight, though they are not seeking one.

In a big picture sense, the future of the labor movement needs blue collars and white collars, for-profit and nonprofit. Each staff union campaign that NPEU wins is one step towards a world in which progressive activist organizations will be able to say that they put their money where their mouths are. “Just because you have an advanced degree doesn’t make you immune from discrimination at work, or getting fired without having just cause,” Blado says. “I think we’re creating the labor movement that we want to see.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 19, 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. 


Share this post

We Need the Labor Movement To Organize Worker Fightback in the Face of the COVID-19 Crisis

Share this post

Life-and-death circumstances are being imposed on U.S. workplaces and workers are increasingly responding by standing up, fighting back and walking out, but frequently without the support of organized labor. Unions have a choice right now: Hunker down and try to ride out the COVID-19 storm or put our shoulders to the task of assisting workers in their fight to either improve conditions on the job or shut their workplaces down. If unions seize the moment, we can not only improve the immediate situation for millions of workers but also create a wave that changes our society greatly for the better, organizes many new workers into unions and forges a generation of workplace leaders who will be able to build fighting organizations for years to come.

With the enhanced unemployment benefits currently in place and with real fears surrounding just showing up for work every day, workers have the upper hand. Employers need them much more than the other way around. Workers who learn how to use collective action to shut a workplace down or to force management to yield to their safety and compensation demands will not soon forget those lessons.

The immediate need of workers at this moment is not a comprehensive list of demands but rather three basic principles that speak to their survival needs.

  • Fight to make employers shut down all workplaces except those truly critical to sustaining life until the public health crisis has been controlled.
  • Give workers in those critical jobs everything they need to do their work safely and compensate them for the immense risk they are taking.
  • Provide robust economic support for everyone else to allow and incentivize them to stay home.

Likewise, rather than an attempt to plan a national coordinated set of actions that would likely be joined by only a smattering of already-committed activists, what is needed instead is to help large numbers of workers gain the tools they need to lead fights at their workplaces.

Out of these fights the workers will develop the demands they need to protect themselves. And each of these fights, if given the proper direction and support, can inspire solidarity throughout the country and move many other workers into action, creating the conditions not only for more workplace victories but also to produce political pressures that force the federal government to address the needs of working people.

While the relief packages passed by Congress so far provide some economic support to laid-off workers, much more is needed, including to address all those left out, not least the undocumented. Congress must also act to provide health care to all given that millions more will now be without insurance due to the loss of their jobs. Already, a number of excellent proposals address these issues. Getting workers into motion is going to be the way to win them, just as widespread worker unrest in the 1930s won the relief programs and labor rights that workers needed then.

To organize the worker fightback needed right now, unions should:

•       Aggressively promote these principles, both to their own members and to the unorganized, and then provide workers the help they need to take on their employers.

•       Provide basic toolkits on their websites to educate workers on their rights and to outline for them the initial steps in self-organization and taking their demands to the boss.

•       Make union staff available to provide guidance and facilitate needed support.

•       Recruit labor leaders and member activists committed to solidarity actions that produce immediate pressure on the relevant corporate or political targets.

•       Create new and robust structures for coordinating effective solidarity.

Our union, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), has called on all workers, both our members and nonunion workers, to stand up and fight. We have created online resources to help nonunion workers take action to win safe workplaces. We have published a special issue of UE Steward on how to organize members around COVID-19 issues in the workplace. Alongside the Democratic Socialists of America we are launching a joint effort called the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, which will provide organizing and logistical support to workers who are ready to take on their boss. Our members, both in organized shops and in workplaces where we have organizing campaigns, are winning concessions from their employers through militant and creative tactics.

Now is the time for all labor organizations committed to forging a better society for working people to step up and help launch workers into the kinds of fights needed to win that future. UE is committed to doing just that, and to work with and support all others who do so. We see some others in the labor movement doing likewise, but not nearly enough. We call on all labor unions to join us in this fight.

This blog was originally published at InTheseTimes on April 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Carl Rosen is the UE General President. Andrew Dinkelaker is the UE General Secretary-Treasurer. Gene Elk is the UE Director of Organization.


Share this post

How Bosses Use “Open Shop” Campaigns to Crush Unions

Share this post

U.S. employers have never been particularly accepting of unions. Yes, there were a few decades after World War II when most employers engaged in a largely stable pattern of collective bargaining that recognized unions as junior partners in industry. Wage increases kept pace with gains in productivity, and union endorsements were courted by both parties. But, as heavily as that postwar labor relations compact features in the rosy rhetoric of union boosters who decry global capitalism and the modern GOP, the truth is that corporations have been periodically going to war against their workers far more often they’ve occasionally conceded their basic humanity.

Two new books shed light on the sustained union-busting campaigns that bookended that all-too brief period of labor-management détente. One focuses on the innocuously named “open shop” drive, which was a vicious nationwide union-busting campaign that began at the dawn of the 20th century and lasted well into the New Deal era. The other documents how the last great wave of worker militancy was smashed by a coordinated union-busting drive that anticipated Ronald Reagan’s presidency by more than a decade.

Reform or repression?

The unions that managed to survive the turbulent boom-and-bust cycle of the 19th century were largely organized on a craft union model that bears only a slight resemblance to today’s trades. Unions not only trained their members in their craft skills, but also determined the process, materials and speed of production. Employers had to contract with strong unions for a certain number of orders at prices that the unions determined.

The “open shop” drive was a coordinated effort by industry associations like the National Association of Manufacturers for bosses to gain complete control over production decision-making. This is the subject of Chad Pearson’s Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement.

As Pearson compellingly documents, open shop campaigners sought to place their movement within the mainstream of the vaguely-defined “progressive movement” that preceded the Great Depression.  Corporate executives railed against “union dictation,” and claimed their aim was to wrest control from union contracts in order to promote harder-working men. The breakfast cereal magnate C.W. Post claimed his union-busting work was necessary to protect children from picket-line violence. Some of the earliest appearances of the noxious slogan “right to work” come from this era.

That phrase was disingenuously employed to convey a sense of freedom for workers to not have to pay fealty to a union in order to get hired for a job. In practice, the “freedom” to not join a union was paired with a blacklist for those who chose to do so. Promoting “harder-working men” was a way of speeding up Taylorist production lines to sweatshop standards. And violence on picket lines was almost always instigated by privately hired armies of Pinkertons and other assorted spies and mercenaries.

Open shop campaigners did find allies within the broad political class of self-styled “progressives” who—then as now—did not root their efforts in the centrality of class politics. For example, it is somewhat shocking to read in Reform or Repression about “open shop” endorsements from Louis Brandeis—the attorney who negotiated the vaunted “Protocols of Peace” in the New York City garment industry. Without a base of actual workers, these earlier progressive men supported unions in the abstract, but were uncomfortable with the grisly details of strikes, boycotts and enforcing the union shop that were necessary to maintain unions as a permanent presence in the economy.

In this hair-splitting, open shop advocates probably found their biggest hero in Theodore Roosevelt. The trust-busting “progressive” was the first sitting president to weigh in on industrial disputes and mediate settlements that involved pay increases and other concessions to striking workers. He also steadfastly refused to endorse any deal that forced any employer to recognize any union as the exclusive representative of its workers.

Open shop organizations also recruited “free men” to be face of their drives. We can call them scabs, but forcing workers to join a union before they could get the job rubbed some the wrong way, and bosses exploited this.

Pearson has a good eye for vivid character studies. A particularly engrossing chapter contrasts the stories of two very different class traitors in the Cleveland open shop movement: John A. Penton and Jay P. Dawley. In the 1880s, Penton was president of a craft union of ironworkers that competed for worker loyalty with a more established union called the Iron Molders Union (IMU). In those days, unions competed to see who could organize the most militant protests. A campaign that ended in a union contract could mean terms that forced workers to join the victorious union—or face termination—If they wanted work. By 1893, Penton’s union had been forced to merge with the larger IMU.

The bitterness of that defeat curdled and warped Penton’s principles. He became an “open shop” advocate, ostensibly because men should be free to choose which organization to join—or not join. In practical effect, he served as a propagandist and recruiter of scabs for the industry’s campaign to break the Cleveland IMU in 1900, where he was regarded as “The Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde of the Labor Movement.”

Dawley was a compatriot of Penton’s, a lawyer who secured injunctions against union picket lines and defended Penton’s efforts to arm his scabs with .38 caliber revolvers. The former president of the Cleveland Employers Association shocked his white shoe comrades by coming to the aid of the city’s striking garment workers in 1911. It was no small coincidence that Dawley’s conversion-by-fire came just two months after the actual fire at New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. That the picket lines were mostly full of women helped him finally see that the violence and law-breaking that he so abhorred in industrial conflict was a mostly one-sided affair—and that it was his (former) side that was perpetuating most of it.

Dawley spent the rest of his life as an advocate of union causes—albeit one who counseled peaceful bargaining and arbitration over strikes and boycotts. There’s a lesson about the power of narrative and visible leaders here. The average union member today is more likely to be a black or brown woman than some Archie Bunker cliché. Labor can pick up unexpected allies by putting the actual workers whose livelihoods are on the line front and center in our campaigns.

Knocking on labor’s door

How women and people of color began to organize themselves into the mainstream of the labor movement is the subject of Lane Windham’s new book, Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970’s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide. It is also a tale of how the open shop drive came roaring back to life.

This is an essential read for anyone grappling with the question of why modern union organizing isn’t more successful. It is also a much-welcome corrective to the false narrative that unions simply stopped trying to gain new members sometime after the merger of the AFL and CIO.

In fact, the early 1970s brought a major wave of worker militancy, the kind that periodically roils the United States. The massive teacher rebellion of unionization that began in New York City in the early 1960s was still in full-swing. Unprotected by the National Labor Relations Act and still with few public-sector labor laws to fill the gaps, teachers continued to stage illegal strikes for union recognition throughout the decade. Other public sector workers fought for union recognition, too. The 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, which Martin Luther King was in town supporting when he was assassinated, was a notable flashpoint in that struggle.

The unionized private sector was also in the midst of a historic strike wave. Many of the strikes were formally sanctioned by union leadership seeking wage increases that kept up with record-high inflation. A large number of workers rocked the postwar labor relations framework by waging wildcat strikes in defiance of contracts that traded impressive-sounding wage increases for brutal speed-ups in productivity. There’s a whole bookshelf of material written about how one General Motors factory in particular—its Lordstown, Oh. plant—simply could not maintain smooth production between its periodic wildcats and the thousands of workers who quit every year. 

During this same period, unions sought to organize roughly half a million private sector workers a year in NLRB elections. Much of this organizing was led by women and workers of color. It represented, Windham argues, a second wave of the civil rights era, as regulations like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission opened up new industries and jobs to workers who had previously been excluded. Once in the job, women and minorities soon concluded that actual fair treatment would only come with unionization.

Although the number of eligible workers voting in union representation elections did not decline in the 1970s, the percentage of successful union yes votes did. For the first time since the NLRB was established in 1935, unions began to lose a majority of all representation elections—a decline that has continued to the present day.

Egged on by a then-new cottage industry of “union avoidance” consultants and anti-union law firms, employers aggressively pressed against the limits of labor law when campaigning against union organizing drives. They skirted the prohibition against threatening the jobs of union supporters by phrasing those threats as predictions of the negative impact that a union would have on the company’s bottom line. They threw out fantastical scenarios about how unions might trade away benefits. They swore the unions would make no gains unless the workers went on strike—and that the company would permanently replace them if they did so. They froze planned pay increases and told the workers that the unions and the law forced them to do so.

And when they got caught actually breaking the law—by being too obvious in their espionage of organizing activity or materially punishing a union leader—the paltry punishments that were meted out sparked a new union-busting revolution. Why obey the law at all? Paying an illegally fired union activist just the wages she was owed—minus whatever unemployment insurance or moonlighting money she earned in the years it took for the case to get adjudicated—was far less money that a successfully negotiated union contract would ever cost.

At the heart of American corporations’ renewed resistance to union organizing was the increase in domestic competition from foreign competitors. This was not strictly the dumping of products made cheaper in overseas sweatshops that we tend to think of as the driver of inequality in the global economy. The first pangs of competitive anxiety were triggered by German and Japanese manufacturers who had finally recovered from the world war and could export quality products at affordable prices. Their competitive edge was that the cost of their workers’ health and retirement benefits were not loaded onto their payroll and then passed on to consumers as a higher retail price: Those social welfare benefits were the responsibility of the state.

Since most U.S. corporations—to this day—are unlikely to embrace social democracy, those in the 1970s resolved to fight the global pressure by fighting their own workers. But union supporters must grapple with an uncomfortable fact about our system of labor relations, which bases the very existence of a union, as well as the additional expenses of pensions, health insurance and other “fringe” benefits, on the individual firm level. In any industry that is not 100% unionized, the decision by workers to form a union really can make a company less competitive. And high-union-density industries are just juicier targets for capitalist vampires like Airbnb and Uber to compete by undercutting those standards.

In her conclusion, Windham writes “As the twentieth-century version of industrial capitalism gives way to new forms, working people find themselves in need of a wholesale redefinition of collective bargaining.” She finds some hope in the “alt-labor” organizations that are “struggling to shore up workers’ economic security in new ways, such as through workers’ centers, new occupational alliances, and public campaigns to raise wages.”

Both Pearson’s and Windham’s books, by highlighting the controversies in two of labor’s roughest periods, help us sharpen the question of how we regroup and reform to fight back in the 21st century. I would encourage more creative thinking about “all-in” labor rights models. What if we pushed for laws to end the “at-will” legal doctrine and grant a “Right to Your Job” to all workers? And what if we looked to countries that we compare ourselves to that have labor laws that apply wage increases and work rules to entire sectors all at once?

What these books make clear is that bosses rarely stop trying to blow up whatever system workers have won to enforce basic standards of decency—and that their strategies evolve with the times. How much longer will we spend trying to patch-up a badly battered 70-year-old labor relations system?

This article was originally published at In These Times on December 5, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Shaun Richman is a former organizing director for the American Federation of Teachers. His Twitter handle is @Ess_Dog.


Share this post

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

Share this post

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


Share this post

The Skies Just Got Friendlier for Working People: Worker Wins

Share this post

Our latest roundup of worker wins begins with flight attendants and air traffic controllers standing together to make the skies safer for working people and travelers and includes numerous examples of workers organizing, bargaining and mobilizing for a better life. 

Flight Attendents Reach Tentative Agreement with Mesa Airlines: Flight attendants at Mesa Airlines, represented by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA), stood together in efforts to have the work they do as aviation’s first responders recognized. They successfully announced that they have negotiated a tentative agreement with management on a four-year agreement that would provide more than 1,100 flight attendants with economic and quality of life gains.

Teachers Who Train Air Traffic Controllers Join IAM: In an effort to make the skies safer and improve the lives of working people, more than 280 instructors at SAIC in Oklahoma City have joined the Machinists (IAM). Facing a strong anti-union campaign from SAIC, the instructors successfully organized and now have more leverage to make sure the public is safer.

Swissport Workers Stand Together and Put Employer on Notice: Cleaners and ramp agents at Bush Intercontinental Airport voted to join the IAM, citing broken promises on pay, scheduling, overtime, and working conditions. IAM Organizer Fabian Liendo said: “Workers stood together throughout the campaign and put Swissport on notice. These new IAM members sent a clear message and are prepared to fight to secure much-needed job improvements. They should be very proud of what they’ve accomplished.”

Graduate Employees at University of Chicago to Hold Election in October: When the university attempted to deny its’ graduate employees right to come together to negotiate for a fair return on their work, the working people fought back. Their efforts were rewarded when the National Labor Relations Board rejected the university’s argument and ruled that a union election can go forward. The election is scheduled take place in October.

In Near-Universal Vote, Nurses in Turlock, Calif, Vote to Join CNA: Nearly 300 registered nurses at Emanuel Medical Center in Turlock, California, voted overwhelmingly (284-4) to join the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United. Chelsey Jerner, an emergency room RN, said: “As patient advocates, we voted yes to have a collective RN voice to enhance positive patient outcomes at our hospital. Patient safety is our number one priority.”

Oregon Service Industry Workers Earn Protection from Unfair Scheduling: A coalition led by the Oregon Working Families Party fought for legislation that would protect retail, hospitality and food service workers from unfair scheduling practices. Gov. Kate Brown (D) signed the bill into law earlier this month. Working Family spokesperson Hannah Taube said: “This is a huge moment for labor rights in America. Oregon’s Fair Work Week legislation is one of the most important labor victories in decades for low-wage workers. We hope Oregon is the first of many states to expand scheduling protections for workers—knowing when you work more than a day in advance is essential to parents, students and many other workers trying to make ends meet with two or three different jobs.”

More than 40,000 Educators in Puerto Rico Join AFT to Fight Education Austerity: On Aug. 3, the Asociacion de Maestros de Puerto Rico (AMPR) signed a three-year agreement with the AFT in order to fight back against austerity and privatization in education that is having a devastating impact on students and teachers in Puerto Rico. AFT President Randi Weingarten said: “The people of Puerto Rico didn’t cause this crisis, but they’re forced to shoulder most of the burden because of the actions of hedge funders and irresponsible government deals.”

Lipton Tea Workers in Suffolk Organize for First Time in Plant’s 60-Year History: For the first time in the history of the Lipton Tea production plant in Suffolk, Virginia, employees have voted to unionize. The vote was 109-6 to join United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 400.

This blog was originally published at AFLCIO.org on August 24, 2017. 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. Previous experience includes Communications Director for the Darcy Burner for Congress Campaign and New Media Director for the Kendrick Meek for Senate Campaign, founding and serving as the primary author for the influential state blog Florida Progressive Coalition and more than 10 years as a college instructor teaching political science and American History. His writings have also appeared on Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.


Share this post

The Union Behind the Biggest Campaign Against Walmart in History May Be Throwing in the Towel. Why?

Share this post

David MobergIn the pre-dawn chill of Black Friday 2012, a half-dozen yellow school buses pulled up at a South Side Chicago Walmart store, disgorging a small group of striking Walmart workers and nearly 250 supporters.

Along with strikers and allies in 100 other cities around the country, they had come out that day under the aegis of the year-old Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), created to give Walmart workers a vehicle to protest their mistreatment—including low wages, skimpy benefits, erratic scheduling and aggressive management suppression of employees’ voices at work.

“Somewhere, somehow, down the line, it’s going to make a big difference,” said Tyrone Parker, a striking night-shift stocker, at that first Black Friday action.

“If you weren’t excited after some of those Black Fridays, you were dead,” says formerUnited Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) President Joseph Hansen, who started OUR Walmart and the labor-community coalition Making Change at Walmart in 2005. “It was going to be a long haul, but I thought we had no choice.”

After Hansen’s retirement last fall, the union’s 55-member executive board elected Secretary-Treasurer Anthony “Marc” Perrone as the next president. Leading up to the vote, Perrone had questioned the amount of money that had been devoted to the Walmart campaign without gaining any new members for the union, whose membership has declined in recent years. Several sources close to the campaign, not named because they are not authorized to release financial information, estimate that the overall cost had been about $7 million to $8 million a year.

In April, four months into Perrone’s tenure, the Washington Post reported rumors of potential cutbacks to OUR Walmart. In These Times’s sources say the union plans to cut the campaign’s budget by as much as 65 percent.

Sources close to the new leadership say no cuts are planned, only realignments, such as spending more money on advertising and public relations campaigns to highlight Walmart’s faults. At the same time, UFCW will try to parlay the Walmart efforts into “a broader retail campaign,” according to new Executive Vice President Stuart Appelbaum, regarded as an ally of Perrone. This probably will encourage more organizing at other retailers to win contracts and dues-paying members.

As Buzzfeed reported in June, the union also removed two directors of the Walmart effort, Dan Schlademan and Andrea Dehlendorf, in May. Meanwhile, the board of OUR Walmart—five worker-members and the two directors—has sought and received new funding from two progressive donors, according to the director of a funders’ group to which both belong.

Most key labor leaders, whatever their view of OUR Walmart, are unwilling to talk very much, because they hope to continue to work with UFCW on the Walmart campaigns, if possible.

Although OUR Walmart and the Fight for 15 (the Service Employees International Union-backed fast-food workers’ campaign, which has targeted McDonald’s) have been expensive for the unions, they’ve stoked worker and public fervor against two of the mightiest global corporations.

“The union’s biggest accomplishment is the development of OUR Walmart,” says an ally in the campaign who feels that new spirit may be lost in the reshuffling.

How big is too big?

The UFCW largely ignored Walmart when it was a small-town, Southern five-and-dime chain. But as Walmart moved north and west and into groceries, the union had to challenge the mega-retailer to protect its contracts. A massive array of strategies has been tested, with little success: organizing department by department (when butchers at a Texas store voted for the union, Walmart eliminated all its butchers); organizing in Quebec, where laws favor unions (Walmart closed the store); organizing in strong union towns, like Las Vegas (several campaigns failed after supervisors intimidated a majority of workers out of unionizing).

UFCW has also tried educating the public about the high costs of Walmart’s low prices. In 2005, both SEIU and UFCW began publicity campaigns about the corporation’s misbehavior (called, respectively, Walmart Watch and Wake Up, Walmart). Walmart Watch revealed a 2005 internal company memo on how Walmart might cut its already low pay and benefits without incurring bad publicity by increasing the number of part-time workers. Such well-aimed, sharp darts wounded the company’s reputation and may have been a factor in declining profits, although customers have also faulted Walmart for badly stocked, disorganized stores, unattractive produce and poor service.

But these campaigns did not yield union members. By failing to organize the retail behemoth, which provides 8.9 percent of jobs in the sector (which in turn employs nearly 1 in 9 U.S. workers), unions lost power to set wage and labor standards. Since 1983, the percentage of retail workers who belong to unions has declined by half—to 4.4 percent.

When Schlademan started work at the UFCW in 2010 on what would become the new Walmart strategy, he tried to learn from workers and organizers in past campaigns, as he explained in an interview with In These Times in December. First, he concluded, the campaign had to break down the barriers isolating workers from each other, both within and among stores. Second, Walmart workers wanted to be “front and center” in the campaigns and in solving problems. Third, workers had to discover the power of collective action, primarily through strikes, which Schlademan called “probably one of the most liberating things labor does. Striking—just [the act of] striking—helps build leaders.”

Over the next three years, OUR Walmart’s key achievement was mobilizing workers to take direct action against the company. OUR Walmart members challenged management at both their workplaces and at shareholder meetings in Bentonville, Ark., often with work stoppages, sit-ins or similar protests. In the process, effective and committed rank-and-file leaders emerged.

The campaign also won praise for its effective use of online organizing. Organizers and members used the web to move workers into reallife collective protests, build small groups of leaders at individual stores, and arrange local and national direct actions. The online connections produced more direct, horizontal relationships between Walmart workers than in most unions, which have a more hierarchical organization.

OUR Walmart said the campaign was just trying to make Walmart a better corporate citizen, not organize a union. Technically that was true (and tactically necessary, given labor law restrictions on picketing employers for long periods). But in spirit, OUR Walmart resembled a strong minority union, without enough votes to win a formal union and collective bargaining, but with other tools that could be used to solve workers’ problems.

The campaign wrung several concessions from Walmart. Workers won a few pilot programs to reduce inconsiderate scheduling, and a worker-led campaign to “Respect the Bump” yielded better pregnancy accommodations. Accompanied by publicity campaigns attacking the company’s stinginess and its owners’ extreme wealth, worker actions undoubtedly helped prompt Walmart’s decision in April to raise its lowest wages to $9 an hour this year and $10 next year.

Hopes for transforming Walmart—and thereby the whole low-wage economy—rose among supporters.

OUR Walmart is “a little IWW-ish,” Schlademan said in December. In their early 20th-century heyday, the Industrial Workers of the World eschewed contracts in favor of direct action at work. In OUR Walmart, Schlademan sees a similar appetite for militant action and a more vigorous involvement in the collective, horizontal conversation.

At the time, Schlademan said, OUR Walmart was preoccupied with securing its right to exist without being attacked all the time: “Walmart must realize OUR Walmart is not going away.”

But sustaining an expensive campaign like OUR Walmart is difficult with voluntary dues of $5 a month per member. Schlademan has since been cut from the UFCW payroll but is still working with OUR Walmart. And rumors of UFCW withdrawing funds have begun circulating, although a network of progressive donors recently pledged money for OUR Walmart to maintain its work.

If UFCW, the organization’s sponsor, cuts back on OUR Walmart, how will managers—and workers—interpret the move?

Critics of the union’s focus on OUR Walmart believe that broadening the agenda to all retail will spread around organizing dollars more effectively, yielding more unionized shops and more dues-paying members. No organizing is easy, but looking beyond Walmart may provide more realistic targets. In New York—the historic stronghold of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (now a department within UFCW)—UFCW Vice President and RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum has overseen successful organizing of clothing boutique workers, such as clerks at the Swedish-owned “cheap chic” H&M stores.

Victory at such companies will bring new members but will not necessarily transform the retail industry the way success at a major chain like Walmart or Home Depot could.

The union will almost certainly maintain some special focus on Walmart. “Nobody wants to walk away from or abandon effort on Walmart,” says one union staffer, who was not authorized to speak with reporters. But the union’s Walmart project “will be a more media-focused campaign,” relying on print and television ads, says the staffer.

Media buys can be very expensive, however. Forbes reported that UFCW “spent six figures” on a Fourth of July ad blitz portraying Walmart as unpatriotic for stashing $76 billion in 15 foreign tax havens. And if past attacks haven’t altered Walmart’s stance on unions, will more exposés do the trick?

On the other hand, the sweeping victories of the 1930s and 1960s in industries from automobiles to healthcare suggest the value of a sector-wide strategy for retail. But can one union take on a sector with 16 million workers?

It starts with the workers

Stephen Lerner is the architect of SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign, one of the most successful sector-wide organizing efforts of the past three decades. He argues that, with labor hanging by a thread, most U.S. unions have gone into defense mode—which only occasionally delays further slippage—rather than playing offense using creative, large-scale campaigns.

Though most analysts see the evershifting Walmart campaign as a defensive effort to keep Walmart from driving down labor standards at other, unionized grocery chains, Lerner believes OUR Walmart is an example of a sweeping, innovative effort. “It’s pretty impressive what workers in OUR Walmart have achieved so far,” he says. He notes that strikes have yielded concrete victories and that creative online organizing has allowed workers to help move people into action, not simply to “scream into the void.”

For workers to form a union against the will of an industry or a big company like Walmart requires “an enormous amount of time” to understand the issues, overcome fears, develop leaders, and formulate a “theory of how to beat the company,” which may vary from target to target, Lerner says. Justice for Janitors’ big breakthrough, in a 1988 organizing campaign in Denver, came in part from understanding that targeting building owners, for whom janitorial costs are minuscule, was essential to organizing the small, costsensitive cleaning companies. “There’s not one tactic or secret sauce to take on an entire industry,” he says.

As UFCW revises or expands its organizing mission, it would seem smart to look for ways to apply the strategy and style of work of OUR Walmart—that is, educating and empowering member-organizers and leaders—throughout its retail organizing. That includes recognizing the utility of the internet for real organizing, breaking barriers and building solidarity and expanding open, direct, horizontal lines of communication among members and workplace leaders. It also includes realizing the crucial role of strikes and direct action in building a sense of collective power and communicating with supporters and the public.

OUR Walmart member Tyfani Faulkner, 32, a high school graduate from Sacramento who knew nothing about the labor movement when she took her job, now loves going online to answer questions or solve others’ problems, or to work for legislation or a candidate she favors (most recently, Bernie Sanders). Her “proudest moment,” she says, was participating in a two-hour sit-in at Walmart this past November. OUR Walmart has produced many powerful worker-leaders and vocal progressives like Faulkner who organize effectively—and at no cost.

The emergence of leaders like Faulkner reinforces the urgency of taking seriously Lerner’s key advice, which is as simple as it is often ignored: “You can’t win without the workers.”

This blog originally appeared at InTheseTimes.com on August 11, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at [email protected]


Share this post

Follow this Blog

Subscribe via RSS Subscribe via RSS

Or, enter your address to follow via email:

Recent Posts

Forbes Best of the Web, Summer 2004
A Forbes "Best of the Web" Blog

Archives

  • Tracking image for JustAnswer widget
  • Find an Employment Lawyer

  • Support Workplace Fairness

 
 

Find an Employment Attorney

The Workplace Fairness Attorney Directory features lawyers from across the United States who primarily represent workers in employment cases. Please note that Workplace Fairness does not operate a lawyer referral service and does not provide legal advice, and that Workplace Fairness is not responsible for any advice that you receive from anyone, attorney or non-attorney, you may contact from this site.