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The Labor Movement Hasn’t Won Anything Yet

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It looks very like­ly that Democ­rats will win con­trol of the Sen­ate. That means that for the first time in more than a decade, the Democ­rats will con­trol both the White House and Con­gress. The labor move­ment will and should view this as the time to col­lect on their hefty invest­ment in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. This also means that the labor unions are in mor­tal dan­ger of squan­der­ing the next two years trans­fixed by devel­op­ments in Wash­ing­ton while the real action pass­es them by.

On this hope­ful morn­ing, we should all take a moment to remem­ber the glo­ri­ous days of 2009, when Oba­ma won the pres­i­den­cy, and Democ­rats won Con­gress, and the labor move­ment won… noth­ing. In the cold light of his­to­ry, the enor­mous finan­cial and logis­ti­cal back­ing that major unions gave to Oba­ma won them only a short term reprieve from bla­tant gov­ern­ment repres­sion rather than any real progress towards a revival of labor pow­er in Amer­i­ca. It did not win them the pas­sage of the Employ­ee Free Choice Act, their top leg­isla­tive pri­or­i­ty. Union den­si­ty in Amer­i­ca was 12.3% in 2009. By 2016, after two Oba­ma terms, it was 10.7%. By 2020, it was 10.3%. (In the mid-1950s, it was 35%. By the ear­ly 1980s, it was 20%.) Under both friend­ly and hos­tile pres­i­den­tial admin­is­tra­tions, union mem­ber­ship has con­tin­ued to decline for decades. Col­lect­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars from union mem­bers and fun­nel­ing it into the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty every four years has done noth­ing to solve the most press­ing prob­lems that unions face: they are slow­ly disappearing. 

And here we are again! Unions backed Biden strong­ly, vow­ing to keep the bit­ter lessons of the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion in mind. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, the Democ­rats who appear to have won in the Geor­gia Sen­ate races, both ben­e­fit­ed from a flood of on-the-ground sup­port from Unite Hereand oth­er unions. The 2021 ana­log to the Oba­ma-era Employ­ee Free Choice Act is the PRO Act, a very fine bill that would roll back the worst parts of America’s anti-work­er labor laws and make it mean­ing­ful­ly eas­i­er to build and sus­tain strong unions. We have won the White house. We have won the House. We have won the Sen­ate. And we have our top pri­or­i­ty bill in hand. 

So will the PRO Act become law? No. It will be fil­i­bus­tered in the Sen­ate. In order to pass it, Democ­rats would have to com­mit to doing away with the fil­i­buster, and Joe Manchin?—?now the key­stone of the Sen­ate?—?has said he will not do that. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Sen­ate vic­to­ry means that Biden will be able to get his judges, and he’ll be able to get his cab­i­net sec­re­taries con­firmed, and as a con­se­quence the reg­u­la­to­ry appa­ra­tus of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment will be more favor­able towards the inter­ests of work­ers than it would oth­er­wise have been. But ulti­mate­ly none of the juici­est reforms of the PRO Act, like elim­i­nat­ing ?“right to work” laws and legal­iz­ing sec­ondary boy­cotts, will come to pass. 

Of course it is good for orga­nized labor that the Democ­rats won. I’m not try­ing to be a down­er. I am try­ing to put the util­i­ty of the nation­al Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty in its prop­er con­text. For the labor move­ment, most of the invest­ment in Democ­rats amounts to an insur­ance pol­i­cy: We have to back Democ­rats because even if they don’t do any­thing for us, they are not active­ly try­ing to destroy us. Total Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­trol of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment amounts to noth­ing but a tem­porar­i­ly neu­tral play­ing field for labor. It does not get us any­thing. It just makes con­di­tions some­what more con­ducive to get­ting things for our­selves. That is the part that often gets for­got­ten, as unions sit back and con­grat­u­late them­selves after Elec­tion Day. The myopic focus of the labor estab­lish­ment on nation­al pol­i­tics is like spend­ing all of your mon­ey on home insur­ance and hav­ing noth­ing left over to actu­al­ly build a house. 

Pol­i­tics fol­lows move­ments. Not vice ver­sa. We drag elect­ed offi­cials along after we have made the demand for change so strong it can’t be ignored. The labor move­ment in Amer­i­ca is weak because not enough Amer­i­cans are part of the labor move­ment. You can’t fight cap­i­tal­ism when only ten per­cent of the peo­ple are on your team. The labor move­ment must grow. If it can’t grow with­in the hos­tile forms dic­tat­ed by cur­rent law, it must grow out­side of those forms. 

Union lead­ers can wake up today and bask in the knowl­edge that they got their vic­to­ry. They should also mar­i­nate in the knowl­edge that this vic­to­ry will not buy them a sin­gle new union mem­ber. Polit­i­cal dona­tions are a pro­tec­tion rack­et for unions. On the oth­er hand, mon­ey spent on orga­niz­ing is nev­er wast­ed. If we spend the next two years hyp­no­tized by Con­gress and the PRO Act and get­ting ready for the next midterms, two years will pass, and union den­si­ty will con­tin­ue to decline, and we will be weak­er than we are today. We should instead look out towards the 90% of work­ing peo­ple who do not have a union, and ask: How do we get them one? 

We will be told today that we won in Geor­gia. The state of Geor­gia ranks 47thout of 50 in union den­si­ty. Bare­ly four per­cent of work­ers there are union mem­bers. What has the labor move­ment actu­al­ly won for the peo­ple there? How much will their lives be changed in the next two years?

The elec­tion is over. Fall out of love with pol­i­tics, and fall in love with orga­niz­ing. Please. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 6, 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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With Gigs Canceled and No Relief, Musicians Form a Nationwide Union

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Musi­cian Josephine Shet­ty, aka Kohi­noor­gasm, was prepar­ing for her West Coast spring tour in March when the pan­dem­ic-relat­ed can­cel­la­tions start­ed rolling in.

Like many musi­cians, Shetty’s liveli­hood is pieced togeth­er from part-time work. She per­forms at under­ground spaces and small clubs, releas­es her own music and teach­es mid­dle school music class­es. ?“When you’re a per­son who works so many jobs, that’s already a very unsta­ble sit­u­a­tion,” Shet­ty says. With live shows being can­celled, it became clear how dif­fi­cult the road ahead would be. The inde­pen­dent venues that most work­ing musi­cians rely on were some of the first to close (and will sure­ly be some of the last to reopen).UMAW differentiates itself from similar unions through its vast scope, seeking systemic shifts industry-wide, inclusive of various genres and practices.

When fel­low musi­cian and orga­niz­er Joey La Neve DeFrancesco reached out to Shet­ty, just a few weeks into the pan­dem­ic, about union­iz­ing musi­cians and relat­ed music work­ers, Shet­ty signed up. On April 22, a group of about 20 musi­cians met vir­tu­al­ly to dis­cuss sol­i­dar­i­ty and how to build a more just indus­try, inau­gu­rat­ing the Union of Musi­cians and Allied Work­ers (UMAW).

“Very quick­ly, every­one had all of these dif­fer­ent visions of what a dif­fer­ent music indus­try could look like when it was being built col­lec­tive­ly by the work­ers involved,” says DeFrancesco, who is based in Prov­i­dence, R.I. UMAW already boasts about 25 steer­ing com­mit­tee mem­bers and 80 sub­com­mit­tee mem­bers, with top­ics rang­ing from stream­ing and venue rela­tions to police abo­li­tion. More than 1,000 musi­cians have expressed inter­est through the group’s web­site and peti­tions. Mem­bers are locat­ed in Los Ange­les, Chica­go, New York, Port­land, Ore., Boston and beyond. So far, the orga­niz­ing has hap­pened entire­ly online.

On March 25, hun­dreds of musi­cians cir­cu­lat­ed a let­ter to Con­gress demand­ing the expan­sion of unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits under the CARES Act. The let­ter also demand­ed relief regard­less of immi­gra­tion sta­tus, nation­al rent and mort­gage can­cel­la­tion, Medicare for All and fund­ing for the Postal Ser­vice and the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Arts.

UMAW grew out of that momen­tum. For UMAW’s first orga­nized day of action, May 14, musi­cians across the coun­try made near­ly 1,000 calls to House Speak­er Nan­cy Pelosi (D?Calif.), Sen­ate Minor­i­ty Leader Chuck Schumer (D?N.Y.) and local representatives.

“That was how we start­ed?—?think­ing, ?‘How are music work­ers and gig work­ers going to be pro­tect­ed dur­ing this time?’” Shet­ty says.

But the very first seeds were plant­ed years ear­li­er. Some mem­bers were involved in the 2017 effort to force the South by South­west fes­ti­val to remove a ?“depor­ta­tion clause” from its artist con­tract. Oth­ers are asso­ci­at­ed with the No Music for ICE coali­tion, which encour­ages the indus­try to cut ties with Ama­zon unless it can­cels con­tracts with Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment. These cam­paigns cre­at­ed a blue­print for ?“how you could do actions col­lec­tive­ly as musi­cians,” DeFrancesco says, pro­vid­ing a foun­da­tion for UMAW to come togeth­er quickly.

UMAW dif­fer­en­ti­ates itself from sim­i­lar unions through its vast scope, seek­ing sys­temic shifts indus­try-wide, inclu­sive of var­i­ous gen­res and prac­tices. Tra­di­tion­al union orga­niz­ing would be dif­fi­cult for UMAW’s inde­pen­dent musi­cians because they often make a liv­ing through numer­ous con­tracts and employ­ers. In that sense, UMAW’s work is more com­pa­ra­ble to efforts by the Nation­al Writ­ers Union’s Free­lance Sol­i­dar­i­ty Project than, say, the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Musi­cians (AFM).

“We’re just try­ing to orga­nize the unor­ga­nized, which is the vast major­i­ty of musi­cians right now,” DeFrancesco says. ?“There [are] so many sim­i­lar­i­ties if you look at [efforts to] orga­nize Uber, free­lance writ­ers, adjuncts. …It’s the same prob­lem, where it’s so hard to orga­nize because you have so many employers.”

Shet­ty agrees. ?“If musi­cians are the orig­i­nal gig work­ers … we have a respon­si­bil­i­ty to orga­nize with­in that realm,” she says.

Cody Fitzger­ald, a film score com­pos­er and mem­ber of the Brook­lyn-based band Stolen Jars, says UMAW stands in sol­i­dar­i­ty with mem­bers of oth­er unions, such as the AFM. But, Fitzger­ald adds, those orga­ni­za­tions don’t ful­fill the needs of all work­ing musi­cians because they cater to ses­sion and orches­tra play­ers, not independents.

“UMAW rep­re­sents the musi­cians that the AFM just doesn’t care about,” says bas­soon­ist Patrick John­son-Whit­ty, a mem­ber of the AFM and of a UMAW clas­si­cal music sub­com­mit­tee focused on con­fronting the lega­cy of white suprema­cy in the genre. Vio­list Clara Takarabe, anoth­er AFM mem­ber, is par­tic­i­pat­ing in UMAW’s polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion com­mit­tee. It aims to help musi­cians devel­op a polit­i­cal con­text around the labor of music. ?“I want to be involved in those types of cen­tral­ly impor­tant ques­tions,” Takarabe says.

UMAW is cur­rent­ly plan­ning a cam­paign to pres­sure stream­ing giant Spo­ti­fyto treat artists more fair­ly. The pub­licly trad­ed com­pa­ny is val­ued at more than $40 bil­lion, but infa­mous­ly pays artists about half-a-cent per stream. UMAW mem­bers also hope to help democ­ra­tize infor­ma­tion relat­ed to music contracts.

“I’m excit­ed about the idea of a world where peo­ple come to this union to look for infor­ma­tion about how to not be exploit­ed as an artist,” Fitzger­ald says. For many, just hav­ing UMAW as a space for sol­i­dar­i­ty is a ben­e­fit. As Shet­ty puts it, ?“The exis­tence of our cam­paigns, and our union, feels like a huge win.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Liz Pelly is a music and cul­ture writer based in Brook­lyn, NY.


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Voluntary Recognition: Worker Wins

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Despite the challenges of organizing during a deadly pandemic, working people across the country (and beyond) continue organizing, bargaining and mobilizing for a better life. This edition begins with several groups of organizers who won voluntary recognition of their new unions.

Kentucky Democratic Party Staff Join IBEW: Staff at the Kentucky Democratic Party have joined Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 369, gained voluntary recognition from management and secured their first collective bargaining agreement. In a statement, the Kentucky Democratic Party staffers said, “We asked for support and recognition of our right to organize. Our leadership stepped up to bargain in good faith and ensure that, as Kentucky Democrats, we live up to our values. We believe deeply in the importance of building and maintaining long-term organizing infrastructure as a means for achieving an equitable and inclusive Kentucky Democratic Party. We came together and organized with a single, common purpose: to make the Kentucky Democratic Party the best possible workplace for everyone, now and in the future.”

WGAE Wins Voluntary Recognition for 200 New Members at Bustle Digital Group: Bustle Digital Group (BDG) today voluntarily recognized the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE) for the purpose of collective bargaining after an overwhelming majority of employees in that unit signed authorization cards. BDG’s bargaining unit will include some 200 editorial, video, design and social staffers from its various sites. Lowell Peterson, executive director of WGAE, said, “We welcome Bustle Digital Group employees to the Writers Guild of America, East. Like thousands of their colleagues in the industry, they recognize the value and power of collective bargaining. Together, we can ensure that their voices are heard about the vital issues affecting their work and their workplace.”

Fort Worth Star-Telegram Journalists Win Voluntary Recognition of Union: Management at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram voluntarily recognized a new union at the request of journalists who will be represented by the NewsGuild-CWA. The organizing committee said, “We look forward to the start of negotiations, and we hope to form a strong working relationship that will allow us to protect local journalism here in Fort Worth for years to come.”

Milwaukee Art Museum Workers Overwhelmingly Vote to Join Machinists: A group of more than 140 employees of the Milwaukee Art Museum voted by 72% to join the Machinists (IAM). The new IAM members work in every capacity at the Milwaukee Art Museum, including visitor services, food and beverage, education and programs, information systems, facilities, and more. “I want to welcome these members to the Machinists union family,” said IAM Midwest Territory General Vice President Steve Galloway. “I’m so proud of them for educating themselves about the benefits of the IAM and working so hard for union representation and a voice in their workplace. Unions aren’t just for manufacturing workers; they have a place in every working environment.”

L.A. Union Members Win the Right to Form Public Health Councils: Workers in the Los Angeles area have reason to be proud after the L.A. County Board of Supervisors passed its ordinance to establish labor-led public health councils at worksites. The new policy was pushed by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and allows workers to set up their own health and safety enforcement committees on the job. Labor Council President Ron Herrera (IBT) explained that the policy’s passage is an important step forward to stemming the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. “Public health councils address the problem at the source by utilizing our most powerful and extensive resource—our workers—as our eyes and ears in the workplace, ensuring that public health orders are followed to prevent new outbreaks,” he said. The county’s Department of Public Health also will be charged under the ordinance with educating front-line workers on their rights to report unsafe working conditions.

UFCW Members at Kroger Agree to Tentative Contract: After months of negotiations, workers represented by United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) at Kroger’s have reached a tentative deal on a new contract that will address pay raises, fully fund health care for associates and reduce drug costs for associates with diabetes. Carolyn Devitt, who has worked at Kroger’s for 42 years, said, “We stood up to corporate and won. After months on the front lines of a pandemic, after already taking away our hero pay, they wanted to gut our health care, too. We weren’t having any of it. We stuck together, and they knew they had to back down. I’m proud of my union.”

Massachusetts Cannabis Cultivation Employees in Massachusetts Join UFCW: Workers at Cresco Labs in Massachusetts have voted to be represented by UFCW Local 328. Timothy Melia, president of UFCW Local 328, said, “We applaud cannabis workers for forming unions to make sure that, as this industry grows, workers are able to share in the success. The cannabis industry should be a place where workers earn a living wage [and] have access to affordable health care and protection from unfair discipline and discrimination.” 

UFCW Local 152 Members Ratify New Contract at ShopRite: More than 2,100 members of UFCW Local 152 who are employed as retail clerks at ShopRite stores in New Jersey ratified a new contract on Oct. 20 that protects health care benefits and raises wages. The four-year contract maintains no cost sharing of medical benefits for the lifetime of the contract. The contract also establishes paid sick days for members, a new benefit made possible with the introduction of the New Jersey Earned Sick Leave Law.

SAG-AFTRA Agrees to Two-Year Extension to Video Game Contract: SAG-AFTRA reached an agreement with nine of the video game industry’s largest companies to extend their Interactive Media Agreement for two years. The deal covers voice-over and performance-capture performers and will provide increased wages and employer contributions to health care and retirement. About the new agreement, SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris said, “We are pleased to have reached this agreement with the employers. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the entertainment industry, but work on video games, much of which can be done remotely, has continued. This extension allows members to keep working and have some certainty during an uncertain time.”

Michigan Nurses Association Affiliates With NNU: Earlier this week, National Nurses United (NNU) announced that the Michigan Nurses Association (MNA) board of directors voted to join as an affiliate of NNU. “Solidarity is more important now than ever before,” explained Jamie Brown, RN, MNA president. “Health care executives and D.C. politicians continue to ignore the voice of those of us on the front lines while the pandemic only gets worse. It is time for nurses to unite and fight back.” The 13,000-member union of Michigan nurses will combine forces with more than 150,000 members of NNU nationwide. NNU leaders also highlighted the need for a strong federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been lacking up to now.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on November 20, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell  is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.

About the Author: Aaron Gallant  is the Communications Director and Political Action Coordinator at AFSCME Council 66.


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How Unions Can Lay the Ground for the Next Upsurge

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I started in the labor movement in the mid-90s, when the fall in union density from 23 percent of the workforce in 1980 to 15 percent in 1994 had created a crisis at the top. In response, the “New Voices” slate led by the Service Employees’ John Sweeney defeated heir apparent Thomas Donahue in the first contested election in AFL-CIO history.

The incoming team were evangelists for organizing. They argued for applying to the entire labor movement the militant tactics of campaigns like the Service Employees’ (SEIU’s) Justice for Janitors and the organizing methodology popularized by the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Institute.

The idea that unions needed to organize new shops in order to survive became universally accepted. Several large campaigns were launched; unions hired hundreds of recent college graduates to staff them, and codified a specific methodology for organizing.

Many of these tactics (and certainly their essence) had been around since the dawn of the labor movement, but in the 1990s they were polished, distilled, and disseminated widely among a growing corps of “professional” union organizers.

This detailed and methodical practice—the structured organizing conversation, house visits, hard inoculation, workplace mapping, careful assessments of support with numerical ranking of workers, building large and representative organizing committees—has proven incredibly effective (when properly applied) in uniting workplace majorities to win a union in the face of intense employer opposition.

UNIONS GROW IN SPURTS

It seemed to many (or at least to me) that training more people in good organizing tactics would only lead to positive outcomes for unions. And it did, to a degree. Membership has grown slightly in a few unions with more aggressive organizing programs, particularly in health care.

But we’ve seen no overall growth in union density, the percentage of the labor force that belongs to a union—today just one in 10 workers overall, and in the private sector, 6.2 percent.

The problem is that even great tactics can’t overcome the social, political, and economic forces of capitalism, which combine to make organizing a gigantic challenge. In a free-market system, employers are under intense competitive pressure to resist workers’ demands—there’s no generous “high road” for them to take; they won’t willingly give in to a union drive. And employers are compelled to come together as a class to exert power over the government, passing laws and using the courts to challenge unions on all fronts.

In addition, organizing tactics are labor-intensive. In a model where paid staff do the lion’s share, they are expensive. And they were crafted to do something that labor history shows has rarely if ever been done: grow unions incrementally, outside of an upsurge.

Rather, as shown by authors like Dan Clawson in his 2003 book The Next Upsurge, unions tend to grow in spurts, as part of working-class uprisings that pose a deep challenge to the powers that be.

The upsurges in the private sector from 1934 to 1939, when the CIO organized industry-wide, with sitdowns when necessary, and the AFL tried to catch up, and in the public sector from 1962 to 1972, when a wave of illegal strikes established the right to bargain, were rooted in militant worker action. The system began to lose legitimacy and workers got a sense of their collective power. Similar dynamics played out during the 1897-1904 upsurge in the U.S., 1910-1914 and 1933-1940 in the U.K., in France 1935-1937, in Italy in the early 1970s, in Brazil in 1978-1979, in South Africa 1982-1985, and in Korea in 1987.

During an upsurge, new possibilities emerge: what was inconceivable yesterday is suddenly possible today.

As the system seeks to stabilize in response, reforms become possible that allow unions to grow and consolidate. For a period after the upsurge, union membership may stay constant or even grow. Inevitably, though, at some point post-upsurge, membership begins to decline as employers resume their attacks.

Organizing between upsurges can produce incremental growth for some unions at some points, or at least slow the decline. But it doesn’t lead to substantial increases in overall union density.

SEIU, for example, grew by 183 percent during the 1934-1939 upsurge. In contrast, it grew by around 8 percent from 2009 to 2019 despite spending a large portion of its budget on organizing. The structural challenges facing unions are such that only the big numbers brought in through an upsurge can move density rates by double digits.

WHAT COULD’VE BEEN

What does this mean for our organizing strategy? While many strategists have studied the conditions leading to an upsurge, most would agree that they are difficult to predict and even more difficult to manufacture. However, it’s also true that before and during each upsurge, union militants took specific actions that helped to spark, build, and sustain it.

There are all kinds of moments in history where the right combination of forces could have moved in a way that caused an upsurge, but didn’t. Even in the past 20 years there have been such moments. On March 10, 2006, a half-million immigrants took to the streets of Chicago to protest a proposed anti-immigrant law, shutting down hundreds of workplaces. Soon millions of people across the country flowed into the streets too.

Like most protest movements, these so-called “mega-marches” eventually dissipated (though it took a few years). But what if a network of activists, rooted both in workplaces and in the struggle for immigrants’ rights, had been able to use the momentum of the walkouts to sustain those strikes for economic or political demands?

What if organizers in strategic workplaces throughout the country had started to spread the strike movement to other sections of the working class? What if the march participants had had a map of the logistics chokepoints in Chicago and decided to disrupt commerce? What if insurgent teacher unionists had joined the effort? Who knows what could have happened?

The financial crisis in 2008, Occupy and the mass worker pushback in Wisconsin in 2011, the Red for Ed strike wave in 2018-2019, and the uprisings for Black lives this year all presented similar opportunities. And the people in the streets during those events? Few of them got there because they’d had a structured conversation with an organizer.

The point is that moments like this come and go all the time, historically speaking—but they aren’t sustained and multiplied, because the forces aren’t aligned to make that happen.

SPARK INTO AN INFERNO

Working-class upsurges often happen in the context of deep changes in society as a whole, such as abrupt and widespread economic dislocation, a profound loss of legitimacy by ruling elites, or abnormal political instability. Many of the factors contributing to an upsurge are not under our control, but some are. If we’re ready at these moments, we can turn a dust-up into a strike, one strike into several, one plant occupation into five, into 10. And then maybe that spark turns into an inferno.

You never know when that moment will come. There’s no structure test for an upsurge.

What does being “ready” mean?

While upsurges look different across times and countries, certain common elements increase the possibility that an isolated labor struggle will spark the sort of upsurge where unions grow dramatically. Certain of these elements can be affected by union activists.

1. More strikes: Dramatic growth in unions is almost always linked to a strike spike, both before and during the upsurge.

The 1934-1939 upsurge was kicked off by several large and militant strikes, including by teamsters in Minneapolis, auto workers in Toledo, longshoremen in San Francisco, and textile workers throughout the South. These came after several years of bitter strikes, such as the 1931 miners’ strike throughout Appalachia and the 1933 strike at the Briggs auto parts plant in Detroit.

The public sector organizing wave of the 1970s included hundreds of illegal strikes, such as the postal workers’ national strike in 1970, and the routine defiance of injunctions.

The willingness of at least part of the labor movement to take risks in the form of sustained, militant, and sometimes illegal action appears to be a necessary component in turning a “moment” into an upsurge.

2. Large numbers of workplace leaders ready to move: An upsurge can’t be driven by union staff. You need politically conscious working-class leaders who have experience in militancy (see #1) and a view that the existing system is illegitimate.

We saw this in the 1960s and 1970s, when the civil rights, women’s, and anti-war movements were all challenging the core of the system. Much of this movement organizing was then reflected in the booming public sector as rank-and-file teachers, state employees, and municipal workers built unions.

3. Independence from the mainstream: It’s unlikely that large, established unions will support the type of militant, risky action that characterizes the beginning of an upsurge.

Many union officials simply aren’t willing to run open-ended, majority strikes, outside of rare circumstances. Others don’t want to risk legal sanctions.

So where does organizing capacity come from in an upsurge? Historically, three places: a) the minority of unions willing to take militant action, b) new formations that come together during the upsurge, such as the new CIO industrial unions in the 1930s, and c) people fighting for profound changes in society, such as the civil rights movement of the 1960s, socialists in the 1930s, or anarchists in earlier periods.

Waging more strikes and developing thousands of new workplace militants will take a lot of work, and at times will require exactly the type of sophisticated organizing methods discussed earlier. But it will also require something else: a labor movement with a class-struggle orientation.

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

What if the tactics needed to spark or fuel an upsurge aren’t the same as those needed to win a tough private sector union election during a low period in working-class consciousness? If they’re not, how many potential upsurges have passed us by while we were grinding it out in organizing efforts that only resulted in marginal gains?

What if the key to union growth isn’t simply more “smart organizing” but an entirely different strategic approach?

While some of the tactics honed in the 1990s and 2000s had their roots in earlier labor upsurges, they were largely divorced from a class-struggle strategy. A string of valiantly fought but ultimately losing strikes, running from PATCO in 1981 to the Detroit Newspapers in 1995, had convinced many unions that the strike tactic was futile.

So union campaigners often stressed “comprehensive” strategies that focused on developing pressure outside of the workplace: convincing supportive politicians to pressure an employer, media campaigns designed to impact a firm’s brand, or leveraging union pension funds to change a company’s behavior—rather than developing worker organization. If these strategies employed workplace militancy at all, it was often in the service of producing “content” to be used in media campaigns, rather than to actually affect the employer’s operations.

Within a few years, the early energy of the New Voices victory ran headfirst into the realities of business unionism. Affiliates were interested in growing their numbers, but less interested in taking risks. The most ardent apostles of organizing were marginalized and eventually cast aside, as the whole project devolved into meaningless goal-setting. The AFL-CIO announced a goal of 1,000,000 new members per year starting in 2000, a number that proved well beyond its reach.

The push to organize in the 1990s-2000s never seriously challenged the post-World War II status quo adhered to by most labor leaders, which was cemented by the purges of the left-leaning CIO unions in 1949-1950. Unions improved in other areas: race, gender, even foreign policy, but the core goal to rebuild the ranks of labor ultimately washed up on the rocks of business unionism.

Outside of the few unions with left histories, few in the labor movement at that time spoke of alternatives to capitalism. The Democratic Socialists of America, now at 70,000 members, was then a small organization with strong ties to mainstream labor leaders, and Bernie Sanders was not a name on the national scene.

Unions must do what’s necessary to survive. But we need to be doing a lot more to lay the groundwork for turning the next moment into an upsurge.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on October 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mark Meinster is an international representative with the United Electrical Workers (UE).


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Trump’s Anti-Worker Labor Board

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In his State of the Union address this year, President Trump declared that “our agenda is relentlessly pro-worker.” Despite this populist posturing, any sober assessment of Trump’s first term will show that it has been an all-out assault on labor.

Trump has ruthlessly attacked federal workers, granted more tax cuts for the rich, and severely weakened the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and he is now undermining Social Security. Campaign promises such as massive infrastructure projects, a minimum wage hike, and an overhaul of the health care system have barely even been attempted.

In a few short years, Republicans have used the opportunity presented by a Trump Administration to attack workers in ways we haven’t seen since before the Great Depression. While these seismic shifts in labor relations rarely get highlighted in the media, they should alarm anyone who cares about working people’s basic rights.

Can Workers Still Use the NLRB under Trump?

“The big-picture situation at the agency under Trump is not good,” wrote labor lawyer Gay Semel in the January 2020 issue of Labor Notes. “But in certain situations,” she emphasized, “the Board is still the only place workers can go for legal protection, and workers shouldn’t let the president’s pro-corporate appointees scare them out of ever exercising their rights.”

For advice on when and how to go to the NLRB in the current political climate, see Semel’s article here.

A BOARD OF CORPORATE STOOGES

Actions of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) are the most striking example of the anti-worker agenda. The Wagner Act of 1935, the first iteration of the National Labor Relations Act, established the NLRB as an agency to protect workers’ rights to organize and engage in collective bargaining. Trump has rapidly turned an agency designed to serve workers’ interests into another tool of corporate power.

Trump has appointed three Republicans to the board, none of whom has any experience representing workers or unions. In fact, all have long careers defending corporate interests. Between December 2019 and August—when Democrat Lauren McFerran was reconfirmed by the Senate—Trump presided over the first all-Republican Board in the NLRB’s 85-year history.

At the head of the board is the General Counsel, whom workers depend on to actually prosecute cases. Trump’s pick was management lawyer Peter Robb.

The Trump Board has dutifully pursued a corporate wish list of 10 items put out by the Chamber of Commerce in early 2017. Board members have already taken action on all 10. These priorities include delaying union elections, restricting the ability of employees to communicate about workplace issues, and enhancing the ability of employers to determine bargaining units.

We shouldn’t overstate the importance of labor law. Deep organizing and shop floor power are what’s needed to rebuild the labor movement and working people’s ability to fight back. But these laws still make a real difference in shaping the barriers to the revitalization we seek. The NLRB under Trump is on a determined mission to destroy the last vestiges of organized power working people have left.

PRECEDENT OUT THE WINDOW

As Celine McNicholas, Margaret Poydock, and Lynn Rhinehart of the Economic Policy Institute wrote in their October 2019 report “Unprecedented: The Trump NLRB’s Attack on Workers’ Rights”: “The Trump board has repeatedly reversed long-standing board precedent, weakening workers’ rights and giving more power to employers. In the two years that Republicans have held the majority on the board, they have overturned NLRB precedent in more than a dozen cases. All of these decisions overturning precedent favor employers.” In most cases, the Board has issued these types of rulings without even bothering to solicit public input, a reversal of its normal practice.

Take the Board’s ruling in Bexar. Thanks to this ruling, now off-duty employees do not have a right to organize in public areas of their workplace if their employer is a contractor. In this particular instance, San Antonio Symphony musicians were barred from leafleting in front of their home venue, where the vast majority of their performances take place, because the venue is not owned by their employer.

In another case, UPMC, hospitals were granted the ability to ban union organizers from talking to nurses in hospital cafeterias that are public.

The NLRB has also set its sights on undoing more recent precedents set during the Obama Administration. In 2011, the Board’s Specialty Healthcare decision undermined employers’ ability to increase the size of bargaining units in union elections, a tactic often used to make it harder for workers to organize. This ruling allowed, for example, workers in the cosmetics department at Macy’s to petition for a union election among themselves, rather than having to win an election for the entire store. One of the first things the new NLRB did was overturn this ruling—and then add additional measures that gave management even more power to beat organizing drives.

UNDERMINING COLLECTIVE BARGAINING

Traditional understandings and procedures in the collective bargaining process have also been upended. For over 70 years, employers were banned from making sweeping changes to wages, hours, or working conditions unless they demonstrated that the union had clearly waived its right to bargain over these issues.

Give $10 a month or more and get our “Fight the Boss, Build the Union” T-shirt.

But the Board adopted a new rule that allows employers to make unilateral changes if there is reference in the contract to management’s authority over the issue.

In Johnson Controls, a rule was announced allowing employers to withdraw union recognition at the end of a collective bargaining agreement if they can prove that the union does not have majority support. They can now do this without holding an election, such as through an employee petition for decertification. But employers can still insist on an election when the union is first trying to be established—no “card check” there.

HURTS NEW ORGANIZING

In this age of dire economic inequality, Americans need and want unions. Recent polls show that nearly half of non-union workers say they would vote for a union if given the chance. Sixty-five percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of unions, according to a Gallup poll this year—the highest since 2003. But the NLRB is doing everything in its power to deny working people union protection.

Union elections have been undermined as well. Never letting a crisis go to waste, the board used COVID-19 as an excuse to halt all union elections in late March and early April, even though they could have been handled through the mail. This affected thousands of workers who were looking to vote a union in. More important, the Board enacted new rules that will affect the way union elections are done well after the pandemic is over.

Occasionally, employers will recognize a union voluntarily, without an election, when a majority of workers have signed union cards. The Board now requires such employers to tell those workers that they can file for an election to get rid of the union they just formed. New rules also dictate that a union election should proceed even when the union has filed charges of illegal practices by employers to alter the election.

Over the last decade, groups of Walmart workers have gone on many short strikes to raise awareness about the company’s labor practices. The NLRB ruled in July 2019 that more than a hundred Walmart workers who took part in a five-day strike were not protected by labor law. The Board argued that their action counted as an “intermittent” strike, which is unprotected, and thus there were no legal consequences for Walmart when the company retaliated.

PERILOUS FUTURE

There are already signs of what the Board will pursue if Trump gets a second term.

In the age of COVID-19, recent rulings related to workplace health and safety are particularly dangerous and despicable. Board regional directors have been told to dismiss COVID-related cases against employers. Incredibly, the Board has ruled that employers are not obligated to bargain over paid sick leave, hazard pay, or temporary closure due to the pandemic.

In such a stifled organizing climate, speaking out to the public about unsafe working conditions may be the only hope workers have for protecting their well-being. But the Board has made this more difficult as well, with recent advice memos from the General Counsel refusing to afford protection to or overturn firings of workers who spoke out against their company’s COVID safety procedures.

With each new ruling it becomes clearer that the Board seeks a workplace where employers have unfettered control over workers’ minds and bodies. In December 2019 a ruling allowed private sector employers to place major restrictions on the wearing of union swag, upholding a Walmart policy that restricts employees from wearing anything but “small, non-distracting” union buttons or other insignia in stores. Walmart absurdly claimed this practice would “enhance the customer shopping experience and protect its merchandise from theft or vandalism.”

In July, employers were given the green light to discipline shop stewards for using profanity during meetings with management. This effort to restrict behavior also extends to language used on picket lines and social media.

Labor law is not a silver bullet. Having strong labor laws on the books wouldn’t mean much without a vibrant union movement to enforce them. Conversely, it’s possible to have a situation where anti-worker labor laws are overcome by a militant presence on the shop floor and in society.

But it’s clear that these laws have real-world effects, especially for our ability to organize in the future. The NLRB under Trump exposes his pro-worker rhetoric as a lie.

There will be real consequences of another Trump term. But after the election is over comes the hard work of reversing the huge power imbalance between workers and the boss.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on October 8, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Paul Prescod is a high school social studies teacher and belongs to the Working Educators caucus of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.


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We Organize Domestic Workers. Here’s Why We Decided We Need a Union, Too.

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We are in a moment of great uncer­tain­ty. The Covid-19 pan­dem­ic and sub­se­quent unem­ploy­ment crises are mak­ing all work­ers take a sec­ond look at their employ­ment sit­u­a­tion. As mil­lions of work­ers lose their jobs, oth­ers are fight­ing for pro­tec­tion, safe­ty and rights at work?—?and some are even union­iz­ing. That includes us, the staff at the Nation­al Domes­tic Work­ers Alliance (NDWA). We are orga­niz­ers, com­mu­ni­ca­tions spe­cial­ists, accoun­tants, fundrais­ers, lawyers, press strate­gists and more.

In March, long­time whis­pers about orga­niz­ing turned into sus­tained con­ver­sa­tions about how to form a union. As an orga­ni­za­tion that’s pri­mar­i­ly fund­ed by foun­da­tions, we didn’t know what would hap­pen if that fund­ing dried up in a reces­sion; we didn’t know if there would be lay­offs, and if there were, if there would be sev­er­ance pack­ages. NDWA pro­vides a com­pre­hen­sive ben­e­fits pack­age?—?yet we rec­og­nize that if times get tough, or if foun­da­tion fund­ing ends, these ben­e­fits could cease to exist. We’ve seen the dev­as­ta­tion the pan­dem­ic is inflict­ing and how ben­e­fits like employ­er-pro­vid­ed health insur­ance can be lost overnight. With­out a union and the abil­i­ty to nego­ti­ate a col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment, work­ers are that much more vul­ner­a­ble?—?and eco­nom­ic upheaval puts them in a place of even greater pre­car­i­ous­ness. These are the sce­nar­ios that were play­ing out en masse as the pan­dem­ic spread, and they were the spark that set in motion the first orga­niz­ing dri­ve in the his­to­ry of our orga­ni­za­tion.

For many of us, our work­loads sky­rock­et­ed dur­ing the pan­dem­ic. The scale of our work ramped up as the domes­tic work­ers we orga­nized were faced with mass job loss, unsafe con­di­tions at work, inad­e­quate pay to account for their risk, and the threat of catch­ing the dead­ly virus. We orga­nize and move­ment build in a sys­tem that already deval­ues work­ers and neces­si­tates work­er exploita­tion. Covid-19 cre­at­ed a height­ened need for our folks to orga­nize and be orga­nized, fight for our fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties, and demand more. This meant the orga­niz­ing nev­er stopped. We were work­ing inces­sant­ly to con­nect with and sup­port domes­tic work­ers, who were dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly impact­ed by Covid-19 and its eco­nom­ic reper­cus­sions. Many of us were also deal­ing with our own Covid-19 relat­ed prob­lems and try­ing to bal­ance work, child­care and the care of our fam­i­lies.

As we moved our work to the dig­i­tal sphere, we simul­ta­ne­ous­ly became more con­nect­ed to oth­er staff in our orga­ni­za­tion. Work areas that were pre­vi­ous­ly sep­a­rat­ed due to focus or geog­ra­phy became more inte­grat­ed, and new con­nec­tions were forged. Our con­ver­sa­tions about want­i­ng to mod­el our organization’s vision of ?“dig­ni­ty, uni­ty, and pow­er” for its own staff grew loud­er and more seri­ous. What were once off­hand remarks about the dual­i­ty of our labor orga­ni­za­tion not hav­ing its own union or inter­nal work­er bar­gain­ing unit turned into action and com­mit­ment. Our con­ver­sa­tions spoke to how much we appre­ci­at­ed our orga­ni­za­tion, and yet how we rec­og­nized that NDWA wasn’t above per­pet­u­at­ing com­mon pit­falls that all work­ers can expe­ri­ence in their work­place.

Dur­ing our orga­niz­ing process we learned of chal­lenges like salary dis­par­i­ties?—?due to what we believe are arbi­trary and unclear process­es for deter­min­ing and rene­go­ti­at­ing our pay. We engage our domes­tic work­er mem­bers often in skills build­ing to nego­ti­ate their salaries and know that indi­vid­ual advo­ca­cy absent of large-scale stan­dards set­ting can only go so far. With­out clear guide­lines and met­rics for salaries, favoritism and per­son­al rela­tion­ships can all affect pay. This also means that peo­ple who don’t have the nec­es­sary tools to advo­cate for them­selves can lose out on rais­es and pro­mo­tions. Because these tools are social­ly and cul­tur­al­ly imbued, this has a greater detri­men­tal impact on Black women and women of col­or, who make up the major­i­ty of our staff. As an orga­ni­za­tion that’s tasked with orga­niz­ing and ele­vat­ing the voic­es of a work­force that’s dom­i­nat­ed by women of col­or, we need to put our mon­ey where our mouth is.

Bar­gain­ing direct­ly with our employ­er as a group will help us bet­ter under­stand our organization’s finan­cial sit­u­a­tion and allow us to raise the salary floor so pay is trans­par­ent and fair. Col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments have been proven to help even the play­ing field for women work­ers and work­ers of col­or. Through our dis­cus­sions and con­ver­sa­tions, it became obvi­ous that we need­ed to unite togeth­er to form a union and exer­cise our col­lec­tive strength?—?which is why, after four months of orga­niz­ing, we approached our boss­es with near­ly 100% sup­port, demand­ing union recog­ni­tion.

We love where we work and what we do, and our union affords us the oppor­tu­ni­ty to con­nect, learn about each other’s work, and use our col­lec­tive voice for improve­ments at NDWA. Many of us worked remote­ly before the pan­dem­ic, and now it’s obvi­ous­ly unclear when or if some of us will go back to offices. We work on so many dif­fer­ent projects at NDWA?—?orga­niz­ing domes­tic work­ers to fight for respect and recog­ni­tion, win­ning poli­cies (includ­ing Domes­tic Work­ers Bill of Rights in two cities and 9 states), ele­vat­ing domes­tic work­ers’ voic­es, cre­at­ing tech­nol­o­gy to sup­port domes­tic work­ers, and more?—?that it’s some­times hard to keep up. Because of this lack of cohe­sion, we suf­fer from high turnover. Even in the best work­places, with­out a col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment, work­ers may feel afraid to speak up about things they want to change. We think our silence and inabil­i­ty to make real changes only hurts NDWA?—?and that’s why we orga­nized. Our union will help us cen­tral­ize our cam­paigns, improve com­mu­ni­ca­tion and retain work­ers. Our union will make NDWA stronger! A union will make your work­place stronger, too.

We want to have a voice at NDWA, and we want oth­er work­ers to have one too?—?whether they work at a non-prof­it, a union, or some­place else entire­ly. And in a soci­ety where work­ers are con­stant­ly under attack?—?espe­cial­ly women work­ers and Black work­ers and work­ers of col­or?—?we are proud to be part of a resur­gence of the labor move­ment. We fight hard for our mem­bers to have dig­ni­ty and respect, and we encour­age them to come togeth­er with oth­er work­ers to win the rights and recog­ni­tion that they deserve. We are fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of domes­tic work­er lead­ers like Dorothy Bold­en?—?and we encour­age you to do the same!

This blog originally appeared at InTheseTimes on August 24, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The NDWA Staff Union Organizing Committee


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

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


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

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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]


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Unions tap into burst of worker angst over coronavirus

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“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.


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Major Public Defense Nonprofit in New York Is Unionizing

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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. 


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