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Union representing meatpacking workers pushes for more frequent COVID-19 testing

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News broke last week that meatpacking companies exported a record amount of pork to China after using warnings of shortages to get Donald Trump to order them to stay open despite massive coronavirus outbreaks in their plants. Sens. Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren are not letting that issue go, sending a letter to the CEOs of top meatpacking companies.

Warren and Booker have questions for those CEOs about exports and price increases. “These actions raise questions about the circumstances of the president’s executive order, your honesty with the American public about the reasons for higher food prices, and your commitment to providing a safe, affordable and abundant food supply for the nation,” they wrote in their letter.

Meatpacking plants remain a major concern for coronavirus outbreaks. The United Food and Commercial Workers union is calling for workers to be tested every day, saying workers would be less afraid to go to work if they could “look around the plant, or look around the locker room, or the break room, and … know that everybody inside these walls is COVID-free.” The director of health in Nashville, Tennessee, says that probably isn’t possible, but that workplaces—not just meatpacking plants but nursing homes, construction sites, and others—should conduct random tests so they could quickly get on top of new outbreaks.

That fear remains a serious issue for workers around the country, many of whom face the choice between going to workplaces they don’t consider safe and losing the wages they need to pay their bills. Many of Iowa’s 10,000 refugees from Myanmar work in meatpacking plants and are coming up against exactly that.

”If they don’t go to work, how they will survive? That is a big question,” Pastor Benjamin Sang Bawi told Iowa Public Radio. “And of course every, every family [is] concerned about that.”

Advocates for the refugees also point to racism, with refugees being told “we are the virus,” and to the need for social services and interpreters for a group that speaks 27 languages and dialects. “Families that are self-isolating in their homes need for food delivery. Not a phone number to the food pantry. They need food delivered to their door,” Abigail Sui, of the refugee advocacy group EMBARC, told officials in Waterloo, Iowa.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on June 24, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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The Most Radical Union in the U.S. Is Shutting Down the Ports on Juneteenth

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Outrage over the police murder of George Floyd launched Black Lives Matter protests across the country and world. Most actions are being organized by young black people. While many are working-class and at least some are anti-capitalist, few protests are formally part of the labor movement.

That may change this Friday when the most radical union in the United States shuts down the country’s gateway to the world, West Coast ports, in solidarity with Black Lives Matter on the day commemorating the end of slavery. As Clarence Thomas, a long-time dockworker activist for black equality and socialism, noted recently, “It will be the first time that an international union has ever taken off from work for the purpose of commemorating Juneteenth.”

Thomas, an African American from Oakland, is a proud, third-generation member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). Arguably, no union has fought longer and harder for black equality. As Willie Adams, the union’s first black International President, recently declared: “Our union has a long history of confronting racism on the job, in our communities and around the world.”

By contrast, most unions—hypothetically, the collective voice of working people—seem hesitant to take action. While perhaps by mistake, the trashing of the AFL-CIO headquarters, located near the White House, exemplified the yawning divide separating black and youth protesters and “organized labor.” Yet, consider that the AFL-CIO, however weak it may seem, still represents 12,500,000 workers. There is no larger movement of ordinary people than unions. Despite their potential, unions are issuing nicely worded statements but providing little tangible support to the current protests, the largest working-class uprising in two generations.

Some unions, such as the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) are actively challenging racism, police brutality, and other reactionary policies with progressive, forward-thinking actions. Such militancy and radicalism, not coincidentally, have emerged in unions with larger numbers of black and brown, immigrant, and female members. Still, the ILWU’s Juneteenth action raises the bar for what worker solidarity with Black Lives Matter looks like.

The breadth and depth of this union’s radical commitment to equality may shock those who stereotype unions as liberal or even conservative. Harry Bridges, the ILWU’s first and long-time president, once declared in the 1940s, “If things reached a point where only two men were left on the waterfront, if he had anything to say about it, one would be a black man.” Himself an Australian immigrant and anti-capitalist, Bridges made this claim when this union was more than 90% white.

Zack Pattin, a white, rank-and-file activist in ILWU Local 23 (Tacoma), proudly recounted to this writer some of his union’s history: “We pass down stories about integrating the waterfront and our union in the 30s and 40s, opposition to Japanese internment, Harry’s deportation trials and the fight for immigrant rights, support for Dr. King and the civil rights movement, support for Cesar Chavez and the Delano Grape Strike, refusing to handle South African cargo to protest Apartheid, and resistance to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

ILWU members also understand the role of police in undermining social movements. Pattin made this connection by highlighting the Big Strike of 1934, out of which his union was born. “It’s not lost to us that the formative moment in our history—Bloody Thursday—was a police murder [of two strikers] right outside the San Francisco union hall on July 5, 1934,” he said.

That’s why Jack Heyman, a veteran Local 10 activist and white anti-racist, recently told The Nation, “if you look at ILWU locals’ bylaws, many of them explicitly ban police from membership. That’s because the police have been always been used as tools in the fight against the working people.”

Local 10, the only black-majority longshore branch, and its companion Local 34, have led the way in condemning racist, police brutality. In 2010, the unions shut down the Port of Oakland after local law enforcement killed Oscar Grant. They did so again on May Day, in 2015, to protest the police murder of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man in South Carolina.

After George Floyd’s murder, the country’s leading social justice union once more is playing a major role. Last Tuesday, the ILWU downed tools for nine minutes during Floyd’s funeral. This Friday, Juneteenth, the ILWU will shut down all twenty-nine ports it controls—from San Diego to Bellingham, Washington—for the entire, eight-hour day shift.

Dockworkers intend to use their labor power to send a message. As Local 10 President Trent Willis, an African American, declared at an SEIU-led protest in Berkeley on June 13, “We’re sending a clear statement to the powers that be, our government. We’re sending a clear statement to these corporate bosses that we intend to use our labor, put our labor where our mouth is. We intend to take economic action if our demands are not met.” Willis was referring to the demand to end racist policing.

When taking this political stand, dockworkers appreciate that their strategic locations at hubs of global transport give them tremendous power. The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping corporations, explained in a June 8 statement why that matters: “West Coast ports handle a majority of the maritime cargo that helps fuel the U.S. economy, brings vital goods and medical supplies to local communities, and supports millions of American jobs.” Clarence Thomas put itsuccinctly: “Longshore workers probably understand capitalism better than anyone else…If the cargo doesn’t come off the ship, that’s merchandise not sold. Stopping work…is not a symbol; it’s an act that demonstrates the leverage of the working class.”

Willis, Thomas, Gabriel Prawl (of Local 52, Seattle), Keith Shanklin (Local 34 president) and others organized this Juneteenth stop-work prior to Trump’s provocation to speak that day, in Tulsa of all places. An ILWU press release explainsthis day’s significance, past and present: “Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. On this date in 1865, Black Slaves in Texas were told of their emancipation from slavery two years after the Emancipation Proclamation became effective…our nation has made progress but the changes necessary to end systemic racism have come slowly or not at all, as the murder of Mr. Floyd on May 25, 2020 demonstrated.”

Shanklin, the first black person elected to head Local 34, summed up at the June 13 protest in Berkeley why the ILWU will conduct this Juneteenth stop-work: “to stand up against systemic police oppression and systemic police brutality. We need to understand one thing. We cannot survive in this world no more with police brutality. It’s time for it to end.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 16, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Peter Cole is a Professor of History at Western Illinois University and Research Associate in the Society, Work and Development Program at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is the author of Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia and the award-winning Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area. He also is the founder and co-director of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project (CRR19). He tweets from @ProfPeterCole.


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Trump administration sued after trying to gut federal workers’ union rights

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The Trump administration is being sued by the largest union representing federal workers, which claims a new executive order that restricts union representation during work hours is unlawful and violates the First Amendment rights of its members.

The executive order was among three that Trump issued last Friday that rolled back union protections and the latest anti-union measures imposed by the administration. The lawsuit was filed by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) at U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. on Wednesday.

“These changes will effectively deny thousands upon thousands of federal employees union representation,” AFGE General Counsel David Borer told ThinkProgress on Thursday. “It’s all part of an effort to destroy the unions and shrink the size of the government, in the words of some Republicans, down to the size of where you can drown it in a bathtub.”

Among a number of limitations, the “Official Time” executive order bars union representatives from spending more than 25 percent of their work hours providing representation for employees and, in the aggregate, no more than one hour per employee in their bargaining unit per year, Borer said. In other words, if there are 1,000 employees in a unit, a representative cannot spend more than 1,000 hours representing employees, he said.

Allowing union representation during work hours is common practice in the private sector and unions are required by law to represent all employees, both paying members and non-members, said Borer. Historically, the rationale for allowing union representatives to use “official time” to represent employees is because the law requires the union to provide the free service to non-members that don’t pay dues, he said.

In its lawsuit, the union argues the executive order violates the First Amendment because it does not provide valid justification for the regulations and singles out labor organizations and their representatives for “disparate, negative treatment as compared to individuals.” Because of this, it “restrains and retaliates” against the union and its employee representatives for exercising their rights to expressive association.

It also violates the Separation of Powers in the Constitution because it attempts to give agencies unilateral authority to determine whether a particular amount of official time is reasonable, necessary, and in the public interest, according to the suit.


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What’s Really Happening Behind the Kitchen Door?

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From locally grown, organic greens to grass-fed beef, we care about the food that comes out of the kitchen—but what about the workers who chop, grill, sauté and serve our food? Today, the restaurant industry is one of the largest and fastest growing industries in the United States. Despite its size and growth, the industry suffers from pervasively low wages, wage theft, non-existent benefits, rampant discrimination and often dangerous or unhealthy working conditions.

This week in New York City, consumers, students and working people, are coming together for an action and food justice conference to learn more about the enormous impact food workers have on the economy and on consumers, food safety and public health.

This video trailer, for the upcoming book Behind the Kitchen Door, gives a brief glimpse into the working conditions in restaurants told through the stories of workers. According to author Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, the health and well-being of the second-largest private-sector workforce is at stake—the lives of 10 million people, many immigrants, many people of color, who bring passion, tenacity and important insight into the American dining experience.

It’s no coincidence that seven of the 10 lowest-paying jobs in America are in the restaurant industry, 90 percent of restaurant workers lack paid sick days and only .01 percent are represented by a union. Workers represented by unions, on average, are paid 20 percent higher wages than nonunion workers and are more likely to have paid leave and a secure retirement. Despite facing many barriers, restaurant workers across the country are building awareness among consumers and organizing to improve their working conditions.

As one Washington, D.C., restaurant worker quoted in the book, says:

Customers always ask us if this dish is organic or local, thinking that is what will ensure that they are having a healthy meal, a meal they can feel good about but if they knew about what workers were dealing with…working with the flu, tips and wage being stolen by the owner, getting screamed at and abused by managers, being called racial slurs, getting groped by male workers—they would think twice about the quality of their food.

Learn more about what you can do as a consumer to eat ethically. For more information on Behind the Kitchen Door, check out www.behindthekitchendoor.org, and for a consumer guide to eating out, please visit http://rocunited.org/dinersguide.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now on June 6, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jennifer Angarita is an AFL-CIO Worker Center coordinator.


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