Toiling amid a pandemic and a callous response from corporate America and the federal government that is exposing millions to deadly hazards and deepening poverty, workers across the country are rising up, planning hundreds of strikes and sickouts for International Workers’ Day on May 1.
At a time when worker organizing could be stifled by physical distancing rules and the Trump administration’s disabling of the National Labor Relations Board, workers are walking off the job in massive coordinated walk-outs and sick-outs targeting major employers such as Amazon, Whole Foods, Target, Walmart, FedEx, and Instacart, demanding hazard pay, personal protective equipment and other basic protections.
May Day actions throughout the United States will include worker strikes, car caravan protests, rent strikes, and a host of social media onslaughts urging work stoppages, and boycotts of major corporations that are failing to fairly pay and protect their workers amid the pandemic, activists say. Activists are also pressuring for rent and debt relief, and a “People’s Bailout” demanding a more equitable stimulus and economic recovery plan that prioritizes workers.
Long overworked and underpaid, warehouse and food industry workers (including grocery clerks, meatpackers, and farmworkers) are now deemed “essential”—responsible for hazardous jobs at the epicenter of the Covid-19 storm. Yet while some unionized workers have secured hazard pay and protective gear, millions of these workers on the pandemic’s front lines remain in or near poverty and without adequate healthcare or safety protections. Now they’re striking back, shining a spotlight on the struggles of low-wage workers laboring amid viral hazards while corporations like Amazon and Instacart report booming business and profits.
Even as unemployment skyrockets above 20% (with an astounding 30 million new claims since the beginning of March), Amazon alone is raking in $11,000 per second and its shares are rising, the Guardian reports. The company’s CEO Jeff Bezos, meanwhile, has seen his personal fortune bloat to $138 billion amid the pandemic.
Protesting unsafe conditions and lack of hazard pay for many employees, Target Workers Unite is waging a mass sickout of the retail chain’s workers, stating, “We want to shut down industry across the board and pushback with large numbers against the right-wing groups that want to risk our lives by reopening the economy.”
On its website, the group describes “atrocious” foot traffic in stores, “putting us at needless risk when greater safety measures are required to ensure social distancing. Workers nor guests have been required to wear masks…Our maximum capacity of guests have been set too high.”
Whole Worker, a movement of Whole Foods workers pushing for unionization, plans a mass “sickout” for what is also being called #EssentialWorkersDay. Workers at the non-union corporate chain, which is owned by billionaire Bezos, are demanding guaranteed paid leave for employees who self-quarantine, reinstating healthcare coverage for part-time and seasonal workers, and the immediate shutdown of any store where a worker tests positive for Covid-19. According to organizers, 254 Whole Foods workers have tested positive for the virus nationwide, and two have died.
Gig economy workers for Instacart, the app-propelled tech corporation that dispatches “shoppers” for customers, will wage their second work stoppage in a month, after a March 30 strike demanding hazard pay, paid sick leave and safety protections. Despite Instacart’s booming business amid the Covid-19 pandemic, “Most workers STILL haven’t been able to order, let alone receive, proper PPE,” according to the Gig Workers Collective.
This week, dozens of workers at an Amazon fulfillment center warehouse in Tracy, CA walked off the job after learning that a co-worker who had tested positive for Covid-19 had died. One employee told a local television station, “We are short handed now working extra hard, and I’m questioning what I’m still doing here honestly…I’m actually nervous now and wondering if it’s even worth coming.”
Citing a “lack of response from this government in terms of PPE and mandatory [safety] standards,” the AFL-CIO will be supporting and “uplifting” striking workers at Amazon, Target, Instacart and elsewhere who are “risking their lives every day on the job,” said spokesperson Kalina Newman. “While our affiliates who work with retail workers, UFCW and RWDSU, aren’t helping organize the May Day strikes, they may uplift them. At the end of the day, we support workers who are standing up for their rights.”
In an email, Newman elaborated that the AFL-CIO is encouraging union members “to contact their congressperson stressing that the coronavirus relief packages approved so far leave many working families behind, including hardworking immigrants who provide essential services.”
Since the pandemic began, union workers at Safeway, Stop & Shop and Kroger’s have won hazard pay and protective equipment guarantees, Newman added, following pressure from the United Food and Commercial Workers.
Other prominent labor groups are backing the May Day strike actions. Jobs With Justice “is supporting worker walkouts across the country, from Amazon workers to Instacart drivers,” and will be “standing in solidarity with workers who are walking off the job and demanding safer working conditions,” organizing director Nafisah Ula said in an email.
A range of other groups, including the Democratic Socialists of America and new grassroots initiatives like Coronastrike will also be backing up the workers on May Day. Launched by Occupy Wall Street alumni, Coronastrike aims to “amplify the efforts and voices of those striking,” says organizer Yolian Ogbu, a 20-year-old climate justice activist.
“We’re frustrated by the inaction by these corporations,” Ogbu adds. “There is all this pent-up energy, and we’re asking people to put it somewhere. People are desperate.”
According to Fight for 15, the nationwide coalition for a $15 federal minimum wage, fast food workers have already been striking for fair wages and safety protections as they attempt to survive low-wage work and exposure to Covid-19. Since the pandemic began, fast food workers have walked off the job in Los Angeles, Oakland, Chicago, Memphis, Miami, St. Louis and other major cities, demanding personal protective equipment, hazard pay and paid sick leave.
In early April, hundreds of workers from more than 50 fast-food restaurants across California—including McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Burger King and Domino’s—walked out of work to demand better pay and safety protections, Vice reported. This week, Arby’s workers in Morris, Illinois, walked out in the middle of their shift to protest conditions and climbed into their with windows festooned with big posters stating, “We don’t want to die for fries,” and “Hazard pay and PPE now!” They are demanding $3 per hour in added hazard pay and say the corporation has not provided masks or any other protective gear.
Since March, there have already reportedly been at least 140 documented wildcat strikes across the country.
As the Covid-19 pandemic intensifies and exposes America’s inequalities, workers, so long stifled and embattled, are showing renewed force.
This article was originally published at In These Times on April 30, 2020. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Christopher D. Cook is an award-winning journalist and author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis. His writing has appeared in Harper’s, The Atlantic, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere. You can reach him at http://www.christopherdcook.com/.
You know that things are getting serious when #GeneralStrike starts trending on Twitter. It happened last week, when Donald Trump was publicly mulling the idea of sending Americans back to work by Easter, a move that would imperil countless lives. A general strike has long held a strong utopian allure. But what would it take to actually pull one off? We spoke to the experts about the reality behind the dream.
Amid a healthcare crisis intertwined with an economic crisis, with millions of people freshly unemployed and new wildcat strikes and work stoppages popping off daily, we are living through the most opportune environment for massive, radical labor actions in many decades. America has had great crises before, though—and it has never had a true, nationwide general strike.
Is it even possible?
The “general strikes” in American history have been confined to individual cities. The most famous was probably the Seattle general strike of 1919, when more than 60,000 (peaceful) striking union members induced a total shutdown of the city’s business. Periods of intense social upheaval sparked other citywide general strikes—most notably in 1934 in San Francisco, during the Great Depression, and in Oakland in 1946, just after World War Two. Joshua Freeman, a labor history professor at the City University of New York, notes that those successful strikes depended on the combination of established labor union coalitions and “a broad class anger, usually at what was seen as an attack by business or police on legitimate working-class activity.” A general strike today would probably require the same combination. And while the union establishment of 2020 is in some ways weaker than it was a century ago, the teachers’ strikes and other mass labor actions of recent years show how quickly that can change.
“That is a very tall order, and at the moment it seems to me quite unlikely,” Freeman says, “but we are living in a moment of hyperspeed change. So who knows.”
Saturate them with urgency
The general strike was catapulted into public consciousness as a legitimate possibility early last year, when flight attendant union leader Sara Nelson gave a speech (that went viral) calling on fellow union leaders to consider it as a way to end the ongoing government shutdown. Today, Nelson still believes a general strike should not be considered an impossibility. “Any labor leaders should be able to talk about this,” she says. “A general strike may seem overwhelming, but it has the same fundamentals as preparing for any strike.”
That means “you have to saturate the thinking of the general public” with the importance of the situation, says Nelson. In normal times that is incredibly difficult, in a nation as big as ours; but right now, the public’s thinking is already focused on the physical, economic, and moral dangers of this crisis. If a necessary condition is, as Nelson says, a widespread sense of urgency so intense that it feels “like if you don’t take action right now, you’re gonna die,” we’re in luck—millions of Americans are having that very thought already.
Like Freeman, Nelson believes any successful general strike would have to be powered at its core by unions. Not only do they have the expertise and infrastructure necessary for the large-scale communications, strategy, and logistical needs of such an undertaking, but they also have a key characteristic that other groups don’t: They are broad-based organizations of all types of working people—all races, locations, and political affiliations, united by their identity as workers—rather than affinity groups that include certain demographics, but exclude others. That is vital, when it comes to pulling off something that cuts across the lines that normally divide American society. “You can’t rely on self-selecting organizations to run something like this, because there are people who are going to feel that they’re not included,” she says.
Consider the alternatives
Randi Weingarten, the head of the 1.7-million-member American Federation of Teachers, thinks that pursuing a general strike today would be a mistake—the focus, she says, should remain on Donald Trump’s horrific and damaging mishandling of the coronavirus crisis and the ongoing relief effort. “I think we should not change the topic and let him have a fight about a national strike,” she says. “We should have the fight about his immorality.”
Weingarten worries about the ill effect a general strike could have on those who do need to continue working, for the common good. (Nobody I spoke with for this story advocated an indiscriminate general strike that would include health care or other truly essential workers.) Instead of pushing for a general strike, the union leader advocates using more established pathways like the courts. In the event that the government were to order her members back to work before the dangers crisis had abated, Weingarten says her union would approach it as a health and workplace safety issue, and seek assurances that members would not be at personal risk. “If we do not have that assurance, we would advise, at that moment in time, we’d go to court and try to stop the schools from reopening,” she said. “[Workers] have a moral right and legal right to withhold their services if their health and safety are not a priority.”
Energize the organizers
Still, veteran labor organizers say that conditions today may be more conducive to unprecedented labor actions than they have ever seen before. One little-noticed stumbling block, in fact, could be the established labor movement itself.
Lauren Jacobs, a longtime union organizer and staffer who now serves as the head of the Partnership for Working Families, sees two challenges. First, the challenge of building a sense of unity in a huge class of workers who are wedded to various identities other than “worker”—blue collar and white collar, lower class and middle class, and even the newly unemployed. All of them must be activated in the face of a common crisis, rather than seeing themselves in opposition to one another. “How does it start to get to the middle class, to professional and managerial workers?” Jacobs says. “You have to engage that strata of the workforce. They are workers too, even though we often don’t talk about them that way.”
Jacobs believes that a general strike would need the full power of the labor movement to help organize and take advantage of powerful but unfocused feelings of dissatisfaction and solidarity among the public. And while she fully believes the labor movement still has enough inherent power to do the job, convincing it that it is possible is the second challenge. She is unafraid to talk about a widespread but little-discussed issue: the fact that labor organizers and union leaders themselves, used to fighting losing battles and being brutalized in various ways by bosses, can become gun-shy about radical actions. Jacobs speaks of the importance of not becoming a “naysayer,” and being humble enough to recognize that major turning points are not always predictable in advance.
“One has to do the same resisting that we work with our members on—to overcome, not letting fear rule them,” she says. “How do you react when change is coming? Are we wedded to the institutions we’ve criticized and struggled against?”
Follow the Money
Boyd McCamish, the organizing director for the Midwestern board of Workers United, ticks off the harsh economic situation that millions are facing already: unemployed or in tenuous positions, with a paltry one-time $1,200 government stimulus payout and unemployment benefits that may or may not be enough to balance out the lack of a rent freeze, and existential concerns over health insurance. The entire situation, he says, will have the effect of allowing large numbers of working people to barely cling to their modest means of survival, as anger builds.
McCamish envisions one possible scenario for a general strike in the near future: If the coronavirus causes an economic crisis similar to (or worse than) the recession of 2008, many older workers could be extremely reluctant to return to work before they are absolutely sure it’s safe, given their higher vulnerability to the disease. “Boomers are one of the system’s greatest social stabilizers because they consent to almost anything going on in the economy these days,” he says, “but this might change that.”
If the natural reluctance that is already appearing among many workers to risk their health in order to work were shepherded along—not only by the labor movement, but by state and local politicians, with wall-to-wall media coverage—it is no stretch to imagine that most non-essential businesses would not be able to reopen until working people were good and ready. Though nurses and doctors are willing to risk their lives during this crisis, burrito-makers and factory workers very well may not be, especially if they feel supported in that decision by constant outside reinforcement. “That,” McCamish says, “is as close as we would get to a general strike.”
Care for each other
In any big labor action, the flashy parts can only exist with much work behind the scenes. “Beyond the visible things like popular will and communications infrastructure, there are quiet systems of care that are critical to pulling off a general strike,” says Michelle Miller, an SEIU veteran who runs Coworker.org, an online organizing platform. “People to acquire, prepare and deliver food. Maintain morale through things like music, counseling, and internal conflict resolution. Help with children. Tend to the sick. Deal with money, collecting it and allocating it in a way everyone trusts. These are the systems that sustain us over long periods of hardship (and strikes are hard), and they give us an opportunity to model the world we’re trying to create through our action.”
“The strike is our tactic,” Sara Nelson says. “Solidarity is our power.”
This article was originally published at In These Times on April 1, 2020. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporting fellow at 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].
As 35,000 Chicago teachers, school support staff, and park district workers are set to begin a major strike on October 17, they boast the backing of students, parents, community organizations, and local unions who see the potential work stoppage as a crucial battle in the fight for a more just and equitable city. Thanks to the solidarity efforts of community and labor groups, more Chicagoans support the possible strike than oppose it, according to a recent poll by the Chicago Sun-Times.
The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and SEIU Local 73 are calling on Mayor Lori Lightfoot—who was elected this year on a progressive platform—to put in writing her campaign promises to improve the learning conditions of the city’s majority Black and Brown public school students. Among other things, the unions are fighting to have a full-time nurse, librarian and social worker in every school, caps on class sizes, affordable housing for students and their families, an end to outside contracting of school services, and better pay and benefits.
For their part, Mayor Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) have urged the CTU to give up demands for better resourced schools and accept a 5-year contract that primarily includes wage increases. The editorial boards for the city’s two major daily newspapers have lined up behind the mayor, telling teachers to “take the deal,” though a whopping 94% of CTU members voted to authorize a strike.
“It’s so vital we not allow CPS or the mayor to divide the critical people in this equation—which are students and parents—from the unions, which they would like to do,” said Elizabeth Lalasz, co-chair of the Chicago Teachers and Staff Solidarity Campaign (CTSSC)’s labor committee.
“If CPS and the mayor are able to create a wedge between the union and the community, it’s going to be a far less successful strike, so it’s about bringing those forces together,” continued Lalasz, who is also a steward with National Nurses United.
To bolster support for the CTU and SEIU Local 73, the CTSSC has held multiple events to bring teachers and community members together by having discussions about the conditions in the schools and the importance of the unions’ demands. One such event was an October 10 town hall featuring speakers from over a dozen community organizations and local unions.
One of the speakers was Catherine Henchek, member of the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers. She explained that when her son enrolled in CPS as a kindergartner 12 years ago, she was told that he wouldn’t be able to get his medication every day because the school only had a nurse once per week.
“Twelve years later, we’re still fighting for this,” Henchek said. “So many schools do not have a nurse, or they have agency nurses that are coming in, a different nurse every day. That’s not helpful for kids with complex medical needs. They need someone who knows them.”
At an October 14 rally of union members and supporters, high school senior Miracle Boyd talked about why union demands for improved wraparound services matter to students like her. “We as CPS students have to deal with the trauma of losing a loved one to gun violence every day,” said Boyd. “We need trauma-informed schools, social workers, and therapists.”
Boyd is an organizer with GoodKids MadCity, a youth-led anti-violence, restorative justice group. “I have friends who miss school on the daily because… no one can help them with the hurt and pain of losing a classmate,” she said. “The resources students don’t have won’t allow them the opportunity to heal from past or continuous trauma.”
The CTSSC has existed since CTU’s historic 2012 strike, when it mobilized community turnout at rallies and pickets, coordinated the union’s strike headquarters, and served as an information hub. Since then, and increasingly over the past 20 months, a wave of massive teacher strikes has rocked the country—offering innovative examples of community solidarity that are now being replicated in Chicago.
One such example is Bread for Ed, a fundraising and solidarity project to provide meals to students and teachers for the duration of the strike. This program would provide a critical service, as over 400,000 Chicago students depend on school meal programs for breakfast and lunch.
Pioneered by the East Bay, California chapter of Democratic Socialists of America during the 7-day Oakland teacher strike this February, the Bread for Ed model has been adopted by Chicago DSA and Chicago Jobs with Justice. The two groups recently set up a Bread for Ed GoFundMe page, surpassing the original fundraising target of $10,000 in only three days. If a strike happens, food will be prepared and served at neighborhood organizations, aldermanic offices, churches, and local restaurants, as well as on picket lines.
“So far the response [to Bread for Ed] has been overwhelmingly positive. Tons of people are reaching out wanting to get involved,” Abby Agriesti, co-chair of the Chicago DSA Labor Working Group, told In These Times. “We want to make sure that the media and city can’t use the lack of food for students as a cudgel against the teachers and staff, blaming them.”
Community supporters also worked with the unions to hold an Art Build from October 4 to 6—another model borrowed from this year’s Oakland teacher strike. Held at CTU headquarters, the Art Build brought rank-and-file union members together with parents, students, allies, and artists to put their creativity to work by making picket signs, banners (including parachute banners), and posters to be used at strike pickets and rallies.
The CTSSC has organized weekly call-ins to the mayor’s office and drafted an online solidarity statement for individual union members around the country to sign onto, which garnered nearly 500 signatures within a week. The solidarity campaign is also circulating a statement of support pledging to join CTU and SEIU members on the picket lines, which has been signed by over 60 community and labor organizations across the city.
Meanwhile, members of Chicago DSA’s Labor Working Group have canvassed at CTA stops to talk with commuters about the importance of the unions’ demands and to inoculate them against anti-union talking points.
“The unions aren’t just bargaining for better wages or pensions; they’re bargaining for vital things that we need in our communities.” Agriesti explained. “We see this as hand-in-hand with our mission as socialists to build a better world.”
Efforts to build community support appear to be working, as indicated by the Sun-Times poll. The poll found that 49% of Chicagoans were likely to back the strike, while 38% would be opposed. A quarter of those polled are CPS parents, who overwhelmingly support the unions and would blame Mayor Lightfoot if there is a walkout.
If the work stoppage happens, the CTSSC plans to mobilize turnout on the picket lines through its email and text message list, as well as its social media accounts, which reach thousands of people. For parents, the coalition Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education has created a webpage with information on what families can do during the strike, including how to support the unions.
“Most parents don’t want a strike, we want our children to be in school, to be learning,” Henchek said. “But we know that if we’re going to have the wraparound services, the class sizes, the social justice that our children deserve, then there may need to be a strike.”
This article was originally published at In These Times on October 15, 2019. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke is a Working In These Times contributor based in Chicago. He has a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in labor history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was a summer 2013 editorial intern at In These Times. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke.
Last year, at age 17, Eli Fishel moved out of her parents’ house in Vancouver, Washington, squeezing into a three-bedroom apartment with five other roommates. To pay her bills as she finished high school, Fishel landed a job at Burgerville, a fast-food chain with 42 outlets and more than 1,500 employees in the Pacific Northwest.
Founded in 1961, Burgerville has cultivated a loyal following by emphasizing fresh, local food, combined with sustainable business practices like renewable energy and recycling. But Fishel quickly realized she wasn’t part of Burgerville’s commitment to “regional vitality” and “future generations.”
After 16 months on the job, she earns just $9.85 an hour, barely above the Washington State minimum wage. Her hours and shifts fluctuate weekly, with only a few days’ notice, and every month she goes hungry because she runs out of money to buy food.
Speaking of the privately-owned Burgerville, Fishel says, “We’re poor because they’re rich, and they’re rich because we’re poor.”
Disgruntled Burgerville workers began covertly organizing in 2015. The Burgerville Workers Union (BVWU) went public on April 26 with a march of more than 100 people through Portland, Oregon, and the delivery of a letter to the corporate headquarters in Vancouver. BVWU demands include a $5-an-hour raise for all hourly workers, recognition of a workers organization, affordable, quality healthcare, a safe and healthy workplace, and fair and consistent scheduling with ample notice.
Some BVWU members call their effort “Fight for $15, 2.0,” playing off the name of the fast-food worker campaign launched in 2011 by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
SEIU has won plaudits for making the plight of low-wage workers a national issue and igniting the movement for new laws boosting the minimum wage to $15 an hour. But the campaign has not, thus far, included efforts to unionize individual workplaces.
Unlike Fight for $15, which Middlebury College sociology professor and labor expert Jamie McCallum describes as “a fairly top-down campaign,” BVWU is a worker-initiated and -led project backed by numerous labor organizations. The group of Burgerville workers who came up with the idea includes members of Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a militant union with West Coast roots that date back to the early 1900s. The campaign has the backing of the Portland chapter of IWW and the support SEIU Local 49, the Portland Association of Teachers, and Jobs with Justice.
This scrappy approach enabled BVWU to leapfrog Fight for $15 by declaring a union from the start. While BVWU has not yet formally petitioned for recognition and Burgerville has not chosen to voluntarily negotiate with it, the union has established worker committees in five stores, is developing units in a similar number of shops and counts scores of workers as members.
BVWU is full of lessons in how organizing works. One member likens the campaign to “low-level guerrilla warfare” with workers maneuvering to increase their ranks, build power on the shop floor, expand the terrain from shop to shop, while skirmishing with managers over the work process, and suffering casualties as some members have quit or say they were pushed out of their jobs at Burgerville. In the workplace, the strategy is to develop leaders, form committees for each store, and nurture trust and respect between workers. Outside, BVWU uses direct action to empower workers and bring suppliers into the conversation. The union also works to build community support by mobilizing social-justice groups, clergy, and organized labor to win over the public and pressure the company.
McCallum says that BVWU an example of social movement unionism. “It’s about organizing as a class against another class,” he says. “It’s to win demands not just against a single boss or to change a law, but to engage in class struggle.”
Beyond the Fight for $15
McCallum also sees the campaign as an attempt to build on Fight for $15. “For the first time since the Justice for Janitors campaign began 30 years ago, we have low-wage workers who are people of color working with traditional unions to change politics,” he says. “If the IWW is interested in pushing that agenda forward to make it more democratic and radical, that’s awesome.”
Fight for $15 is “one of the most successful and inspiring labor victories in the last 20 years,” says McCallum. “They’ve accomplished things, like doubling the minimum wage, thought impossible three years ago. They managed to raise the profile of low-wage workers in a failing economy.” He acknowledges, however, that Fight for $15 is “largely political organizing.”
“It doesn’t require a mass base. It requires mobilized workers with incredibly talented organizers to move sympathetic politicians in a defined geographic area,” McCallum says.
To that end, Fight for $15 devotes considerable money and effort to media. A Fight for $15 strategy document called “Strike in a Box” lists these criteria for a “good [organizing] site to focus on”: “Is it an iconic brand? Does the brand help tell a story, locally and/or nationally? Do we have spokespeople? Trained? Reliable? Experienced? Do we have stories? Compelling worker stories, Horror stories about site practices (wage theft, sexual harassment, etc).”
By contrast, Burgerville worker Flanagan says BVWU uses media primarily as a tool to foster the growth of the union along with worker solidarity and consciousness. She says media helps “connect the dots between our personal struggles and collective struggle.” She adds that explaining what unions do and how they organize helps to educate “my generation, which has very little understanding of unions.”
Indeed, although the Fight for $15 demands “$15 and a union,” SEIU has made a strategic decision not to attempt to organize the nation’s tens of thousands of fast-food restaurants shop by shop. “The NLRB has old rules for small shops,” Kendall Fells, Fight for $15’s organizing director, told Working in These Times in May. “This movement is too large to be put in that process.”
Adriana Alvarez, a Chicago McDonald’s worker, says that while Fight for $15 may not be a formal union, “We’re acting like a union, not waiting for anyone to tell us we can have one.”
“To me a union is workers joining together to accomplish things we wouldn’t be able to achieve on our own,” Alvarez says. “And that’s exactly what we’ve been doing—coming together and winning life-changing raises for 20 million Americans, including more than 10 million who are on the way to $15. By standing together, we’ve gone from powerless to having powerful voices in our stores.”
If SEIU can prove that McDonald’s calls the shots in its franchises, it could also push open the door to unionizing the whole company at once instead of the Sisyphean task of one franchise at a time. Deploying organizers, researchers and lawyers, SEIU has gathered evidence for 181 cases alleging that McDonald’s controls its franchisees’ employment practices and therefore should be held accountable for unfair labor practices in franchisees, including retaliation against workers who supported unionization. In 2014, the NLRB issued a preliminary finding in favor of SEIU’s case and, then the next year in a separate case involving Browning Ferris Industries of California the labor board revised the definition of joint employer to “consider whether an employer has exercised control over terms and conditions of employment through an intermediary.” Years later, the McDonald’s case is still grinding its way through a judicial process, with a multi-city case being argued before an administrative law judge that was kicked back to the NLRB on October 12. If the board finds or any of the court cases, which includes multiple class-action suits SEIU has backed against McDonald’s for wage theft, determine that McDonald’s is a joint employer with its franchisees, that may finally open the door to a company-wide union drive.
“It’s a huge amount of work”
The Burgerville campaign’s strategy of painstakingly organizing shop by shop emphasizes “building worker power,” which is both “a means and a goal,” says Flanagan.
For BVWU, the initial organizing drive was relatively easy, with workers chafing at difficult working conditions and poverty-level wages.
Debby Olson, 49, a military veteran, has worked at Burgerville since her home-cleaning business tanked during the Great Recession. She says the “people are nice, but the pay is horrible.” After six years, she makes $10.75 an hour.
Olson, says the job is “harder than my house-cleaning business. You are literally moving all day. For hours you don’t get to breathe. When I get home, I’m mentally and physically exhausted.”
Five other Burgerville workers also described the pace as non-stop. Olson reduced her full-time schedule to three days a week because, as she says, “I could barely walk when I got off work and my quality of life was really poor. It’s scary that my feet were getting so damaged that it could affect my ability to get another job or enjoy my later years.”
Burgerville’s lure is gourmet-style food, sourced locally from “988 farms, ranches, and artisans,” which requires labor-intensive preparation. Luis Brennan, 27, a two-year Burgerville employee, says, “The job is really hard. We actually cook the food. We core strawberries, we hand-blend milkshakes. We cook the meat and eggs fresh, we cut the onion rings and batter them twice. It’s a huge amount of work.”
The Burgerville campaign builds on the IWW’s experience over the last decade in fast-food organizing at Jimmy John’s and Starbucks. Picking a regional chain works to the benefit of the union as it can exert more pressure because Burgerville doesn’t have the might of a global food giant and its carefully crafted image is ripe for attack.
The public may eat up buzzwords like local, fresh and sustainable, but Burgerville’s rhetoric sticks in workers’ throats. Fishel says that despite a 70 percent discount for food on shift, she still sometimes can’t afford it.
“If your workers are going without food, how can you say you are a better, more sustainable option for your community?” she asks.
“This is my community”
Building a workplace organization has been a transformative experience for workers. Fishel says, “Being in the union has been very uplifting, inspiring, and super-positive to come together with so many people. We deserve a living wage, to be treated with respect and to have more than what we have right now.”
Claire Flanagan, 26, who’s worked at the chain since June 2015, says, “The union has changed people’s relationship with the job and work. It’s gone from being a place I go to work to pay my bills to feeling invested in our coworkers and the job in a much deeper way. This is my community.”
Burgerville is hardly rolling over, however. Flanagan says, “The company has dug in their heels and refuses whatever we ask for.” She alleges in her store, “Managers spread anti-union rumors and encourage workers to talk shit about the union as a way to gain favoritism. The company is engaged in a misinformation campaign and spreading fear.”
But BVWU members keep the heat on whether by wearing a union button on the job or tussling over floor mats. Members are demanding mats to ease the stress of standing for hours. Management relented in a few stores, but the mats have emerged as a proxy war. Flanagan says despite having mats, managers will put them away and she will bring them back out.
Jordan Vaandering, 26, says of workers at his outlet, where he’s been for a year, “We own the culture whereas before it was management pushing people to meet speed of service times, meet sales goals.”
Building worker power
BVWU’s strategy is known as “minority unionism” because BVWU may not have a majority in each shop willing to declare support for a union. This sort of organizing circumvents a federal labor-law process that makes union elections difficult, time-consuming and expensive. But BVWU utilizes the NLRB process when it is to its advantage, such as by filing unfair labor practice charges that allege Burgerville is illegally retaliating against the union and workers.
Burgerville worker Brennan says BVWU relies on the IWW model: “It teaches, ‘You’re a worker who hates your job, here’s how to build a committee.’ ” Each organized store began with a committee and grew from there.
One useful question, says Brennan, is asking workers, “What could you do with $5 an hour more?” He says talking to coworkers about “what they need changed and why they need it changed helps to break down the walls of silence around hard stuff in our lives.”
Brennan explains, “Building relationships in the workplace is not natural, but it’s deeply human. The workplace is full of power relationships and incredibly constrained by the boss, by pay, by gender, by race, by language. You need to get to know someone to know whether or not they will fight and why they’ll fight.”
These relationships come into play when management goes after workers. One notable case involves Ivy Fleak, a member whom BVWU claims was targeted by management “for standing up on the job and standing up against sexual harassment.” Flanagan says, “They took Ivy off the schedule for two weeks. We organized actions and a vigil. She spoke out publicly and won, receiving back pay for when she was off-schedule.”
Flanagan says, “People related to Ivy’s story,” which boosted support for the union. “At another job they saw someone being targeted or fired for standing up, or that happened to them. Being part of the union means when I’m at work, I know people have my back.”
BVWU claims Fleak was later forced to quit under pressure after the company allegedly threatened to file spurious criminal charges against her for gift-card theft. Burgerville declined to comment on her case, saying,“Burgerville is dedicated to continuously enhancing our relationship with our employees. We do not comment on individual employee matters or internal communications.” The company also opted not to comment on the BVWU campaign or on complaints about wages and working conditions.
In the case of another BVWU supporter fired over a workplace accident, the union organized a delegation of 50 people to the corporate headquarters asking for the worker’s job back and conducted a food drive for the worker. It publicized the firing to make the case that Burgerville pushes workers“past their limits” and demanded a transparent disciplinary process. More than half the workers in that outlet also signed a petition asking for the worker to be rehired. The worker remains fired.
BVWU members view the firings as part of a wider anti-union campaign. The company has set up a website to “inform” workers of their rights, but which discourages them from unionizing. Store managers have also been holding anti-union sessions with workers, where they play a video featuring Burgerville CEO Jeff Harvey. In the video, Harvey states, “I don’t think a union is in the best interest of the company, our employees, our suppliers, or our guests.” He admits, “Burgerville understands employees face certain challenges like transportation, food, and housing to name just a few.” Harvey then claims, “We have spent well over a year looking into the pressing issues that concern you [but] can’t act” as “under current labor laws, we are obligated to maintain the status quo.”
Flanagan claims when Burgerville says it has to “maintain the status quo,” what it’s really saying to workers is, “If you didn’t get a raise, blame the union.” On August 15, Burgerville Workers Union filed four charges of unfair labor practices with the NLRB, including one concerning the anti-union video. Labor law is fuzzy on the issue. Companies are prohibited from increasing benefits during a traditional union election campaign, but as a minority union, BVWU is acting outside of this framework as a minority union.
BVWU has also taken the offensive by hitting at the company’s public image. The worker-organizers have kept up a brisk pace for five months, averaging an action a week such as vigils, marches, pickets and a bicycle ride. When BVWU members visited Liepold Farms near Portland, which supplies Burgerville with berries for its signature shakes, to ask for support, the farm owner was taken aback but accepted their letter. Shortly after BVWU was unveiled, dozens of workers, local labor leaders, activists, and clergy packed the corporate headquarters in support.
Knowing they have the backing of the community bolsters the confidence of workers on the shop floor. Flanagan says the current plan is to “build organizational capacity and infrastructure to pull off larger actions.”
Time may be on the side of BVWU. The more shops the union can organize, the more workers who join, and the more community support it builds, the likelier it is BVWU will force Burgerville to the bargaining table, with or without a majority union. Then the Burgerville Workers Union may be the one opening new outlets.
To find out more about the Burgerville Workers Union, go to burgervilleworkersunion.org.
This blog originally appeared at InTheseTimes.org on October 25, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Arun Gupta is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York and has written for dozens of publications including the Washington Post, the Nation, The Progressive, Telesur English, and the Guardian. He is the author of the upcoming Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction: A Junk-Food-Loving Chef’s Inquiry into Taste (The New Press).
The tentative agreement that the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) struck with district management less than an hour before a midnight October 10 strike deadline has been hailed by many as a victory. Facing another round of concessionary demands, the union managed to extract $88 million from the mayor’s corporate slush fund to restore some badly needed funding to the school system. The union also managed to win an increase in compensation.
But the way that the compensation is structured—with current teachers keeping their current 7 percent pension “pickup,” and new hires receiving a salary increase in lieu of a pension contribution—has some critics decrying the deal as a solidarity-killing, two-tier contract. A pickup is the percentage of a worker’s pay that an employer puts directly into a pension fund.
The CTU’s House of Delegates meets Wednesday to deliberate over the tentative agreement and vote on whether to send it to the entire membership for ratification. If the deal is rejected, there is no guarantee that management will agree to more of the union’s demands—or even return to the table.
Two-tier contracts are an emotional subject in the labor movement. Beginning in the 1980s, employers used threats of off-shoring and sub-contracting, as well as their legal “right” to permanently replace striking union members, to force a wave of wage and benefit givebacks across many unionized industries. In order to make these cuts more palatable to the members who would have to vote on their ratification, unions negotiated agreements where current workers preserved most of their pay and benefits while future hires would bear the brunt of the cuts.
There are many epithets for this sort of thing, but the most common may be selling out the unborn. These ticking time bombs blow up years later, as the “new” hires become a larger portion of the bargaining unit and resent their veteran colleagues both for their more generous compensation packages and for the fact that the older workers signed away their younger colleagues’ right to enjoy the same. As the veterans become a minority in the workplace, there is an obvious financial incentive for supervisors to push them out through aggressive discipline. In such a situation, worker unity in future rounds of bargaining is hard to achieve.
To be clear, not all “two-tiers” are alike. The powerful New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council accepted a two-tier wage structure after surviving a 27-day strike in 1985. But the tiers only impacted workers during their first year of employment. By year two, all workers were earning the same pay rate. And, decades later, ending the tiered pay scale remained a union bargaining priority.
The United Automobile Workers (UAW) accepted a two-tier pay scale at Chrysler when the company went bankrupt in 2009. It was so severe that new hires earned only half the hourly wage of veteran employees. When members voted down a 2015 successor agreement that did not go far enough in reversing the double standard, the UAW was able to renegotiate a deal that brings newer workers closer to the traditional pay scaleover the course of seven years.
The CTU’s proposed “two-tier” is a bit more of a shell game than those concessions. The fight over Chicago’s 7 percent pension pickup has more to do with symbolism than anyone’s actual paycheck. Pension systems are complicated things that only accountants and union researchers fully understand. But basically, a pension fund needs a certain amount of money coming in every year in order to guarantee a livable retirement income for actual and projected retirees. Currently, the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund has set that target at 9 percent of every pension-eligible employee’s annual income.
Before the CTU won collective bargaining rights in the 1960s, teachers had most, if not all, of their pension contributions deducted directly from their paychecks. Over the years, the CTU was able to bargain for 7 of that 9 percent to be contributed directly into the pension fund, instead of paid as a salary increase and then immediately deducted as a personal pension contribution.
Obviously, the difference between putting 7 percent in pension contributions directly versus rolling it into salaries, and then immediately deducting it, makes no financial difference to the employer. But the 7 percent became a visible target for Gov. Bruce Rauner and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. It was money they could portray to the public and the press as “extra” compensation that teachers get that other workers don’t and demand that teachers give it up. (It should be noted that Chicago teachers aren’t eligible for Social Security, so their pensions are the only thing that stand between them and an old age spent subsisting on cat food.)
Under the tentative agreement the CTU is considering, the pay for new hires would increase by an additional 3.5 percent in two successive years. It’s not entirely clear how soon new hires would be responsible for paying the full pension contribution.
Teachers at charter schools also participate in the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund. Members of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (Chicago ACTS) at the UNO Charter School Network (UCSN) are currently bargaining over the very same pension pickup, and have set a Wednesday strike deadline.
We were successful. That 7 percent was a part of an overall compensation package we were going to win anyway. But by directing the employer to put it towards the pension, we politicized a different figure: the network’s starting salaries. Because charters compete in the same labor market as the district to recruit new teachers, the salaries they can offer are key. If that 7 percent had simply been rolled into base pay, UCSN would be able to quote starting salaries that appear to be larger than what the district offers, but really aren’t, giving the union leverage to raise wages in future negotiations. Now that starting salaries at Chicago Public Schools will appear to be 7 percent larger—if CTU members ratify the deal—the salaries that UCSN offers will appear even less competitive.
As for ratification of their contract, CTU members have to decide how important the symbolism of that 7 percent is and what impact it will have on future rounds of negotiations. The shifting of that 7 percent from one column in a spreadsheet to another strikes me as a last minute ploy to give Rauner and Emanuel a face-saving narrative that allows them to say they didn’t suffer a humiliating defeat in this round of bargaining.
“This is not a perfect agreement,” said CTU president Karen Lewis. “But it is good for the kids. And good for the clinicians. And good for the teachers, and the paraprofessionals.”
This blog originally appeared at InTheseTimes.org on October 19, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Shaun Richman is a former organizing director for the American Federation of Teachers. His Twitter handle is @Ess_Dog.
At 5 a.m. on June 1, workers associated with the Culinary and Bartenders unions, affiliated with UNITE HERE, will launch a strike against nine casinos in Las Vegas, with plans for the strike to continue until a fair contract settlement is reached. The strike will include housekeepers, restaurant workers, servers, bartenders and other union members who work at the casinos, which are Binion’s, The D, El Cortez, Four Queens, Fremont, Golden Gate, Las Vegas Club, Main Street Station and the Plaza. Union members from all nine unsettled properties have been picketing in downtown Las Vegas after contracts were terminated.
The strike was authorized in a March 27 vote.
Geoconda Arguello-Kline, a leader of the Culinary Union, said:
For nearly 80 years, our unions have made casino jobs good jobs in Las Vegas. Our members downtown deserve to earn a decent living by working hard under a fair contract. They should not be left behind as hundreds of millions of new investments pour in for downtown revitalization.
Ron Gladstone, a cook at The D, added:
I will strike for the opportunity to provide for my family. My co-workers and I will strike to make sure that these jobs continue to be good jobs with affordable benefits, fair wages and job security.
Patricia Montes, a housekeeper at the Four Queens, echoed those sentiments:
We are the people who clean the rooms, cook the food, serve the drinks and provide the quality service that has made the tourism industry flourish in Las Vegas. We are the backbone of downtown Las Vegas and we ask that the community support us by not crossing strike lines.
This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on May 23, 2014. 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.
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