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Volvo Workers Forced to Vote Again on Contract They Just Rejected

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Jane Slaughter, Author at LA Progressive

Auto Workers (UAW) officials are fed up with their striking members at Volvo Trucks in Virginia and are helping the company get them back to work under a contract members have rejected—three times.

The strike has been running on and off, through three ratification votes, since April 17. Each time, local and International officials have urged members to vote yes despite huge increases in health care costs and continuation of an onerous two-tiered wage.

The first two votes were 91 and 90 percent no; the latest, on July 9, was 60 percent no. As one worker, Carrie Davis, said on Facebook: “They know they only need to scare 11 percent to get it to pass.”

Volvo is using several scare tactics, and union officials are stolidly repeating the information (UAW Local 2069 President Matt Blondino: “That’s what we’re here for”):

  • Telling workers that if they vote yes on Wednesday, on the same agreement turned down last week, they will return to work with a $2,000 bonus ($1,000 for new hires). If they vote no, they’ll come back with no bonus.
  • Telling workers that the most recent rejected agreement is Volvo’s “last, best, and final offer” that will not change no matter what. “They said no matter how you vote, you’re going to work under this contract,” explained one worker who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.
  • Threatening not to carry through on planned investment and construction in the plant.

In one case, the UAW is not repeating Volvo’s line. Volvo asked workers to cross picket lines and return to work today. UAW officials have asked workers to stay out until the vote and said line-crossers will not be allowed to vote on ratification. It’s estimated that 20 to 25 have crossed.

Today, member Rhonda Sisk filed an unfair labor practice charge against Blondino with the National Labor Relations Board, for refusing to share with members a copy of the entire proposed agreement. Sisk says this secrecy indicates that there are hidden surprises. Blondino was on the picket line today, she said, urging a yes vote.

NO STRATEGY

Local and International union officials have offered no strategy or information about how to defeat Volvo’s tactics. Blondino indicated that an unfair labor practice against Volvo, for imposing the agreement, could be filed—but first, members have to vote on the agreement they just rejected.

The worker quoted above summed up members’ experience: “We have fought against the company and our own union for a fair contract. …The company is strong-arming us with the threat of that bonus.”

The UAW’s Heavy Trucks Department, of which the Volvo plant in Dublin, Virginia, is a part, was previously led by Ray Curry. He was involved in the earlier attempts to pass a concessionary contract in Dublin. On July 1, Curry was appointed international union president by the executive board.

You’d think a man who wants to continue as union president would not crush a strike of his members—but until now, UAW presidents have been well insulated from member opinion. They have been elected at controlled conventions where delegates obediently raise their hands for the status quo.

But UAW members now have the chance to switch to a one-member-one-vote system; they will vote in a referendum this fall whether to do so. It’s their chance to inject some accountability into their union.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on July 12, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Jane Slaughter is a former editor of Labor Notes and co-author of Secrets of a Successful Organizer.


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Striking Alabama Miners Are Done Playing Nice

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Jacob Morrison | North Alabama Area Labor Council, AFL-CIO

Hundreds of UMWA miners remain on the picket line at the Warrior Met Coal mine.

BROOKWOOD, ALA.?—??“You ain’t working tonight!”

That was one of the picket line chants heard June 15 as several hundred members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and their allies attempted to block strikebreakers from entering the Warrior Met Coal mine.

With tank tops that read ?“scab bullies,” supporters stood shoulder to shoulder with the miners while police pleaded for protesters to move their trucks. No one would claim the vehicles.

“Who is in charge?” one of the officers asked.

“Everyone,” answered Haeden Wright, president of a local UMWA women’s auxiliary unit, a close-knit group of union members’ wives and supporters. ?“We are the UMWA.”

Police eventually towed the vehicles, but the standoff would last for hours. One miner offered a simple explanation: ?“This playing nice shit ain’t cutting it.”

The picket line had grown contentious before. In May, about two months after the strike began, Tuscaloosa police arrested 11 leaders of the UMWA and the Alabama AFL-CIO for blocking one of the mine’s 12 entrances. They all spent the night in jail and, according to the union, were given a warning: If they’re arrested again, they will be held until trial.

Along with threats from police, striking miners have faced other attacks?—?including three separate vehicular assaults in June, in which drivers plowed into UMWA picketers.

“Warrior Met personnel, either management or nonunion workers, have repeatedly struck our members, who were engaging in legal picket line activities, with their vehicles,” UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said in a June 7 statement. ?“We have members in casts, we have members in the hospital, we have members who are concerned about their families and potential of violence against them if they come to the picket line.”

The work stoppage, which follows the months-long campaign to unionize Amazon warehouse workers in nearby Bessemer, is one of the country’s most significant mining strikes in decades. On April 1, upward of 1,100 workers walked off the job as their contract with Warrior Met expired. The union reached a tentative agreement with management a week later, but rank-and-file members rejected it, claiming it failed to address demands for better hours and wages. The miners remained on strike.

When the UMWA signed its most recent contract in 2016, it agreed to significant concessions to save the jobs of workers laid off by the mine’s previous owners, Jim Walter Resources, with the understanding that new management would eventually reward workers for their sacrifice. Those concessions included an average wage cut of $6 (from $28 to $22), mandatory seven-day workweeks, loss of overtime pay and, perhaps most crucially, an end to full healthcare coverage.

“Our members are the reason Warrior Met even exists today,” Roberts said in a March 31 statement. ?“They made the sacrifices to bring this company out of the bankruptcy.”

While cheaper and greener alternatives threaten the coal industry, companies like Warrior Met, whose coal is used in the production of steel, enjoy a measure of security. Warrior Met reported a net loss of $21.4 million in the first quarter of 2021, but CEO Walter J. Scheller, III says the company is ?“strongly capitalized and well-positioned to restart our growth trajectory” after the pandemic and is negotiating in good faith.

Meanwhile, strikers are struggling. The UMWA has provided members with weekly payments of $350, but that’s a fraction of their lost salaries. Roberts estimates the strike costs the union more than $1 million per week. To supplement these payments, the UMWA created a strike fund that has directed hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from other unions and groups directly to the miners. (Full disclosure: the North Alabama Area Labor Council, of which the author is secretary-treasurer, has contributed to the fund.)

The women’s auxiliary pantry has collected tens of thousands of dollars more. Local markets have also allowed the unit to purchase bulk groceries at wholesale for miners and their families.

“Miners have always been their brother’s keeper,” says Braxton Wright, a long-time UMWA member and Haeden’s husband. ?“They’ve always stuck together as a group, even outside of work.”

Haeden sees the strike as part of a bigger struggle. ?“We know about Blair Mountain, we know about Mother Jones, we know Harlan, and we know what it takes to move a company,” she says. ?“That’s hard for people to understand if they have never been a part of [this].”

Fourteen miners clad in camo-print UMWA T?shirts took the fight to Wall Street on June 22 to protest three hedge funds with substantial stakes in Warrior Met?—?BlackRock Fund Advisors, State Street Global Advisors and Renaissance Technologies?—?that the union blames for stalled talks. Among others, labor leaders Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, and Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, marched alongside them.

Their battle cry remained the same: ?“No contract, no coal!”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 9, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Jacob Morrison is Secretary-Treasurer of the North Alabama Area Labor Council which represents thousands of union workers and co-hosts The Valley Labor Report, a union talk radio show on Saturday mornings from 9:30 to 11:00am on WVNNWGOL, and YouTube.


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Striking Alabama Miners Call Out NYC Hedge Funds for Bringing in Scabs

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Interview by Adam Johnson | Authors | The Indypendent

You take a six-dollar pay cut and what do you get? Five years older and no respect for the sacrifices you made to get your employer out of bankruptcy, say the striking Alabama coal miners who protested outside the Manhattan offices of three hedge funds on June 22.

“They told us, since we bailed them out, they would take care of us,” says Brian Kelly, president of United Mine Workers of America Local 2245, one of more than 1,000 miners who’ve been on strike at two mines in Brookwood, Alabama, since April 1. But instead, he says, “they’re bringing in scabs to work and trying to get rid of the older workforce.”

Warrior Met Coal, which operates the two mines, about 15 miles east of Tuscaloosa, was bought out by a consortium of 20 to 30 hedge funds in 2016 after its previous owner, Jim Walter Resources, filed for bankruptcy, says UMWA spokesperson Phil Smith.

Local 2245 then agreed to major concessions to help the company regain solvency: Along with the $6-per-hour pay cut, their health care costs were increased from a $12 co-pay to a $1,500 deductible; the union had to negotiate a $25 million Voluntary Employees’ Beneficiary Association plan to continue retirees’ health care; and extra overtime pay for Sundays and holidays was eliminated.

“They’re making us work seven days a week, up to 16 hours,” says Kelly, who has worked in the Brookwood mine for 25 years, following his father, uncles, and grandfather. “Now we’re forced to work every holiday except Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas.”

The company’s current contract offer, instead of restoring the $6 pay cut, is a five-year deal with a $1-an-hour increase, with another 50 cents coming in its fourth year, says Kelly.

“This company has prospered,” says Dedrick Gardner, who’s worked in the mine for 13 years. “We worked a whole year during the pandemic. The mine didn’t shut.”

ONE-SIDED SACRIFICE

That brought the miners to the offices of three of the hedge funds that own Warrior Met: In the morning, they protested outside BlackRock Fund Advisors, the largest stockholder, holding 13 percent of the company, according to Smith. In the afternoon, they split into two groups, one at State Street Global Advisors, which owns 11 percent, and the other at Renaissance Technologies, which owns 4 percent.

Outside State Street’s Sixth Avenue offices, about 25 miners and supporters from other unions—the International Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union Local 338—marched in an oval, chanting “No Contract, No Coal” and “Warrior Met Has No Soul.” Rain cut it short an hour early.

“These hedge funds are among several entities that invested in Warrior Met five years ago when the company emerged from bankruptcy,” UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said in a statement. “But they insisted on dramatic sacrifices from the workers, to the tune of $1.1 billion. The company has enjoyed revenues amounting to another $3.4 billion since then, much of which flowed into these funds’ accounts. It’s time to share that wealth with the people who created it—the workers.”

Company executives got bonuses of up to $35,000 early this year, according to the UMWA. The Brookwood miners now average about $22 an hour, the union says. Kelly says he makes about $60,000 a year.

Contract talks have made little progress since early April, when the miners rejected a proposed agreement drawn up a few days into the strike, 1,006 to 45. Smith says he doesn’t expect them to resume until after July 4.

“They really haven’t moved very far from the contract that got voted down,” says Smith. “I don’t think they got the message.”

EXPLOSIVE DANGER

Aside from pay, union officials say, a main dispute is that management is demanding the power to fire strikers and to give strikebreakers and new hires seniority. Earlier this month, there were at least two incidents where drivers entering the mine site in pickup trucks hit picketers. Warrior Met management responded that it has an injunction that “specifically prohibits picketers from interfering, hindering or obstructing ingress and egress.”

“They want to put the new hires and scab miners to the front of the seniority line,” says Kelly. “I’ve been there 25 years. That’s not going to happen.”

Safety has become a major concern. The foremen the new management brought in, Kelly says, came from West Virginia and Kentucky, and don’t understand the kind of mining they do at Brookwood.

The Alabama mine, which extracts a specialized variety of coal used in making steel, is much deeper than a typical Appalachian “drift mine,” he explains. Its shaft goes down 2,000 feet, and the miners have to travel as much as 10 miles to reach the coal face.

“You can’t walk out if something happens,” he says.

Mining coal at those depths also releases a lot of methane gas, which is toxic, inflammable, and explosive. In the last two years, Kelly says, there have been more “ignitions”—small fires starting from pockets of methane igniting—than he’s seen in his previous 20 years on the job.

“They are building a big potential to have something blow up,” he says.

It’s a peril he knows too well. On September 23, 2001, 13 miners at Brookwood were killed in a methane explosion.

“If you don’t run safe, you won’t run more coal,” Kelly says. “You’ve got to have air to push the dangerous gases out.”

This article first appeared at LaborPress. Steven Wishnia is a LaborPress reporter.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on June 24, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Steve Wishnia is a New York-based journalist, now a reporter for LaborPress and editor of Tenant/Inquilino


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How Many Strikes Are There in the U.S.?

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Johnnie Kallas

How many strikes are there in the United States?

It’s a question with obvious importance to labor activists, yet there is no readily accessible answer.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) releases an annual work stoppage summary in February reporting the number of strikes and lockouts over the prior year—but only those that involved at least 1,000 workers and lasted an entire shift. This is especially problematic because nearly 60 percent of all private sector workers are employed by companies with fewer than 1,000 employees. Even many of those who work at big firms are in bargaining units or workplaces with under 1,000 workers.

The BLS kept track of all work stoppages involving six workers or more and lasting at least a full shift until 1982, when cuts by the Reagan administration diminished resources for labor research and statistics.

According to BLS data, strikes increased significantly in 2018 and 2019—after a long decline—before returning to historic lows in 2020. But we cannot know for certain how accurate a picture this is, since the BLS excludes a sizable amount of strike activity by only capturing big strikes. Even the ongoing strike by the Massachusetts Nurses Association at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester—owned by Tenet Healthcare, one of the country’s largest for-profit hospital chains—is left out of the BLS data, because the strike involves just 800 nurses.

NEW LABOR ACTION TRACKER

This gap in our understanding of strike activity is a serious limitation for our knowledge about the labor movement. To help fill this void, we have created the ILR Labor Action Tracker, housed at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, to more accurately track strikes and labor protests across the U.S. (Unlike the BLS, we are not currently collecting data on lockouts, though we hope to add that data in the future.)

One important advance is that our tracker also includes labor protests, such as rallies and informational pickets. That means it includes the recent rally by 2,000 food delivery drivers in New York City demanding better pay and improved health and safety. It also includes a multi-city action by Tribune Publishing employees—who work for newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and Baltimore Sun—to prevent the sale of the company to a hedge fund.

Considering the vast legal and economic obstacles to striking, we believe it is important to capture these types of events to show the wide range of tactics used by U.S. workers in the 21st century. Users are able to search our interactive map for strikes and labor protests separately or both types of actions together.

We distinguish between strikes and labor protests based on whether a temporary stoppage of work occurred as part of the action. This definition of a strike is relatively inclusive, covering actions like wildcats and sickouts.

In some cases, such as the national days of action associated with the Fight for 15 campaign, it can be particularly difficult to determine whether the action should be labeled a strike or labor protest. But if we can convincingly demonstrate, based on the sources we cite, that a collective stoppage of work occurred as part of the protest, we will add that event to our tracker as a strike. Full information about our methodology, including how we add actions to our tracker and the other variables we capture, can be found here.

A DIFFERENT PICTURE

We began tracking strikes in late 2020, though our database is most reliable beginning in March 2021. We have discovered a much different reality of strike and protest activity in the United States than existing sources indicate.

We found that 28 strikes occurred during the month of April alone. That includes all strikes that began after January 1, 2021, and were still ongoing at some point in April. This stands in stark contrast to recent annual data from the BLS, which identified just seven major work stoppages in all of 2017, 20 in 2018, 25 in 2019, and eight in 2020. The BLS documented just six strikes in April; among the strikes it excluded were the aforementioned walkout by 800 Massachusetts nurses at St. Vincent Hospital, a strike for a first contract by 200 faculty members at the Oregon Institute of Technology, and a strike by 24 distribution workers fighting for a pay increase after a four-year wage freeze at N.H. Scheppers Distributing in Missouri, among many others.

While we know that more strikes are occurring than existing data would indicate, we recognize that strike activity today is nowhere near the levels seen in the mid-20th century. For example, the BLS identified an average of 821 work stoppages (both strikes and lockouts, involving six workers or more and lasting at least a full shift) for the month of April during the 1970s, before the Reagan administration’s cuts forced the agency to only capture major events. Additional research is needed to generate more rigorous and informative historical comparisons.

Workers face immense obstacles to organizing and striking that have only become more pronounced over the past few decades. We hope that our project will amplify the voices of striking and protesting workers, as well as draw attention to these obstacles.

We welcome any feedback on how to make this tool more useful for workers and the labor movement. Our project aims to democratize data and inform labor activists about labor actions in their communities. Going forward, we hope to more accurately capture labor protests and pinpoint the location of ongoing strikes based on the address of a major picket line, which should help local activists support striking workers.

We are aiming to be as comprehensive as possible (especially on strikes)—so if you notice that we are missing a strike or labor protest, please use the report button on our website or fill out this Google form.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on May 26, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the authors: Johnnie Kallas, a former labor organizer, is a PhD student at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations and director of the ILR Labor Action Tracker. Eli Friedman is a professor and chair of the Department of International and Comparative Labor at the ILR School. He serves as faculty advisor of the Labor Action Tracker. Dana Trentalange, another former labor organizer, is a recent graduate student of the master’s program at the ILR School, and is the Labor Action Tracker’s coordinator and social media strategist.


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“We Won’t Let Him”: Unions Nationwide Are Planning a General Strike If Trump Tries to Steal the Election

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Amid wide­spread con­cerns that Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump will attempt to steal today’s elec­tion or refuse to leave office if he los­es, the lead­ers of mul­ti­ple Chica­go-area unions issued a joint state­ment on Mon­day com­mit­ting to take any non­vi­o­lent action nec­es­sary?—?up to and includ­ing a gen­er­al strike?—?to defend democracy.

“Every sin­gle vote has to be count­ed,” says Sta­cy Davis Gates, vice pres­i­dent of the Chica­go Teach­ers Union (CTU). ?“We are pre­pared to be in sol­i­dar­i­ty to ensure that our democ­ra­cy is pro­tect­ed in this moment.”

The CTU, Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal Work­ers (UE), SEIU Local 73, SEIU Health­care, Cook Coun­ty Col­lege Teach­ers Union, Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Gov­ern­ment Employ­ees Local 704 and Ware­house Work­ers Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee are call­ing on ?“all unions, com­mu­ni­ty, faith and civic orga­ni­za­tions, and pub­lic lead­ers to unite in vig­i­lance and readi­ness to defend our rights as the votes in the Novem­ber 3rd elec­tion are cast and counted.”

The Chica­go unions are part of Labor Action to Defend Democracy (LADD)?—?a recent­ly formed nation­al net­work of union mem­bers orga­niz­ing the labor movement’s response to the threat of a stolen election.

Alex Han, a Chica­go-based labor orga­niz­er help­ing coor­di­nate LADD, says the net­work seeks to tap into the unique pow­er of unions and work­ers to not only protest in the streets, but to cause seri­ous eco­nom­ic dis­rup­tion, if necessary. 

“One les­son we learned from the sum­mer is you can sus­tain street heat to some degree, but it’s going to dis­solve. We saw this dur­ing Occu­py, we’ve seen this many times,” Han tells In These Times. ?“There’s a per­spec­tive that would say the miss­ing ingre­di­ent is a direct link­age with work­place action, which is the kind of action that could be more sus­tain­ing and sharp­er, and not let street action devolve into a run­ning bat­tle with police.”

LADD has put togeth­er var­i­ous resources—includ­ing sam­ple res­o­lu­tions and a mod­el let­ter to politi­cians?—?that unions can use to ampli­fy calls to pro­tect the elec­toral process. In the past three weeks, over twen­ty cen­tral labor coun­cils, state labor fed­er­a­tions, nation­al and local unions have issued res­o­lu­tions express­ing firm oppo­si­tion to any efforts to sub­vert, dis­tort or dis­re­gard the final results of the pres­i­den­tial election.

The Rochester Labor Coun­cil is specif­i­cal­ly call­ing on the nation­al AFL-CIO to pre­pare for a gen­er­al strike, while the Ver­mont AFL-CIO plans to hold a gen­er­al strike vote on Novem­ber 21 should Trump lose and refuse to con­cede. The Seat­tle Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion will also con­vene an emer­gency meet­ing of its board of direc­tors with­in a week of the elec­tion to con­sid­er next steps for pos­si­ble action.

Mean­while, the Emer­gency Work­place Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee (EWOC)—a joint project of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca and UE formed ear­li­er this year in response to the pan­dem­ic?—?host­ed a livestream dis­cus­sion last week on how work­ers can take mass action to ensure a peace­ful tran­si­tion of pow­er. Fea­tur­ing Asso­ci­a­tion of Flight Atten­dants Pres­i­dent Sara Nel­son and EWOC orga­niz­ers Dawn Tefft and Zack Pat­tin, the livestream has near­ly 6,000 views.

“The labor move­ment knows how impor­tant it is to defend democ­ra­cy in this coun­try. We are demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions,” UE Pres­i­dent Carl Rosen explains. ?“We’re pre­pared to do what­ev­er it takes to make sure democ­ra­cy is sus­tained. We know what it’s tak­en in oth­er coun­tries that have faced tin­pot dic­ta­tors try­ing to stay in office after the peo­ple of their coun­try have vot­ed them out.”

As Rosen indi­cates, unions around the world are often the first line of defense against would-be dic­ta­tor­ships. For exam­ple, in the year since Bolivia’s demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly elect­ed pres­i­dent Evo Morales was oust­ed in a U.S.-backed mil­i­tary coup, the Cen­tral Obr­era Boli­viana?—?the nation’s largest labor fed­er­a­tion—led the fight to restore democ­ra­cy, cul­mi­nat­ing in the recent elec­toral vic­to­ry of Morales’s par­ty, the Movimien­to al Socialismo.

“The labor move­ment has a proud his­to­ry of stand­ing up for democ­ra­cy and fair elec­tions around the world,” says SEIU Local 73 Pres­i­dent Dian Palmer. ?“Cit­i­zens across the coun­try are vot­ing like nev­er before. We are uti­liz­ing the rights afford­ed to us to vote ear­ly, in per­son, and by mail. And those votes should be counted.”

“We believe in the pow­er of the peo­ple?—?the mul­ti-racial, work­ing-class major­i­ty,” the Chica­go unions’ state­ment reads. ?“Don­ald Trump wants to steal this elec­tion. We won’t let him.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on November 3, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke has been a Work­ing In These Times con­trib­u­tor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go and a Master’s in Labor Stud­ies from UMass Amherst. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @JeffSchuhrke.


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The Largest Private-Sector Strike of the Year Is Headed for Union Victory

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After nearly seven weeks on the picket line, Machinists union members will soon vote on a contract that includes everything they’re fighting for.

BATH, MAINE — It’s no coin­ci­dence that the first strike in 20 years at Bath Iron Works (BIW) began months into the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic. While Maine has one of the low­est Covid trans­mis­sion rates in the coun­try, the spread of the dead­ly virus helped spark the strike that has large­ly shut down the ship­yard at BIW — one of Maine’s largest employers. 

In June, when around 4,300 Machin­ists Local S6 union mem­bers at BIW vot­ed over­whelm­ing­ly to strike, many had already soured on man­age­ment over its han­dling of the pandemic.

The walk­out?—?which rep­re­sents the largest pri­vate-sec­tor strike of the year?—?has last­ed for near­ly sev­en weeks. But late last week, both sides saw a break­through as a ten­ta­tive agree­ment was reached that appears to hand the union a vic­to­ry on its demands. 

BIW, a Gen­er­al Dynam­ics sub­sidiary that builds bat­tle­ships for the U.S. Navy, nev­er shut down the pro­duc­tion facil­i­ty because it was deemed an ?“essen­tial busi­ness” by the U.S. gov­ern­ment. After a BIW work­er test­ed pos­i­tive for the virus in late March, the com­pa­ny encour­aged employ­ees not to report to work. Many did stay home for weeks?—?but they had to use paid vaca­tion or sick time, or work unpaid. Union lead­ers called for a shut­down with pay while also push­ing state law­mak­ers to pres­sure the Navy to allow the ship­yard to close.

“They said we’re essen­tial work­ers because we build bat­tle­ships, but how essen­tial are you if you get sick? It’s scary for a lot of peo­ple,” said John Louis Cabral III, a ship­yard work­er and Local S6 member. 

Cabral, 34, couldn’t afford to stay home long: He was hired last year and had lit­tle accrued paid time off. With three kids to sup­port and no access to pan­dem­ic-relat­ed unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits since he wasn’t fur­loughed, he went back to the yard.

With employ­ee atten­dance way below nor­mal for weeks, BIW fell fur­ther behind on pro­duc­tion of Navy guid­ed-mis­sile destroy­ers. As part of nego­ti­a­tions with Local S6 for a new three-year con­tract, the com­pa­ny pro­posed changes allow­ing it to hire nonunion sub­con­trac­tors more quick­ly. That and oth­er pro­posed changes to senior­i­ty and work rules in the company’s ?“last, best, and final offer” on June 13 did not go over well with Local S6. 

“It’s a pow­er strug­gle in the yard right now, and that’s facts,” said Cabral, who helps man­age inven­to­ry at the shipyard. 

On June 22, 87% of Local S6 mem­bers vot­ed in favor of strik­ing, even though they’d lose com­pa­ny-paid health insur­ance dur­ing a pan­dem­ic. Fed­er­al medi­a­tors were brought in to restart nego­ti­a­tions in July, around the same time BIW laid off mem­bers of anoth­er union local and brought in sub­con­trac­tors from out of state to avoid falling fur­ther behind on production. 

“We’re all stand­ing as one because we don’t want sub­con­tract­ing in here,” Chad Bam­ford, a 25-year-old crane rig­ger who’s worked at BIW since 2017, said on the pick­et line Fri­day. ?“They’re try­ing to sub­con­tract out our work. We don’t want out­siders. Give us more over­time. We build the best ships in the world.” 

The com­pa­ny has said it nev­er want­ed to per­ma­nent­ly out­source work away from the union through sub­con­trac­tors. ?“We seek only effi­cient access to all avail­able resources to improve our abil­i­ty to deliv­er to the US Navy on time,” BIW Pres­i­dent Dirk Lesko wrote
in June. The ship­yard was six months behind sched­ule at the start of the strike.

Both Bam­ford and Cabral blame pro­duc­tion delays on both the pan­dem­ic and mis­man­age­ment. A BIW spokesper­son did not respond to a request for comment.

Union vic­to­ry in hand?

After weeks of meet­ings that yield­ed lit­tle, union and BIW nego­tia­tors broke through to an agree­ment Fri­day, and it looks like the union got every­thing it wanted. 

In a ten­ta­tive agree­ment announced Sat­ur­day, Local S6 lead­ers trum­pet­ed the reten­tion of sta­tus quo con­tract lan­guage on sub­con­trac­tors and senior­i­ty and work rules. The agree­ment also retains 3% annu­al rais­es for work­ers. A ?“tem­po­rary catchup phase” will allow expand­ed sub­con­tract­ing through the end of this year, and a joint union-com­pa­ny com­mit­tee will begin meet­ing week­ly to ensure sched­ule gains.

The deal, unan­i­mous­ly approved by the union nego­ti­at­ing com­mit­tee, ?“pre­serves our sub­con­tract­ing process, pro­tects senior­i­ty pro­vi­sions and calls for a col­lab­o­ra­tive effort to get back on sched­ule,” Local S6 leader Jay Wadleigh told the Asso­ci­at­ed Press Sat­ur­day. The agree­ment also includes health­care ben­e­fit gains.

“We are pleased to have reached agree­ment with our union part­ners and look for­ward to get­ting back to the job of build­ing ships for the U.S. Navy,” Phebe Novakovic, chair­man and CEO of Gen­er­al Dynam­ics, said in a state­ment the same day.

Local S6 mem­bers will vote to rat­i­fy the pro­posed con­tract online and via phone lat­er this month. If it’s approved?—?which both Cabral and Bam­ford believe is like­ly?—?the lack of con­ces­sions will stand in con­trast to the last con­tract. Back in 2015, work­ers nar­row­ly vot­ed to give up sched­uled rais­es in favor of one-time bonus­es to pro­tect jobs and help BIW win a new U.S. Coast Guard con­tract (though the com­pa­ny end­ed up los­ing that con­tract to a competitor). 

Gen­er­al Dynam­ics, one of the largest defense con­trac­tors in the coun­try, made $3.5 bil­lion in prof­its last year. In 2018, tax cuts backed by the Trump admin­is­tra­tion helped cut the For­tune 500 company’s effec­tive tax rate almost in half, accord­ing to Labor Notes. That same year, the Maine leg­is­la­ture hand­ed BIW a $45 mil­lion tax break.

Bam­ford said he knows some peo­ple don’t agree with unions?—?but the strike has only deep­ened his pride in Local S6 and what it can achieve. The ten­ta­tive agree­ment, he said, sounds like a ?“big win.” 

“Until you’ve been a part of a union and you have 4,300 peo­ple stand­ing with you as one for one cause, it’s a feel­ing you can’t describe,” Bam­ford said. ?“It makes you proud to be with it.”

Cabral agrees: ?“Sol­i­dar­i­ty is awe­some. The strike has built camaraderie.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on August 12, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeremy Gantz is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at the mag­a­zine. He is the edi­tor of The Age of Inequal­i­ty: Cor­po­rate America’s War on Work­ing Peo­ple (2017, Ver­so), and was the Web/?Associate Edi­tor of In These Times from 2008 to 2012.


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Get Ready for Mass Strikes Across the U.S. This May Day

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Christopher D. Cook Progressive.org

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’sThe AtlanticThe Nation, the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere. You can reach him at http://www.christopherdcook.com/.


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So You Want a General Strike? Here’s What It Would Take.

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Image result for Hamilton Nolan

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.”

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.”

And remember…

“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 Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.


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Chicago Teachers Won Public Support for Their Strike. Here’s How.

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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.


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Beyond the Fight for 15: The Worker-led Fast Food Union Campaign Building Power on the Shop Floor

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psdtnwbe_400x400Last 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).


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