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The Roots of Today’s White Collar Union Wave Are Deeper Than You Think

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Writers Guild of America Honors Hamilton Nolan for Digital Organizing -  Variety

At UAW Local 2110, Maida Rosenstein has quietly organized the most prestigious group of cultural institutions on the East Coast.

Before the recent wave of organizing among media workers, adjunct professors and nonprofit workers set the world talking about the promise of white collar unions, there had already been decades of quiet organizing among the white collar creative underclass. A surprising amount of that organizing has been done by a single local union: UAW Local 2110 in New York City, which with little fanfare helped to pioneer the sort of unionizing that routinely draws headlines today. 

Beginning in the 1980s, the union organized workers at a list of cultural institutions including the Museum of Modern Art, the Village Voice and HarperCollins Publishers. More recently, Local 2110 has been organizing the museum and culture industry at a furious pace, at places like the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the New York City Tenement Museum and the Children’s Museum of the Arts. In just the past year, the union has added the Portland Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Whitney Museum, the Brooklyn Museum and Film at Lincoln Center, among others. (They also found time to help lead a strike against a pricey private school.)

Local 2110 is led by Maida Rosenstein, who joined after leading a campaign to unionize administrative staffers at Columbia University in the 1980s. She has spent more than three decades assembling what may be the most prestigious collection of cultural institutions in America in a single union local, all with a resolutely anti-elite organizing model of keeping the door open to everyone. In an interview, Rosenstein offered the long view on the white collar union trend that continues in earnest to this day. 

On the reason the UAW doesn’t just organize autoworkers: 

“UAW calls itself an industrial union, and they’ve long had a view of trying to organize companies broadly. There were always a certain amount of office workers, even in the Chrysler plant or whatever. When District 65 [the union she originally joined] affiliated with the UAW, they affiliated more on the ground of progressive politics than anything else. Walter Reuther took the UAW out of the AFL-CIO during the Vietnam War era. That was really where the affiliation came from. We in District 65 actually brought in a lot of the white collar organizing.” 

On the recent popularity of unions:

“I do think there’s a generational thing. The millennial generation is a lot more pro-union than my generation was. At least in the blue cities, it seems like there was a wave of people who after Bernie Sanders, and after Trump was elected, embraced the idea of organizing. People went from Occupy Wall Street, where everybody was doing their own thing, to saying ?‘We have to get organized politically.’ I feel like that did carry over?—?unions made [sense to] a lot of people when they thought about their disgruntlement at work. The millennial generation have been so much more open towards it.”

On unionizing the museum industry:

“In museums, there have been these big shifts, with the expansion of the number of employees, and a lot of money flowing in as they’re very involved in land expansion projects, etc. They have these very corporate boards and much more highly paid leadership, and then they bring in a ton of younger, educated people and pay them really low wages. Most of them are working there for idealistic reasons, and in large numbers.

“I thought the pandemic would put a stop to that, would kill our organizing. And it didn’t. In some ways it made it easier. Museums and all these institutions were shut down, and a lot of people were furloughed or laid off. Their institution betrayed them. A lot of people saw that and felt they had no recourse, and it was very disappointing. They wanted to do something about it. Also, we found a way of organizing virtually, too. There were certain things about it that made it more accessible. All these people got on these Zoom meetings, because really they had nothing to do. They were home, they were upset and they were isolated. This was something to really make a difference. And it really took hold.

“The pay issue is a really big one. Especially in larger institutions, they have these trustees who are just like dripping with money. Museum leadership is starting to be like university presidents, where it’s very obviously out of whack, and you have people who are paid really poorly. Museums are absolutely terrible at having large numbers of staff being very precarious, like the front line staff who do visitor services and the store. A lot of them are part time, some of them are seasonal. They get paid like minimum wage or a little above. In almost every museum it’s like that. Very few of them have full time jobs. And even the more skilled positions?—?art handlers, museum educators?—?those have been converted into per diem positions, on-call positions, intermittent work. They basically work the way a freelancer would work.

“Even the people who are in the full time professional positions are paid very low. You know this from journalism: You’re a writer, and now you’ve been busted down and people are making like $50,000 a year. And that’s what happened in museums: You’re a curator and you’re making $50,000 or $60,000 and living in Boston, New York or Portland. It’s not very much money.”

On why the publishing industry has been slower to unionize:

“You have corporations that are gobbling each other up. It’s like unbridled capitalism, and it’s very, very difficult. They can move, merge, subcontract, do all these things with no control. Nonprofits can do a lot?—?universities like Columbia are notoriously anti-union, and they do a lot of bad things?—?but museums and universities so far haven’t been able to move some place. They can’t really pick up and leave. We’re still doing better in the nonprofit sector than we are in the for-profit sectors.”

On the Village Voice, a media union pioneer:

“The union at the Voice was amazing when I first met people there. At that point the newsroom was like 175 people or 200 people. It was very, very vibrant. They really ran the paper, they had so much control.”

On craft unions vs. industrial unions:

“The arts unions, the craft unions, they have done a phenomenal job for their members, but they are very focused and deeply wedded to their occupations. I think administrative staff, for instance, have really been overlooked in a lot of these institutions. We were appealing to them in a lot of ways. In the museums they are [wall to wall unions that include everyone], but not all of them. We can’t always get wall to wall.

“No one is organizing museums in a [systematic] way?—?no one has targeted this and said, ?‘This is a strategic target, we’re doing all this research.’ We’re a local union. We have opportunities to organize, we’re taking it. We’re just trying to push the envelope forward where we’re able to.”

On the difference between the 1980s and today:

“When I was organizing, it was like, ?‘A union, in an office? What are you, kidding? That’s very blue collar.’ People said ?‘I don’t want to wear a uniform, I don’t want to punch a time clock.’ At Columbia, they did a full out anti-union campaign. They told us, ?‘With a union you’ll have to go to meetings downtown. The union will come between a secretary and her boss.’ It was really also sexist and elitist. It was hard. They ran an anti-union campaign, and we won our election at Columbia by eight votes out of 1,100 people. It was a total squeaker. People were terrified.

“One thing I’m noticing is that the anti-union campaigns [now] seem less effective. And there’s been more exposure. No one had ever heard of an anti-union campaign. It was like a secret that bosses did this. And now it’s out there. Everybody knows about Walmart, or Amazon or Delta. The fact that there was actual press on that stuff is amazing to me!”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 17, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere.


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The Leadership Struggle In One of California’s Most Powerful Unions Just Keeps Getting Weirder

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Hamilton Nolan - In These Times

Accusations of cheating, chicanery and violent retaliation dog the SEIU Local 1000 election. The consequences for labor are very real.

Even by the chaotic standards of the past year, the story of SEIU Local 1000 stands out for its bizarreness. One of the most politically powerful unions in California, representing nearly 100,000 state employees, announced last month that its longtime president, Yvonne Walker, had lost an election to a gadfly named Richard Louis Brown, who ran on a platform of ending the union’s (substantial) political donations, which made him an instant right-wing media darling. Now, the election is beset with allegations of misconduct and dangerous retaliation, while Brown positions himself as a truthteller under attack?—?but the union’s future has never been more uncertain. 

What we know for sure is this: Brown, an employee of the state treasurer’s office who had twice before run unsuccessfully for a leadership position, won the SEIU Local 1000 presidential election on May 24 with only 33% of the vote. Walker, who had led the union since 2008, received 27%, and three other challengers split the rest. Only 7,880 ballots were cast. Therefore the union’s entire approach to how it wields power for tens of thousands of members may be upended by about 500 votes. 

The drama was only beginning. Brown, it turned out, had publicly offered to pay the dues of members so that they could vote in the election. Though he says that no one took him up on it, the outcome of the election was challenged, and a ?“protest committee” inside the union will render a decision before the end of June. The makeup of that committee is controlled by Yvonne Walker, the person who lost to Brown, and who still has a couple of weeks left in office. Now, all sides of the election are simultaneously suspicious?—?some believing that Brown cheated, and others believing that Walker and her allies are conspiring to roll back Brown’s victory. Walker herself is not an uncontroversial leader. An essay in Strikewave last week by Jonah Paul, a rank and file member of SEIU 1000, characterized Walker as a ?“centrist, politically shrewd, and utterly tyrannical” president who used bureaucratic maneuvering to consolidate power in her own hands and systematically push out rivals, to the detriment of members and morale. 

Immediately after his election, Brown received a rash of media attention when he said that he would not offer the union’s backing to California Governor Gavin Newsom, who is facing a recall attempt. But the platform that Brown is planning to implement offers much more frightening promises for labor movement traditionalists. He vows to zero out spending on electoral politics, which would be a major blow to the California Democratic Party. And he says he will cut member dues in half, and allow members who do not pay dues at all (enabled by the 2018 Supreme Court Janus ruling, which allowed public employees to opt out of financial support for their unions) to vote in union elections?—?setting up the potential of both a dramatic drop in income for the union, and a political takeover by conservative, anti-union membership. Already, Brown’s election has been celebrated in the Wall Street JournalFox News, and by the Koch-funded anti-union Freedom Foundation, a good indication that he is already being held up by conservatives as that rare creature: A union president who is a hero of right wing, anti-labor institutions. 

But Brown, whose Trumpian tics include exclamation point-laden prose and ominous questions about vaccines, has more immediate concerns on his mind. In an interview on Monday, he said that on May 25, the day after his victory was announced, Sacramento police showed up at his house at 5 a.m., after an anonymous person called them with a report of a woman screaming. Brown, who lives alone, says he believes this incident was ?“retaliation against me for winning this election,” and was a serious threat to his safety. 

“If they swear me in, I’m going to go on national TV and give interviews to anybody that wants to know the truth about the corruption of this union that I belong to,” he said. ?“I have no confidence in my union at all. My life could have been taken from me… I’m concerned for my life. That’s what I’m concerned for right now.” 

The Sacramento Police Department confirmed that the call occurred: ?“On May 25, 2021 at approximately 5:02 a.m., the Sacramento Police Department responded to a reported call for service in the 3200 block of 43rd Street. The unidentified caller stated that they heard a possible disturbance inside of a residence on the street. Officers checked the residence and determined that there was no disturbance and the call appeared to be unfounded.” They added, however, that the false call appeared to be part of a pattern. ?“The department has also received at least two other calls of similar circumstances for other residences within this area, and on different streets. These calls have occurred over the last few weeks.”

“You know Breonna Taylor lost her life. And here I am, helping people… and I could have lost my life over this,” Brown said of the police incident. ?“Local 1000 needs to stop playing these games with me. The Sacramento Police Department needs to investigate who made that call against me.”

The police department said ?“These incidents have been documented in a report and the department has not identified any specific intended victims of these unfounded calls for service at this time. The department will continue to investigate any further incidents that occur to determine if there is a connection between them.” Yvonne Walker said in an interview that she did not know anything about the incident. (Brown and Walker are both Black.)

Discussing his platform, Brown called the requirement that only dues-payers vote in elections, which is standard procedure in most unions, a ?“poll tax,” and likened it to laws that oppressed Black voters in the past. He said his preference would be to see the end of exclusive representation?—?the requirement that unions represent everyone in a workplace whether they pay dues or not?—?but barring that, he would like to see non-payers be able to vote. Such a policy would allow union politics to be controlled, at least in part, by the people most hostile to the union. Brown said he has ?“no connection” to the Freedom Foundation or any other anti-labor group. 

“A union, when they can automatically control your wages and working conditions, they could care less about how you feel. And this is the case with Local 1000,” Brown said. Some members of the union are living paycheck to paycheck, and would be better served if the union stopped spending money on politics, slashed their dues, and built a strike fund to help it wield power via strike threats rather than political donations. ?“As long as our union spends more than 50 percent on politics, to the Democratic Party, they’re alienating half the union, and this is why they cannot raise their membership. And this is why I got elected.”

Such a policy would also have major implications for the most politically active national union in America. ?“We have to stop our political spending,” Brown says. ?“Does that mean we have to end our affiliation with SEIU? I would probably say yes.”

Opponents see this theory of how to gain power as, at best, naïve?—?particularly for a union of state employees. ?“It’s incredibly important [to be involved in politics], especially for public service workers. Our bosses are politicians,” said Yvonne Walker. ?“If we’re not having a voice in electing the people that share the same values that we do, that is a very grave mistake.”

Likewise, she said that Local 1000 would regret any decision not to support Gavin Newsom against the recall effort. ?“We have traveled this road before. We saw what happened after Gray Davis got recalled [in 2003],” she said. ?“We went through the loss of some things that people thought were just automatic. And they weren’t. And I would hate to see us in that place again.”

Walker said she was proud of accomplishments like putting the union on a sound financial footing, buying a headquarters building, expanding apprenticeship programs, and guiding the union through the aftermath of the 2008 recession. She rejected the criticisms raised in the Strikewave story, saying she would not have done anything differently during her time in office to increase union democracy or to further encourage more members to vote in elections. And she voiced hopes that whoever succeeds her will make strong efforts to lock in the newfound flexible work arrangements that employees have been able to try out during the pandemic. But, she said, she will not be around to lead those efforts, no matter what happens.

For now, the fate of nearly 100,000 union members faces a maddening level of unpredictability. Pending the outcome of the union’s election review, control could pass to Brown, who would lead the organization down a radical conservative path, or the election could be run again, adding even more uncertainty as to what the future would hold. The only certainty is that whatever happens, the losing factions will feel cheated and full of distrust. It is an ominous set of ingredients for decisions that will profoundly affect members, their families and the labor movement as a whole?—?not to mention the electoral politics of the nation’s most populous state.

The only person who seems to have achieved some level of peace is Yvonne Walker herself, who does not believe that Brown’s plans will ever come to fruition. ?“It’s easy to make pronouncements,” she said dismissively, ?“when you don’t know how things work.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 15, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere.


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Striking ATI Steelworkers Hold the Line for Premium-Free Health Insurance

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General President Peter Knowlton to Retire (but Stay Active in the Union) |  UE

Across the country, steelworkers at nine plants of Allegheny Technologies, Inc. have been on strike for the last 11 weeks.

They want raises; to stop contracting out; to secure full funding of their retirement benefits; and to beat back management’s efforts to introduce health insurance premiums and a second tier of coverage for younger workers.

The Steelworkers union (USW) accuses ATI of unfair labor practices including bad faith bargaining, and of holding retiree benefits hostage for contract concessions.

ATI, which is headquartered in Pittsburgh, makes steel used in aerospace and defense, oil and gas, chemical processes, and electrical energy generation.

Five years ago ATI locked workers out for seven months, demanding major concessions on wages, pensions, and health insurance. Workers fought off the bulk of those demands, though the company was able to shed future liability for the pension by replacing it with a 401(k) for anyone hired after 2015—a huge cost shift to workers that makes a decent retirement at age 65 unlikely for new hires.

There were 2,200 workers at 12 unionized sites back then. There are 1,300 at nine sites this time around.

Most of the shops are in areas still reeling from the deindustrialization of the ’80s and ’90s. Five are in western Pennsylvania: Canton Township, Brackenridge, Latrobe, Natrona Heights, and Vandergrift. The others are in Louisville, Ohio; Lockport, New York; East Hartford, Connecticut; and New Bedford, Massachusetts, where 60 members are on strike.

MANUFACTURING DESCENT

One of only a few remaining union manufacturers in southeast Massachusetts, ATI has long been seen as a place to earn decent pay and a respectable retirement.

As a young organizer with the United Electrical Workers (UE) in the ’80s and early ’90s I spent many mornings and afternoons leafleting at the ATI plant in New Bedford—then called Rodney Metals, before it was eventually bought out by ATI—and other shops in the area, encouraging workers to organize. (I like to think we helped lay the groundwork for the USW’s eventual success in the mid-’90s.)

Back then there were thousands and thousands of decently paid union workers in manufacturing, and those union shops drove the area rates and standards. The spillover effect was real. Non-union employers like Rodney Metals were “forced” to pay similar rates and conditions in order to compete for workers.

Those days are gone. Like many places throughout the country, southeast Massachusetts lost thousands of manufacturing jobs—union and nonunion—during the Reagan era of greed, union-busting, and moving jobs to lower-wage, nonunion locations (sometimes overseas, but not always). UE lost close to 2,000 members in southeast Massachusetts in less than a decade.

Some of the more innovative and militant strategies to fight plant closings were developed from the struggles of these workers to defend and preserve manufacturing jobs in hard-hit industrial New England.

Now, with the pension replaced by a 401(k) and after seven years of wage freezes, working at ATI—or in manufacturing generally—is not such a great deal anymore. Factory work in the area is now pretty much all nonunion, and most places pay less and provide fewer benefits than they did 20 years ago.

Plus, anyone who has worked in a factory knows the toll the work takes on your body and soul. The camaraderie can be great, but the brutal pace of work in an unhealthy environment is unrelenting. Your body slowly unravels and falls apart.

FLUSH WITH CASH

Now ATI is demanding to gut the benefits of present and future workers even further, which will further erode the living standards of the area. To sell its offers, the company points to wage increases and lump sum payments—but, as the union has pointed out, these are all based on savings generated from other concessionary proposals.

Meanwhile, the company has almost “a billion dollars in liquidity and more than half a billion dollars in the cash drawer,” according to a strike bulletin from the union. The three top executives made $22 million last year in salaries and an additional $17 million in bonuses.

The average hourly rate for production workers is only in the mid-$20s per hour, with the lowest-paying job around $22. Lots of maintenance work has been subcontracted, especially since the last contract. Presently to contract out work the company simply has to notify the union and engage in a discussion; if it doesn’t, the company pays a penalty to a local charity.

These “notification” requirements have done little to stop the company from decimating the maintenance department. But even this weak arrangement isn’t enough for ATI. It wants no accountability or discussion with the union about keeping maintenance work in-house, and it continues to propose eliminating arbitration over even the minimal requirement to give notice.

A PREMIUM ON HEALTH INSURANCE

This strike is in large measure over health insurance. In a sea of non-union workplaces with unaffordable health plans, ATI workers are striking to keep their plan affordable to members.

Presently the company pays the entire health insurance premium—workers were able to stave off ATI’s efforts to force them to pay premiums during the 2015-16 lockout. Workers have an upfront deductible that is 10 percent of first-dollar coverage up to $300 for an individual and $600 for a family per year. If you go outside the network, it is double those figures.

ATI now wants workers to pay 5 percent of the premium and increase the deductible to $500 for an individual and $1,000 for a family. What the company is really after, however, are the new hires: the company wants them to pay 10 percent of their premiums. It’s the typical and divisive two-tier system that unions know all too well.

The Kaiser Family Foundation, which researches and publishes national health insurance data and conducts annual surveys on employer-provided health insurance, says that in 1999 the average annual premium was $2,196 for single plans and $5,791 for family plans. Twenty years later those figures have skyrocketed by 240 percent and 269 percent, respectively, to $7,470 for individuals and $21,342 for families.

Employers still contribute the majority of that, but workers now pay an average of $5,588 in premiums alone for family coverage (up from $1,543 in 1999), not to mention the increased share of other medical costs they bear. Wages over that same period have increased, on average, only 77 percent.

A BENCHMARK FOR ALL

Up until the 1980s, when the health insurance industry and employers began imposing premiums, deductibles, co-pays, and other schemes to gobble up more of our paychecks, fully employer-paid health insurance was not uncommon at all.

Those union workplaces that have been able to maintain that standard help all of us—not just their members. They set a benchmark for the wages and benefits that other employers in the same industry or geographic area need to provide to stay “competitive.” They influence what workers and the local community expect a job to offer.

When a benefit is allowed to erode over time, so does the standard. Seeing these workers at ATI fighting to defend premium-free health insurance, something most unions have lost, is inspiring.

“I am proud of my fellow brothers and sisters on the line,” said Bedford ATI worker John Camarao, the grievance chair for USW Local 1357. “Members are in a great hardship right now entering the third month of the strike, but what we’re fighting for is not only for our future but for the future of new hires and our retirees’ benefits.

“Their demands are meant to divide us, but instead they have united us, and our resolve is to see this to the end.”

This blog originally appeared at LaborNotes on June 14, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Peter Knowlton is the retired general president of the United Electrical Workers (UE).


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Unemployment Benefits Protect Seasonal Workers

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Sheila Regan (@Sheila_Regan) | Twitter

The Wisconsin state legislature wants to slash unemployment benefits. Seasonal workers rely on that money as job opportunities fluctuate throughout the year.

This article is part of The Wisconsin Idea, an investigative reporting initiative focused on rural Wisconsin.

Troy Brewer was pleased when the Milwaukee Bucks made the playoffs this year, and not just because he’s a big fan of the basketball team. 

Brewer works as a cook in Fiserv Forum, the arena where the Bucks play. He’s been there since the arena opened in 2018, and helped start a union there in the same year, the Fiserv Forum and Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Organization (MASH). The union’s contract ensures that Brewer and his coworkers make at least a $15 wage, and because of Brewer’s seniority, he’s at the top of the list whenever there’s work. 

But after the playoffs, the work schedule gets a little light. 

“I’m most definitely worried,” Brewer said. ?“Recently, we have emails saying we don’t have a schedule set for July, like there might not be any work.”

The backup for Brewer and workers like him, who work in fields that haven’t fully returned from the pandemic, is unemployment insurance.

Back in March of 2020, Congress passed the CARES Act, which in addition to other relief measures, supplemented the state’s unemployment benefits by $600 a week, a number which was halved in January. In March 2021, Biden signed the American Rescue Plan, which continued the $300 supplement, set to expire on September 6. Since then, 25 states, mostly in the South and Midwest, have announced their intention to stop accepting the federal subsidy. 

In Wisconsin, the legislature has voted to reinstate work search requirements for people receiving unemployment insurance, and declined Governor Evers’ proposal to add $15 million to the state’s unemployment system, as well as a proposal to add $28 million to worker training programs. Meanwhile, Republicans in the legislature have made moves to eliminate the $300 supplement from the federal government for UI. “It’s hard times out here right now, especially for the people in our work.”

Governor Tony Evers has questioned the logic that ending additional unemployment insurance would solve the labor shortage problem in the state, which predates the pandemic. ?“We had trouble finding people to come to work before the pandemic, during the pandemic, and after the pandemic,” he told the press on June 1. ?“I just feel confident that the people that are receiving unemployment compensation with an unemployment rate now that is similar to before the pandemic, need those resources to live on,” he said. 

But so far, the Governor hasn’t stated definitively that he would veto the Republican measure. ?“I will take a look at it,” he said when asked whether he would veto the bill. 

Brewer, who has two kids at home, says that he needs that extra boost. He just found out that his landlord is selling his house, so on top of everything, he has to find a new place to live. ?“It’s a good thing we do still get unemployment to help us stand a little better than what we usually would.” 

Lauren Stevens, another worker at the arena, feels a similar anxiety. Stevens is a retired educator, and has used her job doing concessions to make ends meet. The basketball season starts up again in the fall, so after the Bucks’ playoff run, there won’t be work again until the new season. Stevens and other workers will be able to use unemployment benefits until then, but only if the legislature doesn’t cut off the federal supplement. 

“I’m concerned?—?reason being I’m retired, on social security and this is a part time position for myself,” Stevens said. ?“I’m a little concerned with this gap.” 

Much of the discourse around getting rid of unemployment insurance centers around the notion that the benefit discourages people from returning to work. That conclusion isn’t born out in research on the subject, though. In ?“A Short Review of Recent Evidence on the Disincentive Effects of Unemployment Insurance and New Evidence from New York State, University of Chicago professors, who studied an increase in unemployment insurance in New York, found only a slight propensity for people on UI to continue benefits when they increased.

More recently, a study by a group of Yale economists found that there was no evidence that the $600 a week benefit provided by the CARES Act disincentivized people from returning to work. 

“Unemployment rates in Wisconsin don’t support the overdrawn and quite dramatic, self serving conclusion that there are a bunch of people sitting on the sidelines who are ready to go to go to work in otherwise low wage, no benefit, insecure, crappy jobs if $300 a week, supplemental unemployment benefits were eliminated,” said Peter Rickman, president of MASH. At the same time, Rickman sees the current economic landscape as an opportunity for workers. ?“The way the labor market is constructed right now is such that the balance of power instead of being wholly and entirely in favor of the boss class, has had a slight tipping towards the working class,” he said. 

Senator Melissa Agard (D?16th District) argues that cutting UI won’t put people back to work as much as it would harm struggling families. ?“It’s really unfortunate that my Republican colleagues in Wisconsin are continuing down the same path that they were on pre-pandemic: making it harder for people to be able to get ahead and take care of themselves and their families,” Agard told In These Times. ?“Folks are having a hard time finding people for jobs primarily because they’re not paying people a living wage, or respectable wage to do those jobs.”

Agard feels concerned the pandemic has only exacerbated the wealth gap that was in place before COVID-19 hit. ?“In my opinion, we should be learning about how it is that supporting people actually provides them with a step up for themselves and their families in our future,” she said. 

For Debbie Steidl, who normally does stagehand work for touring Broadway shows at the Marcus Performing Art Center (PAC) in Milwaukee, the end of the expanded unemployment benefits won’t necessarily spell financial doom. That’s in part because years in the business as a union member, and support from family and friends, left her in a good position to make it through the pandemic year.

In addition to other theater work, Steidl, who is a member of IATSE Local 18, had been in show business for 35 years when theaters across the country closed down due to the pandemic, bringing her work to a screeching halt in March 2020.

“I just reached the point on my seniority level where I have steady income, where I can actually plan things and all of a sudden, the rug is pulled out from under me,” Steidl recalled. ?“I was very angry.”

Fortunately, the PAC had just put on a showing of The Lion King, so she lived off the income she made from that last show before hunkering down. 

Since the shutdown, Steidl has gone to work for a few events, such as the Democratic National Convention. ?“There were little bits here and there, jobs not enough to support myself, but enough to keep me interested in my job,” she said. When not taking short-term gigs when they come, Steidl has taken unemployment, but she feels optimistic about her financial situation as theater begins to come back later this season. 

“Some of the riggers and foreman of the Union are already going into the Summerfest grounds,” Steidl said. ?“We just had a union meeting a couple days ago, and they said that things are going to start looking up, like towards the end of July and August. So we’re being hopeful.”

On June 9, the Wisconsin legislature voted to end contracts for federal employment benefits beginning the earliest week the measure is passed. That depends on Evers signing the bill. 

As for Brewer, he has hope, but the crisis is not over. ?“It’s hard times out here right now, especially for the people in our work,” he said. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 14, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: SHEILA REGAN is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis. She has covered news for the Guardian, the Washington Post, and Salon, as well as the Sahan Journal, The Uptake, and other publications. She also
writes about the arts.


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Los Deliveristas Speak: How Delivery Workers Are Organizing to Take On the Apps

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More than 2,000 food couriers snarled traffic in Times Square through pouring rain in protest April 21 demanding better working conditions and protection from violent assaults. The mass demonstration was organized by Los Deliveristas Unidos, a loose network of immigrant gig workers that was born in the strife of the pandemic last year through online chat groups on Facebook, WhatsApp, and Telegram. Since then, Los Deliveristas have coalesced into an organization with support from the Brooklyn-based Worker’s Justice Project (WJP), a worker center that organizes immigrants in construction and service sector jobs. WJP has received backing from Service Employees Local 32BJ. Learn more about Los Deliveristas in our June cover story, “Can a Driver Uprising Make Food Apps Deliver?”

No sooner had their rain-whipped faces dried than gig companies moved to thwart them through legislative maneuvering. Last month, a bill backed by the New York State AFL-CIO, the Transport Workers Union (TWU), and the Machinists’ Independent Drivers Guild attempted to kneecap the Deliveristas. TWU President John Samuelsen walked back his support for the bill after Los Deliveristas Unidos opposed the legislation.“If they don’t want this particular bill, we will support them and work with them to craft a bill [that] satisfies the workers,” Samuelsen told The City.

The draft bill would have established a legal scheme for app-based workers to exercise certain collective bargaining rights without the labor protections afforded to employees. In return workers would forgo the rights to “picketing, strikes, slowdowns, or boycotts,” as well as agreeing to “not disparage, defame, sully or compromise the goodwill, name, brand, or reputation of the network company.”

The bill would have all but banned the April demonstration. Opposition was vociferous and support has faltered—killing the bill at least for this legislative session. Read more about it in “Draft Legislation in New York Would Put Gig Workers into Toothless ‘Unions.’”

Shortly after the April mass demonstration, Labor Notes writer Luis Feliz Leon spoke to Deliverista worker leader Jonán Mancilla and WJP executive director Ligia Guallpa. The transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Part of the interview was conducted in Spanish and has been translated.—Editors

Labor Notes: Jonán, can you tell me a little bit about where you work? Who are the members of Deliveristas Unidos, and what do they do?

Jonán Mancilla: I am from Mexico City. I’ve been here for 15 years. I started working as a delivery boy in a laundry and then I started working in a restaurant. I left it because the work was too heavy. I worked as a barback and I had to carry the kegs and cases of beer. It was a lot of hours and little money. Four years ago I started with the platforms [food delivery apps], on the recommendation of a relative.

What is a typical day like for you?

I get up at seven in the morning. I drop my son off at school. I go back home to get my things ready. At nine in the morning I enter the platform, leave at one in the afternoon, come to have lunch, have a tortilla or something and go back to the platform again at two in the afternoon and finish at eight, nine in the evening.

How is it? Is there a lot of traffic? You have to, I imagine, take food up to different buildings where they don’t have working elevators. Tell me a little bit about that.

Yes, that’s an everyday thing. You can have a bad day when you have to use the stairs all day long, or you can have a day when you don’t use the stairs.

The problem is when you have to go to a building or to a public housing project where you know that your colleagues have already been assaulted and they send you there again.

How would you describe the work? Do you like it?

Yes, I like it, but with this pandemic, it is not as satisfactory as before. There is abuse from the companies in many aspects. One is the distances, another is the excess weight they make us carry, and another is the abuse with the payment. They demand things from you—for example, “put on gloves”, “put on masks”, “use antibacterial gel” [but they don’t pay for those supplies]. You have to buy the bicycle. Then it is stolen, and you have to buy another one. The company doesn’t take care of any of those things.

How did those experiences influence your decision to join Los Deliverista Unidos?

That caused us to unite. Thanks to the Worker’s Justice Project (Proyecto Justicia Laboral), I found out that this march was going to take place [on October 15].

After the march, our ethnic groups became more united. There is a big group of Latinos, but there is also a group of Africans, Bangladeshis, Chinese, other groups of people uniting in one voice and fighting for us to have rights at least. The fact that everybody was suffering from the same thing—the abuse and everything I was telling you about earlier—that was very influential.

What are the rights that you want to obtain as workers?

Prevention measures against bicycle thefts. Protections against assaults and accidents. Access to restaurants’ bathrooms, because that really sucks. A living wage besides the tips. Many people think that tips are a salary, and that is not a salary. [Income for food couriers averages between $300 to $800 weekly, according to The City.—Eds.]

The right to decent public places for protection from extreme weather. A lot of people have no idea what it’s like to wait for their bag of food when it is below 10 [degrees], or below 15. Protection against tip theft and retaliation from the apps. That’s pretty easy to explain: the apps put out messages warning, “Don’t ask about tips and if you ask you can be blocked.”

And the right to receive personal protective equipment. As I told you, they demand things from us, but they have never sent us anything. To receive compensation for accidents and to have paid sick days, which don’t exist either. The right to organize, and why not have representation? That is the Los Deliveristas Unidos movement. We are asking to be allowed to organize so that we have rights.

And when you talk about representation, what do you mean? Union representation?

Yes, I mean that a union be formed. So that there is a union group like the Taxi Workers Alliance or like the construction workers. In other words, a delivery workers union so you can count on that backup, and you don’t worry about anything happening to you. I am afraid that I will be assaulted, or that I will be robbed or something. But if there is a union—no, don’t worry. That would be very nice.

You mentioned to me some of the most important issues around which you are organizing. Any successes so far that you want to mention?

Well, right now, thank God, we have the [state] senator, Jessica Ramos, who was very influential in getting us vaccinated. [Los Deliveristas demanded to be put on the priority list for the vaccinations, and Governor Andrew Cuomo acceded to their demands in February—Eds.] There is also [New York City councilor] Carlos Menchaca and other elected representatives who have wanted to help us. They are writing legislation. [After the April demonstration, the New York City Council introduced a package of five bills to address some of the demands. One bill fines restaurants that deny drivers bathroom access. Another establishes minimum pay per trip (as Uber and Lyft drivers have). Another allows drivers to set their own routes. –Eds.] Thanks to this Deliveristas Unidos community we have made ourselves heard and that has caught their attention.

Ligia Guallpa: And can you mention DoorDash? After [Deliveristas] virtually meeting with DoorDash, the Restaurant Association sent out a press release asking restaurants to allow access to the restrooms, and DoorDash felt pressured also to ask. I think DoorDash said that they’ve gotten 200 restaurants [to agree].

Mancilla: DoorDash reached out to us, we did not look for them. DoorDash reached out to us for a meeting, to say, “I am concerned about this issue because I have many delivery drivers and I would like to know what their complaints are. What is bothering them? What do they need?” And then, the issue of the restrooms was addressed, wasn’t it? Because they had already sent a message to the restaurants. And they said that they had about 200 restaurants committed at that time, but I think there must have been more, thanks to that ruckus we made.

You protested and then DoorDash responded to your complaints? And said, “We hear you. We’re going to grant you access to the restrooms.” When did that happen?

In the first march [on October 15] there were over 800 delivery workers, I believe. I couldn’t count them either, it was impossible. But DoorDash noticed. I mean, DoorDash is not blind. DoorDash said, “They’re marching for a reason.” They noticed the signs, that it was not only Relay, but also DoorDash, Uber, Grubhub—all the platforms. They were the only ones that took notice and were concerned about their company and said: “We are going to have a meeting so that they tell us what is bothering them.”

So, basically you’re talking about power in numbers. Right? The last protest in April had 2,000 people. So, how did you guys build that organizational power? 2017 was the last time the immigrant community, in particular, mobilized in this way. There was a day without immigrants after Trump was elected, but other than that there hasn’t been such large mobilizations. So, can you talk to me a little bit about how you guys have built that collective power?

First of all, it is thanks to the Worker’s Justice Project. Because I can tell you, “I created the [Facebook] page for Los Deliveristas Unidos,” but without them we would not have done anything. They were the foundation—not only economically, but the support we receive from them is also moral: “Give it your best, guys! Let’s do it! Don’t let yourselves be defeated. These companies are nothing without you.” They tell us that a lot. “Imagine if you didn’t work there. Understand that without you, the companies wouldn’t exist.”

It is something that many people have understood, [but] many people are afraid to understand it. Or they are afraid to acknowledge it, because of retaliation.

First, we thought it would be easy with four of us [speaking about Worker’s Justice Project organizers—Eds.]. But we realized we need a bigger team, which joined us in this march. I saw many people that I didn’t know. We were thinking that there were going to be delivery workers, but we didn’t think that people who don’t deliver, but have a family member or an acquaintance who does, could march just to support the people. We didn’t expect that.

Guallpa: After October 15, Jonán and other leaders started to talk to other delivery workers on the streets, to connect with other groups and to tell them, “Hey guys, you’ve gotta join! Here are the [WhatsApp and Telegram] chats, like the [Facebook] page.” Going where they are working to talk to them every day, identifying the leaders. I hear Jonán say all the time—what’s the name of the one with the Dominicans there, the one from the tigers?

Mancilla: Henry. Right?

Guallpa: He says, “Henry is the leader of this group.” And he says, “Henry, you’re going to lead this group of 20.” It is something powerful. The organization supported by bringing resources [and] strategy, but I think the overall movement has been growing because of the leaders who are here now.

There are leaders in Queens. There is, for example, Isaias, who has a group of almost 80, 90 delivery workers who are everywhere mobilizing. Jonán created emergency chat groups, where they move quickly to assist each other. Either there’s a march, or there’s an action. And I think that the most powerful thing in this movement is that the network keeps growing every day. Right now, they are reaching out to Africans, to Bangladeshis.

They are asking us right now to have all the materials in [other languages]. [Many of the] Africans speak French. But the most powerful secret has been the leadership of leaders like Jonán, and they know that new leaders need to be groomed. They constantly say, “No. I’m not going be able to do this on my own.”

Mancilla: That forced us to be more leaders, because that is what I was telling Luis, that all of a sudden we were not enough. I was telling Ligia: “I can’t control this group, because there are so many of them.” “Ok. Well, let’s go talk to Henry. Let’s talk to Manolo, and let them help you… I know that Sergio is very intelligent and that he leads the group down there.”

This grew very fast. You can see that from October to February, not even a year. I never imagined that the page and the help groups would grow so fast. Well, I don’t like those to grow because it implies that the city is not safe, right? But it is something that we have to recognize, that they have grown because insecurity has grown.

So many people have the confidence to write to us for any kind of problem. Whether it is with their application, whether it is with their employer, or with some platform. In fact, they write to us for any nonsense. “Hey, do you know where there is a bike shop here in this area?” And I’m like, “A bike shop?!” So, it’s something that sometimes makes us laugh, but you know you’re doing something, and you know you’re doing good with the page.

I think you describe it in a way that might give the impression that it’s easy, but there are a lot of people who would like to be where you are—to be able to identify leaders and build the trust of those leaders. Could you share with me some lessons you’ve learned in organizing and what tools the Worker’s Justice Project has offered you to do the work?

Mancilla: Well, number one, the first thing I was taught in order to be a leader is not to say you can’t. Never say you can’t. And to have confidence in ourselves because if you don’t have confidence in yourself, you’re not going to get anywhere. That is something that maybe I had never told Ligia, but it is something that she has taught me a lot.

Her and Glendy [a lead organizer at Worker’s Justice Project—Eds.], they are always pushing me. Not in a bad way, but they tell me: “Yes you can, yes you can. Don’t tell me you can’t.” They go into the can-do mode and you can’t get out of it. There is no such thing as being afraid either—because many of the delivery workers are afraid to talk. You approach them, and they are afraid of you. We had to learn to talk, and I also learned a lot with her, because I think she is more used to talking to people on the street.

When I arrived and [Ligia] said: “Talk to him, talk to him,” I would say: “He won’t answer me, I know him.” “Talk to him, talk to him. You can do it, you can do it.” That helped me a lot to have self-confidence, to be sociable. Just by starting to go out with them, you realize how they act. You say: “I want to be like Ligia,” who has this leadership power, so natural that it doesn’t even show. I said, “I want to be just as natural.”

Guallpa: Also connecting with the groups, because there are different groups. The nice thing about this food delivery community is that, even if you see them alone, handling their food, they are always connected to a community. Even if it’s because they live in the same neighborhood, they are family. For example, downstairs there is a little group called the Garrafones and they are a group of 20 Mexicans. There are the Tigres [streetwise crew, in Dominican slang—Eds.], the Dominicans who are always there on the corner.

Something that didn’t happen is that they didn’t communicate among the networks. For example, the Tigres don’t talk to the Mexicans or the Garrafones. What separates the working community is always identity—where are you from? Ethnic groups.

But I think that in the delivery community everyone self-identifies, because everyone has had their bicycle stolen. Everybody has been denied the bathroom, so there’s an immediate sense of solidarity. Right? And something that Jonán and Sergio [another worker leader] have done a lot is to be quick to respond, and that helps to build trust quickly with the workers.

For example, if someone’s bicycle is stolen, they automatically post or send to the chats: “Can someone go to 112th Street right now, because there is an emergency?” Soon other workers show up to stand together against thieves. They’re the eyes, and they act fast. I think they’ve gained the trust of their peers. They are talking to the other compañeros, “You can do it and you are the leader. You are going to liberate this group.”

Mancilla: I think that these WhatsApp groups did something to break the ice between many ethnic groups. There was this saying, “Oh, he is from Guatemala, don’t talk to him.” Or “he’s from Ecuador.” And, “If he pretends he is Mexican, don’t talk to him. Don’t talk to those from Guatemala.” Those groups broke the ice a lot.

Do you remember at Thanksgiving when we went to play soccer? And we were there, the Guatemalans, the Mexicans, I think there were Ecuadorians there too. It was great to see that there is no longer that ice, thanks to the pages and the groups that were formed, thanks to the march.

Among the Latino community there are definitely divisions and you’ve talked a little bit about how you were able to create solidarity, but also, you’re working with other workers of different races and ethnic groups. Can you explain a little bit how you’re doing that work? And what are the working conditions and the racial inequalities that you share?

Guallpa: What we are doing with the delivery workers from Africa and the Bangladeshis is the same thing that we were doing with the Latinos, which is to gain the trust of the networks. Glendy and I don’t do food delivery, but the moment I feel that they give us the chance to open up, or they give us the chance to go visit them in their free time, then we go with Jonán, because we need them to see that he’s another delivery guy.

And it’s slowly building trust, because Africans have their networks as well. [But] when we go and talk and they listen to what the Latinos are doing, they identify automatically: “Well it’s about time someone fought for that, and I want to be part of it.” So, they started to give likes to the page.

We created fliers in French, so that’s been the tool, but we don’t speak French. So we are identifying partners who speak a little bit more English and who are the translators. There are some Africans who speak a little bit of Spanish because they are from a country in Africa where people speak Spanish [Equatorial Guinea].

So, that has been the way we have been growing. I’m the one doing the most outreach to the Bangladeshis in Brooklyn. I don’t speak Bangladeshi, but we have connected with some leaders and there is also a page of Bangladeshis, who communicate about robberies and all that.

It’s a process. It doesn’t mean it’s already perfect. I think that growing a more diverse movement takes time, and so does creating the foundation of values. Recently [we have talked about]—well, we have not talked about it constantly because everything has been going very fast—about inclusion, the language we use, how we make the [Los Deliveristas Unidos Facebook] page more inclusive because there are compañeros who speak [languages other than Spanish]…

Now, those who follow the site speak French. Some are already suggesting posting in English as well. So, little by little, for example, Jonán and others are trying to educate compañeros because sometimes it is talked about. When you talk about a problem, you talk based on color. How to remove the color as part of the problem, because in the end color does not matter. In the delivery industry people come in all colors and all flavors.

But it is a long process that is just beginning. As well as they have grown, they are in the first steps of building relationships with the new groups. And, for example, the most powerful thing that happened this time at the march [on April 21] was that one of the leaders of the West African networks wanted to speak.

He said, “I want to be there. You can’t leave me out of that program.” And I think the most beautiful thing about that day [was when] he talked about how “we are tired, we are essential, we are the ones who distribute, we are the ones who fed the doctors, the sick, and we are the most screwed. And here I am. I’m a deliverista.” And the fact that he said it in Spanish: “I am a deliverista. We are deliveristas.” It’s like acknowledgement, isn’t it? That this movement is his too.

And he says, “When is the next one? Because I have to bring my brothers.”

Mancilla: A lot of people got interested. They are like, “when is the next one? When is the next one? When is the next one?” I don’t know if you saw, Ligia, a guy said, “why they did only one, if when George Floyd was killed, there were marches every day?” “Well, you’re right. Why don’t we do another one?” But it’s not that easy.

Jonán, you mentioned the robberies. How are you all organizing around the security issues?

Mancilla: We have WhatsApp groups and other compañeros use Telegram, but there is also the Facebook page. Many people have come to trust it. Sometimes Ligia has to tell them, “You know what, call the police. [Oh,] you called the police already?” I don’t know what kind of page they think we are. They think we are from the police. They see it so big that they say, “I better tell them. Let’s see if somebody comes.” I feel that the page is something very important. The WhatsApp groups, the Telegram, and the page more than anything have made it into an emergency call, a solution for them.

Of course, they are not necessarily self-defense groups. What is it then?

Mancilla: I don’t know if I should call it that, but they do exist within the WhatsApp groups, because you send an emergency, as Ligia said today, “we need someone here. 148 and Amsterdam,” and all of a sudden you are going to see five or 10 people getting there and they help you.

You also mentioned George Floyd earlier and all the protests that have taken place through the summer and to this day. So, there’s a climate where a lot of people in the Latino community and the African-American community say that they fear police. How do you position yourselves in that debate? For example, street vendors often complain about how the police treat them. But then there are also other occasions where, if there is an attack, who do they call if the compañeros can’t come—who comes?

Mancilla: At the beginning it was as if many people understood that they had to call the police, but later they realized that the police don’t come. That led many to join the WhatsApp and Telegram groups, because they know they will come.

I don’t know if you saw the last video with the Queens compañeros. They sent a message to please let the groups know that they needed help. And if you look at the video, the last one shows how the [drivers] start to arrive, because the police don’t come—and if the [police] come they don’t do anything.

My friend says they were kids, teenagers, and they told him he was going to take the bicycle and then they started to fight. One of the bicycle thieves was caught and he was the one who got beaten badly. When the police arrived, they took the beaten teen away and my friend says that they saw him free later. So, it is a reality that the police don’t do anything. I don’t know if they don’t feel like it, if they don’t like the paperwork, or because they are minors they can’t do anything else. So, these self-defense groups, as you call them, emerged.

Guallpa: But what is funny is that the compañeros arrive faster than the police. For example, the chat messages, in less than five or 10 minutes, there are already five or 10, those who are nearby mobilize to get there faster. And they have helped compañeros when they have an accident to contact family members, or when a bicycle is stolen, if they are close by, they have rescued bicycles.

Mancilla: Yes, because the police do not come.

Guallpa: Or when they get stuck with a motorcycle. They’ve managed to react faster than the police. And the reason they are reacting like that is because, as Jonán said, the police are not doing anything. They are on their own, they only have themselves.

So, to wrap up the interview, Jonán, what are the next steps after last week’s protest?

Mancilla: Well, I don’t think we have finished the first steps yet. We have to keep on fighting because I don’t feel that they have listened to us yet. We have some legislation, don’t we, Ligia? We still have many things to do. If you notice, they tell us that we are essential, but they do not show it to us.

[Here the interview with Jonán Mancilla ends and the interview with Ligia Guallpa continues.]

Jonán mentioned all that you folks have done to support them. Can you take me back to where this campaign started and what kind of tools Worker’s Justice provided to the delivery drivers to help them get organized?

Guallpa: For him it started on October 15, but for WJP actually it started much earlier, in May of last year. When Covid happened, the Worker’s Justice Project became an emergency relief center for migrant workers and we had to turn our worker center serving Williamsburg, Sunset Park, and Bensonhurst into emergency relief centers where workers could pick up masks or ask for information. It was in April that we realized that Covid was going to be a long-term thing, and we saw many of our members going unemployed, being scared of Covid, not knowing if they should go back or not go back to work, also realizing that their co-workers were getting sick and they were not even notified whether they had Covid. We raised money to start doing cash relief, and we started seeing how most of our members started moving into food delivery work as an alternative.

In Bensonhurst we opened one of the worker centers to do food relief, and the people who were coming through our doors were actually the delivery workers. We started noticing that it was a whole different sector that nobody had been outreaching to, and in May, June, we started connecting with different networks.

We started connecting with different leaders that started telling us how they were doing this work and [about] access to bathrooms. They were sharing how they were carrying bottles of water to do their basic necessities, how they were treated by the restaurants, how they were pressured by the companies. I think one of the most important things for WJP is how fast and how quickly we started building trust with the different networks.

It was by May, June, July, September, we were having access to many of these networks; and also, understanding that this was not a specific issue workers were facing in Brooklyn, it was at a much bigger scale, and it was because most of these workers were not working as workers—they were treated as independent contractors. And doing this power analysis at the end of the day, it was because of these apps.

The apps were having full control of their lives. We’re talking to the leaders about understanding the power— many of them were blaming the restaurants, but we were trying to help them understand that it’s not just a restaurants’ responsibility, but the app has full control of this. The apps are the ones who negotiate these contracts in this partnership with the restaurants.

The apps could have easily said to the restaurants, “Hey, we’re going to enter into an agreement with you: we’re going to provide you the service, but you have to provide bathrooms,” and it was the apps who were actually not negotiating any conditions because they didn’t care. They just wanted to get restaurants to pay the 30 percent fee, and didn’t care about what conditions workers were facing.

One of the most powerful things was that in September, as we started connecting with different networks and talking through issues, every single worker was agitated. They were mad, they were angry, they were desperate because things were getting worse. I mean, if you think about September, it was already seven months of inhumanity; of so much unfair treatment that you have to go through that many said, “Enough.” They were like, “Somebody has to hear us.”

When we talked to the different networks and we were like, “We are ready, we’re going to march,” they initially thought, “We want to talk to the police, we’re going to march to the police,” and then we did a couple meetings.

We did something about strategy as well, like understanding who has the power to make things better, and we had conversations with the leaders that, you know, the company is responsible, has power to make changes, city council has power to make changes. The mayor of New York City has power, the restaurants have power; so, these are our main targets. The police is just one actor. They should do their jobs, but at the end of the day, they can’t give you what you need.

And there was the first time that I said, “We have to target our city council members,” and that’s when we started training our leaders, we started doing the framework of how to message. I think that’s something powerful, because they have the most powerful stories—they’re essential workers, they’re more like frontline workers. They’ve been delivering and keeping everybody fed and being treated without humanity.

Glendy and I will not only identify leaders and connect with the leaders in building trust but make sure that leaders really understand where their power is, and who has power to give them what they need, and that’s exactly what we did.

Yes, you should start targeting the restaurants who should give you access to the bathroom, but at the end of the day it’s the company who’s the target. Right? It is the mayor, it is city council who has the power to put legislation to regulate the apps.

We started doing informally this power mapping and making sure they understand the dynamics of that industry, who has the power to give it to them, and also making sure that they can tell the story of their own conditions. We started building with them what’s the narrative that they want to share, and building confidence. With Jonán, I feel like he’s a natural leader, but a lot of the leaders live with a lot of fear. “What about, if I say something, I get disconnected? or what about, if I talk to other leaders, they might not trust me.” So we’ve been helping Jonán build trust with other leaders and validating him in spaces that he’s a leader, and mentoring them.

There is so much power in the city, and they know it. But owning it has been a whole process for them, to own the power that they have, and that they could exercise. And also, building power takes time.

I remember when we did the first march. The leaders were pissed off. Not everybody came in. We only had I think between 700 and 800 people. Not all the leaders got into the buy-in of doing this march. There was a lot of criticism among them, like, “What do we want out of this march?” And I think what inspired and motivated them was DoorDash after the march. We were publicly shaming DoorDash and DoorDash was like, “Okay, we need to talk to them, because obviously they’re not talking good about the company and this is bad PR for us.” They reached out to Los Deliveristas: “We want to talk to the workers.”

Acknowledging these victories and how they’re escalating motivates them and inspires them to say, “we can do this.” Who brings a big powerful company to meet with a group of workers? That’s powerful. Or who expects the Restaurant Association to put out a press release asking the restaurants to open the bathrooms?

Acknowledging the power that they have, I think it has leveraged the movement to understand that this is their time, that this is their movement. I also see how they’re exhausted, of being like not only first responders as food delivery workers, but now also managing all these self-defense networks. I remember we were having a one-on-one meeting with Jonán, and he was like, “Ligia, I can only] manage so many people. Everybody’s expecting me, that as a leader, I should respond.” And that’s when we’d sit down with him, that part of the role of a leader is to develop other leaders, and what kind of leader you want to start identifying.

It is not just the person that talks the most—you know, Latinoamerica is like, the leader is the one who talks better, who talks the most and who’s louder. That is not a leader. You want to look for the one that has the followers, the one that is consistent, the one that you know is going to respond, the one that you know is committed to the movement.

The next phase is to diversify the movement. Bring more Africans, Bangladeshis. They took the first step by making sure that the agenda is open to other groups. Even though they have a struggle within, because they don’t speak English. So they have said, “we can distribute the flyers, but you guys have to help me follow up.” They might not talk but they go, “here’s a flyer, just read it. In your language.”

It sounds like a lot of the leadership development was done by modeling behavior through one-on-one conversations. Was there any curriculum that informed how you were power mapping, how you were helping Jonán and other leaders develop that credibility? Where do you get your lessons from?

To be honest, there is no formal training, A lot has been done one on one and with mentoring. Glendy talks to the leaders almost every single week, not only to check in with them, but we give them little homeworks. One of the most powerful things that I think organizers have to understand is that workers know the solutions better than the organizer. I talk every day to some of the leaders in Brooklyn, and they come up with these incredible ideas. Like, they came up with a sticker idea. They were saying that we had a need for something that self-identifies them as a group.

And he said, maybe stickers, to put on the bikes. And I said, how do you think the stickers will be used? And we started developing a strategy with them—like, maybe that’s a way to also talk to them about who we are and what we’re doing. They came up with the idea of giving out hardhats, because not all the delivery workers were wearing hard hats. And we consistently are asking, how do you think we can be building this strategy of hardhats?

What Glendy and I are doing is doing a lot of strategy, per borough and per neighborhood. What is needed for Harlem is not what sometimes is needed in Queens. The leaders know better what’s the dynamic in the neighborhood, so a lot of what we do is like holding open strategy sessions with leaders. We do a lot of listening; we ask a lot of questions. We also mentor them. For instance, Jonán, sometimes he’s afraid to go and talk to the bike shops, and we said, “Do you want us to go with you?” And he’s like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah because I don’t know.” And then we asked him to do it and then he’s like, “Okay.” So it’s like, “See, you can do it.”

One of the things we want to do is bring all the leaders into one room to debrief what has worked and what hasn’t worked. We’re having these one-on-one conversations about what inclusivity means. Not only gender, but with other communities. That’s a conversation we are having one on one, because sometimes workers themselves make comments that can be racist.

A lot of the work that we’re doing is trust building, identifying leaders, mapping different neighborhoods where there is a high density of food delivery sites. We’re mapping where workers congregate. We are doing a strategy-one-on-one as well with each of the leaders. We are helping them sustain a lot of these networks, helping them manage by including more people into it and helping them identify new leaders as well.

But I think one of the most powerful things is that this is a community that believe it or not has this natural level of solidarity. They’re there for each other. I think that one of the things that Glendy and I have been able to do, including with Jonán and others, is build trust with the different groups. But also, unfortunately, conditions have become these most deadly jobs, which agitate workers to unite.

Every time they post something, they use this phrase: “Unidos somos más fuertes.” [Together we are stronger.—Eds.] All the texts when they win something or they want to agitate others, they created a hashtag. And then Glendy and I thought, you know, every time they finish a sentence we are like, “Unidos somos más fuertes, chicos!

Glendy and I cannot act so fast the way they are, there’s no way. Yesterday, Gustavo [another worker leader] was like, “I’m going to need help, because there’s some member leaders who came, brought groups, and they didn’t get a T-shirt.” And we just need to make sure that we collect their names or phone numbers because they want to grow their database, they know how important phone numbers and access to that is. So, I went to help him to collect all the phone numbers, and I was shocked because they created these stickers of Los Deliveristas Unidos. They created their own logo, how they want it to be, which is like a delivery worker with a big fist. Everybody came in, I thought they were coming for the T-shirts, but no. They’re coming for the stickers. And when they took the stickers, they said give me three, no, no, no, give me four. I asked one of the workers, I said why do you guys want so many stickers? He’s like, “I have a friend.” And I said, “Yeah but, you know, it’s a sticker, why do you need…?” He is like, “Because when we see this sticker, we know that we belong to each other. But not only that, I think the thieves are seeing these stickers, so they’re getting scared. They think that we’re part of the mafia.” I was laughing. I was shocked, but at the same time I felt like, wow, people are acknowledging how powerful they are.

This is how they own their power. They want people to know, “We’re not alone anymore. Watch us. We’re coming after you.”

Where does Los Deliveristas Unidos fit in the broader debate within the labor movement around fighting misclassification? You know, especially in the wake of Prop 22 in California, this seems to be like a poster child case of rampant misclassification.

This is much more than just fighting for basic rights for food delivery workers. The way I see it is, this is about defending the rights of all workers, whether or not they are food delivery workers. Because what they’re fighting is not just the big multi billion-dollar companies like DoorDash, GrubHub. These companies are building a new economy where they’re trying to erase decades of labor protections that historically the labor movement has won. Like minimum wage or workers comp, all these things were won because workers fought so hard for decades.

Tech companies are looking to rewrite every single labor law and redefine who’s a worker and who’s not a worker. They’re building a whole new economy. They’re using their power to define who gets protections and who doesn’t. What happened in California, it showed how powerful these companies are, and they’re looking into doing it in every single state.

They were able to make progress under Trump because Trump was more flexible about giving more power to the companies to expand the definition of independent contracting.

In New York, we know DoorDash and other companies are looking to do the exact same thing that they did in California. [The proposed New York bill fell apart in late May, thanks in large part to opposition from the Deliveristas—Eds.] And I don’t think DoorDash and others are ready to confront Los Deliveristas Unidos. They were all profiting from the pandemic. They were making good money. Nobody was complaining, the city was happy; restaurants were complaining but they realized that, at the end of the day, they were also helping businesses, they were helping New Yorkers. And they weren’t ready for workers to start raising their voices and building up so much power.

As soon as the October 15 march happened and workers started being vocal, and shaming [companies] publicly, the public [began] to realize, “Oh my god, the delivery worker that brought my food you’re telling me that he couldn’t eat? Or you are telling me that he’s not paid? But I’m still paying this high fee to DoorDash?”

And also moving elected officials to start paying attention and making it public.

We are hoping that more labor unions will join this fight because Deliveristas Unidos are about to define the future of the labor movement. And you’ve heard it from Jonán, they want representation. And the fact that we see some—32BJ, one of the unions saying we’re going to support you—it’s huge! We’re hoping that other unions will follow. Because this is a big fight. It’s about protecting basic labor protections that the labor movement won for decades.

Amazon has its Delivery Service Providers network, which also hires subcontracted delivery drivers. They are opening up shop in Hell’s Kitchen to have folks on e-bikes make deliveries. Are any Deliveristas part of that subcontracting arrangement?

Yeah, they are. One of the things they’re doing is, whenever they give a sticker, to get the person’s name and the phone number and ask, what app do you work for? Where do you deliver? And they are looking into expanding their WhatsApp groups because they also realized there is Amazon Flex—it’s one of the, one of the most common things that workers are using, which is people with cars or bikes that pick-up food from grocery stores, Whole Foods, and others.

Have you folks done a breakdown of what apps most of the deliveristas work for?

We are working on the research now, doing a survey that hasn’t been completed yet. We’re working on that with Cornell. We’re hoping that it will be completed at the end of May. I think it will give a huge understanding about where the industry is and which apps are the big actors.

In response to Amazon entering the bike delivery space, any thoughts? Amazon has been in the headlines because of the warehouse worker organizing campaign in Bessemer, Alabama. I’m curious, what is the potential for these struggles coalescing into a movement?

The movement is interconnected. Because at the end of the day, Deliveristas, Amazon workers are all fighting against corporate greed. I think the point of connection is to make sure that workers who are working for Amazon are also talking to workers who are doing food delivery. I think the big step right now is how we bring these worker leaders who are leading this amazing fight to talk to each other in real solidarity.

It’s so critical to fight together, and it takes time. Unfortunately, time is what we don’t have, because these companies are moving so fast. But the big job for unions and worker centers is to come together to understand and fight together, strategize together. This is why I think naturally 32 BJ said “Yes, we’re fighting the big fast-food companies, you know, we’re never gonna say no to the Deliveristas.” We are asking for other unions to step it up as well.

I share your belief in the potential for the labor movement to unite as a social movement of working-class people, and a multiracial working-class movement that, no pun intended, delivers for working people.

This is something I think many people don’t understand. Worker’s Justice Project and other worker centers are part of a movement that truly understands that there is no labor movement without organizing the new workforce, which just happens to be immigrant in New York—which is the exact same way the labor unions got started back in the day, right? They got started by immigrants. Los Deliveristas were born by immigrants, and look, they organized a massive march! We believe it was more like 3,000 people, not 2,000 people, because we bought 2,000 T-shirts and all of them were gone.

What stands out to me about this is that that’s the type of mass grassroots working organizing that unfortunately is all too rare these days, and we have not seen many big demos by immigrant workers in a long time. This is one of those moments where immigrant workers flex their muscle. So I want to ask for your last thoughts on that. How did these workers build up that kind of organizational power, and what’s next?

That’s a hard question, because everything is changing so fast. One of the true things that we believe as a worker center is that there’s a lot of power when people organize. What Worker’s Justice Project is doing right now is validating that power everywhere we go. We need to make sure workers understand that they have the power, and they just need to use it, and that we’re going to be there to back them up all the way through.

And also, being honest that it’s not easy to exercise your power. There’s challenges. And it has to be diverse, not just led by one leader. Los Deliveristas Unidos has grown so fast because it is led by workers and leaders, and in every borough, in every corner, every neighborhood there is one. Our job is to build their trust, build their confidence, give them the tools and make sure that they understand that this is a much broader movement, that it takes time.

What’s next? Right now, what they’re looking for is to fight specific protections at the city level. They want the city to pass some local legislation that will make things better.

They’re talking about building a much broader organization that can scale up. That takes more organizing and more base-building work, as well as deeper understanding and a stronger strategy—because they are not confronting, you know, un empleador cualquiera [just any employer—Eds.]. They are confronting multibillion-dollar tech companies that have not only a lot of economic power, but a lot of political power too. This is not a fight that can be won alone. We need to bring other people to fight together.

This blog originally appeared at LaborNotes on June 7, 2021. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Luis Feliz Leon is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes.


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UBER’S NEW GIG WORKER BILL IS THE SAME OLD TRICK: DEREGULATION AND SPECIAL TREATMENT FOR EXPLOITIVE COMPANIES

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In New York State, legislators are reportedly considering a bill, brokered by gig companies including Uber and Lyft, that would remove app-based drivers and food delivery workers from virtually all labor and discrimination protections. Though its supporters are selling this “Right to Bargain Act” as a novel form of bargaining in the app-based economy, there’s nothing new about this anti-worker bill. It’s straight out of a well-worn playbook for companies like Uber, Lyft, Handy, DoorDash, and Instacart: Subvert labor laws, undo industry regulations, and duck accountability to workers and the public.

New York’s “Right to Bargain Act”

As drafted, the bill would permit certain unions, if certified by 10% of “active network workers” in each industry, to exclusively represent ride-hail drivers and delivery workers at an “industry council,” where they would negotiate with the companies over a set of bargaining topics.

After reaching an agreement, and if a majority of workers who vote approve the agreement, a state board would accept (or modify) the recommendations, and then implement and supervise the agreed-upon terms across the industry.

While “sectoral bargaining” can deliver improved labor standards in the right context, there are serious flaws built into the New York bill: It precludes some member-led groups that have organized app-based workers from representing workers in bargaining; there is no mechanism for rank-and-file workers to democratically participate throughout the bargaining process; and strikes and work stoppages are explicitly banned. Each of these provisions seriously calls into question whether workers could ever build and bring power to bear on the bosses sitting across the bargaining table.

Even more troubling about the legislation is that, in exchange for this bargaining system—compromised as it is—drivers and delivery workers would be unable to access any rights or protections under any New York state or local law. Gig companies would be free of any obligations to their workers under state labor law, disability law, paid family leave, paid sick leave, and city and state human rights law.

The companies would evade accountability even if a court finds their workers to be their employees, as they already have under certain laws in New York and around the country. That means a workforce of mostly underpaid immigrant workers and people of color in New York would be permanently excluded from foundational labor standards.

Worse yet, cities would lose the ability to legislate improved working conditions in the app-based economy. Even existing protections, like New York City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) rules that create a pay floor for ride-hail drivers, would be dismantled. Under the proposed New York bill, Uber and Lyft drivers could start anew and bargain up—but only from half their current pay.

A Longer History of Anti-Worker Deregulation

Many have compared the New York bill to Proposition 22, a 2020 California ballot initiative that removed nearly all employment protections from app-based transportation and food delivery workers in exchange for newly-created “benefits” that already have proven illusory and mostly inaccessible to workers. The similarities, obviously, are there. But the roots of the New York bill go back further.

Ever since heralding the app-based economy in 2008, Uber and its peer companies have sought to preserve their business model—essentially, an illegal practice of misclassifying their workers as independent contractors to save as much as 30% of labor costs—by lobbying aggressively to rewrite the law to their satisfaction. More than anything else, the companies want to preserve the legal fiction that their workers are not employees—in order to profit off of their exploitation.

In 2014, Uber launched a national effort to pass state laws locking ride-hail drivers into independent contractor status, denying them their employee rights. The bills, which passed in more than forty states between 2014 and 2017, ushered in a wave of ever-worse carveout policies.

Newer state bills, this time pushed by the domestic work company Handy, created labor law exclusions for “marketplace contractors” across platforms such as Uber, Handy, and Postmates. In Texas, gig company lobbyists skipped the legislature entirely and targeted the state’s unemployment board in 2019 to implement a rule that disqualifies from unemployment insurance (UI) payments any worker dispatched through an app.

And yet, workers pushed back.

In recent years, ride-hail drivers, delivery workers, and other misclassified workers organized to fight for better working conditions. More than that, they started winning. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance led organizing and protests that eventually led to the creation of minimum pay for Uber and Lyft drivers in New York City in 2018. The next year, app-based workers mobilized support to push California legislators to enact Assembly Bill 5, a law that presumes that most people in the state are entitled to employment protections.

The Gig Companies’ “Third Way”

In the face of successful worker organizing, losses in court, and increasing public support of workers over the past couple years, the app companies pivoted: If they were to hold onto an exploitive business model, something had to give. Instead of outright denying unjust working conditions, they’d have to co-opt the language of workers’ rights and concede some limited benefits on the margins—while preserving the ultimate goal to exempt themselves from nearly all employer rules (see Prop 22 as Exhibit A).

…the app companies pivoted: If they were to hold onto an exploitive business model, something had to give. Instead of outright denying unjust working conditions, they’d have to co-opt the language of workers’ rights and concede some limited benefits on the margins…

At the same time, in the summer of 2020, the country erupted over the murder of George Floyd. Rather than paying a living wage or providing paid leave to a disproportionately poor, racialized workforce, the gig companies commodified the movement for Black lives. Uber, in particular, put its resources into this strategy—“If you tolerate racism, delete Uber”—to obscure the economic and racial subjugation of its drivers.

After winning their Prop 22 campaign in California, the companies had found their new approach: A “third way” between overt corporate extraction and full employment rights for their workers—veiled in the language of racial justice. Uber soon began pressuring the federal government to create a new system of regulation: A “third worker category” that would grant some limited benefits—such as a portable benefits system—while forever locking workers out of employment protections.

New York’s “Right to Bargain Act” is just that: A “third way” proposal—this time dressed up in a veneer of “collective bargaining”—that would excuse app-based companies from any accountability to their workers or to public social insurance funds.

And if this bill passes in New York, expect the companies to ramp up their efforts to derail the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act in the U.S. Congress and lobby for a “third worker category,” coordinated by the corporate mega-alliance the Coalition for Workforce Innovation.

Deregulation at that national scale doesn’t only concern workers in the so-called “gig economy,” it means degraded working standards and conditions for all of us, creating a legal avenue for any company to “gig” out its workers.

Deregulation at that national scale doesn’t only concern workers in the so-called “gig economy,” it means degraded working standards and conditions for all of us, creating a legal avenue for any company to “gig” out its workers.

Behind their “flexibility” and “new benefits” sleight-of-hand, the gig companies’ “third way” policies really are the same old trick: Corporate redistribution of billions of dollars from the poor and working class to the ruling elite.

Conclusion

After the companies’ long history lobbying against workers’ rights, legislators in New York and across the country should reject outright any proposal that has had input from companies like Uber, Lyft, or DoorDash. It is, instead, the workers on the streets—organizing for equal rights, better pay, and just labor standards—who must lead the way forward.

This blog originally appeared at Bloomberg Law on June 2, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: As a staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project, Brian focuses on combating exploitative work structures that subordinate workers in low-wage industries. Through litigation and policy campaigns, he supports workers’ efforts to build power at their workplace.


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When These Workers Unionized, Their Cafe Was Put Up for Sale—So They Bought It

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PROVIDENCE, R.I.?—?Five former White Electric Coffee workers gather at the Dexter Training Grounds next to the Providence Armory, slightly stunned. Earlier that morning, April 14, they signed the purchase agreement to own the café. In just 10 months, this small group of baristas went from forming a union to creating a workers cooperative to buying the business for around half a million dollars. 

“If somebody had told me, ?‘One day, you’re going to run that business across the street,’ I would’ve said, ?‘Yeah, sure. OK, buddy,’ ” says Danny Cordova, 27, a barista at White Electric since 2019 who used to eat at the café a decade ago when he attended nearby Central High School. 

These White Electric workers started organizing soon after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. They sent a letter to owner Thomas Toupin with demands to ?“go beyond slogans and window dressing” in achieving racial justice at the café. The letter, which was signed by 39 current and former staff, called for Toupin to hire more people of color, enroll in anti-oppression training, increase wages and make the café wheelchair accessible, among other demands. 

“They weren’t actually things we thought would happen,” says Chloe Chassaing, 44, who has worked at White Electric for 16 years?—?even before Toupin bought it in 2006. ?“They were dreams, but they are fully all happening.”

The coffee shop, which reopened May 1, is one of Rhode Island’s few worker co-ops.

Even before the pandemic eliminated many food-service jobs, opportunities for workers to organize for better conditions at small restaurants were rare. Union membership was only 1.2% industrywide in 2020. While co-ops are becoming more popular, there are only around 500 operating around the country, according to Shevanthi Daniel-Rabkin, senior program director at the Democracy at Work Institute, a nonprofit that tracks and supports co-ops. 

Many of the White Electric workers say summer 2020’s national uprising over police killings of Black Americans made clear the need to push for a stronger commitment to racial justice at the café. ?“That’s what set everything off,” says Amanda Soule, 36, who started working at the café in 2013 and helped draft the letter. 

Toupin tells In These Times the letter is ?“untruthful and misleading” and disputes its characterization of him. “[Its description] wasn’t the situation at all,” he says. After receiving the letter, he says he closed White Electric for July 2020 to meet with the workers and a mediator. (The café closed again in late 2020 because of the pandemic, then reopened in January until the sale in April.) 

The workers, however, claim the five active employees who signed the letter were laid off, while the two who didn’t sign were kept on to train replacements, as described in a public petition following the letter’s release. The petition adds that the fired employees were offered their jobs back, but they still were publicly appealing for community support to ?“prevent another episode of retaliation.”

Following the advice of a labor lawyer, the group realized they could form an independent labor union, which they named the Collaborative Union of Providence Service-Workers (CUPS). Unlike many other unions and co-ops, CUPS is not affiliated with any larger union, has no support staff and requires no dues, but still gives workers the ability to collectively negotiate a contract. After creating union cards, the workers requested Toupin voluntarily recognize CUPS, which he did Sept. 8, 2020.

The very night they formed the union, the workers say, they received notice that Toupin was selling. (Toupin tells In These Times that he had been looking to sell for months, but records indicate it was first listed Sept. 9, 2020.)

Toupin offered the first opportunity to buy the café to the workers, who realized they could turn it into a worker-owned co-op. They raised $25,000 through a GoFundMe campaign, held fundraisers at a farmers’ market and raffled off merchandise to accumulate a $55,000 down payment.

“It’s been all community driven,” Cordova says. ?“People are excited to see a place where workplace democracy can thrive.”

Now the worker-owners are focused on the challenge of running the café. The shop has no managers, and profits are distributed based on hours worked, Chassaing says. Employees have to invest a $1,000 member buy-in, which can be paid with a $100 deposit and $10 installments from each paycheck, Chassaing says. She adds that, while workers are still in the process of meeting their goals around racial justice, ?“our intention is do all of those things that are our demands.”

Their broader vision extends beyond the walls of a single coffee shop. That’s why, Chassaing says, their union name is so general; the door is wide open for other area service workers to reach out and form CUPS union locals.

“The union’s intention all along,” Chassaing says, ?“has been not only to fight for ourselves and our workplace, but to also serve as an advocate and resource for other workers and workplaces.”

This blog originally appeared on In These Times at May 27, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Harry August is an independent reporter in New York.


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The Dream of a Unionized New Orleans Is Coming True

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Writers Guild of America Honors Hamilton Nolan for Digital Organizing -  Variety

The pandemic was the first big test for New Orleans’ hospitality unions. They passed with flying colors.

Drago’s, the sea food restaurant inside the over 1,600-room Hilton Riverside hotel, advertises itself as the inventor of charbroiled oysters, a claim too good to check. Trinice Dyer, a New Orleans native, has worked there as a server for 12 years. When Dyer and her colleagues lost their jobs at the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, Hilton let employees use up their banked paid time off; after that, they were on their own.

“When the days turned to weeks, and the weeks turned to months, I’m like, OMG,” Dyer remembers. Coworkers scrambled to apply for jobs at Walmart or Amazon. Dyer pulled from her savings to help pay her son’s college tuition. After a year out of work, she was finally recalled in March 2021. ?“It was just faith, grace and mercy that got me through it,” she says. 

Nationwide, the hospitality sector is the industry hardest hit by the pandemic.

Dyer and her colleagues got their jobs back because the New Orleans Hilton is unionized, affiliated with Unite Here Local 23 since 2017. The leap of faith required to unionize the hotel, Dyer says, was scary, but she decided to support it. ?“What do we have to lose?” she thought. ?“I want to be heard. Before the union they wasn’t hearing us. It’s ?‘do as I say, not as I do.’ We wanted to be valued. We wanted to be respected.” 

That risk paid off in raises, in protection from capricious firings and, now especially, in ?“recall rights”?—?the guarantee that laid-off workers will be offered their old jobs back if the jobs become available.

Dyer and her coworkers are part of what has quietly become one of the most noteworthy projects to build union power in the South: Unite Here’s ongoing work to unionize the famous New Orleans hospitality industry.

***
As Americans slowly emerge from the pandemic and begin to travel again, one of the most vital issues for hospitality workers nationwide has become recall rights. Without that guarantee, companies are able to staff back up with new, cheaper workers, leaving longtime employees behind.

Unite Here says those who lose their jobs without recall rights typically see their wages decline 12%. For older workers, that figure is more like 35%.

“A lot of our members have worked on their jobs 30-some years,” Marlene Patrick-Cooper says. ?“Recall is what really, truly matters.”

Patrick-Cooper is president of Unite Here Local 23, a gregarious woman who could have been designed in a lab to be perfectly suited for the job. Raised in the small city of Jeanerette in southwest Louisiana with a father who was a union shop steward, Patrick-Cooper followed an aunt to Las Vegas in the mid-1980s to go to school, and started looking for work. “[My aunt said] said, ?‘Make sure you march down to that union hall and get a union job, and you don’t look for work nowhere else.’ Because there was a standard that had been set.”

Patrick-Cooper learned her craft in the city that is the model for what a unionized New Orleans hospitality industry could one day look like: Las Vegas. She worked for Unite Here’s mighty affiliate, the Culinary Union, which has organized virtually the city’s entire casino industry. That union is the best example in America of successful wall-to-wall organizing to build economic and political power for working-class people in a tourist city. (That power, in fact, can reach across the country. Unite Here used its clout with gaming companies in Vegas to make them agree not to fight organizing efforts at the casinos in New Orleans and Biloxi.)

In 2014, after stints in other cities around the country, Patrick-Cooper got her chance to prove what could be done in New Orleans. She took over leadership of Local 23, which sprawls across much of the South, with chapters from Washington, D.C., to Texas. ?“The union was beginning to put resources into organizing the South,” Patrick-Cooper says. ?“And me being from the South, I wanted in.”

Thanks to the efforts of Local 23, New Orleans has become one of the most noteworthy enclaves of union power in the South.

As a city, New Orleans is sui generis, a more than 300-year mashup of African, European and Native American cultures that exists nowhere else in America. As a place where people wake up and go to work, it has more familiar characteristics. The city is situated in the deep South, in a so-called right-to-work state (less than 6% of working people are unionized) with a state legislature eager to squash anything that might be considered progressive. It is 60% Black, and the average Black household earns less than half as much as the average white household. It is a tourist economy, with nearly 20 million visitors a year fueling a $10 billion hospitality industry that touches every part of the city, directly or indirectly. And since the utter devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans has been spectacularly revived as a (wealthier, more unequal) tourist destination.

Local 23 has been quietly toiling for years to win the working people of New Orleans enough power to command a fair slice of that tourist economy. In a 20-minute stroll, a visitor can walk past the sprawling Ernest N. Morial Convention Center (which looms just off the Mississippi River), then by the cruise ship terminal, then past the nearby Hilton Riverside (one of the biggest hotels in town), hang a left on Poydras Street and pass Harrah’s (the city’s only non-riverboat casino) and end up at the Loews Hotel on the next block. Employees from all of these properties, more than 1,400 workers total,
have unionized with Local 23, the organized labor equivalent of capturing an entire corner on a Monopoly board.

The union, whose membership is 90% Black and 65% women, also represents about half of the food service workers at the New Orleans airport, and 1,700 workers in nearby Biloxi, Miss. It is now possible to fly into New Orleans, attend a convention, stay at a hotel and take a casino day trip without leaving Unite Here properties.

The Covid-19 pandemic?—?a disaster that is, at least in the short term, comparable to Katrina in economic effect?—?has put all of that work to the test.

***

Because Unite Here’s membership is concentrated in hotel, airport and casino workers, the union has been economically ravaged by the near total shutdown of travel and tourism during the pandemic. At the early peak of the lockdowns in April 2020, the union’s membership was 98% unemployed. Today, member unemployment is still 60?–?70%, according to Unite Here’s international president, D. Taylor. In New Orleans, the numbers have been similar.

With members laid off across the country, Unite Here had to adjust tactics by location to secure vital recall rights. In politically friendly areas, the union is pursuing state or local legislation guaranteeing recall rights for both union and nonunion hospitality workers. Unite Here won that legislative battle statewide in California and a host of major cities, including Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Providence, R.I. Unite Here is still fighting for legislation in Nevada, Minnesota and Connecticut, and a long list of other states.

In politically hostile areas like Louisiana?—?where the state legislature eagerly overrides worker-friendly legislation, such as minimum wage increases?—?Unite Here directly negotiated recall rights with employers, despite facing an existential threat. Though the Unite Here national office sent financial reserves to help tide over local chapters, union staffers themselves faced layoffs when member dues suddenly dried up. Before the pandemic, Local 23 had an organizing staff of eight; today, it is down to three.

The bulk of Unite Here’s organizing in New Orleans happened after the 2008 recession, meaning the pandemic has been the first major economic shock most members have lived through as union members. Even as it lost staff, Local 23 had to transform itself into what Patrick-Cooper describes as ?“a social service beacon.” The union turned its focus to helping newly laid off union members navigate the state’s broken unemployment system. It created a hotline for members to call for assistance, ran a food bank and searched everywhere for fundraising, all while marshaling support for Unite Here’s massive national door-knocking campaign in support of Joe Biden’s presidential run?—?and fighting for extended recall rights for workers.

Despite the obstacles, Local 23 reached agreements in New Orleans with all of its employers not covered by national contracts to recall workers for two years. Union officials say the negotiations were not especially contentious, a sign that, as in Las Vegas, major hospitality employers in New Orleans have come to accept Unite Here as an entity easier to work with than fight.

The union also renegotiated a contract with Harrah’s in late March that extended recall from 12 months to 24. The union says the casino was willing to grant the extension to preserve its experienced workforce, a crucial provision for the slice of employees who have yet to be called back?—?and have already been out of work for 14 months.

Dora Whitfield, a server in Harrah’s casino buffet, just celebrated (from home) her 20th anniversary as a Harrah’s employee. Whitfield has been on furlough since March 2020. Her income is $247 per week in unemployment money from the state of Louisiana. She used to be able to make almost that much on a single weekend day at work.

Though Whitfield had no union experience before Harrah’s organized in 2014, she was appointed as a shop steward three years ago because of her reputation for fearlessness in talking to everyone. ?“Down South, I feel like a lot of us should know about unions but [don’t],” Whitfield says. ?“I’m like, ?‘Why we never knew about this here?’ You have to learn how to get out and let people know there is a union in New Orleans in hospitality.”

The disdain for broad worker protections coming from conservatives in the Louisiana statehouse may, ironically, backfire on the legislators. Everyone in New Orleans can plainly see union members are the only working people who won guaranteed recall rights, which only increases the incentive for everyone else to unionize.

“In Southern states, sometimes the laws are not really on our side,” says Leah Bailey, a Local 23 research analyst. ?“So having that union contract is everything.”

***

The economic recovery in New Orleans has been as slow and painful as the national vaccine rollout. The city’s tourism bureau says that, from January to the end of March, hotel occupancy downtown ranged from 20% to 49%. Mardi Gras was canceled, though Jazz Fest, the city’s other major festival, has been rescheduled from spring to October. In late April, crowds in the French Quarter were less than half of the usual hordes. Tarot card readers sat bored at their folding tables in Jackson Square; the few jazz bands playing for tips on the street corners faced little competition in hearing distance.

Every hospitality worker who is called back to work this year will have suffered. But those who were in a union at least suffered less uncertainty.

For workers looking to have a surreptitious meeting with a union organizer, Ernst Café, a sprawling bar and grill that occupies a corner of the warehouse district just a few blocks from the Mississippi River in downtown New Orleans, is well known. The tables that line the outside are a convenient place for anyone who works at the nearby hotels, convention center and casino to sit and talk. From there, an entire city is slowly being transformed.

On a humid weekday morning in April, Willie Gordon rests an elbow on one of those tables an hour before his shift begins at the Loews Hotel a block away. He has the dapper look and unflappable demeanor one might expect of someone who spent 18 years as the hotel’s bell captain, leading all of the bellhops and valets (before the pandemic, there were 15; just four remain.) Before that, Gordon worked for 10 years as the bell captain at the nearby Westin Hotel. There, he says, ?“employees would run” when a union organizer came around, mostly out of fear of a general manager Gordon still recalls bitterly, 18 years later.

“He would talk about what he could do, [how] ?‘I can fire you on the spot,’ ” Gordon remembers. ?“He would say he was joking, but no one took it as a joke.”

The vast majority of hotels in New Orleans were nonunion until 2004, when?—?shortly after the Loews Hotel opened?—?Gordon and other employees unionized with Unite Here. Gordon is now a shop steward. When problems arise?—?like the time an overeager salesperson tried to hand out group discounts that cut into the bellhops’ pay?—?Gordon gets things straightened out in a single conversation. When the men he works with ask how he did it?—?he refers to the bellhops always as just ?“my guys”?—?he points across Poydras Street toward the still nonunion Westin, then says, ?“Here’s the difference between us being here, and us being over there.”

***

New Orleans is a city whose raffish charm is partially rooted in its chaos. Where Las Vegas has a single, gleaming strip of enormous properties that dominate its hospitality industry, New Orleans has fewer big players and far more small operators and hustlers. That makes the city ?“a hard nut to crack” for a union dreaming of an organized hospitality sector, according to local labor historian Thomas J. Adams. ?“Most people still work for relatively small shops, or work at the franchise level,” Adams says. ?“In that way, New Orleans looks more like a lot of the country.”

The fragmented nature of the New Orleans hospitality industry means that Local 23 takes on an enormous civic importance as one of the only institutions capable of raising standards across the industry. On the other hand, it also means the majority of people whose livelihoods depend somehow on the tourist trade will probably never be union members.

There will always be a role in the city for groups willing to organize in the space outside of traditional unions?—?and there is comradery and cross-pollination between union and nonunion spaces.

Gabby Bolden-Shaw moved to New Orleans in 2009 and got a job at the convention center. She got involved with the union and eventually became the lead shop steward. She was so good, in fact, that Unite Here offered her a job as an organizer in 2019?—?but she was furloughed only months later, after the pandemic drained the union’s finances. But she found another way to support workers.

In August 2020, Bolden-Shaw got a new job with Step Up Louisiana, an activist group focused on local labor and political organizing. Now, she does some of the same work the union does?—?such as helping people file for unemployment during the pandemic?—?but on behalf of people who aren’t union members (as well as some who are). Among the workers she helps now are some who were at the convention center as independent contractors, people who were working alongside Unite Here members but who were unable to join the union.

One of those contractors is Will Walker, who moved to New Orleans from California three years ago and worked as a bartender for splashy events at the convention center and the Superdome. Since facing abrupt unemployment in February, Walker has channeled much of his energy into organizing and attending rallies with Step Up?—?to the horror of some he used to work with.

“They were trying to explain to me that this wasn’t gonna get better, because … this is how they operate in Louisiana,” says Walker, who is Black. ?“You have no voice. Once you speak out like you do in California, you may come up dead, hurt or missing. People that I worked with actually thought I was crazy to put myself out there.”

***

The explanation most often given for the weakness of unions in the South is that the vast majority of the South is right-to-work, which makes it harder to build and maintain union membership. But Nevada is also a right-to-work state, which hasn’t stopped Unite Here yet. There is no reason the union’s model cannot translate to the South, and Unite Here’s international president, D. Taylor, says New Orleans can ?“absolutely” be transformed by the union in the same way Las Vegas has.

“I didn’t take this job to be satisfied with what we did in Las Vegas,” Taylor says. ?“New Orleans is a perfect example where the only difference in the living standards for workers in the industry is our union.”

“We’re very interested in organizing the South, period. You change the South, you change America.”

For Unite Here, the ironclad union power they have built in Las Vegas?—?a power that has given tens of thousands of service workers a middle-class life?—?is a tantalizing promise of what New Orleans might become. To dream, just cast your eyes skyward. Next to the unionized Hilton Riverside, a glimmering 34-story Four Seasons is nearing completion. Marriott and Sheraton towers loom large. The iconic Hotel Monteleone sign casts a shadow over the French Quarter. The wraparound porches of the Omni sprawl lasciviously off Bourbon Street. The road to union power in New Orleans runs through properties like these. Control the jewels of the hospitality industry, and you can pull up the standards for the entire city.

Marlene Patrick-Cooper agrees. ?“You want them all,” she says, smiling. ?“It’s like a snake eating his big apple. A snake’s gonna eat that apple. But he’s going to eat it one bite at a time.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 26, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere.


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BREAKING: Draft Legislation in New York Would Put Gig Workers into Toothless ‘Unions’

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An effort backed by the New York State AFL-CIO would create a new bargaining scheme for app-based workers without addressing the question of whether or not these workers are legally “employees.”

Labor Notes obtained a draft version of the legislation that is being negotiated by unions and app employers.

Workers for apps like Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash are currently considered independent contractors; most in the labor movement consider them misclassified, a tactic the companies use to avoid paying the full cost of benefits. These workers are blocked from unionizing by antitrust laws, and don’t have the protection of the National Labor Relations Board (or many other protections).

To sidestep this, the draft legislation would enact a new process to recognize unions and bargain agreements—relying on the state government to enact the negotiated “recommendations” as regulations.

But the draft bill includes much to give labor activists pause, and marks a departure from the national push against misclassification.

“It’s about creating a distraction and a real carve-out from the PRO Act,” said Bhairavi Desai, director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance.

The federal PRO Act, which much of the labor movement is pushing for, would sidestep the question of misclassification but allow independent contractors to unionize under certain conditions using the National Labor Relations Act.

New York State Senator Jessica Ramos, chair of the Labor Committee, has just released a statement that she will not be backing the draft bill because “We will not legitimize any company union. We will not undermine the PRO Act.”

THE BIG UGLIES

We don’t know what would end up in the final legislation. But the biggest immediate concerns fall into two major categories: departures from existing labor law, and lessening local regulatory power over gig companies.

This legislation says that workers would be put into a union that they likely never voted for, and which would not be funded by workers, and barred from putting up any serious fight for an agreement—no strikes, no boycotts, no picketing. It would create a new type of legally recognized union which is not financially accountable to its members. This should be deeply concerning to those who care about building powerful, democratic unions.

This draft legislation would also take away local governments’ power to rein in gig employers—New York localities could no longer create specific minimum wages for app workers or rules about their working conditions. What’s more, cities would lose the ability to legislate about these companies at all. Local governments couldn’t create taxes or surcharges on the services, or rules for how they must operate. NYC already has a cap on the number of rideshare drivers; this would be thrown out. If a local government wanted to put a surcharge on rides or deliveries to fund infrastructure, or green jobs, or schools—it couldn’t. This power would rest solely with the state.

This type of legislation is not entirely new, but this may be the furthest it’s gotten. Two years ago, as California legislators were preparing Assembly Bill 5 to rein in misclassification, Uber and Lyft were approaching major unions, including SEIU and the Teamsters, in an attempt to preempt the legislation with a compromise. When that didn’t work, the companies spent hundreds of millions of dollars on last fall’s ballot measure, Proposition 22, to carve themselves out. They won, and they’ve made no secret of their intention to get the same deal in other states.

Now, up against the might of these incredibly powerful companies, some labor leaders are looking for compromise legislation of their own. What’s in it for the apps? Legislation like this could help siphon off labor organizing energy and undermine campaigns for tougher legislation.

TWO MASSIVE UNITS, ONE UNION EACH

The legislation covers app-based workers in two groups: rideshare drivers, who perform on-call taxi service for companies like Uber and Lyft; and delivery workers, who deliver packages, groceries, and restaurant orders for companies like Instacart, Amazon, DoorDash, and Seamless. Each of these two groups would become a massive, statewide unit. The draft bill sets up a process (detailed below) for one union to cover each group.

Rideshare companies employ around 80,000 drivers in New York City alone, a figure that is currently capped by local legislation. The number of delivery workers is less clear, but would include between 50,000 and 80,000 food delivery workers as well as Amazon “Flex” drivers and probably others.

The likely unions—based on who’s been pushing this legislation—would be the Machinists’ Independent Drivers Guild for the rideshare drivers, and the Transport Workers Union for delivery workers. The IDG already claims to represent the 80,000 app-based drivers in New York City, but this would formalize its role. The Machinists’ project has come under scrutiny for receiving money from Uber.

RECOGNITION

The recognition process relies in part on labor peace agreements—familiar in places like construction and the burgeoning cannabis industry. Here, the agreement requires companies to sign a peace deal with a union that meets certain requirements; the union is then restricted from encouraging any “picketing, strikes, slow downs, or boycotts” until a finalized deal has been ratified by the state.

The unions only have to show signed cards of support from 10 percent of the workers in the unit—there’s no election. (What if more than one union shows interest? It reads as an afterthought; the labor commissioner is supposed to come up with a process in that case.) Contrast that with the union authorization process run by the National Labor Relations Board, where 30 percent of workers must sign union cards to trigger an election, which can even include competing unions on the same ballot.

Under the draft law, the state ultimately gets to decide if the union should be recognized—because, in addition to the 10 percent show of support, the union must have “demonstrated experience in representing network workers or other related workers in reaching agreements with companies for at least five years.” (“Network” is being used here as a synonym for “app.”)

This puts significant power in the hands of the commissioner of the state’s Department of Labor, appointed by the governor, to determine whether or not a union is eligible to represent workers. This could lead to competing worker organizations being disqualified. The Taxi Workers Alliance, for example, is not a formal union in the legal sense, though it has members and strikes; it’s unclear whether it would meet the standard of “reaching agreements.”

“We read that as they want to make sure TWA is locked out,” Desai said. “It’s meant to favor—that’s not even strong enough—IDG and it’s meant to get rid of us.”

Service Employees Local 32BJ has been supporting the Worker’s Justice Project, a worker center, in its campaign to organize app-based delivery drivers—but will the state say that WJP or even SEIU has the requisite experience representing “network” workers?

Getting rid of or changing the union would require a much more significant lift, and an election. Thirty percent of workers would have to say they wanted a decertification election, and a majority of all workers (not just those voting) would have to vote to decertify. If they wanted a different union, workers would have to go through the process of showing 10 percent support again (after decertifying the existing union), and have the state “certify” their organization.

WHAT’S THE DEAL?

Once a union was certified, the rideshare companies would bargain together for one agreement, and the delivery companies would bargain a separate one, each across the table from the chosen union. The draft legislation demands that the negotiators bring state representatives a deal covering a handful of topics, including union access to workers and a minimum five-year agreement.

The two most remarkable topics they would negotiate are a “portable benefits fund” and the minimum wage for drivers. Portable benefits is a vague term that can mean a lot of different things that aren’t tied to a specific job—anything from Social Security to privatized unemployment insurance for misclassified workers. Here, the union and the employers are told to set up a nonprofit and negotiate how much money to send its way, though the legislation doesn’t say anything about what benefits this should cover. Unemployment? Workers compensation? Family leave? It would be up to them to figure that out. Many of these things are mandated for W-2 employees by laws that don’t cover independent contractors.

The wage negotiations are supposed to have a “floor,” consisting of a local minimum wage plus a mileage rate. The kicker, though, is that these only cover active time—that is, time the workers spend performing the job. App workers have long complained about unpaid idle time while they’re waiting for dispatch—this was a big push for California’s Assembly Bill 5, and NYC passed a driver minimum wage that covered inactive time (more on this later).

NO DUES, BUT LOTS OF CASH

The draft legislation provides a direct line of funding for the unions involved, in the form of surcharges. Each ride in an Uber or food delivery by an Instacart worker would have a 10-cent surcharge, paid by the customer, which companies would collect and then hand over to the unions.

This doesn’t necessarily preclude unions from setting up dues and membership structures, but it does provide them a huge pot of money without having to do that. Right before the pandemic, rideshare companies were hitting 750,000 rides a day in New York City. So the rideshare union would get $75,000 per day—almost $27.5 million per year—just from NYC, even before you figure in all the drivers in the rest of the state.

PROGNOSIS

The New York legislature is only in session for a little less than two weeks, leaving a small window for this to pass this year. The IDG has tried to pass similar legislation over the past several years, but this time it is opening the door to the support of another union by including a separate unit of delivery workers.

Similar legislation was floated recently in Connecticut, before it was allegedly shut down by the national AFL-CIO—in part because of its contradictions with the federal PRO Act, which would provide many misclassified “independent contractors” the right to organize and bargain under the National Labor Relations Act.

As app-based employers continue to grow in size and power, they will keep looking for creative new ways to undermine labor law. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy for them to find allies in labor who are willing to gamble away workers’ rights for the promise of quick, massive membership increases.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on May 21, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Joe DeManuelle-Hall is a staff writer and organizer at Labor Notes.


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They Wanted to Keep Working. ExxonMobil Locked Them Out.

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The lockout began May 1, known in most parts of the world as International Workers’ Day. In a matter of hours, the ExxonMobil Corporation escorted 650 oil refiners in Beaumont, Texas, off the job, replacing experienced members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 13?–?243 with temporary workers?—?and hoping to force a vote on Exxon’s latest contract proposal. USW maintains the proposal violates basic principles of seniority, and more than three weeks after the union members were marched out of their facility, they remain locked out.

“We would have rather kept everyone working until we reached an agreement,” Bryan Gross, a staff representative for USW, tells In These Times. ?“That was our goal.”

Because strikes and lockouts are often measures taken under more dire circumstances, either when bargaining has completely stalled or is being conducted in bad faith, USW proposed a one-year contract extension. But Exxon rejected the offer, holding out for huge changes to contractual language regarding seniority, safety and layoffs. ?“It’s a control issue,” Gross adds. ?“Exxon wants control.”

As the oil industry attempts to deskill (and ultimately deunionize) its labor force, refinery workers like those in Beaumont find themselves under siege. Not only is their industry buckling beneath the weight of a global health crisis, but climate change has come to threaten their very livelihoods. Many workers remain skeptical of existing plans for a just transition.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020, refiners have taken drastic measures to offset steep drops in the price of oil by reducing production, selling assets and even closing some facilities. While the unionization rate in the oil and gas industry is currently higher than the rest of the U.S. workforce (15% compared with nearly 11%, per Reuters), BP, Marathon Petroleum Corporation and Cenovus Energy have cut labor costs by either downsizing or subcontracting to non-union workers.

Exxon appears to be following along. Local 13?–?243 member J.T. Coleman, who has worked at the Beaumont refinery for a decade now, fears that hiring so many of these non-union workers to operate the facility could get somebody hurt. ?“We’re familiar with the equipment,” he says. ?“They’re not trained like we are.”

USW has filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board accusing Exxon of refusing to bargain, modifying their agreement with the union and coercion. Exxon did not immediately respond to a request for comment from In These Times.

The complaints come at a time when the future of oil, in Texas and beyond, has never been more uncertain. In February, three severe winter storms walloped the state, killing 100 people and leaving millions without power. Similar storms hit Texas in both 1989 and 2011, but state lawmakers failed to heed calls from experts to upgrade the power grid at the time. When temperatures plunged below freezing this February, many sources of power in the state failed, including those generated from natural gas. 

Production at the Beaumont refinery was shut down for a week, but many of its operators continued their shifts, some staying in the plant for 24 hours at a time. ?“We weren’t set up for the freeze, so they were defrosting lines and pumps, de-icing stuff so they could get moving on the product again,” says Hoot Landry, a staff representative for USW. ?“But we don’t get any credit for that.”

Nearly 40 million barrels of oil were lost during the production freeze. Perhaps in a sign of things to come, refinery workers shifted from producing and manufacturing oil products to restoring power for those affected by the extreme weather.

The impact of these storms has not been lost on the Sunrise Movement, which has become a political home for young people in the fight against climate inaction. On May 10, 20 Sunrise Movement activists began a 400-mile march from New Orleans to Houston to demand the Biden administration adopt the Green New Deal.

“[Our members aim to] learn from our neighbors here in the Gulf South about what they’re facing, the solutions that they’re already pioneering, the fights they’ve won, and the fights they still need help fighting,” says katie wills evans, a volunteer local press coordinator for the group. ?“We’re doing all of that to bring attention to the need for a Green New Deal and a good jobs guarantee.”

If the Sunrise Movement ultimately succeeds in getting some version of the Green New Deal passed, then, in theory, the Beaumont refinery would be closed and members of Local 13?–?243 would be trained for different work. According to wills evans, these jobs would be ?“more fulfilling, more purposeful, less damaging to our planet and less dangerous to workers.”

“We want to work next to you,” wills evans continues. ?“We want you to make the same amount of money and have the protection of a union and have healthcare for your family.”

While oil workers and environmental activists are understandably suspicious of one another, wills evans believes they have more in common than they may think?—?namely, a shared enemy in oil bosses like Exxon. As Sunrise Movement activists make their way to Houston by the end of June, wills evans hopes they will meet with the locked-out refinery workers to offer their solidarity and support. 

“I’m the great granddaughter of a coal miner, I come from Appalachia where coal mining fed us,” wills evans says. ?“But [refinery workers] are on a picket line locked out right now, so can they say they have a good job?”

Good or not, neither the refinery workers nor USW staff who spoke with In These Times see oil jobs going anywhere any time soon. They don’t especially want them to go anywhere, either?—?even if they recognize the dangers of climate change. ?“I think we have to start moving towards a cleaner environment,” Gross says. “[But] oil is going to be around a really long time; I don’t think it is going to go away overnight.”

Prior to USW, Gross worked at a separate refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, which is par for the course in the Gulf South. Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi are home to more than half a million jobs in the oil and gas industry. And no matter how unstable these jobs may feel?—?no matter how destructive they may be to the environment long term?—?many communities rely on them for their survival.

“I would entertain other jobs, but I take pride in my work,” Coleman says. ?“I don’t work for Exxon because I love the company. I work for it for its benefits. And as long as those benefits exist, it’s going to be a part of my life.”

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to oil refiners aligning themselves with an organization like the Sunrise Movement is the lack of clarity surrounding a just transition. Many want to know what will happen to workers in extractive industries, and they fear promises made to them now will not be kept. Still, the lockout in Beaumont makes clear that a distinctly unjust transition is already underway: refiners are losing control over their worksite as employers seek to reduce their exposure in an increasingly unstable industry.

“We want to be back to work, but we want to do it with a fair agreement that is not solely beneficial to one side,” Coleman adds. ?“We are willing to work. We all want to return to work. But we want to do it with something that ensures our security, our seniority and our safety.”

But as climate change accelerates and weather patterns become more extreme, these jobs may never be safe or secure again.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 24, 2024. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.


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