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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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Joe DeManuelle-Hall - The People's Summit The People's Summit

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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Mindy Isser - In These Times

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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Essential workers worried about CDC’s honor-system mask guidance, this week in the war on workers

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The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, which represents many grocery workers, is … not happy about the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions’ (CDC) new guidance that vaccinated people can go unmasked indoors. Food and retail workers, after all, have been contending all along with people who refused rules about masks, and are now guaranteed to have to contend with people who may be lying about being vaccinated. The honor system guidance doesn’t take these workers into account. 

“Millions of Americans are doing the right thing and getting vaccinated, but essential workers are still forced to play mask police for shoppers who are unvaccinated and refuse to follow local COVID safety measures. Are they now supposed to become the vaccination police?” UFCW President Marc Perrone said in a statement. “With so many states already ending their mask mandates, this new CDC guidance must do more to acknowledge the real and daily challenge these workers and the American people still face.”

The UFCW wants the CDC to clarify how exactly workers will be kept safe. 

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on May 15, 2020. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and full-time staff since 2011. She is currently the assistant managing editor.


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Meet the Students Trying to Organize the First Campus-Wide Undergraduate Union

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Inside the groundbreaking student organizing drive at Kenyon College.

On August 31, stu­dents at Keny­on Col­lege, a pri­vate lib­er­al arts col­lege in Gam­bier, Ohio, announced their intent to union­ize with the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (UE) in an open let­ter to the school’s pres­i­dent and board of trustees. Stu­dents have request­ed vol­un­tary recog­ni­tion through a card-check neu­tral­i­ty agree­ment with the school’s admin­is­tra­tion. If suc­cess­ful, the Keny­on Stu­dent Work­er Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee (K?SWOC) will become the first union to orga­nize its entire under­grad­u­ate work­force, which will include all 800 stu­dent work­er posi­tions avail­able on campus.

“This is a his­to­ry mak­ing cam­paign,” says Dan Nap­sha, a senior major­ing in polit­i­cal sci­ence. ?“If we win, it real­ly does send a mes­sage that this is pos­si­ble and that stu­dent work­ers should be ask­ing for more.”

Labor Day wrapped up a week of action by stu­dent orga­niz­ers, which includ­ed tes­ti­mo­ni­als from stu­dent work­ers, pan­els on inter­na­tion­al labor and racial jus­tice and vir­tu­al socials and con­clud­ed with endorse­ments from Sens. Sher­rod Brown (D?Ohio) and Bernie Sanders (I?Vt.). In a let­ter of sup­port to Keny­on stu­dent work­ers, Sanders wrote, ?“When you and your col­leagues join togeth­er as a union, the admin­is­tra­tion will be required to bar­gain with you in good faith… I respect the crit­i­cal work you do and wish you the very best in your efforts to cre­ate a demo­c­ra­t­ic work­place where your voice has a seat at the table.”

Dis­rup­tion in cam­pus employ­ment due to the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic sparked new urgency for stu­dents’ abil­i­ty to bar­gain with the school. When Keny­on closed its cam­pus and switched to remote learn­ing in March, many stu­dents had their work hours cut or stopped work­ing entire­ly. Under­grad­u­ate jobs include work­ing in the din­ing hall, library, admis­sions office and as research assis­tants. Stu­dents say there was a lack of cer­tain­ty around their employ­ment sta­tus or work­ing con­di­tions that has car­ried over into the Fall semes­ter which start­ed August 31 and has about half of the stu­dent body on cam­pus and the oth­er half learn­ing remotely. 

“The pan­dem­ic real­ly served as the cat­a­lyst for us and basi­cal­ly was a sig­nal that enough is enough?—?that we’re fed up,” says Napsha.

In late March, apeti­tion signed by over 200 mem­bers of the col­lege com­mu­ni­ty and spon­sored by Keny­on Young Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (KYD­SA) to secure stu­dent pay for the rest of the school year proved suc­cess­ful. Though the admin­is­tra­tion did not acknowl­edge the peti­tion, stu­dents were paid for their aver­age week­ly hours regard­less of their abil­i­ty to work remote­ly. A few months lat­er, when the admin­is­tra­tion announced it would be sus­pend­ing retire­ment ben­e­fits for Keny­on staff due to a $19.3 mil­lion deficit in the school’s oper­at­ing bud­get,anoth­er peti­tion, again ini­ti­at­ed by KYD­SA, was cir­cu­lat­ed to ?“stop the cuts.” With the sup­port of stu­dents, UE, which rep­re­sents the main­te­nance work­ers on cam­pus, was able to come to an agree­ment with the admin­is­tra­tion that the major­i­ty of the missed retire­ment ben­e­fits be refund­ed to employ­ees over a peri­od of three years. 

“Both of those [peti­tions] prompt­ed more con­ver­sa­tions about some of the broad­er, more struc­tur­al issues with stu­dent employ­ment,” says Nathan Geesing, a senior major­ing in his­to­ry. ?“That was a sign to orga­niz­ers that col­lec­tive action real­ly had an impact.” 

See­ing the out­come of both peti­tions reaf­firmed to stu­dents that a union would be the best way to move for­ward. Geesing says a union is ?”a mech­a­nism to bar­gain with the admin­is­tra­tion, to not have to rely on the admin­is­tra­tion’s end­less slew of task forces and work­ing groups that con­stant­ly promise change, but rarely, if ever, deliv­er.” Right now, wages for stu­dent work­ers fall into a three-tier wage sys­tem start­ing at $8.70 an hour and capped at $11.17 an hour. Stu­dents say these rates are arbi­trary and do not reflect the nec­es­sary labor they per­form on cam­pus and instead reflect a desire to save the school mon­ey. The wage sys­tem was deter­mined joint­ly bya now dis­band­ed ?“Stu­dent Employ­ment Task Force.”

”The admin­is­tra­tion has nev­er real­ly tak­en stu­dent demands or stu­dent con­cerns seri­ous­ly,” says Geesing. K?SWOC’s demands include greater involve­ment in work­place deci­sion-mak­ing, greater pro­tec­tions and acces­si­bil­i­ty for work-study stu­dents, jus­tice for inter­na­tion­al stu­dent work­ers and a liv­ing wage, among oth­ers. Though stu­dents have not agreed on a dol­lar fig­ure, they say a liv­ing wage would be high enough that stu­dents don’t have to feel like they’re choos­ing between work and their aca­d­e­m­ic stud­ies. ?“The union could actu­al­ly give us the bar­gain­ing pow­er that we need, espe­cial­ly in a time like this, where not hav­ing a say in your reopen­ing plan can lit­er­al­ly be a mat­ter of life and death,” Geesing says. 

Keny­on stu­dents, who are both orga­niz­ing under unprece­dent­ed cir­cum­stances and break­ing new ground by orga­niz­ing their entire under­grad­u­ate work­force, have lim­it­ed exam­ples to point to as a mod­el. Most stu­dent work­er unions are con­cen­trat­ed among grad­u­ate stu­dents in pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties, though Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts Amherst and Grin­nell Col­lege, which man­aged to orga­nize indi­vid­ual shops among under­grad­u­ate res­i­dent advi­sors and din­ing work­ers, has served as a source of inspi­ra­tion for K?SWOC organizers. 

“I imag­ine that if we suc­ceed, you’ll be see­ing a lot more unions on col­lege cam­pus­es,” says Nap­sha. ?“Part­ly because we are build­ing off of the Grin­nell mod­el and we are build­ing off of the UMass Amherst model.” 

”In a larg­er sense,” Geesing says, ?“hav­ing a union at Keny­on could serve as a source of inspi­ra­tion for stu­dent work­ers in oth­ers places in the coun­try to say if they can do it, why can’t we.”

A major source of sup­port has come from the main­te­nance work­ers on cam­pus, a stu­dent-labor alliance that dates back to 2012 when the admin­is­tra­tion attempt­ed to out­source main­te­nance jobs to Sodexo, a food and facil­i­ties man­age­ment com­pa­ny with near­ly half a mil­lion employ­ees world­wide. ?”They’ve giv­en us a kind of men­tor­ship that’s real­ly valu­able,” says Dani Mar­tinez, a senior major­ing in Eng­lish. ?“They def­i­nite­ly want the best for us because they have sim­i­lar things that they have fought for in the past and can give us guid­ance on those things too.”

The main­te­nance work­ers, who are rep­re­sent­ed by UE Local 712, helped ini­ti­ate a rela­tion­ship between stu­dents on cam­pus and UE, with whom they are now orga­niz­ing with. The main­te­nance work­ers, Nap­sha says, have ?“been part­ners with us through this entire process. The rea­son why we have been so suc­cess­ful?—?get­ting close to 200 cards signed, hav­ing hun­dreds of peo­ple orga­nized and hav­ing a 60 per­son strong orga­niz­ing team is because of the strength of our rela­tion­ship with UE.”

As of Labor Day, K?SWOC has sent two requests for vol­un­tary recog­ni­tion of their union and the response from the admin­is­tra­tion has most­ly been silence. Mean­while, many stu­dents whose jobs can­not be per­formed remote­ly lack clar­i­ty around their employ­ment sta­tus for this semes­ter and next. Mar­tinez believes that stu­dents who can­not work remote­ly should be trans­ferred and trained in a dif­fer­ent depart­ment with pri­or­i­ty giv­en to stu­dents with work-study, a fed­er­al­ly-fund­ed pro­gram that is sup­posed to guar­an­tee cam­pus employ­ment as part of their finan­cial aid package. 

Mar­tinez, who has worked in library and infor­ma­tion ser­vices since she was a fresh­man, says her employ­ment sta­tus is still up in the air. With Kenyon’s admin­is­tra­tion ulti­mate­ly decid­ing on a sys­tem of teach­ing fresh­man and sopho­mores on cam­pus and teach­ing juniors and seniors remote­ly, many in-per­son jobs will not be avail­able this semes­ter and union orga­niz­ing con­tin­ues to be almost entire­ly remote?—?a strat­e­gy Nap­sha and Geesing say may be play­ing in their favor espe­cial­ly with many stu­dents now stuck at home with lim­it­ed in-per­son distractions. 

Those stu­dents who are work­ing remote­ly and are liv­ing out­side of Ohio are now being paid accord­ing to the state min­i­mum wage where stu­dents are based if it exceeds Keny­on wages. Geesing, who is liv­ing in Mary­land where the min­i­mum wage is high­er, says he got an email from the career devel­op­ment office over the sum­mer inform­ing him that he’d be paid a bonus to make up the wage dif­fer­ence. Geesing says it ?“just shows you how com­plete­ly arbi­trary the tiered sys­tem has been and how they could have paid us more the entire time.” 

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on September 14, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Indigo Olivier is a Goodman Investigative Fellow at In These Times. Follow her on Twitter: @IndigoOlivier.


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Working Life Episode 194: Two Hollywood Tales—A Union Win in California, A Florida Progressive Aims to Fire Debbie Wasserman-Schulz

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Today the show is all about Hollywood. Hollywood, California and Hollywood, Florida. Hollywood, California is in a rumble. For most performers in the entertainment business, residuals are the foundation to making a living—either a solid middle class living or somewhat less than that. Over many decades, residuals have been tied to various things such as repeat showings of a movie in syndication or sales of DVDs. Now, it’s all about streaming.

For performers, this is a huge change and it’s really about a fight to make sure generations of performers, some not born today, will be able to earn a respectable living. How do performers get paid in a streaming world? The performers’ union, SAG-AFTRA, just scored a big streaming deal win for performers—as well as locking in a big #MeToo step forward to protect actors from harassment. I dig into all this with the union’s president Gabrielle Carteris, who has a long career in film as an actor in film, TV and stage (most prominently in Beverly Hills 90210) and as a producer, and Ray Rodriguez, SAG-AFTRA’s Chief Contracts Officer.

Florida’s 23rd Congressional district is a strongly Democratic district currently represented by the odious Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. In a world of dishonest, morally corrupt, vain and narcissistic politicians, Wasserman Schultz stands out. That’s where Jen Perelman comes in. Jen is challenging Wasserman-Schultz in the Democratic primary which wraps up next week with Election Day after thousands of Floridians have already cast early-voting ballots. Jen’s website is jen2020.com. She joins me from the campaign trail as she was out talking to voters.

This blog originally appeared at Working Life on August 12, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is a political / organizing / economic strategist. President of the Economic Future Group, a consultancy that has worked in a couple of dozen countries on five continents over the past 20 years


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Child Care Workers Are Now a Mighty Force With a Huge New Union. It Only Took 17 Years.

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A 17-year organizing campaign in California culminated this week in the successful unionization of 45,000 child care providers—the largest single union election America has seen in years. The campaign is a tangible achievement that brings together union power, political might, and social justice battles for racial and gender equality. Now, the hard part begins.

Child Care Providers United (CCPU), the umbrella group now representing workers across the state, is a joint project of several powerful SEIU and AFSCME locals in California. Those unions divided up the state by counties, and workers will be members of either SEIU or AFSCME depending on where they live, as well as being members of CCPU. 

The stage for this week’s vote was set last fall, when California governor Gavin Newsom signed into law legislation that granted bargaining rights to child care providers, who had previously been legally ineligible for unionization. Getting the law changed took 16 years, during which time it made it to the governor’s desk twice, but was vetoed—once by Arnold Schwarzenegger, and again by Jerry Brown. In the months since Newsom signed the bill, the unions used the networks they had already created over the past two decades to administer the election. The vote, announced yesterday, was 97% in favor of the new union.

The road to winning the union was so long that it has seen multiple generations participate. Miren Algorri, a child care provider in San Diego, first became involved because her mother, who was in the same line of work, was active in the campaign from the very beginning. “She would go to meetings, and I would stay behind and take care of the children,” Algorri said. When her mother retired, she carried on—and lasted long enough to see her years of work pay off. 

“It’s taken so long because the work that we do has always been minimized and infantilized,” Algorri said. “It’s because of the way society has seen child care from the very beginning of this country. The foundation was women of color caring for children. Doing work that, according to society, doesn’t require any skills.” The industry’s workforce in California is mostly women and about three-fourths people of color, according to the union. 

Though the bulk of the 17-year campaign was focused on the primary goal of winning the legal right to collective bargaining, it also allowed a disparate statewide workforce to organize and fight for their own issues along the way. (The group had a large pool of dues-paying members even before the law was changed last year.) Although CCPU is brand new as a formal union, it already boasts thousands of members who are seasoned in labor organizing and political lobbying. That will likely come in handy as the group moves into its next phase: negotiating a contract with the state of California. 

Providers who care for low-income children receive a set reimbursement rate from the state, and raising that figure is one of the top priorities in bargaining. Algorri said that in San Diego, she is paid $234 a week to care for an infant for up to 60 hours, and she is obligated to pay her assistants at least the local minimum wage of $13 per hour. That means she can often end up making less than minimum wage herself. She also wants a good healthcare plan, which almost all child care providers lack, as well as some way to save for retirement. “I have been working for 23 years. I have not earned one day of sick leave, and pretty much I don’t have a retirement plan,” she said. “We don’t want a red carpet. Just a decent living.” 

Max Arias, the executive director of SEIU 99, one of the unions behind CCPU, said that the coronavirus pandemic, which struck while the union election was still underway, offered a chance for child care workers to organize to fend off any budget cuts, and to fight to get proper personal protective equipment (PPE). The pandemic has also highlighted the fact that these child care workers are absolutely vital to not only reopening schools, but keeping the entire economy running. Providers have continued to work throughout the pandemic in large part to provide care to the children of other essential workers, so that they can work as well. If child care work becomes economically untenable, the entire system could grind to a halt. 

“Providers will play an outsize role [in school reopening]. A lot of parents are going to need support,” said Arias, whose union already represents thousands of school employees. He ticked off the immediate needs: funding for livable wages and healthcare for child care providers, and for adequate PPE to keep them safe and operational. “If we’re going to reopen the economy, the status quo funding that exists is not enough,” he said, adding that California needs a tax on billionaires, something that he believes the public would support at this moment. Until then, the child care providers will fight for themselves. They are already building a bargaining team, and Arias said that he hopes to have a contract in place within a year, given the urgency of the situation. 

The sheer number of CCPU members, and their established connections with the highest level of state officials and national unions, means that they will be a force in California politics for years to come. They also represent one of the most meaningful instances of material progress in labor power for low-wage workers of color in years. 

For the moment, they have earned the right to simply savor their victory. Miren Algorri brings up a taco shop in her area that has a sign reading, “Patience is the essence of good Mexican cuisine.” 

“It’s the same with us,” she said. “We’ve cultivated that quality over the years.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 28, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.


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