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Colectivo Could Soon Become the Largest Unionized Coffee Chain in the U.S.

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On March 8, Lauretta Archibald marked her three-year anniversary as a baker for Colectivo Coffee Roasters, an upscale Midwestern coffee chain based in Milwaukee and Chicago.

In her years at Colectivo, Archibald had been responsible for making artisan bread in bulk, sometimes baking 1,000 loaves a night. It was arduous work, and Archibald says that she did not always have the support?—?or even materials?—?that she needed: the bakery was understaffed for stretches of time, there weren’t enough cooling racks and one of the ovens leaked the smell of gas through the kitchen.

When workers at the coffee chain first announced their plan to unionize with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Archibald?—?who eventually became a strong supporter of the union?—?wasn’t sure how she felt about the idea. ?“I didn’t know enough about unions to really say one or the other.” Still, she says, ?“I knew that something had to change.”

Workers say that last-minute scheduling, chronically broken equipment, and rapid expansion of the company brand spurred the union drive?—?while issues around Colectivo’s handling of Covid-19 popularized the campaign. 

Now, Colectivo’s staff of about 375 workers faces an election that will decide the fate of a union drive nearly a year in the making, with ballots due on March 30 and counted in the first week of April. If the campaign is successful, the workers will make history: the industry is almost entirely unorganized, and Colectivo would become the largest unionized coffee chain in the country. But as bakers, warehouse workers and baristas mobilize support for the union, the company has responded with open hostility, hiring the Labor Relations Institute (LRI)?—?a well-known union buster?—?during the campaign. 

“There are paid staff meetings where they’re asking us, individually, to vote no,” says Caroline Fortin, a shift lead at a location in Chicago. ?“So they’re very explicit.”

In These Times has also obtained copies of anti-union emails, ?“vote no” stickers and anti-union flyers drafted by Colectivo. 

Management communications have invoked the anti-labor trope that unionization invites a harmful ?“third party” into the fold, and charge that the IBEW should not be representing the coffee workers. (In fact, most historic trade unions now represent a wide range of professions; many members of the United Auto Workers, for example, work in the nonprofit sector.) 

One email from management goes so far as to highlight the high rate of attrition from the company for pro-union workers. ?“Of the 18 original organizing committee members, 10 remain employed today,” reads the email. The email goes on to list union organizers by job title and work location, with red slashes through those who no longer work at Colectivo. 

Indeed, workers say that the anti-union campaign has gone beyond propaganda and disinformation.

When the union drive went public in August 2020, Zoe Muellner, a café worker, attached her signature to a letter notifying Colectivo of the plan to organize. She says that after the letter was released, upper management?—?with whom she interacted regularly as a barista trainer?—?stopped answering her emails and cut social ties. 

A career barista, Muellner had worked in the coffee industry for six years?—?and Colectivo, for two?—?when the company cut her position as a trainer in October 2020.

“I asked if that meant I was done with the company in general, or if I could essentially take a demotion as a café coworker until they needed me back on in my position. And they said there were no positions available for me … but go ahead and file for unemployment, kid.” 

Muellner and the union say the layoff amounts to retaliation. 

Also in October 2020, Robert Penner?—?a specialized machine operator in the Milwaukee warehouse?—?was abruptly let go. Penner had taken part in ?“union talk” since 2019, and like Muellner, had come out in public support of the campaign in early fall of 2020. 

Penner says that the company requested that he come back on board following a voluntary pandemic-related furlough in the summer?—?but before his first shift back, he was told that Colectivo no longer needed him. Since his departure, the company has resorted to filling Penner’s position with baristas. 

“They were pulling in café workers who weren’t trained to work in the warehouse,” says Kait Dessoffy, a shift lead at a Chicago café. 

Archibald says that she had a similar experience after speaking up at an anti-union meeting held by an LRI representative.

“Me and another coworker specifically, we challenged everything he said,” Archibald says. ?“After that night, that guy knew we were for the union.”

In the weeks following the anti-union meeting, she noticed changes at work. Archibald was required to quickly train her coworkers in braiding Challah bread?—?a job that was formerly one of her specialties. At the time, Archibald thought it was ?“weird” that managers had requested to inspect her coworkers’ practice loaves. ?“Normally, when we did practice stuff, it was really just practice,” she says. In retrospect, she believes management was getting things in line for her departure. 

About six weeks ago, Archibald was abruptly moved off of her usual duties and instead instructed to prepare English muffins, a job for which she says she was never properly trained. She adds that management rapidly increased the number of biscuits she was required to bake?—?400 one night, then 500, then 900. 

“It felt like they were setting me up, you know, hoping I fail,” she explains. 

Finally, on March 16, Archibald reports that she was fired for taking a smoke break. She left Colectivo just a week after her three-year anniversary with the company.

LRI, whose website brags that the firm ?“literally wrote the book in countering union organizing campaigns,” has been identified by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) as one of the largest union-busting firms in the United States. The company made a popular debut in the Oscar-winning 2019 documentary ?“American Factory,” which follows a union-busting campaign by a Fuyao Glass Company factory in Ohio. 

According to company disclosures to the Office of Labor-Management Standards (OLMS), Colectivo pays LRI $375 an hour for services retained. 

Even absent the involvement of a ?“labor consulting firm” like LRI, employer retaliation is endemic in union campaigns. In 41.5% of union elections in the United States, employers receive Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charges— and surveys of labor organizations suggest that the number of instances of employer aggression during union campaigns is much higher. 

The Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act), which was passed by the House of Representatives on March 9, attempts to curb this kind of union busting by banning ?“captive audience” meetings and instating stricter penalties for retaliatory firings.

In total, Colectivo has received six ULP allegations alleging retaliation and coercion during the ongoing union drive.

Still, union-busting tactics are not always straightforward, and can be difficult to prove. One Colectivo barista says that she has faced a subtler form of retaliation for her involvement with the campaign.

“I’ve always been, like, an over apologizer-type of person,” says Hillary Laskonis, a barista at Colectivo, explaining why her leadership in the campaign came as a surprise to some. ?“I think the owners take the whole thing personally.” 

Laskonis says that managers have pulled her aside for multiple tense and vaguely disciplinary meetings. Recently, she says managers warned her that they had received multiple complaints about her attitude and performance. This took Laskonis, a Colectivo barista of three years, by surprise. 

“[The meeting] was framed all around my mental health, and ?‘what can we do to help you succeed, because you’re clearly struggling,’ and all this.” Coupled with the accusation that a coworker had been complaining about her, Laskonis says that the managers’ apparent concern for her mental wellbeing led her to question herself. 

“It wasn’t until I talked to the other [union] members on a group chat,” says Laskonis, ?“that I was able to realize that, like, I was so majorly gaslit at a corporate level.”

Colectivo management did not respond to multiple requests for comment about allegations of misconduct by workers, but instead said in a statement, ?“We and our and leadership team recognize the complexity of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and turned to professionals who specialize in the law to ensure the company and its co-workers are fully informed.”

Workers, meanwhile, say that solidarity among staff has remained strong during the campaign, allowing them to continue to organize despite the ongoing anti-union rhetoric and activity.

“I think perhaps what management doesn’t realize about these [anti-union] meetings, or maybe about their staff, is that we’re really smart?—?we’re together. We are more than capable of forming our own opinions about our working conditions,” says Dessoffy.

“We work in service,” they add, ?“We know when someone is gaslighting us.” 

Correction: An earlier version of this article listed the number of Colectivo employees as 500, based on figures from October, 2020. That number has been updated to reflect the current workforce. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on March 22, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alice Herman is a 2020?–?2021 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting Fellow with In These Times.


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Unionize Goldman Sachs

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Unionize Goldman Sachs. I do not say this to be cheeky. I do not say this ironically, nor with a winking sneer. I do not say it as a fantastical absurdity. In fact, if the employees of Goldman Sachs were as smart as they think they are, they would have unionized a long time ago.

Last week, the beleaguered first-year analysts of the fancy investment bank made news when they circulated a slide deck and survey complaining of 100-hour work weeks and inhumane working conditions that are destroying their mental and physical health. Such stories crop up regularly, and reflect the fact that even the most prestigious Wall Street banks tend to operate exactly like the most prestigious college fraternities, complete with hazing rituals and fanatic demands for loyalty in exchange for the promise of being served by future generations of slavish recruits. This sort of built-in mistreatment makes perfect capitalist sense. It selects for the people willing to endure any outrage in order to get rich, and simultaneously inculcates in them a feeling that they have ?“earned” their riches because of what they endured. The way these pathetic young Ivy League try-hards are treated is indefensible on human rights grounds, but then again, if they cared very much about human rights, they wouldn’t be working on Wall Street in the first place. 

Yes, a union could mitigate these abusive working conditions. But that is only a secondary reason for these budding masters of the universe to organize. Goldman Sachs is the pinnacle of high finance, the place with the strongest reputation for controlling every nuance of the economic world. Yet, incredibly, in the past 150 years, none of its employees have realized the basic truth that bargaining collectively with your coworkers will always get you more, in aggregate, than bargaining alone. The bankers who work for Goldman have been leaving money on the table every single year because they do not have the leverage inherent with being able to negotiate together as a single group?—?the only leverage that allows the labor force of any employer, even a Wall Street bank, to extract the maximum possible share of the proceeds of a business. You would think that they would have learned this rudimentary fact during their early days at Harvard Business School, but apparently their ignorance is the price they pay for going to a school that considers labor only a cost to be controlled, rather than an identity that encompasses almost everyone. 

I do not need a red-faced banker in a fleece vest to condescendingly explain to me why Goldman Sachs has never unionized despite the overwhelming logical case for doing so. I’m quite sure I can recite their explanations already: ?“We’re paid a lot, unions aren’t for us.” ?“There are a thousand people who would love to have my job.” ?“I can make a ton of money by rising up through the current system.” ?“I plan to run this place one day.” All that I hear in these excuses is a business that benefits greatly from the fact that it has successfully indoctrinated its employees to believe that they are not labor. Congratulations, Wall Street! Over the past century the management and shareholder classes of Wall Street banks have reaped countless billions of dollars in profit for themselves that they would have had to distribute to their employees, had those employees had the power of collective bargaining. Instead, each of those employees were convinced that they were the superstars, and would eventually win this race to the top, and that joining with their coworkers would only hold them back. Mathematics tells us that for the vast majority of employees, this belief is untrue. And yet it persists, because believing otherwise would make you a traitor to capitalism (even though it would also make your salary higher). It’s sad, really. 

Goldman Sachs, and the entire class of well-paid, competitive white collar jobs like it, represents the purest distillation of the lie that American businesses have gotten millions of workers to swallow for decades: that solidarity is the enemy of success, and the key to winning is to compete with your fellow workers, and defeat them in a cutthroat battle for advancement. Suffer through these 100-hour weeks now, and live like a Senior VP one day in the future! Corporate America has pulled off this con by waving around the particulars of a job (Good salary! Free meals! Expense account!) to argue that it is not like regular jobs, while concealing the unavoidable structural reasons why it is, indeed, subject to the same basic dynamics as other jobs, in which the workers always benefit by being able to exercise collective power. 

Many in the labor movement will say: Fuck ?‘em. Who cares if Goldman Sachs people aren’t smart enough to organize? The reason why this matters is not that these bankers will starve without a union?—?it is that part of building a truly powerful labor movement is getting everyone into that movement. In the sort of coherent, well-functioning labor movement that America desperately needs, the dues money would flow not just from workers on the bottom, but from those on the top. It can then be directed towards the area of greatest need. You get the dues money from the bankers, and use it to organize the janitors. Everyone is in it together. Let the peons of Wall Street turn their allegiance away from the owners and towards their fellow working people. That’s how a strong labor movement should work. 

Brothers and sisters of Goldman Sachs: join us! You have nothing to lose except your goofy fleece vests, execrable work hours, and lack of a union wage premium. And we’ll even let you keep the vests. Union democracy is real. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on March 23, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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The Teamsters Hint at a Combative National Project to Organize Amazon

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As the drive to unionize Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama draws international attention to the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) that is leading the effort, other unions are planning their own strategies to organize parts of Amazon’s sprawling operations as well. The Teamsters, who see Amazon as a direct threat to their historic work organizing the trucking industry, are engaged in a concerted project targeting Amazon?—?and though they’re tight-lipped about the details, they appear committed to a long-term, nationwide effort that could make them one of the company’s most formidable union foes. 

The 1.4 million-member Teamsters are more than ten times bigger than the RWDSU. They see Amazon’s vast pool of non-union delivery employees as an existential threat to not only their own members, but to the ability of the trucking industry to provide living wage jobs. Randy Korgan, a goateed organizing veteran whose current title is Teamsters National Director for Amazon, frames the standoff with Jeff Bezos’ company as just the latest incarnation of a struggle that the union has been waging for more than a century. 

“We fought to regulate the industry because of the working conditions that were happening in the [19]20s, 30s, and 40s. We obviously find some similarities today,” Korgan says. Despite the popular view of the ?“roaring 20s” as a grand era, ?“history clearly shows that working people suffered greatly. And here we come back into the roaring 20s again. Is this a repeat of history? We’ve got to ask ourselves that.” 

Korgan is particularly angered by Amazon’s ongoing effort to portray itself as a good corporate citizen because it pays a $15 per hour minimum wage to its employees?—?a wage lower than what Korgan himself made as a union warehouse worker more than 30 years ago. Amazon itself is the primary driver of a process that is changing warehouse jobs that once paid a living wage into low-income, tenuous, temporary work. 

“At every level of the organization you see this high turnover rate, and then you see them introducing this rate of $15, $16 an hour and trying to claim that they need to be patted on the back,” says Korgan. ?“Aren’t they talking out of both sides of their mouth? Because what is the average wage of someone that works in a warehouse in this country, and is Amazon exploiting and capitalizing on that wage being reduced?”

Currently, the only Teamsters members with a direct connection to the company are workers at Atlas and ABX Air, two firms that do business with Amazon. But the union is eyeing a much larger pool of Amazon employees, particularly delivery drivers, many of whom work for subcontractors rather than for Amazon itself. Though this process serves to insulate Amazon, the Teamsters have in the past organized tens of thousands of workers at subcontractors throughout the trucking industry. Warehouses are also in the Teamsters traditional wheelhouse, and it was reported last month that the union has spent several months organizing hundreds of Amazon warehouse workers in Iowa, though the outcome of that campaign remains uncertain. 

The Teamsters have been chewing over the threat posed by Amazon for years. Various Teamster websites are rife with posts like ?“TEAMSTERS MUST TAKE NOTE OF THE DANGER ON THE HORIZON” and ?“TAKING ON AMAZON,” all of which note the direct threat the company poses to the stability of the entire transportation industry. But as the Alabama warehouse union campaign has drawn a tidal wave of press, the Teamsters are now loath to divulge too much of their strategy. Korgan is leading the union’s ?“Amazon Project,” and says he is engaged with workers across the country, and is ?“absolutely” working with other unions, as well. But he declines to discuss the project’s funding, timeline, or specific targets. He does, however, hint that the Teamsters may pursue a more radical and confrontational strategy when it comes time to seek union recognition from the famously intransigent company. 

The classic pathway of seeking an NLRB election to certify a union?—?the process that is currently underway for the Amazon workers in Alabama?—?has the benefits of being clearly defined by law, but it also enables companies to spend months bombarding workers with anti-union propaganda, and to throw money at legal challenges. Korgan implies that the Teamsters may seek other pathways to try to force voluntary recognition of unions. (In fact, a Teamsters organizer in Iowa said that the union would prefer to use strikes to pressure the company to recognize its union.) 

“There are many platforms to seek recognition, there are many platforms for workers to do concerted activities,” Korgan says. ?“Truth be told, that [NLRB] process is where corporate America wants organizing to be, and that’s how they want it to be defined. Because they clearly have more of an advantage there than they do in other spaces.”

The recognition that Amazon has become so powerful that allowing it to remain non-union is not a viable option seems to have finally become conventional wisdom within organized labor. It is safe to assume that the Teamsters are only one of several major unions planning ways to organize their own slice of the company. The union campaign in Alabama, where the votes will be counted at the end of this month, will likely be only the first step down a long and contentious road that will last for years. 

“No matter what happens in Bessemer,” Korgan says, ?“it doesn’t change the trajectory of anything that’s going on.” 

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

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


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Tate’s Bake Shop threatens workers with deportation, this week in the war on workers

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Workers attempting to unionize at Tate’s Bake Shop are getting hit with an all-too-common, and totally vile, union-busting message: They say they’re being threatened with deportation

Yes, Tate’s—now owned by Mondelez International—hired an anti-union consultant, who apparently looked at the company’s many undocumented workers and went for the threat that would scare them the most. It’s an illegal threat—undocumented workers are explicitly allowed to unionize under the National Labor Relations Act—but a potent one.

“They began threatening people based on their immigration status, telling them that if their documents are not in order and they attempted to join the labor union they would get deported,” said Cosmo Lubrano, president of the Eastern States Joint Board of the International Union of Allied, Novelty and Production Workers.

”People are scared to talk,” a Tate’s sanitation worker told Gothamist. “They’re scared to express themselves.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on March 13, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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There Are No Make or Break Moments In a Movement

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The Amazon union drive in Alabama, we are told, is a ?“once-in-a-generation opportunity,” a battle which must be won now lest it slip through our grasp forever. That is not true at all. If the workers at that Amazon warehouse win their historic union, it will be a signal that the labor movement should unleash a broad campaign of similar organizing drives at more and more warehouses across the country. And if they lose? Same thing. 

The human mind is naturally wired to make us feel that we are, at all times, the stars (or, at least, best supporting actors) of a movie called ?“HISTORY,” and that what is happening at this very moment is both the culmination of, and the launching point for, all that has come before or since. We tend to recoil at the idea that we are but tiny insects borne along on mighty winds that were blowing long before we were here, and that will continue long after we are gone, and that the totality of our experience may be just a momentary glimpse of the sun before we are plunged once again into darkness. To the extent that these questions are philosophical or even spiritual?—?who cares? But when it comes to political action, well, these sorts of perceptions can really matter.

It is always tempting to tell people that the particular fight we are in today is a make-or-break one?—?that if we win this battle, total victory is ours, and if we lose it, all is lost, so buckle down and focus. But it is almost never true. You may have noticed that every single presidential election of your lifetime has been declared to be ?“The most important presidential election of our lifetime,” a historic appellation that is inevitably superseded by the next presidential election. Electoral politics, at least, has the excuse that it is composed of an endless series of regularly scheduled recurring events, only one of which is happening at any given time. But when we discuss movements—whether social justice movements pushing a specific cause, or the labor movement, pushing for general worker uplift?—?we are talking not about a series of things, but an ongoing process, which will never end until humans evolve into some higher form of being with no problems. Just as sharks die if they stop swimming, movements always have to keep moving. Preferably forward.

The temptation to see any given fight as a ?“make or break” moment has a steep downside. For one thing, it implies that we’ll have it made if we win; for another, it implies that we’ll be broken if we lose. Neither is true. The Amazon union drive is a case in point. It’s easy to see why we would play up something like this as an existential battle: it’s important! It is the single most important union drive of the past several years at least, and unionizing Amazon is an absolutely vital goal for the entire labor movement, to prevent millions more of us from being transformed into heavily monitored warehouse workers in order to further enrich Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world. Convincing everyone that this is a chance that will not come along again has a strong motivational effect. But if it were actually true, it would be awful. If this union drive succeeds, about 6,000 Amazon workers will have a union?—?out of a million. Changing the practices of this monster company will require organizing ten times this number, and then ten times that again. The amount of work necessary to achieve the goal we are aiming for will make Bessemer look like a light warmup. A win just means that we have a formula for unionizing a warehouse that is proven to work. A loss just means that we have a formula that doesn’t work, that should be improved before the union world moves on to the next warehouse, and then the next. Events may succeed or fail, but movements just adapt and keep moving on. 

The labor movement is unfortunately susceptible to this counterproductive cycle of hyping itself up for a big campaign, and then losing and wallowing in despair, or winning and assuming that we can rest now. We can never rest! (I mean, any of us can rest when we get burned out, but there should be other people to take our place in the meantime?—?another great quality of strong movements is that they don’t depend on a single leader whose absence causes them to collapse.) You can discern this tendency in the union establishment’s all-or-nothing rhetoric right now about the PRO Act, a very good labor law reform bill that has zero chance of making it through the Senate as long as the filibuster exists. It is very easy to imagine unions spending the next two years maniacally focused on passing this bill to the exclusion of all else, only to melt into a puddle of regret when Republicans win the next midterms and the bill has still not been passed. Instead of falling into this trap, the labor movement needs to think like a movement: There are millions of workers to organize and thousands of unions to build every hour of every day in every state. None of them may individually make the splash of a brand-name campaign or a revolutionary bill, but collectively, they are the bulk of the substance that makes the movement stronger. 

Yeah, get hype for the Amazon union. Make those calls for the PRO Act. Just remember that this is a process, not a championship game to be won. This is a thing that was going on before we got here, that we check into for a while to do our part, and that will continue long after we are all dead and gone. Because the second we stop working, the thing that the movement was built to overcome starts creeping back into our world. Even if we get our asses kicked today, be sure to come back tomorrow. Movements only die when they stop trying. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on March 8, 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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An Alabama Amazon Worker’s Case for Unionization

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At this very moment, one of the most historic union drives of our era is taking place at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama. Around 5,800workers at the facility, the majority of whom are Black, are currently voting on whether or not to unionize with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). If they are successful, the workers in Bessemer would become the first unionized Amazon workforce in the United States, and Amazon is pulling out all the stops to keep that from happening. We got to sit down with Jennifer Bates, one of the fulfillment center workers in Bessemer, to talk about her working conditions and about why this union vote is so important.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on March 4, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Maximillian Alvarez is a writer and editor based in Baltimore and the host of Working People, ?“a podcast by, for, and about the working class today.” His work has been featured in venues like In These Times, The Nation, The Baffler, Current Affairs, and The New Republic.


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Digital media workers continue to organize, this week in the war on workers

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Medium is the latest digital media outlet to unionize, with that news coming Thursday after a “strong majority” of 140 workers signed cards to join the Communications Workers of America.

“I think a lot of people perceive media as this white-collar profession, but the reality of working in a lot of media jobs was really low salaries, bad benefits, very little job stability,” Hamilton Nolan, formerly a key worker activist at Gawker—the first digital news company to get a union contract—and now a labor reporter at In These Times, said to CNN. Nolan was commenting on the general trend, which has included union organizing at HuffPost, Salon, Slate, Vox, and more. “One thing that the unions have done across the industry in many, many places is just to put in place a basic safety net for workers.”

It wasn’t just Medium this week, though. Workers at Daily Kos were able to announce that management has voluntarily recognized a union here after a majority of workers signed cards to join the NewsGuild, also a part of the Communications Workers of America. On a personal note, I’m proud to have worked at Daily Kos for nearly 10 years, and I’m proud to be a NewsGuild member for the second time.

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  • Karen Lewis, the legend-in-our-time former president of the Chicago Teachers Union, died Feb. 7. Following the electrifying teachers strike she led in 2012, Lewis had been planning to run for mayor of Chicago against Rahm Emanuel in 2015 when she was diagnosed with brain cancer. Lewis was an inspirational leader, but also the leader of a truly democratic movement that has stayed strong in the wake of her being forced to step back.

Here are some remembrances of Lewis, beginning with one from her union:

Karen had three questions that guided her leadership: ‘Does it unite us, does it build our power and does it make us stronger?’ Before her, there was no sea of red — a sea that now stretches across our nation. She was the voice of the teacher, the paraprofessional, the clinician, the counselor, the librarian and every rank-and-file educator who worked tirelessly to provide care and nurture for students; the single parent who fought tremendous odds to raise a family; and the laborer whose rights commanded honor and respect. She was a rose that grew out of South Side Chicago concrete — filled with love for her Kenwood Broncos alumni — to not only reach great heights, but to elevate everyone she led to those same heights.

But Karen did not just lead our movement. Karen was our movement. In 2013, she said that in order to change public education in Chicago, we had to change Chicago, and change the political landscape of our city. Chicago has changed because of her. We have more fighters for justice and equity because of Karen, and because she was a champion — the people’s champion.

Labor Notes

The energy that Karen Lewis brought to the teacher union labor movement vibrates through unions across the country. When you see fire in educators who are standing with students and community to demand justice, look in those flames for her unwavering determination—and her wide smile.

WBEZ Chicago:

[CTU Vice President Stacy] Davis Gates said it was Lewis that gave union leaders and teachers in Chicago the conviction to take on the fight.

“You see all of the threads and the fruits of her labor manifesting in a way where you don’t have just the one, you have the mightier, you have the more stable, you have a chorus of voices shaking their hand and demanding the justice she embodied as the leader of this union,” she said.

  • Relatedly, Chicago teachers again came to the brink of a strike as Mayor Lori Lightfoot sought to force them back into schools without adequate safety measures, but ultimately agreed to an improved school reopening plan.
  • Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, are voting on whether to unionize.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on February 13, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Ohio Auto Parts Workers Strike to Unionize

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Update, February 1: The workers ended their strike January 30, without having won union recognition. They plan to petition for a union authorization election with the National Labor Relations Board. —Editors

Workers at an auto parts factory in Norwalk, Ohio, are reviving a classic tactic—they’re eight days into a walkout to demand that their employer recognize their union.

The strikers work for Borgers, a German-owned Tier 1 auto parts supplier, meaning they supply parts directly to auto manufacturers. The factory produces wheel well and trunk liners for companies like General Motors, Ford, Volvo, BMW, and Tesla.

An overwhelming majority, 170 workers, signed union cards with the SEIU affiliate Workers United and demanded recognition—but the company ignored them. So on January 21, they walked out.

Norwalk, west of Cleveland and south of Detroit, has been hit hard by deindustrialization and plant closings. The Borgers facility sits across the street from a former Janesville Acoustics plant that closed in 2013, where hundreds of workers were members of Workers United.

‘I’VE NEVER BEEN TREATED SO BADLY’

The Borgers strikers describe a workplace rife with sexual harassment, racism, safety problems, and arbitrary management decisions.

Tiffany Slagle works as a quality technician, checking that parts are up to standard and that machines are operating properly. “I’ve never been treated so badly in my life,” Slagle said. “People grabbing at me, pulling my hair. Nothing happens to them because they’re close to management.”

Supervisors and those close to them also wield the power of job advancement. “If you’re a woman, your only shot for getting an improvement is to get involved with a supervisor,” said Joe Krout, a material handler and forklift driver. He said the “good old boys culture” allows endemic racism and sexual harassment to continue.

Jacob Gonzales works on Felt Line 1 as a forklift driver. His first day on the job, a supervisor asked if he should refer to Gonzales as one racial slur or another. “I was taken aback,” said Gonzales. “I was afraid for my job. Was this how it was going to be? This guy’s been there for five years.”

ARBITRARY WAGE RATES

Workers say that safety issues aren’t taken seriously in the facility. Gonzales talked about a time one of his co-workers lost the tip of his finger in an accident.

“In the immediate aftermath, management started making jokes, snickering,” said Gonzales. “This guy just lost a portion of his body, hadn’t even been taken to the hospital yet, and they were saying, ‘Well I guess he won’t be picking his nose with that finger.’”

The strikers say their wages are far too low for the work that they do, and are arbitrary. Wages and pay increases are merit-based, which in practice means they are inconsistent and based on favoritism. 

Krout makes $14.50 per hour—higher than most. Some workers get as little as $13. He previously earned $19 an hour as a forklift driver in a nearby unionized factory, and said he doesn’t know of anywhere else nearby that pays forklift drivers less than $15. “The biggest things I want to see would be a living wage, and a fair and transparent bidding process to move up,” said Krout.

Workers want a fair chance at advancement, and think that a big international company like Borgers can afford it. Said Slagle: “They can afford to pay rent-a-cops to sit out here and watch us on the picket line, but can’t give us a wage increase?”

Borgers workers in Germany are members of I.G. Metall. Ohio strikers have been in contact with their German counterparts. “In Germany, all their plants are unionized,” Gonzales said. “We don’t want to be considered second-class employees at Borgers.”

STRIKING JUST IN TIME

Striking for union recognition was a popular tactic during the U.S. labor movement’s growth spurt in the private sector during the 1930s-40s, and again in the public sector unionization wave of the 1970s. It’s far less common now. Most unions either use the National Labor Relations Board election process or find ways to put pressure—short of a strike—on an employer to voluntarily recognize the union.

Recognition strikes are most effective when workers have significant leverage over their employer. Much of the auto industry operates on a “just-in-time” model for parts delivery: big manufacturers get and make parts as they need them, rather than sitting on huge stockpiles. Workers at a Chrysler supplier in Toledo, Ohio, in 2014 used this leverage to win a recognition strike.

During the strike, the company has continued to operate at a reduced capacity, using a combination of workers who crossed the picket line and temps. But workers believe they’re affecting production.

“Since the strike, the quality of the parts has gone down,” said Slagle. “Their production is lower because they have people going back through parts [to check for mistakes].”

Krout expects the company to start incurring fines from automakers for falling behind on parts orders. “The impact on production has been significant,” he said. “Certain high-volume production cells are depleted entirely.” Much of what the Borgers workers produce goes to big General Motors facilities: Spring Hill in Tennessee; CAMI in Ontario, Canada; and Ramos Arizpe in Northern Mexico.

Strikers hope that the presence on the picket line of the high-skilled maintenance workers—responsible for keeping the finicky machines running—will slow down production even further.

“Our hopes are still high,” said Slagle. “The company is hard-headed and they’re not budging, but they’ve got some good workers out here who they can’t replace.”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on January 29, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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In the Shadow of Covid, ACLU Joins Non-Profit Unionization Surge

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The Covid-19 pandemic has posed many serious and dangerous challenges for workers everywhere?—?not just for workers on the job, but for workers trying to exercise their right to organize. But there have also been unexpected bright spots on this front over the past year, including a boom in union drives at nonprofits around the United States. One of those nonprofits is the American Civil Liberties Union, where staff workers recently voted to unionize with the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union (NPEU). In this episode, we talk with two representatives from ACLU Staff United, Gillian Ganesan and Alex Ortiz, and NPEU President Kayla Blado about the unionization effort at the ACLU and the growing nonprofit labor movement.

Additional links/?info below…

Featured Music (all songs sourced from the Free Music Archive:freemu?si?carchive?.org)

  • Jules Taylor, ?“Working People theme song”
  • Astrometrics, ?“I Have Heard of a Place”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on February 3, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Maximillian Alvarez is a writer and editor based in Baltimore and the host of Working People, ?“a podcast by, for, and about the working class today.” His work has been featured in venues like In These Times, The Nation, The Baffler, Current Affairs, and The New Republic.


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Google workers form union, not to bargain a contract but to press the company to stop being evil

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The tech industry’s overwhelmingly non-unionized status took a small but significant hit on Monday, with the announcement of the Alphabet Workers Union, a minority union at Google (the parent company of which is Alphabet). Their goal—at least in the short term—isn’t to win a union representation election and get the company to the bargaining table. It’s to create a platform to pressure the company on a range of issues as a group rather than as individuals. Google remains committed to keeping its workers isolated as individuals, with a spokesperson saying “as we’ve always done, we’ll continue engaging directly with all our employees.” That’s manager-speak for “divide and conquer.”

“Our bosses have collaborated with repressive governments around the world,” Parul Koul and Chewy Shaw, the union’s executive chair and vice chair wrote in a New York Times op-edintroducing the effort. “They have developed artificial intelligence technology for use by the Department of Defense and profited from ads by a hate group. They have failed to make the changes necessary to meaningfully address our retention issues with people of color.”

The Alphabet Workers Union intends to fight for Google to do better. And, significantly, the minority union structure allows participation by some of the workers most wronged under the company’s current system, workers who would be blocked from participating in a typical union bargaining unit. Koul and Shaw explain: “About half of the workers at Google are temps, vendors or contractors. They are paid lower salaries, receive fewer benefits, and have little job stability compared with full-time employees, even though they often do the exact same work. They are also more likely to be Black or brown—a segregated employment system that keeps half of the company’s work force in second-class roles. Our union will seek to undo this grave inequity.”

More than 225 workers have signed on—a fraction of Google’s workforce, but enough for a voice as they build on earlier activist efforts like the massive protests against the company’s sexual harassment policies, protests that won significant changes in 2018.

Google has shown its willingness to play dirty when it comes to worker protest, with the wrongful firing of two worker activists as well as the firing of artificial intelligence researcher Timnit Gebru after she criticized the company’s diversity and inclusion efforts and the biases in AI models. With the Alphabet Workers Union, workers will have a collective voice, and an affiliation with the Communications Workers of America.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on January 4, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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