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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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Google Workers Say the Endless Wait to Unionize Big Tech Is Over

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The five most valu­able com­pa­nies in Amer­i­ca are all big tech com­pa­nies, and none of them are union­ized. Com­pound­ing this exis­ten­tial chal­lenge for orga­nized labor is the fact that the huge work forces of the com­pa­nies make union­iz­ing them seem an impos­si­bly large task. Now, one union has solved that prob­lem with a rev­o­lu­tion­ary approach: Just start. 

This morn­ing, work­ers at Alpha­bet, the par­ent com­pa­ny of Google, announced the for­ma­tion of the Alpha­bet Work­ers Union (AWU), affil­i­at­ed with the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca, one of the few major unions that has ded­i­cat­ed resources to orga­niz­ing the tech indus­try. The AWU is start­ing with just over 200 mem­bers?—?a tiny frac­tion of the more than 200,000 total Google employ­ees, includ­ing full timers and con­trac­tors, that make up the $1.2 tril­lion com­pa­ny. But, after years of iso­lat­ed issue-based activism by employ­ees, they real­ized that if they ever want­ed a union, the only way to get it was to forge ahead. 

“A lot of us joined the com­pa­ny because we believed in the val­ues. That wasn’t a sec­ondary thing, that was why we joined,” says Chewy Shaw, a Google soft­ware engi­neer since 2013 who is now the vice chair of the AWU. Shaw describes a slow sour­ing of his rela­tion­ship with the com­pa­ny in recent years, as work­ers per­ceived as trou­ble­some were pushed out by hos­tile man­age­ment, and oth­ers chose to leave over sharp eth­i­cal dis­agree­ments about the company’s direc­tion. The inter­nal uproar last year over Google’s con­tracts with gov­ern­ment agen­cies like ICE was a clar­i­fy­ing moment for Shaw, who decid­ed that if he was going to stay at the com­pa­ny, he had to start organizing. 

Since the 2018 Google walk­outs protest­ing sex­u­al harass­ment (and the sub­se­quent retal­i­a­tion against its orga­niz­ers), Google has been the most high pro­file hotbed of work­er orga­niz­ing among the big tech com­pa­nies?—?though all of that orga­niz­ing focused on spe­cif­ic issues as they arose, rather than on form­ing a union. Shaw began attend­ing events that employ­ees set up relat­ed to orga­niz­ing: a lun­cheon, a book club, a lec­ture. Even­tu­al­ly, he con­nect­ed with CWA staff and began actu­al labor orga­niz­ing in earnest. Last June, a group called Googlers Against Racism got more than 1,000 employ­ee sig­na­tures on a Cowork?er?.org peti­tion urg­ing the com­pa­ny to take a num­ber of steps to pro­mote diver­si­ty and end con­tracts with police. That group pro­vid­ed a pool of inter­est­ed activist work­ers that led direct­ly to dis­cus­sions about union­iz­ing, and to recruits for the union. Shaw says that the fir­ing last month of Timnit Gebru, an inter­nal crit­ic of the com­pa­ny, was ?“a real­ly big ral­ly­ing moment.” 

(In response to today’s news, the com­pa­ny said in a state­ment: ?“We’ve always worked hard to cre­ate a sup­port­ive and reward­ing work­place for our work­force. Of course our employ­ees have pro­tect­ed labor rights that we sup­port. But as we’ve always done, we’ll con­tin­ue engag­ing direct­ly with all our employees.”)

Google is a com­pa­ny of engi­neers, and if there’s one thing engi­neers under­stand, it’s struc­tur­al issues. After the 2018 walk­out, ?“it became clear to me that it wasn’t enough. We weren’t able to move the com­pa­ny the way it need­ed to be moved,” says Auni Ahsan, a soft­ware engi­neer and one of the union’s found­ing mem­bers. ?“We need a struc­ture that we can devel­op that can be resilient.” 

Shaw scoffs at the long­stand­ing canard that engi­neers are con­sti­tu­tion­al­ly hos­tile to labor orga­niz­ing, an idea that has often been float­ed with­in both the labor and tech worlds to explain why the tech indus­try remains large­ly non-union. ?“Peo­ple are at a com­pa­ny that has orga­nized 250,000 peo­ple to work on sim­i­lar projects,” he notes dri­ly. As Google employ­ees have worked with CWA to build their union, they have also been study­ing labor his­to­ry and Amer­i­can labor law, and their diag­no­sis of the weak­ness­es in today’s labor move­ment has helped inform their path. ?“We’ve been think­ing some of [the decline of unions] is due to how peo­ple have been lean­ing on the legal struc­ture, and it does­n’t give enough pro­tec­tion unless you fit a spe­cif­ic sce­nario,” Shaw says. 

The AWU’s struc­ture could be a mod­el for future tech orga­niz­ing. It will be a dues-sup­port­ed orga­ni­za­tion, like a union, but it will be open to both full time employ­ees and con­trac­tors, who make up more than half of Google’s work force. The union has been orga­niz­ing in secret, mean­ing that much of its recruit­ment work was restrict­ed to the social net­works of its var­i­ous employ­ee orga­niz­ers. They decid­ed to go pub­lic after claim­ing 200 mem­bers, and they hope that the rush of pub­lic­i­ty will bring in thou­sands of more mem­bers in short order. AWU will not be able to engage in for­mal col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing like a union that rep­re­sents the entire staff, but it will be a per­ma­nent, grow­ing, and very vocal labor group posi­tioned square­ly inside one of the world’s most pow­er­ful com­pa­nies?—?some­thing that would have been vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble if CWA had tried to fol­low a tra­di­tion­al union orga­niz­ing route with­in Google. 

“Thou­sands or mil­lions of peo­ple will wake up and see this sto­ry and see that you don’t need to wait for the labor board to approve your union,” Ahsan says. ?“You have a union when you say you have a union.” 

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

About the Author: Hamilton Dolan 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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BAmazon Union: Anticipating the Battle in Bessemer, Alabama

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Last Friday, representatives from the Retail Workers (RWDSU) went before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), Region 10, seeking a quick union certification election.

The election is to determine whether a majority of the employees at the newly opened Amazon Fulfillment Center (BHM1) in Bessemer—a small of suburb of Birmingham, Alabama—want union representation.

Amazon was represented at the hearing by the law firm Morgan Lewis—a firm that specializes in “union avoidance” strategies. In dispute was the size of the bargaining unit.

The union had petitioned the Labor Board on November 20 with the support of at least 30 percent of a workforce that it calculated at 1,500. Obviously seeking to invalidate the union’s petition, the company countered that the appropriate bargaining unit was more than 5,700! The hearing took evidence from both parties and the hearing officer will decide who is right.

If the hearing officer rules in favor of the union, a quick certification election could be forthcoming. It is far more likely, however, that Amazon will spend its millions on legal actions to thwart a quick election. The company will argue that it is protecting the franchise of thousands of workers from a predatory outside organization.

UPRISINGS AT AMAZON

RWDSU’s filing for an election at Amazon caught the business press and many labor activists by complete surprise. But as Alex Press pointed out in Jacobin, “With pandemic-fueled growth has come an uptick in organizing at Amazon warehouses. The global health crisis and increased demand for Amazon’s services have led to widespread worker complaints about unsafe working conditions, including quotas that preclude safety measures they see as necessary to protect themselves from the virus.”

The Bessemer facility opened in March, at the onset of the pandemic. It is an 885,000-square-foot, four-story facility in one of Alabama’s poorest communities. The Bessemer City Council welcomed the opening with great fanfare, seeing these $15-per-hour jobs as particularly attractive in a state with only a $7.25 minimum wage.

Nevertheless the conditions at Amazon that have provoked nationwide actions against inhumane speed-up, pandemic-related and other health and safety issues, and callous disrespect have provoked a reaction here too.

Union drives in the South have often suffered from a perception that the union is a bunch of outside carpetbaggers from the North. However, this drive could have real local legs. RWDSU represents poultry processing facilities throughout the Southeast and has 7,500 poultry members in Alabama. Workers at nearby Koch Foods held a public protest on June 3 to force their employer to provide protective gear and safer conditions during the pandemic.

That kind of visible public fight no doubt was an appeal to friends and family working at Amazon who are suffering from some of the same conditions, without an organization to fight back.

RWDSU previously announced a union drive at Amazon’s Staten Island, New York, fulfillment center in late 2018, during the battle over the company’s plans to open a new headquarters in New York City, though the union never filed for an NLRB election. In March, a small walkout at the same facility over the lack of protective gear resulted in a flurry of publicity, but management fired a key leader, Chris Smalls.

AMAZON WORKERS ORGANIZE

For two years now, a network organizing under the banner Amazonians United has waged high-profile battles with Amazon at delivery stations in Sacramento, Chicago, and Queens. Instead of filing petitions for union elections, these workers have focused on building workplace organizations to wage fights around the immediate needs and interests of employees.

For example, in 2019, Sandra, an employee at a Sacramento delivery station, was fired for exceeding her unpaid time off by one hour. For weeks the Human Resources department ignored her and strung her along without a paycheck. But Amazonians United Sacramentoswung into action—and within 24 hours of their submitting a petition, H.R. announced that Sandra would be rehired with back pay.

Victories like this are the reason that Amazonians United’s efforts have been celebrated worldwide. The group has also made links internationally with other rank-and-file Amazon workers, particularly in Europe.

Workers at an Amazon facility in Shakopee, Minnesota, have also won local demands. After public protests backed by the local labor movement, workers won Muslim prayer hours for a large group of Somali employees. In particular, their efforts have received crucial support from SEIU Local 26, which represents many Somali janitors in the Twin Cities area.

There is no better base for organizing than the commitment and grassroots support of existing unionized workers who have friends and family in non-union workplaces. Hopefully, the organizing taking place in Bessemer, Alabama, is similarly “organic.”

OBSTACLES AHEAD

No matter how deep or wide the organizing is, the workers’ road to victory is mined with heavy obstacles. 

First, they face obstruction and delay. The company originally sought to delay the NLRB hearing until January, arguing that its supervisors were too busy with “peak” season to supply the information on employment necessary to determine the size of the unit. The NLRB agreed to delay the hearing only from December 11 to the 18th. 

But without a doubt, Morgan Lewis’s attorneys will take advantage of every legal loophole to obfuscate and delay. That’s a big part of what the current round of hearings on the size of the unit is about—delaying an election as long as possible to weaken any momentum the union has built up.

Next, they can expect aggressive management interference. If and when the NLRB finally sets an election date, the company’s anti-union “persuasion” campaign will swing into high gear, utilizing a combination of promises and threats, carrots and sticks.

Amazon undoubtedly will try to enlist some city councilors or other elected officials who raved about landing the warehouse in Bessemer to assist its campaign to throttle the union. Remember how Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, the ex-mayor of Chattanooga, lambasted the UAW’s attempt in 2014 to organize the Volkswagen plant there. Corker threatened that the state would pull back on its tax breaks for VW if workers won their union. When the union tried again in 2019, VW brought the governor of Tennessee into the plant to lead mandatory all-employee anti-union meetings.

Under these conditions an election victory would be a moving and inspiring moment, a true David and Goliath story. But wait, there is more: If the company chooses not to make fraudulent claims to undermine election results, next the RWDSU must bargain with the company for a first contract. Amazon can be expected to thwart labor law by not bargaining in good faith. Here again Amazon will stall and try to demoralize the workers. 

SUPPORT FOR BAMAZON UNION

These are some of the grim caveats that confront this valiant and apparently community-rooted effort. However, as we recently wrote in The Cost of Free Shipping: Amazon in the Global Economy, workers in facilities like Bessemer are in a position to wield significant power. “Amazon’s vulnerability is its supply chain management… based on the sophisticated coordination of product inventory and transportation logistics. That makes it highly susceptible to strategic action by workers—whether in its vast warehouse and sortation centers, shipping its products, or on the technology side.”

The whole Amazon world, and especially its workforce, will be watching and rooting for success. A victory in Bessemer would be a victory for all Amazon workers and a credit to the RWDSU and its members. 

Bearing in mind the national and international reach of Amazon, its sophisticated logistics capacity, and its vast resources to oppose worker organization, building workers’ power and sustaining organization must ultimately be national and international in scope.

The flexibility built into the Amazon business model which enables same-day delivery and the efficiency of the last mile is also flexibility that can be used to thwart worker organization if it remains isolated at single facilities.

That is why ultimately the effort will require the dovetailing of internal worker organization at multiple facilities—like what Amazonians United is doing—with the power and resources of one or several national unions, like RWDSU or the Teamsters, for instance. There is no single model for success at Amazon. RWDSU has launched an important initiative in Bessemer.

Amazon’s business model fundamentally undermines wages and working conditions for the whole labor movement, including the more than 200,000 Teamsters employed at UPS and hundreds of thousands of grocery store members of the United Food and Commercial Workers. We all have a stake in supporting a victory for the workers in Bessemer and their new “BAmazon” union! Stay tuned to Labor Notes for updates on the NLRB election and further developments in organizing at Amazon.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on December 21, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director at the ILWU, currently working with a national network of Amazon employees and organizers. 

About the Author: Rand Wilson is chief of staff at SEIU Local 888. He was communications coordinator for the Teamsters’ 1997 UPS strike.


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The Stunning Workers’ Victory in New Mexico That You Haven’t Heard About

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On March 5, New Mex­i­co Gov­er­nor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed H.B. 364, a major over­haul of New Mexico’s sys­tem of pub­lic sec­tor labor rela­tions. Hailed by the Team­sters as a nec­es­sary mod­ern­iza­tion and the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers (AFT) as a ?“big step” in the fight for pub­lic employ­ees, many of the bill’s mar­quee reforms pro­vide pro­ce­dur­al over­hauls for New Mexico’s sys­tem of over 50 local labor boards, includ­ing a poten­tial greater cen­tral­iza­tion of labor rela­tions into the New Mex­i­co Pub­lic Employ­ee Labor Rela­tions Board. 

One stun­ning aspect of H.B. 364 went most­ly unmen­tioned in the pub­lic debate over its pas­sage: Sec­tion 7c of the bill made New Mex­i­co one of the few states to pro­vide pub­lic employ­ees the right to form a union through card check. That pro­vi­sion has already paid off: Orga­niz­ers with Uni­ver­si­ty of New Mex­i­co grad­u­ate assis­tants say they filed for union recog­ni­tion under the new law on Decem­ber 9.

Card check, some­times called major­i­ty sign-up, requires that employ­ees sub­mit cards signed by a major­i­ty of the pro­posed bar­gain­ing unit; after it’s con­firmed they have a major­i­ty, they have a rec­og­nized union. Nine states?—?Cal­i­for­nia, New York, New Jer­sey, Illi­nois, Mass­a­chu­setts, Ore­gon, Wash­ing­ton, Maine and New Mex­i­co?—?have strong mech­a­nisms for manda­to­ry recog­ni­tion using card check. A num­ber of addi­tion­al states?—?such as Kansas, North Dako­ta and Mary­land?—?have card check pro­vi­sions that apply to small­er groups of pub­lic employ­ees, and which may have weak­er pro­vi­sions. Two oth­ers, Okla­homa and New Hamp­shire, passed card check laws in 2004 and 2007, only to repeal them in 2011.

Card check was the major reform pro­posed by the failed Employ­ee Free Choice Act, which died in the Sen­ate dur­ing Barack Obama’s first term. Work­er advo­cates argue it makes it eas­i­er to form a union by elim­i­nat­ing the peri­od between work­ers show­ing inter­est in a union, and the actu­al elec­tion. Dur­ing that wait­ing peri­od, employ­ers often wage high­ly effec­tive and expen­sive cam­paigns to dis­suade work­ers from union­iz­ing using out­side pro­fes­sion­al ?“union avoid­ance” con­sul­tants?—?some­thing recent­ly cit­ed by the Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Institute as a major fac­tor in the decline of unions.

Although card check isn’t part of the Pro­tect­ing the Right to Orga­nize Act, the pack­age of union-backed labor reforms passed by the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Feb­ru­ary, it’s still a part of the labor reform dis­cus­sion. Evi­dence is mixed. Sta­tis­tics on pub­lic sec­tor union den­si­ty shows that states that passed it didn’t see major expan­sions of pub­lic sec­tor unions. That may be due, in part, to the fact that almost all of them had high pub­lic sec­tor union den­si­ty when card check laws were passed (with the excep­tion of New York, which includ­ed card check in the Tay­lor Law passed in 1967). 

But New Mex­i­co is dif­fer­ent: In 2019, only 22.8% of its pub­lic sec­tor work­erswere cov­ered by a union con­tract, plac­ing New Mex­i­co 36th in the nation. This puts New Mex­i­co well behind most oth­er states with wide-rang­ing card check laws, which tend to have high­er union den­si­ty. This means there’s unprece­dent­ed room for growth?—?room that will pro­vide insight into whether or not card check expands union pow­er like work­er advo­cates claim.

There are already signs that it does. The grad­u­ate assis­tants recent­ly filed for recog­ni­tion announced their orga­niz­ing dri­ve in Octo­ber, choos­ing to affil­i­ate with the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca. The cam­paign gained new urgency because of the pas­sage of card check and the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic. Accord­ing to Saman­tha Cooney, a grad­u­ate assis­tant in the Depart­ment of Polit­i­cal Sci­ence and a mem­ber of the Unit­ed Grad­u­ate Work­ers of Uni­ver­si­ty of New Mex­i­co orga­niz­ing com­mit­tee, grad­u­ates decid­ed they need­ed to ?“get down to it and get a super­ma­jor­i­ty by Decem­ber, and we end­ed up doing that.” Grad­u­ates had already begun orga­niz­ing pri­or to the law’s pas­sage, and they were ?“extreme­ly hap­py when [the bill was signed] because it made our jour­ney toward union­iza­tion that much eas­i­er,” says Cooney. 

With major employ­ee groups at the state’s largest employ­er orga­nized and the path cleared for union expan­sion, New Mex­i­co will be a test of whether labor law reform can help orga­nized labor claw back decades of lost ground. The signs look pos­i­tive?—?with grad­u­ate assis­tants lead­ing the way?—?that New Mex­i­co may expe­ri­ence a strong expan­sion of pub­lic sec­tor unions. If it does, it shows a road for­ward for labor else­where: Vir­ginia, Neva­da, Col­orado, Delaware, Con­necti­cut and Rhode Island all have Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty tri­fec­tas, with no card check process for pub­lic sec­tor workers. 

Orga­niz­ing may have helped deliv­er reforms, too. H.B. 364 was intro­duced four months after the con­clu­sion of major orga­niz­ing dri­ves for tenure-track and adjunct fac­ul­ty in the Uni­ver­si­ty of New Mex­i­co sys­tem, and new fac­ul­ty union lead­ers lob­bied along­side oth­er pub­lic sec­tor unions for the leg­is­la­tion. Their win was trail­blaz­ing in both the changes to New Mex­i­co law that fol­lowed, and in that they proved orga­niz­ing at Uni­ver­si­ty of New Mex­i­co could suc­ceed. Accord­ing to Cooney, the suc­cess of the fac­ul­ty dri­ve encour­aged grad­u­ate assis­tants to move for­ward, and the fac­ul­ty union and indi­vid­ual fac­ul­ty offered sup­port for grad­u­ate work­ers seek­ing to form their union.

The suc­cess of card check in New Mex­i­co may prove impor­tant for work­ers else­where. But for grad­u­ate assis­tants at Uni­ver­si­ty of New Mex­i­co, the changed process and what it helped deliv­er?—?a union?—?means some­thing more imme­di­ate and per­son­al: pow­er. That’s impor­tant for Cooney. ?“We feel strength­ened by the num­bers around us,” she says, adding, ?“for myself, this process has not only made me opti­mistic about what my raise will be.” She con­tin­ues, ?“But I know I have oth­er grad­u­ate assis­tants that under­stand my cir­cum­stances, and have my back.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 22, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: C.M. Lewis is an edi­tor of Strike­wave and a union activist in Penn­syl­va­nia. 


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Dear Mackenzie: There’s One More Donation You Owe to the World

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Dear Macken­zie Scott, 

This week, you announced that you’ve made $4.2 bil­lion in char­i­ta­ble dona­tions in the past four months. For that you deserve an extreme­ly mod­est amount of con­grat­u­la­tions! You are, no doubt, besieged at all times by peo­ple who come to kiss your ass and beg for mon­ey. We come to you today with some­thing dif­fer­ent: moral con­dem­na­tion leav­ened with only the faintest sense of praise?—?com­bined with an idea that offers redemp­tion for you and for the belea­guered reg­u­lar peo­ple of Amer­i­ca at the same time.

Your net worth, accord­ing to reports, stands at some­thing like $60 bil­lion. How did you get so rich? You got so rich by being mar­ried to Ama­zon CEO Jeff Bezos for 25 years. More specif­i­cal­ly, you got so rich by divorc­ing Jeff Bezos last year, and get­ting 4% of Amazon’s stock in the process. That stake in the com­pa­ny was worth $38 bil­lion when you got it. You have there­fore made more than $20 bil­lion in the past year, thanks to the company’s boom dur­ing the pandemic. 

Here is where we will say some­thing mild­ly nice about you: You seem to be on the good end of the bil­lion­aire class. Many of your wealthy peers view char­i­ta­ble giv­ing as a chance to see their name adorn­ing fan­cy build­ings, or to attend lav­ish social events while being insu­lat­ed from crit­i­cism for their lav­ish­ness. Oth­ers, like your ex-hus­band, view char­i­ty as an unim­por­tant after­thought, donat­ing an inde­fen­si­bly pal­try por­tion of their wealth to the needy, or leav­ing the task to a foun­da­tion after they’re dead. By giv­ing away bil­lions this year alone, you have demon­strat­ed that you grasp, to some extent, the moral urgency of help­ing peo­ple soon­er rather than lat­er. You have pledged to give away the major­i­ty of your wealth in your own life­time?—?not much of an eth­i­cal achieve­ment by Peter Singer stan­dards, but in the con­text of Amer­i­can bil­lion­aires, not bad. 

Fur­ther­more, your choic­es of where to give seem to show that you do care about impact, and not just grandeur and flash. You sought out small orga­ni­za­tions, from his­tor­i­cal­ly Black col­leges to local food banks, that can do a lot with your mon­ey, rather than lazi­ly writ­ing checks to big nation­al groups that will show­er you with good P.R. and then blow a lot of your mon­ey on mid­dle man­age­ment. You exhib­it a very basic sense of human decen­cy, and that alone puts you ahead of most of your peers. 

Of course, that is not enough to give you a pass. The very exis­tence of a $60bil­lion for­tune in the hands of one per­son is a crime, proof of the way that human soci­ety has evolved away from jus­tice. And your for­tune, in par­tic­u­lar, is not clean. Your mon­ey was earned on the backs of hun­dreds of thou­sands of reg­u­lar peo­ple who have done the work that makes Ama­zon run, and suf­fered as a result. They have suf­fered phys­i­cal­ly. They have suf­fered finan­cial­ly. And they have suf­fered exis­ten­tial­ly, by being treat­ed at every turn as cogs in a machine, rather than as human beings whose own hopes and dreams and auton­o­my should be allowed to flour­ish. Every Ama­zon ware­house work­er forced to pee in a bot­tle because they didn’t have suf­fi­cient breaks; every Ama­zon office work­er who slept in their car in order to keep their job; every Ama­zon deliv­ery dri­ver denied a chance at an actu­al career with a liv­ing wage and ben­e­fits because the com­pa­ny has seen to it they will nev­er be a full time employ­ee; all of these peo­ple put a dol­lar into your pock­et, Macken­zie Scott. Your for­tune came from them. Your mon­ey was earned by squeez­ing them into pover­ty. That is the plain truth. No mat­ter how nice of a per­son you may con­sid­er your­self to be, the fact is that you have a pro­found debt to all those people. 

You could, I guess, just write a check and give every Ama­zon work­er a few thou­sand bucks. That would be nice for a pass­ing moment, but noth­ing would real­ly change. You can­not fix a struc­tur­al debt with a trin­ket. In order to start cor­rect­ing the fun­da­men­tal injus­tices that have made you so rich, you must do some­thing that can give those work­ing peo­ple their own pow­er to take back con­trol of their lives. 

Ama­zon needs a union. And I am hap­py to say: Macken­zie Scott, you can help with that. It’s hard to orga­nize a com­pa­ny like Ama­zon, both because it is a larg­er beast than any indi­vid­ual union has resources for, and because it will spend a great deal of mon­ey on lies and intim­i­da­tion to pre­vent its work­ers from exer­cis­ing their fun­da­men­tal right to orga­nize. But mon­ey can help to even the play­ing field. For a small frac­tion of the mon­ey you just gave out?—?say, $100 mil­lion?—?it would be pos­si­ble to hire orga­niz­ers nation­wide with the express pur­pose of union­iz­ing Ama­zon. The com­pa­ny is cur­rent­ly fight­ing against one sin­gle union dri­ve at a ware­house in Alaba­ma; we need to have them fight­ing against par­al­lel union dri­ves at hun­dreds of ware­hous­es across the coun­try all at once. The labor move­ment knows how to orga­nize work­ing peo­ple, but its resources are sim­ply no match for a $1.6 tril­lion com­pa­ny that can stamp out iso­lat­ed dri­ves like a giant crush­ing an ant. To give Amazon’s work­ers a chance at real jus­tice, the com­pa­ny must be orga­nized. And to orga­nize a com­pa­ny like this, there must be ded­i­cat­ed nation­al infra­struc­ture work­ing on this, and only this. No labor union in the Unit­ed States has enough mon­ey to build this on the scale that’s nec­es­sary. But you do, Macken­zie Scott. 

With one check, you can make it pos­si­ble to start union­iz­ing the com­pa­ny that made you a mega-bil­lion­aire. This is the sin­gle best way to start pay­ing your moral debt to those whose lives have been treat­ed as dis­pos­able in ser­vice to Amazon’s growth. And, it will real­ly piss off Jeff Bezos. I think we would both like to see that, no? 

We’re going to have to con­fis­cate the rest of your mon­ey when the rev­o­lu­tion comes any­how. Might as well set your kar­ma right before then. 

Sin­cere­ly,

The unwashed masses

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 17, 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. 


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Power Comes From Class War, Not Biden

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It may have been the biggest mis­la­beled cel­e­bra­tion in Amer­i­can his­to­ry. By mid­day Sat­ur­day, Novem­ber 7, when the elec­tion was final­ly called, hordes of ecsta­t­ic peo­ple poured into the streets across the coun­try, honk­ing and cheer­ing and weep­ing with joy. This was wide­ly referred to as a cel­e­bra­tion of Pres­i­dent-elect Joe Biden. But it real­ly wasn’t about Biden at all. 

I was in Philadel­phia when the news came, and a major Count Every Vote ral­ly host­ed by unions and com­mu­ni­ty groups instant­ly turned into a Thank God That’s Over ral­ly. There was a for­est of wav­ing signs pro­mot­ing unions, and the Green New Deal, and democ­ra­cy itself. Biden-Har­ris signs were rel­a­tive­ly hard to find. Because even Joe Biden’s own vic­to­ry par­ty was not about Joe Biden. 

It was, first, about the end of the Trump night­mare. And sec­ond, about the pos­si­bil­i­ty of some­thing good hap­pen­ing again, one day. Biden him­self had lit­tle to do with it. No one has ever been excit­ed enough about Joe Biden to par­ty in the streets.

In fact, Biden’s entire cam­paign rest­ed on the idea of him not so much as a vision­ary leader but as a ves­sel into which an incred­i­bly broad spec­trum of Amer­i­cans could pour their hopes. After a fren­zied ear­ly pri­ma­ry surge by Sen. Bernie Sanders, the entire Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty seemed to coa­lesce around Biden overnight, based on the the­o­ry that the most mediocre can­di­date would be the safest bet against Trump. That bet paid off?—?with the help of the party’s left wing, whose activists did as much as any­one to elect Biden. When the eupho­ria of Trump’s down­fall wears off, the Left must wake up to one thing that will not have changed: The pres­i­dent-elect, like the sit­ting pres­i­dent, won by explic­it­ly run­ning against progressives. 

For Trump, crazy car­i­ca­tures of social­ists and immi­grants served as his boo­gie man. For Biden, it was the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. Their styles are dif­fer­ent, but both men won by cast­ing them­selves as walls to stop the tide of wild-eyed left­ists rush­ing in to take away your fos­sil fuels and your pri­vate health­care. Trump’s pitch came with racism. Biden’s came with over­ween­ing empa­thy. But both came with implic­it assur­ance that the left­ies would remain locked out­side the White House gates. 

This real­i­ty is what the Left must face. Though infi­nite­ly bet­ter than the alter­na­tive of creep­ing fas­cism, the 2020 elec­tion?—?a close Biden vic­to­ry, like­ly with­out Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­trol of Con­gress?—?is a poi­so­nous polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion for pro­gres­sive activists. They now find them­selves with­out Trump’s rad­i­cal­iz­ing influ­ence on the pub­lic and frozen out by a Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment that will cite the need to mod­er­ate their posi­tions to get any­thing passed. 

When the Left shows up to be repaid for their work of get­ting Biden elect­ed, they will run into John Kasich and the dis­af­fect­ed Repub­li­cans who are there for the same rea­son. It is not hard to imag­ine that these groups will more or less can­cel each oth­er out, leav­ing the cen­trists to feast on their favorite food, the sta­tus quo. 

For the mil­lionth time, the Left will see its polit­i­cal util­i­ty to the Democ­rats evap­o­rate after Elec­tion Day. Hope springs eter­nal, but the raw log­ic of our two-par­ty sys­tem dev­as­tates us anew, again and again. The way out of this trap is to build a pow­er cen­ter that is not locked into the elec­toral sys­tem, where it is vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble for the Left to con­sis­tent­ly win.

Where can such pow­er be built? The rich build it on Wall Street and in the cor­po­rate world. For the Left, it is the labor move­ment, the sole insti­tu­tion that enables work­ing peo­ple to build and exer­cise real eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal pow­er not behold­en to the veto of big com­pa­nies or politicians. 

The arc of the moral uni­verse may bend toward jus­tice, but it is very, very long. Longer than a life­time. Pro­gres­sives?—?the class of peo­ple who are best able to diag­nose society’s prob­lems, but the least able to change them?—?will con­tin­ue to be dis­ap­point­ed until they turn the bulk of their atten­tion away from the inher­ent­ly hos­tile elec­toral sys­tem and toward build­ing unions, the only things able to make social­ism real with­out ask­ing for permission. 

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the estab­lish­ment of the union world has become just as mani­a­cal­ly focused on elec­toral pol­i­tics as the estab­lish­ment of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. It is not easy to orga­nize an enor­mous revi­tal­iza­tion of union pow­er when so many unions are them­selves more inter­est­ed in con­gres­sion­al cam­paigns than union campaigns.

But 2020 has brought us the most vital ingre­di­ent of all: an ener­gized and rad­i­cal­ized nation of work­ers in dire need, who are about to be dis­ap­point­ed by how the sys­tem deliv­ers on its big promises.

This elec­tion wasn’t about Joe Biden. It was about get­ting back to a base­line of nor­mal­cy. That nor­mal­cy means class war. If we focus on giv­ing the work­ing class an ade­quate weapon, we won’t be in for quite so much dis­ap­point­ment by 2024.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on November 10, 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 [email protected]


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What the workplace will look like under a Biden White House

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The U.S. workplace will look much different with Joe Biden in the Oval Office — with some significant changes possible even if Republicans maintain a majority in the Senate.

“Biden, who won the endorsement of almost every major union in the country, has made labor reform a fundamental part of his program and is widely expected to name at least one union leader to his Cabinet,” your host reports. And “as the coronavirus pandemic continues to stoke permanent job losses and compromise worker safety, the case for structural change may be stronger than ever.”

What Biden can do will to some extent depend on which party controls the Senate, which won’t be determined until a pair of key Georgia runoffs in early January. “Still, the transition will be a sharp turn from the Trump White House, under which union membership has droppedpay inequity has widened and enforcement has dwindled.”

Here’s some of what you can expect:

— Heightened worker safety enforcement: One of the first things a Biden administration will likely do is instruct the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to step up worker safety enforcement by enacting an emergency temporary standard, or a set of guidelines governing how employers must protect their employees from Covid-19. He’s also likely to ramp up penalties for violators.

— A reversal of Trump executive orders: Biden will be able to immediately rescind some of President Donald Trump’s executive orders — including those restricting employment-based visasbanning diversity training in the federal government and peeling back civil service protections — as well as reinstate Obama-era executive orders that Trump had undone.

— A more labor-friendly NLRB: The former vice president is widely expected to appoint more Democrats to the National Labor Relations Board, the agency responsible for settling disputes between unions and employers. Right now, it’s three Republicans, one Democrat — and an empty seat.

— Pursuit of progressive labor policy: Biden campaigned heavily on enacting Democratic labor legislation similar to that passed out of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s House in 2020 and 2019, including a measure to hike the federal minimum wage to $15 and the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, which would strengthen workers’ ability to unionize. This, of course, will hinge on the balance of power in the upper chamber, as many of the provisions are opposed by Republicans.

Union leaders rejoice: “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ victory in this free and fair election is a win for America’s labor movement,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement. Said AFSCME President Lee Saunders: “[C]ome January 20, we will have a White House that honors our work, respects our sacrifice and fights for the aid to states, cities and towns that we need.”

WHO WILL BE BIDEN’S LABOR SECRETARY? There are already several names in rotation as Biden’s transition team gets to work, our Megan Cassella reports.

“Biden is widely expected to choose a more progressive candidate to lead the Labor Department, one that would help balance out more moderate nominees he’s expected to place at other agencies,” she writes.

“Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), a former union organizer who also has Labor Department experience, is high on the list of potential nominees, as is California Labor Secretary Julie Su. Levin comes from a potentially vulnerable district, however, and Democrats may be wary of a special election there, given their unexpectedly narrow control of the House.”

“Other possibilities for Biden’s Labor secretary include DNC Chairman and former Obama Labor Secretary Tom Perez, AFL-CIO Chief Economist Bill Spriggs and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who POLITICO reported is interested in the position.”

CALIFORNIA’S PROP 22 GIVES GIG COMPANIES A NEW ROAD MAP: The success of a California ballot measure allowing Uber, Lyft and other gig companies’ drivers to be independent contractors — while still enjoying a few employee-like perks — may provide employers with a model to use across the country, Bloomberg’s Josh Eidelson reports.

Proposition 22 promises drivers “a guaranteed minimum pay rate while they’re assigned a task; a review process for terminations; and health stipends if they work enough hours,” he writes. “A University of California at Berkeley analysis concluded that after accounting for full expenses and wait times, the proposition’s pay guarantee is worth less than $6 an hour. (The companies dispute this.)”

“The companies spent hundreds of millions of dollars on ads … [and] it was money well spent. Uber and Lyft alone gained more than $10 billion in market value after the vote, and defanged a recent state court injunction that would have required them to reclassify their drivers as employees.”

“The companies don’t plan to stop there,” Eidelson writes. “‘You’ll see us more loudly advocate for new laws like Prop 22,’ Uber Chief Executive Officer Dara Khosrowshahi said on a Nov. 5 earnings call. DoorDash CEO Tony Xu said in a statement: ‘We’re looking ahead and across the country, ready to champion new benefits structures that are portable, proportional, and flexible.’”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on November 9, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.


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The Failure to Unionize the Tech Industry Will Eat the Labor Movement Alive

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The pandemic has made tech stronger, but unions haven’t caught up.

Big tech is get­ting big­ger. The five biggest pub­lic com­pa­nies in Amer­i­ca are all tech com­pa­nies. Their stock prices have col­lec­tive­ly risen by more than a third this year. The coro­n­avirus has been a bless­ing for them. It has super­charged their growth, even as it’s dev­as­tat­ed many oth­er busi­ness­es. When this pan­dem­ic is over, the tech industry’s share of our econ­o­my?—?and all of the pow­er that comes with that?—?will be greater than ever.

The Gild­ed Age is here again. Not with rail­roads and steel com­pa­nies, but with tech com­pa­nies, which are tak­ing over old indus­tries and form­ing new ones, divert­ing enor­mous piles of wealth towards them­selves along the way. Gates and Bezos and Zucker­berg and Musk are the new Rock­e­feller and Carnegie and Mel­lon and Ford. The unique nature of this cri­sis, which has kept peo­ple inside and on screens, has only accel­er­at­ed the over­haul of the Amer­i­can econ­o­my. The indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion is long gone, and the tech rev­o­lu­tion can declare vic­to­ry. Ana­lysts say we are in a ?“bear mar­ket for humans,” as tech com­pa­nies are reward­ed for their abil­i­ty to squeeze human work­ers out of exis­tence. The cap­i­tal has shift­ed, and the labor is just being dragged along.

Ide­al­ly, orga­nized labor is an equal coun­ter­bal­ance to cor­po­rate pow­er. In Amer­i­ca in 2020, where only one in ten work­ers is a union mem­ber, that is obvi­ous­ly not the case. Cap­i­tal runs the show. The abil­i­ty of the work­ing class to exer­cise fun­da­men­tal pow­er over the terms and con­di­tions of our econ­o­my is extreme­ly lim­it­ed, exist­ing only in cer­tain pock­ets of cer­tain indus­tries. If we ever hope to reverse our 40-year climb in inequal­i­ty and re-cre­ate the mid­dle class and wrench our soci­ety back toward fair­ness, work­ing peo­ple need to be able to exer­cise pow­er in the con­text of the entire econ­o­my, not just in iso­lat­ed places. That is the scale of change that the labor move­ment needs to aim for. Unions need to be every­where cap­i­tal is, or cap­i­tal will win and labor will lose. Our exist­ing world proves that basic point. Right now, there is no more gap­ing hole for orga­nized labor than the tech indus­try. Unions have almost no pow­er there. And that’s where all the eco­nom­ic pow­er lies. This is not a small prob­lem for unions?—?it is an exis­ten­tial one.

Apple is not union. Microsoft is not union. Not Ama­zon, nor Alpha­bet, nor Face­book. Those five com­pa­nies alone are worth $7.3 tril­lion. Not only is all of that pow­er com­plete­ly untouched by the influ­ence of unions, but almost all small­er tech com­pa­nies are non-union as well. It is not hard to see that if our goal is to allow orga­nized labor to exert mean­ing­ful influ­ence over the entire econ­o­my, then it is a fair­ly major prob­lem that orga­nized labor is absent from the indus­try that exerts the most influ­ence over the entire econ­o­my. The tech indus­try is the biggest fail­ure of the union move­ment in the 21st cen­tu­ry.

Smart peo­ple in the labor move­ment have under­stood this fact for some time. Indeed, there has been a decent amount of non-union labor orga­niz­ing in the tech indus­try over the past five years or so, result­ing in some vis­i­ble actions like the 2018 Google walk­outs. Though that orga­niz­ing has val­ue, it does not pro­duce a last­ing inter­nal struc­ture that can col­lec­tive­ly bar­gain and per­ma­nent­ly change the bal­ance of pow­er between work­ers and man­age­ment and investors. That would require a union. When we gaze out across the land­scape of the mighty tech indus­try in search of suc­cess­ful union orga­niz­ing, there are decid­ed­ly slim pick­ings.

One bright spot is Kick­starter, where employ­ees won a bit­ter fight to union­ize ear­li­er this year. Pan­dem­ic-induced lay­offs have cut that unit from around 90 to 50 employ­ees in recent months, but the work­ers say the union has been a suc­cess­ful safe­ty net, allow­ing them to bar­gain for bet­ter sev­er­ance. In a col­lec­tive state­ment, the Kick­starter union says that ?“The pan­dem­ic has done away with the illu­sion that tech labor is excep­tion­al­ly secure,” and that they are a demon­stra­tion to oth­ers in their indus­try that a union can not only pro­tect work­ers, but also ?“ensure the soft­ware we pro­duce not be deployed in ways that con­tribute to the mad­ness around us.”

?“Our expe­ri­ence has giv­en us hope that the pro­gres­sive cul­ture of Amer­i­can tech will rapid­ly lead to the wide­spread under­stand­ing that 2020 is the time to orga­nize,” the Kick­starter union says. ?“It’s time for Amer­i­can tech to move past its ?‘move fast, break things’ phase into an era of solv­ing real prob­lems for real peo­ple. We believe it falls to us, the work­ers, to imple­ment this ethos.”

Grace Reck­ers, an orga­niz­er at the Office and Pro­fes­sion­al Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (OPEIU) who helped to orga­nize Kick­starter, says that there has been a sub­se­quent influx of inter­est from work­ers at oth­er tech com­pa­nies, and that there are sev­er­al new orga­niz­ing dri­ves in progress. She says that the stereo­type of tech employ­ees?—?indi­vid­u­al­is­tic engi­neers with lib­er­tar­i­an ideals and lit­tle inter­est in col­lec­tive action?—?is just not accu­rate. ?“In NYC, the oppo­site is true,” Reck­ers says. ?“A lot of peo­ple are dri­ven to work [at tech com­pa­nies] because of mis­sion-based val­ues of the com­pa­ny. They have pol­i­tics that align with some mis­sion of the com­pa­ny.”

Google famous­ly pro­claimed ?“Don’t Be Evil.” When such com­pa­nies are worth a tril­lion dol­lars, con­trol the media and exer­cise vast polit­i­cal pow­er, hold­ing them to their word can be a pow­er­ful moti­va­tion for employ­ees to orga­nize, even if those employ­ees are get­ting good salaries.

One of the only major unions that has launched a ded­i­cat­ed effort to orga­nize in tech is the Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (CWA), which hired two orga­niz­ers this year for a cam­paign called CODE. Its lead orga­niz­er is Emma Kine­ma, who co-found­ed the video game indus­try group Game Work­ers Unite. Kine­ma sees the tech indus­try as a sprawl­ing mon­ster with ten­ta­cles that reach from the media to enter­tain­ment to logis­tics to retail, touch­ing almost every­thing. She wor­ries not only about the direct employ­ees of tech com­pa­nies, but also about the cease­less ten­den­cy of tech to shunt more and more work­ers into a ?“gig econ­o­my” pur­ga­to­ry. And while she says that inter­est in orga­niz­ing is grow­ing con­stant­ly among work­ers, she is blunt about the lack of resources being devot­ed to the issue on a nation­al scale.

?“On the whole, the U.S. labor move­ment has com­plete­ly failed to rise to the chal­lenge of orga­niz­ing the tech indus­try,” she says. ?“If the move­ment under­stood just how essen­tial orga­niz­ing in tech was, we’d be set­ting up orga­niz­ing com­mit­tees like the CIO did,” seiz­ing the oppor­tu­ni­ty pre­sent­ed by the pandemic’s unrest to under­take a mas­sive and well-coor­di­nat­ed indus­tri­al orga­niz­ing effort.

Alas, that is not what’s hap­pen­ing. The fail­ure thus far to orga­nize tech is a direct result of the lack of any strong cen­tral lead­er­ship from the union move­ment. Even if the few union orga­niz­ers cur­rent­ly work­ing on tech are the best orga­niz­ers in the world, it’s laugh­able to think that a hand­ful of under­paid union staffers can rea­son­ably take on a mul­ti-tril­lion dol­lar indus­try. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of work­ers will need to be orga­nized, and, in all like­li­hood, a new union will have to be formed for that pur­pose, because no exist­ing union has the spare tens of mil­lions of dol­lars per year it will take to run such an orga­niz­ing cam­paign in any­thing close to an ade­quate way. Log­i­cal­ly, the AFL-CIO should coor­di­nate this kind of effort, pool­ing resources from many unions for the good of the move­ment. In real­i­ty, there is no evi­dence that any of the union world’s biggest pow­ers have even grasped how urgent this issue is.

Yes, it will be a long and very expen­sive process to union­ize tech. That is beside the point. In the long run, suc­cess­ful union­iza­tion of an indus­try cre­ates self-sus­tain­ing labor pow­er that can grow, as dues mon­ey from well-paid new union mem­bers is pooled and direct­ed to where it’s most need­ed. Besides, we have no choice. Ask some­one try­ing to cob­ble togeth­er a liv­ing as an Uber dri­ver or Instacart work­er how well the pow­er of a tech indus­try com­plete­ly unchecked by labor pow­er is serv­ing them. Either we orga­nize tech, or it will orga­nize the rest of us to serve it.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on August 26, 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 [email protected]


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We Need the Labor Movement To Organize Worker Fightback in the Face of the COVID-19 Crisis

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Life-and-death circumstances are being imposed on U.S. workplaces and workers are increasingly responding by standing up, fighting back and walking out, but frequently without the support of organized labor. Unions have a choice right now: Hunker down and try to ride out the COVID-19 storm or put our shoulders to the task of assisting workers in their fight to either improve conditions on the job or shut their workplaces down. If unions seize the moment, we can not only improve the immediate situation for millions of workers but also create a wave that changes our society greatly for the better, organizes many new workers into unions and forges a generation of workplace leaders who will be able to build fighting organizations for years to come.

With the enhanced unemployment benefits currently in place and with real fears surrounding just showing up for work every day, workers have the upper hand. Employers need them much more than the other way around. Workers who learn how to use collective action to shut a workplace down or to force management to yield to their safety and compensation demands will not soon forget those lessons.

The immediate need of workers at this moment is not a comprehensive list of demands but rather three basic principles that speak to their survival needs.

  • Fight to make employers shut down all workplaces except those truly critical to sustaining life until the public health crisis has been controlled.
  • Give workers in those critical jobs everything they need to do their work safely and compensate them for the immense risk they are taking.
  • Provide robust economic support for everyone else to allow and incentivize them to stay home.

Likewise, rather than an attempt to plan a national coordinated set of actions that would likely be joined by only a smattering of already-committed activists, what is needed instead is to help large numbers of workers gain the tools they need to lead fights at their workplaces.

Out of these fights the workers will develop the demands they need to protect themselves. And each of these fights, if given the proper direction and support, can inspire solidarity throughout the country and move many other workers into action, creating the conditions not only for more workplace victories but also to produce political pressures that force the federal government to address the needs of working people.

While the relief packages passed by Congress so far provide some economic support to laid-off workers, much more is needed, including to address all those left out, not least the undocumented. Congress must also act to provide health care to all given that millions more will now be without insurance due to the loss of their jobs. Already, a number of excellent proposals address these issues. Getting workers into motion is going to be the way to win them, just as widespread worker unrest in the 1930s won the relief programs and labor rights that workers needed then.

To organize the worker fightback needed right now, unions should:

•       Aggressively promote these principles, both to their own members and to the unorganized, and then provide workers the help they need to take on their employers.

•       Provide basic toolkits on their websites to educate workers on their rights and to outline for them the initial steps in self-organization and taking their demands to the boss.

•       Make union staff available to provide guidance and facilitate needed support.

•       Recruit labor leaders and member activists committed to solidarity actions that produce immediate pressure on the relevant corporate or political targets.

•       Create new and robust structures for coordinating effective solidarity.

Our union, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), has called on all workers, both our members and nonunion workers, to stand up and fight. We have created online resources to help nonunion workers take action to win safe workplaces. We have published a special issue of UE Steward on how to organize members around COVID-19 issues in the workplace. Alongside the Democratic Socialists of America we are launching a joint effort called the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, which will provide organizing and logistical support to workers who are ready to take on their boss. Our members, both in organized shops and in workplaces where we have organizing campaigns, are winning concessions from their employers through militant and creative tactics.

Now is the time for all labor organizations committed to forging a better society for working people to step up and help launch workers into the kinds of fights needed to win that future. UE is committed to doing just that, and to work with and support all others who do so. We see some others in the labor movement doing likewise, but not nearly enough. We call on all labor unions to join us in this fight.

This blog was originally published at InTheseTimes on April 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Carl Rosen is the UE General President. Andrew Dinkelaker is the UE General Secretary-Treasurer. Gene Elk is the UE Director of Organization.


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Transit Workers Win Organizing Victories: Worker Wins

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Our latest roundup of worker wins begins with a series of wins for transit workers and includes numerous examples of working people organizing, bargaining and mobilizing for a better life. 

St. Louis Metro Transit Workers Agree to New Contract: After a months of difficult negotiations, working people at St. Louis Metro Transit won a new three-year deal that increases wages and benefits by more than $26 million. More than 1,500 Metro workers are members of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 788 who work as vehicle operators and mechanics.

Southern Poverty Law Center Employees Vote for NewsGuild-CWA Representation: Employees of the Southern Poverty Law Center voted to join the Washington-Baltimore News Guild/TNG-CWA. The members will now move forward on setting a “foundation for a legacy of equal rights, respect and dignity for all workers, regardless of race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical ability, and national origin.”

UNITE HERE Members at The Modern in Hawaii Win New Contract: Members of UNITE HERE Local 5 at The Modern Honolulu reached an agreement with Diamond Resorts, which owns and operates the property. The agreement includes a significant pay raise.

Editorial Employees at NBC News Digital Join NewsGuild-CWA: Some 150 editorial workers who create digital content for NBC News have voted to join The NewsGuild of New York/TNG-CWA. The unit includes reporters, video journalists, editors, social media strategists, designers and editorial staff from various NBC digital properties.

Registered Nurses at University of Chicago Hospitals Join NNOC/NNU: Nurses at two University of Chicago hospitals overwhelmingly voted to join National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United (NNOC/NNU). More than the 90% of the 320 registered nurses voted to join NNOC/NNU. Kathy Haff, a RN for 27 years in the emergency department, said: “Joining the union means that we will now have a real voice in patient care decisions. We can be better advocates for our patients and make sure we have a say when policies are implemented.”

UAW Members Ratify New Fiat Chrysler Deal: After nearly five months of negotiations, UAW members approved a new four-year deal with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. The deal decreases health care costs for lower-paid production employees, a key goal of the UAW.

New York MTA and Largest Union Reach Agreement: After six months without a deal, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and members of Transport Workers (TWU) Local 100 reached a tentative deal. Local President Tony Utano said: “I am happy to report that we have reached a negotiated settlement with the MTA that I believe the Local 100 membership will ratify in overwhelming fashion.” Previous proposals from management sought to cut back overtime payments, increase worker health care costs and limit vacation accruals for new employees.

Jews United for Justice Join NPEU: Working people at Jews United for Justice (JUFJ) announced they are unionizing with the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union (NPEU), an affiliate of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE). The organization focuses on advancing economic, racial and social justice in the Baltimore-Washington area by mobilizing local Jewish communities into action. Rianna Lloyd, a JUFJ staffer, said: “We have campaigned for the rights of all workers in Maryland and [Washington,] D.C., including nonprofit employees. We know the importance of keeping dedicated, talented people on the job, and in negotiations we are going to focus on the well-being of JUFJ staff. We want to create a work environment that workers want to stay in.”

Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art to Voluntarily Recognize Employee Union: Two weeks after workers at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) launched a campaign to join AFSCME, MoCA agreed to voluntarily recognize the new union. The new unit will represent more than 120 staffers. The workers sought to unionize in order to obtain higher pay and better benefits.

Fairfax Connector Strike Ends with ATU and Transdev Reaching Agreement: A strike that shut down service for Fairfax Connector bus rides ended with a victory for Transdev employees. The tentative agreement allows workers to go back on the job while details of a bigger deal are negotiated. ATU International President John Costa said: “Our strike was a victory, sending a loud and clear message to Transdev that we won’t tolerate their unlawful tactics at the bargaining table. We do reserve the right to walk off the job again if the good faith bargaining by Transdev disappears.”

This blog was originally published by the AFL-CIO on March 16, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.


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