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Working or Unemployed, Construction Workers Are Screwed

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With no firm national standards about shutting down construction projects as the coronavirus stalks the nation, building trade unions and their members are facing a grim multidimensional crisis: high unemployment, faltering pensions, lost benefits, plummeting dues revenue—and, for those who do remain on the job, the constant question of whether they should quit in order to protect their health.

Leaders at two major building trade unions this week described an increasingly desperate economic climate for their members. Eric Dean, the president of the 130,000-member Ironworkers Union, said that 30% of his work force was “idle or sitting at home,” and that unemployment continues to rise by the day. Jim Williams, vice president and organizing director at the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, said that unemployment among his members has shot up to 50% in the course of a single week.

The price of this sudden economic dislocation is vast. In particular, health care benefits of the idled construction workers are now at risk, just when they need it most. Also at risk are the unions’ pension funds, which have cratered along with financial markets, endangering retirement benefits for thousands of members. The multi-employer pension fund of the Ironworkers, which was still recovering from the losses of the 2008 financial crisis, has now taken a 20% hit on its portfolio. “With our hours down and our investments down, a blind man can see that we’ve been severely impacted,” Dean said.

It is hard to know whether those construction workers who are still working should be considered lucky. In the coronavirus epicenter of New York, and in most other states, construction workers have been deemed “essential employees,” allowing their employers to keep them building on crowded job sites, where “social distancing” is next to impossible. Dean said that, for the first time in his career, he has seen construction projects building worker housing on job sites in order to keep workers isolated and close to their workplace. At the same time, ironworkers have told him that walking through empty streets in order to get to their still-active building sites “makes me feel that I’m expendable.”

“There’s a growing sentiment among our workforce that maybe [unemployment] should be higher, because of the health and safety risk of being on a construction site,” Jim Williams said. Among IUPAT members, there is a split down the middle between those who are more concerned about health risks, and those who say “I need to work so that I have my health care coverage, so that I can continue my way of life. It’s a Catch-22.” Though the union can see why work on critical infrastructure like the electrical and water systems must continue, commercial construction “can certainly slow down,” he said. “I don’t believe building a millionaire’s or billionaire’s condominium” is worth the risk.

The stimulus bill now working its way through Congress is only a half measure, as far as the unions are concerned. A coalition of building trade unions lobbied for four “planks” to be included in the bill: better unemployment compensation, healthcare coverage that won’t lapse, shoring up pension funds, and a large investment in national infrastructure—a policy that Democrats and Republicans have been talking about for years without ever making it a reality. Of those four goals, only the unemployment compensation aspect will be fulfilled in the current bill. Already, the building trades are pushing for another stimulus bill after this one is completed. “This was the relief bill,” Williams said. “There’s going to have to be a recovery bill, too.”

Besides the direct impacts to members, the unions themselves are now staring down the second-order consequence of widespread unemployment: a dropoff in union dues. IUPAT has already told its locals that it is waiving member dues for the month of April as a relief measure, and will assess again after that. Waiving dues, however, inevitably eats away at the revenue unions use to maintain their staffing—and to lobby Congress for whatever comes next. According to Dean, the Ironworkers lost around 15% of their members after the 2008 recession, a figure they are using as a baseline now. But everyone acknowledges that this time could be worse. And Dean suspects that if work dries up, more members closing in on retirement age may decide to go ahead and retire early, further weakening the active membership numbers.

If there is any silver lining, it is that whenever the industry picks back up again, non-union construction workers may feel more enticed to organize, after witnessing their higher-paid union colleagues make use of at least a marginal safety net during this crisis. “It presents the opportunity for the labor movement to get it right,” said Williams. “Any time we miss that, we miss a golden opportunity.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 26, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

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

Sara Nelson: Our Airline Relief Bill Is a Template for Rescuing Workers Instead of Bailing Out Execs

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Sara Nelson is the head of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) and is widely considered to be a candidate for the next leader of the AFL-CIO. She gained prominence when she called for consideration of a general strike to end the government shutdown of 2019. Now, with the entire economy cratering in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, Nelson is working overtime to help craft a relief package for the teetering airline industry that keeps all employees on the payroll—a model she says can be “a template” for a national bill to give relief to all workers.

She spoke to In These Times on Wednesday about how to save the airline industry, what unions should be doing to save working people from devastation during this crisis, and the opportunities for radicalism that lie ahead.

A $50 billion airline rescue package is in the news. What should it look like? 

Sara Nelson: It has to be centered on workers. We have a plan that provides payroll subsidies to keep everyone on the payroll. That’s really important, because you have to keep everyone in their job, if not on the job. Payroll subsidy for not just the airlines, but also all the airport workers, is approximately $10 billion a month. For a three month package, that’s $30 billion. So $30 billion of the $50 billion is for maintaining payroll. 

What’s your sense of the likelihood of that happening? 

Nelson: This has already been incorporated into the House Democratic plan, and they’re working with us on a package that would provide these payroll subsidies, plus a direct loan from the government to the airlines, with certain requirements attached. So this is a relief package focused on workers, not a bailout. 

What are those requirements? 

Nelson: No stock buybacks. No executive bonuses. No dividends. No breaking contracts in bankruptcies. No spending money on busting unions [The AFA-CWA says Delta has continued to send out anti-union messages during the coronavirus crisis, prompting a response from the union]. And worker representation on boards. 

Tell me about what the politics have looked like in the negotiations around this

Nelson: We’re fairly aligned with the airline industry on continuing the payroll. There’s actually zero disagreement there. Do they like some of our conditions that we want to put on them? No. But they’re not all opposed. … By continuing that payment through private company payrolls, that connects people to their healthcare. It allows them to be assured that when we get on the other side of this, they still have their jobs. The benefits for the airline industry are they don’t have the administrative nightmare of checking people out of security sensitive jobs. Nobody’s talking about the reality of what it means to put people on furlough and lay them off. It’s a huge task. Once we eradicate this threat, our economy should be able to restart immediately if we do this right. 

Couldn’t the argument about continuing payrolls apply to many other industries right now? 

Nelson: Yes—our view is that this is a template for every other industry. If we get this right for the airlines, you can do the same things for retail, for example. Or hospitality. 

Should there just be a national bill that says we’re going to do this for everyone, rather than industry-specific programs? 

Nelson: There could be a national bill. The reason that it probably makes sense to do a specific bill for the airline industry is that there is a real need right now, and we can set a template and have the political momentum to get this done. If we don’t get this done this week, or early next week, the airline industry is burning cash at a rate so great that they won’t even be able to follow federal law, or maintain the payroll in a couple months, or weeks in some cases. 

What’s your best guess as to when this will be done? 

Nelson: Part of the problem we have right now is that a lot of people are about to hurt very badly. But this all happened so fast that it hasn’t completely sunk in. … One month ago, the airlines were celebrating the biggest profit in history. All of the airlines announced hiring tens of thousands people this year. Not only has all of that flipped on its head in 30 days time, but we’re talking about a complete halt of air travel.

We’ve seen this before. We know this maybe better than the rest of the country. It was flight attendants and pilots who died first on 9/11. In the wake of dealing with all that hurt, in the bankruptcies that followed, they took our pensions, slashed our pay, diminished our healthcare, cut our jobs—they put it all on our back, while they took executive bonuses and we had to deal with the loss of homes and cars, and stressed marriages, and telling our kids they had to do without. We know this, and it’s up close and personal still. We’re not going to let this happen again, and we’re not going to let it happen to the rest of the country. 

Should there be some coordinated union attack on this? Should every union be pushing their own industry’s response, or should there be one united front from unions? 

Nelson: Transportation unions got together and agreed on a set of principles. We are coordinated around what this relief needs to look like. We’ve been sharing that through the AFL-CIO, and the labor movement has some core principles here that are aligned. The ideas around it are focused on the ability to attack the virus. So that means immediately paid sick leave, that means the ability to stay home with continued paychecks, that means getting relief to people as soon as possible, that means focusing on the resources that we need to get to people on the front lines to protect themselves. Keeping the paychecks going, and making this a worker-focused relief. 

On the offense, this is an opportunity to restructure the things that are wrong with our economy and with the financial system. This is an opportunity to put an end to stock buybacks. It’s an opportunity to say that we should be passing the PRO Act. … This crisis shows us how clearly Wall Street should not be setting the rules for our economy. 

It feels like our politics have just shifted very fast. What do you think the impact is going to be on the presidential election? 

Nelson: I think if labor leads on this message and this relief and this response, and we’re very clear that we have the solutions, then we have the opportunity on the other side of this to not only reshape policy, but also to inspire the American people to join unions in record numbers. If we do that, then no matter who is in office, we can shape the political momentum in this country to get real changes that help people. 

A lot of working people with and without unions are wondering what their leverage is at this moment, when layoffs are coming and everything feels tenuous. What’s the leverage? 

Nelson: Working people are gonna feel the hurt, and everyone is paying attention. Communications right now matters more than ever. Union communications, getting our message out into the mainstream, and pushing that by working with those who support a worker-focused relief, a.k.a. House leadership, is the way to promote that the labor movement is leading on getting results for people. People want to be part of a winning team—people want to be somewhere they can actually see results. This is a tremendous opportunity to show what the labor movement is about. 

And let me pull it back out for a second: This virus is a very clear metaphor for what we always say in the labor movement, which is “An injury to one is an injury to all.” It doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor, or where you come from. If a virus exists and we don’t do something about it, then we’re all at risk. 

When 90% of people don’t have unions, but 100% of people are in danger, will unions really be the vanguard for getting national relief? 

Nelson: We’re coordinated on that. There is a call for national relief, and there’s also a recognition that if you can’t do your job, I can’t do mine. So if one person is not able to return to work, if one person isn’t able to be protected, if one person doesn’t have the ability to safely shelter, then that continues the risk of the spread of the disease. There has to be national relief… In our view, we need to be setting a template that works for everyone else, and that’s what we can do. 

There are going to be areas where the template with the airline industry doesn’t work. There are going to be people who can’t stay on a payroll, and we have to help them too. But if we remove all the people who can just stay in the current systems that they’re in—it’s the easiest way to find out where we have other people that we haven’t addressed their needs, and then we can target that specifically. 

Is America going to like socialism more after this? 

Nelson: Every executive in America sounds like a socialist right now! 

I wonder if Joe Biden will sound like a socialist… 

Nelson: If we build up our political clout, and we can actually get things done, and we can actually provide a common narrative here, then we’re gonna move Biden to that narrative. We’ve already seen it happen. There’s tremendous movement that he’s already made from his political record on where he stands on particular issues, or how he’s talking about approaching the issues of today. And we’re not just gonna take him to his word—we’re going to hold him to it. But we can only do that by building our numbers and showing that we’ve actually got leadership and an ability to move forward.

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 19, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

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

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.

Unions Across America Are Screaming For Paid Sick Leave and Healthcare

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As coronavirus spreads, sowing panic and economic dislocation, unions across the country are using the crisis as an opportunity to call for priorities that were dismissed as left-wing fantasies not long ago—and now seem like common sense. 

Virtually every union with members in a position to be exposed to the illness itself or to its economic side effects (which is to say, almost everyone) has reached out to members with tips about how to navigate the crisis. Many, particularly those representing front-line service workers, are also speaking to reporters, holding press conferences, and issuing press releases about the failings of the government and corporations to deal effectively with the needs of working people. AFGE, which represents federal government workers, criticized the Trump administration’s lack of guidance about what to do as the virus spread. The Association of Flight Attendant’s called Trump’s European travel ban “irresponsible,” and criticized the administration’s “failure to adequately test for the virus, failure to contain the spread, suppression of advice from leading scientists, and failure to consult with stakeholders.” Most unions called for immediate paid sick leave policies, some targeting individual companies where union members work, and others calling on the government to create a national paid sick leave program to bring the United States in line with the standards of the developed world.

Demands of different unions vary based on their membership, but all coalesce around public health and economic security. The Chicago Teacher’s Union called on city leaders to promise that teachers and staff would not lose any pay in the event of a school shutdown. It also broadened its focus to the entire community, demanding that “the City take all action within their authority to support fifteen days of paid sick leave for all CPS parents and Chicago residents.”

The SEIU is running several different campaigns at once that focus on needs exposed by the coronavirus crisis. The union represents doctors in training, and launched a “Hospital Interns, Residents and Fellows Bill of Rights,” calling for better wages and working conditions, as well as a right to unionize. In New York, where 32BJ SEIU represents thousands of airport workers, the union held a press conference calling for the passage of a state law that would require employers to give a health insurance subsidy to those workers—including subcontractors—many of whom cannot currently afford health insurance.

Massive, nationwide public fear of an infectious disease is a great way to get people to care about the health of the working people they come into contact with in their daily lives. Even the most conservative Republicans have now acquired an intense desire to ensure that the people who drive them around, serve their food, ring them up at stores, and take care of them at hospitals are not sick. Unions are trying to use this newfound leverage to score gains that can last past the day when the coronavirus dies down.

Perhaps the most bluntly effective campaign is now being waged by Chipotle workers in New York City, who are trying to organize with SEIU. Workers went on strike last week, charging that the company is violating the city’s paid sick leave laws by retaliating against employees who take time off. To put a fine point on it, the union quoted Chipotle worker Carlos Hernandez in a press release: “Several times in my year at Chipotle, I’ve gotten sick and had diarrhea while at work,” Hernandez said. “Every time this happened, I went to the on-duty manager, let them know I had diarrhea, and asked to go home. Unfortunately, every time I did this, the manager merely told me to switch from the grill, where I normally work, to washing dishes or working the cash register.”

With diarrhea and the coronavirus on their side, working people may achieve fair health care at last.

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 13, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

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

The Culinary Union Faces Its Biggest Test as Coronavirus Shuts Down Vegas

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There may be no more vivid illustration of the economic havoc being wreaked by the coronavirus than the rapid shutdown of the Las Vegas strip. What was a booming tourist destination a week ago is now in the process of becoming a locked down row of empty buildings. For the Culinary Union, whose 60,000 members comprise virtually the entire Las Vegas casino industry, this is the equivalent of a nuclear bomb.

In just the past two days, MGM Resorts, which operates 10 major properties on the Strip, has announced that it is closing all of them indefinitely; Wynn Resorts has announced it is closing its two properties for at least two weeks; and Caesar’s, another major operator, has begun layoffs. With travel grinding to a halt and America hunkering indoors, it is likely only a short matter of time before every casino and resort in Las Vegas is empty, a situation even worse than the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

The Culinary Union, which just weeks ago was being feted and flattered by Democratic presidential candidates in town for the Nevada caucus, will now be tested by the rapid furloughs and layoffs of what will amount to a large portion of their working membership.

In an update sent to members late last week, the union said that it was holding “emergency negotiation sessions” with all of its employers, seeking five paid sick leave days, paid leave for those in quarantine, enhanced cleaning standards, and leaves of absences on request. Some of those asks will become moot as properties shut down. Culinary Union spokesperson Bethany Khan told In These Times that the union has negotiated up to six months of paid healthcare benefits for workers who are laid off.

Yesterday, the union told members that the board of the Culinary Health Fund, the union-run healthcare provider for more than 125,000 members and their families, will be extending coverage for those who are laid off or have had their hours cut, and will not impose copays. The Health Fund also told members that all testing for the coronavirus will be covered at no cost (although the Fund’s website now prominently notes that “The Culinary Health Center currently does not have the ability to test for the Coronavirus,” and that the emergency room is the only place people can currently be tested.)

Unlike former crises like 9/11 and the Great Recession, the coronavirus shutdowns are not only economic, but also tinged with the further uncertainty of an unfolding pandemic. That means that the shutdowns and layoffs in Las Vegas could persist even after the virus itself comes under control, due to the economic fallout, or even after economic recovery measures have been taken, if the virus itself is still raging. There is no way to say when business might return.

The Culinary Union became a union role model by building wall-to-wall power in a one-industry town. Now that that industry is facing what could become a total temporary collapse, the union’s ability to function as a social safety net will be tested like never before. Last month, every Democratic politician in America was competing to prove that they supported the union and its members more than anyone else. Now, they will get a chance to prove it.

Even Culinary Union members who have not been laid off are facing their own hazards. One union worker at a property on the Las Vegas strip that is still open told In These Times that they are now caught between the fear of losing a job, or losing their health. “It’s a petri dish.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 16, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

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

As Unions Read the Tea Leaves, Retail Workers Union Locals Rush to Endorse Biden

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Joe Biden’s stronger-than-expected performance on Super Tuesday may be tempting some unions that have sat on the sideline through the Democratic primary to fall in behind a candidate they now perceive to be the likely winner. This morning, a slew of locals of the Retail, Wholesale, Department Store Union (RWDSU) endorsed Biden, and the union telegraphed its support for Biden’s campaign.

Like many major unions, the RWDSU, which has about 100,000 members nationwide, has not issued a national endorsement in the Democratic primary. Stuart Appelbaum, the head of the RWDSU, is on the executive committee of the DNC. In many unions that did not issue national endorsements, locals issued their own endorsements—Bernie Sanders picked up dozens. But in the same way that Hillary Clinton picked up the majority of union endorsements in 2016 despite Sanders having a stronger history of labor support, unions now may be reading the political tea leaves and jump in to back Biden if they think he will be the eventual nominee.

This morning, six separate RWDSU local or councils all announced that they are endorsing Biden. They are the RWDSU Southeast Council, representing 10,000 workers in the Southeastern United States; the RWDSU Tennessee District Council; RWDSU Local 108 in Newark, New Jersey; RWDSU Local 262 in Kenilworth, New Jersey; RWDSU Local 379 in Columbus, Ohio; and RWDSU Local 390 in Columbus, Ohio.

Notably, all of the endorsement press releases were packaged and sent out sent out to the media by the national office. Chelsea Connor, RWDSU communications director, told In These Times, “Many of our members believe Joe Biden provides the best chance to defeat Donald Trump and support the under-ticket. We haven’t endorsed yet, but encouraged our locals and councils to let their voices be heard. We also aren’t aware of any other local or council supporting other candidates in the RWDSU.”

Union endorsements of Joe Biden have not been without controversy. Last month, more than 1,200 IBEW members who supported Bernie Sanders issued a letter asking their leadership to retract its endorsement of Biden. (Sanders today announced he was endorsed by the president and vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, though the union itself did not endorse anyone.)

In an election year that featured a crowded field of Democratic candidates, many of whom put out extraordinarily pro-union platforms, sitting out the primary and endorsing the eventual Democratic nominee has been considered the wise move by the majority of major unions. As the contest appears to have narrowed to Bernie vs. Biden going into Michigan next week, union support has become more critical than ever for both candidates. It is possible that today marks the beginning of a slew of unions making the common calculation that Biden is going to win, and now is the time to endorse him, while they still believe they can win political points for it.

In 2016, many Sanders supporters in the labor movement were angry when major unions made a similar calculation and backed Hillary Clinton, only to see Donald Trump win. Time will tell if that calculation is more successful in 2020.

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 4, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

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

Major union announces $150 million campaign to beat Trump

A 2 million-member union will be making its largest-ever investment in a presidential election this year—and for good reason. The Service Employees International Union announced plans to spend $150 million to defeat Donald Trump and turn the tide in what Mary Kay Henry, the union’s president, calls “a make-or-break” for workers.

”He’s systematically unwinding and attacking unions. Federal workers rights have been totally eviscerated under his watch,” Henry told the Associated Press. “We are on fire about the rules being rigged against us and needing to elect people that are going to stand with workers.”

The SEIU’s campaign will focus on the critical battleground states of Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Trump, of course, won Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, which are key targets to flip in 2020, while Colorado, Minnesota, Nevada, and Virginia are important states to defend (and Colorado is an opportunity to defeat an incumbent Republican senator). “The union and its local members will pay particular attention to two key urban battlegrounds they believe will play a defining role in the 2020 general election: Detroit and Milwaukee,” according to the Associated Press.

The union’s focus will be not on television advertising but “primarily on direct contact and online advertising targeting minority men and women who typically don’t vote.” The campaign plans to reach 6 million voters.

Half of SEIU members are people of color, many are immigrants, many are women, and more than half make less than $15 an hour. This $150 million investment in beating Trump is about their futures—about whether there will be a National Labor Relations Board that supports workers’ organizing rights under the law or penalizes employers that retaliate against workers for their activism, about whether the federal minimum wage will ever rise, about health care and child care, about whether workplace safety regulations are enforced or continue to be gutted. 

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on February 28, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

New England UAW Workers Join Parade of Local Unions Endorsing Bernie Sanders

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A New England United Automobile Workers (UAW) local this week voted to endorse Sen. Bernie Sanders for president, the latest in a stream of union locals across America backing Sanders even when their national parent unions have not issued endorsements.

The executive board of UAW Local 2322, representing about 5,000 workers in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont, voted to endorse the Sanders campaign, reported here for the first time. Anais Surkin, the local’s president, said that the board chose to endorse based on widespread support of Sanders by the members, and as a result of frustration with the UAW international’s lack of a process for backing candidates in the Democratic primary.

“What are they gonna do to us as a local if we endorse?” Surkin said. “We can and should express the will of the membership… the [Sanders] campaign isn’t focused just on the national leadership of unions. It’s focused on member-to-member communications.”

Local 2322 is an amalgamation of 27 different shops, including graduate student workers, child care workers, health care workers and teachers. There was not a vote of the full membership regarding the endorsement, but the board plans to bring its endorsement to a meeting of the joint council of all the bargaining units later this week and expects to gain their formal support.

The UAW, like many national unions, has not endorsed a candidate in the Democratic primary. Despite the decision of some national unions to bide their time until the general election, the Sanders campaign has been picking up endorsements from local unions across the country all year. In January, Sanders won the endorsement of a 10,000-member SEIU branch in New Hampshire. In February, 7,000 members of the American Federation of Musicians in Los Angeles backed him. Last week, he picked up the endorsement of UFCW 21, a 46,000-member local in Washington state; this week, he was endorsed by AFGE Local 704, a notable high-profile endorsement from federal workers at the Environmental Protection Agency. His campaign has also been endorsed by tens of thousands of people collectively represented by locals of AFSCME, CWA, UNITE HERE and other unions that chose not to issue primary endorsements on the national level.

National unions that have chosen to endorse candidates in the primary other than Sanders have risked an internal backlash. Last week, Sanders supporters within the IBEW released a letter signed by 1,300 members calling on their parent union to retract its endorsement of Joe Biden. The Amalgamated Transit Union, which endorsed Biden this month after backing Bernie in 2016, is also the subject of an internal effort by Sanders supporters to get that endorsement retracted. And the leadership of the Culinary Union, the powerful UNITE HERE local in Las Vegas, found itself at the center of a week-long hostile news cycle after it tried to dissuade members from voting for Sanders because of his support for Medicare For All, only to see him win the Nevada caucus with strong support from those very Culinary Union members.

The vocal backing of Bernie Sanders within organized labor is propelled in part by Labor For Bernie, a volunteer group rich with labor organizers who work to build and coordinate his support in the union world. Indeed, Anais Surkin says that many of the members of UAW 2322 have been organizing for Bernie on the side, helping to enhance his support within the union. The bulk of the local’s members are in Massachusetts, which votes on Super Tuesday (March 3). Even though the state is the home of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Labor For Bernie volunteers are optimistic that Sanders may have a chance to win there now, building on his momentum from Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.

“It’s a campaign that stands for the things we stand for,” Surkin said. “This is a way to take them beyond the confines of our collective bargaining agreements.”

Read the full endorsement here.

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 25, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

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

The Culinary Workers Run Vegas. The Politicians Are Just Visiting.

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It was the politicians that turned the picket line chaotic. Not the workers. The workers knew just what they were doing. Hundreds and hundreds of them, in their red Culinary Union T-shirts, stretched out down West Flamingo Road in front of the Palms Casino, just off the Vegas Strip last Wednesday. They marched a few hundred yards and back in an orderly if boisterous circle, guided by a battalion of bullhorn-wielding chant leaders. They’d done this before.

Then the presidential candidates showed up.

One by one, each taking their turn in the spotlight, and each accompanied by a seething scrum of press, they plowed their way down the the picket line like speedboats slicing through a river. Cameramen walking backwards tripped over curbs; microphone-waving reporters bumped into strikers; union staffers had to join arms and form human shields around the more popular candidates, just to keep the march moving. Some of the candidates, like Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, looked natural, familiar with the rhythm of pickets. Others, like Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden, looked awkward and nervous, pale, spectral wonks in white Oxford shirts dropped into a seething horde of humanity and forced to carry “No Justice, No Peace” signs, unable to quite pull off the angry working-class look. And some, like Tom Steyer, accompanied by a single staffer and ignored by most of the press, just looked happy to be invited. (Bernie Sanders was conspicuously absent.)

But all of them, one after the other, messed up the flow of the picket line. Their presence was something to be tolerated. This was all part of a system that has been perfected over decades. The reporters come to trail the politicians. The politicians come to pay homage to the Culinary Union. The Culinary Union puts them all to use by marching them up and down a picket line for a fight against Station Casinos, a grinding fight that has been dragging on for years and years.

For a few days, the national spotlight is here in Las Vegas, for the Nevada Caucus. But after the spotlight moves on, the Culinary Union and its 60,000 workers will still be here, trying to win contracts in the face of criminal intransigence, trying to pull thousands of working people into the middle class through sheer force of solidarity and stubbornness. It is this dynamic that always gets twisted in the whirlwind of the national media around a presidential election. The union does not exist to serve the politicians. The politicians exist to serve the union. The union has built a wondrous machine to ensure that it stays that way.

That machine is a simple virtuous circle. It begins and ends with organizing, which never stops. Organizing is propelled by the fact that the union demonstrably improves the lives of its members. Building that array of member benefits, from health care to pay to job protections to a training academy to discounts on rental cars, never stops either. These things provide a large number of extremely engaged people. The union can offer the support of this motivated and well-organized force to politicians who back the union’s goals. These union members can do everything from phone bank to flier to knock on doors to produce screaming rallies on short notice. Their support is highly prized, and their opposition is feared. The political allies they earn help to clear the omnipresent political obstacles to more organizing, and the cycle continues.

The Culinary Union has spent more than 80 years becoming what it is today, which is one of America’s most effective social and economic justice organizations. Its members are mostly women and mostly Latino. They work in casinos, making the food, cleaning the rooms, serving the drinks, doing the laundry, carrying the bags. They are the work force that makes Las Vegas run, and the members of that work force have middle class wages and health insurance and job protections and the backing of local and state and national elected officials as a direct result of the work of the union. The Culinary Union operates in the heart of the most gilded industry in an unnatural city built of money, and it is the one and only reason why the people who do the work of that industry are not exploited to the hilt.

They have pulled off this feat with their cycle of organizing, improving people’s lives and exercising political power. Never is this method more evident than during Nevada caucus week, when it is put on display for the entire world. This year, it came with more than a little extra drama.

The union’s headquarters is a squat, sprawling two-story white concrete building just north of the Vegas Strip, in the shadow of the Stratosphere spire, with “In Solidarity We Will Win!” emblazoned in red on its wall. The visitors who pass through the lobby on an average weekday morning provide a sampling of the union’s sprawling operations. A young woman dragging two wayward toddlers is checking on a grievance. Workers are here to sign up for job training. A team of Steyer staffers wants to know if Tom can come in and talk. Someone from the Mexican embassy would like to set up a meeting.

In back, a warren of cubicles had been cleared out for volunteer get-out-the-vote phone banking, which continued for a solid week before the February 21 caucuses. It was the least combative phone banking I’ve ever witnessed—not a grumble from anyone who picked up the phone, after they heard it was the union calling.

Marc Morgan, a middle-aged bellman at the D Hotel and six-year member of the union, sat patiently dialing from a list, telling callees the time of the caucus (Saturday at 10 a.m.) and the exact location of their caucus site at their workplace. He reminded them to get permission from their supervisors and to alert a shop steward if the supervisors illegally refused. Within an hour, at least a half dozen people who were not planning to caucus—including one who said, “Caucus? What does that mean?”—promised to turn out. Multiply that by many people calling for many hours for many days, and you start to get a sense of why the Culinary Union is a sought-after political ally for Democrats. Thousands more members voted early as well, another process the union encourages and supervises.

Morgan, a shop steward, is, like many union members, a practical man more than a fire-breathing ideologue. His attachment to the union was motivation enough for him to volunteer to spend hours calling fellow members, just out of a sense of duty. That attachment was rooted in personal experience. “I can see the necessity—the managers, oh my god,” he said. He had been through a bitter contract fight at his own casino in 2018, and had seen the petty retaliations that workers suffered. “Employers want to test the boundaries. They’ll continue to test those boundaries until you pull them back in. It’s like parents and children.”

Despite being coveted madly by everyone running for president, the Culinary Union did not issue an endorsement this year. The union endorsed Obama in 2008, but he lost to Hillary Clinton in Nevada anyhow. It didn’t endorse in the 2016 primaries. Much has been made in recent weeks of its spat with Bernie Sanders, which became a huge political news item after the union issued a purportedly educational flier to members warning them that Sanders, if elected, would “end Culinary healthcare”—a rather misleading characterization widely interpreted as a declaration of opposition to Medicare For All.

This mushroomed into an entire news cycle pitting the union against Sanders, and even drove a round of questioning in last week’s presidential debate. Moderate Democrats seized on the opportunity to frame their opposition to Medicare For All as a pro-union position, a development that certainly pleased the health insurance industry and drove progressives in the labor movement mad.

There was much speculation that the union decided not to endorse anyone because they were pretty sure Bernie was going to win, and they couldn’t endorse him because of the conflict they’d started, but didn’t want to endorse someone who would lose, and so decided to sit on their hands. But officially, they simply chose to endorse their own “goals.”

The conflict over this issue—within individual unions, and within organized labor as a whole—is very real. The Culinary Union runs its own healthcare center for members, and uses its healthcare benefits as a key recruiting tool in a “right to work” state. Major unions that are, in effect, in the health care business themselves have a natural level of conservatism towards change in the system. But there is also an influential portion of the labor movement that is strongly in favor of Medicare For All, not least because it would free up unions to spend their political capital on things other than health care, like better wages.

Larry Cohen, the former president of the Communications Workers of America who now leads the Sanders-affiliated group Our Revolution, says that Medicare For All would amount to a spectacular gain for unions in the long run. By bringing down administrative and pharmaceutical costs, he says, national health care would actually save employers money—money that would be funneled to workers in the form of better pay and other benefits. On top of that, there is the simple fact that freeing people from employer-based health care would allow them to be less enslaved to bad jobs.

“If you go do something else, you’re not covered!” Cohen exclaims. “Why would we possibly want to have a system where the job is what gives you the health care?”

Culinary Union members and staffers will remind you that their current health care system, which is free for members and provides care for more than 100,000 people, has been won at the cost of many years of great struggle and quite a few strikes, some of which dragged on for years. They consider it a crown jewel, and view it with pride. Yet the decision of union leadership to wade publicly and aggressively into the Medicare For All debate has put them in the position of becoming a useful talking point for for-profit health care interests. (It is much more politically palatable for conservatives to say “unions are against public health care” than “insurance companies want to maintain profits.”)

One union staffer told me, “The best way for any worker to be protected is a union contract.” That may be true, but all three million citizens of Nevada are unlikely to be in the union any time soon, and they still get sick. As Culinary Union member Marcie Wells wrote last December in a widely shared essay calling for Medicare For All, “We have to acknowledge the reality that for-profit insurance asserts that if you don’t work you deserve what you get: up to and including death. Also, sick people don’t deserve jobs.”

The other thing that should be said, however, is this: For the political left, or supporters of Bernie Sanders, to view the Culinary Union as some sort of enemy is utterly insane. The union has actually accomplished the things that the left says it wants to accomplish. There is no popular political movement that could not learn from its success. Ultimately it is incumbent on the left to bring along the Culinary and other unions on the path to Medicare For All, not vice versa. They are natural allies. Some people in the union world say privately that Bernie Sanders is on their side ideologically, but that he often fumbles or ignores the standard political business of pulling in stakeholders and listening to them before he plunges ahead on big issues that affect them. The differences between the two sides, in other words, are fixable. Fighting over such things is a waste of time, when there is still a working class that needs help.

***************

The general public typically hears about the Culinary Union in relation to electoral politics. But from the perspective of the union, electoral politics is just a means to an end. All of the famous politicians stumbling down the picket line think they are there for the sake of their own campaigns, but in fact they are there to help draw attention to a nearly decade-long union organizing campaign at Station Casinos, the company that owns the Palms and seven other casinos where workers have voted to unionize in recent years.

The company relentlessly fought the organizing campaigns. Once workers at individual Station Casinos began voting to unionize in 2016, they refused to recognize the unions, stalled on contract bargaining, and have dragged the entire mess into the bureaucratic mire of the National Labor Relations Board. Thousands of workers who should already have union contracts have been forced to continue their fight against the company for several years.

To heighten the contradictions to cartoonish levels, Station is owned by the billionaire Fertitta brothers, who got filthy rich when they sold the Ultimate Fighting Championship for $4 billion in 2016. The Fertittas have donated millions of dollars to the Trump campaign. In 2018, Frank Fertitta spent $25 million on his daughter’s wedding, complete with an appearance by Bruno Mars. Yet there seems to be no length to which they will not go to prevent their housekeepers from joining a union.

They are unsympathetic figures. A picket line feels almost polite, in relation to their conduct. At the rally at the Palms on Wednesday, flight attendant union leader Sara Nelson, who had come in support, called them “the frittata brothers.” D. Taylor, the hardboiled head of Unite Here—who, in shades, a ballcap and a faded t-shirt, resembled nothing so much as a high school baseball coach about to yell at everyone to run laps—was even more direct. “These guys are scumbag liars!” he shouted. “The only way we’re going to win is to kick the everloving crap out of them and beat the shit out of them.”

That is a colorful way of saying: “We recognize the value of continued organizing.” On Friday, the day before the caucuses, as the national press corps was still replaying two-day-old debate zingers, a group of 17 Culinary Union organizers involved in the Station Casinos campaign met at 9 a.m. in a second-floor conference room at the headquarters building. They were men and women, young and old, Latino and black and white, and almost all of them had been as casino workers and union members before they were organizers.

For an hour, they reviewed the past week’s work. Most important was the tally of how many union cards each person had gotten signed, with each card earning a round of applause inside the room. (One organizer who had pulled in five signed cards earned herself a day off, and the jealousy of everyone else.) Afterward, the organizers headed out for home visits. This is the true, sweaty, grinding substance of union organizing: a never-ending process of talking to people who are always busy doing other things. A never-ending process of refining and updating a master list of names. Without this work, unions don’t exist.

I set out with Oscar Diaz, a 35 year-old with a shaved head, glasses, and a goatee who had been with the Culinary Union for ten years. His father had been a Culinary Union shop steward at the Westgate, where he worked for more than 30 years. Diaz’s organizing work focuses on Boulder Station and Palace Station, two Station Casinos properties that, after years of organizing, held successful union elections in 2016.

The fact that he is still deeply engaged in organizing them four years later will give you an idea how hard the fight has been. Part of the slog is directly attributable to national politics. When the company breaks the law, the union files charges against them with the NLRB. But staffing numbers at the NLRB’s Las Vegas office, Diaz says, have been reduced under President Trump, meaning that cases take longer to work their way through the bureaucracy. The delays mean the union cards signed a year or two ago have expired; organizers must get workers to sign again.

Good organizers combine the talents of a salesperson, a private detective, a motivational speaker and a long-haul driver. With a printed list of workers’ names, Diaz drove around North Las Vegas, seeking out addresses in the expanse of identical sand-colored housing developments. The workers do not know that organizers are coming, meaning that they may be gone, or asleep, or suspicious about opening the door. But Diaz is used to navigating logistical hurdles. We reached one apartment complex only to find that we didn’t have an access code to open the front gate. Diaz hopped out of the car, peered on top of the keypad box, and found the code. “The FedEx guys will scratch it on top of the box sometimes,” he said, shrugging.

An organizer may knock on dozens of doors in a day and have only a few truly productive conversations. The ability to navigate unknown neighborhoods with little information and track down security codes and slip seamlessly between Spanish and English and read each person for signs of bias or dishonesty or confusion are all just inherent in the job. And things used to be even harder. At the beginning of the campaign, Diaz recalls, organizers got referrals with no names or addresses, just vague descriptions: “Go up Tropicana, you’ll see a house that has a statue of the Virgin Mary, knock on the back door.”

For the worker who signed a union card, Diaz will come back again another day with one of her coworkers, to recruit her to get more involved. For the workers who didn’t answer their doors, he will mark them down, and come back again, however many times are necessary to pull cohesion out of this huge group of tired, busy, far-flung people. He and his fellow organizers will do this tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day. They did this for years already to get an election, and years more to try to get that election affirmed, and may do it for years more to win a contract. This is what it takes.

“Busting unions is not hard,” Diaz says. “It’s playing with people’s fears.” During the long Station Casinos campaign, he has seen how much effort it takes to counteract intransigent bosses that possess enormous advantages in time and money. The people that they are up against have billions of dollars. The Culinary Union has Oscar Diaz, and all of the other organizers, who will find out where you live and convince you to stand up for yourself. With those tools, the Culinary Union has organized Las Vegas. Organizing beats money, even if it takes a very, very long time.

Saturday was caucus day. The caucus for workers at the Bellagio, one of the more opulent properties on the strip, was held in a ballroom, where 100 chairs were set out on garish paisley carpet under crystal chandeliers. Around 11 a.m., small groups of housekeepers wearing their dark blue uniforms began trickling in, taking seats and trying to ignore the mass of cameras at the back of the room, where every network and news outlet had gathered to witness this immodest open demonstration of democracy.

Most of the caucus-goers were women of color. A few shared their thoughts as they waited for the proceedings to begin. Laura Flores, a housekeeper and 20-year member of the Culinary Union, said she was supporting Bernie Sanders, because of his position on health insurance.

Morena Del Cid, another Culinary Union member, who worked in the poker room and had been with the company for 30 years, was participating in her first caucus. She was supporting Bernie Sanders. “People have to make a change,” she said. Asked about his stance on Medicare For All, she replied, “I love that.”

Of 123 eligible people in the room to caucus, 75 went for Bernie Sanders in the first round, and 39 went for Joe Biden. Warren got six and Steyer got three, meaning they were not viable. One supporter of each viable candidate then had a minute to make their case to the handful of voters whose candidates didn’t make the cut. A Bellagio worker wearing a red Culinary union t-shirt spoke for Bernie Sanders, declaring, “My children and future generations should all have health care!” Medicare For All was her pitch.

The final tally was 76 votes for Bernie, 45 for Biden, and two uncommitted. Bernie ran away with the Bellagio and almost all of the other casinos on the Vegas Strip, the very heart of the Culinary Union’s territory. This set up an easy narrative about a political victory over an entrenched union leadership.

But that narrative is misleading. A union is the people in the union. The members, collectively, are its heart, its mind and its voice. In a good union, its leaders and organizers and staffers do what they do in order to give power to its members. The Culinary Union is a good union. Its members won, so it won.

After the votes had all been counted, those who had caucused filed out of the room quickly, returning to work and trying to avoid the gauntlet of media that lined the exits, bombarding them for quotes. I didn’t have the heart to press them any more. They had already spoken.

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 24, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

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

Kickstarter employees vote to unionize, this week in the war on workers

The meteoric growth of the tech industry has, with few exceptions, created a new no-unions zone in the U.S. economy. Those exceptions, such as a group of Google contractors or Facebook’s bus drivers, have largely been contract workers rather than direct employees of tech companies. So the successful unionization vote at Kickstarter is something of a first.

During the organizing drive, Kickstarter fired two union supporters and hired an anti-union law firm. The workers and their union, the Office and Professional Employees International Union, have alleged retaliation and filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board. The vote was close—46 to 37—and Kickstarter is a comparatively small company. There remain big questions about whether tech can be unionized to any significant degree. But progress is progress, and wins are to be celebrated.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on February 22, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

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