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Strikes Are Stronger and More Stubborn Than Laws

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Hamilton Nolan

When people get frustrated and petulant, they lash out. So too do governments.

When labor unions are looking a little too powerful, governments often throw tantrums, like spoiled children momentarily denied their lollipops. The natural response of childish governments is to try to pass laws to deny workers the ability to strike, taking away their most powerful weapon.

It is important, in the midst of these threats, to keep in mind a simple fact: Strikes are stronger than laws.

As we speak, the UK is experiencing its most momentous strike wave since Margaret Thatcher was prime minister in the 1980s. Nurses, transit workers, postal workers, and a slew of other public employees have walked out of work in the past month, and the actions show no sign of letting up. These strikes make people yell at the government, which is the point.

Now the government is so mad! Argh! As a result, prime minister Rishi Sunak said that he plans to push for legislation that would outlaw such strikes in what he deems vital sectors — healthcare, schools, railways, border security and elsewhere. His bill would have workers fired and unions sued if they failed to maintain a “mnimum level of service,” which is another way of saying that strikes would be impossible. 

This sort of spasm of governmental overreach is not uncommon.

Strikes are an act of power totally outside the control of politicians, and therefore can make political officials go a little haywire.

Just a few months ago in Canada, the premier of Ontario, Doug Ford, made a similar proposal to criminalize strikes and impose a contract on strike teachers, only to back down in the face of credible threats of a general strike. U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision in November to force a contract on America’s railway workers, though not dependent on a new piece of legislation, was a similarly brazen act of government denial of the right of working people to decide whether or not a contract offer is good enough for them. 

It takes a lot of courage to go on strike even in the best of circumstances. To hear the most powerful elected officials in your country threaten to outlaw your strike and cause you to lose your job and see your union bankrupted can be intimidating.

But a proper understanding of the power dynamics at play in these circumstances should make workers feel better.

Think about the government’s position in these cases: They are scared of the disruption in services that happen as a result of strikes. They want to keep these public services up and running, because they know that it reflects badly on them if things aren’t functioning. Above all, they don’t want the public yelling at them because their stupid government isn’t providing the services that it’s supposed to provide.

Setting aside the underlying causes of these strikes — poor working conditions, which are the direct responsibility of the stupid government itself — the primary goal of panic-stricken governments during strike waves is just to get all the workers working again, as fast as possible.

Now, consider the method they employ to achieve this goal: They propose to make the strikes illegal. They propose terrifying penalties if the strikes continue.

Okay. Let’s play this out.

Suppose the striking workers reasonably say “f— off” to a government that tries to bully them back to work, rather than solving the actual problems that made the workers upset enough to strike in the first place. Suppose they defy these laws and carry on with illegal strikes. Suppose the government responds as promised, by firing all the striking workers.

Then what?

The government then finds itself less able to restore services than it was before. It will take even more time to hire and train thousands of new workers than it would have taken to settle the strike at the bargaining table. The public will be more outraged at the greater chaos and the government will get more unpopular as a result.

The very goal of passing laws against strikes, in other words, is unlikely to be achieved by passing laws against strikes. 

It doesn’t matter if strikes are illegal. The decision to strike should be made on the basis of what is necessary to achieve a job that doesn’t make you miserable and a life that is worth living. Strikes carry their own power — they don’t ask for permission to be powerful.

Organized labor should resolve to respond to attempts to take away the right to strike with bigger strikes. If you are a worker pulled into one of these strikes, have faith.

Politicians can try to outlaw rain if they want, but the clouds aren’t listening. 

This blog originally appeared in full at In These Times on January 9, 2023. Republished with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan s a labor writer 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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NFL Response to Player’s Cardiac Arrest is a Labor Rights Issue

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Laura Clawson

Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin is now breathing on his own and talking as he recovers from his on-field cardiac arrest in a recent NFL game, but the issues his near-death and ongoing recovery raise are very much not over.

For one thing, there was the long delay before the game was officially postponed (it was later cancelled), when the call to postpone a game following an on-field near-death should be a pretty much immediate one. 

Reportedly the decision was only made after intervention by the players’ union.

But there’s something else. Hamlin is an early career player whose future is very uncertain.

He has not made a lot of money in a career that has left him hospitalized in critical condition, and the NFL does not guarantee his long-term financial security if he can’t get back on the field and risk his life again.

As I’ve watched the donation count rise on Hamlin’s charity GoFundMe, more than once I’ve thought that he might really be needing that money himself, depending how his recovery goes.

“He’s 24 years old. He got a contract for $160,000 — that’s his bonus — and he earns $825,000 this year. He’s been in the league two years. That means he’s not vested. That means that if he never plays another down in his life, he doesn’t get another check from the NFL,” Cleveland sports podcaster Garrett Bush said in a video below.

“You got to play 3-4 years before you even sniff a pension. So all these heartwarming prayers and condolences don’t do anything for that boy’s mom, who has to go home, look at her son, and he might need extensive care for the rest of his life.”

Bush also noted that the league’s disability pay is now only $4,000 a month, with very high rejection rates.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on January 7, 2023.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is the assistant managing editor at Daily Kos.


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Miners for Democracy Encourage Unions

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In December 1972, coal miners rocked the American labor movement by electing three reformers as top officers of the Mine Workers (UMWA), a union which at the time boasted 200,000 members and a culture of workplace militancy without peer.

In national balloting supervised by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), Arnold Miller, Mike Trbovich and Harry Patrick ousted an old guard slate headed by W.A. (“Tony”) Boyle, the benighted successor to John L. Lewis, who ran the UMWA in autocratic fashion for 40 years.

Boyle’s opponents, who campaigned under the banner of Miners for Democracy (MFD), had never served on the national union staff, executive board or any major bargaining committee.

Instead, 50 years ago they were propelled into office by wildcat strike activity and grassroots organizing around job safety and health issues, including demands for better compensation for black lung disease, which afflicted many underground miners.

Today, at a time when labor militants are again embracing a “rank-and-file strategy” to revitalize unions and change their leadership, the MFD’s unprecedented victory—and its turbulent aftermath—remains relevant and instructive.

In the United Auto Workers (UAW), for example, local union activists recently elected to national office—and fellow reformers still contesting for headquarters positions in a runoff that begins January 12—will face similar challenges overhauling an institution weakened by corruption, cronyism and labor-management cooperation schemes.

Some UAW members may doubt the need for maintaining the opposition caucus, Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), that helped reformers get elected, but the MFD experience shows that such political breakthroughs are just the first step in changing a dysfunctional national union.

Imagine what it was like for coal miners in the 1970s to challenge an even more corrupt and deeply entrenched union bureaucracy, with a history of violence and intimidation of dissidents.

When Joseph (“Jock”) Yablonski, a Boyle critic on the UMWA executive board, tried to mount a reform campaign for the UMWA presidency in 1969, the election was marked by systematic fraud later challenged at the DOL. Soon after losing, Yablonski was fatally shot by union gunmen, along with his wife and daughter, as Mark Bradley recounts in Blood Runs Coal: The Yablonski Murders and the Battle for the United Mine Workers of America.

Just three years later, MFD candidates were able to oust Boyle and his closest allies, but without winning control of the national union executive board. As inspiring as it was at the time, this election victory ended up demonstrating the limitations of reform campaigns for union office when they’re not accompanied by even more difficult efforts to build and sustain rank-and-file organization.

Of all the opposition movements influenced by the MFD, in the 1970s and afterwards, only Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) has achieved continuing success as a reform caucus, largely due to its focus on membership education, leadership development and collective action around workplace issues.

Contested Elections Are Rare

Then and now, contested elections in which local union leaders – not to mention working members — challenge national union officials are very rare. Rising through the ranks in organized labor generally means waiting your turn, and when you capture a leadership position, holding on to it for as long as you can.

Aspiring labor leaders most easily make the transition from local elected positions to appointed national union staff jobs if they conform politically.

Dissidents tend to be passed over for such positions or not even considered unless union patronage is being deployed by those at the top to co-opt actual or potential critics. As appointed staffers move up via the approved route, whether in the field or at union headquarters, they gain broader organizational experience by “working within the system” rather than bucking it.

If they become candidates for higher elective office later in their careers, they enjoy all the advantages of de facto incumbency (by virtue of their full-time positions, greater access to multiple locals and politically helpful headquarters patrons).

Only a few national unions—including the UMWA, Teamsters, the NewsGuild / CWA, and now, with inspiring results so far, the UAW–permit all members to vote directly on top officers and executive board members.

Different Route to the Top

On paper, coal miners long had a “one-member, one-vote” system. But, by the late 1960s, there had not been a real contest for the UMWA presidency in four decades. Lacking the stature of his legendary predecessor John L. Lewis, a founder of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, Tony Boyle had become a compliant tool of the coal industry, unwilling to fight for better contracts or safer working conditions.

Increasingly restive miners staged two huge wildcat work-stoppages protesting national agreements negotiated in secret by Boyle (with no membership ratification). In 1969, 45,000 UMWA members joined an unauthorized strike demanding passage of stronger federal mine safety legislation and a black lung benefits program for disabled miners in West Virginia.

Despite passage of the 1959 Landrum-Griffin Act, which created a “bill of rights” for union members, Boyle was able to maintain internal control by putting disloyal local unions and entire UMWA districts under trusteeship, which deprived members of the right to vote on their leaders.

Jock Yablonski’s martyrdom set the stage for a rematch with Boyle. It took the form of a government-run election, ordered after a multi-year DOL investigation of violence, intimidation, vote-tampering and misuse of union funds by Boyle’s political machine.

The standard bearers for reform in 1972 were Yablonski supporters who created MFD as a formal opposition caucus a few months after his death. They also published a rank-and-file newspaper called The Miners Voice as an alternative to the Boyle-controlled UMW Journal.

At MFD’s first and only convention, 400 miners adopted a 34-point union reform platform and nominated Arnold Miller from Cabin Creek, West Virginia, as their presidential candidate. Miller was a disabled miner, leader of the Black Lung Association and former soldier whose face was permanently scarred by D-Day invasion injuries.

His running mates included another military veteran, 41-year-old Harry Patrick, a voice for younger miners, and Mike Trbovich, who helped coordinate Yablonski’s campaign in Pennsylvania.

Despite continuing threats, intimidation, and heavy red-baiting throughout the coalfields, the MFD slate ousted Boyle by a margin of 14,000 votes out of 126,700 cast in December 1972.

This partial blog appeared in full at Labor Notes on January 6, 2023 after it was originally published by In These Times. Republished with permission.

About the Author: Steve Early worked for 27 years as an organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of America. He is the author of several books.


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10 Predictions For Labor Next Year

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Hamilton Nolan

It’s December, which means that it is, by law, the time when we look ahead at the coming year, and make shockingly insightful predictions about what lays ahead. A year ago, we made Ten Predictions for the Year Ahead in Labor that were, it turns out, very good. More on that below. With that track record of quality, you must feel compelled to read our predictions for 2023. Joys, disappointments, and killer robots, ahoy!

Standard disclaimer: Predictions are folly, and only fools make them. So:

1. AI is a labor problem. 

Have you played with DALL-E 2, the artificial intelligence system that can spit out professional-quality illustrations based on any prompts you give it? How about ChatGPT, that can write essays, computer code, or anything else as you converse with it? They are amazing pieces of technology, and they are also a big, flashing sign of gargantuan labor problems ahead.

Enormous swaths of work could be outsourced not to impoverished foreign nations, but to computer programs. This has been a theoretical threat for years, but now AI has reached the point at which it is about to get very, very real. Unions must get ahead of the problem now to try to protect workers. DO NOT WAIT! DO NOT WAIT!

Trying to ban AI’s use is useless, but we would all be wise to seek out advice from unions like the Longshoremen, who have had some success shielding themselves from the ravages of automation. The main point is: We need strong strategies on AI now, because soon, it will be too late. But in even more immediate problems… 

2. The big first contract wall. 

We’ve all spent the past year celebrating the success of grassroots union drives at name brand companies: Amazon! Starbucks! Trader Joe’s! Huzzah! Now, those new unions face a task that is, in some respects, even harder: winning a first contract. At Amazon and Starbucks in particular, we have companies that are existentially opposed to unions, and that can and will drag out the contract process unto infinity, in hopes of drowning their fledgling unions in the bathtub.

That would be a blow not just to workers at those companies, but to an entire country’s worth of grassroots enthusiasm about organizing, which has launched a wave of independent unions. We shouldn’t fool ourselves: Winning these contracts will require a lot of money, lawyers and political capital from the entire labor movement. Even in the best case scenario, it’s gonna take a while. And a related issue…

3. The green shoots of new labor institutions. 

The rise of independent organizing drives everywhere was proof, above all, that organized labor as currently constituted was incapable of absorbing a true moment of opportunity. Rather than leading newly radicalized workers to the promised land, the creaky existing institutions in many cases sat on the sidelines. (The AFL-CIO’s vow to organize a pathetic one million workers in ten years was the splashiest demonstration of this failure of vision.)

In 2023, look for at least the beginnings of some new institutions that aim to draw together and empower the many little explosions of organizing that we saw in 2022. In better news…

4. Union democracy movements flourish. 

After many decades of calcified, undemocratic leadership, reform movements inside the UAW and the Teamsters have made significant gains in the past year. Similar movements are bubbling in other big unions as well. These breakthroughs are, at their core, driven by the same dynamic we mentioned above: Raw desire for worker organizing has reached such a high level that it is ready to fix the many broken, lazy aspects of the union world. And speaking of institutional opportunities…

5. Higher Ed asserts itself. 

My number one prediction last year was that higher ed would become a significant player in the union world. Amazing insight, yes! In 2022, the five largest union election filings in America (and the biggest strike of the year) were ALL grad student workers at major universities. Higher ed is creating more new union members than any other single industry in America — but they are divided among a number of different unions. It is nice to imagine a single dedicated union in higher ed, which would be large enough to be a significant player in the AFL-CIO, and which could pull that institution left. Ah, one can dream. Elsewhere in potential power…

6. A reckoning for transport unions. 

Biden’s decision to prevent railroad workers from striking and impose a contract on them was by far the worst labor thing the ostensibly pro-labor president has done. But it, and this year’s White House freak out over touchy contract negotiations by longshoremen at West Coast ports, point to the inherent power in all the unions that have a position in the supply chain, and transportation in general. They may be hamstrung by the Railway Labor Act, in legal terms, but a rise in radicalism and coordination between railway, airline, and logistics unions could lead to a real, unassailable demonstration of what strike power looks like. Some of the union leaders in these industries have such vision, and some don’t. The weaker ones should watch their backs. Meanwhile, in Washington…

7. Labor’s legislative gains grind to a halt. 

In two years of Democratic control of the White House and both branches of Congress, organized labor got a lot of money for its pensions, a very good but severely underfunded NLRB, some nice but not transformative regulatory changes, a crushed rail strike, and no PRO Act. That will be as good as it gets. Now that Republicans have taken the House, the chance for anything better, legislative speaking, is dead. It’s all a good reminder that we need to be pouring everything into organizing new workers, rather than chasing politicians. And to get a little more fine-grained…

8. The Warrior Met Strike ends. 

More than a thousand UMWA miners in Alabama have been on strike now for more than 20 months. Another 12 seems impossible. Somehow the strike should settle in 2023, though the prospect of real gains for the strikers still seems uncertain at best. (The fact that the national Democratic Party didn’t use more of its muscle to lift up this strike was shameful, and foolish.) Donate to their strike fund! And if you need a more relaxing topic…

9. Sports! 

The Major League Baseball Players Association joined the AFL-CIO this year, and promptly unionized minor leaguers for the first time, as well. That means the NFL and MLB are both in the union federation; if they can convince the NBA players to join, then the full trifecta of major American sports will be officially part of the larger labor movement. There is still great opportunity in college athlete organizing as well. In terms of PR for organized labor, these people are gold. Americans love athletes, to a stupid degree. We have to get busy putting all these players in front of cameras to talk about how good unions are, and sending them out to picket lines. Use what we have! We need the help! Finally, to close on a positive note…

10. The energy in labor remains astronomical. 

I tend to focus on the labor movement’s problems. WHICH WE ALL SHOULD. We’re here to improve things, after all, not send ourselves endless thank you notes. But to take a step back and look at the big picture: We are living through the time of the most promise and excitement that the labor movement has seen since Ronald Reagan crushed the PATCO strike, broke unions’ spirits and launched four decades of growing inequality.

Now! Now is the time! It’s been coming for years, but the pandemic accelerated the willingness of workers to take the leap towards organizing — to be willing to take a risk in exchange for the possibility of not having their entire working life be so dreary, underpaid and soul-sucking. I see no reason why this period of desire for unions should end next year. The real question is whether organized labor will be able to harness it, before it is crushed by the backlash from organized capital. 

The new year is coming. Let’s get to work. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 19, 2022. Republished with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer 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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No Union? You Still Have a Right to Strike

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Last year there were 87 strikes by non-union workers, according to Cornell’s Labor Action Tracker, accounting for one-third of all work stoppages in the U.S.

Even without a union, you have the legal right to organize strikes, job actions, and various protests—and your employer is banned from retaliating against you.

Despite the law, though, many employers will fire troublemakers if they can get away with it. That can bring organizing to a halt.

So if you’re organizing without the protection of a union contract, it behooves you to know your rights and how to enforce them.

With a little practice, you won’t even need a lawyer. You and your co-workers can develop and submit your own unfair labor practice (ULP) charges to the Labor Board.

The Law

Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act says: “Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”

“Self-organization” means with or without the backing of a union or worker center. For instance, Amazon workers in Chicago have organized under their own steam as Amazonians United; I recently advised them on how to file ULP charges against employer retaliation.

“Concerted activities” include strikes, but also smaller actions like several employees complaining to the boss together, talking with co-workers on Facebook, circulating petitions, filing wage theft claims as a group, or holding a press conference.

The key word is “concerted,” which means two or more employees are acting together. According to the Labor Board (NLRB), it can even refer to actions by one employee “if he or she is acting on the authority of other employees, bringing group complaints to the employer’s attention, trying to induce group action, or seeking to prepare for group action.”

The action must be aimed at improving the working conditions of the group, not just an individual—that’s “mutual aid or protection.” The issue might be safety concerns, bathroom breaks, excessive heat, an unfair firing, or sexual harassment.

Illegal Conduct

Employers are prohibited from interfering with these rights. It’s a ULP for management to:

1. Spy on (or seem to spy on) organizing activities. Spying means doing something out of the ordinary to observe; seeing open union activity in workplace areas frequented by supervisors is not spying.

At Amazon, workers would hang around after work chatting about weekend plans. Once they started organizing, a member of management started photographing them from a distance, using a camera with a long telephoto lens. That’s a ULP.

Spying includes monitoring workers’ Facebook postings—though note the limits below about what you can say about your employer.

2. Photograph or take video of employees engaged in peaceful union or other protected activities.

3. Solicit individual employees to appear in an anti-union campaign video.

4. Enforce work rules that tend to inhibit the exercise of organizing rights—like prohibiting employees from talking about the union during work time, if they’re permitted to talk about other non-work subjects.

At Amazon they posted new rules against congregating or handing out literature in the parking lot. People standing near the doors were accused of blocking entry.

5. Deny off-duty employees access to outside non-working areas of the property, unless business reasons justify it.

6. Prohibit employees from wearing union gear like buttons or T-shirts, unless special circumstances warrant.

7. Convey the message that organizing a union would be futile.

8. Interview employees to prepare the company defense in a ULP case.

9. Fire, suspend, or discipline employees for organizing (or threaten to do so).

10. Coercively question employees about their own or co-workers’ union activities or sympathies.

This blog originally appeared in full at Labor Notes on December 8, 2022. Republished with permission.

About the Author: Richard de Vries is a contributor for Labor Notes.


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Union Members Are Democrats’ Last Defense in Swing States

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Maximillian Alvarez

The soul of the labor movement is the fight for democracy in and outside of the workplace.

From the shop floor to the ballot box, organizers, volunteers, and rank-and-file workers with UNITE HERE are putting everything they have into that fight. Even in the midst of a deadly pandemic that hit the service and hospitality industries especially hard, union members with UNITE HERE hit the pavement in record numbers ahead of the 2020 general elections. 

As Harold Meyerson notes in The American Prospect, UNITE HERE members canvassed “more precincts than any other organization on the Democratic side of the ledger that year.”

Talking to well over a million voters in Vegas, Reno, Phoenix, Philadelphia, and Atlanta, they played a key role in Joe Biden’s victory and in the Democrats winning control of the Senate.

This year, ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, “they have even more members knocking on doors than they did two years ago.” As working people face an increasingly unbearable cost-of-living crisis, as the right continues to attack abortion rights (and voting rights, and workers’ rights, and LGBTQ people, and teachers, etc.), as basic human needs like healthcare, housing, and clean water are put farther out of reach for the poor and working classes, as more people give up on a political system they feel gave up on them a long time ago, the fight for a better society is happening at the grassroots level.

In a special panel, recorded a week before the 2022 midterm elections, we talk with three UNITE HERE members — Maggie Acosta (Arizona), Bryan Villarreal-Vasquez (Nevada), and Sheila Silver (Pennsylvania) — about their tireless canvassing efforts in battleground states, what they’re hearing from voters, and what the struggle for democracy means to them and their union.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on November 8, 2022 alongside a podcast. Republished with permission.

About the Author: Maximillian Alvazerez s editor-in-chief at the Real News Network and host of the podcast Working People, available at InTheseTimes.com.


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When Unions Back Corporate Mergers, Workers Lose

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Hamilton Nolan

There has always been a fundamental tension in the organized labor world between people who think that unions exist to counteract the self-serving tendencies of businesses, and people who think that unions should copy the self-serving tendencies of businesses.

The gap between the view that unions should change capitalism and the view that unions should just help working people get their piece of capitalism is not just fodder for theoretical arguments — billions of dollars, thousands of jobs, and the entire direction of the post-neoliberalism economy could ride on it. We’re seeing that tension painfully demonstrated right now, at the grocery store. 

Last week, Kroger announced its plan to merge with Albertsons. That merger would create a $25 billion grocery giant that would control more than 15% of the American grocery market, second only to Walmart. (In certain local markets, it would control the majority of the grocery business.) Kroger argues that it needs such massive scale in order to compete with Walmart and Amazon — a strange claim, since Kroger’s profits grew 14% in the past year. 

Why do companies find this sort of mega-merger so attractive? It allows them to squeeze suppliers for lower prices, and, on the flip side, it gives them greater pricing power over consumers. (Mergers also create a ton of fees for advisors and potential bonuses for executives, and a little sugar rush jolt to the stock price — all things that create personal incentives for the people in charge to do deals, whether or not they end up being wise.)

What companies say when they do such mergers is, “It will help us lower prices for consumers, and it will help us strengthen our company for shareholders,” as if corporate dealmaking was an altruistic process. What they mean is,“It will help us proceed one step closer to monopoly power, the ultimate goal of all corporations, and also it will help the CEO buy a new house.” 

Then there is the labor angle.

These grocery companies have an enormous number of employees who are unionized with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) — the merger, in fact, could create the biggest single private sector union employer in the country, even bigger than the Teamsters unit at UPS. Common sense should tell you that bigger, more omnipotent companies with more extreme market power are not generally a good thing for their own blue collar workers, for many of the same reasons they are not a good thing for consumers. Companies want to get bigger to squeeze suppliers, customers, and workers in service of shareholders and executives. That is Capitalism 101, and it has been demonstrated countless times.

It is an easy call for anyone who considers themself a progressive, or who cares even a bit about the balance of power between capital and labor, to oppose this merger and others like it. It is quite a tell that the fairytale of the free market’s benefit is all about how competition will create an optimal outcome for everyone, but the reality of capitalism is that companies seek to eradicate every possible trace of competition in order to accrue benefits for themselves and screw everyone else. 

This merger needs approval from the Biden administration’s Federal Trade Commission. That means this is a political issue, and opens a door for organized labor — particularly the UFCW — to have an extraordinarily large say, given the fact that this administration actually listens to unions more than any other in living memory. As soon as the merger was announced, a group of five UFCW locals representing tens of thousands of grocery workers in the Western United States put out a statement opposing the merger, saying it would be, “devastating for workers and consumers alike and must be stopped,” for all of the reasons just mentioned. Their position was very clear. They knew this would be bad, and they immediately stood against it. The internal reform caucus called Essential Workers for a Democratic UFCW is also agitating against the merger.

Oddly, though, a full day then went by with silence from the UFCW’s International headquarters. Then, the union dropped a statement that was excruciating in its refusal to take a stand. Rather than clearly coming out against the merger, it said that, “Given the national impact such a merger would have, the UFCW and our Local Unions are discussing this and will stand together to prioritize the best interests of our members, their families, and the communities they proudly serve,” adding that the union, will oppose any merger that threatens the jobs of America’s essential workers, union and non-union, and undermines our communities.” It was a glaring, flashing siren that the leadership of the UFCW may be considering cutting a deal. 

And here is where we come to my initial point about how union leaders see their mission. In theory, the UFCW could reach an agreement with Kroger that, for example, ensured the company would be neutral as UFCW went about organizing more of its workers. It could be a way to deliver hundreds of thousands of new members into the UFCW’s ranks. (Of course, thousands of existing UFCW members could be laid off as a result of the store divestments that would go along with this merger.) But no matter what the company offered, common sense again tells you that they will not give up the underlying benefits of this mega-merger — which are structurally bad for suppliers, consumers, and workers.

No union should think of workers as pawns to be traded back and forth with companies, in order to benefit the union.

This blog originally appeared in full at In These Times on October 19, 2022. Republishing with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer 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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It’s Time to Tap into Labor’s Fortress of Finance

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Despite the recent upsurge in worker militancy, union membership and density have been declining for decades. But a close look at labor’s finances suggests that unions have the economic resources to potentially reverse this decline.

Standard explanations for labor’s decline blame our grossly unfair labor laws, the full-scale corporate attack on organizing and collective bargaining, and economic trends including the decline of manufacturing.

But labor is not a passive bystander. Unions have the resources to deploy to new organizing and growth. They have chosen to pursue a defensive financial strategy instead.

Consider the National Education Association. Since 2010 its membership has declined by nearly 300,000 — while its net assets more than doubled.

The United Auto Workers has seen membership drop by 20 percent since 2007, yet over the last three years less than 10 percent of its budget was spent on organizing.

Twenty-five years ago, John Sweeney was elected to lead the AFL-CIO after a vigorous debate about organizing strategy. Sweeney set out real organizing goals for the affiliate unions, and proposed that they devote 30 percent of their budgets to organizing. Many of the affiliates rebelled, and the goal was quietly shelved.

Today UNITE HERE (my former union) is one of the few unions that devotes significant resources to organizing, up to 50 percent of its budget — consistently running operating deficits, spending more than its dues revenue. As a result, it was one of the fastest-growing unions before the pandemic, increasing its membership by 34 percent from 2010 to 2019.

FLUSH WITH CASH

In 2021, large unions booked $18 billion in revenues (mostly from dues) and spent $15.5 billion on operating expenses — leaving a surplus of $2.5 billion.

Though labor’s revenues are far less than those of business associations, they’re substantially bigger than those of environmental, human rights, and political organizations.

In 2021, organized labor had $31.6 billion in net assets (assets minus debt). That’s more money than any U.S. foundation but one: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with $48 billion.

While union membership declined by more than 700,000 from 2010 to 2021, total revenues increased by 33 percent over the decade, thanks to higher dues (the average rose from $778 per member in 2010 to $1,089 in 2021) and significant increases in investment, rental, and miscellaneous income, such as government training funds and royalties from selling membership lists.

Meanwhile, unions cut staff by 20 percent — they employed 24,540 fewer employees in 2021 than in 2010 — a 20 percent decline in the workforce. (Management positions in unions, however, increased by 64 percent, and more than 10,000 union employees now earn salaries over $125,000.)

Unions also paid out an average $78 million a year in strike benefits during this time — less than half a percent of net assets or revenues in most years. Overall, union spending increased only 18 percent over the decade.

As a result, unions generated large budget surpluses, and their net assets more than doubled. If these trends continue, labor’s assets could double again by 2031.

FORTRESS UNIONISM

These figures suggest that labor had substantial assets available to deploy to new organizing and growth — but chose not to do so.

Instead, to the degree it is pursuing any conscious strategy, the labor movement has followed the one laid out in a 2013 article by union researcher Richard Yeselson: “Fortress Unionism.”

Yeselson argued that, due to the straitjacket of labor law and an “uninterested working class,” labor should not undertake “lengthy and expensive campaigns to organize new sectors.” Organizing workers “takes too much time,” he wrote, “and it costs too much in money and staff resources to do so over that long period of time.”

He counseled that labor should “work to buttress the areas in which it is already strong” and “[d]efend the remaining high-density regions, sectors, and companies.”

Meanwhile, unions should “wait for the workers to say they’ve had enough” — at which point workers themselves would “militantly signal that they want unions.”

It’s long past time to adopt a dramatically different approach. We shouldn’t let labor hide behind the idea that it doesn’t have the resources to fund large-scale organizing. It does.

We should demand that our unions — from the local level to the AFL-CIO headquarters — back the current upsurge with a massive investment of resources.

This is a portion of a blog that originally appeared in full at Labor Notes on October 26, 2022. Republished with permission.

About the Author: Chris Bohner is a union researcher and activist who has worked with the AFL-CIO, Teamsters, UNITE HERE, Culinary Workers Local 226, and a variety of worker centers. 


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Florida Letter Carriers Won Back Our Sunday Breaks with Direct Action

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A simple grievance can take many months to get results. But at the post office where I work, we got fast results defending our breaks with a different approach: direct action.

I’m a city carrier assistant (CCA) — part of the lower-paid second tier of letter carrier — in Naples, Florida. The retention rate for CCAs nationwide hovers around 20 percent.

Letter carriers start each day by sorting the mail and loading it into our trucks. In my post office, Mondays through Saturdays we take our first 10-minute break together inside the office, with the air conditioning, before heading out to start deliveries.

We used to take our breaks together on Sundays, too. We would chip in for donuts and coffee, a sign of our camaraderie.

But in April, the Postal Service implemented a new way of doing the Sunday package runs. (On Sundays we don’t deliver letters, just parcels, mainly for Amazon.) They had half the workforce coming in first to load trucks, and the other half coming in later to start deliveries — and we were no longer allowed to take our Sunday morning break in the office.

By the middle of the summer, we were back to the old way of loading and delivering. Everyone was back to clocking in at the same time on Sundays, 8:30 a.m.

But management was still refusing to let us take Sunday morning breaks together. They wanted us to hit the road and take our breaks out on the street, in the heat.

‘IT’S BREAK TIME’

At 9 a.m. on Sunday, August 21, my alarm went off as it usually does Mondays through Saturdays. I said what I usually say those days: “It’s break time, ladies and gentlemen.” Three other workers and I started walking towards the break room.

Our supervisor stated, loudly, in front of all of us on the loading dock, that there’s no breaks on Sundays. We shrugged that off and went to the break room. A minute later he was standing over us.

He said we had two choices: Get back to work and take our 10-minute break out on the street, or go home.

We weren’t expecting an ultimatum. But the four of us looked at each other, and we all said we would go home.

We scanned our badges to clock out, and walked to our cars together in a state of shock.

When I got home, I typed up a report on what had happened and posted it on one of the Facebook groups for union letter carriers. My post got 500 likes and a lot of positive feedback.

QUICK RESULTS

By Monday morning, our union president and the postmaster had discussed what happened and started to discuss a solution.

A couple days later, management gathered us all together for a meeting to explain the new memorandum of understanding giving us back our Sunday morning office break, so long as we finished loading our trucks first. They posted it near the schedule for everyone to read.

Twice during the week I was also called into meetings with management — once to discuss my attendance, and once to be asked a bunch of open-ended questions, such as “Was this premeditated? Were you planning all this?” I told them yes, of course I was planning to take a break. But I wasn’t issued any discipline.

The following Sunday I brought in some juice and donuts for my co-workers to enjoy before they started delivering packages in the Florida heat.

UNION STRONG

My co-workers had to work harder and longer than normal that first Sunday when we chose to go home. But most are pleased with the result. Now every CCA across Naples — not just in my office –gets to take a break inside on Sundays.

A brand new CCA started his career that same day, and was busy loading his truck when I made the decision to go home. He recently moved to Florida, after many years of having no union and bad bosses in New York.

He has no bitterness towards me and the others who took action. Instead, witnessing from the beginning of his career the power of a union, he’s proud to be union and excited to get active. He recently attended his first union meeting.

Maybe this will help with the Postal Service retention rate and help build a stronger, younger union. I’d say that’s a victory.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on September 22, 2022. Republished with permission:

About the Author: John Murphy is a city carrier assistant and a member of Letter Carriers Branch 4716.


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Independent Unions Are Great—And Proof of Labor’s Broken Institutions

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Hamilton Nolan

This year has brought a lot of stirring labor victories, a pace of union campaigns and strikes so frenetic that it’s easy to collapse in a puddle of undifferentiated cheering for stuff. The most important trend, though, has been the sudden rise of independent unions — organizing drives at untouched companies led by the workers themselves, not affiliated with any existing major unions.

The Amazon Labor Union (ALU) has been the biggest example of those, and an endless stream of others seem determined to follow in its footsteps. An independent union drive succeeded at Trader Joe’s, and they’ve popped up everywhere from Apple to Chipotle to Geico. Geico!

The rise of all of these independents is inspiring. It is the flowering of seeds that were planted by 40 years of rising inequality, and by the work of an entire generation of labor movement activists pushing unions as the solution. If we are being honest, though, the story of these independent unions is also a story about the brokenness of organized labor’s existing institutions. If we ignore half of the story, we won’t learn anything from this moment.

One thing that virtually every independent union that’s popped into being this year has in common is this: They are at places that should have been unionized a long time ago. I don’t just mean that in the generic sense of “all workplaces should have a union.” I mean that if America had a union movement with even a modicum of ability to do strategic planning on a national level, the big unions that already sit in these respective industries would have been working hard to build campaigns at many of these companies years ago.

United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), for example, is the grocery industry union. It should have been plainly obvious a decade ago, at least, that Trader Joe’s was a prime target: a successful, growing national grocery chain that also carried with it a cultivated reputation for caring about employees, as well as the community and social justice.

That is the absolute pinnacle of “characteristics of a company that should be a union organizing target.” The fact this country’s first Trader Joe’s union election happened in the year 2022 and was organized by workers themselves is a pretty harsh rebuke to the UFCW, which represents 835,000 grocery workers and has more resources than all but a handful of other unions.

Amazon? Apple? Chipotle? Geico? All of these are premier employers in industries that have existing unions. (In many cases, the existing unions have organizing drives at these companies themselves too: Communications Workers of America (CWA) is organizing Apple stores, and a Chipotle unionized with the Teamsters, and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) is still deeply engaged at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, and UFCW is organizing Trader Joe’s — all of which are good examples of the ability of independent drives to energize moribund sectors, or to pick up excess demand where existing unions don’t.)

The problem here is not the failure of individual unions, but of an entire union establishment that has for decades accepted the proposition that it’s the responsibility of workers to come ask unions to organize them, not vice versa.

Let us imagine an American labor movement that had 1) A genuine belief that it is the responsibility of unions to offer every worker in their industry a true opportunity to unionize, and 2) A rudimentary level of central organization and accountability that could exert some pressure on unions that weren’t organizing to do a better job. In this fairy tale world, it would still take bravery and hard work and idealism from workers at all of these places to undertake the daunting and uncertain prospect of organizing their workplace for the first time.

The difference is that they would have all had the card of a union organizer in their pocket.

Because the unions in their respective industries would have made a strong effort to organize them, and would have made it their business to ensure that all the non-union workers at those companies knew that this union wanted to organize them, so when the stars aligned and the moment arrived when employees were ready to take on the challenge, they quite naturally would have thought of the existing union as their first phone call.

There are heroic union staffers everywhere, but not nearly enough of them.

The problem is not the individual people — the problem is this sort of thing, which should have always been the top priority of a labor movement that has been losing density for decades, has not been much of a priority at all.

This is a portion of a blog that originally appeared at In These Times on September 19, 2022. Republished with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer 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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