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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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Why Baseball Minor Leaguers Voted to Unionize

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Minor league baseball has long been notorious for its low wages and grueling working conditions. 

But that could soon change, as players are on the brink of one of the most sweeping unionization drives that professional sports has seen in years.

On Tuesday, the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) announced that more than half of minor league players voted to unionize and that it is seeking voluntary recognition from Major League Baseball (MLB) to represent minor leaguers. If the league refuses, a National Labor Relations Board election that would provide a referendum on the state of the changing sports labor landscape is the likely next step. 

Dr. Travers, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Simon Fraser University who uses a single name, said that sport has long been treated as a kind of ?“quasi profession” with different cultural norms than many other industries?—?but that appears to be changing. 

“There’s an ideology of luck,” they said. ?“There’s this idea of, ?‘We’re just so lucky, we’re so grateful to even have a chance at this dream,’ but if you actually look at what’s happening, you have a labor pool that is vastly under-remunerated, who don’t have the same protections that workers in other sectors do.”

Rise in Athletes Unionizing

Athletes across sports appear to be wising up.

The U.S. women’s national soccer team won an equal pay agreement in their most recent collective bargaining agreement. National Basketball Association players organized around the racial justice uprisings of 2020, while college athletes are now being compensated for the use of their name and likeness. 

The rise in organizing in sports has coincided with a massive surge in labor activity across the country, which has seen labor unions hit their highest approval rating since 1965. 

Baseball, whose extensive and precarious minor league system is perhaps unrivaled in American professional sports, has been particularly ripe for collective action. 

“Baseball’s minor leagues have long been a place of hyper exploitation, where ?‘disposable populations’ essentially grind out a living under extraordinarily difficult conditions and where baseball brass, the people who run the sport, keep players in line in a certain respect through poverty wages,” said Jules Boykoff, professor of politics at Pacific University. 

Fighting for Higher Wages

That is no exaggeration. While the average value of an MLB franchise is more than $2 billion, most minor league players make, on average, less than $14,000 per year?—?and are only paid during the regular season and not for work during spring training or the offseason. This is by design: in 2018, the MLB successfully lobbied Congress to pass legislation exempting baseball players from the federal minimum wage and collecting overtime pay. 

Groups of minor league players and activists have been organizing for years, but Boykoff said it’s no coincidence that the momentum behind organizing minor league baseball has crescendoed as the broader labor movement has grown in strength. 

Indeed, the push to unionize minor league players comes as the MLBPA this week took a significant step to align itself with the broader labor movement and announced its affiliation with the AFL-CIO.

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler pledged in a statement announcing the MLBPA’s affiliation that the union would ?“bring our strength” to the fight to organize minor league baseball, while MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark told HuffPost?’s Dave Jamieson that his union wants to be ?“part of the broader labor discussion.”

The new affiliation promises to not only lend organizing muscle to the minor league unionizing fight, but to also situate major league players in the same union as a number of stadium concession workers represented by UNITE HERE, who have notably agitated this year for better wages and working conditions in places like Los Angeles. 

Baseball Legislation

The new alignment with the broader labor movement also comes as Congress has threatened to revoke Major League Baseball’s unique antitrust exemption for its treatment of the minor league’s franchises and players, which MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said would cause irreparable harm in a July letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In March, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced legislation called the Save American Baseball Act which would eliminate the exemption. At the time, he said, ?“These are baseball oligarchs who, over the last year, eliminated their affiliation with over 40 minor league teams, not only causing needless economic pain and suffering, but also breaking the hearts of fans in small and mid-sized towns all over America.”

Boykoff said that federal legislation revoking the antitrust exemption could go a long way in shoring up labor protections for players as well as potentially protecting communities who value baseball as more than a means of enriching ultra-wealthy owners, as Major League Baseball angles to eliminate minor league teams and jobs to save money in the coming years.

Players are Workers

Ryan Gauthier, a lawyer and professor at Thompson Rivers University, said that if the unionization push is successful and players win living wages, Major League Baseball may retaliate by contracting more teams, much as Starbucks has closed a number of newly unionized stores this year. 

At the same time, that threat of organizing might make the security of union protections all the more attractive in an industry long sustained by players living on the edge. 

“I think a lot of athletes in the past were very much, ?‘I’m lucky to do this, it’s for the love of the game, thank you Mr. Owner for giving me my opportunity, I’d gladly do this for free,’” Gauthier said. ?

“But I think a lot of players realize now: they’re workers.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 8, 2022. Published with permission.

About the Author: Abe Asher is a journalist whose reporting on politics, protest, and the climate has been published in The Nation, VICE News, the Portland Mercury, and other outlets.


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American Workers are Transforming the Economy

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Liz Shuler

In just one second, Amazon’s executive chairman Jeff Bezos makes nearly $2500. That’s four times the weekly pay of an Amazon delivery or warehouse worker toiling in the sweltering summer heat.

Last year alone $6.5 trillion flowed from the bottom 90% of wage earners to the top 1%. That means the janitor who cleans our child’s school, the nurse who cares for our sick father and the grocery clerk who always greets us with a smile are struggling, while the wealthiest among us literally skyrocket into space with bottomless bank accounts.

Upward mobility seems out of reach for most Americans. Young people are backsliding with low wages, out-of-control housing prices and crushing health care costs.

But our story—the American worker’s story—will not be written by billionaires.

This Labor Day, working people are writing a new chapter infused with hope for a brighter future. We’re no longer tolerating being called “essential” one minute and treated as expendable the next. Whether on a manufacturing shop floor, in a high-rise office, in a corner cafe or Amazon warehouse, workers are transforming our economy.

Recent data shows that workers won 639 union elections already this year, the highest win total in nearly 20 years. What’s notable is that those victories occurred in many different industries. The heroic organizing efforts at Starbucks and Amazon have captured our imagination.

And there have been worker victories big and small across the economy this year. Like the 19,000 graduate researchers in California who won a union for more equitable treatment at universities and nurses in Maine and North Carolina who wore trash bags as makeshift protections against COVID before organizing unions to win safety protections every worker deserves.

All across America, workers’ power is growing by the day as more demand the rights and democracy on the job that the laws of the United States promise us all.

But too many corporations haven’t moved with the times. At every turn, working people meet resistance from our employers when we try to form a union. Public approval of unions is the highest in my lifetime, a 57-year peak according to a 2022 Gallup survey released this week. Nearly 60 million workers would vote to join a union tomorrow. But far too few get that chance.

As president of the AFL-CIO, the umbrella organization of America’s unions, I am elected by everyone from soccer players to construction workers to educators to help all working people make our voices heard. My favorite part of this job is being on the frontlines of these fights with the workers who are leading them.

I see a lightbulb go off when people realize we don’t have to accept abysmal working conditions. Instead of quitting jobs in frustration, we can stand together as part of a union, and have the power to demand change.

Some corporate executives are evolving, like Microsoft President Brad Smith, who is respecting workers’ freedom to join a union. Microsoft worked with the Communications Workers of America to enter into a labor neutrality agreement at Microsoft and Activision Blizzard, because the company knows allowing workers to join a union is the best way for employers to count their employees as true partners.

But Microsoft is the exception, not the rule. Most CEOs still revert to a decades’ old playbook of stifling worker voice, often breaking the law to do so. When employers use retaliation, harassment and illegal firings to try to stop organizing, they reject the best path forward for an equitable economy and basic fairness on the job.

No worker should have to stand alone in the face of the power and ruthlessness of billionaire CEOs. That’s why the AFL-CIO is launching an effort this year to resource helping workers unionize at an unprecedented level, making organizing the center of everything we do as a movement.

Our new Center for Transformational Organizing aims to level the playing field by uniting our unions in strategic support of workers who are simply fighting for the American Dream of a better, more secure life.

Standing together, working people are raising wages that lift up entire communities. We’re solving climate change while creating good jobs with clean energy. We’re investing in the infrastructure that builds our nation’s future. We’re developing technologies like semiconductors to keep America globally competitive. We’re fighting for social and racial justice so economic gains are broadly shared. And we’re making workplaces safer, healthier and free from discrimination.

A more democratic workplace is coming. If you are one of the majority of America’s workers who are thinking about joining a union, now is the time.

This Labor Day marks the dawn of a new era of worker power. And we’re never going back.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on September 8, 2022. Published with permission.

About the Author: Liz Shuler is president of the 58 unions and 12.5 million members of the AFL-CIO, and the first woman leader of America’s labor movement. 


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This Labor Day, Starbucks Workers Host Union “Sip-Ins” Nationwide

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This Labor Day weekend, Starbucks workers across the country will be rolling out the red carpet to their supporters. About 100 of the coffee chain’s stores are set to hold ?“sip-ins” from Friday, Sept. 2 to Monday, Sept. 5. (To see a map of locations, click here, and for a full list, click here.)

Sip-ins are loosely modeled after sit-ins. They mark designated times when supporters of a store are asked to come in, order low-priced drinks or water, and leave big tips. The events provide an opportunity for baristas and their supporters to engage in conversation about labor conditions and build community. 

“I’m a little nervous, but we’re excited,” said Samantha Shields, a 21-year-old barista at a Starbucks store in Washington, D.C. Her store filed to unionize in late August and is the first to organize in the city. She’s worried about retaliation as a result, she told In These Times.

Labor Day Strikes

Meanwhile, several stores will also be on strike. Additionally, in several large cities, other major events are also scheduled, pointing to a more expansive vision of what the nascent union can do for Labor Day. 

In Boston, a labor rally, a rank-and-file breakfast, and a reproductive justice rally will precede sip-ins on Labor Day. Starbucks workers are also rallying at the state capitals of Oklahoma and Texas. And Colorado baristas will converge on a Labor Day parade in Louisville in remembrance of the early 20th century Coal Wars, says fired Denver barista Ryan Dinaro, 23. 

“The goal of this [day of] action is to empower workers on Labor Day, it’s to send a message to Starbucks that they couldn’t run their business without us,” says Collin Pollitt, a barista in Oklahoma City. “They need to be held accountable,”

On Monday evening, Starbucks Workers United (SBWU), the union behind the organizing effort, is planning to host a web-based event. The event is for attendees of Labor Day events to have an opportunity to tune in so they can watch and discuss together.

“We’re not only building a movement for Starbucks workers, we’re building a cohesive labor movement,” says Tyler DaGuerre, a 27-year-old Boston barista. 

The array of different types of events, dominated by the sip-ins, reflects both the desire for coordinated action and the roles that different actors are playing in the SBWU-backed movement.

Early Organization

Conversation about SBWU’s Labor Day plans began in the early summer. Individual leaders in the Southwest, Rocky Mountains, and New England regions of SBWU including Pollitt, Dinaro, and DaGuerre, respectively, are among those who helped create the iteration that now exists.

They eventually did so as part of SBWU’s National Contract Action Team, the body charged with planning escalating direct actions to pressure Starbucks to negotiate a first contract. Workers United, the parent union for SBWU, first introduced the idea of a broad wave of sip-ins, which then received broad support from workers. 

Workers in some cities have also hinted at more militant events to follow in the days and weeks to come after Labor Day, noting that the next few months are Starbucks’ high season, though details were not yet available.

In the Boston area, the day’s events are themed around intersectionality, with a focus on reproductive rights, among other issues. ?“So long as we’re upholding one system of oppression, we’re therefore justifying our own,” says DaGuerre. ?“So it really needs to be a collective movement of intersectional solidarity.”

In Oklahoma, Pollitt was mindful of the need to make Labor Day relevant to today’s workers and also emphasized intersectionality. He wants to ?“spark a national discussion about labor” after what he describes as decades of stagnation. In Pollitt’s state, workers are gathering at the state capitol.

Collective Effort

Boosting community support is a key aim of the sip-ins. SBWU has a goal of gathering 30,000 signatures to its ?“No Contract, No Coffee” solidarity campaign over the course of the weekend.

Such support often, but not exclusively, comes from Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) members and chapters. For example, Worcester DSA member and barista Cory Bisbee, 25, told In These Times that his chapter has made supporting the SBWU campaign a priority. That city will see a LGBTQ+-themed sip-in, with Labor Day coinciding with Pride week in Worcester, Mass.

An outcome of the planning in the New England region, says DaGuerre, is that stores seeking support have been matched up with community supporters looking to ?“adopt” a store to help it organize, taking advantage of resources that were already there but uncoordinated.

Not every store is able to take part in the day of action. Because much of the national plan depends on community support, many workers in more isolated locations likely won’t be able to participate. Others, like the Anderson store in South Carolina where workers are suspended and barred from entering any Starbucks, have to take into account the impact of previous union-busting tactics by the company.

But for those who are able to participate, some see it as an opportunity to step up their impact in the innovative campaign to unionize Starbucks. 

“A bunch of Gen Z kids have banded together and decided to stop accepting that Starbucks will refuse to pay us a living wage,” says Dinaro. ?“It’s truly inspiring and it’s a stepping stone to greater change.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 2, 2022. Republished with permission.

About the Author: Saurav Sarkar is a contributor for In These Times.

Visit Workplace Fairness’ page on unions and collective action to learn about your rights.


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Starbucks Workers Are in the Fight of Their Lives for a Contract

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There are still dozens of stores waiting for their elections, and more stores filing for election every week. These thousands of newly unionized workers are in the fight of their lives for a contract.

The company is fighting dirtier and dirtier all the time, from closing stores to firing more than 80 union leaders across the country to now filing suit at the National Labor Relations Board claiming that the Board itself is committing fraud by colluding with the union. Their campaign is getting more and more vicious.

[Corporate’s] theory of the campaign, in my mind, is to crush the momentum. They are counting on us not being able to continue to build and organize. They’re counting on the idea that there’s not going to be enough community solidarity to really stand up to their bullying, and that they’re going to be able to quash the campaign and wait it out and then decertify stores.

December 9 we’ll cross a year since the first stores voted for a union. The certification year ends at that point and the company can begin to run decert[ification] petitions. 

[Editors’ note: Under federal law, a union cannot be voted out, or “decertified,” within the first year of its having been certified. Often employers will stall on bargaining for a year so the decertification window opens, and covertly encourage workers to decertify the union at that point.] So we’re in the fight for our lives for a contract right now.

A National Voice

These workers have done a lot of work internally to build national structures so they are speaking powerfully in one voice to the company. There’s a national committee called the National Bargaining Committee, which is working hard to draft a set of bargaining demands. They’re going to bring it back down to the base [of workers] for revisions and then we’re going to introduce that same proposal at every store where we can get this company to bargain.

We’re going to ask the company to meet with the national bargaining committee. I’m assuming they’re going to say no. They want to bargain store by store. So workers are planning to coordinate with each other and put forward the same proposal over and over.

It’s going to take a hell of a lot of militant collective action and solidarity from the labor movement; community, student, and faith allies; and customers to move the needle at the bargaining table.

Pledge Creates a Rapid Action Network

That’s why we’re asking people to sign the No Contract, No Coffee pledge. What it says is we’re going to follow the lead of workers, and we’re going to support them in the way they’re asking for support. It’s our way of building a rapid action network for the campaign.

If a store in your community goes on strike, you’ll get a message over email or by text, whichever you prefer, saying, “Hey there’s going to be a picket line, show up in solidarity with those workers.” Or “We’re going to rally at the corporate office on this day.” Or “We have an action at the Mellody Hobson-owned Denver Broncos game.” [Hobson is the chair of the Starbucks board.] It’s a way to alert people about how they can support the campaign.

Sip-ins [where supporters gather in a store to drink coffee] are another way. Sometimes workers call for sip-ins to happen in the week before their election, to pump people up, or if they know there’s going to be a particular kind of union-busting in their store on that day. Some sip-ins have been effective in canceling [mandatory anti-union] captive-audience meetings.

There are lots of creative ways that customers are supporting picket lines [during strikes]. About 90 percent of picket lines have been successful at closing down the store. In some others, the company manages to get enough managers in the store to keep getting coffee out the window. But customers have supported in all kinds of creative ways, including finding ways to be disruptive in the drive-through line. These are not tactics devised by workers or the campaign at all, just things that customers are coming up with.

If you sign the pledge, the first thing we’ll ask you to do is to adopt a store. If you adopt a store, we’ll hook you up with one in your area that’s union, so you can find a way to support that store, and help create a system of aid for those workers.

Labor Day Plans

For Labor Day we’re really focused on having sip-ins at every single unionized or unionizing store. We’re going to try to do at least 300. Workers are also using that weekend to deliver petitions and hold marches on the boss. I would not be surprised if there are strike actions in protest of ULPs [unfair labor practice charges the union has brought to the NLRB] on that day or on that weekend.

We want to get 30,000 more signers on the No Contract, No Coffee pledge on Labor Day weekend. Because we know we’re going to need massive public support.

We have to bring a lot of economic pressure to bear on Starbucks. I think strikes are an important piece of that. But we need a hell of a lot of solidarity from allies in order to amplify the voices of workers at the stores that have organized.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on August 25, 2022. Published with permission.

About the Author: Daisy Pitkin is the national field director for Starbucks Workers United. This blog is a transcription of her responses in an interview.


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Yes, Abortion Rights Are a Union Issue 

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Alexandra Bradbury

Abortion: it’s a topic unions shy away from. The logic is, why go there? You might alienate conservative workers who otherwise share your workplace concerns.
And it’s true, you might — though the issue is not as divisive as the GOP makes it out to be. A solid 61 percent of U.S. adults is pro-choice. Among those aged 18-29, it’s 74 percent.

It’s good to see unions begin to overcome this fear and take a stand — because, contrary to the narrative, abortion is a labor issue.

On-the-Job Impacts

How so? For one thing, workers who get pregnant are penalized at work.

Pregnancy discrimination is very real. Many jobs make it tough to get light duty or accommodations. And parenthood brings the “mommy tax” — a lifetime loss of income for women who have children, thanks to stingy parental leave and unaffordable childcare.

Missed opportunities, resume gaps, reduced work hours — all these impinge on women’s equality at work, not to mention their union participation.

Labor must fight to change all that; even a wanted parenthood shouldn’t carry such steep penalties. But the current reality is that forced pregnancy will absolutely harm workers at work.

Collective Muscle

Then there are members’ needs beyond the workplace. As Stacy Davis Gates reminded us in her talk at this year’s Labor Notes Conference, workers are not just workers — we are mothers, daughters, tenants, immigrants, and more.

Unions fight for our dignity and autonomy on the job, but those human needs don’t end when we clock out. Members need abortions; their friends, family, and neighbors need them too. About 1 in 4 women eventually gets one.

Unions at their best are a uniquely powerful fighting force for the whole working class. They’re organized, they have budgets and knowhow, and they have the leverage that can win big — the power to strike, a power that can take down governments and transform society.

Our sisters and siblings (trans people also get pregnant!) need us in this fight, not just as individuals, but as organized labor.

Common Enemies

The villains attacking our right to abortion care should look familiar to workplace activists, too. They’re the same ones pushing to lower our wages, weaken our unions, and speed up our work.

Even many of the corporations that leaped to announce new abortion travel benefits for employees were soon revealed as donors to the very groups that had pushed Dobbs v. Jackson to the Supreme Court. These were groups like the Republican Attorney Generals Association, the Federalist Society, and the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Most employers aren’t in it for the abortion restrictions; their goal is deregulation and union-busting. But the effect is the same.

The Right to Mom

There’s another side to the coin. Unions are also needed in the fight for the right to have children when we do want them.

A more expansive term than abortion rights is “reproductive justice.” The grassroots group SisterSong defines it as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.”

Unions can bargain for the things working parents need — like equitable wages, paid parental leave, and childcare benefits. The transit union in Portland, Oregon, just won a “lactation van”; when a bus driver needs to pump breastmilk, the van comes to meet her.

We can also fight for a stronger safety net that offers all parents and kids the resources they need — like Medicaid, welfare, food assistance, childcare, and affordable housing.

SisterSong’s vision evokes many labor demands past and present: the right to a living wage, to health and safety on the job, to gender-affirming health care benefits. At their core, the labor and reproductive rights movements are both fighting for the same thing: the right to control our own lives.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes. Posted with permission.

About the Author: Alexandra Bradbury is the editor of Labor Notes, and Sarah Hughes is a staff writer.


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What Can Unions Do Now to Defend Abortion Rights?

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Sarah Hughes

The Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health on June 24 overturned the Roe v. Wade precedent, erasing the constitutional right to an abortion.

Already for years, large parts of the U.S. have severely restricted abortion—especially hurting those least likely to have resources to travel for care, including poor, Black, indigenous, undocumented, and disabled people.

The U.S. has the highest maternal mortality rate of any wealthy country, and Black women are three times more likely to die from childbirth-related causes than white women.

Many unions issued public statements condemning the Dobbs decision. A few turned out to protest. And we can expect many to emphasize voting for Democrats this fall.

What more can unions do?

There is a no clear pathway to winning national abortion and reproductive health access. It will surely be a long struggle, involving many organizations and strategies.

But there are specific interventions the labor movement can make, beyond turning out voters and joining rallies.

BARGAIN OVER BENEFITS

Here’s an immediate one: workers can demand to bargain over changes in benefits, which might now include abortion access.

A committee at the NewsGuild of New York has developed a bargaining framework for the questions this raises, including ensuring that your health insurance covers abortion, bargaining for travel funds to cover an abortion out of state if it is prohibited where you live, protecting your personal information, guaranteeing additional leave for travel, and securing non-discrimination language on the basis of gender and pregnancy.

The NewsGuild committee suggests that members look at current contract language where unions could demand to bargain over impacts, based on changes to their health coverage.

If your plan used to cover health care that is now prohibited in your state, that is a substantial change in your insurance, and your employer should have to work with the union to find alternatives. Perhaps employers could cover the difference in cost for an out-of-network, out-of-state provider, provide additional time off, and pay for the travel and associated costs.

DEFEND MEMBERS IN COURT

Unions can use their legal departments or hire lawyers to defend members who get sued or prosecuted for allegedly performing, getting, or helping someone get an abortion.

In the course of their jobs, this could involve health care workers, including mental health providers; people who deliver abortion medications, like postal workers or UPS drivers; and others. Unions should defend them just as they would defend members in other work-related disciplinary proceedings.

Last year Texas criminalized abortion after six weeks of pregnancy (about when fetal cardiac activity can be detected). The law allows private citizens to sue anyone they believe was involved in an abortion, including anyone who reimbursed travel or medical costs. Oklahoma has followed suit, and a similar law is pending in Idaho.

These laws will likely be argued in courts for months or years to determine exactly where and for what the states have jurisdiction to prosecute.

Some union contracts provide legal services to support members in housing, family, and civil courts. If a member were accused outside of work of obtaining or aiding and abetting an abortion, the member legal services could be expanded to cover this as well.

And unions should support workers in defying the laws. Abortion access was originally won through sustained, public civil disobedience.

“Most of the physicians I know and have been talking to are not interested in holding back,” says Paul Prater, chair of the Illinois Nurses Association political action committee. “They are going to provide the care people need and will deal with consequences after.”

DEFEND MEDICAL WORKERS

The risk is particularly dire for health care workers. While they can only be privately sued in the states mentioned above, in other states workers can be criminally prosecuted for providing abortion care.

In these states, if a pregnant person comes into a hospital for care and the appropriate treatment is to terminate the pregnancy, that is now a crime if there is still fetal cardiac activity or the person’s life is not immediately endangered.

Health care workers will be facing this dilemma routinely. For instance, about 2 percent of pregnancies are ectopic, where the fertilized egg has implanted somewhere outside the uterus, dooming the pregnancy and endangering the pregnant person; termination is the treatment.

In order to avoid potential legal problems, health care facilities are now avoiding or delaying these treatments, sometimes waiting on clearance from hospital lawyers. A 2022 study of two Texas hospitals found at least two dozen cases where a procedure was delayed longer than doctors wanted to, in one case until the patient required a hysterectomy.

In some states, if a health care provider suspects the pregnant person had an abortion, they are expected to report it to law enforcement. This reporting has already led to the prosecution of many people suspected of intentionally harming their fetuses, sometimes despite little evidence.

Women of color are more likely to be charged for suspected abortions. Union-led education on racial disparities could help workers not to stereotype their patients.

PROTECT MEDICAL JUDGMENT

All these laws will have a profound impact on health care workers. Not coincidentally, the states with such laws are also the states with the lowest union density—though there are exceptions, like union-dense Ohio, where abortion is illegal after six weeks, and Montana, with little union presence but no abortion restrictions.

The new risks could inspire more doctors and nurses to unionize.

What else should health care unions consider doing? They can demand to bargain, since the scope of work has changed for health care workers—they could face liability for using their medical judgment. Unions could bargain for employers to provide liability coverage against civil litigation, if possible, and to defend accused workers.

Unions should also bargain for clear policies about the treatment of pregnant people and who determines what is medically necessary when.

The laws are largely untested and have huge amounts of gray area, and health care professionals get little say in their employers’ interpretation. One Missouri hospital administration denied patients the contraceptive “morning-after pill” after the Dobbs decision, then reversed its decision within a day.

Union legal teams can do their own legal research, to educate members on what is clear and what is still contested. For instance, what would be the process for determining that a pregnant person’s life is at risk if a termination is not performed? Who would make that call, on what grounds, and how can they be protected in that decision?

Health care unions have fought hard to protect nurses’ and physicians’ judgment in patient care, and unions should bargain to push for the broadest possible reading of these policies.

EMBRACE ABORTION WORKERS

There has been a recent flood of unionizations in the “repro” movement, including at Planned Parenthood North Central States region (the Dakotas, Nebraska, Iowa, and Minnesota) and other states (SEIU); Preterm Clinic, the independent abortion provider in Ohio (SEIU); Feminist Majority Foundation (Nonprofit Professional Employees Union); and about two dozen others, according to Reprojobs.

Reprojobs, a website that began as a jobs posting site for repro workers, now features articles and networks to support repro workers unionizing, including a column called “Ask a Union Organizer.”

For abortion providers, many of their organizing issues echo those of other health care workers: low pay, critical staffing shortages, and frustration over management’s handling of Covid. They also face threats of violence from anti-abortion protestors.

Facing an uncertain future as parts of their jobs are criminalized state by state, workers are unionizing also partly to win some level of control in budgets and layoffs.

Workers at the at the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research center, won their election to unionize with OPEIU Local 153 on July 14. Less than an hour after the results were announced, one organizing committee leader was fired without cause; the union continues to fight for reinstatement. Planned Parenthood affiliates in Austin and Miami have also come under fire for laying off active members of union organizing committees.

Thishi Gangoda, on the organizing committee at the Preterm Union in Cleveland, Ohio, says workers there unionized because “abortion is health care and abortion workers are health care workers. We deserve power to decide our workplace conditions.”

Abortion after six weeks of pregnancy is now illegal in Ohio. Preterm is still open for some reproductive care, early abortions, and counseling to other states, but many workers have left for lack of work, or burned out by the stress of the last several months.

Labor can recognize these workers as siblings in our movement, and organize more of them. We can back their fights for strong contracts that will allow them to continue working in politically charged, changing, and occasionally violent workplaces.

ORGANIZE CATHOLIC HOSPITALS

Compounding the impact of the overturn of Roe, Catholic hospital chains are continuing to gobble up health care facilities around the country, posing a particular risk to access to reproductive care.

“Catholic hospitals in Illinois have never provided this care,” said Prater. “Companies like Ascension and Aurora Advocate have bought up several facilities and imposed their values on hospitals, sometimes the only ones available in a community.”

These institutions may refuse to provide even legal reproductive care, along with contraceptives and gender-affirming health care for trans people.

In 2020, four of the largest 10 hospital systems were owned by Catholic-affiliated corporations. These institutions already control 40 percent of hospital beds in some parts of the U.S., and they’ve been growing rapidly through mergers and acquisitions.

For Prater, the punchline is: unions must organize these health care workers, to defend themselves and their patients.

Meanwhile, where abortion access remains, workloads will snowball. Border states like Illinois will see a huge influx of abortions from surrounding states.

With staffing levels at a crisis point already, health care unions must fight for wages and conditions that can make these nursing and caregiving jobs sustainable and attractive, and union protections for workers to provide appropriate health care.

TALK ABOUT IT

One more thing that all unions can do is break their silence on reproductive rights. Unions may be cautious about taking a stance on a divisive issue, especially in open shop states and sectors.

But how divisive is it, really? We know the majority of the country supports the right for people to make decisions about their own bodies.

Members can engage in these conversations in good faith—particularly around issues of health, autonomy, and the ability to use your professional judgment at work.

This blog is printed with permission.

About the Author: Author’s name is Sarah Hughes. Sarah is a staff writer and organizer at Labor Notes.


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Depending on Employers for Abortion Access is a Nightmare

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Sarah Lazare

Following last week’s Supreme Court ruling that struck down federal protections for abortion rights, major companies, including a number of Silicon Valley giants, publicly broadcast their intention to assist their workers in traveling out of state to obtain an abortion.

Meta, Apple, Disney, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Condé Nast were among them, the New York Times noted, joining companies that had made similar pledges in May, when a leaked memo revealed that the Court would overturn Roe v. Wade. These companies include Reddit, Tesla, Microsoft, Starbucks, Yelp, Airbnb, Netflix, Patagonia, DoorDash, JP Morgan Chase, Levi Strauss & Co. and PayPal, the Times reports.

Meanwhile, Google pledged to allow workers to apply to relocate “without justification” if they live in states that do not allow abortion. Uber reiterated that its “insurance plans in the U.S. already cover a range of reproductive health benefits, including pregnancy termination and travel expenses to access healthcare.”

On its face, these gestures by employers may seem like a good thing.

But this response opens up another door to hell: The reality that workers will be even more reliant on capricious and self-interested employers to provide basic, necessary healthcare, handing bosses even more power, while giving workers one more thing to fight tooth and nail to protect.

The Problems with Employment Health Care

Let’s look at how this approach has worked out for general health coverage.

In a country that, unlike other industrialized nations, does not provide free and universal healthcare to its people, individuals rely on employers for this vital good. This means that a worker’s boss has control over their ability to get emergency heart surgery without going bankrupt, to pay for a child’s leukemia treatment, to get preventative healthcare to ward off serious complications, to afford insulin in order to not die from diabetes, etc.

Routine, day-to-day matters — like asking for time off, or asking a boss not to sexually harass you, or even banding together with your coworkers to organize a union — have higher stakes under this system. If you lose your job, you lose your healthcare. And if this healthcare is extended to your dependents and spouse, so does your family.

And what of other, more-difficult-to-quantify matters, like personal happiness and fulfillment at work? According to a May 2021 survey from West Health and Gallup, one out of six adults who receives employer-provided healthcare is staying in a job they don’t want because they’re afraid of losing these benefits.

In a capitalist society, work is how we spend our lives. Squandering our one precious life in an unwanted job is a tragic waste.

Unions Can Protect Workers’ Health

Of course, the best way to protect one’s health benefits, short of winning universal healthcare, is to organize a union.

Union workers are significantly more likely than their non-union counterparts to have health benefits at all. But imagine all the things workers could win if they didn’t have to spend their time at the bargaining table negotiating over their members’ ability to survive. If healthcare were off the table, because it was already provided by the government, maybe we would have stronger common good wins, or clauses protecting the right to strike under any circumstance, or 30-hour work weeks.

Now, apply this principle to the realm of abortion.

To think of having to add protection of one’s ability to get an abortion to the list of things employers provide, and can therefore take away, is terrifying. Some of the companies that publicly claim they will protect abortion rights are among the most viciously anti-union employers of our time.

There are Employers who Leverage Employees’ Health Against Them

How will they use this new form of leverage to crack down on workers’ rights to demand better conditions?

We are already seeing an example in Starbucks, which has said that it can’t “make promises” that any benefits for workers in need of abortions will be guaranteed for unionized shops, though they are currently provided.

Other companies making such pledges have pursued astoundingly anti-worker policies, like Uber, which is currently fighting against classifying its workers as employees, a move that would give workers access to key benefits, like the right to form a union and access to workers’ compensation.

Do we really think that a company that doesn’t want its workers to have basic rights is truly committed to ensuring they’re able to receive abortions when they need one?

Abortion travel funding shouldn’t have to be a chip on the bargaining table. But this is the terrain that unions must fight on. And they are, right now, some of their members’ best protection.

There are a host of other things unions could be doing to protect union members. Dr. Rebecca Givan, a labor law expert, has suggested creative solutions, including using union release time, to help people get abortions, drive them there, or provide childcare.

Unions should absolutely be thinking along these lines. Any step that could put abortion protections in the hands of workers, rather than their bosses, is a good thing.

Attacking Abortion Rights is Attacking Workers’ Rights

But let’s be clear-eyed about what the attack on abortion rights does.

Suddenly stealing a fundamental right to bodily autonomy helps place workers in a lower social class. It strips away workplace leverage — to give people who need abortions one more thing they have to beg their bosses for. One more thing to protect in a society where the safety net is already thin, and working-class people face rising prices and a potential looming recession. One more reason employers can claim benevolence as they crush union drives.

We can’t only rely on the bargaining table to win back the societal rights we have lost. It’s time for the resurgent labor movement to organize like hell to say that this attack on self-determination and humanity is unacceptable, and will not be tolerated — in the workplace and beyond.

This is a shortened version of a blog that originally appeared in full at In These Times on June 27, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Sarah Lazare is a web editor and reporter for In These Times.

Visit Workplace Fairness’ page on unions to learn about them and your rights as an employee.


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This Supreme Court also hates worker power

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Laura Clawson

This week, the Supreme Court gutted abortion rights. This is a workers’ issue, in a country where many struggle to afford an abortion and lack the paid leave needed to take multiple days off work to travel out of state for abortion access as state bans go into effect. The Economic Policy Institute’s Heidi Shierholz points out research showing that people who want but cannot get an abortion experience long-term financial consequences and increased poverty. Also highlighted here: The states where abortion bans are most likely are also states where wages and worker power are low.

The Supreme Court also essentially nullified states’ rights to limit permits to carry firearms, sending a signal that it would become more and more extremist on guns. This, too, is a workers’ issue, in a country where workplace shootings are all too common.

But make no mistake that this Supreme Court is also specifically opposed to workers’ rights and efforts to build worker power. Justice Samuel Alito may end his career most remembered for his spiteful opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, but he also has a long and equally spiteful track record of anti-union activism. As Jenny Hunter wrote at Balls and Strikes in 2021, “Alito’s ‘impartiality’ in cases about unions can not only ‘reasonably be questioned’; it simply does not exist. There is no doubt he will rule to limit workers’ collective power at every opportunity. The only question is how quickly he’ll upend the law in order to engineer his desired result.”

This month, the court gutted an important California workplace enforcement rule. Because, of course, Alito has company in his basic anti-worker stance. A lot of company on this Trump-packed court. Workers around the country are showing renewed interest in unions, but they will encounter a hostile Supreme Court for a generation or more, unless Democrats expand the court.

This is a blog that originally appeared on Daily Kos on June 25, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Laura Clawson is the assistant managing editor for Daily Kos.

Visit Workplace Fairness’ page on unions to learn about them and your rights as an employee.


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The Sign Says It All: How Unions Can Stop Employers from Crying Poor

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My wife and I were motoring down the main avenue in Alexandria, Virginia, in 2017 when I yelled out, “Stop! I gotta have this sign!”

Nancy pulled over. I jumped out and yanked out of the roadside a real estate sign that announced, “From the Upper $1 Millions, New Luxury Condos,” with a big arrow telling you to turn so you could buy one.

Back when we moved here in 1992, this had been an affordable place to live, just across the river from Washington, D.C. But soon after that, gentrification kicked in full throttle.

Today, working people are priced out of home-buying completely, forced to pay exorbitant and climbing rents.

I wrestled the big sign into the back seat. “We can show this to the politicians and bosses around here when they tell us they can’t afford a big raise,” I told Nancy, who works for the city of Alexandria as a paramedic and belongs to the Firefighters Union (IAFF). And that’s what we’ve done for the past five years.

Mayors, city councilors, and county commissioners have seen the sign. So have transit authority bosses, corporate managers, company negotiators, state representatives, and many, many rank-and-file members.

It gets attention. At first people are puzzled: “Why do you have this real estate sign here?” But everyone gets the point when I explain that the mortgages and rents are “too damn high” and working people need a big raise now!

Can’t Cry Poor

I took the sign to a union meeting with the workers of the Alexandria DASH transit company in 2018. Coincidentally, it was the day after Amazon had announced it was setting up a new corporate headquarters here.

I held the sign up as I laid out why we had to win the union authorization election by a big margin so we could win long overdue and major wage increases. Every head in the room was nodding—that sign said it all. Several workers volunteered that their landlords had already given them rent increase notices as a result of the Amazon announcement.

We won the election 9 to 1. The economic settlement we negotiated was one of the best in our international union’s recent history. The sign came with us to union meetings, city council meetings, and DASH board meetings. None of the powers that be wanted to cry poor in a city with this sort of tax base—not with that sign staring them in the face.

So if you see a sign like this in your town, grab it and put it to work.

This is a blog that originally appeared on Labor Notes on June 1, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Chris Townsend is the former national organizing director of the Amalgamated Transit Union and retired United Electrical Workers international representative.

Visit Workplace Fairness’ page on unions to learn about them and your rights as an employee.


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