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Service + Solidarity Spotlight: MEBA Fights for Better Pay and Working Conditions for Staten Island Ferry Mariners

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Working people across the United States have stepped up to help out our friends, neighbors and communities during these trying times. In our regular Service + Solidarity Spotlight series, we’ll showcase one of these stories every day. Here’s today’s story.

The Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association (MEBA) is raising the alarm about New York City’s ability to attract and retain skilled mariners to work on the Staten Island Ferry. At the union’s urging, U.S. Rep. Nicole Malliotakis of Staten Island sent a letter to Mayor Eric Adams, asking him to repair a broken wage structure that is compromising consistent ferry sailings, mariner retention and passenger safety.

MEBA, which represents captains, assistant captains, engineers and mates on the ferries, has pointed out that officers in the fleet work for much less than industry wages, with inadequate benefits, and have not received a pay increase in almost 11 years. “Nobody sticks around, they leave,” said MEBA Secretary-Treasurer Roland “Rex” Rexha, a former shop steward at the ferry system. “Why would they stay at the Staten Island Ferry when it’s not even close to industry wages?

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on January, 20, 2022.

About the Authors: Kenneth Quinell is a Senior Writer at the AFL-CIO.

Aaron Gallant is the Internal Communications Specialist at AFL-CIO


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Empowering Workers: Worker Wins

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Despite the challenges of organizing during a deadly pandemic, working people across the country (and beyond) continue organizing, bargaining and mobilizing for a better life. This edition begins with:

Baltimore County Public Library Employees Vote Overwhelmingly to Join IAM: Workers at the Baltimore County Public Library (BCPL) had a special reason to celebrate this holiday season. It was announced last week that 460 full-time and part-time library workers voted 77% in favor of forming a union with the Machinists (IAM). The successful vote comes after years of organizing, which included the IAM winning a new state law allowing BCPL employees to collectively bargain. “This is so exciting for Baltimore County Public Library workers,” said Anita Bass, a BCPL circulation assistant III at the Essex branch. “This will empower the staff of BCPL to continue to do the important work of fulfilling BCPL’s mission and vision. We need a system in place to protect and support each other, and a legally binding contract will give us that. I believe in the BCPL mission, and I know the IAM will help us accomplish that mission.” “Baltimore County Public Library employees have always been a critical pillar to our community, and now especially during the pandemic,” said IAM Grand Lodge Representative Bridget Fitzgerald, lead organizer on the campaign. “I could not be more proud of these professionals for joining together and standing strong for what they deserve. This is a victory for them, their families and all of Baltimore County, which rightfully relies on a strong and inclusive library system.”

SHoP Architects Employees Vote to Join Machinists: Employees at SHoP Architects in New York are seeking to become the first private sector architectural workers to successfully organize since the 1940s. More than 130 eligible employees at the firm have signed cards in support of forming a union with the IAM. The firm is known for work on the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and the Steinway Tower south of Central Park, among others. Workers are seeking to reduce their workload and increase pay, after they reported working long hours for pay that doesn’t allow them to pay off the thousands of dollars of student debt those in their field often accumulate. The organizing committee has asked SHoP for voluntary recognition and wants to start a conversation with SHoP’s partners on how to address the challenges they face—and begin making positive changes. “Many of us feel pushed to the limits of our productivity and mental health,” the members of the committee said. “These conditions have become detrimental to our lives and in extension the lives of our families. These concerns are the product of larger systemic issues within the discipline of architecture and are in no way unique to SHoP. From the moment we begin studying architecture, we are taught that great design requires endless time and effort, and in turn demands the sacrifice of personal health and relationships. We are taught that architecture is a greater calling and regardless of how the client is willing to compensate us, we will perform our duty because it is critically important for the greater good.”

Air Line Pilots at Sun Country Ratify Tentative New Contract: Pilots who fly for Sun Country Airlines, members of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), voted 93% in favor of ratifying a new tentative four-year agreement. The pact brings the pilots’ salaries, retirement and other work rules in line with their peers in the industry. The agreement was reached after seven months of negotiations, and reflects the growth and modernization of Sun Country in recent years. “We are proud of this contract that reflects the work we’ve done and contributions we’ve made to help the airline grow,” said Capt. Brian Lethert, Sun Country Airlines ALPA Master Executive Council chair. “We are committed to helping the company continue growing and achieving its objectives through this modern contract, which will ensure the airline is able to retain and attract pilots.”

Kellogg Strike Ends as BCTGM Members Ratify New Contract: After a strike that began Oct. 5, Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTGM) members have approved a new five-year contract that includes “no take-aways; no concessions.” The workers at ready-to-eat cereal plants in Battle Creek, Michigan; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Omaha, Nebraska; and Memphis, Tennessee, voted in favor of the new agreement, which includes: no permanent two-tier system, a clear path to regular full-time employment, no plant shutdowns through October 2026, increases in pension payments and the maintenance of cost-of-living raises. “Our striking members at Kellogg’s ready-to-eat cereal production facilities courageously stood their ground and sacrificed so much in order to achieve a fair contract. This agreement makes gains and does not include any concessions,” said BCTGM International President Anthony Shelton. “Our entire Union commends and thanks Kellogg’s members. From picket line to picket line, Kellogg’s union members stood strong and undeterred in this fight, inspiring generations of workers across the globe, who were energized by their tremendous show of bravery as they stood up to fight and never once backed down….The BCTGM is grateful, as well, for the outpouring of fraternal support we received from across the labor movement for our striking members at Kellogg’s. Solidarity was critical to this great workers’ victory.”

Oregon Grocery Workers End Strike with Tentative Agreement: Grocery workers, members of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 555, at Fred Meyer and Quality Food Centers in Oregon ended a strike after reaching a tentative labor agreement. The new contract provides wage increases, improved workplace protections, new retirement and health care benefits. The stores are part of Kroger-owned supermarket chains.

WGAE Ratifies Landmark Contract with VICE: On Friday, the Writers Guild of America, East, (WGAE) announced that its 160 members at VICE Media have ratified a new three-year contract that sets an increased minimum salary of $63,000 and provides minimum yearly wage increases ranging from 3% to 3.75%. The WGAE previously had four contracts at VICE representing four main editorial verticals, but the new contract combines them all into one agreement. “Thanks to a unified and strong union, workers across VICE will now work under one collective bargaining agreement,” said WGAE Executive Director Lowell Peterson. “This new contract and its substantial gains are a testament to the VICE bargaining committee’s diligent efforts to address the concerns and aspirations of workers at a company that continues to grow within the ever-shifting media landscape.”

Ironworkers Emerge Victorious in Strike Against Erie Strayer: After nearly three months on strike, the members of Ironworkers Local 851 in Erie, Pennsylvania, have declared victory. Management at Erie Strayer came “to the table in good faith today to meet us in our demands,” the union announced on Friday. The members of Local 851 held the line, day and night, for months in their fight for a fair contract. “This win is a testament to the power of worker solidarity, and that the best protection and future for workers everywhere is with a union contract made for workers and by workers,” the Ironworkers said in a statement. Their grit and determination to win, together with the support of the local community and the labor movement, is an example to us all.

Vodeo Games Workers Form First Video Game Union in North America: The employees at Vodeo Games have come together to form Vodeo Workers United, the first certified union of video game workers in North America. The union was organized with the Campaign to Organize Digital Employees-CWA (CODE-CWA). Thirteen workers at the video game company, including independent contractors, received voluntary recognition of their new union from their employer. With this recognition, Vodeo Workers United is set to begin bargaining a first contract. “All workers deserve a union and a say in how their workplace is run, no matter where they work, what their employment status is or what kind of conditions they work under,” said Myriame Lachapelle, a producer at Vodeo Games. “We have been inspired by the growing worker organizing within the gaming industry and hope we can set a new precedent for industry-wide standards that will better our shared working conditions and inspire others to do the same.”

OPEIU Members at MOVE Texas Ratify First Contract: Members of MOVE Texas United (MTXU), an affiliate of the Office and Professional Employees (OPEIU) Local 277, unanimously ratified their first contract on Friday, having secured significant gains at the bargaining table. Highlights of the new contract include full benefits paid for by the employer, 40% employee representation on the board, a $50,000 wage floor for full-time employees and a 32-hour workweek. MOVE Texas is a statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering underrepresented youth communities. “To begin at the start of the new year, the 47-page contract will set an unprecedented example for the labor movement in the nonprofit sector,” MTXU said after the vote. “After almost a year of negotiations between the employer and the union, MOVE Texas United can celebrate an inspiring process and several innovative strides.”

Blue Skies Ahead: TWU Members at JetBlue Ratify First Contract: Members of the Transport Workers Union (TWU) who work as flight attendants, or “inflight crewmembers” (IFCs) as JetBlue calls them, decisively ratified their inaugural contract on Monday with the airline. The union said that while successfully negotiating a first contract is not an easy feat to accomplish under ordinary circumstances, it was made even more challenging because of the COVID-19 pandemic and a skyrocketing number of assaults against aviation workers. TWU members at JetBlue have been fighting for a fair contract since overwhelmingly voting to form a union in 2018. “This is a tremendous victory for our 5,500 IFCs at JetBlue. In this time of uncertainty and peril, there is no greater security for workers than a solid contract,” said TWU International President John Samuelsen. “Our JetBlue inflight crewmembers are no longer ‘at-will’ employees of the carrier, but union workers whose employment is secured by an enforceable collective bargaining agreement. What a huge difference it is.” The new contract includes a grievance and arbitration system, work rule improvements, health insurance and retirement benefits, and wage increases.

Big Cartel Workers Form First Tech Union in Right to Work State: Tech workers at Big Cartel received voluntary recognition of their new union, Big Cartel Workers Union, on Monday in a groundbreaking organizing victory. Staff at the e-commerce platform for creative businesses are the first tech workers to form a union in a “right to work” state as the company is based in Salt Lake City. The union members, who are affiliated with Office and Professional Employees (OPEIU) Tech Workers Union Local 1010, will begin bargaining their first contract with their employer next month. “Tech workers are becoming increasingly aware of the power a union brings them at work,” said OPEIU Organizing Director Brandon Nessen. “Unionizing gives working people agency to advance not only their own interests, but the mutual interests shared by both staff and management.”

Wirecutter Union Members Reach Tentative Agreement for Their First Contract: Members of the Wirecutter Union, part of The NewsGuild of New York/CWA Local 31003, announced on Tuesday that they have reached a tentative agreement with management. The workers at The New York Times’ product review site have been fighting for their first contract for two years. They went on a five-day strike during the recent Black Friday shopping season to pressure management to stop its union-busting practices and negotiate a fair agreement. Rallying together with 100% membership participation in the strike, and with the entire labor movement and our allies backing them up, these union members now get to vote on a groundbreaking new contract that includes significant wage increases, the elimination of nondisclosure agreements in cases of harassment, and strong diversity, equity and inclusion commitments. “We’ve fought to build our power over the last two years, despite continuous union-busting from The New York Times,” the Wirecutter Union tweeted. “The result is a bargaining agreement we’re proud of.”

VTDigger Newsroom Employees Secure First Collective Bargaining Agreement: Workers at VTDigger, members of the Providence Newspaper Guild (TNG-CWA Local 31041), ratified their first-ever collective bargaining agreement. The three-year deal “establishes consistent standards, rewards longevity, guarantees minimum salaries and overtime pay, and continues to solidify the organization’s commitment to improving diversity, equity and inclusion. It has been a long and at times difficult conversation, but we had it as equals, and the organization is much stronger for it,” said Lola Duffort, co-unit chair of the VTDigger Guild. “I am delighted we have arrived—unanimously—at such a robust agreement.” The new contract includes minimum salaries, cost-of-living increases, paid sick leave, paid parental leave, overtime pay, salary increases and other benefits.

Graduate Researchers Secure Union Recognition and University of California: More than 17,000 graduate student researchers across the University of California’s campuses have secured recognition from the university as members of Student Researchers United, an affiliate of the UAW. UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada said: “The UAW is proud to welcome UC Student Researchers into our union family. They have shown what is possible when workers stand together and refuse to be divided. We look forward to supporting them as they bargain a strong first contract.” Members of the union held a series of protests demanding representation, employment security, protection from harassment and other common workplace protections.

Workers at iHeart Podcast Network Join WGAE: The WGAE broke the news on Thursday that a clear majority of workers at the iHeart Podcast Network—the fastest-growing division of iHeartMedia—signed union cards to organize with the WGAE. The guild is calling on management to voluntarily recognize the union of about 125 producers, editors, researchers, writers and hosts. The iHeart Podcast Organizing Committee wrote a letter to management explaining their decision to form a union with WGAE and expressing their desire for appropriate compensation and benefits, accountability mechanisms regarding diversity and inclusion efforts, and clear paths for advancement and job security. WGAE Executive Director Lowell Peterson said: “We are pleased to welcome the storytellers at the iHeart Podcast Network to the guild. A union is vital to ensuring podcast workers are able to build sustainable careers in an industry where their contributions have been essential to the sector’s continued rapid growth.”

Chalkbeat Workers Unanimously Ratify First Union Contract: Writers at Chalkbeat, represented by the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE), voted unanimously to ratify their first collective bargaining agreement. The bargaining committee said: “Our members unanimously voted yes on our first contract because these issues were such a priority. We’re all excited to have better guidelines that we know will make Chalkbeat a better place to work. Organizing as a union has already helped our unit members feel more connected, sharing their various work experiences across the country, and working together to make sure we all have better working conditions. We’re excited that Chalkbeat ultimately heard our concerns, and we’re certain the new contract will lead to even more powerful journalism. Strong journalists make for a strong Chalkbeat.” The contract includes salary increases, minimum salary levels, paid parental leave, overtime compensation, improved health benefits, improved protections against sexual harassment, improved health benefits for transgender employees and other gains.

Actors’ Equity Secures Anti-Discrimination and Harassment Provisions in New Agreement with Purple Rose Theatre Company: Actors’ Equity Association announced on Tuesday that the union has reached a new agreement with the Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea, Michigan. Equity said the agreement reflects a shared commitment to creating a safe workplace, free from the discrimination and harassment the company experienced under its previous leadership. In addition to improved compensation and work hours, the two-year contract includes strong language prohibiting bullying, discrimination, harassment and retaliation. “This contract is now one of the strongest Equity contracts in the country in terms of protecting members from discrimination and harassment, and it will be a model for other theatres,” said Equity Assistant Executive Director and General Counsel Andrea Hoeschen. “Actors and stage managers will have a safer workplace because of the courage and efforts of those who revealed a range of working conditions at Purple Rose that were inconsistent with a safe, equitable, unionized workplace.”

SRU-UAW Wins Recognition from the University of California: In a massive victory for the UAW and the entire labor movement, Student Researchers United-UAW (SRU-UAW) announced Wednesday night that the University of California (UC) has recognized their union. SRU-UAW submitted union authorization cards in May after a months-long organizing campaign. Their recognition now means the union will represent 17,000 higher education workers at all 10 UC campuses and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. SRU-UAW members overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike in November over UC’s refusal to recognize their bargaining unit. “This historic victory was brought about by the tireless efforts of thousands of student researchers who organized to win a union and a direct response to our massive strike authorization vote,” the union tweeted on Wednesday. “Now let’s win a strong contract for all student researchers!”

Front-Line Grocery Workers Vote to Form a Union with UFCW Local 1439: United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1439 announced Monday that some 250 grocery workers at Fred Meyer in Richland, Washington, will join the union after a victorious election, marking the first time in recent history that an entire store of grocery workers in the state have done so. The organizing win now paves the way for these new union members to move forward in bargaining their first union contract to strengthen pay, benefits and working conditions. “This is an unprecedented victory, inspired by the sacrifices of essential grocery workers during the pandemic,” said Local 1439 Secretary-Treasurer Jeff Hofstader. “We hope this inspires other grocery workers to stand up and exercise their rights.”

Dancers at Ballet Idaho Vote to Join AGMA: The American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) and Ballet Idaho announced on Monday that the dancers of Ballet Idaho have voted to join AGMA. A vote was held on Tuesday, Nov. 30, based upon mutual agreement between the union and the performing arts company. Given the result in favor of forming a union, Ballet Idaho has recognized AGMA as the exclusive bargaining representative of the dancers. “AGMA is thrilled to welcome the dancers of Ballet Idaho into the union,” said Leonard Egert, national executive director of AGMA. “We look forward to a collaborative process with the management of Ballet Idaho, as the safety, well-being and long-term success of these artists remain a top priority for both parties.”

Carnegie Library Workers Reach Tentative Agreement on First Union Contract: After voting to join the United Steelworkers (USW) in 2019, approximately 300 workers at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh have reached a tentative agreement on their first union contract. The four-year contract covers eligible workers at 19 library branches and includes significant gains, including a voice in library decision-making, improved health and safety, pay equity for the lowest-paid workers and more affordable health care. Kira Yeversky, a clerk at the Homewood branch, said: “I’m so proud of every worker who shared their stories and fought for our first contract. They displayed true solidarity, and I can’t wait to see what this next chapter brings for all of us.”

PECSH-MNA Reaches Tentative Agreement at Sparrow Hospital: The bargaining team of the Professional Employees Council of Sparrow Hospital-Michigan Nurses Association (PECSH-MNA), an affiliate of National Nurses United (NNU), reached a tentative agreement with the hospital administration for a new three-year contract last Friday, averting a possible strike. The new agreement includes significant wage increases, no increases in health care premiums, a safe staffing process and contractually guaranteed access to personal protective equipment. “We truly believe that this contract will make a difference for caregivers working at our hospital, for the patients we serve and for our community as a whole,” said Katie Pontifex, RN, president of PECSH-MNA. “We are really proud of the solidarity shown by caregivers in advocating for our patients and our community.” In November, 96% of PECSH-MNA members voted to authorize a strike. Some 2,200 union members will cast their ballots in the coming days on whether to ratify the agreement.

MEBA Secures Pay Bonuses for Vaccinated Interlake Mariners: Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association (MEBA) President Adam Vokac announced last week that the union has agreed to a new pay policy to compensate fully vaccinated MEBA members sailing for Interlake Steamship Co. The policy doesn’t mandate vaccinations but provides a generous payment for those who are vaccinated or get inoculated against COVID-19, and sets up a system where an additional one-time payment is authorized for members if at least 85% of the fleet is certified to be fully vaccinated. The MEBA said it fully endorses this proactive and fair approach to motivate mariners to get vaccinated.

LIUNA Service Contract Workers Win Higher Wages: Hundreds of thousands of federal government contract workers will receive a pay raise as the Department of Labor’s Executive Order setting a $15 an hour minimum wage goes into effect in January. Thousands of Laborers (LIUNA) members working under service contracts for the federal government, including many supporting the U.S. military, also will benefit from this increase as well as the plan to index the minimum wage to an inflation measure, so that every year after 2022 wages will be automatically adjusted to reflect changes in the cost of living. “The Biden Administration should be commended for helping workers get ahead and ensuring that the workers who support the military and the federal government are able to support themselves and their families,” said LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “By setting a wage floor for federal contract workers with cost-of-living adjustments, many thousands of Laborers will earn higher wages now and in the future.”

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on January 4, 2022

About the Authors: Kenneth Quinell is a Senior Writer at the AFL-CIO.

Aaron Gallant is the Internal Communications Specialist at AFL-CIO


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The Top AFL-CIO Blog Posts of 2021

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By any measure, 2021 was another historic year. Working people across the country continued to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, engaged in an historic wave of strikes and worked to hold the administration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris true to their promise to be pro-worker. We covered these stories and many others throughout the year and here are the top 10 most-read stories by you, our readers.

Working People Respond to Attempted Coup at Nation’s Capitol (January 7): Yesterday saw an unprecedented attack on U.S. democratic institutions and working people across the country, and world, were shocked by what unfolded before us. Here are responses to Wednesday’s events from across the labor movement.

RWDSU-UFCW Leads Organizing Drive at Amazon Fulfillment Center in Alabama (January 26): The strongest effort to create a union at Amazon in many years is underway in Bessemer, Alabama. Organizers with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union-UFCW (RWDSU-UFCW) have been working with employees at the Amazon fulfillment center. By December, more than 2,000 workers had signed union cards, leading to an election set to begin in February. The company is engaging in union-busting activities in response, but the workers are not backing down. Many of the organizers and the employees at the fulfillment center are Black, and the organizers have focused on issues of racial equality and empowerment as a part of the drive.

John J. Sweeney, 1934-2021 (February 2): John Sweeney, who led an era of transformative change in America’s labor movement, passed away Feb. 1 at the age of 86. Sweeney was one of four children born to Irish immigrants in a working-class Bronx neighborhood shortly after the Great Depression. His parents, James and Agnes Sweeney, worked as a bus driver and a domestic worker, respectively. Sweeney always understood the struggles and the pride of working people.

20 Ways the American Rescue Plan Helps Working People (March 11): This week, Congress passed the American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion bill to help fight the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. President Biden signed the law, which will provide significant assistance to the American people during this unprecedented crisis. Here are 20 ways the American Rescue Plan will help working people.

Success in the Tech Industry: Worker Wins (March 25): Despite the challenges of organizing during a deadly pandemic, working people across the country (and beyond) continue organizing, bargaining and mobilizing for a better life. This edition begins with: “CODE-CWA’s Tech Industry Organizing Efforts Lead to Union Recognition at Mobilize….”

Profiles in Courage: Celebrating AAPI Labor Activists (March 31): In the wake of the rise of hate crimes and violence against the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, we take an important pause to voice our support of our brothers, sisters and friends in the AAPI community. The AAPI community has played an important and active role in the growth, expansion and unique diversity of this country and has given the labor movement many of its true heroes. This community is our community, and we are proud to celebrate these seven labor activists—all of whom have advanced the cause of worker justice.

13 Ways the PRO Act Helps Working People (April 26): The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act is a generational opportunity and the cornerstone of the AFL-CIO’s Workers First Agenda. It motivated working people this past election cycle to mobilize for a pro-worker trifecta in the U.S. House, Senate and White House. And working people won a mandate. The PRO Act was introduced by Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.) and Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (Va.), and it is landmark worker empowerment, civil rights and economic stimulus legislation, and an essential part of any plan to build back better from the COVID-19 pandemic and recession.

Richard L. Trumka’s Lifelong Devotion to Family and Democracy (August 13): Richard Louis Trumka dedicated his entire life to making sure every institution he touched—the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), the AFL-CIO, the U.S. government and the world community—served working people and the public interest, comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable.

Liz Shuler Elected President as Part of Most Diverse Leadership Team in AFL-CIO History (August 20): The AFL-CIO Executive Council today elected Liz Shuler, a visionary leader and longtime trade unionist, to serve as president of the federation of 56 unions and 12.5 million members. Shuler is the first woman to hold the office in the history of the labor federation. The Executive Council also elected United Steelworkers (USW) International Vice President Fred Redmond to succeed Shuler as secretary-treasurer, the first African American to hold the number two office. Tefere Gebre will continue as executive vice president, rounding out the most diverse team of officers ever to lead the AFL-CIO. 

Do You Know Where Your Nabisco Treats Are Made? (August 25): Members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTGM) working at Nabisco plants throughout the United States take great pride in producing the iconic products that have been a part of millions of Americans’ lives for more than 50 years. Workers at five Nabisco locations in the United States are currently on strike. 

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on December 16, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author is Kenneth Quinell. Kenneth Quinell is a Senior Writer at the AFL-CIO.


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The ACLU of Illinois Seeks a Playbook for Acceptable Progressive Union Busting

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The staff union and management are locked in a battle over who can be included in the union.

Aunion fight that is playing out in Illinois highlights how progressive organizations can use technical objections to the scope of a proposed union to effectively pursue union-busting while maintaining plausible deniability that they are doing so. This effort to have it both ways makes sense when you consider where this labor battle is happening: at the ACLU. 

The past two years has been a landmark one for unionization at the ACLU, part of the broader, ongoing wave of nonprofit organizing. As the pandemic raged in 2020, workers at several ACLU state branches unionized–including in Kansas, where the staff faced a corporate-style anti-union campaign. In January of 2021 about 300 staffers nationwide formed the civil liberties group’s largest staff union, called ACLU Staff United. In subsequent months, more state ACLU staffs across the country have successfully unionized, and ACLU staff union drives are underway in other states, like Virginia and Illinois*. Workers have vowed to continue until they have successfully unionized every state office. 

Though common sense might tell you that an organization that proudly declares that it “has championed the right of workers to organize unions since its inception more than 90 years ago” would be an easy place to unionize, that has not been completely true. While most of the union drives at the ACLU have secured voluntary recognition from management—a necessary baseline for any employer to be considered pro-union—that has not been the case in Illinois. In late June, workers there asked management to recognize their staff union, part of the National Organization of Legal Services Workers. More than five months later, they are still waiting. 

An ACLU of Illinois employee who is a member of the proposed staff union, and who asked for anonymity in fear of workplace retaliation, said that organizing there started in late 2020, after internal efforts to improve the workplace fell short. Employees were particularly upset after an internal staff committee aimed at improving diversity, equity and inclusion was disbanded, even as the organization lost staff members of color year after year. In June, 20 staffers signed an open letter to management requesting recognition for a union covering 27 people. 

“We expected the ACLU to live up to their values” and voluntarily recognize the union, as other state ACLUs had done, the employee said. “But instead we had a strange reaction.” Middle managers were told to keep quiet about the union, and workers were told that they could not use a Zoom background that advertised their union, according to the employee. 

For months now, management and the union have been locked in a stalemate over the issue of how many workers will be allowed to be members of the unit. Restricting the size of a proposed unit is a common tactic by employers, who often seek to assert that as many employees as possible are managers or supervisors, and are therefore not eligible to be union members. These sorts of negotiations, though cloaked in legalistic language, are usually more about power than about law—how fiercely management chooses to argue over vague job descriptions comes down to whether they are comfortable working with a staff union, or whether they see it as a priority to make the union as small and weak as possible from the very beginning. 

Fed up with the delays, the ACLU of IL Staff United finally filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board in early October, seeking a resolution. The union had a two-day hearing at the NLRB that concluded on November 1. Though the timeline is not certain, the union expects to get a ruling on the size of its unit soon, and then it can proceed to a formal vote for certification.

“We were fed up, and decided if they weren’t going to be good faith partners,” going to the labor board was the only option, the employee says. “We’re deeply disappointed that the ACLU forced us to spend time and resources going before the NLRB. It’s not a good use of anyone’s time. We’d rather be doing the civil rights work everyone is here to do.”

The ACLU of Illinois said that executive director Colleen Connell was unavailable for an interview. Instead, the organization sent a statement attributed to Connell, which said that she has always been willing to extend voluntary recognition to “an appropriately defined bargaining unit of ACLU employees.” 

“To date, we have not been able to extend voluntary recognition because the Union’s proposed definition of the bargaining unit includes a number of positions that are supervisory, managerial, or confidential in nature and cannot, therefore, be lawfully included. We discussed these issues at length with the Union’s organizer prior to the Union filing its representation petition,” the statement says. It goes on to portray the dispute as one in which management is actually trying to protect employees, saying “our objections are not driven by a desire to defeat the Union’s representational objective. Just the opposite. NLRB law and policy makes clear that unionizing employees’ rights are frustrated by the inclusion in a bargaining unit of supervisors, managerial employees, and confidential employees.” 

That assertion of concern for “employees’ rights” is sharply at odds with what employees themselves say they want. Eleven positions in the proposed bargaining unit are in dispute, representing 40% of the total proposed union. The staff union filed a 50-page brief with the NLRB arguing that management has “taken dramatically expansive definitions” of who should be excluded from the unit, and that these “overbroad” arguments are inconsistent with labor law. 

The workers in Illinois are receiving vocal support from their colleagues across the country. “We’re disappointed that ACLU of Illinois leadership continues to drag out the union recognition process by failing to agree to a fair and inclusive unit,” said ACLU Staff United, the organization’s national union, in a statement. “It seems so easy for management to forget that the ACLU was founded over 100 years ago with a commitment to protecting workers’ rights. Staff at ACLU affiliates across the country and at the national organization have unionized to create a better ACLU and address pay inequities, lack of workplace diversity, remote work policies, and organizational transparency.”

There is no question that the ACLU of Illinois will eventually have some sort of staff union, covering at least some of its employees. But the outcome of its dispute will be significant. If successful in drastically restricting the size of the unit, management will have demonstrated a successful playbook for kneecapping a union’s power while insisting that you are pro-union, in line with your organization’s stated values. 

For workers at the ACLU of Illinois, the process has been eye opening—and has left them “surprised, disappointed, and disheartened.” 

“We came to work at the ACLU because we believe in civil rights,” the employee says. “And that includes labor rights.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on November 15, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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How Workers at Beverage Giant Refresco Defeated a “Notorious” Union Buster

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Refresco has waged a prolonged and costly fight to stop the workers from unionizing.

As the spread of Covid-19 forced millions of workplaces to close in March 2020, Cesar Moreira continued to report to a bottling plant in Wharton, N.J., where he works as a batching technician. During 12-hour shifts, Moreira mixes vats of powdered concentrate and sugar to churn out brand-name beverages like Gatorade and Arizona Iced Tea.

Management for Resfresco Beverages Inc., the owner of the plant and one of the largest bottling companies, told workers these operations fell under the umbrella of “essential services.” Moreira was incredulous.

That the company would risk the health of its employees to maintain the supply of sugary drinks angered him. In mid-March, as workers at the plant began to call in sick with coronavirus symptoms, Moreira says plant management ignored their concerns and refused to temporarily halt production. 

On March 21, 2020, Moreira and his coworkers walked off the job to demand adequate protections and contact tracing, part of a wave of safety-related stoppages in the first months of the pandemic. Workers at a Perdue chicken plant in Georgia and a meatpacking facility in Nebraska soon followed suit, the food production sector being a particular hotspot for Covid-19 cases and emergency organizing by a heavily immigrant workforce. 

But workers at the Wharton plant didn’t stop there. Their spontaneous protest quickly blossomed into a full-fledged union drive. In June, 15 months after the walkout, Refresco workers voted 114–101 to join the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). Their 250-person bargaining unit is one of the biggest victories of blue-collar organizing during the pandemic.


To win the election, Moreira and his co-workers also had to overcome an aggressive anti-union campaign targeting their predominantly Spanish-speaking workforce. The company pulled out all the stops, posting anti-union flyers and a fake UE contract—and hiring Lupe Cruz, a union avoidance expert who specializes in “bilingual consulting.” In These Times obtained more than eight hours of recordings from six weeks of mandatory anti-union meetings led by Cruz at the Refresco plant this spring. The recordings provide a window into an especially insidious union-busting strategy: exploiting ethnic and linguistic differences to sow doubt and confusion among immigrant workers.

The tactic is old, but it speaks to the increasing specialization of a multi-million-dollar union-busting industry. Labor activists say Cruz, himself a former union organizer, is infamous for his attempts to thwart organizing in industries with large numbers of immigrant workers.

Alejandro Coriat, who encountered Cruz in 2017 while organizing a union at his job at a Hilton Hotel in Stamford, Conn., even coined a term to describe this approach: “intersectional union-busting.” In a workplace dominated by Latino and Haitian immigrants, Cruz and his team “divided us according to two language groups, and with each group, they tried a different tack,” Coriat says. The workers ultimately won their union by a near-unanimous vote.

Cruz’s strategy also failed at Refresco, but the workers’ fight isn’t over. After the union won the election, Refresco moved rapidly to scrap the results on a technicality. While a representative for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recommended certification of the union in September, Refresco has signaled that it intends to appeal.

That leaves the Refresco workers in limbo, unable to start contract negotiations. At a time when essential workers are reporting more willingness to take collective action, the Refresco drive shows just how many hurdles they still face.

Licinia Ochoa has worked as a machine operator at the Wharton bottling plant for 22 years. It was her first job after she moved from Colombia to New Jersey in 1999. UE estimates that, of the 250-some workers who mix, bottle and pack beverages at the Refresco plant, more than 85 percent are Latin American immigrants.

Work at the plant, which opened in 1980, was never easy, Ochoa says. But until recently, it was dignified. Her schedule was regular, the hours weren’t too bad and she knew she would be covered if she got injured or sick.

Then, in 2016, the plant’s original owner sold it to Refresco.

The beverage giant has grown rapidly by gobbling up smaller companies in North America and Europe; its gross profit in 2020 was 1.9 billion euros, according to an annual report. Refresco operates more than 60 plants worldwide, including about 30 in the United States. The majority of workers in the U.S. facilities are not unionized.

“Many things changed since Refresco came,” Ochoa says.

Soon after acquiring the Wharton plant, Refresco switched the company’s healthcare plan to one with high deductibles and skimpier coverage. Later, the company replaced many 8-hour shifts with 12-hour shifts. For many workers, wages stagnated below $20 per hour.

Cesar Moreira immigrated to the United States from Ecuador and has worked at the plant for seven years. He suffers from sleep apnea. “I’m paying $750 [for treatment], plus $1,500 to the company that makes the mask that sends oxygen to my brain,” he says. “That’s $2,200.

“We are talking about a multinational corporation. So why couldn’t they keep our health insurance [from before]?”

Ochoa, 62, was among those assigned to 12-hour shifts. Ochoa makes $17 an hour and says her healthcare copays are so high she avoids seeing a doctor. But she had no choice after becoming seriously ill in March 2020, eventually requiring hospitalization for Covid-19. The virus put her out of work for two months.

Ochoa and several coworkers had reached out to UE in 2019, beginning talks over healthcare and scheduling concerns. But the drive didn’t kick into high gear until spring 2020.

Anthony Sanchez, an employee of 15 years, says when he tested positive for Covid-19 in March 2020, he tried to alert the company. “They didn’t talk to the coworkers I interact with all the time,” he says. “They didn’t give tests. They didn’t put anybody in quarantine.”

For months, workers kept their intentions to unionize quiet, while distributing and amassing signed union cards to demonstrate majority support.

“They never would have thought we would do this under their noses,” Ochoa says. “It was brutal when they found out.”

When workers attempt to organize a union, it’s almost a given they’ll face resistance. A 2019 report by the Economic Policy Institute reveals employers spend about $340 million on anti-union services annually. Hiring professional “union avoidance” consultants to interrogate workers and carry out so-called captive audience meetings is an especially common tactic.

As the union avoidance industry has grown, it’s also become increasingly sophisticated. Richard Rehberg, a researcher for the International Union of Operating Engineers, says he first encountered Cruz and his special brand of culturally competent union-busting while working for Food and Allied Service Trades, an AFL-CIO affiliate, in the early 2000s.

“It was a new thing,” Rehberg says. “Basically, the union-busters were pandering. You know, ‘OK, how are we going to deal with these Latino workers and Spanish speakers?’”

Now, says Rehberg, this kind of specialization is common. Employers can hire union-busters to appeal—sometimes crudely—to almost any demographic. On campaigns to organize construction and building trades, for example, Rehberg says he has repeatedly encountered one man with a “pseudo-biker look” apparently intended to help a well-paid consultant relate to blue-collar workers.

In 2020, employers gained another anti-union strategy: They could simply lay off workers attempting to organize and blame it on Covid-19. That appears to have successfully stalled active union drives among nurses in North Carolina, truck drivers in New Jersey and a host of others, according to an April 2020 New York Times investigation.

“This is a continuation of behavior that has become all too common, of employers being willing to use increasingly aggressive tactics to stop unionizing,” Sharon Block, a former NLRB board member, told the Times. “The pandemic has given them another tool.”

The situation creates a kind of paradox: While unions report workers increasingly want to organize (spurred by the pandemic), the number of actual union drives has declined.

The number of union representation elections fell by 30% from 2019 to 2020—partly due to a total stoppage of NLRB elections in March 2020 and the new challenges that in-person organizing faced. The Refresco workers’ campaign was a bright spot amid the lull.

Soon after Refresco workers submitted their union cards in May, management ushered them into the first of six weeks of mandatory meetings. In a recording of one of the first meetings, obtained by In These Times, Lupe Cruz introduces himself.

“Where are you from, sir?” Cruz asks employees in the audience in Spanish. One is from Ecuador. Another is from Peru. Venezuela, Colombia, El Salvador and Mexico are also represented.

“All different countries—six for six!” Cruz says. The workers’ immigration backgrounds will become an ongoing theme.

“One of the first things we’re going to teach you is, What is the process and the system here in the United States,’” Cruz says. “Because the way this works in Mexico, in Colombia, in Venezuela—it’s very different.”

Throughout the meetings, Cruz and the other consultants refer to the sessions as “classes,” saying they intend to provide the workers an education about U.S. labor law.

In one session, a worker chimes in with a story about how Refresco changed the plant. Cruz interrupts him: “I’m giving you a legal opinion, not an emotional one. There’s a difference. This is objective.” 

“They wanted to trick people with an image that they were neutral,” says Anthony Sanchez, who sat through multiple anti-union meetings.

In another session, Cruz presents a truncated history of UE, implying that thousands of workers jumped ship from the union after learning about U.S. labor.

“You know what the highest number of members this union has had?” Cruz says. “Six hundred thousand. What happened with those members? They left. Those who understood the system left.”

In fact, UE’s steep decline in membership, beginning in the 1950s, followed a wave of plant closures and vicious anti-Communist attacks, including by Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s notorious House Un-American Activities Committee.

In the same session, Cruz suggests UE is incapable of defending workers: “If this union isn’t one of the big ones, and Refresco is the biggest in the world, what kind of funds does this union have to help you in a fight?”

In an apparent attempt to cast doubt on the union, a document with the header “legal and binding contract between UE and the employees of Refresco” was posted at the plant. It contained a list of benefits and raises, as well as a blank signature line for the union—as if to say the union couldn’t actually guarantee improvements.

After casting the union as underfunded and impotent, Cruz describes a hypothetical scenario in which Refresco loses its big clients, like Pepsi, and workers are laid off.

“Who’s the real boss?” Cruz asks. “The real boss is Pepsi. If you’re Pepsi, you’re in the best position to negotiate [with bottling companies] because they all want your business. So if Pepsi looks into contracts with other businesses, what if they like them? They steal Refresco’s business. And then what happens to your jobs?” According to UE, the possibility of layoffs came up frequently in anti-union meetings.

The National Labor Relations Act prohibits employers from threatening workers with layoffs or reduced benefits if they join a union. Because of this, “employers are more likely to make implied rather than direct threats of job loss,” explains Kate Bronfenbrenner, labor scholar and director of labor education research at Cornell University. “They are much harder to prove [as legal violations], because so much is dependent on the culture and history of a particular workplace.”

In a statement emailed to In These Times, a spokesperson for Refresco says the company’s actions are entirely legal. “As it has done throughout this election process, Refresco has and will continue to follow all the legal rules governing its behavior in connection with and arising out of the union’s efforts to organize employees at its Wharton, New Jersey facility,” writes Antonella Sacconi, Refresco’s communications manager. “This includes, but is not limited to, neither retaliating against nor rewarding employees based on their union sympathies or support.”

Neither UE nor pro-union Refresco workers allege the company’s anti-union campaign broke any laws, just that Refresco and its hired consultants sought to confuse and manipulate workers—the legality of which, they say, serves as evidence of the weak labor protections for U.S. workers.

Cruz did not respond to multiple requests for commentBut to union organizers and labor activists, he is a familiar figure. Bronfenbrenner calls him “notorious.”

Cruz once worked as an organizer for the hospitality union Unite Here but has been battling the campaigns of his former union for more than a decade. In 2006, the owners of a Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles paid Cruz $480,000 during a particularly bruising anti-union fight, according to reporting by the Los Angeles TimesHilton fired an employee active in the union drive who had allegedly been caught stealing by a “mystery shopper” posing as a guest. When workers gathered in the cafeteria to protest the firing, management suspended more than 70 of them for a week.

Cruz has since gone on to consult for such employers as Trump Hotels, the auto club AAA and others. His involvement helped quash high-profile union campaigns at American Apparel in 2015 and a New Seasons Market grocery store in Oregon in 2019.

Cruz is associated with at least two firms that have filed disclosures with the Office of Labor Management Standards (OLMS), which requires third-party labor consultants to report income from employers. The firm Cruz & Associates reported more than $3.5 million in income in 2018 but has not filed additional reports since 2019. Quest Consulting, established in 2019 with Cruz as its president, reported $1.4 million in revenue for 2020, according to OLMS records.

Workers who have encountered Cruz on other union campaigns report seeing similar tactics to those at Refresco.

During a union drive at Tartine Bakery in 2020, workers say monolingual Spanish speakers were siloed for separate captive audience meetings. OLMS data shows Quest collected $243,363 from Tartine in 2020.

Refresco has since hired Seyfarth & Shaw, a prominent employer-side law firm, to appeal the union election results to the NLRB, which Bronfenbrenner says is an “extremely common” tactic. “It gives the employer more chances to raise questions about what the union really wants. And [make] the workers who voted for the union feel less secure,” she says.

For their part, workers on the organizing committee are preparing for steward elections and the eventuality of contract negotiations.

“I’m OK, but I’m uneasy,” Moreira says. “The only way to make a change is to pressure these people into understanding that we aren’t … animals to control at their will.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 19, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Mississippi Believes It Can Be Organized. Does Anyone Else?

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Under-resourced and overlooked, the South is tired of waiting for organized labor.

Two blocks from the Mississippi State Capitol in downtown Jackson, Robert Shaffer, head of the state AFL-CIO, sits on a couch in his office trying to explain how unions could become more powerful in Mississippi. “It’s just,” he says, then pauses for an uncomfortably long time. “It’s difficult.” It’s not that Shaffer doesn’t know how to do it. His problem is getting anyone to believe him.

In 1946, full of vigor from the postwar boom of organized labor, the Congress of Industrial Organizations launched Operation Dixie, the most ambitious project to unionize the South ever undertaken. Hundreds of CIO organizers fanned out across the region. The challenges of Southern racism and the frenzied anti-Communism of the McCarthy era ultimately caused Operation Dixie to fail in its goal of ending the South’s status as a haven for cheap, nonunion labor, but the unions did notch some successes along the way. One of the places they were able to interest workers in organizing was in West Point, a small town in northeast Mississippi. There, employees at a Babcock & Wilcox boiler factory began holding union elections in 1952. They lost, but they continued calling elections almost yearly until 1967, when they were victorious by a single vote, joining the Boilermakers.

By the mid-1980s, the plant had 100 percent union membership—no easy task in a right-to-work state where anyone can opt out of paying union dues.

In 2016, the plant shut down. The last of its jobs were shipped to Mexico.

“NAFTA took care of Operation Dixie,” sighs Shaffer, who has a bristly white mustache and the philosophical air of a man who has seen a once-great thing taken away from him. He began working at that Babcock & Wilcox plant in 1969 and became head of the union local in 1984. Today, Shaffer is organized labor’s chief lobbyist in a state where barely 7 percent of working people are union members.

The ultra-Republican Mississippi legislature has made the laws so politically hostile to unions that it’s difficult to think of how it could get any worse. “It’s more defensive than anything else,” Shaffer grumbles about his dealings with state politicians. “Hell, I think they got everything. How do you get any lower than the bottom of the damn ocean?”

Every state in the South today has so-called right-to-work laws on the books—anti-union legislation that makes it harder to build and maintain strong unions. They serve to drive down already paltry union density and exacerbate the region’s high poverty rates.

Periodically (and with great regularity), the labor movement holds a fevered conversation with itself about “how to organize the South.” Implicit in these conversations is the greater question lurking just below the surface: Can the South even be organized?

Like all questions about the South, there is nowhere better to find the answer than Mississippi. Mississippi is the place most defined by the twin struggles of racial justice and labor rights that date back to slavery. Mississippi is also the most impoverished state in America. Nearly a fifth of all Mississippians live in poverty, including more than 30 percent of the state’s Black residents. Working in Mississippi is what inspired the invention of the blues. And the state still seems to live by the words of Delta musician Skip James: “Hard times is here, and everywhere you go, times are harder than ever been before.”

The most recent spasm of interest in the possibility of an organized South arose earlier this year, when the nation’s attention was momentarily drawn to the unsuccessful effort from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) to organize an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. Another recent major union vote in the South was August 2017, when the United Auto Workers (UAW) failed in their attempt to unionize thousands of Nissan workers at a plant in Canton, Miss. Both attempts included enormous campaigns targeting more than 5,000 workers in a single location.

The UAW spent more than a decade on the Nissan campaign, only to lose the vote by nearly 2–1. Those devastating figures in such a high-profile campaign (coming on the heels of a similar UAW loss at a factory in Tennessee in 2014) fed a grim narrative of skepticism about whether the South was simply a dark and impenetrable place that would never yield to organized labor. Many in the union world think the South’s difficult political atmosphere and its long history of union-busting make it too risky to spend large sums of money on big organizing drives.

Successful organizing in right-to-work states simply takes more ongoing work—and with limited resources, it is easy for unions to want to focus elsewhere.

The actual lessons of that Nissan campaign are far more nuanced, however, and somewhat hopeful. The UAW’s lead Nissan organizer was Sanchioni Butler, a long-time autoworker herself who went to Canton in 2003 to lay the groundwork for unionization. She is candid about the obstacles the union faced from the very beginning, ones that plague the South broadly: a workforce divided between full-time employees and a throng of temps doing the same job for lower pay; thinly veiled threats by management and state politicians to close the plant; and widespread lack of knowledge about unions among workers themselves. One of the reasons the Nissan campaign went on so long is that the union, recognizing what it was up against, was trying to organize not just a single workplace, but the surrounding community.

“It was a community campaign before it was an actual worker campaign,” says Butler, who is now a political campaign organizer for the Mississippi AFL-CIO. “Labor has had a bad rap of, ‘They come in, organize and leave the town in shambles.’ So that was something the UAW was trying hard not to [do].”

In Canton, that meant nurturing an entire parallel campaign to bring along clergy and community leaders to support the union drive—an attempt to build some friendly allies in a conservative, venomously anti-union state. One of the leaders of that effort was Frank Figgers, a bearded, owlish descendant of Mississippi sharecroppers. Figgers, a well-known civil rights activist in Jackson, was a co-chair of the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan, which pulled in clergy members and groups like the NAACP to try to make the soil more fertile for the union drive. 

First, the group educated church leaders about the benefits of collective bargaining. Then, workers from the plant spoke up in church to let the congregations know the troubles they had on the job. 

For Figgers, there is a straight line from the legacy of slavery to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s to the labor movement today.

“Black workers were the free workforce in this country,” Figgers says. “It took abolishing slavery for Black workers to get anything for their labor. When a union comes in, when collective bargaining comes in, that brings about equity in the workplace. That’s probably why Mississippi as a state has fought against unions for so long.”

Mississippi’s 1890 state constitution definitively snuffed out most Reconstruction-era gains for Black people, ushering in a regime of legalized white supremacy. With it came separate, unequal, racialized pay scales, the effects of which have never been mitigated. 

Though the civil rights movement is often misremembered as solely about voting rights, Figgers says, it was also about rights at work—in particular, winning pay equity in the racist South. There is only the barest sliver of daylight between what civil rights heroes Fannie Lou Hamer and Medgar Evers were fighting for in Mississippi a half century ago and the task of empowering Mississippi’s vast, low-paid, largely Black workforce today. After years fighting for voting rights, Hamer started a farmers’ co-op in Sunflower County in a bid for economic empowerment. Martin Luther King Jr. spent his later years focused on economic justice and was in Memphis supporting a sanitation workers’ strike when he was assassinated. 

While the civil rights movement has now been fully adopted as part of America’s mainstream mythology, the labor movement in Mississippi remains threadbare. Butler says the fear Nissan workers felt when signing union cards is the same fear their parents and grandparents felt registering to vote.

On the other hand, Butler also knows unions are one of the most effective ways to unite Black and white workers in Mississippi—not in a magical sense of making centuries of racism disappear, but in a practical sense of being virtually the only institution in the South capable of making white and Black people work for a shared purpose despite antiBlack racism. Butler says she saw suspicion and resentment between Nissan workers of different races melt away as she talked with them about their shared suffering due to high healthcare costs and job injuries. “At the end of the day, everybody was being mistreated,” Butler says. “They have their own ‘aha’ moment: ‘I didn’t know you went through that. I went through the exact same thing.’”

Despite the union’s loss, the decade-plus of community education work instilled a hunger for labor rights in thousands of people, priming the region for future campaigns. The union is still present in Canton, but has not filed for another union election. (The UAW did not respond to inquiries for this story.)

Mississippi is a state with an infinite capacity for not learning from its own history. Today, when you visit the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in downtown Jackson to learn about the bloody struggles for freedom, you can get a refreshment at the Nissan Cafe—courtesy of a $500,000 donation Nissan made while fighting the unionization campaign.

It is not impossible to build strong unions in Mississippi. Robert Shaffer will tell you it can be done the same way they did it at Babcock & Wilcox: Create a strong culture around being in the union. Stay in constant contact with members. Don’t take any shit from the boss. Be ready to strike.

And never, ever stop fighting.

What Shaffer cannot do is make unions flower across Mississippi; he does not have the resources. The AFL-CIO has no statewide army of staffers to put any organizing plans into action. Sometimes, even the AFL-CIO itself can’t get the attention of unions. Shaffer says that a few years ago, AFL-CIO independently organized a group of hotel workers in Jackson, only for the effort to die out because they couldn’t find a union to take the workers on as members. (The AFL-CIO is a federation of unions and typically does not do direct organizing; the workers needed a union to represent them in order to move ahead and get a contract.)

Offshoring pressures after NAFTA closed many of the state’s big factories, and today Mississippi is made up of relatively small workplaces. Shaffer says most unions don’t find it economically feasible to organize groups of less than 200 workers. The result is very few unionized workplaces for the hundreds of thousands of retail, healthcare, restaurant, warehouse and manufacturing workers in the state, despite the fact that everyone I spoke with firmly believes unionizing could be done if only they had the resources.

Shaffer dreams of another Operation Dixie to produce a new generation of believers. “You can take a group of 25 to start with, and you start building that, and you make them proud of their union,” he says. “It expands. Especially somewhere like Jackson, Mississippi, man. Damn!

“I just get so frustrated, because I don’t got the power to do that shit,” he says. “It’s a business decision now. A hundred years ago, it was a decision for the people.”

Even in Mississippi, there are some islands of union power. One is in Carthage, where the RWDSU represents a large Tyson poultry factory. Since the plant unionized in 1993, more than 1,100 of its current 1,800 workers have become union members. Latunya Love, a friendly, resolute woman from the nearby crossroads town of Sallis, has worked at the plant for 16 years. She spent 15 of them as a union rep.

A union is still not a panacea for a Mississippi poultry worker. Love, who works on the line, knife in hand, checking breast meat for bones, makes $15.05 an hour—if she hits her incentive pay. The biggest complaint among workers at the plant, she says, is the pay. The plant has stayed open through the entire pandemic, despite Covid-19 outbreaks and deaths. When the company hung up a wreath, Love knew another worker died.

Still, the union helps make the job of standing shoulder to shoulder all day slicing and dicing poultry more tolerable. Workers at the Carthage plant get more vacation days and better benefits than their nonunion counterparts, and Love’s position as a union rep gives her a direct line to management she didn’t have at other jobs at McDonald’s and AutoZone. Every week, Love talks to the plant’s orientation class, urging dozens of new workers to sign up and join the union. She has even traveled to Alabama to help RWDSU organize workers at a car rental chain.

Though Love is part of one of the state’s few large union companies, she knows working people in the South are a long way from the promised land. “It’s like they’re scared of the union in Mississippi,” Love says. “The South is very scared. They’re scared of change.

“If where I work at took that union away, everything that we have negotiated in this contract is gone. They can put you back to whatever they want to give you for money. They can take away your vacation. And you won’t have nothing.”

In the summer of 1965, farmworkers in the Mississippi Delta went on strike. With the help of civil rights organizers, more than 1,000 people formed the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union and launched a momentary wave of labor activism that saw poor agricultural workers walking off the job and building Strike City, an encampment where dozens lived in tents for months to protest low wages. Today, near a curve in the Bogue Phalia, a tributary of the Big Sunflower River outside of Leland, Miss., you can find the neatly mowed vacant field where those workers made their stand. The tiny street it sits on is called Strike City Road. Aside from that, all that is left is the memory of an extraordinary, quixotic stand for justice. In the end, the only thing they won was a footnote in history.

For poor Black farmworkers in the Mississippi Delta, some things have not changed in the past half century. Agricultural workers were excluded from the protections of the National Labor Relations Act when it was passed in 1935, and they still are. Traditional labor unions for Delta farmworkers are virtually nonexistent. As those who stubbornly held out at Strike City realized, the path to building power here must be conceived of very broadly (or not exist at all).

Mississippi’s agricultural economy remains one of large white (now corporate) landowners and poor Black workers. But there is a movement to turn that dynamic around. Down a long dirt driveway off a country road outside of Clarksdale is the lovely farm of Ernestine and Dorfus Young Sr. Along with vegetables, they grow their own grapes, sell their own wine and have an idyllic, enclosed space to host local events. There, I met a group of women who are part of Mississippi’s only Black women’s farming cooperative, a project of the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative (SRBWI) that aims to help the small farmers scattered across the Delta region turn their farms into viable businesses.

The women in the co-op each have their own reasons for becoming farmers. Ernestine Young left Mississippi as a child in 1965, part of the migration of Black people to the North in search of better opportunities. After 20 years in Minnesota, she was drawn home and bought a piece of land to grow almost everything you can think of.

Likewise, Nadean Randle grew up on a farm, left to have a career, then came home to take care of her sick mother and returned to farming, lured by love of the land. After 25 years of working for the Department of Veterans Affairs, “I bought a tractor, a pickup truck and a shotgun, and called myself a farmer,” Randle laughs.

Cora Burnside, mayor of itty-bitty Arcola, Miss., began growing veggies because her town is a food desert; she wanted fresh produce to hand out to local elderly people who have a hard time buying healthy groceries.

Patricia Porter and Lillie Melton, who each raise poultry on small farms near Lexington, share a lifelong love of chickens that is as strong as any career passion in the world. “I didn’t realize I cared so much about chickens until my father passed away,” says Melton, who grew up watching him tend to the birds when she was young. “I realized I enjoyed dealing with poultry!”

The SRBWI began nearly 20 years ago, funded by foundation grants and at times, the federal government, as a broad project to help Black women in the South improve their lives. The farmers’ co-op grew out of conversations with women about what they needed and has helped farms get state certifications, offered tech support and helped combine products for market. The group has a commercial kitchen in Clarksdale to help women turn their home cooking into food businesses. The co-op also has a goal of building enough capacity to sell produce to major grocery chains.

The SRBWI sewing collective, like the farming co-op, is another effort to turn the skills of women in the region into sustainable income. “Both of these organizations have been moving forward for laying the groundwork for potential ways for African American women in these communities, where so much has been [extracted], to make a living,” says Carol Blackmon, a consultant who helps run the SRBWI. “To make a way out of no way for themselves.”

Co-ops are one way Mississippi’s historically poor working people can build collective power in a land where unions are few and far between. Another is through a worker center, the catchall term for labor rights groups that aim to serve people unions don’t reach.

In 1995, Jaribu Hill, an attorney from New York, went to Mississippi on what she thought would be a two-year fellowship. She’s still there. Hill was so struck by the suffering of working people in the Delta that, in 1996, she founded the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights (MWCHR), an organization she still leads. It does organizing, advocacy and training work on human rights issues ranging from housing to healthcare to workplace safety to support for big union campaigns—whatever is most pressing for poor Black workers in what Hill calls “a really hellish region and a horrifically backwards state.”

Decades spent running the MWCHR have given Hill ample firsthand knowledge about why the labor movement in Mississippi can feel so anemic. The nonprofits and funders who pay attention to the deep South, she says, tend to focus on issues of race and economic development—important, but often lacking in a working-class and labor focus. Mississippi’s poverty and racism can, in a bit of bitter irony, suck up all of the attention and effort necessary to build the kind of worker power that could be the most effective tool for addressing Mississippi’s myriad inequalities.

Hill is passionate on the subject of organizing the South— its possibility and its absolute necessity. She wants Mississippi’s workers to be in unions. Until they are, she insists, the entire labor movement must devote itself to the task of changing the South in a way that it never has since Operation Dixie died an untimely death.

“If the South is not being organized, there is no real labor movement,” Hill says. “You cannot say with a straight face that you’re organizing workers, and you’re not organizing the South.

“You can’t call yourself a true revolutionary if you say the struggle is too hard. … If you think it’s hard for you, think about those who have to suffer through it!”

There is a widespread sentiment within organized labor—often spoken only in private—that investing a large amount of money in the South is irrational because there is more bang for the buck in less hostile regions. Proof of the ubiquity of this belief is in the fact that big union campaigns in the South are so rare that each one becomes major national news.

But not a single person I met in Mississippi thought workers there could not be organized. Again and again, those on the front lines said with absolute certainty that labor organizing in their state—where working people are intimately familiar with racism, poverty and political hostility—is an opportunity just waiting to happen. The project of organizing the South is not waiting for the South itself to change; it is waiting for the resources to make the change happen.

The labor movement in Mississippi does not need sympathy. It needs money. It needs organizers. And it needs a long-term commitment to stay until the work is done.

“There has to be some real investment here regarding bodies from unions,” says Sanchioni Butler, who dedicated so many years to the Nissan campaign.

“The bottom line is, somebody’s gotta believe in doing it from the ground up,” says Robert Shaffer, who leads the state AFL-CIO but lacks the resources to create the kind of strong working shop in which he spent most of his working life. “Until then, it ain’t gonna happen.”

“The minute you say, ‘I wanna build this for the union,’ the South is not gonna let you do it,” says Latunya Love, whose 15 years as a union rep have been a labor of love while working the poultry line. “They need some more resources.”

Mississippi is what 200 years without public investment looks like. It is a state in which the power relationship between enslaved people and slaveholders is replicated generation after generation by the descendants of each. It is a state of small towns that comes by its patina of decay honestly, where centuries’ worth of racist atrocities lie barely concealed beneath the rich black soil. The working people who remain in Mississippi, who have hung on after all of that, should rightly be seen as gold for the labor movement. If organizing the South is difficult, there is nobody more ready to do the difficult work than they are.

“Every day while our people were enslaved in this country, from 1619 to 1865, every day people resisted enslavement,” says Frank Figgers, for whom civil rights and labor rights are the same thing. “Every day, people woke up in the morning hoping that today would be the day when slavery would be abolished. Every day, people woke up and did what they could, with what they had, where they were.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 18, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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



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She’s a 64-Year-Old Taxi Driver Drowning in Medallion Debt—And She’s Fighting Back

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Dorothy LeConte is part of a movement of taxi drivers demanding that the city of New York relieve their financial anguish.

NEW YORK CITY—Outside the gated entrance to City Hall, a dozen yellow taxi drivers huddle under the canopy of a tent to take shelter from the pelting rain. They sit alongside a line of their sunflower-yellow parked cars, next to a sidewalk makeshift memorial and protest shrine with a backdrop of signs that read: Respect the Drivers, No More Suicides; No More Bankruptcies, Debt Forgiveness Now! The rain has washed away the chalk spelling out the names of the deceased drivers etched against the cold pavement. The wicks on nine tall red candles are wet. On the previous rainless nights they burned bright, illuminating like a soundless incantation the names of nine taxi drivers who have committed suicide: Danilo Corporan Castillo, Alfredo Perez, Douglas Schifter, Nicanor Ochisor, Yu Mein Kenny Chow, Abdul Saleh, Fausto Luna, Roy Kim, and Driver Brother (unnamed to honor the wishes of the family that survived him). They were lost to the anguish of crushing debts and dissipated earnings.

Dorothy LeConte, 64, wasn’t there that October 4 night, but she feels the anguish of owing a medallion debt of $558,000 with monthly payments of $2,000. “Sometimes, I think about suicide,” she tells me one sunny Saturday afternoon as we sat in foldable chairs beside the protest shrine. “And then, when I come back, I think about my children, and I turn around and say, ‘Dorothy, don’t.’” She reaches for extreme examples of horrible incidents a person can endure to convey the deflated morale of drivers. “This is worse than if a man left me pregnant in the street… What the city did to us, and they don’t care.”

LeConte’s predicament is far from unique among thousands of driver-owners of yellow taxis who the city has left in a lurch as they scramble to piece together enough earnings to payoff insurmountable debts.

Yellow taxi driver-owners and their union, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA), representing approximately 21,000 for-hire and yellow cab drivers, have set up a 24/7 protest encampment. They are eyeing October 31, the deadline for when Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council must sign off on a budget modification, providing an opening for drivers to attain debt relief on their terms, not those of the banks. (Disclosure: This author worked for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Democracy NYC Initiative as a communications director from December 2020 to January 2021.) Survey estimates put the median yellow taxi driver-owner debts at $500,000, according to a January 2020 report published by the Taxi Medallion Task Force.

Individual driver-owners account for about 40 percent of the city’s 13,587 yellow cabs. These workers, mainly from countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Haiti and Ghana, purchased medallions from the city in order to operate a taxicab and pick up street hails in parts of Manhattan. The medallion originated in 1937 as a means to control the number of cabs on city streets. For nearly a century, their values were modest, but then a speculative bubble spiked their values to stratospheric heights, reaching above a vertiginous $1 million per medallion in 2014, plummeting to $100,000 in 2019 after the bubble burst, and hovering at approximately $100,000 today. Banks and the city pushed exploitative loan terms with inflated prices to immigrant drivers even as they knew the value of medallions was on a downward spiral.

After years of protest against predatory lenders who, abetted by city agencies, saddled immigrant driver-owners with insurmountable debts, Mayor de Blasio pledged in March to allocate $65 million. Under the mayor’s plan, lenders receive a $20,000 grant to go towards a down payment to restructure the debts of driver-owners. It also includes $9,000 for yellow taxi drivers to use for monthly debt payments. With the pressure mounting on Mayor Bill de Blasio, the union held a press conference on October 13 to announce the support of over 50 elected officials backing its debt relief proposal. Then, on Friday of that week, dozens of yellow taxi drivers snarled traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge in protest, demanding debt forgiveness. On Monday, the union announced plans to begin a hunger strike.

“First of all, the $65 million, just the $20,000 grant won’t even cover that many people,” according to Bhairavi Desai, Executive Director of the NYTWA. Desai estimates there are between four to six thousand driver-owners who drive for a living and those who may be retired. 

“If you go back to the record six months ago, they basically said everyone’s going to get $20,000 as a cash down payment to restructure the debt and then $9,000 to help you pay for your mortgage for up to six months,” she adds. “But now that the rules are out, the rules make it impossible for anybody to access that $9,000 because there’s a hardship requirement. If you’re out driving, you’re not going to be considered in hardship, no matter how much you’re struggling.”

The NYTWA has vetted a different proposal with the city’s comptroller’s office that is backed by New York City’s entire Congressional delegation in addition to state and local elected officials, as well as academic experts on banking and finance. That counter proposal calls for a debt restructuring plan of $90 million over 30 years, with the city providing a guarantee in the case of default and setting a limit of medallion debt loads to $145,000 with monthly payments capped at $800. Chief benefits of the NYTWA proposal would include more driver-owners and lower monthly payments to a manageable amount. The program, unlike the city’s proposal, would include driver-owners who are in foreclosure or undergoing bankruptcy proceedings, allowing drivers to negotiate favorable terms with lenders because the city would guarantee the restructured loans.

The city says that more than 1,000 people have signed up for its proposal. “It literally just means that people are calling them up to make an appointment,” says Desai. Asked to clarify what signing up for city’s proposal means, a spokesperson for the city Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) responded that “1,000 medallion owners have applied to the program.” The spokesperson also said the city is working with a “dozen lenders.” According to the city, 102 drivers have received concrete debt relief.

New York Legal Assistance Group attorney Randal Wilhite characterized as “patently false” the city’s claims of how many people have signed up for the debt relief program. (For speaking out, Wilhite was suspended from NYLAG and prevented from testifying at a TLC hearing.)

One person who won’t be taking the city’s offer as it stands is Dorothy LeConte. When she started driving a yellow taxi in 1987, she wasn’t venturing entirely into the unknown. Word on the street was upbeat about the financial possibilities owning a medallion conferred on women specifically, and immigrants more generally. The evidence of financial independence was self-evident. In those days, LeConte could walk up to a driver who’d happily report on favorable remuneration and confirm a medallion was truly all that it was cracked up to be, a lifelong investment with good returns. So, she did just that, striking up a conversation with a woman sitting in her cab in the shade on Lexington Avenue. 

Her years working housing keeping at the Waldorf Astoria ended with the promise of one day being the driver-owner of a medallion. At first, she leased a car. Then, LeConte, originally from the island nation of Haiti, drew on the time-honored tradition of mutual aid among the Black diaspora, called sou-sou, or an informal savings club, to pool together a pot of cash to purchase a medallion. People in a sou-sou contribute money to a collective fund that pays out a lump sum each month to a participant based on their number in a monthlong cycle, which can average from 18 months or less based on the payout amount for each member. In 1989, she took the $17,000 payout to put down as a deposit on a medallion costing $140,000.

A single mom raising two Black boys, LeConte saw the taxi industry and her possession of a medallion as a reliable way to earn enough money to keep her children off the streets and in school.

“I’m raising two Black kids,” she says. “I’m out from four o’clock in the morning, and I’m coming home the next morning at three o’clock. I don’t want my sons to be in the street. I decided to put them in a boarding school. This is the American dream.”

But it was more than a mere pursuit of an elusive American dream. She paid $43,000 a year to a boarding school in Pennsylvania for the assurance that it would provide safety.

“My 14 year old didn’t have to hang out in the street and get killed by the police, or by the gang, or involved in drugs, saving the Rikers Island money,” she adds. “That’s what I use my money for.”

To provide for her children, she put in grueling hours, pushing her body to the limit. The pain of sitting in a cab with no end in sight hobbles the body and curves the bones, but the spirit is more dogged.

The early signs of the taxi crisis began during former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s tenure at City Hall. Giuliani bragged about breaking the 1998 strike among drivers organized by the NYTWA and violated their constitutional rights. When LeConte got her first taxicab, she paid $9,000. Under Giuliani, yellow cabs had to change every five years as part of his efforts to give a Hollywood facelift to New York City and increase regulations on immigrant drivers.

To drive a cab today, “you need $45,000 to $50,000. [If] you don’t have the money, you got to [borrow] against the medallion,” says LeConte. That’s excluding medallion loan debt payments. To become a driver-owner was increasingly cost prohibitive. Last year, 4,500 taxis needed to be replaced after seven years on the road at a cost of $135 million, according to Crain’s New York.

Despite these financial hardships, yellow cab drivers continued to motor down New York City streets, taking pride in serving the public. LeConte runs through the times she’s come to the aid of the city’s residents and visitors, from September 11 to the 2003 blackout. “When I say we build the city, we do.”

She says yellow taxis are peripatetic ambassadors to countless tourists on their first visits to New York.

“People come for the first time to New York. They’re so happy to grab a camera,” she says, and take a photo of a yellow taxi. “I am in the movies.”

“I’m always there. In everything, I help the city.”

According to LeConte, this includes intervention in harrowing domestic violence incidents.

“Another time, another woman, a man was beating her up. I was right in the middle of the street. I just rolled down the window. I said, ‘Jump in.’ She jumped in the cab, locked the door, and I flew with her.”

LeConte weathered ups and downs in the industry, but she said nothing prepared her for the arrival of Uber and Lyft, inundating New York City streets. Her brother, with a job in the technology sector, saw the writing on the wall and warned her in 2015. But she refused to heed his warnings.

“This is a New York City franchise. New York City will never allow this medallion to go all the way down,” she reasoned with her brother.

City data showed a 10 percent drop in revenue per yellow cab after Uber’s debut in 2011, with yellow taxi ridership in shambles. Medallion values held steady for a few more years, but the industry was soon ravaged by the combined forces of the city allowing banks and hedge funds to aggressively push predatory loans. Banks targeted people who they knew couldn’t service the loans, according to a New York Times investigation. They took advantage of immigrants whose first language wasn’t English to sign turgid contract terms they could, at best, only puzzle through. And even as the city knew there was trouble in the medallion market, it continued to inflate the value. Experts deemed the speculative bubble the largest since the housing crash of 2007.

“I don’t think I could concoct a more predatory scheme if I tried,” Roger Bertling, the senior instructor at Harvard Law School’s clinic on predatory lending and consumer protection, told The New York Times. “This was modern-day indentured servitude.”

Drive-owners of yellow taxis are now trapped in Sisyphean ordeal, pushing a proverbial boulder up a mountaintop only to see it come crashing down, seemingly until the end of time, as many drivers like LeConte are in their 60s.

“We estimate between 4,000 to 6,000 thousand have underwater loans,” says Desai from the NYTWA.

LeConte describes going to her mailbox during the pre-Uber years of the early 2000s and finding five flyers promoting loans or refinance offers. “You open the taxi news, and you find people advertising” to borrow against the equity in the medallion, she explains. “Some people borrowed against it.”

“I did not expect what happened here to me today, and to us. The city will be responsible, because I know a government is there to protect the people,” she says. “I don’t think the government is there to sell us out.”

Without the city’s protection, the banks and tech companies have had free rein to extract the last cent from workers. Because the medallion after 2015 can no longer serve as collateral, she says, “you will be the collateral. If they can’t find anything on you, they’ll probably take you to a barber shop, they’ll shave your hair. If you have long hair, they’ll sell your hair for fake hair in the street. Whatever you have, they’ll take it away from you.”

She draws parallels to the financial ruin facing yellow taxi drivers today to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. In May 1921, a white mob went on a rampage in the economically thriving, predominantly Black Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The mob was incited by a false story of a Black man assaulting a white girl, fueling the already potent adrenaline of white supremacy through the veins of an armed white mob of looters and arsonists. All told, hundreds of African Americans residents were savagely killed, their 1,250 homes and assortment of businesses annihilated by racial terrorism. According to a 2001 state commission report, property loss claims reached about $27 million in today’s dollars.

“You remember that story?” she asks me. ”The government burned its Black people down, taking their wealth, killing them. They lost everything.”

“The whole world is looking, but they [are] using the technology,” she adds, referencing the city allowing Uber to break the law and flood New York’s streets with app-based drivers.

The feminist intellectual Jacqueline Rose has attributed the unseen violence of capitalism, or what Rosa Luxemburg once called the “quiet conditions,” to the “skill with which capital cloaks its crimes.”

The fire of righteous indignation that blazes from within LeConte refuses to be tamped down, but she has also reconciled herself to the realities of age and the unseen casualties of the spirit.

“I need the day off. I need to stay home. I’m 64-years-old. When I go to my doctor, I have pains in my fingers, sprain in my knee. I can’t get up, pain in my back.”

The toll of driving a cab all these years has finally begun to manifest in her body. But it’s also overtaken her mind.

The anguish of the banks coming for her to collect $558,000 has deprived her of the balm of a good night’s sleep. “I never get a good six hours, eight hours of sleep. Never. Because I’m dreaming. What is going to happen to me? What happens with my dignity?”

About her plight, she says, “it’s not because I’m sick. It’s not because of an accident that I’m paralyzed. [It’s] because of the government that I trust. We ask Mayor de Blasio only to guarantee the loan.”

About the Author: Luis Feliz Leon is a freelance journalist from New York City and an educator at Labor Notes.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 19, 2021. Reprinted with permission.


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Jennifer Abruzzo, the NLRB’s General Counsel, Is Labor’s Best Legal Friend

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In an interview, Abruzzo discusses independent contractors, penalizing bad employers and what she might do to make good faith bargaining a reality in America.

Joe Biden has pledged to be the most pro-union president in recent memory. Whether that turns out to be true will depend in large part on the work of Jennifer Abruzzo. Since being confirmed as the National Labor Relations Board’s top lawyer two months ago, Abruzzo has wasted no time laying out a strong pro-worker agenda. A memo released in August outlining her priorities indicated her intent to revisit a number of policies in ways that could make them much friendlier to unions and to worker organizing. 

Among the most significant are the “Joy Silk” doctrine, which could require employers to demonstrate actual reasons for not voluntarily recognizing unions; Ex-Cello Corp, which could impose far more significant penalties on employers for bad faith bargaining; and other items touching on everything from independent contractor classification to the rules for employer handbooks.

Abruzzo, an NLRB veteran who last worked as a lawyer for the Communications Workers of America, is essentially the opposite of her predecessor, Peter Robb–a Trump appointee hostile to organized labor who was fired shortly after Biden took office. We interviewed Abruzzo via email about her priorities, keeping bad employers in line and the flaws inherent in American labor law. 

Your intent to revisit the Joy Silk doctrine has gotten a lot of attention. Can you explain your thinking behind that, and what you think the practical effects of a change in that policy might be for unions? You’ve said you also want to revisit Ex-Cello Corp, dealing with potential penalties for employers who refuse to bargain in good faith. Can you explain what you think might result from revisiting it? 

Jennifer Abruzzo: When Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), it said in Section One of the Act that it was the policy of the United States to “encourag[e] the practice and procedure of collective bargaining” and to do so “by protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment or other mutual aid or protection.” To effectuate this policy, there must be meaningful remedies when employers interfere with workers exercising their rights to organize and to bargain. 

Both the Joy Silk and Ex-Cell-O doctrines deal with remedies to employer interference in that initial, and often vulnerable moment, when workers first organize a union and request to bargain. Under the Joy Silk doctrine, from 1949 until about 1969, the Board would issue a bargaining order if an employer refused to bargain upon a request for recognition from a union that represents a majority of employees, if that refusal was in bad faith. 

The Ex-Cell-O case dealt with monetary remedies when an employer refused to bargain in good faith. In that case, the D.C. Circuit actually told the Board it had the power to order such a remedy and that such a remedy was necessary to effectively remedy the harm. So, I think that both doctrines have support in the Act’s purpose, history, and federal court precedent and are worth reexamining in order to more effectively fulfill the Act’s mission. 

There has been a long term trend of companies replacing full-time workers with “independent contractors.” What if anything do you anticipate doing during your tenure that might help give labor protections to independent contractors?

Abruzzo: Whether a worker is an employee or independent contractor is a question of law based on the actual employment relationship—it is not determined by an employer’s label or classification. In the Taft-Hartley amendments to the NLRA, Congress excluded independent contractors from the protections of the National Labor Relations Act. For this reason, whether a worker is an employee versus an independent contractor is crucial. If you are an employee, you have the full protections of the National Labor Relations Act in your workplace, such as the right to organize with your co-workers to improve health and safety, which is a critical right as the country is dealing with a pandemic. If you are an independent contractor, you have none of those legal protections. 

In 2019, in a case called Velox Express, the Board majority at that time rejected an argument that employer misclassification of an employee as an independent contractor was itself a violation of the Act. Chairman McFerran (then Member McFerran) wrote a dissent agreeing with the argument. She explained that when a worker is in fact an employee with NLRA rights but is being told by their employer that they are an independent contractor, it sends a clear message to the worker that, in the employer’s view, they have no rights under the Act. She further explained that this communication could unlawfully interfere with the exercise of an employee’s rights. 

In my first General Counsel Memorandum, I asked our Regional Offices to submit cases for my consideration as to whether and under what circumstances misclassification itself can violate the National Labor Relations Act, and as to the scope of the independent contractor exemption. With regard to the latter, I believe the statute should be broadly construed and the common law, which delineates a number of factors, provides a very good framework for determining employee status. In the SuperShuttle DFW case, the Board majority at the time put substantial emphasis on the significance of one factor—entrepreneurial opportunity—and that warrants further scrutiny. 

Under your existing power, what do you think the NLRB can do to create penalties for employers who violate labor law that are meaningful enough to reverse the current situation in which it makes good economic sense for employers to engage in illegal union busting tactics? 

Abruzzo: I will pursue the full breadth of possible remedies under the NLRA to deter violations and to protect and enforce the statutory rights of workers in this country. Full and effective remedies are so important to effectuating the NLRA. It is for that reason that one of my first priorities as General Counsel was to issue GC 21–06 on “Seeking Full Remedies” and GC 21–07 on “Full Remedies in Settlement Agreements,” memos in which I ask our Regional Offices to seek the full panoply of remedies available to ensure that victims of unlawful conduct are made whole for losses suffered as a result of unfair labor practices. 

Under the NLRA, the Agency cannot mete out fines or penalties to violators of our statute, but it does have the broad discretionary power to provide make-whole remedies to victims of those violators. A make-whole remedy is one that aims to restore the worker’s situation prior to being subject to the unlawful conduct. For example, if a worker was unlawfully fired, we ask what wages and benefits the worker lost as a result of the firing. But we also need to determine what other economic losses a worker suffered as a result of the unlawful firing. Did they lose their work visa, or their car because they were unable to keep up with their payments? Did they have to move to find another job? Did they need to obtain health insurance coverage or incur medical expenses due to the loss of coverage? Additionally, we must try to discern how the firing affected those in the worker’s workplace, in other words, the chilling effect it had on other workers’ ability to exercise their statutory rights, and how we can most fully remedy those detrimental effects. 

So, there is no question in my mind that we can and should do more pursuant to our Congressional mandate under the NLRA as it currently stands. 

What is your view on minority or “members only” unions, meaning unions representing less than 50 percent of a workplace? Some believe that employers should be obligated to at least bargain with the members of such a group, even if the entire workplace is not unionized. Is this an issue you anticipate addressing?

Abruzzo: What are sometimes called “members only” or “minority” unions have been present throughout U.S. history. These kinds of formations have often acted as precursors to exclusive majority representatives. The NLRA currently protects the rights of workers to act collectively and engage, through representatives if they so choose, with their employer to improve their working conditions. I encourage engagement between management and labor to ensure that workers’ voices are heard and workers’ concerns are elevated in order to reduce workplace conflict. 

As to requiring an employer to bargain or confer with a members only union on behalf of its members, this argument has previously been made by academics and practitioners through various submissions, cases, and a petition for rulemaking. If this issue is brought before me as General Counsel, I would carefully consider it as I do all matters brought to my attention. 

Is there any way for workers, unions, and America as a whole to break out of the sort of frantic pendulum of labor rules, as the NLRB swings back and forth between Democratic and Republican administrations? It feels like any gains workers make now will inevitably be rolled back by a future, more conservative board. How does the NLRB make progress that lasts? 

Abruzzo: My job as General Counsel of the NLRB is to fully effectuate the Act to the best of my ability, for as long as I have the honor to serve in this role. I am fortunate to have an excellent cadre of dedicated and talented board agents in the field offices and in headquarters to support my efforts to ensure that we are achieving our Congressional mandate to promote industrial stability and collective bargaining and to protect the rights of workers to act together to improve their wages and working conditions. 

It is worth noting that the vast majority of meritorious case resolutions occur without any Board intervention (through settlements), thus, the extent of “flip flopping” is minimized. Notably, it makes it that much more important to ensure that the Agency receives adequate budgets so that the Agency has the staffing and resources to educate employees, employers, labor organizations, and community advocates and members, about statutory rights and obligations, to deter violations, and to obtain full remedies during early enforcement to diminish workplace conflict and broader industrial strife. 

You’ve worked on the regulatory side of labor, and inside a union. When you think about the barriers to a true revival of union power—how much of that is regulatory, how much is legislative, and how much do you think are missteps of the labor movement itself?

Abruzzo: As an independent federal agency, the NLRB’s role is to vigorously effectuate the NLRA’s mission, which includes protecting workers’ rights to organize and collectively bargain. I have spent the vast majority of my career as a public servant at the NLRB enforcing the Act and so that is what I will speak to. As General Counsel, I can think of no better calling than to ensure that the rights of workers in this country are protected and that violations of these rights are swiftly and fully remedied. 

I enjoy good relationships with labor and management practitioners and worker and business advocates, and fully expect to continue to collaborate with them, as well as with Agency personnel, to ensure that we are doing our jobs as effectively and efficiently as possible. This includes having a robust outreach program, particularly reaching those in vulnerable and underserved populations. I certainly think that there needs to be a broader focus on these populations and on workers in general to ensure that more equitable workplace conditions and opportunities are afforded so that they and their families and their communities can not only survive but thrive, particularly during these challenging times. 

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

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 27, 2021. Reprinted with permission.


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How to Make the Building Trades Work for Women

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The building trades unions are some of the most powerful in the labor movement. Because their members are well-paid, their dues are often higher than in other unions, giving them more resources to influence change. They also hold a certain cultural cachet, exemplifying what many people (wrongly) think the working class looks like: white men in hard hats. But this cachet is also part of the problem: These unions have been under fire for how white and male-dominated they are. Only 6% of the construction workforce is Black and, as of 2018, only 3% of workers in the construction industry were women.

While building trades unions are working to address these issues, tradeswomen say that making construction unions more accessible—and comfortable—for women is going to be a long process. They say it will require material improvements, like widespread maternity leave protections, as well as cultural shifts, like working to end sexual harassment. 

Ash Fritzsche is in year four of an apprenticeship program with International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 98 in Philadelphia. She was working at a restaurant when some of her regular customers encouraged her to begin an apprenticeship in the building trades so she could have more job security and higher pay than in the food industry. Apprenticeships are not easy programs to get into: Fritzsche told In These Times that in her year, more than 1,000 people applied, but only fewer than 100 were accepted into this five-year program. Workers who complete apprenticeship programs are taught their craft while they work, earning a living while they complete the educational requirements and gain experience as electricians. To be accepted, workers must take an aptitude test and have an interview, which Fritzsche described as “killer, with seven guys at a roundtable asking you questions, it was so intimidating.” She struggled with knowing how to dress as a woman trying to break into the construction industry, having perused Reddit articles geared only towards men.

Fritzsche says her local accepted 10 women her year, contrasting with around three in years prior. She believes that allowing in more women helped with retention: “It allowed us to develop community. In previous years, at least one woman wouldn’t make it, but so far all 10 of us are still in and thriving and totally ambitious.” 

At Local 98, apprentices start out making 30% of what journeymen make, which for her was $18 per hour. Raises are applied every 1,000 to 2,000 hours, and health insurance kicks in after a couple of months. Fritzsche is in the final year of her five-year apprenticeship and now makes $38 per hour, the most money she’s ever made. She told In These Times that she’ll get another raise in October, “and I know it. It’s not like if I show up early for work and I do this or that, I might get it. It’s an automatic, earned raise, which is the way it should be.” For women workers who may face gender discrimination (including lower pay, fewer benefits and fewer opportunities to advance) at work, unions can and do even the playing field. 

Local 98 is working to recruit more women, and recently hosted a “Women in Construction” camp to teach more than 30 high-school aged young women about what union electrical work is like. But there is still work to be done. Because the building trades are so male-dominated, their unions are tailored to their members, who are primarily men. While benefits for unionized building trades workers are generous and desirable, most lack any kind of paid family leave—in our society, parental caretaking still falls primarily on women. This means that women may not see the building trades as a suitable career for them if they want to have a family. 

But the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) is working hard to change this: In May, the union introduced a maternity leave program. According to Jessica Podhola, the director of communications and government affairs at District Council 3 at IUPAT in the Kansas City area, members have to belong to their local district council’s health and welfare fund, and to have worked 100 hours immediately before the benefit is applied to be eligible for it. The program includes wage replacement of 67% or $800 per week, and if members cannot work during pregnancy, they can receive up to six months of paid leave. For postpartum leave, workers receive either paid time off for six or eight weeks (if they had a C-section).

Podhola told In These Times that this maternity leave program is “a beginning, but it’s a strong beginning.” Others, meanwhile, are picking up the baton. According to Fritzsche, Local 98 is also working on this issue: She told In These Times that the local recently extended the cap on disability from $300 to $500 dollars a week, and it made an automatic disability clause for women in their 9th month of pregnancy and for the first six weeks postpartum (or eight weeks if they had a C-section). IBEW Local 48 in Oregon, meanwhile, introduced a new maternity leave program in January 2020, which offered workers 13 weeks of paid leave prior to birth and 13 weeks of paid leave after birth, which doubled the union’s previous benefit.

Podhola serves on IUPAT’s national women’s committee, which was built to develop policies to propel the union forward in protecting its women members. The committee has subcommittees on maternity leave, diversity and inclusion, recruitment, and marketing and retention. But along with the structural barriers for women in the trades, there’s also a cultural component that is difficult to fight: sexual harassment and other instances of sexism at work. Kelly Ireland, a plumber in Local 690 in Philadelphia, says “you walk through job sites and see graffiti about women. They say it’s a joke, but how many decades have we asked you to stop joking?” 

Unions are working on this, too. Ireland told In These Times that she knew of a man kicked off a job site for catcalling; the foreman fired him on the spot. And in addition to its new maternity leave policy, the IUPAT women’s committee is working on rolling out a sexual harassment training through their apprenticeship program. 

Podhola told In These Times that “changing the culture in construction is a long-term project. We are not going to be able to get it done overnight, but we can begin to create safer work spaces and frameworks for our sisters to address issues as they come up, and to begin laying the foundation for members regardless of gender about what is acceptable and what is not on a modern construction site.” 

Fritzsche’s experience has been similar during her apprenticeship. “You just watch some women burn out with the baloney they have to deal with. At the same time, the guys are incredible friends and mentors. I have so many male mentors. If you can work past issues around gender, you will have access to a wonderful world of friends, teachers, and mentors.”

According to Podhola, “Some of these guys have been doing this for 30 years and they’ve only worked with a woman a handful of times. It’s going to be a generational shift.” To make this shift happen, more women need to enter the trades. But it can be a vicious cycle: Women don’t see enough tradeswomen, so don’t see themselves as potential tradeswomen. 

Ireland, who grew up with a union plumber for a father, never even considered a future in the trades until she had her own family—mostly because she never saw women like her doing the work. “If I was young and saw women in the trades, I would have gone into ironwork, climb skyscrapers.” 

All of the tradeswomen who spoke to In These Times mentioned access as the largest barrier to bringing more women into the building trades: Women need to hear about these great jobs, understand that they’re just as welcome as men, and be given the confidence and tools both to apply and to stick it out when it gets difficult. Podhola says that “it’s on the onus of labor to market, recruit, and retain as many women as possible.” 

Workers say other solutions outside of marketing and recruitment could include more local women’s committees that prioritize and work directly on issues that affect women workers, putting more women on interview committees so women who apply for apprenticeships see themselves in their union and, of course, quotas and affirmative action for apprenticeships.

But ultimately, tradeswomen want other women to know that they belong in the trades. Fritzsche told In These Times that “women make great tradespeople. We are really good at this work and we deserve this work. A woman invented the circular saw. A woman invented the modern band saw. During World War II, we filled factories, we took over all the trades. We are tradespeople just as much as men are.”

About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on August 30, 2021. Reprinted with permission.


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At a Massive Union Rally, the Promise of a Better South

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A Year in the Life of Safeway 1048 | Today's Workplace

Striking mine workers in Alabama bring together the whole wide world.

To get to the big ballpark in Brookwood, Alabama, you drive down the Miners Memorial Parkway The road goes by the local headquarters of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), and close to the Miners Memorial monument, which remembers 13 miners killed in a 2001 explosion. A lot of coal miners work in Brookwood, and a lot have died here. Right now, more than a thousand are on strike there, at the Warrior Met Coal. It sits just off the same road. 

On Wednesday morning, a line of buses lumbered down the winding road through the woods, and a line of pickup trucks piled up behind them. All passed the ?“We Are One” UMWA signs lining the road for miles before turning into the ballpark, where the sprawling open grass was dotted with tents and a stage. Entire families, most of them in camouflage UMWA t?shirts, lugged their folding camping chairs and shade umbrellas out past the low white tornado shelters and down to the grass. The strike at Warrior Met has been going on for four months. But on this day, the rally was on. 

Several thousand people showed up for what was billed as the ?“Biggest labor rally in Alabama history,” a claim too good to check. What was certain was that this was not a single rally for a single local of a single union. This was the entire labor movement, showing up to say that they have not forgotten a long and grinding struggle. 

After the Pledge of Allegiance, the national anthem, and a reverend’s prayer to ?“change the mindset” of scabs and coal mining company owners?—?something even God might find difficult?—?the rally commenced. For hours, a procession of UMWA officials and leaders of other unions cycled across the stage, giving speeches that varied in inspirational quality. Attendees sought to maneuver their seats into the small patches of shadow that moved slowly across the scorching grass. Enormous quantities of bottled water, Krispy Kreme donuts, and popsicles were handed out from supply tents. People chatted, and prayed, and listened to various singers, and were together. 

Many unions had sent buses full of supporters from all across the South. There were more than a dozen CWA members from Atlanta who worked for AT&T, decked out in red shirts. There was a gaggle of UAW members. There were Teamsters, and teachers, and government workers, all proudly in their union t?shirts. There were union officials from Georgia and Kentucky and Tennessee and South Carolina. There were presidents of locals from other states, climbing the stage to present $500 checks to the strike fund. There was an entire tent full of longshoremen wearing custom-made white t?shirts that said ?“Port workers in solidarity with mine workers.” They had come from Charleston, Jacksonville, and Mobile, Alabama, on a single bus that stopped in each city, collecting the comrades. 

In addition to all the union member guests, at least half of the crowd was made up of retired UMWA members and their families, as if to demonstrate the ?“We Are Everywhere” slogan on all the camo shirts. These people also came from all across the country. One 76-year-old former coal miner nicknamed ?“Mouse” had taken a bus the week before from his West Virginia home up to New York City for a protest that the strikers held in front of the Blackrock headquarters in Manhattan; this week, he had taken another bus 18 hours to Brookwood for this rally. Asked why, he jabbed his finger forward and said, with force, ?“It helps my union brothers.” 

Brookwood, Alabama is not a convenient place to get to, even if you live in Birmingham. The fact that thousands of people from across the country had clambered into buses for interminable trips to sit at this rally under the sweltering sun, for people they did not know, was remarkable. I spoke to many of these attendees and, to a person, the question of why they had gone to all the trouble to show up was answered as if it didn’t require any explanation at all. ?“Solidarity,” they said. ?“They supported us, so we’re supporting them.” ?“This is what the union’s about.” To take a 30-hour round trip on a bus was, for them, a no-brainer. This is what the union’s about. For one day, this was just common sense. But in the context of the United States of America in 2021, this was a rare sight to behold. 

The crowd at the Brookwood rally was multiracial. Not multiracial like a fashion ad, or a painstakingly assembled corporate board, but a large group of Black and white people united for a common purpose. The UMWA miners who are on strike at Warrior Met now are an integrated group, and so their supporters in the community are integrated as well. There were both Black and white people serving as Marshals at the rally, and helping to run it, and speaking from the stage, and sitting in the crowd. The majority of the people from other unions who had shown up in support were Black. The longshoremen were almost all Black, the CWA workers from Atlanta were almost all Black, and on and on.

Many of the UMWA members in attendance, and certainly most of the older retirees, were white, religious, and Republican. The entertainment at the rally was almost all gospel and religious music. Singer after singer appeared between speeches to proclaim the glory of the Blood of Jesus. One retired miner made it a point to tell me, at the end of an interview, ?“I’m a Trump guy.” Across the grass, some of the Black CWA members from Atlanta toted ?“Strike for lack Lives” signs. At no point during the long, hot day did I see a bit of animosity?—?or, indeed, even a mention of political differences?—?between the members of the crowd. (The one exception was a single angry interloper who began pushing people and trying to start a fight before being hustled away by a large crowd of miners. I was told that he was a scab worker sent in to try to disrupt the rally. The fact that he walked out in one piece is a testament to the professionalism of the union.)

I am from the South. I was born in the South, I grew up in the South, and my entire family lives in the South. I have never in my life seen a racially and politically integrated crowd of people in the deep South, utterly united for a cause, as I did at this rally. The only things that come close are church events or football games, which I would argue lack the socially redeeming qualities of yesterday’s event. It is possible, down South, to get a racially integrated crowd where everyone agrees politically, but to get thousands of Black and white people whose politics range from strongly pro-Trump to strongly pro-Black Lives Matter together in a single place, in total unity of purpose, with virtually no conflict, and without being the explicit result of trying to assemble such a crowd to satisfy some sort of demographic diversity goals?—?well, that just doesn’t happen that much, ever.

This is the promise of unions. Not just better wages, or better working conditions, but a better society. Unions offer a frame for human interaction that does not otherwise exist. Our everyday experience in a society that is racially segregated, unequal, and politically polarized tells us that getting young and old and Black and white and left and right all together for something should be extraordinary or impossible; but at a union rally, where everyone’s common interest is plain to see, it becomes natural. It is only because the strength of unions within southern communities has become so rare that the sight of yesterday’s rally was so abnormal. Were there more strong unions, the South could be a very different place.

What the UMWA offers to the people of Brookwood is a vision of the world in which your enemy does not have to be someone of a different race or different political party. For those who believe in the union, there is a much more compelling enemy. It is an enemy they can see every day that they sit out on the picket line, watching cars drive by them, towards the mine. The back of the stage at the rally held a large banner with a picture of working people on it, and a header that read ?“Which Side Are You On?” One side of the banner said ?“UMWA,” and the other side said ?“Scabs.”

As the rally neared its end, a folk singer got up to perform a song he’d written to the tune of Woody Guthrie’s ?“All You Fascists Are Bound to Lose.”

“I’m gonna tell you scabs, we’re gonna win this strike,” he crooned. ?“And I’ll die a union miner, but you’ll be a scab for life.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on August 5, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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