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Essential food workers strike over $1 in New York City, this week in the war on workers

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Remember back in April when everyone suddenly realized that food chain workers are essential workers? A group of workers in the Bronx is trying to make good on that realization as they negotiate their next contract—and it’s led to a strike, as the bosses at the Hunts Point Produce Market refuse the workers’ call for a $1 an hour raise and added help with healthcare costs. Union representatives say that hundreds of workers have gotten COVID-19 and six have died, but New York City has gotten the food it needs—the 1,400 Teamsters workers at the market handle around 60% of the city’s produce.

“We’re working in a pandemic, now risking our life, every day, and you want to give us less than what you gave us the last time in a normal situation?” union trustee Charles Machadio told Gothamist. Pointing out that management rhetoric about the “continued uncertainty surrounding the pandemic” is in sharp contrast with the fact that the produce market has remained open throughout, Machadio thinks this is more than just a normal wage dispute: “I think they’re using the pandemic to try and get out of the contract.”  

The market is offering 32 cents in added pay and 60 additional cents toward healthcare coverage.

Rallying with the workers on Wednesday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said “Our entire city needs to stand by our essential workers. And it’s not enough for us to just say it and it’s not enough for, you know, we have to say thank you to all of our essential workers from our nurses to our food workers to the folks loading the trucks. But it’s not just enough to say thank you. We have to support them in their demands for a better life.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on January 23, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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The “Essential Worker” Swindle

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Politicians, pundits, CEOs and think tank staffers have spent the past 10months effusively praising the heroism and sacrifice of essential workers. ?“I’m not alone in being grateful for the work you are doing,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos declared in a March 2020 open letter to the company’s workers who have labored throughout the pandemic, risking their lives to deliver hand sanitizer, face masks and baby formula (and increased Bezos’ personal fortune by 65%). Walmart has taken out television ads praising and thanking essential workers (even as it has imperiled and underpaid those under its employ). House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D?Calif.) tweeted in July 2020, ?“Frontline and essential workers across the country have performed heroically since the start of the COVID-19pandemic.” Former President Trump, who oversaw 400,000 Covid deaths in the U.S. alone, ran a taped segment during the Republican National Convention in which he said to essential workers, ?“Thank you all very much. Great job.”

But beneath this praise is a troubling truth: Whatever mitigation of suffering and hardship has been achieved during the pandemic, it’s been built on the backs of an ?“essential” workforce that is hyper-exploited, under-paid, placed in extreme danger, and nowhere close to fairly compensated. The endless praise of these essential workers, from the very architects of their exploitation, only serves to justify and normalize a social order in which people who are disproportionately Black, Brown and low-wage are sacrificed. Instead of talking about how workers are being economically coerced into laboring under deadly conditions, we’re talking about heroism. Instead of criticizing policies and political decisions that send workers to their deaths, we are fawning at workers’ voluntary self-sacrifice. The ?“essential worker” discourse has the effect of enforcing discipline on a labor force that CEOs and politicians have decided is dispensable. This is not the language of gratitude?—?it’s the language of throwing people away.

A recent report on Chicago-area workers in the food industry shines new light on the conditions these ?“essential workers” face. In December, the workers’ rights organizations Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ) and Chicago Workers’ Collaborative (CWC) interviewed 90 Chicago-area workers in food production, distribution and logistics (10% of those interviewed are white, 42% are Black and 48% are Latino). Eighty-five percent of the workers interviewed said that when employees raised Covid-19 safety concerns, bosses either failed to respond to complaints, retaliated against people who spoke out, or took actions that were not helpful. Sixty-one percent said they had to go without pay when they were ill or forced to undergo quarantine. Eighty-three percent of the workers who were infected with Covid-19report that ?“they did not receive paid sick leave from their employer or government assistance.” And a stunning 96% of workers interviewed said they were not receiving hazard pay. 

These workers are being asked to risk their lives every time they clock in to the job, but in return they are receiving no social support or meaningful compensation. One anonymous worker told the researchers, ?“I had the virus in April and had to quarantine for a month. Without insurance or quarantine pay, I had no choice but to stay home and suffer through it.” Another anonymous worker told researchers of a coworker who ?“got sick with Covid and passed away.” The person who died had been working while ill and, according to the interviewee, ?“The company never addressed the death or told us a coworker had died.”

The ?“essential workers” who are dying or going without pay so they can quarantine were already severely underpaid when the pandemic began, particularly those in the food industry. In 2019, the median wage for food and agricultural workers, for example, was just $13.12, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Meanwhile, just 8% of workers in this sector were represented by unions. Once the pandemic broke out, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out health and safety ?“guidance” for essential workers. However, according to a research brief from The Shift Project, which collects and analyzes survey data, ?“The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency ordinarily tasked with enforcing regulations to protect workers, has largely left safety standards and protocols up to individual employers.” (On Thursday, President Biden instructed OSHA to issue new guidelines to protect workers from Covid-19.)

Essential workers themselves have been some of the loudest critics of the effusive praise with which their exploitation has been met. ?“We are tired of taking the risk,” said San Jose, California McDonald’s worker Maria Ruiz, while on strike in April 2020for hazard pay of an additional $3 per hour. ?“I’m kind of afraid” to go on strike, she added in an interview with In These Times, ?“but I’m more afraid to lose my life.” A cashier at a New Seasons Market in Portland, Oregon told In These Times in March 2020, ?“I don’t really know if any amount of money would make working in this environment and being exposed to this level of risk feel worth it. Personally, I live with my grandmother and mother so it’s just really hard to know if continuing to come to work is the right choice.”

Meanwhile, Koch-funded think tank staffers, Wall Street bankers and even Reagan-era economist Art Laffer have emerged as some of the biggest cheerleaders of sending workers into deadly conditions. ?“We need to get production back?—?period,” Laffer proclaimed just weeks into the U.S. pandemic (Trump gave Laffer the presidential medal of freedom in 2019).

Of course, there is a conversation to be had about the need to keep people fed and cared for during the pandemic, a feat that almost certainly requires some degree of sacrifice and hard work in the service of the common good. Food must still get to people’s homes, health workers must still care for the sick and dying, farms must keep growing produce so that people can live. And indeed, many workers are acting heroically, as illustrated when they’ve stood up again and again to defend their lives, and the lives of their coworkers, under harrowing conditions.

But 10 months into this crisis, U.S. society has not had a meaningful collective conversation about what a just, shared sacrifice could look like. We have not talked about how to evenly distribute the burden of danger, how to make sure that each human life is valued as we tackle the mammoth challenges before us. With no real public debate, we are operating under the assumption that if sacrifices must be made, it is the most exploited sectors of the working class that should make them?—?an attitude that prevails during ?“normal” times, but now with brutal efficiency. As Hamilton Nolan pointed out in March, we’re not asking Art Laffer to wait tables. We’re not asking politicians to send their children to work the checkout lines in grocery stores. The idea that those options would even be on the table is laughable. 

If we continue on the current trajectory, when this is all over, the pandemic is going to be the story of how, in the face of social crisis, an entire class of people was abused, discarded and left to die. All the while, we were told that the only way through the crisis was for the workers who have always been sacrificed for the profits of the few to make greater sacrifices than ever before. And as Black, Brown and poor people disproportionately perished from Covid-19, as Chicago-area food workers languished without sick pay, we were reassured not to be outraged. Because this is noble sacrifice, and essential workers are ?“heroes.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 22, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The InterceptThe Nation, and Tom Dispatch.


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Biden has promised to be a champion for workers. Some early signs suggest he means to deliver

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President Joe Biden has long branded himself as a union guy, Joe from Scranton who represented the worker. The reality of his policies—especially as a senator from credit card company mecca Delaware—and his personnel decisions has been more mixed. But the early signs from his presidential administration have many labor advocates and progressive economists excited.

First off, Biden didn’t wait on a key union priority: getting rid of National Labor Relations Board general counsel Peter Robb. On Inauguration Day, Biden requested Robb’s resignation, and when Robb refused, Biden fired him. Robb had 10 months left in his term, but worker advocates felt—and Biden apparently agreed—that the extreme anti-worker agenda he was bringing to the role was such that 10 months was way too long.

Robb is a longtime union-busting lawyer who, as NLRB counsel, let McDonald’s off the hookfor any responsibility for labor conditions at franchisee-owned stores. “Since then, Robb has gone after so-called ‘neutrality’ agreements between unions and employers that make it easier for workers to organize,” Dave Jamieson reported. “And he has recently taken on Scabby the Rat, the labor-dispute protest icon beloved by unions and progressives. Robb apparently hates the rat and wants to ban its use as ‘unlawfully coercive.’” 

Robb had also sought to restructure the NLRB to remove power from civil servants and put them in the hands of political appointees like himself.

“There’s one measure that will signal that Biden is serious” about his claims to support unions, C.M. Lewis wrote at Strikewave the week before inauguration. “On day one, he needs to fire National Labor Relations Board General Counsel Peter Robb.” Well, Biden has signaled that he’s serious.

But that’s not the only labor-related move that drew excitement from progressives on the evening of Biden’s inauguration. The announcement of Janelle Jones as chief economist, Angela Hanks as counselor to the secretary, and Raj Nayak as senior advisor drew a lot of excitement on Wednesday night. Jones and Hanks have both been affiliated with the Groundwork Collaborative, which “is dedicated to unifying progressives and activists in communities across the country to refine and advance a progressive economic worldview.” Hanks has also spent time at the Center for American Progress, the National Skills Coalition, and as a staffer for the late Rep. Elijah Cummings. Jones has worked at the Economic Policy Institute and the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and news of her hiring moved Rep. Ayanna Pressley to tweet “Personnel is policy. Janelle Jones = policy that meets the moment & the crises we face.” Nayak is an alumnus of the Obama Labor Department and has worked at the National Employment Law Project.

There was a LOT of excitement about these hires.

So the early signs on Biden and labor are looking decidedly better than expected. But that doesn’t mean the pressure can let up. American workers need the Biden administration to deliver big things. 

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on January 21, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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The Labor Movement Has a Game Plan for the Biden Era

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As the Democrats take control of the White House and both houses of Congress amid overlapping national crises, labor leaders say it is now more critical than ever that Washington deliver significant material gains for the working class.

Democrats partly owe their recent electoral victories in places like Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Georgia to the extensive get-out-the-vote efforts of unions like UNITE HERE and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which reached millions of Black and Latino voters. 

After defeating Donald Trump and the Republicans at the polls, the labor movement does not intend to rest on its laurels.

“We’re not going to stop the campaign just because the election is done,” D. Taylor, international president of UNITE HERE, told In These Times. ?“We have to hold Democrats accountable. We will go to the same voters they made promises to and point out whether they have lived up to those promises or not. They can no longer blame the Republicans. It’s right on their shoulders.”

President Joe Biden, who calls himself a ?“union guy,” has signaled his intention to work with organized labor by tapping Boston mayor Marty Walsh to be his Labor Secretary. A former official in the Laborers’ Union Local 223, Walsh was the AFL-CIO’s preferred choice for the Cabinet position, though many progressive unionists and Transport Workers Union president John Samuelson wanted Sen. Bernie Sanders in the role. 

Further, in his proposed $1.9 trillion Covid relief package, Biden has included a provision to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour?—?something service sector workers led by SEIU and other unions have famously been fighting for since 2012. 

Besides delivering immediate economic relief and getting the pandemic under control, labor leaders want the Biden administration to quickly reverse the various anti-worker measures that Trump and his Department of Labor enacted, like reducing the number of workers eligible for overtime pay and restricting the collective bargaining rights of federal employees. 

They are also counting on the new president to appoint union-friendly members to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). There is one vacancy on the Board right now, and another is set to open in August when the term of one of the current Republican members is set to expire. That means, assuming Biden makes nominations that swiftly get confirmed by the Senate, Democrats should hold a majority on the Board by late summer.

In the meantime, unions like SEIU are pressuring Biden to immediately fire NLRB general counsel Peter Robb?—?a notorious union buster appointed by Trump. 

In his powerful position at the Board, Robb has worked to make sure McDonald’s can’t be held legally responsible for labor violations carried out by its franchises, attacked neutrality agreements that restrict employer interference in unionization drives, and even tried to outlaw Scabby the Rat.

“Swift action is required. Robb must go,” SEIU president Mary Kay Henry tweeted last week.

In addition to making demands on Biden, labor leaders are also seeking bold moves from lawmakers on Capitol Hill. 

“While there are immediate actions that Joe Biden and his Department of Labor can take to support worker organizing and to protect collective action, the transformative change we need requires action by Congress,” said Sara Steffens, secretary-treasurer of the Communications Workers of America (CWA).

The CWA is part of a growing coalition of unions, state labor federations, worker centers, and progressive groups led by the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) that is mobilizing to ensure Congress passes the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act.

The PRO Act would dramatically reform private sector labor law by removing the many corporate-friendly legal obstacles to unionizing and striking. Publicly supported by Biden and Walsh, the legislation was passed last year by the Democratic-led House of Representatives, only to go nowhere in the Republican-dominated Senate. 

In the aftermath of the November election and Georgia runoff, the IUPAT-led coalition has launched a campaign pushing for passage of the bill.

In 2009, the last time Democrats simultaneously controlled both houses of Congress and the White House, they failed to accomplish a similar attempt at labor law reform?—?the Employee Free Choice Act?—?despite campaigning on a promise to pass it. Union leaders are aiming to avoid a repeat of that disappointment.

“The labor movement should be doing something we didn’t do the last time around, and that’s push like hell and not expect people who say the right thing to do the right thing,” Taylor said.

“The trap we fell into with the Employee Free Choice Act was taking their support for granted and just waiting to see how the process unfolded,” explained Ryan Kekeris, IUPAT’s communications director. ?“We’re doing the opposite here. We’re calling the question and making this a priority from day one. We’re building a grassroots, decentralized movement that can mobilize people and pressure politicians.”

“We know that if a fight stays in the halls of Washington, D.C., those fights end up losing a lot of the time,” said IUPAT general vice president Jim Williams. ?“We have to take the fight outside of Washington, D.C. and into our congressional districts, into the states, into our communities.”

At a townhall hosted by the IUPAT last Thursday, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said the PRO Act must be brought to Joe Biden’s desk this year ?“come hell or high water.”

“This time has to be different,” Trumka said. ?“We can’t be at the back of the train; we have to be at the front of this train.”

Unionists agree that to have any hope of securing sweeping legislation, partnerships must be forged with other progressive movements, including those organizing around racial justice, immigrant rights, and climate action.

“We need to unite with others who are in motion,” explained Carl Rosen, general president of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE). ?“A big advantage relative to 2009 when Obama came in is there wasn’t nearly the level of mobilized action going on in the country then as there is now.”

A key partner in the IUPAT’s campaign to pass the PRO Act is the youth-led Sunrise Movement, which is at the forefront of the fight for a Green New Deal. 

“We’re definitely serious about the ?‘Green’ part of that, and we’re equally serious the ?‘New Deal’ part,” Lauren Maunus, the Sunrise Movement’s legislative manager and a member of CWA Local 1180, said at last Thursday’s townhall. ?“America needs labor law reform on a scale unseen since the original New Deal.”

Labor leaders stress that it will also be necessary to organize outside of progressive and liberal circles, especially since some 40% of union households voted for Trump.

“We have to get to that section of the working class that we’ve stopped talking to, and that have instead been wooed away by the Right because they haven’t seen any solutions being offered to them,” said Rosen.

“I’m not talking about trying to bring dyed-in-the-wool, super right-wing racist white nationalists over and make them our allies. Far from it,” he added. ?“But they have influence over an awful lot of people because we’ve failed as labor and progressive movements to get an alternative out there for folks to be part of and to feel like it can make a difference for them.”

“Many union members are rightfully skeptical of electoral politics. Many turned to Trump for that very reason?—?he promised a break from politics as usual,” Williams of IUPAT recently wrote for In These Times. ?“For decades, our members have been sold false promises… Our standards of living have fallen and despite promises from Washington, nothing has changed.”

Through organizing conversations with its membership, the IUPAT found that the PRO Act is popular with rank-and-file members across the political spectrum, including those who voted for Trump. ?“This is an issue that unites working people regardless of political party affiliation,” Kekeris said.

Rosen contends that another issue with the potential to win over workers who typically vote Republican is Medicare for All. 

“People like Medicare, including rural and working-class folks who might otherwise be convinced by right-wing propaganda to be anti-government. We need to build on that,” Rosen explained. 

Taylor, whose union’s diverse membership includes people from all over the world, said that comprehensive immigration reform must be ?“front and center.” Biden reportedly plans to send a bill to Congress soon that would offer a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants.

For its part, the Teamsters union is launching a campaign to push for implementation of multiple federal policy priorities, including strengthening pensions and ending the misclassification of workers as ?“independent contractors.”

Beyond mobilizing working-class voters to hold elected officials accountable, unions expect to continue waging workplace struggles to protect workers’ health and safety in the pandemic and to safeguard wages and benefits amid the recession.

As Rand Wilson and Peter Olney recently wrote in Labor Notes, this year alone, 450 collective bargaining agreements covering over 1.5 million union workers will expire, opening the door to contract campaigns and potential strikes that offer ?“an ideal opportunity for the labor movement to showcase our power and the advantages of collective bargaining.”

“It would be very, very good for unions to engage in as many militant workplace-based fights as possible,” Rosen said. ?“In the end, to win serious change in this country, we’re going to have to convince the folks in the capitalist structure that they’re better off giving some concessions to us rather than ignore our protests or attempt to repress them, that they’ve got too much to lose if they don’t give in to some substantial degree.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 20, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke has been a Working In These Times contributor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst. 


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Opening the Door to a More Democratic UAW

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In December the leadership of the United Auto Workers reached a settlement with the Justice Department that opens the door to election of top union officers by referendum vote of the membership. That might well end more than 70 years of one-party control and help democratize a union once known for animated internal debate and competitive leadership contests.

The settlement provides for six years of oversight by a court-appointed monitor with extensive powers, including the authority to veto new UAW staff hires and block candidates for office who do not meet an anti-corruption standard.

More important, the agreement calls for a vote of all 400,000 members to decide whether they want direct election of top leaders, or to continue with the current system whereby delegates choose the national leadership at each constitutional convention, held every four years.

According to the timetable in the court order, the referendum, overseen by the monitor, should take place by September 2021. If members vote for direct election of officers, another union-wide vote to select them would take place in 2022.

LACK OF DEMOCRACY AT THE CORE

The deal ends a sweeping federal investigation that uncovered embezzlement, bribery, and cover-ups by 11 high-ranking union officials, including two former presidents, Dennis Williams and Gary Jones. Together, these officials embezzled more than $1.5 million in dues money and took $3.5 million in illegal payments from executives of Fiat Chrysler, who sought to corruptly influence contract talks.

U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider, who led the investigation, argued that lack of democracy has been at the core of the UAW’s problems. His anti-fraud complaint demonstrated that insularity and self-dealing on the union executive board created an environment where corruption could flourish. Thus, a small group on that board chose Jones to succeed Williams, even as both were complicit in the growing corruption scandal.

Although Schneider was a Trump appointee, his commitment to a referendum vote in the UAW was influenced by a new reform network of UAW members, Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), which had already been working to build support for one-member-one-vote. In early 2020 their effort to call a special convention to do just that fell short, with 26 locals representing 60,000 UAW members in support, below the 80,000 needed.

ONE-PARTY REGIME

The UAW has been a one-party regime for many decades because the union convention, which elects all the top national officers, has been tightly controlled by an “Administration Caucus,” which routinely wins an overwhelming proportion of the delegate vote.

Actual decisions as to who will be nominated to lead the union are made by the 13-member international executive board—all of them members of the caucus. Sharp conflicts do take place on that body. In 1970 Leonard Woodcock defeated Douglas Fraser by just one vote, and in 1982 Owen Bieber secured the top slot after nearly a year of internal conflict.

But once the executive board chooses a slate, top union officials close ranks. “Teamwork in the leadership, solidarity in the ranks” was a slogan the UAW deployed to confront the auto corporations during union’s post-World War II heyday. But today that idea has come to stand for near autocratic control.

The Administration Caucus wields a variety of levers that create loyalty among the thousand-plus convention delegates: the promise of a staff job, support in a local election, or conversely, criticism and marginalization from above. The eight UAW regional directors, also chosen at convention, are the key disciplinarians. They keep close tabs on signs of discontent among the locals and can recommend appointment to or dismissal from staff jobs.

The UAW under this regime has been plagued not only with corruption but also, perhaps more profoundly, with a culture of collaboration with employers. Wages and benefits declined as the union accepted concessions and a multi-tier workforce, allowed locals to be pitted against one another, and largely failed to organize the growing nonunion share of U.S. auto production.

UNION-WIDE BALLOT

A union-wide ballot would enable all UAW members to vote directly for the president and other top officers, which is also the way officials in the Teamsters, Machinists, Laborers, Postal Workers (APWU), and Steelworkers are chosen.

The Teamsters adopted that system in a 1989 legal settlement designed to root out wrongdoing and racketeering; the one-member-one-vote system was championed then by the reform caucus Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), along with oversight by a government-appointed election supervisor.

Before then, Teamster conventions had been little more than coronation ceremonies for a close-knit group of increasingly corrupt officials. Union-wide elections created a much more participatory organization.

In the 1990s a Teamster reform slate led by Ron Carey held office for five years. Thereafter an old guard headed by James P. Hoffa has led the union, but it has been continuously challenged by TDU and other reform forces. As a consequence, says TDU organizer Ken Paff, Hoffa and his allies have had to “police themselves,” helping keep out at least some of the most corrupt and self-serving officials.

Union-wide elections serve to energize the rank and file. In 2016 the TDU-backed Teamsters United slate won 49 percent of the vote, electing six vice presidents to the executive board and winning top leadership posts in two big regions covering Southern and Midwestern states.

In the NewsGuild, part of the Communications Workers, Jon Schleuss, a 32-year old reporter at the Los Angeles Times, used a 2019 national ballot of Guild members to oust Bernie Lunzer, a three-term incumbent twice his age.

A notable feature of the contest was an actual debate—unusual in the union movement—moderated by retired CWA President Larry Cohen. It took place in the form of a conference call, with members submitting text and email questions before and during.

DIRECT ELECTIONS NO PANACEA

Referendum election of top officers is not a panacea, however. Democracy in union affairs requires organizing a group or caucus with a clear program, broad appeal, and articulate leaders.

During the first dozen years of its existence, the UAW was one of the nation’s most democratic and progressive unions. Two factions, one a Communist-backed coalition, the other led by Walter Reuther, vied for leadership, not just on the executive board but also in almost all locals and regions. Debate took place on every conceivable topic: bargaining strategy, strike tactics, race relations, foreign policy, and political action, inside the Democratic Party or to its left.

The union’s annual convention proved an exciting venue for argument, coalition-building, and education of the membership. Reuther, who would become the union’s legendary president in the postwar years, would park himself at the entrance to the convention bookstall to talk and debate delegates for hours at a time.

When the entire convention heard leaders of each caucus argue key issues and then vote on rival resolutions, the national press corps put the results on the front pages of leading newspapers the very next day.

All this ended when the Reuther caucus won all the top leadership posts in 1947. Thereafter, opponents were kept off the executive board or coopted onto the staff. A “flower fund,” to which all staff and officers had to contribute, helped sustain Reuther caucus control. (It still exists, providing an illegal slush fund for some of the UAW officials enmeshed in the recent corruption scandal). Conventions became less frequent and internal debate declined.

AN INSTRUCTIVE CONTRAST

The history of the United Steelworkers (USW) offers an instructive contrast. When John L. Lewis and Philip Murray created the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in the mid-1930s, it was a tightly-controlled institution in which all officers and organizers were appointed from the top. Murray transformed it into the USW in 1942 and instituted union-wide elections.

This was not designed to democratize the organization, however, but rather to ensure that UAW-style factionalism would not break out at either the union convention or in the districts and locals. Since the leadership monopolized communications with the rank and file and chose most of the staff, their power seemed secure.

But from the late 1950s through the mid-1970s a series of union-wide election contests erupted in the USW, with challengers winning upwards of 40 percent of all votes, and perhaps a majority in basic steel locals.

The most progressive was that of Ed Sadlowski in 1977, which sought to turn the USW toward a more militant posture in bargaining and political action. But because his defeat coincided with the onset of widespread mill closings and layoffs, the Sadlowski campaign also marked the end of union-wide challenges to USW leadership.

Thereafter collective bargaining in steel was far more decentralized and the union became more heterogeneous, so the basis for a union-wide opposition diminished. And USW leaders generally avoided the kind of money scandals that plagued the UAW, the Teamsters, and the Laborers.

WORK CUT OUT FOR THEM

Reformers in the UAW have their work cut out for them. They must organize for two elections: the referendum to determine whether the union will move to a union-wide vote, and then the election of top officers themselves. Meanwhile, UAW President Rory Gamble has promised to “educate” the membership on the “issues” with a union-wide vote, and the Administration Caucus will likely put its formidable political machinery into action to lobby hard against direct elections.

Those obstacles can be overcome, however, if UAW members and local leaders come to understand that democratic control of their organization is essential to building a larger and more potent union. To this end the UAWD aspires to transform the UAW “back into the militant union that launched the Flint sit-down, championed civil rights, and took on the most powerful companies in the world.”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on January 19, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Nelson Lichtenstein is the author of State of the Union: A Century of American Labor, as well as a biography of Walter Reuther.


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Service + Solidarity Spotlight: Sacramento Central Labor Council Brings Holiday Joy to Children with Disabilities

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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 Sacramento Central Labor Council delivered groceries to more than 200 union families in need during the holidays, and 450 kids also received a present from Santa. Santa visited the Ralph Richardson Center to deliver teddy bears and take pictures (all socially distanced) with students. Also, in a continuation of a six-year tradition, the council passed out teddy bears from a fire truck (with union member Santa) to children with special needs at Starr-King K–8 School in Sacramento.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on January 11, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell  is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.


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Swarming Solidarity: How Contract Negotiations in 2021 Could Be Flashpoints in the U.S. Class Struggle

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The labor movement’s pundits and prognosticators ring in the New Year like commentators anywhere. They make pronouncements about what “will” happen and what “should” happen to revitalize the shrinking U.S. trade union movement.

At 6.2 percent density in the private sector, U.S. unions aren’t even treading water; we are drowning. That makes it more imperative than ever to engage members to strengthen connections between our union struggles and build broader public support.

The best opportunity to involve union members in 2021 will be through the large-scale collective bargaining agreements that are due to expire this year. Economic struggles remain the center of gravity for the U.S. working class and its organized members in particular. An analysis of the collective bargaining calendar points us in the direction of where those struggles are most likely to occur.

This year, 450 collective bargaining agreements covering more than 200 union members apiece will expire, according to Bloomberg, which maintains the most comprehensive database of expiring agreements outside of the AFL-CIO. Of these, 160 agreements cover more than 1,000 workers.

These 450 contracts, involving more than a million and a half workers, are an ideal opportunity for the labor movement to showcase our power and the advantages of collective bargaining. 

HOT SPOTS

Agreements covering 200,000 health care workers will expire. In the public sector 161,000 municipal workers, 112,000 state workers, and 100,000 school employees have contracts expiring. 

Most of these workers have been on the front lines providing essential services during the pandemic. But with the economy sinking, employers will be preaching austerity and looking for concessions. There are likely to be many contentious negotiations, some leading to vigorous contract campaigns or strikes. 

Union leaders and rank-and-file members need to brace themselves for the coming battles. These contract campaigns—and some inevitable strikes—will offer the best opportunity for the labor movement to build class consciousness and recast our unions as vehicles to advance wages and working conditions—or at a minimum, maintain them. 

The single largest contract is the Postal Workers (APWU) agreement with the U.S. Postal Service that expires in September, covering 200,000 workers. Another USPS agreement with the Rural Letter Carriers, covering 131,000 workers, expires in May. 

The 50-state scope of these agreements, and postal workers’ newly evident status as providers of a service essential to our democracy, make their contract fights a natural for nationwide solidarity. While it’s unlikely (though not impossible) that there will be a strike, given the legal straitjacket imposed on postal unions and their scant recent history of shop floor militancy, the reform leadership at the helm of the APWU is committed to workplace contract campaigns and outreach to the public. Postal workers have plenty to be mad about—months of forced overtime, intense understaffing, jammed mail plants, attacks from a hostile new Postmaster General, and a two-tiered workforce—and they’re very visible in every community of this country.

There will also be state and regional opportunities to build solidarity among workers in different unions who may be facing common problems or making similar demands. With 52 expiring agreements covering more than 200 members, California is the state with the most opportunity for geographic solidarity, closely followed by Washington (36), Pennsylvania (35), and New York (32). 

An even better possibility for synergies is at the metropolitan level. Cities with the most expiring agreements over 200 members are New York (16 contracts), Minneapolis-St. Paul (12), Seattle (11), and Portland (8). Of course, there are many smaller expiring agreements in these cities that could also be included in any metro solidarity initiative. 

There are a few other large multistate agreements that might lend themselves to a national focus: 

  • Kaiser Permanente’s agreement with a coalition of unions representing 45,000 workers expires in September.
  • United Airlines’ agreement with the Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA), covering 25,000 workers, expires in July.
  • The school bus company First Student’s agreement with the Teamsters, covering 20,000 workers, expires in March.
  • Throughout 2021, the TV networks (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) have big agreements that expire with SAG/AFTRA, CWA-NABET, and the Electrical Workers (IBEW).

INSPIRE THE UNORGANIZED

The struggles for new agreements will also be labor’s best opportunity to showcase the advantages of collective bargaining to not-yet-union workers. As millions of union workers get into motion to resist austerity and win Covid-19 protections, the unorganized will be watching—and evaluating the efficacy of uniting with their co-workers.

In our experience, unorganized workers are generally attracted to unions that engage in contract campaigns and strikes. For example, after the 1997 Teamsters UPS strike, workers at FedEx, Overnite, and many other freight and delivery companies were inspired to try to form unions with the Teamsters. 

BUILD ON PUBLIC SUPPORT

To the extent that unions make our struggles in the public interest and for “the common good,” contract expirations offer an opportunity to build alliances with patients, parents and students, subway and bus riders, and people who depend on state and municipal services.

Who can dismiss the importance and bravery of bus drivers and train operators during the pandemic? There’s never been more public support for the 67,000 transportation workers who are going to the table nationwide in 2021.

Thousands of other workers who were deemed essential during Covid-19 will soon square off against their employers too: 37,000 airline workers in seven agreements (plus 2,500 pilots who fly for UPS and 4,000 who fly for FedEx), 27,600 construction workers in 16 agreements, and 48,500 grocery workers in 17 agreements.

The biggest grocery agreement, with Kroger, covers 20,000 Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) members in the Greater Cincinnati area. These negotiations come after a year when consumers have gained a new appreciation for frontline supermarket workers for their pandemic shopping needs and deliveries. 

In recent years, union bargaining teams have brought their “constituents” (customers, patients, students) directly to the table to raise their shared concerns for the staffing and skills needed to maintain or improve services. What better way to educate our allies about collective bargaining and show management a broader united front than to bring them into bargaining with us? 

CROSS-POLLINATE IN KEY SECTORS

With more than 300 of the agreements expiring on or after June 1, union leaders and activists have ample to time to prepare. The biggest expiration months are June (140), August (43), and December (38).

In recent years, teachers have been the most militant sector of the labor movement. The National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) respectively have 71 and 39 school agreements up in 2021 that cover more than 200 members each, collectively involving 77,500 K-12 educators and support personnel.

Imagine the movement that might emerge from holding joint meetings of leaders and activists from these 100-plus unions to share strategies and coordinate bargaining demands. Not to mention representatives from unions covered under the many smaller expiring agreements, who could also be invited to participate.

The 224,400 health care workers and 40,600 nurses with expiring contracts—who are unfortunately spread out among nine different national or international unions (AFSCME, AFT, National Nurses United, Communications Workers, National Union of Healthcare Workers, Operating Engineers, Service Employees, Teamsters, and UFCW)—have a similar opportunity. The need for improved coordination and information sharing in the health care industry has never been greater. 

GET POLITICIANS INVOLVED

We’ve just been through an election cycle where many Democratic politicians pledged to support unions and collective bargaining. Some even showed up to picket lines and union rallies. They must have remembered the powerful boost that Bernie Sanders got from assisting the Verizon strike during his 2016 run for the Democratic nomination. 

Our contract negotiations can assume a political character with the support of politicians. But beyond perfunctory appearances, it’s time for supposedly pro-union elected officials to weigh in by regulating the ability of corporate owners to repress labor action. Should public pension funds finance strikebreakers? Should police herd scabs? The power of the state at the local, state, and federal level can help swing the outcome of many labor disputes.

The historic Senate election of Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in Georgia has put the Democratic Party in control of Congress and the White House. Many union members will be hoping for passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. Against the backdrop of this push for labor law reform, these 450 expiring contracts could take on an even greater political character. 

Putting aside whether labor law reform can pass in a very divided Congress, many in labor hope “Scranton Joe” Biden will be a powerful cheerleader for unions and use his executive power to aid his allies. Top priority on our list would be a $15 minimum wage and union neutrality for employees of federal contractors. 

As an example, the president could use his bully pulpit to voice forceful support for the tens of thousands of essential workers with expiring contracts who have been recognized as heroes of the pandemic. And with more federal-level support, local elected officials could be urged to use state and municipal regulations to help workers gain additional bargaining leverage.

In each sector of the economy, unions can strengthen their arguments by pointing to the public largesse their employers received during the pandemic, or the essential services their members provide. As is both usual and necessary, members themselves will be the very best ambassadors to make the case to the public.

HOW TO DO IT: SWARMING SOLIDARITY

The best way to convey the economic significance and high drama of these collective bargaining struggles onto the political landscape is “swarming solidarity.”

That means getting union activists and other friends of labor to rally in support of each other’s struggles by marching on picket lines, testifying at city council and state hearings, writing letters, and showing support on social media. It was the core tenet of Jobs with Justice’s “I’ll Be There” pledge and the AFL-CIO’s “Street Heat” in the ’80s and ’90s. 

For example, successful supermarket strikes have always involved other unions adopting stores and picketing to keep their members and their families from crossing the lines as hungry consumers. 

Imagine if all the pro-union members of the California legislature showed up at airports to support striking airline workers? Or if those legislators confronted store managers while 5,000 UFCW members picketed after their contracts expire in July at Rite-Aid stores? These kinds of creative solidarity can propel labor struggles into the public consciousness and force a “which side are you on?” moment for the American public and elected officials. 

Labor Notes’ subscribers and its conference participants are a great network of activists well positioned to assist unions in a broad mobilization. Other networks that could be enlisted include Jobs with Justice coalitions, central labor councils, occupational safety and health (COSH) networks, branches of the Democratic Socialists of America, Labor for Bernie supporters, and the relatively new Labor Action to Defend Democracy.

Labor leaders and activists everywhere need to study the national, regional, and local bargaining schedules—and get everyone to mark their calendars with expiration dates. It’s time to reach out to local union leaders and begin making plans to expand their collective bargaining campaigns. There is ample time now, months in advance, to make plans for “swarming solidarity” and begin aggressive support for the key upcoming contract battles. Labor should not squander these important opportunities in 2021 and beyond.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on January 14, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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

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


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U.S. Chamber calls for governments to fund rapid training programs

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U.S. Chamber of Commerce CEO Tom Donohue said Tuesday that a broad-based economic recovery in 2021 depends on reskilling and supporting workers. The usually conservative Chamber is embracing a radical shift on skills policy. “Our lawmakers should fund rapid training programs to connect the unemployed with jobs in new sectors,” Donohue said in a State of American Business address. 

Employers should take a lead in designing these programs, Donohue said, but said the benefits to workers would be clear-cut: “If we do this right and do it quickly, we will improve the living standard for millions of Americans.”

Trade unions agree, but insist the federal government thinks big. “We can’t think about (it) employer by employer,” said Mary Kay Henry, international president of the Service Employees International Union. Six million fast food and care workers “are living in poverty and have irregular schedules,” leaving them without access to lifelong learning opportunities in the current system, she said. 

“Imagine a system where the company, the government and the workers together thought about how to unlock those four million people, and train them to do the work that’s emerging in the future,” Henry said. Singapore’s citizens don’t have to imagine it: that’s what SkillsFuture, the country’s adult education government agency, delivers. 

Ong Tze Ch’in, who leads the Singaporean program, told POLITICO’s Global Translations podcast that the Singaporean government has built “a national movement about the pursuit of skills mastery and allowing every individual to achieve the maximum potential.”

At the heart of Singapore’s training efforts is a credit offered to every adult in the country, of between $375 and $950, and “absentee payroll,” a system of government funding for up to 90 percent of a worker’s salary covering work-time missed attending training.

Singapore also subsidizes its education providers up to 90 percent of the cost of delivering a course. The courses range from two-day workshops to months-long programs. The original intent was ensuring Singapore’s quick transition to a digital economy. To cope with the additional disruption of Covid-19, the government increased subsidies for mid-career workers and for courses focused on job skills for workers and industries hit hardest by the pandemic such as accommodation and aviation. 

It takes a whole-of-government mindset to implement a comprehensive system like Singapore’s, and also a new outlook on education, Ong said. School and universities aren’t considered the sum of Singapore’s system, they’re “pre-employment training,” he said. It’s a necessary distinction in Ong’s view because working lives are getting longer, and “that education alone no longer sustains you for your entire career, simply because industry cycles are changing so much faster.”

The biggest winners in Singapore’s system are smaller businesses and their workers, which lack the “critical mass and the capacities” to match the training programs of multinational companies, he said. 

Ong, who was Singapore’s director of military intelligence before taking charge of SkillsFuture, advised American policymakers not to delay their efforts. “You don’t grow an army in a day. You grow it over years so that when you need it, you have it.” 

Can the Singapore model scale across the United States?

The key is re-imagining education as a broader set of services beyond school and college, say many labor experts. “Lots of skills workers have, or need, are not about getting more degrees,” said McKinsey Global Institute’s James Manyika.

Ravi Kumar, President of Infosys, the Indian company that became famous for encouraging the tech outsourcing boom, told POLITICO that Infosys now runs “the largest corporate training university in the world,” in Bangalore, India. 

Each market has to be treated differently, according to the local skills base, Kumar said. In the U.S. he said he hires based on a student’s capacity to learn, rather than the brand name of their degree. “We’re moving from degrees to skills with our digital apprenticeship program” — which includes “a finishing school infrastructure,” of eight to 10 weeks of tailored training, at a cost of around $20,000 per student.

“We’re hiring from community colleges, and putting them in the apprentice program, so they can move from operations to a data scientist, and from cyber operations to a cyber security consultant. You give them stackable credentials.” Over the next few decades, Kumar believes the changes will be so specific and frequent that individuals won’t be able to manage them on their own. 

P-TECH is a large-scale public-private partnership trying to take on this challenge. Started by IBM in Brooklyn a decade ago, the partnership now operates in 28 countries. 

Joel Duran was part of the first class to graduate from P-TECH’s six-year program in 2017, with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree. Duran, now 23, landed a technical consultant job working for IBM’s federal government clients, an outcome he said would have been harder to achieve without the structure and safety net provided by P-TECH. 

“From the first day that you started out at P-TECH in ninth grade, you are paired with a mentor,” he told the Global Translations podcast, and take part in regular work placements where “you are depended upon by the business.” With a salary of $14 an hour as a teenager in these work placements, Duran said he also had income to help support his wider family, some of whom immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic when Duran was in primary school, and some who remained behind. 

Duran said the skills he’s learned are portable in a fast-moving labor market. Some of his graduating class “took their two-year technical degree and they went on to med school, they went on to be lawyers. I know there was one student who went and studied wildlife.” For Duran, the lasting effect has been on his approach to work. “I’ve picked up the mindset to always keep learning, to show up in a room humble and be able to say, ‘I don’t know about this, but I can get back to you’ and I’m pretty confident that I can learn it.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on January 13, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Ryan Heath is the author of Global Translations, POLITICO’s global newsletter and podcast, and previously authored POLITICO’s U.N. Playbook, Brussels Playbook, and Davos Playbook. 


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Service + Solidarity Spotlight: Alaska Public Employees Pay Off Student School Meal Balances

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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.

With the pandemic hitting everyone economically, the members of the Alaska Public Employees Association/AFT elected to do what they could, paying off thousands of dollars of school meal balances.

“The Juneau Education Support Staff (JESS) Local 6096 Executive Board started thinking about how to use the money in April. We all wanted to help families and students in the community, and as the pandemic continued we started realizing how everyone needed to have some kindness come into their lives—they needed good news,” said Catherine Pusich, the board’s public relations officer.

The union paid off the balances for 564 students, totaling $7,446. Letters went out in the days before Christmas letting students and families know of the donation.

“We have been able to see firsthand how this pandemic has affected some of our more vulnerable students, and this donation from JESS will at least take one thing off the table that they will not have to worry about,” said Elizabeth White, a union member and meal cashier at Sayèik: Gastineau Community School. “We are pleased that they saw fit to use the money to take care of the families that are close to our hearts.”

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on January 11, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell  is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.


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The Animal Legal Defense Fund Is Busting Its Union With a Smile

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The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) is a major nonprofit that boasts of its more than 40 years of ?“tireless pursuit of justice for animals.” When it comes to the pursuit of justice for working humans, however, its own employees say that it is badly failing the test. 

In mid-December, ALDF’s employees told the organization’s management that they intended to unionize with the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, a division of the IFPTE. They presented signed union cards representing a ?“super majority” of the 54-person staff, and asked for the ALDF to voluntarily recognize their union. Such voluntary recognition has become standard in the nonprofit world?—?the NPEU says that of the 35nonprofits it’s organized, only two have refused to recognize their unions. 

One of those two is the ALDF. According to employees and the NPEU, the ALDF responded to the news of the union drive by hiring the anti-union law firm Ogletree Deakins and embarking on a union-busting campaign that is now in full swing. That campaign has centered on an ongoing series of ?“captive audience meetings” in which managers gather employees in small groups to try to persuade them not to unionize, a tactic common among corporations intent on intimidating and misleading workers who seek to organize. 

An ALDF employee who supports the union, and who asked not to be identified due to fear of retaliation at work, said that the union drive came about because of the sort of disillusionment common in the nonprofit world, where people find that what they had seen as a ?“dream job” actually is nothing of the sort. After the killing of George Floyd, the staff’s dissatisfaction with what they saw as the organization’s ?“lukewarm, half-ass” response?—?as well as a perception of unfair pay rates, and inequitable treatment by managers?—?led directly to the desire to unionize in order to have a stronger voice in the workplace. ?“The people who control most of these [animal rights] organizations are largely white, and largely wealthy,” and uninterested in scrutinizing the flaws of ALDF itself, the employee said. ?“This is a huge problem for us. We’re a legal organization, so justice is paramount among our concerns… They think of us as being expendable because we have such coveted jobs.” 

The ALDF did not respond to a request for comment from its management. 

The organizing drive gathered steam through the summer, working in tandem with the NPEU, which has led an explosion of organizing among nonprofitsover the past two years. The employee says that it became clear that management knew about the drive by late October, so the unit made sure to present a large majority of signed union cards in December to make it ?“unambiguous that this is what people want.” Nevertheless, just before Christmas, management called a meeting and told everyone they would not be recognizing the union. 

Employees are upset that ALDF chose to hire Ogletree Deakins, the sameanti-union firm that the ACLU of Kansas hired last year to fight its own employee organizing drive?—?particularly because the firm works with clients in industrial agriculture, which employees see as being antithetical to ALDF’s mission. Though firms like Ogletree Deakins typically work to ensure that the employer’s anti-union campaign is as scary as possible while still following the letter of the law, they are not immune from comedy; ALDF employees found out about the firm’s involvement when a manager accidentally CC’d staffers on an email with an Ogletree attorney discussing details of an anti-union meeting.

“Anything short of recognizing your staff union in this political environment is union busting,” says Kayla Blado, the president of NPEU. ?“Management there doesn’t want to cede power to workers. They are using pretty infamous union busting tactics, the same things you see at big companies.” Blado says that the ALDF is not only forcing its employees to file for an NLRB election in order to certify their union?—?a process which will likely take months?—?it is also trying to challenge the size of the union, arguing to the NLRB that the number of eligible employees should be cut by a full two-thirds, which Blado calls ?“insulting.”

Employees at ALDF shared with In These Times notes that they took during three separate captive audience meetings with different managers. They paint a picture of a nonprofit using a standard anti-union playbook that would not be out of place at Walmart or an Amazon warehouse: a mix of encouraging comments about how management values employees’ opinions and that a union is not necessary to communicate with them directly, along with fearmongering statements painting the union as a predatory outside entity that is only out for dues money. Managers alternate between insisting that they want employees to speak up and change the organization from within, disparaging the NPEU, and warning that forcing the ALDF into bargaining with the union does not mean that employees will actually make any gains. One meeting even features the highest form of the anti-union meeting genre?—?the assurances that the people delivering the anti-union message are, in fact, strong believers in unions. 

At one point, a manager describes the ALDF’s outside attorney as ?“a really liberal blue guy,” adding, ?“He’s a management-side attorney, no doubt about it, but he’s just not a union-buster.” At another point, ALDF executive director Stephen Wells, who is leading the group’s decision to fight against the union, is described as ?“a really pro-union guy.” 

“It’s not like he’s an anti-union person,” the speaker says of Wells. ?“He’s really liberal, he’s really progressive.”

Depending on how long it takes to settle legal arguments at the NLRB and schedule a final vote, workers could be in for another two months or more of these sorts of meetings. Still, the ALDF employee says that the union-busting has not changed any minds, and is confident that the union will win. ?“It’s making people madder and more dedicated,” the employee says. ?“This is an act of love for this organization.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 13, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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