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Striking Bus Drivers Steer the Way to a Better World

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All eyes are on essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic, as individuals, companies and even the federal government make a point to thank them for their heroic action: working. Frontline workers have received plenty of symbolic accolades, but many are working without proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and hazard pay, and are scared for their health and safety. Public transit workers, who shuttle other essential workers to and from work, have been sounding the alarm about poor safety standards at their jobs since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), which represents 200,000 workers in the United States and Canada, told In These Times that nearly 1,000 of its members have been infected with coronavirus, and almost 40 have died. In response, the union has taken action by setting up coronavirus test sites, sharing information about safety gear, and lobbying both the federal and state governments to do more to protect transit workers. It has also partnered with the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU) to increase its strength.

But the best way for workers to show their strength is to withhold their labor, and ATU locals across the country are engaging in work stoppages to make sure transit agencies understand what’s at stake if they don’t take immediate action to protect workers and riders. Bus drivers in Detroit kicked off the wave of workplace actions on March 17, relatively early in the pandemic, by shutting down bus service throughout the city, leaving only 10% of buses running. They won all of their demands around health and safety, including suspension of fares, rear door entrance, and PPE for drivers—but unfortunately, at least one bus driver has died from coronavirus. (ATU International President John Costa says that transport workers “have been the biggest casualty from this pandemic.”)

Several Birmingham drivers took action next and refused to work on March 23, in order to make the transit authority increase safety. They went back to work the following day after having won multiple safety measures, including a mandate that  passengers only use the rear door when boarding and exiting buses, physical barriers around the  operator seating area to give drivers social distance from riders, and only allowing 15 to19 passengers on each bus, depending on size of the bus. Gregory Roddy, President of ATU Local 725 in Birmingham, told In These Times that bus drivers “are here ready to work. But we will not work in an unsafe environment.”

Drivers in Richmond, Virginia and Greensboro, North Carolina also took action for safety on the job the following month. On April 27, about 50 drivers in Richmond caused massive service delays by calling out of work to demand hazard pay, in addition to other safety precautions, like PPE, on-site testing, and furlough protections. Two days later, bus service was stopped in Greensboro as some drivers refused to show up at work after a fellow driver tested positive for Covid-19. The transit authority sanitized buses and workspaces, and drivers returned to work the following day. Roddy shared that the coronavirus pandemic has inspired Alabama bus drivers to take action, and that their next fight is for hazard pay. Roddy said that “one person can be broken, but all of us together, we can be strong.”

Layoffs have swept the nation and transit workers are not immune: They have also been laid off and furloughed. President Costa said that without federal intervention, layoffs and cuts to mass transit could continue, long after the pandemic. But he also said his members are ready to fight back: “If we can build ships and bombs, we can transfer money back into the public transit system to keep the cities alive.”

The coronavirus pandemic has opened up new conversations about the future of public transit—in mostly scary ways, unless workers organize to take more control. Because so many people are now either laid off or working from home, ridership is down by 75% nationwide, according to statistics from the Transit App company, so bus lines have been cut, and trains come less frequently. And because numerous cities like New York and Philadelphia are pushing austerity budgets in response to deficits caused by the pandemic, many workers, riders and transit and environmental advocates are concerned that public transportation won’t be restored to its previous level of service. This could leave thousands of union members out of work, and countless others struggling to get to work, school and appointments on time.

But there are also openings to create a better, healthier future, as the pandemic has forced many of us to reckon with the past and imagine a new world. And as the coronavirus crisis has rocked our society, carbon dioxide emissions are projected to drop by about 8% this year. Businesses are closed, air travel has decreased, and millions of people are stuck at home, limiting emissions—for now. Going back to business as usual is not an option for the climate—and it’s not an option for workers either. This is not to argue that the pandemic is in any way a good thing: There is no doubt that the pandemic has ravaged our society, and there’s no way to spin that positively.

The coronavirus crisis is a wakeup call for the climate crisis, which will be far worse. Our only choice is to reimagine our society—to make jobs safer, and to massively invest in public transit, in order to help workers through this crisis and mitigate the climate crisis, which is poised to be far worse. Because of coronavirus, the fossil fuel industry is in total disarray, with prices collapsing and demand falling. By increasing public transportation, we can continue decreasing carbon dioxide emissions, even when businesses begin to reopen and more people go back to work. This is also an opportunity to create more good, union jobs—especially when unemployment is at nearly 25%. Bus drivers have already proven that they’re willing to take action to fight for health and safety on the job—and win. But what else can transport workers struggle for?

ATU says its “members already know that public transit is far more environmentally sustainable.” The union obviously supports expanding public transit—that means more workers, and more members—but it also supports making it free and powering it by the wind, sun, and seas. A retiree from Local 732 in Georgia, Paul McLennan, agrees that “it’s a no brainer. We need more public transit to get people out of cars.” Building and using electric-powered buses and moving away from fossil fuels would of course be gigantic undertakings for the union, but there’s really no other choice if we have any hope of a real future for our climate. The union choosing to prioritize fighting for expanded public transit—and fighting against austerity—opens up doors to work with environmental groups and free transit advocates, and to build the coalition necessary to actually win these huge demands. We’ve already seen this coalition at work during coronavirus—350.org, Sierra Club, and Sunrise Movement joined with ATU and TWU to demand that Congress increase the allocation for emergency assistance to public transportation.

This work is no small feat, but President Costa said that “we’ve been shut down for six weeks. Oil is worthless, they’re giving it away. Now the air is better, the world is cleaner. It pays to have a good and safe transit system in our world, and the Green New Deal means creating better jobs.” If we want to transition to a more just society, transport workers’ jobs must be safe and dignified, and we have to create more of them by expanding public transit. In the words of McLennan, “when we see problems from all sides, it makes for better solutions.” 

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on May 5, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Get Ready for Mass Strikes Across the U.S. This May Day

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Christopher D. Cook Progressive.org

Toiling amid a pandemic and a callous response from corporate America and the federal government that is exposing millions to deadly hazards and deepening poverty, workers across the country are rising up, planning hundreds of strikes and sickouts for International Workers’ Day on May 1.

At a time when worker organizing could be stifled by physical distancing rules and the Trump administration’s disabling of the National Labor Relations Board, workers are walking off the job in massive coordinated walk-outs and sick-outs targeting major employers such as Amazon, Whole Foods, Target, Walmart, FedEx, and Instacart, demanding hazard pay, personal protective equipment and other basic protections.

May Day actions throughout the United States will include worker strikes, car caravan protests, rent strikes, and a host of social media onslaughts urging work stoppages, and boycotts of major corporations that are failing to fairly pay and protect their workers amid the pandemic, activists say. Activists are also pressuring for rent and debt relief, and a “People’s Bailout” demanding a more equitable stimulus and economic recovery plan that prioritizes workers.

Long overworked and underpaid, warehouse and food industry workers (including grocery clerks, meatpackers, and farmworkers) are now deemed “essential”—responsible for hazardous jobs at the epicenter of the Covid-19 storm. Yet while some unionized workers have secured hazard pay and protective gear, millions of these workers on the pandemic’s front lines remain in or near poverty and without adequate healthcare or safety protections. Now they’re striking back, shining a spotlight on the struggles of low-wage workers laboring amid viral hazards while corporations like Amazon and Instacart report booming business and profits.

Even as unemployment skyrockets above 20% (with an astounding 30 million new claims since the beginning of March), Amazon alone is raking in $11,000 per second and its shares are rising, the Guardian reports. The company’s CEO Jeff Bezos, meanwhile, has seen his personal fortune bloat to $138 billion amid the pandemic.

Protesting unsafe conditions and lack of hazard pay for many employees, Target Workers Unite is waging a mass sickout of the retail chain’s workers, stating, “We want to shut down industry across the board and pushback with large numbers against the right-wing groups that want to risk our lives by reopening the economy.”

On its website, the group describes “atrocious” foot traffic in stores, “putting us at needless risk when greater safety measures are required to ensure social distancing. Workers nor guests have been required to wear masks…Our maximum capacity of guests have been set too high.”

Whole Worker, a movement of Whole Foods workers pushing for unionization, plans a mass “sickout” for what is also being called #EssentialWorkersDay. Workers at the non-union corporate chain, which is owned by billionaire Bezos, are demanding guaranteed paid leave for employees who self-quarantine, reinstating healthcare coverage for part-time and seasonal workers, and the immediate shutdown of any store where a worker tests positive for Covid-19. According to organizers, 254 Whole Foods workers have tested positive for the virus nationwide, and two have died.

Gig economy workers for Instacart, the app-propelled tech corporation that dispatches “shoppers” for customers, will wage their second work stoppage in a month, after a March 30 strike demanding hazard pay, paid sick leave and safety protections. Despite Instacart’s booming business amid the Covid-19 pandemic, “Most workers STILL haven’t been able to order, let alone receive, proper PPE,” according to the Gig Workers Collective.

This week, dozens of workers at an Amazon fulfillment center warehouse in Tracy, CA walked off the job after learning that a co-worker who had tested positive for Covid-19 had died. One employee told a local television station, “We are short handed now working extra hard, and I’m questioning what I’m still doing here honestly…I’m actually nervous now and wondering if it’s even worth coming.”

Citing a “lack of response from this government in terms of PPE and mandatory [safety] standards,” the AFL-CIO will be supporting and “uplifting” striking workers at Amazon, Target, Instacart and elsewhere who are “risking their lives every day on the job,” said spokesperson Kalina Newman. “While our affiliates who work with retail workers, UFCW and RWDSU, aren’t helping organize the May Day strikes, they may uplift them. At the end of the day, we support workers who are standing up for their rights.”

In an email, Newman elaborated that the AFL-CIO is encouraging union members “to contact their congressperson stressing that the coronavirus relief packages approved so far leave many working families behind, including hardworking immigrants who provide essential services.”

Since the pandemic began, union workers at Safeway, Stop & Shop and Kroger’s have won hazard pay and protective equipment guarantees, Newman added, following pressure from the United Food and Commercial Workers.

Other prominent labor groups are backing the May Day strike actions. Jobs With Justice “is supporting worker walkouts across the country, from Amazon workers to Instacart drivers,” and will be “standing in solidarity with workers who are walking off the job and demanding safer working conditions,” organizing director Nafisah Ula said in an email.

A range of other groups, including the Democratic Socialists of America and new grassroots initiatives like Coronastrike will also be backing up the workers on May Day. Launched by Occupy Wall Street alumni, Coronastrike aims to “amplify the efforts and voices of those striking,” says organizer Yolian Ogbu, a 20-year-old climate justice activist.

“We’re frustrated by the inaction by these corporations,” Ogbu adds. “There is all this pent-up energy, and we’re asking people to put it somewhere. People are desperate.”

According to Fight for 15, the nationwide coalition for a $15 federal minimum wage, fast food workers have already been striking for fair wages and safety protections as they attempt to survive low-wage work and exposure to Covid-19. Since the pandemic began, fast food workers have walked off the job in Los Angeles, Oakland, Chicago, Memphis, Miami, St. Louis and other major cities, demanding personal protective equipment, hazard pay and paid sick leave.

In early April, hundreds of workers from more than 50 fast-food restaurants across California—including McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Burger King and Domino’s—walked out of work to demand better pay and safety protections, Vice reported. This week, Arby’s workers in Morris, Illinois, walked out in the middle of their shift to protest conditions and climbed into their with windows festooned with big posters stating, “We don’t want to die for fries,” and “Hazard pay and PPE now!” They are demanding $3 per hour in added hazard pay and say the corporation has not provided masks or any other protective gear.

Since March, there have already reportedly been at least 140 documented wildcat strikes across the country.

As the Covid-19 pandemic intensifies and exposes America’s inequalities, workers, so long stifled and embattled, are showing renewed force.

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 30, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Christopher D. Cook is an award-winning journalist and author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis. His writing has appeared in Harper’sThe AtlanticThe Nation, the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere. You can reach him at http://www.christopherdcook.com/.


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Striking McDonald’s Workers Say Their Lives Are More Essential Than Fast Food

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The fast food industry has long insulated itself from organized labor by building a legal wall between the parent company and the individual franchised stores. That imaginary separation is being tested by the reality of the coronavirus pandemic, as McDonald’s workers across the country have held strikes and walked out, unwilling to risk their lives for fries with no safety net.

The Fight For $15 has found fertile new ground in helping to organize fast food strikes in recent days. McDonald’s workers in Los Angeles, San Jose, St. Louis, Tampa, Raleigh-Durham and elsewhere have staged job actions this week, in a coordinated push for safer working conditions, paid sick leave and hazard pay.

Maria Ruiz, who has spent 16 years at McDonald’s, was one of the workers who went on strike yesterday outside of her store in San Jose, California. Ruiz said that employees have been worried for their own health for the entire past month, watching the store’s dwindling supply of hand sanitizer, gloves and cleaning supplies. On some days, there was no hand sanitizer at all. Ruiz says employees were only recently granted permission to wear masks at work, despite the fact that there are often more than a dozen people crowded into the store’s lobby.

“We are tired of taking the risk,” said Ruiz, who earns $16.35 per hour in a city that has one of the highest costs of living in the United States. McDonald’s workers are asking for an extra $3 per hour hazard pay, along with adequate protective equipment, a guarantee of two weeks of paid sick leave for anyone who needs to quarantine, and a guarantee that the company will cover their health care costs if they get sick with COVID-19. Ruiz acknowledges that she needs to work in order to pay her bills, but said that she could no longer ignore the danger to her health. “I’m kind of afraid” to go on strike, she said, “but I’m more afraid to lose my life.”

The Fight For 15 said that the McDonald’s workers are expected to stay away from work until their demands for protective equipment on the job are met. It seems likely that the country will see a steady, rolling procession of fast food walkouts in coming weeks, part of a nationwide strike wave that has been gathering momentum over the past month. Grocery workers, warehouse workers, factory workers, construction workers, and others who are directly exposed to the danger of infection on the job have all walked out in protest, doubtful that their low wages make up for the risks they’re taking.

After a decade of organizing fast food workers, the Fight For 15 is well positioned to facilitate these types of job actions on short notice. One of the movement’s key wins—a step that promised to make it significantly easier for organized labor to exert influence on a national scale in the fast food industry—came in 2015, when the Obama administration’s National Labor Relations Board revised the “joint employer” standard to make it easier to hold fast food companies like McDonald’s responsible for the labor standards at their franchised stores. The Trump administration’s NLRB rolled back that rule change, meaning McDonald’s is once again able to keep a legal wall between the parent company and the behavior of its franchisees.

In response to questions about employee walkouts in California, McDonald’s referred to a letter from McDonald’s USA president Joe Erlinger, promising to provide gloves, increased store cleaning, “wellness checks” for employees, and to send “non-medical grade masks to the areas of greatest need.” The company also sent a statement from the owner-operator of the store in Los Angeles where employees walked out this weekend, saying the store underwent “thorough sanitization” after a worker tested positive for COVID-19, and that workers who were in contact with that person were offered two weeks of paid quarantine leave. (The fact that the statement from the store owner is being sent out by McDonald’s corporate PR team highlights how closely the parent company and store owners are intertwined, joint employer standard notwithstanding.)

Though more visible “essential” workers, like grocery store employees, have successfully won hazard pay from a number of companies, fast food workers face a steeper challenge: They are forced to continue working by employer mandate and by economic need, but still viewed as a nonessential by much of the public. Without intense public pressure or widespread work stoppages, it is easy for major fast food chains to continue with business as usual, offloading all of the risk onto those below them.

“We are essential workers,” said Maria Ruiz, “but my life is essential too.” 

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

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


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Stakes For All Workers Remain Huge In Verizon Strike

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Dave JohnsonNOTE: Shortly after this article was posted, news broke of a settlement in the strike between Verizon and workers represented by the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Workers are expected to return to their jobs next week. IBEW President Lonnie R. Stephenson issued a statement saying, “This tentative contract is an important step forward in helping to end this six-week strike and keeping good Verizon jobs in America.” Verizon’s unionized workers, he said, “look forward to returning to work serving their customers, working under a strong pro-worker and pro-jobs contract.”

With the strike by unionized Verizon workers going into its seventh week, Campaign for America’s Future’s Isaiah J. Poole conducts a short interview with Sara Steffens, Secretary Treasurer of the Communications Workers of America (CWA).

“The picket lines are incredibly strong,” she says in the interview. The striking workers continue to gain support because more people recognize Verizon, as she put it, is “a corporation that doesn’t need a giveback but wants it anyway.”

This is important not just to Verizon’s workers, but for all of us. The April 14 post, “Verizon Workers Strike To Keep America’s Middle Class,” explains that the union’s fight is about a lot more than just their pay, work location and hours.

This is really about the bigger fight between the corporate-dominated economy that puts workers (all of us except a few) last, entirely looking at what benefits the corporation. Work hours, pay, stability, benefits, all are sacrificed to further corporate “flexibility.” So it you are not a wealthy executive or shareholder your life just gets harder and harder, and you have fewer and fewer rights and options.

Another Verizon Strike National Day of Action is being planned for June 2. By then,

… the working families on strike at Verizon and Verizon Wireless will have gone 51 days without pay and over a month without health insurance.

Let’s show Verizon what this fight is all about – making sure the needs of working families are met and protecting good, union jobs for generations to come for all working people in this country.

Join us for a National Day of Action on June 2. Please RSVP and save the date. We’ll be back in touch about events near you and how you can support the fight online.

This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on May 27, 2016. Reprinted with Permission.

Dave Johnson has more than 20 years of technology industry experience. His earlier career included technical positions, including video game design at Atari and Imagic. He was a pioneer in design and development of productivity and educational applications of personal computers. More recently he helped co-found a company developing desktop systems to validate carbon trading in the US.


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Striking Workers Shame Prestigious Johns Hopkins Hospital Over Low Pay

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Bruce VailSome 2,000 union workers went out on strike Wednesday at Johns Hopkins Hospital in a protest aimed primarily at exposing low wages at Baltimore’s second biggest employer and one of the nation’s most prestigious hospitals.
Members of 1199SEIU United Health Workers East hit the picket lines at 6:00 a.m. April 9 for a three-day strike provoked by a stalemate in negotiations for a new contract to cover the union workers. The previous contract expired March 31, and renewal talks earlier this week stalled on the key issue of raising wages, according to 1199SEIU spokesperson Jim McNeill.
Hospital executives had received a ten-day warning of the strike, says 1199SEIU Vice President Vanessa Johnson, so there was ample time to ensure that patient care would not be adversely affected. Union members are primarily in maintenance and food service, with some technical workers such as surgical techs. Operations at the enormous Hopkins medical complex are reported to be near-normalwith non-union nurses, administrators and temporaries filling in for the unionized strikers. Hopkins spokesperson Kim Hoppe would not respond to repeated inquiries for additional information from Working In These Times.
Labor trouble at Hopkins has been brewing for some time. A year ago, the union signed an unusual one-year contract with the hospital as a stop gap as negotiators wrestled with difficult wage and healthcare issues.
More broadly, the 1199SEIU-Hopkins conflict reflects Baltimore’s yawning racial divide, with the predominantly African-American union members receiving few of the benefits, as Hopkins’ well-paid physicians and administrators prosper. That economic divide was thrown into sharp relief Wednesday with low-paid 1199SEIU picketers demonstrating at the entrance to the hospital’s huge new medical building, which cost the hospital some $1.1 billion to construct.
“Hopkins says they don’t have the money [to lift union wages] but they own most of the community,” charged union member Michelle Horton at an April 9 solidarity meeting of strikers and local supporters. Horton’s comment touched on another raw spot in Hopkins’ relationship with Baltimore’s African-American community: The hospital and related institutions are currently engaged in a long-term effort to re-develop and gentrify the low-income residential neighborhoods that surround the hospital, prompting charges of racial discrimination and unfair dislocation.
Those issues notwithstanding, the focus of the solidarity meeting at St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church on Wednesday night was squarely on the issue of higher wages. 1199SEIU Vice President Johnson said that nearly 1,400 of the 2,000 union members currently earn less than $14.92 an hour, the level at which a single parent with one child will qualify for food stamps.
“Johns Hopkins and [hospital President] Ron Peterson should be ashamed of themselves,” because some Hopkins workers require public assistance like food stamps or Medicaid, emphasizes veteran hospital worker Yvonne Brown. According to a 2010 report in the Baltimore Sun, Peterson earns about $1.9 million a year.
The union initially asked a minimum wage of $15 an hour, consistent with the demands of other SEIU campaigns such as Chicago’s Fight for 15 initiative, Johnson says. Currently, negotiators are discussing a five-year contract, and the union is pushing to get a minimum of $14 for all workers by the final year, and a minimum of $15 at that point for  workers with 15 years or more of experience . The expired contract had the lowest-paid workers starting at $10.71 an hour, with the best-paid earning as much as $27.88.
Hopkins can easily afford the $15 minimum, Johnson says. The union estimates the raise would cost Hopkins less than $3 million in annual payroll expenses, while the non-profit hospital reported a $145 million surplus last year.
Dr. Benjamin Oldfield, a resident physician at Hopkins who led a group of non-union Hopkins doctors, medical students and nursing students to the Wednesday solidarity meeting, agrees with Johnson. “[As medical professionals], we know that financial insecurity leads to bad health outcomes,” he told the group at the St. Wenceslaus hall.. “For a place like Hopkins, which has plenty of money, I’m surprised that they haven’t gotten this one right yet.”
Hopkins, however, is adamant in negotiations that the $15 minimum wage is not affordable, according to Johnson, who says the offers put on the table thus far have been paltry. The most recent would see the minimum rise to only $12.25 in the fifth year of the contract, an offer that prompted the strike action this week, according to Johnson.
That’s just not good enough, adds Wiley Rhymer, a member of the union’s negotiating team. “We’re trying to get our members out of poverty, not keep them in it,” he tells Working In These Times.
This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on April 20, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’sDaily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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