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2020 hopefuls are joining striking fast food workers Thursday — but who’s helping whom?

Thursday, May 23rd, 2019

McDonald’s workers are striking Thursday in a dozen cities across the country.

The latest walkouts in the nearly six-year-old campaign for union rights and sustainable wages, timed to overlap with the fast food giant’s annual shareholder meeting in Dallas, will also feature a number of 2020 White House hopefuls.

Former congressman and Housing and Urban Development head Julián Castro (D-TX) will join striking workers in Durham, North Carolina, alongside Moral Mondays leader Rev. William Barber II. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) will video conference in to the Dallas worker rally and take questions from the crowd.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) will attend walkouts in Chicago and Des Moines, Iowa, respectively. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) had previously planned to attend the Des Moines rally but had to switch things up after a Senate vote on federal disaster relief was scheduled for Thursday at the last minute.

The presidential contenders will likely create an additional media draw in those four cities. But the workers themselves will be their own headliner in nine others, including Miami, Orlando, and Tampa, as well as Milwaukee.

These White House hopefuls are arguably more in need of being seen with these workers than the low-wage toilers require these politicos’ imprimatur. Since 2013, when the first impromptu walkout in New York broke open an organizing terrain that traditional labor organizers had long regarded as impossible, the Fight for $15 has been a persistent and mounting force in U.S. politics.

And as those strikes spread nationwide, to dozens and eventually hundreds of cities and towns across the United States, the energy present among the fast food and retail workers also broke through longstanding roadblocks on minimum wage laws.

Prior to Fight For $15 bringing new electricity to the scene, statutory pay floors had stagnated and fallen far behind inflation for decades around the country. In the spring of 2014, minimum wage advocates in Seattle, aided by the combined pressure of workers in the streets working from the outside and newly elected socialist firebrand Kshama Sawant making the case from her city council perch, finally reached a breakthrough. Seattle became the first municipality to set its pay floor at $15 an hour in the United States.

Numerous cities and states have followed suit since. And the $15 minimum wage question haunted the 2016 presidential election. During that season’s Democratic primary, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s initial insistence that $12-per-hour was better policy eventually gave way to her embrace of the $15 demand.

If anyone still wanted to dispute the worker-led movement’s political gravity after that dramatic moment in the 2016 primary season, a little-noticed development this spring should have put such skepticism to bed for good. McDonald’s itself dropped its opposition to the campaign’s demands and withdrew its support for the National Restaurant Association’s long-running lobbying campaign against wage hikes and workers’ rights for the fast food industry.

The acquiescence of the industry’s leading burger chain has by no means ended the firm’s manifold conflicts with workers. McDonald’s workers have continued to file sexual harassment suits against the corporation, aided in recent months by the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union — as well as by 2020 hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who blasted out a profile of their efforts to her massive social media following Tuesday.

The chain’s workers have also brought attention to the violence employees routinely face from customers along with, they contend, the dismissive, not-my-problem response they frequently get from management when they attempt to raise their concerns internally.

It is telling that White House hopefuls from all tiers of the primary — heavy hitters and long shots alike — are looking to associate themselves directly with the workers who are bearing the risks and costs of a union drive their employers oppose. The continued success of this largely grassroots movement will likely continue to command influence over the Democratic primary long after Thursday’s rallies and walkouts.

Labor energy has traditionally fueled the retail politicking of Democrats, of course. When former Vice President Joe Biden (D) joined a Stop & Shop workers’ rally during their recent and ultimately successful 11-day strike, the political media barely batted an eye. This is just what’s expected of those who would bear the party’s banner.

But there are signs that the relationship between elected Democrats and rank-and-file labor is shifting. Sanders’ campaign recently harnessed its digital subscriber list in the service of encouraging supporters to show up for workers at picket lines and rallies. As ThinkProgress previously detailed, his presidential campaign will be the first run by a unionized staff.

Lower-profile unionization drives in other industries have drawn mass attention from the energetic online left and, in turn, from Democratic politicians working to figure out how to wed that vocal cohort to the party’s traditionally moderate wing. And the AFL-CIO, long one of the most significant power brokers outside the party’s official infrastructure, is embroiled in internal disputes about how it apportions resources between organizing workers and influencing elections. It remains to be seen how that turmoil will affect the party’s own ability to rely on the AFL to turn out members at campaign events and on polling days, and broker connections between office-seekers and working stiffs.

The Fight for $15 folks, meanwhile, have remained a mainstay in the broad panoply of labor activists since their first-ever national convention in Richmond, Virginia, three years ago. The emotion and excitement that has long attended the campaign’s activism — coupled with the moral and rhetorical leadership of Rev. Barber and his fellow clergymen — make the movement an attractive force with which to form an allegiance. With several Democratic primary hopefuls beating an early path to their picket lines, it seems likely many more will show up in the months to come.

This article was originally published at Think Progress on May 15, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Alan Pyke  covers poverty and the social safety net. Alan is also a film and music critic for fun. Send him tips at: apyke@thinkprogress.org or

Stop & Shop workers win pay, benefits concessions after 11-day strike

Wednesday, April 24th, 2019

New England grocery store workers have won significant concessions from the Dutch firm that rules their day-to-day lives after an 11-day strike, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) announced Monday.

More than 30,000 Stop & Shop employees walked off the job on April 11 after negotiators from Netherlands-based multinational food retailer Ahold Delhaize spent weeks insisting the grocer’s frontline workforce would have to absorb higher health care costs and major changes to retirement benefits.

Such collective action has become rare in the private sector, where union membership levels are at historic lows and complex ownership arrangements involving multinational holding companies have attenuated the connection between the people who do a business’ actual work and the well-to-do executives calling the shots.

But the nearly two-week work stoppage drew high-profile support from both local and national leaders. Multiple 2020 presidential primary contenders visited striking workers in person, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D), and former Vice President Joe Biden (D). Boston Mayor Marty Walsh (D) and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D) also showed their faces and shared supportive remarks at rallies with the strikers. Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) tweeted their support for the cause.

Attention from such dignitaries doubtless helped tighten the screws on the Dutch negotiating team. But local reports are crediting a humbler source of moral leadership for the ultimate resolution of the conflict, which was announced late on Easter Sunday by both the union and the grocer.

A slew of rabbis and Christian clergy around southern New England urged their congregations to honor the strikers by taking their Passover and Eastern business elsewhere.

“We encourage our members to celebrate the upcoming holiday in a manner that honors both the Jewish value of freedom and workers’ dignity,” Rabbis Allison Berry and Laura Abrasley of Temple Shalom in Newton, Massachusetts, wrote to their congregants in an email.

“I just personally wasn’t comfortable crossing the picket line,” Rev. Laura Goodwin of Holy Spirit Episcopal Church in Sutton, Massachusetts, told local reporters. “Flowers are nice, but they’re not as important as people’s livelihood.”

Civic solidarity of that kind can be essential to making a strike work.

When the private sector was more broadly organized decades ago, workers who voted to strike at any given firm knew they would be tapping into a resource much more powerful than any one store. Unionized suppliers and distribution partners would refuse to cross a picket line, amplifying the strike’s immediate impacts almost automatically. With union membership levels down by two thirds since the 1970s, however, modern strikes are a lonelier and more daunting prospect. Without assurances of meaningful support from colleagues, the success or failure of any given worker action rests more with customers themselves.

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Losing the holiday weekend likely put a substantial blemish on Stop & Shop’s 2019 books. Sales directly tied to Easter and Passover typically make up 3% of the firm’s yearly revenue, an industry analyst told Boston’s local NBC station, and the strike was probably costing the firm about $2 million a day even before factoring in the holiday.

That squeeze has now achieved what months of earnest discussion at the bargaining table could not, union officials announced Sunday night. The Dutch firm had reportedly sought sweeping cuts to compensation, including a higher employee charge for health care that would have dragged take-home pay lower. The firm also wanted to end pension offerings for new hires.

Neither side offered much detail about the deal struck Sunday. But both the UFCW and the corporate communications team for Stop & Shop described the new contract agreement as preserving the current terms on retirement benefits and health care cost-sharing. Workers across the 31,000-member union in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut stores will see wage increases as well, according to the statements.

Though private-sector workers have been less prone to strike lately than teachers’ unions and other public-sector labor groups, the apparent success of the protracted action in New England offers a reminder that collective-action tactics remain effective despite their declining use.

Fast food workers spent years agitating for union rights and a $15 hourly pay floor, racking up a series of local minimum wage victories while reshaping the lobbying alliances that have long protected the industry’s exploitative and publicly subsidized business model. Toys-R-US employees were able to extract a large payout from the private equity vultures that had seized the dying brand and stiffed loyal longtime staff thanks to similarly adamant protest work.

A protracted strike by Marriott hotel workers last fall also ultimately produced a negotiated agreement.

But it also afforded Americans a glimpse at how tenuous labor solidarity has become most of a century after unions forced robber baron capitalists to accept ideas like “dignity” and “safety” and “having a weekend.” Even athletes, perhaps the most culturally prominent union members in the modern U.S. economy, failed to respect the Marriott picket line during last fall’s Major League Baseball playoffs.

About the Author: Alan Pyke covers poverty and the social safety net for ThinkProgress.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on April 22, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

The Stop & Shop Strike Is Showing There’s Still Power in a Union

Tuesday, April 16th, 2019

Roughly 31,000 employees of the northeastern grocery chain Stop & Shop have been on strike for nearly a week across more than 240 stores in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. The workers, represented by the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW), walked out on April 11 after voting to authorize the strike in March. During what is reportedly the largest private sector strike in three years, talks continued Tuesday, with neither side able to make an agreement.

Stop & Shop is owned by Ahold Delhaize, a retail company based in The Netherlands. Ahold Delhaize is a $44 billion company, and it’s saved millions thank to the corporate tax breaks implemented by the Trump administration. Workers say that, despite these numbers, Stop & Shop is attempting to cut employee pensions, raise the cost of healthcare and roll back overtime pay. They’re also concerned about the company’s rising use of automation, which many believe will lead to inevitable layoffs.

The workers have received vast support throughout the community, while the stores have been forced to scrape by with temporary staff in many areas. An employee named Temika who works at a store in Providence uploaded a Facebook video detailing what the current state of the store. “I had a family member go in today and just take a look around,” she said, continuing, “It looked terrible. The prepared foods, the deli, the seafood department, the bakery—everything was shut down. The tables looked exactly the way they looked the day [everybody went on strike], which means they haven’t been rotating anything.”

The current state of Stop & Shop should be a legitimate concern for the company. The Southern California grocery strike of 2003 to 2004 led to the establishment of new grocery chains and customers shifting their allegiances after they began shopping at different stores. The same trend could very well impact New England. Customer Gail Zulla told a local news station that she used to shop at a Providence location of Stop & Shop but had been picking up her groceries at the local rival Shaw’s. “It’s the busiest I’ve ever seen a Shaw’s in my life,” she said, “It’s like it’s a snow storm. There’s no bread, there’s nothing.” She said she’ll take her business elsewhere while the strike is underway, adding, “maybe I’ll stay at Shaw’s.”

When In These Times spoke with UFCW Local 1445 political director Jim Carvalho last month, he said that the union was hoping other workers would be inspired by the actions of the Stop & Shop employees. This appears to have born out. The striking workers have received solidarity from faith groups, other unions and local lawmakers. Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen of Beth El-Keser Israel in New Haven told The New Haven Register, “Any food purchased by crossing a picket line or from scab workers is not kosher for Passover.” The Teamsters Council 10 has stopped picking up trash for the company, and Massachusetts Democratic Senator (and presidential candidate) Elizabeth Warren showed up at a picket line with coffee and donuts for the employees. “These giant companies think they can knock unions back,” Warren told the Somerville crowd on April 12. “Unions are here to stay because when you’re fighting for your family, you stay in the fight until you win.”

After a video of Boston Bruins legend Ray Bourque leaving a Stop & Shop was posted on social media, the former hockey player felt compelled to release a statement via Twitter. “Being a union hockey player for 22 years I respect Unions and the work that they do.” Bourque tweeted. “I have a medical condition that I was preparing for this morning and mistakenly crossed the picket line at Stop & Shop. On my way out I apologized immediately. I support the employees of Stop & Shop and once my medical condition is resolved I plan on returning to stand in solidarity and will walk the picket line alongside the members of the union.”

While unionization is declining throughout the country, Massachusetts—where most Stop & Shop stores are located—has actually experienced a sizable uptick. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the amount of workers who consider themselves part of a union went up by 16% from 2017 to 2018.

However, Stop & Shop remains one of the only remaining unionized stores in the industry, as big-box retailers like Walmart have put others out of business in recent years. As grocery industry analyst Burt Flickinger recently told The Boston Globe,“Stop & Shop is the last, best, and final hope for the great Roman empires of unionized food retail chains.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 11, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements.

31,000 New England grocery workers strike

Monday, April 15th, 2019

More than 30,000 grocery store workers are on strike in New England after negotiations stalled between the workers, represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers, and Stop & Shop, the region’s biggest grocery chain.

“Stop & Shop’s parent company, Ahold Delhaize, saw over $2 billion in profit last year and got a US tax cut of $225 million in 2017,” the union said in a statement. “While Stop & Shop continues to propose drastically cutting worker benefits, Ahold shareholders voted on April 10 to give themselves an 11.1 percent raise in dividends over last year. The expected payout will be on April 25 for around $880 million.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren joined workers at a picket line on Friday, bringing donuts and telling them, “You fight for the dignity of working people.” Sens. Kamala HarrisKirsten GillibrandCory Booker, and Bernie Sanders also tweeted their support, as did fellow Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro and numerous Democratic members of Congress.

What you can do: DON’T cross the picket line. DO contact your local store to let them know you support the workers and want management to offer a fair deal. DO express support for workers on social media and, if you pass a picket line, in person. DO keep shopping at union stores if there’s one near you—see that list for options.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.
This article was originally printed at Daily Kos on April 13, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

Fighting Against Racism—And For a Better Paycheck—On the Docks

Thursday, April 4th, 2019

“Dockworkers have power.” With that simple statement, Western Illinois University professor and In These Times contributor Peter Cole kicks off his compelling new historyDockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area (University of Illinois Press).

The story of the west coast International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), its legendary founder Harry Bridges, and the 1934 San Francisco general strike he led is broadly familiar to Americans who enjoy romantic stories of derring do from the labor movement’s past. Less familiar may be the union’s struggle for anti-racist hiring and layoff policies on the docks, and its crucial allyship in various civil rights struggles.

Cole pairs their history with that of black South African docker organizing that presaged the struggle against apartheid by decades, and created an early and durable institutional stronghold of black power in South Africa.

The similarities between the two unions don’t end with the struggle for their black members’ civil rights. Half a world away, the unions also struggled to maintain job control in a system of casual employment, grappled with job-killing containerization and flexed their power at the choke points of the global economy to extend solidarity to workers’ freedom struggles around the world.

Although rarely in direct communication with each other, especially during the Apartheid era, the unions had remarkably similar approaches to the issues that vexed them. Cole’s book is a valuable contribution to the relatively thin field of global union comparisons.

Workers of the world (trade)

By the nature of their work, dockworkers of all countries have long been more cosmopolitan than many comrades in their respective national labor movements. They are exposed to new ideas and far-away struggles. Cole’s book stresses how these two regional workers’ movements melded their organizing for a better paycheck with the struggle against racism in their broader societies and how—keenly aware of their leverage in the fast-moving global economy—they went on to exercise transnational solidarity at these ports of trade.

One of the substantial victories of the 1934 Bay Area strike was the replacement of the shape-up system­—the informal hustle for day labor work—with a union-operated hiring hall that worked to racially integrate the workforce. African-Americans from southern states joined the ranks en masse during World War II and were welcomed into union membership.

But the end of the war brought a serious reduction in work on the docks. Union leadership recognized that if membership ranks within the hiring hall were reduced on a “last in, first out” basis, the newer black longshoremen would disproportionately feel the effects of the layoffs—an action that would leave scars within the port workforce for generations. In an act of racial solidarity that stands out in the pre-civil-rights era, the Bay Area locals of the ILWU decided instead to share the lack of work. All existing members stayed in the union, and worked fewer shifts until business picked back up.

As a racially integrated union with a large black membership, the ILWU naturally played a leading role in connecting the labor and civil rights movements. The Bay Area locals were key organizers of a local 1963 civil rights demonstration, in addition to organizing one of the farthest-traveling contingents to that year’s famous March on Washington. They formed the membership backbone of the local chapters of the NAACP and Urban League. They pressed successfully for fair employment and housing laws in Oakland, and the union used its pension fund to build racially-integrated cooperative housing in the rapidly gentrifying Fillmore neighborhood in San Francisco.

As Cole notes, the exceptional role of the ILWU in many left-wing struggles is often glancingly mentioned in historical accounts of the postwar labor movement. This book is the first time all of these examples and more have been brought together in a comprehensive narrative.

Durban dockers have enjoyed far less attention from American scholars. Their history of labor militancy dates back to the 1950s, although the apartheid state did not extend formal union recognition to industries that employed black workers until the 1980s. The union they formed—today called the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU)—made substantial gains in pensions, health and safety—and won for workers a guaranteed minimum wage regardless of the availability of work. It also affiliated with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), a junior partner with the African National Congress (ANC) in both the successful final drive to end white minority rule and in the post-Apartheid government since 1994.

Interestingly, the ILWU’s commitment to civil rights extended to international solidarity. As early as 1962, Bay Area longshoremen occasionally refused to unload South African cargo in protest of Apartheid. In 1984, union members refused to unload South African cargo off of an older non-containerized ship, the Nedlloyd Kimberly, which sat docked at San Francisco’s Pier 80 for 11 days. The protest attracted the attention of community activists who joined daily rallies outside the port and eventually brought the ongoing work anti-apartheid boycotts to Bay Area colleges and community groups.

In more recent years, Bay Area longshoremen have refused to unload ships carrying Israeli cargo in 2010 and again in 2014, during periods of active military attacks against Palestinians.

Durban dockers, too, have notably refused to unload ships under contract with Israeli corporations in protest of what they call—and they have some license to say this—“an apartheid regime.” And their solidarity activism doesn’t end there. In 2008, they prevented a bloodbath by turning away a Chinese shipment of armaments that the embattled president of neighboring Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, had ordered in a last-ditch effort to prop up his regime.

Maintaining worker power in the face of economic change

Both dock workforces began their nonunion eras essentially as on-call temps. In addition to racially integrating the docks, the ILWU-operated hiring hall also freed workers from bribery and the blacklist and allowed them to keep the best part of casual employment—only showing up for work when they felt like it and needed the paycheck.

The non-employee status of Durban dockers, on the other hand, was a source of union power and legal protection, and made de-casualization the employers’ strategy to reign in the power of the unions. The Apartheid system of labor relations basically exempted industries that employed black workers from statutory collective bargaining, while making strikes illegal. But if workers finish their shift with no promise or guarantee of more work the next day and—collectively and entirely coincidentally—don’t bother showing up in the morning to see if there’s more work available until the wages get better, is that legally-speaking an “illegal” strike?

By defying white boss power in work stoppages, the Durban dockers became pioneers in the African freedom struggle. A 1954 Durban docker strike resulted in wage concessions, but also the termination and blacklisting of strike leaders. Other strikes followed, but the workers were careful to not elect any formal leadership. Cole argues that the dockers sparked a strike wave in other industries in the port city in 1973. Those Durban strikes are widely acknowledged as a turning point in the struggle against Apartheid.

White authorities retaliated by making the dockers regular hourly employees, which stabilized the workers’ incomes but legally restricted their ability to strike. (The Apartheid state did move to formally recognize unions of black workers by the end of the decade, and the post-Apartheid constitution protects the right to strike.)

Another economic change that all the world’s dock workers had to contend with was containerization. The standardized containers—40 or 20 feet long—that transition neatly from train to truck to boat (and back again) have revolutionized world trade. Filled with anything from diapers to televisions to just about any cheap plastic thing slapped with a “Made in (fill in the blank)” label, they rocket products around the world in the global logistics supply chain.

Amazon’s two-day shipping program would be largely impossible without them. Entire fleets of boats have been replaced to accommodate the containers. Harbors have been dredged, ports relocated and shorelines reshaped.

Of course, they’re job killers. Machines do much of the heavy lifting that used to require full crews of workers.

Containerization was imposed on Durban dockers in 1977, years before they gained formal collective bargaining rights. In the decade before container ships first appeared at the Durban docks, the workforce peaked at 3,500 workers. By the time automation was fully implemented in the mid-1980s only 1,200 workers remained.

In the Bay Area, Harry Bridges had the unique combination of street cred, shop-floor power and battle fatigue to make an accommodation with the shipping magnates. Rather than engage in dubious battle to preserve back-breaking jobs that were rapidly becoming unnecessary, Bridges struck deals in 1960 and 1966 that guaranteed all existing longshoremen wages even if there was no work. The slimmer crews who would work with the machines to remote control the giant steel boxes on and off the boats were promised a greater share of the profits.

When rank-and-filers felt that those financial gains did not make up for the loss of job control they had previously enjoyed, they went on strike over Bridges’ objections during the winter of 1971 to 1972. Stung, the old Communist militant lent no personal support to the strike.

Still, the organized workers who remained employed in the Bay Area and at the world’s ports enjoy a position of tremendous leverage within globalized capitalism.

Strangling the chokepoints of global capital

There is an understandable tendency among those of us who care deeply about restoring the power of unions to grasp for breakthrough strategies and inspiring flare-ups of worker militancy like the recent teachers strikes and digital newsroom organizing wins. In contrast, trade unionists who instead focus on port workers and truck drivers can seem hopelessly quaint and backwards-looking. Meanwhile, global capitalism is still at its root about making and selling products in the global marketplace. Workers who have a hand in how quickly those products move—if they move at all—retain the capacity for tremendous power.

Another book that takes stock of the potential power of workers at strategic locations in the global supply chain is Choke Points (Pluto), a new collection of essays edited by Jake Alimahomed-Wilson and Immanuel Ness. Peter Cole is here as well documenting the Durban dock workers’ solidarity actions on behalf of other African struggles for freedom from colonialism.

Elsewhere, Peter Olney, former organizing director of the ILWU, makes a characteristically masterful contribution on the evolving nature of the global economy and the west coast longshoremen’s role in it. He writes, “the future for powerful dockworkers lies in conceptualizing themselves as logistics workers.” By this he means extending longshore organizing and solidarity further inland to the warehouses and trucking companies that combine to form the central nervous system of so-called free trade. The threat of waging strikes that can roll from boat to truck to warehouse would be an obvious point of leverage.

Sheheryar Kaoosji contributes a vital and educational post-mortem assessment of one such effort, the comprehensive campaign to organize the warehouse workers and truck drivers a decade ago in the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Despite being “resourced with strategic researchers and experienced organizers, and supported by motivated community partners,” this signature effort of Change-to-Win faltered with the changing political winds in Washington and the rival labor federations and the inability to get workers in different parts of the logistics chain to see their own common cause.

Although the strategic location and potential power of the people who work at these choke points is obvious to outside agitators, the tendency of workers to focus on the boss who gets in their face and the name that signs their paycheck instead is a perennial obstacle to the untapped power of solidarity. Looking at labor battles in Turkey, contributors Ça?atay Edgücan ?ahin and Pekin Bengisu Tepe describe the problem as a “nineteenth-century working class” going up against the “Age of Industry 4.0’s capital.”

Some of the other essays in the volume are thick with academic jargon that make them less accessible to the layman. It’s regrettable, because if you can parse the language Choke Points is a blueprint for revolution.

The best contribution both of these books could make is to help focus the new generation of young socialists who are eager to help rebuild the labor movement as rank-and-file organizers on where our power really lies. I mean no disrespect to the crucial work of journalists and teachers, but global capitalism can grind to a halt when the ships don’t sail on time.

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 3, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Shaun Richman is an In These Times contributing writer and the Program Director of the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. Center for Labor Studies at SUNY Empire State College. His Twitter handle is @Ess_Dog.

“We Demand Food for Thought”: UIC Grad Workers On Strike for Living Wages and Respect

Thursday, March 21st, 2019

In front of the historic Jane Addams Hull-House Museum on March 19, University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) graduate workers began an indefinite strike. The union is joining a national movement of higher education employees demanding livable wages and better working conditions in the often-unstable field of academia.

The strike is the result of more than a year of negotiations between UIC Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) Local 6297and the university administration. Since September 2018, over 1,500 teaching and graduate assistants have worked without a contract. An overwhelming 99.5 percent of UIC GEO members authorized a strike last month as part of a wave of educator work actions, from public school teachers in Los Angeles and West Virginia to faculty at Rutgers University and Wright State University. Jeff Schuhrke, co-president of the UIC GEO and labor history Ph.D. candidate, said the strike exemplifies the vital labor graduate students provide.

“The University of Illinois system just seems to not care about its employees and is always very hostile to collective bargaining and to unions,” Schuhrke told In These Times. “They just try to lowball us and they disrespect us. We’re fed up with it, obviously.”

UIC graduate employees make a minimum salary of $18,065 for two semesters of 20-hour work weeks, with $13,502 in fee and tuition waivers. Schuhrke said this doesn’t account for the amount and quality of labor, which can include teaching classes for up to 60 students. He said since the union was recognized by the university in 2004, “modest” raises haven’t accounted for increasing university fees, which cut into graduate employees’ salaries. Currently, UIC GEO is seeking a 24 percent pay increase over three years, with the university offering 11.5 percent.

“They can give us raises all they want,” he said, “but as long as they can just introduce new fees any time they feel like it or increase the fees, that just serves as a back door pay cut.”

In recent years, the university has boasted record-high enrollment and projects to improve existing infrastructure and invest in academic expansions, including recently acquiring the John Marshall Law School. Schuhrke said, “The reason students come here is for an education, not the shiny new buildings, and we’re the ones providing that education.”

The strike is already having an impact on campus with some classes canceled. On the sunny Tuesday afternoon outside the bustling UIC Student Centers, hundreds of graduate students and allies picketed with clever signs like, “We Demand Food for Thought,” and classic protest chants, such as, “This is what democracy looks like.” A giant inflatable Mother Jones representing the iconic socialist labor organizer watched over the crowd. UIC GEO also organized a GoFundMe to cover strike costs and potential docks in salary, which Schuhrke said the university might use as a scare tactic.

Many striking students said they don’t make enough to pay for living expenses and rely on food aid and other assistance. A Ph.D. student in the biology department who prefers to remain anonymous said he’s working on getting Medicaid for his young child, as he can’t afford campus health care, even with a waiver.

“Better salaries is an important step: lower fees, lower tuition,” he said. “Those things really impact us because we don’t have huge salaries, so every small amount that we can save is a huge help.”

International students who, according to Schuhrke, make up a little under half of the GEO UIC members, are also central to bargaining. They face an additional fee each semester, as well as work limitations, particularly during the summer.

Dominican Republic-native Natalia Ruiz-Vargas came to Chicago to complete a Ph.D. in biology, but said the financial strains can be alienating for people who are not U.S. nationals. “If you have family back home and you’re alone over here and someone gets sick, you can’t really find the money to go back, so it can be a little lonelier,” she said. “We can’t apply for any financial aid outside of what we already have from the university.”

When reached for comment, the university sent a press release that highlighted the union’s right to demonstrate, but stated, “We believe that this work stoppage is not in the best interest of the University, or our students.” While striking graduate assistants aren’t completing instruction, mentoring and coursework revision, many of their students are expressing solidarity.

English and political science undergraduate Joseph Strom is part of the UIC Student and Worker Advocacy Network. A resident assistant on campus, Strom said the strike is an opportunity to educate students about labor issues instead of pairing co-eds against their educators. He said some of his professors are expressing support by giving online work so they don’t have to cross the picket line. The UIC United Faculty union is also currently in negotiations, having worked without a contract since last fall.

GEO Co-President Schuhrke said, “We talked to a lot of our students beforehand and let them know why we’re doing this, that our working conditions are their learning conditions.”

Members of GEO University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in Southern Illinois are coming to Chicago to increase demonstration numbers, as they go up against the same administration. In February 2018, the UIUC GEO led an almost two-week long strike for higher salaries and guaranteed tuition waivers. The plastic buckets that provided a soundtrack to their picket are now being used by UIC students. UIUC GEO treasurer Allan Axelrod, who studies agricultural and biological engineering, is spending spring break making multiple trips with fellow graduate students.

“We understand all the issues that are going on there, especially things like the higher incidence of mental health issues that is a product of the poor working conditions of graduate employees,” said Axelrod. “When we show solidarity, we actually are paving the path toward improving our own working conditions because we’re under the same threat each bargaining cycle.”

For Axelrod and others, this extends beyond the public university system. A 2016 National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision granting private university students employee status has galvanized student workers to organize through collective labor. Only a few miles from UIC’s Near West Side campus, University of Chicago graduate students have fought since 2007 for recognition of their Graduate Student Union (GSU). Last fall, they participated in one of their school’s biggest demonstrations in recent years, a response to their overwhelming vote in favor of unionization despite administrative pushback.

GSU brought its case to the NLRB, but withdrew along with Yale University and Boston College, worried that under President Trump, a business-friendly Republican majority would overturn the 2016 precedent. Further, last year’s Janus Supreme Court decision prevents public sectors unions from collecting dues from nonmembers. Co-President Schuhrke said they saw a slight membership decrease following Janus, but it “made them more militant and more angry.” No matter how long the UIC strike lasts, graduate students are clearly using it as a teachable moment.

“This [university] administration has a great responsibility,” said Schuhrke. “We hope our students are learning by participating in this and watching this how to stand up for your rights, stand up for justice and organize.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 20, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Hannah Steinkopf-Frank is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Atlas Obscura, Bitch Media, the Columbia Journalism Review, JSTOR Daily and Paper Magazine, among others.

Amazon employees across Europe protest ‘inhuman’ working conditions

Monday, November 26th, 2018

Amazon warehouse workers in several European countries took to the streets in protest this week over what they called “inhuman” working conditions.

In the U.K., Germany, Italy, and Spain, workers walked the streets holding signs reading “Treated like a robot at Amazon” and “We are not robots.” According to The Washington Post, some walked off the job, intentionally timing their protest for Black Friday, the busiest day of the shopping year.

“The conditions our members at Amazon are working under are frankly inhuman,” Tim Roache, general secretary of the GMB trade union in the U.K., said in a statement Wednesday.

“They are breaking bones, being knocked unconscious and being taken away in ambulances. We’re standing up and saying enough is enough, these are people making Amazon its money. People with kids, homes, bills to pay — they’re not robots.”

In May, a GMB Freedom of Information request revealed ambulances had been called to one Amazon warehouse in the town of Rugeley, England at least 115 times in a span of three years, according to The Guardian. Three of those calls were for maternity or pregnancy-related problems, and three were for “major trauma,” the outlet noted.

In total, GMB found ambulances had been called out to Amazon’s U.K. warehouses a total of 600 times in three years.

“Hundreds of ambulance call-outs, pregnant women telling us they are forced to stand for 10 hours a day, pick, stow, stretch and bend, pull heavy carts and walk miles — even miscarriages and pregnancy issues at work. None of these things happen in a safe, happy working environments,” GMB national officer Mick Rix told The Guardian.

Amazon officials say the the allegation fail to present  “an accurate portrayal of activities in our buildings.”

At the company’s San Fernando logistics center in Madrid, Spain, workers held their fourth major protest to demand better working conditions and increased pay, chanting, “We will not accept discounts to our rights.”

“This is our biggest pressure [action] to date,” Marc Blanes, a trade labor union official for CGT, told Spanish newspaper El Diario.

Amazon issued a statement in response to that protest, claiming, “Most of the employees on the morning shift today in the Amazon logistics center in San Fernando de Henares are working and processing customer orders.”

According to those leading the strike, however, at least 90 percent of the workers at the San Fernando facility had joined the protest. Only two people were left working the loading bay, Douglas Harper of the CCOO trade union confederation told the Associated Press.

“It is one of the days that Amazon has most sales, and these are days when we can hurt more and make ourselves be heard because the company has not listened to us and does not want to reach any agreement,” 38-year-old employee Eduardo Hernandez, who joined the strike, told AP reporters.

Workers at distribution centers in Rheinberg and Bad Hersfeld, Germany also staged protests Friday, demanding higher pay, the latest demonstration in a years-long trade union effort.

“We have a worldwide problem, a boss who wants to impose American working conditions on the world,” Frank Bsirske, head of the Verdi union representing Amazon workers, told The Local in Denmark. “It’s like going back to the 19th century.”

Workers gathered in front of the German publishing group Axel Springer, parent company of Business Insider, where Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was set to receive a business innovation award this week, carrying signs that read “Make Bezos pay.”

Amazon employees from Italy, France, and Poland also joined the demonstration.

The Local noted Amazon, which has around 560,000 employees, reported a profit of around $3 billion last year alone.

The National Retail Federation expects more than 164 million people to shop between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, approximately the same number as in 2017. E-commerce sales, however, are expected to jump 15 percent this holiday season, as consumers ditch brick and mortar stores for online retail giants like Amazon.

According to Adobe, as of 10 a.m. Eastern Time on Black Friday, online spending had skyrocketed nearly 30 percent over last year’s totals. NPR reported online spending was set to reach $6.4 billion by the end of the day, with an additional $3.7 billion from Thanksgiving Day, one day prior.

Target and Walmart are making moves in response to that trend, to rival Amazon’s Prime two-day delivery incentive. Amazon, however, has not missed a beat, announcing recently that it would give Prime subscribers free same-day deliveryon even more items through the holiday season.

This blog was originally published at ThinkProgress on November 24, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Melanie Schmitz is an editor at ThinkProgress. She formerly worked at Bustle and Romper.

Hawaiian hotel workers want better pay for state’s high cost of living

Wednesday, October 17th, 2018

Thousands of Marriott hotel workers in Hawaii say they want better wages, sexual harassment protections, and a promise not to be replaced by automation. They have been on strike for more than a week, but it doesn’t appear the strike will end anytime soon.

Hotel workers who are members of Unite Here Local 5 have been working without a contract since July and voted to authorize a strike in September, Hawaii Public Radio reported. They have been picking outside of five hotels managed by Marriott and owned by Kyo-Ya Hotels & Resorts, but neither company has tried to schedule new bargaining dates with the union. A week ago, Unite Here Local 5 and Kyo-Ya Hotels & Resorts reached an impasse on negotiations, according to the Associated Press. Hotel workers at two additional hotels could go on strike at any time, since they also voted to authorize strikes.

Workers have been holding signs that read “One job should be enough,” which means pay should keep up with the cost of living, that people should be able to support families with their paychecks from one job, and that they should be able to “retire with dignity,” according to the workers’ labor union Unite Here. It also refers to what workers say is an expectation that hotel workers do the work of two people.

Marriott hotel workers went on strike in eight cities across the country last week, including San Francisco, Boston, Oakland, Detroit, San Diego, and Oahu and Maui in Hawaii. In Hawaii, 2,700 Marriott hotel workers are on strike. Like the hotel strike in Chicago, this strike includes workers from a variety of positions, such as doormen, front desk attendants, restaurant workers, and housekeepers. In Chicago, workers who are part of the Unite Here Local 1 union mainly focused on year-round health care and hotel strikes included a number of hotel brands, including Hilton and Hyatt. Workers at only one hotel are still on strike after five weeks. The union has settled 25 contracts that give workers year-round health insurance.

Kyo-Ya Hotels & Resorts released a statement Friday that said they are “committed to continuing our good faith bargaining.”

But Michael Kirby, a member of Local 5, told The Maui News that the company needs to address workers’ specific demands.

“I understand that Kyo-ya wants to welcome the workers back. They haven’t set a date to do any kind of contract negotiations,” Kirby told the publication.

Tourism officials are worried the strike could continue into 2019 and current and former hotel and travel industry executives say they’re worried about bookings, the AP reported. Visitors staying at the striking hotels have also complained about their stays, which included closed pools, no food and bar services, uncleaned bathrooms and a lack of clean towels, to name a few issues. Some people have asked for full and partial refunds as a result, Hawaii News Now reported.

Pay that properly covers housing is a big issue for hotel workers in Hawaii. Home values for someone living in Hawaii are very high, at a $617,400 median home value and a median rent of $1,573. The state has had the highest median housing values in the U.S. since 2007. Housekeepers made $22.14 per hour under their old contract. Paola Rodelas, spokesperson for the union, told Travel Weekly that this wage isn’t sufficient for hotel workers in the state. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a Hawaii worker would have to make at least $36.13 an hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment. Looking at Honolulu specifically, a worker would need to make $39.06 to afford a two-bedroom apartment.

Rodelas told Travel Weekly, “For our workers, the most important issue is to make one job enough to live in Hawaii. It has to do with wages and benefits, but it also has to do with a range of issues. It also encompasses job security, automation and technology in the workplace, the increasing use of subcontractors and outsourcing, which is a big issue in Hawaii, and workplace safety. Housekeeping is back-breaking work and there are rampant issues of sexual harassment in hotels. We want to make sure there are adequate staffing and safety procedures.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on October 17, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress covering economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits.

'One job should be enough,' striking Marriott workers say

Tuesday, October 16th, 2018

Thousands of Marriott hotel workers are on strike in eight U.S. cities in a campaign with the slogan “one job should be enough.” The workers’ union points out that Marriott’s profits have risen by 279 percent since the great recession, while worker pay has gone up only seven percent. “As the largest hotel employer in the world, Marriott can set the standard in the hotel industry,” they write, and that standard should be that one job is enough.

Workers are on strike in Boston, Detroit, Oakland, San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco, Maui, and Oahu, pressing for contracts that pay them a living wage as well as improving workplace safety through panic buttons for housekeeping staff and a reduction in some of the most grueling physical labor—hotel housekeepers have a very high rate of injury on the job. Workers are also worried about automation and other labor reduction efforts by the company.

Yleine, a room attendant in Vancouver, says in a video that “I’m doing two different jobs because I’m not getting enough hours in my hotel, and don’t have enough time to look after my son. I feel like, still, I can’t make it.”

In Hawaii, other unions got behind the strike, with flight attendants, sheet metal workers, and others moving their business away from Marriott hotels.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on October 13, 2018. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

Rank-and-File Union Members Are Leading Another Massive Strike. This Time It’s AT&T Workers.

Tuesday, June 5th, 2018

Thousands of AT&T employees across the Midwest are entering the sixth day of a rare, rank-and-file-led work stoppage over alleged unfair labor practices. The union representing them, Communications Workers of America (CWA) District 4, has been in contract negotiations with AT&T since March. While members voted overwhelmingly in April to authorize a strike if necessary, the decision to walk off the job last week was not coordinated by union leadership or subject to an official vote.

Instead, the union says that the action was a spontaneous one resulting from widespread anger at the company. In recent weeks, the union alleges that AT&T has tried to bypass its elected bargaining team by e-mailing thousands of workers directly. A May 22 e-mail outlined what the company termed a “final offer” and encouraged employees “to urge CWA leadership to provide you with an opportunity to vote for it.”

CWA filed unfair labor practice charges against AT&T, alleging that this message constitutes bad-faith bargaining and “direct dealing” that violates the company’s duty to negotiate with the union as workers’ sole collective bargaining representative. The charges are still pending.

But in the meantime, the company sent three more e-mails, and workers’ frustration reached a boiling point, according to the union. Resentment had already been bubbling up over the AT&T’s decision to conduct more than 1,000 layoffs soon after receiving a windfall from the passage of federal tax reform. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson was a prominent backer of the tax law, which he said would allow the company to create 7,000 jobs.

Not only were the e-mails from the company “disrespectful,” says Beth Dubree, secretary treasurer of CWA Local 4900 in Indiana, they “didn’t even really discuss job security.” Throughout last week, she says, “Our members kept calling, wanting to know why the company was doing this.”

Work stoppages that protest illegal behavior by employers are generally considered protected activity under federal labor law, and so-called unfair labor practice strikes are often an important component of union strategy. But spontaneous, rank-and-file-led walkouts that cross state and occupational lines are almost unheard of in recent years. CWA District 4 represents some 9,500 AT&T technicians, call center representatives and other personnel across Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. Thousands of workers in every state eventually took part, but the walkout started in Indiana.

In These Times spoke to several local elected officials and members about how the strike picked up momentum.

Early Thursday morning, one group of technicians in Local 4900 “decided that they had had enough” and walked off the job before their 7:00 a.m. shift, according to Dubree. Thanks to a group text chat, “the entire local knew about it by 7:30,” she says. Most workers’ shifts started at 8:00 a.m., and by that time, “no one went to work.”

“It was amazing how fast it spread,” says Dubree. “There wasn’t even a hesitation.”

Word traveled quickly to other states with the aid of a closed Facebook group to coordinate mobilization across the district. Jim Simons, executive vice president of Michigan’s CWA Local 4009 and a 28-year AT&T employee, said that he began receiving calls with news of the Indiana walkout at 8:00 a.m. “The next thing I know, all of Ohio is out,” he says. “At 1:00 p.m., I got the call that two of my garages had walked out.” Soon after, most of the local’s more than 800 members joined in.

Simons says that workers in his local were already livid about layoffs and outsourcing. AT&T was among the companies praised by President Trump for giving out $1,000 dollar bonuses to employees after the passage of tax reform. But according to CWA, the company also laid off more than 1,500 employees in December. “When you do the math, those bonuses were paid for by the layoffs,” says Simons. Some workers in his local donated their bonuses to members who lost their jobs.

AT&T did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the walkout, but the company has released a statement that reads, “We’re offering a generous package including annual wage increases, continuation of job security provisions that are virtually unheard of in the U.S., and comprehensive health care and retirement benefits. In addition, the offer includes a commitment to hire 1,000 people in the region. All employees covered by the offer would be better off.”

But in April, CWA released a report charging that in the past seven years, AT&T has laid off more than 16,000 call center workers nationwide, shipping jobs to lower-paying call centers overseas. Last year, AT&T and other big companies boasted that tax reform would allow them to create more jobs in the United States, and CWA is among several unions now pushing the companies in bargaining to reveal whether they plan to follow through. In its fourth-quarter 2017 financials, AT&T said that tax reform helped boost the quarter’s net income to $19 billion, compared to $2.4 billion in the same period a year before.

Anger over the tax cuts was front and center at a demonstration in Chicago this spring, where thousands of members gathered at AT&T headquarters to rally for a contract. During the rally, someone in the building put a sign in the window that read, “No one cares,” according to Simons. “You put all that together, and people were ready” to strike, he says.

As of Tuesday, most members in Wisconsin and Illinois have returned to work, but thousands in Michigan, Ohio and all of Indiana remain on strike, according to the union.

Tim Strong, president of CWA Local 4900 and a member of the District 4 bargaining team, also credits the wave of teacher strikes this year in inspiring members to walk out. Bargaining with AT&T is continuing this week over key issues including job security, use of contractors and healthcare costs, he says.

In the meantime, members have pulled off the longest work stoppage their union has seen since 1989. “I think it’s a reflection of the movement in this country—that you saw teachers who in many cases don’t even have collective bargaining rights going on strike,” says Strong. “And now 9,000 members decided to take this leap of faith and fight.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on June 5, 2018. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Rebecca Burns is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has appeared in The Baffler, the Chicago ReaderThe Intercept and other outlets. She is a contributing editor at In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.
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