Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for the ‘Strike’ Category

Workers at four airports strike to protest abuses, this week in the war on workers

Monday, July 1st, 2019

Contract workers at four East Coast airports staged a one-day strike on Thursday, citing abuses by Eulen America, the company that employs them. The workers, including baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, ramp workers, and wheelchair attendants, service American Airlines and Delta.

recent investigation by CBS Miami’s Jim DeFede found that Eulen hires recent immigrants, pays them low wages for hours that fall short of full time, and has grueling working conditions, with workers lifting heavy bags in high heat and going without breaks or adequate hydration. Workers say they are transported to clean and supply airplanes in unsafe, cockroach-infested vehicles.

“A lot of the people are new to this country and they don’t know the laws or their rights, and then management takes advantage of that,” a worker told DeFede. A striking worker said his team isn’t provided with adequate cleaning supplies or staff to fully clean planes, and that supervisors are abusive to workers who speak little or no English.

Workers went on strike at New York’s JFK, Washington, D.C.’s National, and the Miami and Fort Lauderdale airports. Politicians, including Democratic presidential candidates Cory Booker and Bill de Blasio, turned out to support them.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on June 29, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

Workers Who Waged the Biggest Trump-Era Manufacturing Strike Just Struck a Deal—Here’s What It Says

Monday, July 1st, 2019

This article first appeared in Labor Notes.

Three months after the largest manufacturing strike of the Trump presidency so far, locomotive plant workers in Erie, Pennsylvania, have a deal. Electrical Workers (UE) Locals 506 and 618ratified a four-year contract on June 12.

In a qualified victory, the 1,700 members conceded a two-tier wage structure with a 10-year progression for new hires to reach parity with current workers, but beat back the company’s demands for a harsher version of two-tier and numerous other concessions.

“We’ve managed to preserve a lot of what we had,” said UE Local 506 President Scott Slawson. He added, however, “There were some gives on the union side for sure—there’s no two ways about it.”

Wabtec, which took over the plant in February following its purchase of GE Transportation, had threatened to move work out of Erie if the union refused a lower wage scale.

Thousands of jobs have been eliminated at the plant since 1955. In 2017, GE vowed to move all locomotive production to Fort Worth, Texas, where it opened a nonunion plant in 2013. But those plans never panned out, as the Fort Worth plant struggled to hire and retain enough skilled workers, with quality suffering as a result. Work has been moving back to the Erie plant over the last year.

The new agreement not only maintains the existing jobs at the plant but also guarantees 100 new positions in the Erie factory by the end of the contract. UE also beat back Wabtec’s demands to institute mandatory overtime and hire up to 20 percent of the plant’s workforce as nonunion temps.

Four hundred sixty previously laid-off workers will be given preferential treatment in hiring as jobs come open—an important gain in the face of Wabtec’s claim that it had no obligation to workers who were laid off by GE, not Wabtec. However, while they will maintain their seniority, they will come back on the new, lower pay scale.

The company and the union compromised on reorganizing to 31 job classifications; previously, workers had 43 classifications, which Wabtec was attempting to reduce to 17. UE argued the reduction would endanger worker safety.

The union maintains the right to strike based on transfer or subcontracting of work that results in permanent layoffs, or on a failure by the company to resolve grievances in a timely manner.

Wabtec—short for Westinghouse Airbrake Technologies—bought the $4 billion-a-year GE Transportation division last year, doubling the size of the company overnight.

The purchase led to the early termination of UE’s national contract with GE. The Erie plant was the last factory covered under the 70-year-old agreement; GE had spun off the other factories’ work in an ongoing series of corporate reconfigurations, or outsourced it, largely to nonunion plants in the U.S. or overseas.

When the sale was finalized in February, the new owner unilaterally stopped offering a pension and retiree health care, and imposed a host of other concessions, including mandatory overtime and two-tier wages starting as low as $16.75 an hour. That prompted a nine-day strike by Locals 506 and 618, ending with a 90-day interim agreement which restored the terms of the union’s previous contract with GE while the parties negotiated the new four-year deal.

During those three months, Locals 506 and 618 took a number of actions to pressure the company. Workers decorated their lockers with numbers counting down the days until the end of the interim agreement. They held pickets before work. They joined forces with UE Local 610, which represents workers at other Wabtec facilities, to rally in Wilmerding, Pennsylvania, where Wabtec is headquartered. And the union and its allies picketed Wabtec’s shareholder meeting in Pittsburgh.

Wabtec eventually moved off its demand for a permanent second tier. The company’s revised proposal would have started workers off at $17 an hour, with an 18-year progression to reach the top tier. But ultimately, with the threat of another strike looming, the union was able to shrink the progression to 10 years, and boost starting pay to $20.47 for the lowest classification. Existing workers on the lowest job classification currently earn $31.49.

This decade-long grow-in is similar to the Auto Workers’ compromise with the Big 3 automakers, where hires after 2007 take eight years to reach wage parity with pre-2007 hires. A key difference, though, is that these auto workers remain in a permanent Tier 2 when it comes to benefits. Everyone at the Erie plant will get the same benefits, and those in the lower tier will actually pay 20 percent less in premiums.

“The 10-year progression is not something that people wanted to happen, but the company would not let that go,” said UE General President Peter Knowlton. He believes that if the union had held out on the issue, it would have been forced to go on another strike—this one self-defeating. The union would have lost community support, he said, and ultimately would have left 460 already laid-off workers without a job to come back to because Wabtec was claiming it had no responsibility to them.

The good-paying jobs at Wabtec’s Erie plant are crucial not only to union members and their families, but also to the community.

Located between Buffalo and Cleveland, Erie falls squarely in the Rust Belt, and its fortunes mirror those of similar cities. It was once a proud manufacturing hub, but factory relocations and closures have sapped jobs and people. The population is 96,000, down from a peak of 131,000 in 1950. And the city is poor, with a median household income of just $35,800.

“Wabtec is one of the area’s largest manufacturers and it still pays a family-sustaining wage,” said Slawson. “I think there’s a relief in the community—we found a way, we found a path, hopefully for the future of Erie and Erie County.”

He is careful to note that this is the union’s first contract with a new employer, and the union will have to stay on its toes with Wabtec.

“We had 82 years of interpretation with GE,” he said. “I think both sides are going to go through some growing pains over the next four years.”

Still, he’s optimistic about the plant’s future, citing the highly skilled workforce and the possibility that Wabtec could shift additional work to the 4.5 million-acre complex.

This article was originally published at In These Times on June 27, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Saurav Sarkar is an Assistant Editor of Labor Notes. Twitter Username: @labornotes

125 Years After the Pullman Uprising, We Could Be on the Verge of Another Sympathy Strike Wave

Tuesday, June 25th, 2019

Roaming the sleepy streets of Pullman on Chicago’s Southeast Side, it’s difficult to imagine a time when it was the chaotic center of worker struggle in the United States.

Many of the handsome red brick homes in the center of Pullman—once a bustling company town and now a Chicago neighborhood—are occupied and well-maintained, but the shuttered luxury hotel hasn’t hosted a guest in decades, the skeletal factory buildings are locked behind a chain-link fence while the hands of the derelict clocktower that helped govern the working lives of thousands of men and women remain frozen in time.

But in the spring of 1894, a company-wide walkout at the site’s factories snowballed into a two-month long nationwide “sympathy strike” that, at its peak, galvanized as many as 250,000 men and women in 27 states and territories. A sympathy strike, or solidarity action, is when workers strike in support of others involved in a labor dispute in a different company, but often in the same or a related industry.

Later known as the Pullman Strike, the struggle became the largest-ever organized work stoppage and the most significant demonstration of union strength in American history, up until the Great Steel Strike of 1919.

In 2019, 125 years after the monumental strike at Pullman, the area’s physical infrastructure continues to crumble. But the revitalization of sympathy strikes and mass labor organizing all across the country in recent years—from teacher walkouts to the work stoppage threat by flight attendants that helped end the government shutdown—suggests that the legacy of the Great Pullman Strike remains very much alive today.

In a fiery speech to a group of labor leaders and visitors at the 125th-anniversary celebration of the Great Pullman Strike on May 11, Association of Flight Attendants president Sara Nelson said, “Look at how unions banded together during the Pullman Strike. The president of the Chicago Federation of Labor said at the time. ‘We all feel that in fighting any battle against the Pullman Company, we’re aiming at the very head and front of monopoly and plutocracy.’”

“This is again a time when people have a growing consciousness of the ruling class and those with an insatiable need for more money, power and control,” she continued. “Working people are just now understanding the power they have when they stand together and claim our share of the profits we create.”

“Well-wishing feudalism”

The Great Pullman Strike was likely a shock to outside observers who had previously visited and mistakenly considered it a capitalist utopia.

“Here, indeed, seems to be the coming paradise of labor,” wrote one writer in an article from an 1882 edition of The Railway Age MonthlyThe London Times declared Pullman “the most perfect town in the world.”

George Pullman, the town’s mastermind, certainly saw it that way.

The industrialist had made his fortune in the mid-19th century by cornering the market on upscale train cars for the wealthy at a time when the railroad industry held a stranglehold over the economy.

In 1877, Pullman built a luxurious mansion on swanky Prairie Avenue adjacent to Chicago’s elite like department store magnate Marshall Field. Three years later, Pullman purchased 4,000 acres of swamp-covered land near Lake Calumet and invested an estimated $5 million to build a series of factories and hundreds of houses to be rented to up to 10,000 workers. He also approved the construction of school buildings, parks, a library, a theater and the Midwest’s first indoor shopping mall to accompany the new production facilities.

At the time, Pullman stood as a company town: a planned community by which an individual corporation owns all of the businesses and housing in the name of centralizing production.

Hundreds of company towns have existed in some form or another throughout American history from the poorly constructed shanty towns of the mining or lumber industries to Milton S. Hershey’s grandiose amusement park-like model town built for his chocolate factory workers in Pennsylvania.

Like Hershey, Pullman’s intended his village to serve as a shining alternative to the squalor of Chicago’s industrial slums. The streets were paved and outfitted with modern sewers, every house had indoor plumbing and thousands of trees and flowers were planted.

“I want the people who work at Pullman to have the advantages of seeing the best,” Pullman said. “I want no cheap, crude, inartistic work in any department. I have faith in the educational and refining influences of beauty and beautiful and harmonious surroundings, and hesitate at no reasonable expenditure to secure them.”

In other words, Pullman believed he could to increase his profits while also responding to the poor conditions of tenement housing that accompanied rapid industrialization. Protecting his workers from alcohol, disease and vice was good for them—and him.

“He genuinely had a vision for the future in which workers wouldn’t have to live in the slums of Chicago and they’d have this beautiful model town,” said Jack Kelly, the author of the recent book The Edge of Anarchy: The Railroad Barons, the Gilded Age, and the Greatest Labor Uprising in America. “His employees would have a better life and in turn would be more productive workers because they’d be sober, educated, and have shorter commutes. He saw it as a win-win.”

Many journalists agreed, especially after seeing it in person during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. “Future generations will bless his memory,” predicted the Chicago Times. Progressives also noted that African-Americans worked as porters on the company’s “Palace Cars” (bellhops serving passengers riding the company’s train cars) and Pullman became the largest employer of freed slaves in the country.

But while the press may have extolled Pullman’s virtues, critics claim that the amenities and bucolic surroundings of his company town served as window dressing for his paternalism and greed, and that his apparent race-blindness was self-serving: no African Americans were allowed to live in the boundaries of Pullman and he paid black workers lower wages than whites.

“The church he built was very telling,” noted Kelly. “He wanted to charge so much rent for it that no one could afford it and it just sat there empty, for decoration.”

Pullman also forced residents to follow a set of draconian rules. For instance, he reportedly required tenants to place decorative flowers in their windowsills and individuals were expected to wipe their feet on doormats before they entered their own apartments. Taverns—an important feature of working-class life at the time—were outlawed and the only bar in town (located in the hotel named for Pullman’s daughter Florence) was strictly for visitors.

No one could vote to change these rules because no democratic town government was put in place. To prevent anyone from unionizing the company, according to Kelly, company spies were planted across the town to report on any attempts to organize.

Not every outsider was taken in by Pullman’s vision. Writing for Harper’s in 1885, economist Richard Ely called Pullman’s system “benevolent, well-wishing feudalism, which desires the happiness of the people, but in such a way as shall please the authorities.”

“It went back to that idea that the Lord of the Manor knows best,” said Kelly. “And the problem is that Pullman’s strict rules built all sorts of resentments among the workers that only got worse over time.”

The Pullman Strike

These resentments were exacerbated by an economic crisis in 1893 that plunged the nation into a depression. Pullman responded to the company’s falling revenue by cutting his workers’ wages five times—including a single 30 percent cut—without reducing rents in his town while continuing to pay stockholders the same pre-depression dividends. By April of 1894, some families living in Pullman’s town were on the brink of starvation.

“There were guys who almost fainted on the job because they hadn’t eaten in days because they couldn’t afford it,” said Kelly. “One guy got a paycheck of two cents—he didn’t even cash it—he just had it framed. That really showed the contempt that Pullman had for working people.”

The workers had tried to negotiate. Forming a union was against the law, but some of them organized a 46-member grievance committee in secret in a nearby neighborhood outside of Pullman. The committee’s leaders met twice with company officials—including Pullman himself during the second meeting—to demand that he reverse the wage cuts and reduce the rents.

The company refused as Pullman argued that, “Arbitration always implies acquiescence in the decision of the arbitrator, whether favorable or adverse.” Six days later, on May 12, thousands of workers walked off the job. The two-month-long strike had begun. “We struck at Pullman,” the workers later testified, “because we were without hope.”

The strike may have been easily defeated or gone relatively unnoticed outside of Chicago if not for the American Railway Union (ARU), the powerful cross-trade railroad labor group founded the previous year and led by Eugene Debs. “Before you had these brotherhoods, these craft unions that bickered, competed and undercut each other,” said Kelly. “The ARU was different.”

In April 1894, the ARU successfully led Great Northern Railroad workers through a different dispute—just one month prior to the Pullman workers’ unrest. Voluntary arbitration had resolved the strike, and three-fourths of the Great Northern Railroad’s wage cut had been restored. In the following weeks, 35 percent of Pullman’s workers joined the ARU hoping that the new union could perhaps do the same for them.

“Pullman, both the man and the town, is an ulcer on the body politic,” the Pullman workers told the ARU in a statement at the union’s first-ever national convention in Chicago in June, 1894. “He owns the houses, the schoolhouses, and churches of God in the town he gave his once humble name. The revenue he derives from these, the wages he pays out with one hand—the Pullman Palace Car Company, he takes back with the other—the Pullman Land Association…And thus the merry war— the dance of skeletons bathed in human tears—goes on, and it will go on, brothers, forever, unless you, the American Railway Union, stop it; end it; crush it out.”

Debs’ response was ruthless in its criticism of George Pullman, calling him “the plutocrat with a soul so small that a million of them could dance on the little end of a hornet’s stinger.” He called for the ARU to support Pullman workers with a sympathy strike because it was not just a single fight but part of a greater movement for workers’ universal rights to higher wages, safer working conditions and other basic protections.

“The forces of labor must unite. The salvation of labor demands it,” Debs said at the convention on June 12. “The dividing lines must grow dimmer day by day until they become imperceptible, and then labor’s hosts, marshaled under one conquering banner, shall march together, vote together, and fight together until workingmen shall receive and enjoy all their fruits of their toil.”

It was an important moment in the history of sympathy strikes. “Eugene Debs knew we all needed to stick together,” said Joe Burns, the author of the book Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America, “It was the hope and future of labor unions—class wide solidarity.”

On June 22, 1894 the delegates of the ARU agreed voted to boycott Pullman cars until the strike was settled. Despite threats from railroad companies that any worker who refused to handle Pullman cars would be fired, the sympathy strike officially began on June 26.

Within a matter of days, railroads west of Detroit were frozen for more than a month as workers either refused to touch Pullman’s cars or unhitched them from trains. Suddenly passengers were stranded, the price of food ballooned, power plants and factories ran out of resources and mines and lumber mills were forced to close.

The reverberations of the sympathy strike were being felt all over the country—especially after the strike had stopped the delivery of U.S. mail. For Debs, an outright struggle between the upper and lower classes appeared imminent as the strike, “has developed into a contest between the producing classes and the money power of this country.”

U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney, also a railroad lawyer and friend of Pullman’s, declared that America had reached “the ragged edge of anarchy.” Olney asked the federal courts to ban the ARU boycotts and on July 2 he received an injunction to end the strike. President Grover Cleveland deployed federal troops from Fort Sheridan north of Chicago to Pullman to enforce the court’s ruling.

On July 4, a thousand troops arrived and set up camp, joining thousands of armed police and guardsmen to break the strike while masses of unarmed strikers crowded the railroad yards. Over the next three days, riots broke out and hundreds of railcars were burned. Violence broke out after a railroad agent shot one of the boycotters and 26 civilians were killed in the weeks-long mayhem that followed.

The soldiers and railroad workers got the trains moving again and in the following weeks, Debs and other agitators were jailed for “ordering, directing, aiding, assisting, or abetting” the rebellion. The strike was officially broken on August 2.

Pullman won the battle, but the industrial kingdom he built would soon fall. His reputation was ruined among government officials, his fellow tycoons and those like Jane Addams—the famous activist and social justice advocate who had tried to help arbitrate the strike.

“She considered Pullman to be like a King Lear figure,” said Kelly.

President Cleveland ordered a commission to discover the causes of the strike, and the final report blamed the boss. “The aesthetic features are admired by visitors, but have little money value to employees, especially when they lack bread,” the report stated.

In 1898, the Illinois State Supreme Court ordered that Pullman either divest itself of the company or the residential property. He chose his company. In 1889, Pullman was annexed by the city of Chicago.

By the time George Pullman died in 1897, he was so despised that his family buried him under thick layers of reinforced concrete so that no one could descrecrate his grave. “It is clear the family in their bereavement was making sure the son of a bitch wasn’t going to get up and come back,” noted journalist Ambrose Bierce at the time.

Meanwhile, Debs, who would later found the Socialist Party, became a populist hero while in jail. Six months after being locked away, he re-emerged in Chicago triumphant—with 100,000 supporters cheering him on. By 1912, when a million Americans voted for Debs as President, both the Republicans and Democrats began to embrace progressive reforms advocated by Debs and other socialists: anti-trust and child labor laws, women’s suffrage, minimum wages and the eight-hour work day.

The return of solidarity

One-hundred and twenty five years after Debs’ speech to the ARU, Sara Nelson sounded ready to continue where the great socialist labor leader left off.

Nelson told the crowd gathered in the Pullman visitor’s center the story of how she called for a general strike in January during the Trump administration’s month-long government shutdown over funding for his border wall. After some air traffic controllers in key facilities called in sick, Nelson warned that flight attendants were “mobilizing immediately” to strike. Hours later, Trump reached a deal to reopen the government.

“Our entire country’s economy was on the line, our safety and security were on the line. If we could just communicate that to the public, and say what we were willing to do—we could end this [shutdown],” said Nelson. “The wonderful news is that no one knew what a general strike was, but it scared the piss out of them. It worked.”

Over the last two years, mass work stoppages have spread across the country. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 25,000 workers were involved in major work stoppage in 2017 but that numbered skyrocketed to 485,000 in 2018. These actions range from the wildcat strikes of hundreds of thousands of teachers and education workers in four Republican-dominated states to tens of thousands of hospital workers striking in 2018. The first half of 2019 has also seen major work stoppages, including the recent strike of 31,000 employees of the grocery chain Stop & Shop across three northeastern states—one of the largest private sector strikes in years.

These large-scale strikes helped bring victories for both workers and the labor movement as a whole. But Nelson believes that general and sympathy strikes are the logical next step in securing more significant wins.

Today, most solidarity strikes are illegal due to legislation pieced together over the last several decades, says Burns, ranging from the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 to the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. That’s part of the reason why they’ve fallen out of fashion since the days of the Great Pullman Strike.

But the flight attendant union’s successful threat of a walkout—as well as the wildcat teachers’ strikes—are proof that the law can be beaten by mass solidarity, says Burns. “Labor law is set up for workers to lose and it’s going to change through the courts,” he said. “It will only change with workers coming together and fighting for the right to strike and free speech.”

For Nelson, sympathy strikes don’t have to represent the labor movement’s antiquated past. Today’s new Gilded Age is populated by a new generation of robber barons, and the Great Pullman Strike could help illuminate a path forward for American workers.

In what could be a hint of what’s to come, the United Mine Workers of America threatened a sympathy strike in support of West Virginia teachers in early June. The teachers are fighting state Republicans’ proposed retaliation to their 2018 walkout by creating new penalties for teachers who go on strike. Cecil Roberts, the international president of the United Mine Workers of America, said, “Let me make this very clear: If our state’s education workers believe they need to take to the streets once again, we will be there with them. And if someone comes to arrest them, they will have to go through us first.”

A large-scale general strike may not happen tomorrow but Nelson believes it may not be as far off as we think.

“We’re not quite there yet, but when I called for a general strike during the government shutdown, I absolutely expected people to say, ‘You’re crazy lady, you can’t do that!’ Instead what I got was, “What are we waiting for? Yeah, let’s go!’”

This blog was originally published at In These Times on June 25, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Ryan Smith is a Chicago-based journalist. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Jacobin Magazine, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Reader, Belt Magazine and other publications.

American Airlines Mechanics Are Threatening the “Bloodiest, Ugliest Battle” in Labor History

Friday, May 31st, 2019

Mechanics at American Airlines are threatening to strike if a new contract isn’t negotiated, and the union president has declared that employees are prepared for the dispute to erupt into “the bloodiest, ugliest battle that the United States labor movement ever saw.” The statement comes just one day after the airline sued its union workers, claiming that they had engaged in an illegal work slowdown to strengthen their hand at the bargaining table.

American Airlines merged with US Airways in 2013 to become the largest airline in the world. The 31,000 mechanics who fixed planes for both airlines had existing contracts, but the merger didn’t produce a joint contract. American Airlines mechanics had contracts with the Transport Workers Union (TWU) and US Airways mechanics had contracts with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM). American Airlines has been trying to update the collective bargaining agreement with the TWU-IAM Association (a partnership between the two unions that developed as a result of the merger), through contract talks since December 2015, with the National Mediations Board serving as a federal mediator between the two sides. But talks were suspended in April after reaching an impasse. In addition to issues of pay and benefits, the union is concerned that the company is potentially looking to outsource thousands of jobs.

Timothy KIlima is an Airline Coordinator for the IAM who has been personally involved with the negotiations. “The employees represented by the TWU-IAM Association want to preserve the work they do, the healthcare they have and to reach parity in benefits between the two pre-merger workgroups,” he told In These Times via email. “American Airlines demands to reduce the amount of work performed by their employees and a corresponding headcount reduction; to eliminate the better healthcare choices the employees already have; and refuses to improve the profit sharing formula that is one of the worst among their peers. In short, the employees desire to grow with a healthy American Airlines but at least want to keep what they have coming into the merger.”

On May 20, American Airlines filed a lawsuit in the Northern District of Texas federal court claiming that mechanics have purposely slowed down their work in an effort to hinder the company’s day-to-day operations. According to the lawsuit, the mechanics’ actions have resulted in 650 flight cancellations and over 1,500 maintenance delays since February.

The union denies that there was ever a purposeful slowdown. “American Airlines should focus its time and effort to reach contractual agreements with its employees instead of falsely accusing them of trumped-up job action charges,” said Klima. “Collective bargaining agreements cannot be reached in courtrooms, in the media or by lobbying politicians. The TWU-IAM Association is eager to return to the bargaining table, which is the only arena where our contract disputes can be resolved.”

Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders also criticized the legal action, tweeting on May 21, “Instead of recognizing and addressing the concerns of workers, American Airlines has moved to sue @MachinistsUnion. Machinists keep passengers safe and on time. My message to American Airlines is simple: Stop the intimidation and bullying!”

On May 21, during one of the airline’s regular town hall meetings with employees at LaGuardia Airport, TWU president John Samuelsen confronted American Airlines president Robert Isom and told him that the union was prepared to strike. “I stand here to tell you—in front of this whole room, in front of everybody, anybody who’s listening—that you’re not going to get what you want,” said Samuelsen. “If this erupts into the bloodiest, ugliest battle that the United States labor movement ever saw, that’s what’s going to happen. You’re already profitable enough.”

Samuelsen also told Isom that workers are desperately trying to avoid what’s called a “self-help” situation under the Railway Labor Act. That means the company would be able to force employees into a contract without union approval if the government condones it. “If we ever get to a point where there’s self-help, we are going to engage in an absolutely vicious strike action against American Airlines to the likes of which you’ve never seen,” said Samuelsen. “Not organized by airline people, but organized by a guy that came out of the New York City subway system that’s well inclined to strike power, and who understands that the only way to challenge power is to aggressively take it to them. … We’re going to shut this place down.”

Isom replied, “I will tell you this, that anybody that seeks to destroy American Airlines, that is not going to be productive. It just won’t. We have to be able to work together to see the views of both sides. And I, believe me, I will send people back to the table.”

The airline industry has seen its share of labor unrest over the last few years, and workers have been able to celebrate a number of organizing victories. The American Airlines battle mirrors the recent fight between Southwest Airlines and the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA). In March, Southwest sued the AMFA and alleged that workers had participated in an illegal slowdown, but employees were ultimately able to win an agreement that established pay raises, new bonuses and an end to the legal dispute. Last year, JetBlue flight attendants voted to unionize, and in February the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) helped end Trump’s government shutdown by threatening to strike.

Organizing efforts have been met with extreme resistance from the airlines beyond the aforementioned lawsuits. In February, The Guardian revealed that JetBlue president Joanna Geraghty sent employees an email warning that the company would cease to be successful if workers unionized. “So if anyone asks you to sign a card, I’m asking you to decline,” the email eads. This month, details of Delta’s union-busting campaign emerged, which included breakroom literature encouraging workers to spend their money on video games and alcohol rather union dues.

According to The International Air Transport Association, the airline industry is expected to generate net profits of $35.5 billion in 2019, better than the $32.3 billion netted in 2018. American Airlines is the world’s largest airline. Its parent organization, American Airlines Group, reported a fourth-quarter 2018 pre-tax profit of $387 million. “We expect our total revenue per available seat mile to grow faster than our network competitors, and to deliver strong pre-tax earnings growth in 2019,” the group said in a statement.

Last week, the TWU-IAM Association sent a letter to the National Mediation Board calling on the agency to compel further negotiations between the two sides, as the company has refused to engage in talks without a mediator. “These negotiations have reached the critical end stage with the largest scope and economic issues yet to be resolved,” reads the letter.

This article was originally published at In These Times on May 30, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

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

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.

Advertisement

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.

Your Rights Job Survival The Issues Features Resources About This Blog