Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for the ‘union mobilizing’ Category

Republicans Are Taking Voter Suppression to the Workplace

Tuesday, January 16th, 2018

A Republican party that survives through voter suppression may be replicating its model in the workplace. In December, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) invited public commentary on a possible revocation of a rule that makes employers provide union organizers with contact information for workers in advance of a representation election.

Ostensibly, the Board, which will almost certainly remain in control of Republicans until 2021, is reconsidering Obama-era rules that sped up the timeline of union elections and added phone numbers and email addresses to the list of contact info that unions must be furnished before an election. But outgoing Board Chairman Phil Miscimarra’s bellyaching about “employee rights of free choice and privacy” implies openness to removing any legal right of union organizers to talk with potential members.

The very fact that Trump’s NLRB is inviting public comment indicates that it is considering reversing a much older precedent: the 52-year-old Excelsior rule that employers should provide a list of names and addresses of eligible voters in an upcoming union certification election. Sharon Block, a former member of the NLRB and current Executive Director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, has argued that the slew of hastily-decided reversals of second-term Obama precedents “seemed to be a rush to set the clock back on workers’ rights as much as possible.”

The Excelsior rule makes employers provide union organizers with a list of eligible voters and their home addresses a few days before an election. It’s an essential tool in a campaign, and any cut is a blow to unions. However, it is also important to remember that Excelsior was a bad compromise, and a real solution lies in actual free speech in the workplace. That will require that unions wage a free speech fight to regain our voice at work.

Captive-audience meetings versus knocking on doors

As soon as the National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935, employers were already challenging the legal framework for workers to organize and bargain collectively.

In six short years, the bosses succeeded in demolishing the Act’s mandate of employer neutrality by strenuously appealing to the Supreme Court that the standard restricts bosses’ First Amendment right to inform their workers about just how strongly they oppose unionization. Six years after that, a Republican Congress codified this unequal application of free speech in the Taft-Hartley Act.

For a brief time after Taft-Hartley, the NLRB enforced an equal time standard by granting union organizers access to talk to workers on the job when an employer conducted captive-audience meetings. In an all-too-familiar pattern, the Board ping-ponged back and forth between different legal standards on employer speech and union access, depending on which political party was in the White House, until 1966.

That was the year of Excelsior Underwear, Inc ., the NLRB decision that established the right for unions to be furnished with a list of names and addresses of eligible voters. It was issued on the same day that the Board declined to reinstate the equal time rule. The case that we should have won that day was General Electric Co. and McCulloch Corp.

Loathe to trample on management’s rights and private property, the Democratic majority begged the unions in that case to try visiting workers at home and see if that effectively counter-balanced the boss’s work-time campaigning.

Anyone who has worked as a union organizer will tell you that an Excelsior list is no match for the mandatory round-the-clock campaigns of intimidation that union-busters consider “management’s most important weapon” in beating back an organizing drive.

Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of Labor Education Research at Cornell University, has been documenting employer union-busting tactics for decades. Her most recent study, covering the period of 1999 to 2003, found that 9 out of 10 employers use captive-audience meetings to fight a union organizing drive. Bosses threaten to cut wages and benefits in 47 percent of documented cases, and to shut down entirely in 57 percent of union elections. Incredibly, in one out of 10 campaigns employers hired “consultants” to impersonate NLRB agents.

That report is nearly nine years old. It is likely that when Dr. Bronfenbrenner updates her research, all of these numbers will be even higher—particularly the instances of outright lies and deception.

Within the General Electric Co. and McCulloch Corp. decision, the NLRB explicitly invited unions to press the issue of equal time if experience were to prove that knocking on workers’ doors was no match for mandatory captive-audience meetings. Labor law scholars Charles Morris and Paul Secunda were clever enough to notice this half-century-old invitation. Last year, they organized 106 of their leading peers to sign on to a petition to the NLRB to reinstate the equal time rule.

The right to free speech

We shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for Trump’s NLRB to respond to that petition, but we also shouldn’t be patient about demanding change. This past summer, I proposed that unions wage a constitutional battle to challenge the most unequal aspects of labor law and fight for workers’ constitutional rights on the job. Call it Labor’s Bill of Rights.

At the heart of the problem is that the National Labor Relations Act derives its constitutional authority from the Commerce Clause. That means that when workers’ rights are challenged in the courts, judges are weighing corporations’ First Amendment claims against unions’ claims that workers’ rights to organize and go on strike are good for business.

Under that framework, bosses’ rights and business interests have trumped workers’ free speech and human rights. Consider union certification elections. These are official legal elections conducted by an arm of the federal government. At stake is whether the government will enforce certain statutory rights of the workers who wish to form a union. The rules of the election are determined by the government through court decisions, congressional action and NLRB rule-making.  In this simple “yes” or “no” vote about whether there shall be a union, only an employer—and only one advocating a “no” vote—can force voters to attend speeches where they will tell them how to vote And if any voter declines to attend, she can be fired. This is compelled political speech and a massive violation of workers’ free speech rights.

Perversely, Trump’s NLRB could be doing us a favor if it really does kill Excelsior lists by making the imbalance of free speech rights in union organizing campaigns that much starker. Regardless of what new form of union busting the Trump NLRB endorses, we should start waging a campaign to restore the equal time rule now.

What this free speech fight would look like as a campaign is this: every time an employer stages a captive-audience meeting in advance of a union election, we should file an Unfair Labor Practice charge. And every time a union loses an election where the employer conducted captive-audience meetings (which, again, is almost always), we should file an appeal to have the election results overturned.

We should be filing these cases now, even with a Trump Board that will dismiss them all. If we can file a couple hundred challenges and make enough noise about them, we can turn the free speech fight over captive-audience meetings into an obvious controversy that the next Democratic-majority NLRB must respond to.

A Democratic NLRB with a modicum of decency would—at a minimum—re-establish the rule that conducting captive-audience meetings while providing union advocates no right of response is grounds to void an election and order a re-run. Better would be a rule making the very act of conducting captive-audience meetings an Unfair Labor Practice subject to court injunctions, unless union advocates are granted an equivalent platform—in work locations, on work time—from which to campaign for a union yes vote.

If the NLRB were to rule in our favor, we should expect the first employer to face sanctions to resist and drag the case into the federal courts. And then we’re off to the races with a well-deserved counter-attack to the cynical right-wing HarrisFriedrichs and Janus efforts to use free speech as a cudgel against union rights.

This article was originally published at In These Times on January 16, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Shaun Richman is a former organizing director for the American Federation of Teachers. His Twitter handle is @Ess_Dog.

Garment Factory Workers in Southern California Are Calling for a Boycott of American Apparel

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2016

Mario VasquezThe General Brotherhood of American Apparel Workers (GBWAA), a union for garment workers at American Apparel’s southern California manufacturing facilities—one of which, its downtown Los Angeles location, is the largest garment-making factory in the country—has called for a boycott of the brand’s merchandise, pointing to mass layoffs and reduced compensation and benefits that have intensified since new management in January 2015 began a process of post-bankruptcy restructuring throughout the corporation.

GBWAA is currently awaiting a certification election date from the National Labor Relations Board, and workers with the union say they are calling for the boycott because American Apparel consumers must know corporation is not the high-wage, sweatshop-free company once marketed itself to be, especially since Paula Schneider replaced American Apparel founder Dov Charney as chief executive officer of the corporation.

Schneider’s appointment was approved by a corporate board that had been mostly hand picked by the hedge fund Standard General, who effectively had control of the company after a failed bid by Charney to regain control. Previously ousted as CEO amid reports of alleged sexual misconduct, Charney saw millions of his voting shares go to Standard General. When the company filed for bankruptcy in October 2015, claiming its debt was insurmountable, complete ownership went to the company’s principal debtholders: Goldman Sachs Asset Management, Monarch Alternative Capital, Coliseum Capital, Pentwater Capital Management and Standard General (famous for their previous alleged hostile takeover of Radioshack), who kept on Schneider as CEO—much to the dismay of Charney and workers at American Apparel production sites that had already began organizing.

Union president Stephanie Padilha dos Santos tells In These Times, “If you’re used to buying American Apparel and think that the company is great and that the whole concept of paying fair wages in [the garment] industry was what made the company a huge success, then we invite you now to boycott the brand because it is no longer sweatshop-free.”

Padilha alleges that the company has been outsourcing production to other “sweatshops” around Los Angeles, while reducing the once relatively high wages earned by production workers at the company, which were the highest in the world, according to the company.

American Apparel did not respond to requests for comment by In These Times.

Meanwhile, in another round of layoffs, over 500 workers are reported to have been laid off this April as part of what Schneider has called a “redesign of [their] production process.”

Victor Narro, Project Director at the UCLA Labor Center, says that American Apparel was famous for providing high-wage garment jobs that are seldom seen for the immigrant communities typically doing the work in Los Angeles. “These garment workers are not going to be able to find a similar type of workplace in the industry,” Narro says.

Padilha says that after being abruptly let go with little notice, “All the dignity that the company provided [the laid-off workers] will be gone and they’re going to have to go back to the poor reality of the garment industry.” In the past, GBWAA has led work stoppages over decreased conditions and has filed dozens of unfair labor practices against the company since Schneider took over. Padilha believes a union can put a check on further layoffs and stabilizes the free falling wages and hours for the garment workers. American Apparel did not respond to requests for comment by In These Times in regards to GBWAA claims.

The company, however, has stressed that “the GBWAA could not fairly represent the interests of its near 4,000 production workers, even if elected” because of Charney’s appearances at union functions throughout 2015 “Mr. Charney has used every tactic imaginable to claw his way back to the head of the company—including organizing workers to demand his return as CEO,” says a letter by American Apparel legal representatives, asking a U.S District Court to force Charney to appear at NLRB hearings to provide testimony as well as submit documents relating to GBWAA in its appeal of the union’s petition for election. The appeal centers on the claim that GBWAA is a Charney-created entity.

Nativo Lopez, an organizer in Los Angeles who has worked with American Apparel workers over issues of immigrant rightssince 2009, says that the company’s allegations are “absolutely false.” Lopez says that garment workers active in Lopez’s immigrant rights advocacy organization, Hermandad Mexicana, helped lead organizing, with Lopez serving in a voluntary advisory position. Thus, GBWAA is claiming it is an independent union—not a product of Charney.

Workers, he says, only focused on the return of Charney to company leadership initially because “working under him, in his administration, [they were] enjoying above-minimum wage and benefits that they had never previously experienced in any other apparel company where they had been employed.”

“The ‘Save American Apparel’ slogan has been changed to ‘Boycott American Apparel,” Lopez says, predicting an entire offshoring of American Apparel’s domestic manufacturing to low-wage countries, joining the approximately 97 percent of apparel brands in this country who do not produce their clothing in the United States. Onlookers from the finance world havesaid the same elsewhere. “It’s no longer the same American Apparel,” Lopez tells In These Times.

The last public union campaign at American Apparel garment factories occurred in 2003, when UNITE (the garment workers union that soon after merged with HERE to form UNITE HERE) tried to organize workers in the downtown manufacturing hub. Charney was not supportive, according to Stephen Wishart, a senior research analyst with UNITE HERE at the time, whosaid of the campaign:

The company’s activities included holding captive meetings with employees, interrogating employees about their union activities and sympathies, soliciting employees to ask the union to return their union authorization cards, distributing anti-union armbands and T-shirts, and requiring all employees to attend an anti-union rally. The company’s most devastating tactic, though, was threatening to shut down the plant if the workers organized.

Charney, speaking to the Los Angeles Business Review in 2004 about the unsuccessful union organizing campaign, called unions an “obstacle”:

The concept of a union is a check against greed on the part of the employer. If I really wanted to be motivated by greed alone and pay the lowest possible wage, I wouldn’t be working in this factory. To say, “Let’s appoint a union to represent the workers even further” may put into disequilibrium the delicate balance that I’ve created between all the parties.

Narro says that although wages were high at American Apparel, the benefits of union collective bargaining agreements have always been sorely lacking and it remains evident in its current restructuring process. “If he had worked something out with UNITE back in 2002, and they agreed to a union contract, [then] these workers would have had a lot of protection right now. Nothing is guaranteed, but they would not have been as vulnerable to the bankruptcy and the downsizing and the management decisions.”

“Union contracts would create mechanisms to protect workers as much as possible,” says Narro. Organizing amid the corporation’s restructuring is “harder to do now because there’s nothing to enforce,” he adds.

For now, GBWAA hopes the boycott will bring to the light the urgency they feel is required in its certification efforts, especially as predicted further layoffs loom. Padilha says the NLRB needs to act now, telling me, “As soon as a hedge fund takes over, the company goes into bankruptcy. Workers getting laid off, having their rights ripped apart, and they make no money. Everything is changing; outsourcing production. There [are] enough reasons why this election is what workers need right now.”

This blog originally appeared at inthesetimes.com on May 3, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Mario Vasquez is a writer from southern California. He is a regular contributor to Working In These Times. Follow him on Twitter @mario_vsqz or email him atmario.vasquez.espinoza@gmail.com.

Chicago Movers Stage Groundbreaking Strike

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

kari-lydersenEvery morning, workers at Golan’s Moving & Storage in the Chicago suburb of Skokie are ordered to arrive at work by 6 a.m. to prepare trucks for the day. If they are late, they can be suspended for several days or otherwise disciplined. Yet they typically don’t even start getting paid until about 8 a.m.—when they board a truck bound for their assignment.

This situation is among the many injustices that spurred Golan’s workers to organize with the faith-based workers rights group Arise Chicago last year before unionizing with Teamsters Local 705. Since December 2013, the first contract negotiations have dragged on, with management canceling planned sessions 12 times in six months, according to the Teamsters.

So on July 28, about four-fifths of Golan’s workers walked out on strike. Negotiations are theoretically continuing, but Teamsters Local 705 business agent Richard De Vries says that the company officials walked out of their most recent session, on August 14, after just 41 minutes.

The union has filed various Unfair Labor Practices charges with the National Labor Relations Board, and a federal mediator was brought in to oversee the negotiations.Still, De Vries tells In These Times that these measures have so far not prevented Golan’s from essentially refusing to bargain. He thinks that the company is trying to delay signing a contract until December, at which point under labor law they can call for an election to decertify the union—because a year will have passed with no contract signed.

“This is our remedy: going on strike,” says De Vries. He reports that more than 80 workers out of a total of about 100 are on strike, including members of the company’s two separate sections, which do local and long-distance moves.

On Saturday, August 16, more than 100 supporters, including Teamsters members from other companies, joined the workers on the picket line. Leaders of Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths spoke to the crowd and asked the owners—Israelis who reportedly named the company for the region Israel captured from Syria during the Six-Day War—to recognize the concepts of workers’ rights and human dignity enshrined in all three world religions.

Onesimo Peña was one of the workers who contacted Arise last summer, frustrated with what he told In These Times was “so many abuses” suffered by his co-workers. He also notes that in more than a decade working for the company, his wages have only risen from $12 to $12.50 an hour, even though he has often been called on in emergencies or for important jobs.

“We’ve tried too many times to get the owners to listen to us but they wouldn’t,” says Peña. “So we went to Arise Chicago.”

In turn, Arise connected the workers with Teamsters Local 705. And marshaling support for unionizing was easy, Peña remembers.

“Everyone was tired of this situation,” he says.

Shortly after the workers voted to unionize, Peña says his wages increased to $14 an hour. The company also started paying overtime and made a few other concessions, including with regard to safety. De Vries says he can only speculate as to why, though Golan’s may have been trying to dissuade workers from going on strike or trying to weaken the union in bargaining.

Golan’s workers don’t have insurance, paid sick days or vacation days or any other benefits. According to organizers, such as Arise Chicago’s Jorge Mujica, “There is wage theft all over the place,” including the aforementioned unpaid preparation work time, and logged hours that go missing from paychecks until workers complain.

Plus, workers’ wages are often further reduced by fines for a wide range of infractions. Jose Reyes, a Golan’s employee for 10 years, says he was once fined $700 because one of the other movers in the crew he oversaw had a small tear in his pants. Reyes tells In These Times that workers could also be charged for forgetting to leave the keys to their personal car with management before they head off to a job, or for failing to call the customer to say they are running late.

“There’s no warning, you get back from the job and they are waiting for you with a fine,” he says.

He and Peña also say managers have offered them incentives for reporting other workers for violations.

“They approached me and said, ‘If you turn people in, you will have your job forever, you can have a raise,’” says Reyes, who is on the union negotiating committee. “They were trying to buy me off.”

Worker Miguel Flores tells In These Times that under the terms worked by long-distance drivers who move customers to other states, he has earned only $40 for spending 10 hours unloading boxes at a home. (Mujica explains that this is likely technically legal under labor provisions for interstate commerce.)

Movers in the long-distance unit are particularly upset that they are not compensated for waiting time of up to a day or more if customers are not ready when they arrive. These employees are paid based on factors such as miles driven and the volume of the move. So when a customer isn’t ready, they’re forced to spend time on the road unpaid, sleeping and waiting in their truck when they otherwise could be earning money.

De Vries says payment for such “detention time” is a major demand in negotiations. So far, though, management has offered only token concessions during the negotiation sessions that have occurred. “They have agreed to pay for showers at a truck stop,” which cost a few dollars, he says. And in response to union demands for paid days off, Golan’s offered a total of $10 a day for up to 10 vacation days, De Vries continues.

Golan’s also employs workers under the J-1 visa “work and study-based exchange” program, drawing students from around the world for 90-day stays in the United States. Silviu Radu joined the program while studying for his Masters in business administration at a university in his home country of Romania. After starting work at Golan’s in June and got to know many of his co-workers. He hadn’t been present for many of the complications surrounding organizing and negotiating, so the strike came as a bit of a surprise to him.

“I rode my bike to work and everyone was outside,” he tells In These Times. “I was like ‘Hey guys, what’s going on?’”

Once he learned about the walkout, though, he promptly joined it, as did several other J-1 workers, according to Radu and De Vries. The visa does not allow companies involved in walkouts to staff J-1 employees, so Radu is looking for another job while spending time on the picket lines.

“You get to bond with your colleagues,” Radu says. “These are good people, hard-working people who help each other.”

The J-1 visa—which has drawn controversy in the past over its reported abuse by employers including Hershey’s—cost Radu about $2,000, he says, including other fees connected to the program. Even so, he notes, laughing, that he “was making $10.50 an hour on the truck.”

For its part, Golan’s has largely responded to the actions with denial. Two large green signs outside the company, dated August 12 and addressed to workers from company secretary Yehuda Bitton, read: “The many reckless and dishonest statements about Golan’s and me are fabrications by the union and its representatives. Those of you who have worked for Golan’s for many years know these statements are not true.”

A Golan’s official inside the company during the rally declined to talk, and the spokesperson he referred In These Times to did not return a call for comment.

The company has also attempted to play on the fears on many of its workers regarding deportation. The signs, which are written in English and Spanish, go on to read that the union has threatened to call immigration authorities. De Vries says the U.S. State Department found out about the strike through the J-1 students, likely spurring the company to make that statement. The union has not contacted immigration authorities and would not do so, he argues.

Various workers tell In These Times they are confident the strike will force the company into meaningful negotiations for a contract with significant improvements. They say they’ve heard customers have canceled jobs because of the strike, and that little or no work has been happening at Golan’s. During the Saturday rally a moving truck entered the facility, but because it was manned by only one employee, De Vries said it was likely just a “show.” “You can’t move furniture with one person,” he says.

“We’ve seen trucks leaving and then find them parked 20 blocks away; they’re not working,” Mujica adds.

De Vries says that very few moving companies are organized, and most non-unionized workplaces do not offer their largely immigrant workforce insurance or benefits. Hence, the Golan’s workers’ unionization and strike could be seen as a precedent-setting development for the industry.

Both Reyes and Peña says they take pride in their work and want to continue at Golan’s, only under better conditions. Still, Reyes says he tells his three kids, only half joking, “When you see a Golan’s truck, run and hide, so you don’t end up like me.”

This blog originally appeared in In These Times on August 19, 2014.  Reprinted with permission. http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/17100/chicago_movers_stage_groundbreaking_strike

About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist and instructor who currently works at Northwestern University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99 Percent. She is also the co-author of Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun and the author of Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis. Look for an updated reissue of Revolt on Goose Island in 2014. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work.

 

Academic Labor Unrest Spreads to Maryland Colleges

Monday, March 24th, 2014

Bruce VailBALTIMORE – Part-time professors at the historic Maryland Institute College of Art are joining a growing movement of academic workers around the country who want a union to help them with fundamental issues of fair pay and decent job conditions.

A committee of part-time faculty—also known as adjuncts—filed a petition on March 7 with the National Labor Relations Board seeking an election to establish Gaithersburg, Md.-based Service Employees International Union Local 500 as its collective bargaining agent. Joshua Smith, one of the committee’s leaders, tells In These Times that the adjuncts hope to move to an election within just a few weeks.

And instructors at other institutions in the region see the move to unionize as highly necessary. “This is an exciting development. Adjuncts really need a union to protect them from the abuses of a system they are unable to change. At the moment, they have no voice … There can be no sense of community, scholarly or academic, when adjunct faculty are not included in decision-making as to curriculum or policy,” says Peggy Beauvois, a part-time instructor in the College of Education at the nearby Loyola University Maryland, which does not employ unionized faculty.

“We simply can not meet the needs of students when we must have two—and sometimes three—adjunct positions to even begin to support ourselves. I’ve heard stories about adjuncts who can’t afford an apartment and are living out of the back seat of their cars,” she adds.

Smith estimates there are about 200 adjuncts at MICA, who teach about 45 percent of the school’s courses; overall, he says, the campus environment is a positive one. “We do enjoy working at MICA and it’s a great place to teach,” he says.

But that’s not enough to outweigh the worries about survival and consistent employment that being an adjunct entails, he points out. “Of course compensation and benefits are big issues, but job security is probably the biggest concern,” he says. “You can have been an adjunct for ten years, but you still don’t know whether you will have a class to teach next semester.”

The big question awaiting the adjuncts at MICA is whether the school’s administrators will actively oppose unionization, Smith says. A best-case scenario would see the college bosses adopt a neutral position, as they did at Georgetown University, where Local 500 ran a successful part-time faculty organizing campaign in 2013. Alternatively, higher-ups could take a more antagonistic approach similar to those of Boston’s Northeastern University, where administrators hired the notorious union-busting firm Jackson Lewis last year to stifle organizing. For the moment, though, MICA public relations director Jessica Weglein Goldstein says the school has “no comment” on its position of adjunct unionization.

Smith, however, remains optimistic. The part-time professor, who has taught art history in Baltimore for four years, believes the union will prevail easily in an election. The organizing committee has been active on MICA’s campus since 2011, he says, and has worked to gather support both within the adjunct population and outside of it. For example, members of the committee formally asked full-time professors to remain neutral in an election campaign—a presentation Smith deemed to be effective.

In general, the unionization of adjuncts “is long overdue,” says Michelle Tokarczyk, Vice President of the Maryland Conference of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). There is very little unionization of college staff in the state thus far, she says, but the movement has a broad base of approval from many in the higher education community.

Though MICA is a private institution, labor allies in Maryland hope that its faculty’s efforts will work in conjunction with another campaign focused on community colleges throughout the state. A coalition of unions comprised of the Maryland State Education Association (MSEA), SEIU Local 500 and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) is currently working to push legislation through the state house in Annapolis that would ease organizing at community colleges. Given the lack of labor laws specifically covering community college employees, the coalition is advocating for a bill that would provide a statewide legal framework for those workers when they unionize in the future.

Prospects for passage of the bill are good, reports Sean Johnson, an MSEA official, although it does not appear that state legislature is inclined to act quickly. Organizers have garnered support from key state representatives, however, and Gov. Martin O’Malley has pledged to sign the bill if it passes. Right now, a number of community college presidents are opposing the bill, but labor lobbyists in Annapolis believe that opposition can be overcome, Johnson says.

If the bill is passed, the three unions hope to organize some 19,000 employees at 16 community college campuses: MSEA would seek to unionize the regular full-time faculty, Local 500 would agitate among the adjuncts and AFSCME is interested in the other college staff. “Our coalition has been successful in the past,” Johnson says, in reference to unionization of more than 1,000 academic workers at suburban Washington, D.C. Montgomery College in 2008, “and we think it will be successful again.”

The urgency of organizing academic workers—especially part-time ones—is starting to be recognized on a national scale, says Local 500 organizer Kevin Pietrick. Indeed, on the same day the Baltimore art college instructors filed for an election, so did adjuncts at Washington, D.C.’s Howard University. Similar organizing efforts are underway in several other states, he says.

And in Baltimore, a successful campaign at MICA may potentially pave the way for other colleges in the area.

Beauvois wishes the MICA adjuncts well and hopes that union movement picks up steam in the academic community. “As it is now, [working as an adjunct] is not a living wage,” she says. “It’s a hobby, or volunteer work, but you can’t make a living.”

UPDATE: Maryland Institute College of Art confirmed on March 24 that it had agreed to a National Labor Relations Board-supervised election for the part-time instructors seeking union representation. The election, to be conducted with mail-in ballots, will commence April 10, and will conclude with the counting of completed ballots April 29.

The bargaining unit will include about 350 employees.

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on March 20, 2o14.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

The Labor Movement Is a Lot Bigger Than You Think

Monday, February 10th, 2014

Kenneth-Quinnell_smallWhile 11.3% of U.S. workers officially belong to unions, the labor movement is much larger. The movement isn’t limited to official union members and the last year showed that, as workers marched side by side, union members or not, to fight back against injustices championed by corporate interests that are out of touch with America’s working families. As AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said at the federation’s constitutional convention in Los Angeles, “Politicians and employers want to divide us; they try it every single day. They want to tell us who can be in our movement and who can’t, and we can’t let them.”

An article at The American Prospect describes the trend of new ways workers are standing up for their rights:

Those government union membership statistics, however, don’t capture an entire swath of new, exciting and emerging labor activists—’alt-labor’ activists—whom alarmed employers would like to see regulated by the same laws that apply to unions. Yet, before we regulate them as unions, shouldn’t we first count them as unions?

Who isn’t being counted in those official numbers? A lot of people:

  • Striking fast-food workers who are calling for a $15-an-hour wage.
  • Walmart workers who went on strike for Black Friday.
  • Day laborers who have joined one of hundreds of workers’ centers nationwide.
  • Restaurant workers, home health care workers, taxi drivers and domestic workers organizing for workplace power outside traditional unions.
  • Millions of members of Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

These numbers also don’t count people like the college athletes who are seeking to unionize and the many workers who are trying to form unions but are thwarted by employers or weakened labor law.

Some of the extremists opposed to these groups want them limited in their ability to organize, while not wanting to count them in the official numbers, so labor looks weaker. As the Prospect notes:

However, in a 21st century economy in which collective bargaining has been so severely weakened by structural changes and the roll back in workers’ rights, these new labor activists represent an important frontier for people concerned about worker power and economic inequality writ large. You know that workers are on to something when employers start to get nervous. It turns out the low union membership statistics may not be as good a measure of labor’s future as employers would hope.

And the reality behind those official statistics, and the rise of alt-labor, should be heartening to supporters of working families.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on February 4, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

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

Lessons From the Tomb of Frank Little

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

Mike ElkIn June of 1917, 168 workers died in the Speculator mine disaster in Butte, Montana—many from asphyxiation. That July, legendary Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union organizer Frank Little arrived in Butte to help organize a recognized union and lead a strike against the owner of the mine, Anaconda Copper Company. A month later, Little was found lynched above Butte’s train tracks with a note on his chest that said, “First and last warning.”

Little was buried later that month in Butte in a ceremony attended by more than 2,000 copper miners. His tombstone read, “Slain by Capitalist Interests for Organizing and Inspiring His Fellow Men.”

Over the years Little’s tombstone fell into disrepair—until 2008, when Mike Boysza, then a member of the now-defunct of Butte Area Carpenters Local 112, and a number of local union activists decided to repair the tomb site. They wanted to create a permanent reminder for all trade unionists of the tough fights of the past.

“I think it is important to know where your struggles came from,” says Boysza. “The reason you get the wages you get, the reason you get the benefits you get, is because somebody else struggled.”

Such struggles are familiar in Butte. Since Little’s time, unions in the area have fought, sometimes through bloody means, for the right to organize and receive fair wages. In 1914, miners blew up the Western Federation of Miners union hall in Butte’s business district because they felt the union was working too closely with the Anaconda Copper Company. About 50 years later, according to Boysza, union construction workers reacted to the proposed building of a non-union hotel in the city by setting fire to the footing for the half-built structure.

“That is the kind of thing that you have to do to say ‘No, quit fucking with us,’ ” Boysza explains. “We had a Super 8 that was coming to Butte and they had all the material and the ditches dug. [Union activists] pushed what they could into the ditch for the footing and burnt it all. This was in the 1970s. We didn’t get a Super 8 here [for] almost 20 years—and when they built a Super 8, it was built union.”

In fact, while Montana is not thought of as a union hotbed by most outsiders, until recently, almost all of the commercial construction in the city was done by union workers—a distinction that even major union towns like New York City can no longer claim.

In the last few years, however, the organizing power exemplified by Butte’s history has been slipping for local unions. Butte’s Continental Pit mine, which closed in 2000 after transferring ownership from the Anaconda Copper Company to Montana Resources, reopened in 2004, but this time without its workers being represented by their previous union, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Outside competition and fractured leadership have also begun to threaten the rights of local construction workers like Boysza. According to Boysza, under their old contract, wages for carpenters in Butte typically started $22.50 an hour. Then, after the regional council of his union  forced his local to merge with a statewide union of all Montana carpenters, the council changed the union contract last year to be consistent with the entire state’s. Boysza says this reduced the starting wages of Butte carpenters by more than four dollars.

That move didn’t make any sense to Boysza. “They said they lowered the wages so we could be competitive with the non-union [carpenters], but there are no union carpenters here that are out of work,” he says. “I thought it was unnecessary.”

And at a time when carpenters in Butte are being forced to take wage cuts, instead of placing resources and decision-making power into the hands of the local rank-and-file workers, the regional union has instead made the union and its voting process less accessible to Butte carpenters. Rank-and-file Butte carpenters can no longer make decisions about the day-to-day functioning of their union at their old hall in Butte; instead, they have to make the two-hour drive to Great Falls.

“They have informational meetings here now,” Boysza explains, referring to the historic Carpenters’ Union Hall built in 1906. Boysza’s local union was forced to go to court earlier this year to prevent the regional council, the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters, from selling the building and forcing several local unions into the street. “But if you want to go to a union meeting you have to go to Great Falls … It’s 160 miles away!”

Boysza’s sentiment echoes those of other workers who have come together on the Summer of Solidarity tour, which aims to connect union members across America. They, like Boysza, claim that labor leaders who run unions at the regional and national levels have lost touch with local unions and their history. Boysza says that in giving concessions so easily and losing touch with instigating rank-and-file militancy, leaders have forgotten the efforts and legacy of union organizers like Frank Little.

“It’s these guys from Washington. They don’t have a clue what the labor strife was to get to where we are at today,” says Boysza as we drive near the railroad tracks where Little was dragged behind a car shortly before he was hanged.

Meanwhile, as Boysza’s union wrestles among its own ranks, more non-union construction projects have begun to creep into the Butte area. Thirty years after union workers reportedly set fire to a half-built Super 8 to protest its construction, the first non-union hotel in the city has opened its doors. This time, it’s a Holiday Inn Express.

“They just opened it up a month ago,” says Boysza. He laughs. “When it was just a wood-framed structure, they should have burnt the fucker to the ground.”

This is the fifth in a series by In These Times staff writer Mike Elk, who is traveling for two weeks with the Summer of Solidarity tour. To help In These Times cover his travel expenses and to send more reporters to cover grassroots activism around the country, donate here.

 This article was originally printed in Working In These Times on September 10, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times.

Strong Grassroots Actions Block Mass. Pension Scheme

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

Image: Mike HallUnion members in Swampscott, Mass., this week showed just how grassroots democracy works when a coalition of unions from the North Shore Labor Council mobilized to turn back an attack on public employees’ health care and retirement security.

First a little background. In the Bay State, municipal employees’ health and retirement benefits, while negotiated on a local level, are part of a state-administered system. However, a Massachusetts “Home Rule Petition” law allows cities and towns to seek exemption from certain state laws and regulations.

In February, Swampscott’s Board of Selectmen voted 3-2 to seek a Home Rule Petition to cut town workers’ pensions by moving from the state system’s defined-benefit plan to a self-administered defined-contribution plan, and to change health care benefits. But a Home Rule Petition must be approved at a Town Meeting. In Swampscott, a town of about 14,000, that meant approximately 250 voter-elected Town Meeting members had to give the OK.

That’s when union members went to work to convince Town Meeting members that not only would the changes proposed for the teachers, firefighters, police officers, librarians and other public employees hurt the workers, it would save no money and be a major financial risk for Swampscott.

With a few months before the May 6 Town Meeting, unions and the labor council mapped out a mobilization strategy that included leafleting and neighborhood door knocking by union members, spotlighting the danger of the Home Rule Petition scheme. Postcards to each union member in town urged them to get in touch with their Town Meeting member—more than likely a neighbor or friend—to vote against the cuts to health care and retirement.

On May 6, the hard work paid off when the Home Rule Petition was defeated by better than a 3-to-1 margin.

The unions that carried the campaign to victory included AFSCME, Fire Fighters (IAFF), MassCOPS (an IUPA affiliate) and NEA.

This article was originally posted on the AFL-CIO on May 10, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL-CIO in 1989 and have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.

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